“I feel like I’m strapped to the front of this rocket, you know? It’s not an easy place from which to get some perspective.”
Jamie Oborne talks like The 1975 sound; his sentences are intense, lyrically proficient, awash with self-reflection – and never too far from a smart shift of wordplay.
Amid the professional anguish, however – What am I doing? Where are we going? What’s this all for? – there’s a resolute through-line of unashamed confidence.
Oborne is irrefutably convinced of the cultural essentialness of UK-based Dirty Hit’s artist roster. And that’s just as well. Because, without this certainty, this insistence that the world darn well sits up and listens, Dirty Hit wouldn’t exist at all.
The story of The 1975 is now firmly established in modern music industry legend: not one major or indie record company originally saw the potential in the then emo-leaning Manchester misfits, who were roundly rejected by every label they met.
Their London-based management company – All On Red – and its founder, Oborne, were forced to take matters into their own hands, multiplying their investment in the group by becoming their recorded music partner.
“Take away heritage artists, and The 1975 are the best band in the world.”
Fast forward nine years: The 1975 have, supported by a global Universal/Interscope/Polydor licensing deal, smashed through every expectation, topping UK charts with their self-titled 2013 debut LP, before grabbing a transatlantic No.1 record with their second album, I Like It When You Sleep… two years ago.
Where do they go from here? They try to buck every trend all over again, obviously.
In an era when the music industry’s biggest players are increasingly scowling at the commercial burden of an ‘album cycle’, The 1975, backed by Oborne, are proudly swimming in the opposite direction.
The group will release their much-anticipated third LP, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships, in November, before releasing another fully-formed studio album the following spring.
Oborne is clearly a little anxious about this bold one-two plan, displaying the strain of existential self-questioning one might expect from a long-time Smiths obsessive. (A framed poster of Morrissey and Marr’s classic debut album aptly hangs above his head, on his office wall, as he chats to MBUK about The Big Decision.)
But Oborne’s also, within himself, sure as anything this is the right move. It isn’t just strategy, he explains: it’s destiny.
“In order for us to do what we want to do – touring where we want to tour, headlining the festivals we want to headline, spreading around the world in the right way; we can’t do that with one record,” he says, perched on a leather chair in Dirty Hit’s Latimer Road HQ.
“The moment Matthew [Healy] and I started talking about two records, it killed the conversation of one record. Ever since that day, it’s been the only way. He had a really resigned look on his face when we first talked about it; it was a face which said: ‘Yeah – it’s obvious isn’t it? This is exactly what The 1975 would do.’
Oborne’s passion is starting to motor. The fan, the acolyte, the frustrated young manager who believed he had something great no-one else could see, is rising to the surface. “Take away heritage artists, and The 1975 are the best band in the world,” he continues. “Like, unquestionably, the best band in the world.
“That’s not rhetoric and I’m not trying to be clever. It’s a statement of fact.”
Oborne has long been accepted as a fifth member within Dirty Hit’s best-known band. He talks about “we” and “us” when referencing The 1975 with the abandon of someone who knows, win, lose or draw, they’re in a gang for life.
This closeness is reciprocal; The 1975 are centrally involved in Dirty Hit. Frontman Matty Healy acts like a Chief Creative Officer at the label, nurturing the sound and cultish appeal of bands likes sunny-goth rockers Pale Waves and UK-based Filipino musician, No Rome.
And it’s here, double-album discussion put to bed, we meet Dirty Hit’s second great challenge of 2018: expanding its reputation beyond one superstar band by convincing the world that, as Oborne would have it, “we’re a proper label, constantly releasing new music”.
Those constant releases have ramped up in recent months, with albums from Ben Khan (August) and Pale Waves (September). Following The 1975’s return in November, Dirty Hit will kick off 2019 with a Japanese House LP, before activity increases around No Rome and warped indie cadets King Nun.
