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Blighty Beat

Despite the enormous challenges brought on by the halt of touring this year, the four managers we chat with below remain upbeat and forward-looking. There’s talk of innovation in deal structures, a closer connection among team members and new heights of creativity from artists.

Charlie Owen manages Sony singer/songwriter Joy Crookes, who was nominated for the BRITs Rising Star Award this year and came in fourth in the BBC Sound of 2020 poll. She’s topped the U.K. Asian Music Chart twice. Having worked with Owen for eight years, Crookes is in the process of finishing her debut album. Owen started her career booking bands while at university, then moved into management after a two-year stint at live agency UTA

NQ CEO Michael Adex launched his Universal-backed management firm/record label/publishing company in 2017 to develop talent from his native Manchester (NQ stands for “Northern Quarterz”). His management roster includes rapper Aitch, who last year hit #3 on the U.K. Albums Chart with his AitcH20 EP, released via a licensing deal with Sony. He followed that up in May with a #7 berth for the NQ-issued Polaris. Adex, who spent his late teens touring with various musician friends, also manages Columbia rapper Mastermind.

Chris Melian handles singer/songwriter Beabadoobee for the management company All on Red, where he’s been working closely with owner Jamie Oborne since 2018. A BRITs Rising Star and BBC Sound of 2020 nominee, Beabadoobee hit #8 on the U.K. charts with her debut album, Fake It Flowers, in October. Melian started out scouting for Nick Worthington at 679 Recordings, then moved into publishing at Trevor Horn’s Perfect Songs. He began in management at Maverick, later joining Oborne’s label Dirty Hit and then All on Red. He also looks after alternative R&B singer AMA and pop/R&B artist Kasai

Red Light Management’s Jess Lord shepherds the careers of Ivor Novello Rising Star award-winner Mysie and producer Flood. She also co-manages, with James SandomPunctualDelilah MontaguMuzz and Interpol and helps out with Belle and Sebastian. Lord got her start as a production/label assistant at 14th Floor Records, thereafter moving into the company’s management division as a day-to-day manager before signing on to Warner Music U.K. and later, Nostromo Management. Lord came to Red Light in 2014, beginning in a day-to-day capacity, then co-managing and more recently, taking on her own clients. 

How do you see the coronavirus crisis impacting the music industry long-term and manage-ment specifically?
Charlie Owen: Artists that exist more on the Internet and across DSPs could really flourish long-term. But if touring is a significant part of an artist’s income, as it is for so many, it’s going to be another very uncertain 12 months. It depends on where your artist is in their career and what kind of release you’re looking at, but in general, the pandemic breeds uncertainty. We’re seeing a lot of innovation coming from managers, but nothing can properly replace gigs.

Michael Adex: We’ve had to push projects back because there’s no point putting out something we’ve been working on for three years and not be able to tour it. Artists are having to rethink how they make money if they’re in deals where they’re not earning much from royalties and live was really keeping them afloat. They’re looking at different deal structures and ways of putting out music because a lot of listening depends on being outside the home; we’ve seen statistics showing how listening initially went down because people were indoors, rather than out and about listening with their friends in the park or while driving.

Chris Melian: We’ve found our flow working digitally—we live in a digital space and that allows us to move forward, for which we’re very grateful. But of course I worry about the live industry, the touring musicians and crews and venues. There are historical places threatened with closure. Some are already closing. The same goes with music publications and magazines, a lot of which were already struggling. I just hope people can stay strong. Perhaps this off time will help us, when we do get back to shows and proper concerts, appreciate how lucky we are to all be in a room together. Can you imagine what those first shows or festivals will feel like? 

Jess Lord: A key impact I see is the longevity of a campaign; where many artists could release music and then tour it for a year to 18 months or longer, that’s been erased. The challenge lies in how to extend the lifespan of your release and keep fans engaged. Of course, financially that has huge ramifications, too. Though it’s been interesting to see how artists are finding ways to navigate these obstacles with live streams, online meet-and-greets ... Some have truly managed to connect. That said, when the time is right, I believe the live business will bounce back and leap forward. 

How are you and your artists adapting to the new normal?
CO: We’re taking advantage of plans being pushed back and using the time to focus on the record and make it the absolute best it can be. Joy has had more time to write and develop as a producer, which has been incredibly valuable. Some brilliant tracks have been written over lockdown, music we are really excited to share with everyone. I think in this new normal everyone has become more attuned to checking in with each other and in some ways our team feels more connected than ever, which I understand sounds counterintuitive but is a welcome silver lining to the last nine months. 

