When Mika first signed to Universal Music, he should have known the stakes for his career were going to be high.
In 2006, the Beirut-born artist inked a deal with Casablanca Records – run by record industry legend Tommy Mottola in conjunction with UMG.
Before he could get there, Mika had to pass a test: playing a piano and vocal set for Sir Lucian Grainge in a hotel lobby – an impromptu audition requested by the Universal boss after he’d cancelled a meeting elsewhere.
Within 15 minutes, Grainge had seen enough: Universal, through Casablanca, was going to sign Mika, and make him a worldwide priority.
And, to begin with, that’s exactly what happened.
Mika’s debut LP, Life In Cartoon Motion, was released in 2007 and sold more than 6m copies worldwide, with 1.5m shifted in the UK alone.
That same year, the singer/songwriter was named the winner of the BBC’s influential ‘Sound Of’ poll – a list which tips the artists the Beeb believes are going to break through in the coming 12 months.
But then, Mika fell victim to a blight on the music industry as old as time: he wasn’t new anymore.
“That’s the absolute cruelty of the entertainment business – from vaudeville to streaming, there’s no real difference,” Mika tells MBW today.
“I am absolutely grateful for the big hype and platform I was able to achieve on my first record. But at the same time it sets you an enormous challenge: are you willing to fight for your continued ability to create?”
“It’s the absolute cruelty of the entertainment business – from vaudeville to streaming, there’s no real difference.”
MikA on the industry’s obsession with the new
And this is where the story of Mika’s career starts getting really unconventional.
Because he fought, and fought, and fought: all the way to Italian television, where his variety show, Stasera Casa Mika, is now drawing three million households each episode.
Last month, it even won an award at Europe’s most prestigious TV awards ceremony: the Palm D’or International Television Award for Best Entertainment Program.
And this, says Mika and his team, is just the start.
Mika’s path to becoming a television star began in 2013, when he was named a judge on the X Factor in Italy.
He soon joined The Voice in France, on which he’s about to enter his fifth year in the big spinning chair.
Feeling more comfortable with the idea of himself as a television personality, Mika began jotting down ideas for his own light entertainment show, inspired by US TV specials fronted by the likes of Elvis, Cher, The Beatles and The Monkees in the 1960s and 1970s.
The format was snapped up by Rai, Italy’s public broadcaster and the leading TV network in the country.
“I wanted to do something that made people fall in love with variety TV all over again.”
Last year’s first series – of four episodes, each over two hours – welcomed guests including Sting, Kylie Minogue, Monica Bellucci, Eros Ramazzotti, Rossy de Palma, LP, Jack Savoretti and Kenji.
Stasera Casa Mika (rough translation: Tonight at Mika’s House) is based around the idea of a house party, and will return for a second series this year.
“I wanted to do something that made people fall in love with variety TV all over again,” says Mika.
“The concept was a magic place where anything is possible – where, through the stories we tell, we can make people dream for two and a half hours.”
The popularity of Mika’s show in Italy may surprise some in the music business who have seen the artist’s album sales take a tumble.
After Life In Cartoon Motion, Mika has released three more LPs: The Boy Who Knew Too Much (2009), the Origin Of Love (2012) and No Place In Heaven (2015).
All of them have been signed to Universal, all of them have been profitable, and all of them have sold over a million copies worldwide.
To date, Mika has sold more than 10m albums in total – largely thanks to his enduring popularity in regions such as France, Italy, Austria and South Korea.
Along the way, the multi-lingual artist has signed brand partnership deals with the likes of Swatch and Peugeot to help fund his videos and touring production demands, and leave him less reliant on huge advances from his record company.
“I needed to find some partners outside music simply because I was worried I was losing my [recorded music] partner at various points,” he says.
“Apart from brand partners, TV has become a major source of freedom in terms of explaining what kind of an artist I am, and also selling tickets to my shows.
“Am I going to be in the top seven global priorities at my record company? Because if you’re not, you have to face up to that – and find other ways to get what you need.”
“Am I going to be in the top seven global priorities at my record company? Because if you’re not, you have to face up to that – and find other ways to get what you need to promote your career.”
Iain Watt is Mika’s UK-based co-manager, working with US-based Rich Isaacson.
“If you have a brilliant artist like Mika who works exceptionally hard with very good ideas, and you have a team around them that can put those ideas on the right desks, you can create a lot on your own outside of the music business,” says Watt.
“You can then use those additional platforms to fuel the thing that is at the core of everything – the music and the touring.”
He adds: “Twenty years ago, an artist and manager were entirely reliant on their label to find one of only a few avenues that existed to get exposed to a broader audience.
“Now, if you’re innovative and use all the tools at your disposal, the number of those avenues are almost limitless.”
Watt, who also manages the likes of Clean Bandit, Years & Years and award-winning producer Mark Ralph at Machine Management, says that the next step for Stasera Casa Mika will be licensing the format to other territories.
France will be high on the agenda: just like it has in Italy, Mika’s most recent album has gone platinum in the territory, denoting his continuing popularity in the market. (No Place In Heaven is also his biggest selling album in South Korea, where it went gold.)
Alternatively, says Watt, Stasera Casa Mika may even go global with a single deal.
“In line with the way people consume entertainment these days, we might go to Amazon, Netflix, Apple or Hulu,” he says.
“Twenty years ago, an artist and manager were entirely reliant on their label to find one of only a few avenues that existed to get exposed to a broader audience.”
Iain Watt, Machine Management
“These platforms are very well known for producing great dramas and TV movies – whether it’s The Man In The High Castle or Narcos – but they’re now starting to experiment in formats outside of those, particularly light entertainment.”
He’s not wrong: Netflix, for example, just signed a big money deal to bring back US chat-show legend David Letterman to the small screen.
With Mika able to speak Italian, French, Spanish and English – and owning the format rights to Stasera Casa Mika – an enterprising digital or traditional TV programmer may see a canny opportunity for this slightly zany, slightly surrealist series to spread its wings into other territories.
As for Mika’s music, he has a fifth album coming in 2018 – again on Universal Music.
And despite riding out the rollercoaster of immense debut album hype through a sustainable, globalized career, Mika’s opinion of the man in charge of the world’s biggest record company has not changed.
“Lucian Grainge might be the most powerful person in the music business, but he’s also the guy who started in the industry aged 16 years old cataloguing tapes in a publishing house,” he says.
“Somebody who does that as their first job keeps a certain part of that in their philosophy at work: Lucian is an example of what being a true music industry executive is.
“There’s no executive like Lucian in the world – I’ve never met someone like him.”
“The last time I saw him I was in the States with my family – he called me in and told me the only thing he wanted from me was demos, and that the only demos he wanted was piano and vocal. That was the one rule.
“The guy who’s sitting there having lunch with Warren Buffet and arguing with Apple or Alibaba is also the guy sitting with me for an hour-and-a-half explaining what direction my demos should take and why.”
He adds: “Lucian has screamed at me in the past when I’ve fucked up or I’m not pulling my weight. But when someone has that kind of attitude, all you do is respect and admire them for it, and you listen to them. Because when someone doesn’t give a shit, they just smile and tell you everything’s great.
“There’s no executive like Lucian in the world – I’ve never met someone like him.
“He’s clever. But he’s not fancy – his life is fancy, his work is fancy – but there’s still that guy in him that catalogues tapes in a publishing house.”Music Business Worldwide