These artists sit on a roster alongside Mercury Prize winners Wolf Alice, whose second album, Visions Of A Life, rose to a No.2 peak on the Official UK chart last year. This varied family is well supported: Dirty Hit/All On Red now employs 10 people, including rising star (and Dirty Hit GM) Ed Blow.
Below, you’ll catch what MBUK talked about with Oborne at the label’s HQ earlier this summer: the ambition of his label, his struggle to break into the business, the importance of The 1975 – and how BMG’s Korda Marshall put him on the road to entrepreneurship with a single off-the-cuff comment…
How did you get started in the music business?
I had a not-particularly-privileged upbringing. I grew up in Islington [in London], and then East Barnet. I always felt drawn by the creative arts, but never really had a route into them. It wasn’t something people did where I was from. My dad had a retail business and later became a driver. My mum worked in an estate agent’s office.
My dad was always quite entrepreneurial but nothing really seemed to quite work to its potential. I always found music and art an amazing escape. In my early teens I started adopting the identity of other artists – that was a really important bridge to me. Then I heard The Smiths, and it was like, Wow, I’m not alone anymore.
I tried to be a musician from the age of about 18 to 22, and I had a record deal with a Universal label. But I made bad choices in my formative years – I was very good at ruining opportunities. That experience lit a fire of knowing that I wanted to be involved in music, that it was where my heart was.
‘I made bad choices in my formative years – I was very good at ruining opportunities.’
It made me feel that one can have potential to be a great artist, but that, without the right facilitation, it’s very difficult. When all that imploded, I went back to university to do a degree in Contemporary English Literature and Philosophy.
I knew I didn’t want to be an artist anymore, because it made me really unhappy. Out of a conversation with a friend of mine, I started talking about what a perfect management company would be – small, full of creative people, about development and emotional investment.
That night we decided to start that company. Within a couple of weeks we’d picked up an artist, then a few weeks later we’d done a deal with Island Records. We didn’t have a fucking clue what we were doing. But we had a lot of bravado, and a single-minded attitude.
Tell us about that Island deal: how did you find the artist?
I walked past a pub. A kid came out trying to get people into his gig there, I took his CD and it was really good, so I got in contact with him. I knew from my experience of music that you needed to create a conversation.
Through a mate of mine who used to go out with Brett Anderson from Suede, we got a great publicity agent in Phil Savidge, and I think Phil fell in love with the romance of it all.
This band had two singers, so it was easy and we got written about in On The Stereo, in NME, this track called Trees. Through this little series of conversation starters, the band got really hyped up, and we did a deal at Island. But Island didn’t put out that album in the end. It was a baptism of fire.
What did you learn from this early experience of management?
It felt that the moment you do a deal, you kind of lose control – especially as a young manager. The notion of control is shrouded in smoke and mirrors; you may think you have it, but the moment you make a big decision in this industry, it can suddenly desert you.
I had three artists signed to majors, and they all failed to different degrees.
‘The notion of control is shrouded in smoke and mirrors.’
One Night Only had a couple of hit singles [including Just For Tonight, which reached No.9 in the UK], and they sold 250,000 records here. But the notion of ‘failure’ for me was that the artist’s voice was lost to what a label perceived the audience’s desire for that voice to be.
It was all a big lesson in patience, and not letting my fear get in the way of an artist achieving their potential. There’s not a linear timeline on creation; it would be bizarre if there was. But sometimes people act that way.
Being driven by an [antipathy] to failure, or things taking too long, that’s all based in fear, and you can’t live governed by fear. Dirty Hit is a courageous artist development company, and I’m proud to say that out loud.
It sounds like you don’t love everything about the music biz…
I just don’t like egos. It’s such a big problem with A&R.
I have seen in the past the A&Rs who think their job is all about their ego, when actually it’s about the artist’s ego – about amplifying it, navigating it.
It’s hard to remember that, of course, but it’s essential. This is such a funny business. Ego can really get in the way of the pursuit of excellence.
[We launched Dirty Hit] with Benjamin Francis Leftwich, who no-one wanted to sign, and The 1975, who no-one wanted to sign. But prior to that I signed a band called General Fiasco to Infectious Records.
