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Blighty Beat

YM&U Group got a major boost in the U.K. after acquiring British company Machine Management at the end of last year, bringing in Years & Years and Clean Bandit, as well as a strong team consisting of Iain Watt, Martha Kinn, Sophie Bloggs and Phil Morais. As part of the deal, Watt was named MD of YM&U’s music division, where he’s able to realise an ambitious global vision while having the support of a bigger company.

Discussing the motivation behind the sale, Watt tells us: “Before we sold it, I was running Machine Management for 16 years. In the last year of that process, the senior team were talking about how we would expand the business and what things we needed to do to remain competitive on a global level. The same things kept coming up: ‘We need to expand, we need digital, streaming, brand and sponsorship expertise internally, and we also would like to have an L.A. office.’ The issue with that when you’re an independent company is if you really do all those things, you get it wrong once and you’re out of business.

“For me personally, more and more of my time was spent on HR, office management, IT, financial direction,” he continues. “Those elements are important when you have a company that’s growing, but it’s not why I got into the music business—and those things do not help you break artists or generate new ones.” At that point, YM&U got in contact with Watt, proposed an aligned vision and the deal was done.

Since then, Watt’s newly expanded team have been busy working on a number of big artist campaigns and development projects. Overseen by manager Chris Dempsey, the campaign for Take That’s platinum-selling best-of album Odyssey on Polydor came with a sold-out stadium and arena tour (their biggest in 10 years). Managed by Watt and Alistair White, Clean Bandit released their second album at the end of last year; it has sold 200k in the U.K. to date, while their international footprint has been growing with collaborations in Japan, China, India and Russia.

British singer/songwriter James Arthur (managed by Watt, Anushka Gunes and Mamie Lowther) has been undergoing a career revival after returning with a smash single and album on Columbia Germany in 2016, and has since then gone on to work with Anne-Marie, Martin Jensen, Marshmello and Ty Dolla $ign. He undertook an arena tour ahead of the release of his third album, which hit #2 in October, and Watt tells us there are big ambitions for him in the U.S. Additionally, Friendly Fires made a successful return after an eight-year hiatus, Years & Years concluded the campaign for their second album on Polydor (which hit #3 last year) and maintained a busy live schedule, with new music set to come this year, and the development of DJ Crystal Clear has continued apace.

On the business side of things, Watt has been building out his U.K. team, including Head of Digital Fiona McAuley, who came from Polydor, Commercial Director Anna Gregorek, who previously worked for Warner, and Head of Streaming Alistair White, who was promoted internally. All of them work closely with the team that Watt has established stateside.

Discussing his approach to management, Watt points to two mantras he always sticks by. “I’ve learned that no one manager is an expert in every single field that an artist will want to be in,” he says. “So for us, having a team that are experts in digital, streaming, brands and live that you can call upon is absolutely essential. The second element is really simple: What are the five ideas that you’re going to come up with that are going to make a difference to an artist’s career? What door are you going to open that they didn’t even realise was there, and what pitfalls are you going to guide them around to ensure that their career doesn’t go off the rails? If you’re just focusing on logistics, most artists could have a PA to do that. I think teamwork and creativity are the two absolutely essential bedrocks to make a successful artist’s career and also to make best use of resources in our company.”

When it comes to artist development, there are two changes that Watt would like to see. Firstly, a more obvious path for new artists on streaming services, who can get lost while still unknown on the big playlists. “When you’re a brand-new artist and you get on a playlist like New Music Friday, it’s not that meaningful because you’re unknown, and it’s hard for people to actually care,” he explains. “It’s not a criticism of streaming services, because I think it’s difficult to work out what that path might look and feel like, and I certainly don’t have the answer. But it would be great if there was a mechanism on streaming services that would really help new artists pop.”

And from the label side, more flexibility over deal terms would be welcomed. “I think it would be interesting to look at the way deals are structured, because at the moment, most of the development of artists happens outside of a label,” he points out. “It happens with the manager, and maybe after two years of doing their own thing, if they feel that they’ve got the fire started and want some petrol poured on it, then they’ll go to a label and do a deal. But if labels were a bit more creative and collaborative in the way they structured their deals, and the investment was elongated over a longer period of time, perhaps more managers would want to do those deals earlier. Record labels can clearly offer some expertise and advice, but I think any good manager will probably know the same, if not more, in terms of the early-development stages of breaking an artist.”

The ambition going into next year is to continue growing the music team—which stands at 26 in the U.K. and 45 in the U.S.—as well as taking on other managers, either through employment or acquisition. New artists under development at YM&U include Ghanaian pop artist Bree Runway, who is managed by Martha Kinn and is “almost Madonna-esque in her ambition,” says Watt. Soulful vocalist Duchess will be introduced to the wider world with music later this year, and there’s a new DJ called Pvblic Xcess and the continued trajectory of Sony Insanity signing JNR Williams.