MA: We’re looking at brand and merchandise deals. We’re actually looking at purchasing a merchandise company and setting up our own, internal operation to support our artists even more. I think that in the U.K., especially in the urban community, merchandise hasn’t been adequately utilized because of how music is released now, which is mainly single by single. But there are a lot of big singles that could benefit from merch. 

CM: The pandemic came out of nowhere; no one was prepared. So I’d say these are difficult times even for the strongest people I know—but at least we’re all in it together. Though we’ve somewhat adjusted, it’s times like these when you find out what you’re really made of. It’s made us realize how fragile we are, how delicate things can be. But we have to make it work, and there’s a lot we can do to stay creative and productive. If we can look at it that way … if that becomes the focus … we’ll have something to show for this when we’re out the other side. 

JL: After the initial period of shock, everyone’s adapted really well, particularly in terms of writing and creating. A lot of the “noise” has been turned down and opportunity has opened up—for some artists, for the first time since their debut releases—to really focus on the music itself.

What is the most exciting development you see happening in the business right now?
CO: The increase in online engagement and how people have utilized that has been really exciting to watch. There has been some great direct-to-fan interaction, some really interesting live streams and standout moments, like the ticketed, geo-locked live Laura Marling performance streamed from the Union Chapel. The Fortnite Icon Series is just so, so clever, genuinely innovative. Over 12 million people watched the Travis Scott set live.

MA: The opportunities internationally are what’s most exciting for me. Different markets have opened up, like Australia, where there are very heavy listeners of U.K. and international music. The collaborations happening among international artists are very exciting, too, and the opportunities to take music to different regions. Though one of the goals of our company is to also really impact the national scene. This year, during lockdown, an act from Nottingham, Young T & Bugsey, had a Billboard Hot 100 entry, which I haven’t seen from a U.K. rap act while I’ve been working in the industry.

CM: The strength of and support for BLM, women’s rights and the LGBTQ communities.

JL: I’m encouraged by the move away from genre designations. That transition has been happening for a while, but it seems increasingly true that an audience cares more about culture and authenticity than what the music is labeled, and that creates freedom for artists to experiment and push boundaries. Artists are speaking out against being pigeonholed—they’re bypassing arbitrary categories to make the music they want to make.

How do you see the role of a manager evolving over the coming years?
CO: Managers will have to be more creative and flexible, better prepared to react. I think the trend of managers operating outside of the traditional sphere, offering services that a label would typically provide, will accelerate. The independent sector will continue to go from strength to strength, with more people and companies facilitating successful independent releases. That said, I don’t think one type of manager negates another type of manager; I just think the ways a manager’s role can be interpreted will expand even further. 

MA: Managers are definitely more like labels nowadays, taking on a lot more responsibility. Outside of the financial backing a label provides, a lot of the stuff they do you can do yourself.

Social media has made marketing and distribution easier, for instance. If you want to get to the top of the music industry, you need an experienced team, but it’s about the team; it’s not about being signed to a specific label. I think the traditional role of the label is slowly but surely becoming obsolete. You can see it in the deals labels are having to resort to, paying obscene sums for singles that aren’t worth it to maintain marketshare. So managers are creating more of their own structures, being more innovative in how deals are done with artists, getting a bigger slice of the pie—managers do more now so they should be rewarded for that.

JL: The role is ever-evolving, and it’s not just about responsibilities; it’s about opportunities—understanding new technologies and being at the forefront of using them to “release, promote and enhance performance.”

Whats coming up that we should keep an eye out for?
MA: Definitely Mastermind and Ayo Britain—they have a very unique sound I feel will really resonate with U.S. culture. Beyond that, my main aim is to innovate, create opportunities, meet new people and keep my ear to the streets for developments. I’m also focused on building real estate in the regional areas, seeing them develop, and looking at how we can collaborate more in the European market. And I want to do festivals!

CM: Dirty Hit has opened an office in Los Angeles with an eye toward expanding the management and label roster and moving stateside. We’re looking to grow the artists we manage, from Beabadoobee releasing her album to Kasai releasing her first EP and building new U.S. signings like Bryce Hase and Pretty Sick. It’s the next chapter for us, and I’m committed to finding the next connecting points and surprising people with our new generation of artists and campaigns.

JL: I’m excited by interesting collaborations. With the unrivaled focus we can have on creation, now feels like the perfect time to get artists, producers, songwriters and creators to work together freely. Travel’s either out the window or unreliable, and geography’s been reduced to a time zone. So much can be achieved at the moment by those who are open-minded.