It was a deal which, in all honesty, I didn’t want to do, but [the band] really wanted to do it. There’s some great poetry in that. That deal forged a relationship with [now-BMG UK exec] Korda Marshall, and a couple of conversations with Korda literally made me start a record label.
We were in his car, driving to Chatham, talking about his life in music, in its different incarnations.
I’d been thinking about starting a label for a while, and that conversation made me think my instincts were right. He was saying, If I was your age, that’s all I’d be doing – signing copyrights to my own label.
I vividly remember him talking about digital copyrights, saying people don’t realize the value of them, and it’s going to be extraordinary in the future. Please make sure you keep that in – he’ll love looking like a genius! [laughs]
What does a typical Dirty Hit record deal look like?
It’s a profit split on records – 50/50, all costs recoupable. There’s no funny accounting, no funny maths, no weird metrics that no-one understands. Whatever profit there is is split down the middle and we invest a minimum of a quarter of a million pounds into every artist we sign.
[Signing artists] is made easier by the fact that our deals, on a numbers basis, are great – lawyers like our business terms. If we’re lucky enough to manage you as well, we don’t commission [management fees] on records – we feel that’s wrong on principle.
We don’t have to manage the artists on Dirty Hit, either. The only problem with that is, when I fall in love with something I fall in love with it pretty hard, so I want the all-encompassing relationship!
Quarter of a million quid is a serious amount of investment for an independent music company.
I came from management, so the label’s USP was always going to be that we don’t make money before the artist. Sometimes we’re quite heavily in the hole, but that’s all right. It’s important to invest in culture, isn’t it? I don’t think we waste money, but we spend a lot, man.
We’re not afraid to invest like that historic image of an indie label. When I said that figure to you earlier [£250,000], that’s just what it takes to get started, to get properly in the game, in my opinion.
Where does that money go?
Obviously we have to give the artist an advance – because they need to live, and if they’re worrying about making ends meet, they’re certainly not going to be able to work at their most creative level. We’ve never been afraid to put [new artists] in great studios, with great producers, mixers and engineers.
We spend a lot on marketing; we spend more per unit than most of the majors, I would say. That’s just what you’ve got to do these days to cut through. We also pay tour support, despite not taking any ancillary income, because artists have to tour. I look at [live] as a kind of daily marketing exercise, if you know what I mean.
With your newer artists, are you finding it a struggle to get into profit?
There’s a lot of press about all the money in music.
What a lot of those articles – The Sunday Times etc. – miss is that, when talking about Universal’s revenues for the year, a major percentage of it is catalogue.
The majors are very lucky to have this behemoth catalogue which they can collect income against, and it’s the same for the bigger indies. You could argue that hides mistakes. Dirty Hit does not currently have that luxury.
We have the makings of a catalogue now, but we don’t have one so vast that it doesn’t matter if [new] things aren’t a success. We’ve been around nearly 10 years, but we’ve only been a proper label for the past year or so.
What do you mean by that?
To me, a proper label is constantly releasing new music. It has a breadth in its artists, and releases more than an album a year.
I sat down with someone from Max Martin’s team recently – just chatting, nothing work-wise – and he said, You guys are just tapping that bottle. I said, What do you mean?
And he said, It’s the ketchup effect; you keep tapping and tapping and soon it all flies out! I love that analogy. With all of the investment, time, motion and money into the artists we’ve signed and been developing, it’s all starting to feel really exciting.
What about the notion that streaming services are becoming like radio once was in the States; that indies are struggling to break the big playlists.
We’re very lucky to have great champions at all the streaming services. They seem to really value our artists. I genuinely enjoy working with all the DSPs.
We are very lucky at Dirty Hit to have some very creative and courageous colleagues and friends, I feel like we’re all running at the future holding hands. When I sign an artist, my first thought is never, That’s going to be a hit! It either moves me or it doesn’t.
