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How Coldplay became rock’s biggest business brains since the Stones

Coldplay's Chris Martin performs at Wembley Stadium
Coldplay's Chris Martin performs at Wembley Stadium - Jim Dyson/Getty Images

Is there Trouble in Paradise? Last week it emerged that the four members of Coldplay are being sued by their former manager Dave Holmes, who parted company with the British group last year having worked with them since their debut album Parachutes came out in 2000. Over the band’s 24-year recording career, Team Coldplay has always been a notoriously close-knit, loyal and private unit. The fact that Holmes has filed a lawsuit in the UK threatens this impression of harmony and will be a source of huge frustration for Chris Martin, Jonny Buckland, Guy Berryman and Will Champion. I’d go further: Coldplay will be hating this.

Precise details of the legal action are unclear because documents have not been made public. However the lawsuit is reported to be a contractual dispute. A spokesman for the band declined to comment but did confirm that Holmes and Coldplay “parted ways last year”.

Coldplay specialise in uplifting day-glo live shows and euphoric pop anthems. They’re more associated with stadium-sized outbreaks of communal harmony than nasty legal flare-ups. Of course, bands split with their managers the whole time. US mega-manager Scott “Scooter” Braun is currently making headlines following reports of splits with numerous huge clients including Ariana Grande and Demi Lovato.

But news of Holmes’s action surprises because it’s so unexpected. And it serves as a rare reminder that behind Coldplay’s globe-conquering confetti cannons and live extravaganzas lies a business machine that has been almost a quarter of a century in the making. Coldplay might be polite middle-class boys who write classic tunes and care about their carbon footprints, but they’re also as if following the Rolling Stones’ formidable example – masters at monetising The Business of Being Coldplay. The secret? Military decision-making processes, hard work and ­– until now, sadly ­– unity.

Here are some stats to bear this out. Last summer the band became only the fourth British act to gross over $1 billion from their career-wide tours (alongside Elton John, the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney), according to Billboard. The fact that they’ve done this while still in their mid-40s is astonishing.

Coldplay are being sued by their former manager (far left)
Coldplay are being sued by their former manager Dave Holmes (far left) - John Shearer/Getty Images For The Recording Academy

In fact, according to Alan B. Krueger’s book Rockonomics, by the time Coldplay were in their late-30s they’d grossed more money from playing live than touring behemoths U2 had by their mid-40s. They’ve also sold over 100 million albums. The musicians are fantastically wealthy as a result. Martin has a personal fortune estimated at £160 million, while Buckland, Berryman and Champion are each worth £113 million, according to the Sunday Times Rich List.

The foundations for this success can be traced back to a seemingly trivial argument about drumming just after the band had signed with the Parlophone label in 1999. After a studio ding-dong between Martin and Champion about the latter’s timing behind the kit during the recording of The Blue Room EP, Champion walked out and Martin got exceedingly drunk (beer, vodka and Ribena, according to band biography Viva Coldplay!).

Afterwards, a humbled Martin declared that the band would henceforth be a democratic group of four equal parts. He also decided that all future songwriting credits would be split four ways, as would all income (an arrangement also adopted by their heroes U2 and R.E.M.). This goes a long way to explaining the band’s level-headed and successful modus operandi.

As band biographer Martin Roach wrote: “Rock ‘n’ roll is a volatile environment at the best of times, but when you add personal resentment over vastly differing incomes to the powder keg, the results are often terminal.” Martin himself has said: “Do I really want to spend two weeks in court some way down the line arguing about who wrote what?” Equity became a bedrock of the band’s philosophy (although some reports suggest that songwriting credits are now split 40: 20: 20: 20 in Martin’s favour).

A few years ago I asked former Parlophone boss Keith Wozencroft to explain Coldplay’s success beyond the music. He said it came down to their personalities and their togetherness. “They have a great work ethic. They’re intelligent as a team. They make good decisions about who they work with,” he said. Dan Keeling, a former Parlophone A&R man, described this unity in a slightly different way. “They don’t like people sticking their noses in,” he is quoted as saying in Viva Coldplay!. Champion has stated that the band “have 100 per cent control over any aspect of whatever we do… We’re not a band that can be pushed around, although we do have some amazing advisors.”

