How did Iron Maiden make it back in 1980 and what can we learn from it

Iron Maiden is one of the most successful heavy metal bands in history, with a career spanning four decades and over thirty releases. They have achieved sales in excess of sixty million records and have record-breaking world tours even today. They are iconic, and that is in part due to their early history and management choices that were made.

The initial two years of Iron Maiden’s career, from 1978 – 1980, is of special interest as it is the time when management was chosen, and important decisions about record deals and touring were taken. Whether the decisions that the band made would result in success for a band today is debatable, as a large portion of Iron Maiden’s success is due to their perseverance, self-belief and hard work, as well as management that had the skill to capitalise on the momentum of the band, realising their potential despite a musical climate that wasn’t receptive to the music that Iron Maiden played.


Initial Management Involvement

Iron Maiden recorded their first demo in under 24 hours on New Year’s Eve of 1978 at a Cambridge studio for a fee of £200. This demo was handed out at a large number of venues in order to get exposure outside of the small area of influence the band had in the east end of London. The demo tape reached the ears of Rod Smallwood in late 1979 and he quickly realised the potential evident in the band.

Rod decided to work with the band for a few months without signing a formal contract, working on trust. The first management agreement was only signed after Rod had arranged their signing to record label EMI and publishers Zomba.

Building a Fan-base

The initial fan-base of the band was built by playing the various live venues in London, and thanks to word of mouth promotions and Iron Maiden’s amazing performances quickly led to growing popularity.

In addition to word of mouth, Neal Kay, a well-known heavy metal DJ ranked Iron Maiden as one of the best metal bands in a magazine called “Sounds”. A new music movement was developing, tentatively called the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” or NWOBHM for short, and Iron Maiden was leading the charge.

Iron Maiden’s Management and First Record Deal

Rod Smallwood and Andy Tailor formed Sanctuary Management to manage Iron Maiden’s affairs, with the two founders being well versed in music industry knowledge as well as financial and legal expertise.

Once Iron Maiden had established themselves as a leading band in the NWOBHM movement by appearing on the cover of “Sound” magazine, Rod Smallwood seized the opportunity and invited A&R reps from a variety of record labels to a special gig, where an incredible effort was put forth. Ten days later, Brian Shepherd of EMI viewed the band and offered them a deal based on their initial success. The deal took two months to finalise due to negotiations, which resulted in a long-term relationship between EMI and the band.

The deal that was finally reached was driven by creativity rather than cash. The deal was for five albums plus an advance for recording costs that was to be spread over three albums. Creative control of the music would be in Iron Maiden’s hands and could not be taken away. One of the more important clauses that Rod managed to get into the contract discussed how EMI could not drop the band until the third album had been released.

Key Decisions Made

The advance from EMI was distributed in a very smart way, with a large portion going to paying off debts, buying new equipment and recording the first album. The rest of the advance would be spent on the second album and nothing was allocated to the third, as by then the band should be making enough money for recording of the third album. This was achieved in large part due to Rod’s monitoring of royalties from foreign sales, and having the financial department of EMI give advances on these royalties that were usually delayed.

Zomba Music

Even before the record deal with EMI was obtained, Rod had managed to get a publishing deal with Zomba Music for which the band received a modest advance which helped Zomba Music to commit to the band for the long haul. The heads of Zomba were smart enough to see the huge potential of the band and that their career would outlast a lot of the other artists published by Zomba at the time.

Live Performances

One of the key strengths of the band has always been their live promenades. In addition to the band engaging with the audience, the gigs were exciting and incorporated aspects such as light and visual effects.

Shortly after securing the record deal, Rod appointed a dedicated booking agent, who arranged gigs in the UK and abroad. In 1980, he arranged for Iron Maiden to support Judas Priest and KISS, gaining them massive amounts of exposure.

The story of Iron Maiden’s early days paints a clear picture of a band with amazing potential being managed correctly from the beginning, by a manager who was able to get great record deals and organise gigs that propelled the band to the forefront of British Heavy Metal for a long time to come.