I’m living with the brand,” David Furnish says, smiling. “I understand what the brand is doing on a day-to-day basis. In advertising we used to say, know your client’s business better than they do. Well, I think I’ve ticked that box.”
We are in one of the homes he shares with the “brand” — his husband Sir Elton John, one of the most successful performers in pop history, with sales to date of more than 300m records. It is a small, stylish London house (their main residence is in Windsor). Contemporary art hangs on the walls, rather like a pocket Tate Modern. Mr Furnish, 55, sits at the table opposite me. It is a sweltering day, but he looks immaculate in a crisp white shirt and blue Gucci jacket.
The Canadian former advertising executive met Mr John at a dinner party in 1993. They entered into a civil partnership in 2005 and married in 2014.
The following year Mr Furnish took a new role as chief executive of Rocket Entertainment, an umbrella company overseeing the companies that have clustered around the singer. They range from Rocket Music, a management company, to Rocket Sports, which does the same for sportspeople (Mr John is a football nut).
“Before I took over it was very much a world of silos,” he says. “It used to be frustrating to me sitting on the sidelines. Nobody was pulling it all together. Elton would get very frustrated about being pulled from place to place all the time. So I brought everyone together and I wrote the first long-term business plan in the history of Elton’s career.”
This led to a staffing shake-up. Old hands left in what tabloid newspapers characterised as a Furnish-directed purge. “As the saying is, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette,” he says.
The most pressing aim was to wean the singer off the old-school music industry model of releasing albums and touring them. Mr John regularly plays 100 shows a year. “He even used to say, ‘I want to die on stage’, which didn’t used to bring me a lot of joy,” Mr Furnish says. A dramatic demise is an even more calamitous prospect now the couple are parents. Their sons are five and seven.
“We needed to launch a farewell tour so he could get off the road and spend time with his children,” Mr Furnish says. The “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour begins in the US in September, a grand exit from the stage due to end in 2021 when the singer will be 74.
Mr Furnish grew up in Toronto and graduated from the Richard Ivey School of Business with a degree in business administration. He worked at the advertising group Ogilvy & Mather and persuaded the company to send him to the UK in 1989. “I was dying to live and work in Britain. It was the 1980s and advertising was booming here. Britain represented under Thatcher a real culture of possibility. I had British grandparents so I could get my work visa.” By the time he met Mr John in 1993 he was on O & M’s board.
With record sales booming, marketing back then was carried out by unglamorous departments at record labels. Today, musicians are expected to sell themselves. “This really is my background in terms of brand-building and consistency,” Mr Furnish says. He produces a baseball cap with a starred “E”. “We never had a logo until now,” he says disbelievingly. “Elton’s been around for nearly 50 years.”
New ventures are opening Mr John’s catalogue up to new generations, from this year’s Revamp album in which the likes of Ed Sheeran and Lady Gaga covered his songs, to the singer’s Rocket Hour radio show for Apple Music. Next year sees publication of a memoir and a Broadway musical based on the film The Devil Wears Prada that Mr John is scoring. (“He started two weekends ago and wrote four great songs.”) A jukebox musical based on his hits is in development. “Look what Mamma Mia! did for the Abba catalogue,” Mr Furnish says. A new long-term deal has been signed with Universal Records.
Considering the singer’s famous temper, one can imagine the odd testy exchange about work in the Furnish-John household. A scene in Mr Furnish’s 1997 documentary Elton John: Tantrums and Tiaras showed Mr John threatening never to visit the south of France again after a fan shouted “Yoo hoo” at him during a tennis game. But Mr Furnish says there was “a lot more anger and stress” before he took over as CEO.
“When it comes to artwork, creative partners, musical partners, there is tonnes of input from him,” Mr Furnish says. “He’s got fantastic instincts and you want his judgment there. But in terms of the actual day-to-day management and creation, he wants you to crack on because he’s busy with other things.”
Mixing home and business can sometimes be “a challenge,” Mr Furnish says. “He’s like, ‘Look, you’re on your phone too much.’ We have to get through this next two to three years. I’d like the pace to slow down at a certain point so that we can really be there for our kids. Otherwise we are never going to get off the merry-go-round in the way we want.”