Indeed, the principle of equilibrium has extended to these advisors. Phil Harvey, a school friend of Martin’s from Sherborne, has long been Coldplay’s “fifth member”, creative director and, until recently, de facto co-manager with Holmes. Harvey – who took four years out after the band’s initial success before returning to the fold – is a core decision-maker and has a fifth vote so decisions can’t end in stalemate. A 2018 Coldplay documentary showed a band meeting in action: democratic votes were taken on everything including an album’s track listing.

The band even mocked themselves by adopting the language of shareholders at an AGM. In an interview the same year, Harvey said that he, Coldplay and Holmes were a crack team. “There is a fundamental balance in the force when the six of us are together,” he told Music Business Worldwide. No more. Harvey has taken over as manager following Holmes’s departure.

Solid educations have helped. Martin, Champion and Buckland have degrees from University College London (Martin got a first, the others 2:1s), and Harvey dropped out of Oxford University to manage them. Their parents all had or have professional, no-nonsense jobs (a chartered accountant, an engineer and many teachers among them). Entrepreneurialism has always run in Martin’s family: his great-great-grandfather William Willet invented British summertime. While riding his horse early each morning, the Chislehurst builder couldn’t understand why others weren’t enjoying the sunshine, so he had the idea to move the clocks forward by one hour. Such practical judgement has rubbed off. Ribena and vodka aside, rock ‘n’ roll excess has always been anathema to Coldplay.

All of which has given them a tightly-controlled business empire. The band no longer file figures of significance at Companies House, so it’s impossible to see up-to-date business accounts. But we all know how wealthy they are and how successful their tours are (their current Music of the Spheres jaunt will shortly embark on its third lap of the world, although this could be something to do with recouping the vast cost of touring such a blockbuster show). Lack of recent financial figures aside, there are numerous examples of canny business decisions they’ve made. In 2011 the band invested in RB Concepts, a small electronics and toy company based in Honiton, Devon.

The company made flashing wristbands with coloured LEDS and radio frequency receivers inside them. The so-called Xylobands (named after Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto album) have been given out to attendees at Coldplay concerts ever since (14 million and counting) and have lit up stadia from São Paulo to Saint-Denis to mesmerising effect. The tech is also used by corporate clients including Coca-Cola, Vodafone and Porsche, and Xylobands now have sales agents in 13 countries globally.

The band’s Xylobands in action in Portland
The band’s Xylobands in action in Portland - Chris Ryan - Corbis

Then there are the personal investments. Champion and Buckland are investors in Noble Rot, the wine restaurant chain (and magazine) co-founded by Keeling. Bassist Berryman has launched the utilitarian fashion label Applied Art Forms, has co-launched car magazine The Road Rat and co-founded a plant-based protein food range called Bodyhero. He has also reportedly invested in Edinburgh cryptocurrency platform Zumo, while the band have invested in a California-based food technology start-up, according to Forbes. They’re generous philanthropists. Coldplay gave £2.1 million to charity in 2021 through their J Van Mars Foundation.

How else do they spend their money? There are the rock star houses, obviously. Martin lives in Malibu and last year reportedly sold the house in London’s Primrose Hill that he shared with ex-wife Gwyneth Paltrow for £12.5 million. Buckland reportedly lives in North London and owns two Manhattan apartments, while Champion is thought to live in London or Kent. Berryman has the most obviously “rock star” tastes at his Cotswolds home: a collection of around 25 classic cars (as of 2020) including a Lamborghini Miura and an Alpine A220 that raced at Le Mans.

By every metric Coldplay are phenomenally successful, and deservedly so. Holmes’s departure won’t change this. In the words of another Coldplay song, Don’t Panic. But the spat does represent an unfortunate dent in the hitherto unblemished edifice of Fortress Coldplay. In the same 2018 Music Business Worldwide interview as Harvey, Holmes summed up his relationship with the band. “We’ve grown up together. We’ve always been very comfortable around each other from the first time we met. That’s never changed and they’ve never changed.” Unfortunately, it has all changed now.