I realize I’m probably making it sound like [A&R] is a deck of tarot cards, but it’s how I feel about it. I don’t actually care if something’s a hit or not, to a certain extent.
That’s not a lack of ambition; it’s more that I’m not going to not sign something based on whether I think it will get a million streams in two weeks or not; it’s about whether I connect with the artist and their music.
Other people chase signings using data and are being very successful.
Fine. But when have you ever, ever been able to predict culture? That makes no sense. Look at all the fashion houses in the world.
They all release different collections each season, which indicates that no-one, no matter how clever or respected they might be, can really be sure where trends are going. They just create informed by creation, if that makes sense.
We hear a lot that streaming is killing the ‘artist’ today – that the song is king, and who sings it is secondary. Do you see that?
No fucking way. You’re talking about the human condition. You’re talking about identity and the craving to belong.
The need for someone to say, That person understands me at a time when I need to be understood.
The age of the artist hasn’t gone away. Look around at all the uncertainty in the world – it’s about to come back with a vengeance. I like artists who write their own songs. For me that is the Holy Grail.
Matty Healy is kind of a Chief Creative Officer at Dirty Hit. Why take that step?
Matthew has always informed my A&R decisions because we’re super close and have such synergy in our thinking. He’s influenced me a lot on an A&R level. He told me about Japanese House, and No Rome is really very much his signing. Rome is a brilliant artist, an extraordinary kid.
The music over-indexes on streaming platforms because it has exactly what Matthew said it would: a vibrancy of its own that people connect with.
What’s really interesting about that is there are some majors who have a reputation of running stats on everything, and whose A&R teams are informed by data analysts, and all of them have been in touch about Rome. So that’s funny. And very reassuring!
Are you a gifted marketeer?
Some people might think I’m a good salesman. I’m actually the worst salesman in the world – I just happen to genuinely love what I’m selling. I do love marketing though; that’s true. I love communication.
Sensitive question: now your company has built to a position of more strength, what’s your view of the licensing deal you did with Polydor/Interscope?
I’d be lying if I said the relationship hasn’t been really fruitful for me individually, for Dirty Hit as a company and for The 1975 as a band. David [Joseph, Universal Music UK boss] has become someone I consider a good friend and someone I really respect. I never think ‘I wish I hadn’t done that’, because [Universal] are part of the team. The best way I can describe it is this: every time I see David (picture inset), he tells me to trust my instinct and just fucking go for it.
You might guess, from the outside, that someone in his position might have a fierce reputation, or that they could seem like a threat to the ‘little indie’. But that’s not been my experience at all. David has actually been a constant and steady positive influence and source of knowledge.
Polydor has obviously changed since Ferdy [Unger-Hamilton] and Joe Munns left, and now it’s Ben [Mortimer] and Tom [March]. Tom’s brought a great energy to Polydor. I love having him in my corner, because he’s a lunatic; he’s a kindred spirit in thinking big. He doesn’t care who on his team wins, so long as his team wins. And I have known Ben for years through the UK A&R community, so it’s been great to see him flourish.
You released Wolf Alice purely independently in the UK
We proved to ourselves it’s possible. If The 1975 was a new signing today, would it go through the same setup? I don’t know.
I don’t need to have the answers to everything – I’m surrounding myself with people who bring positivity to my life, and not people who don’t.
With Universal, the whole experience has been an exercise in me saying, This is how Matthew and I want to do things. And them being like, Okay, cool, let’s do it.
‘I’m surrounding myself with people who bring positivity to my life, and not people who don’t.’
I know it’s very du jour, to be like, Oh yeah, [the major label] don’t do fucking anything, we do it all ourselves etc. And yes, the  creative campaign, conceptually, comes from this office and is run from this office.
But for John [Janick] and David, the way they’ve opened their network feels like an extension of their trust in us, which is the greatest compliment I could give them as a partner. Even when they’re not sure, they still do it how we want it done. For better or worse, you know? They understand it has to all come from The 1975.
Perhaps they also recognize the authenticity in this label, and its value?
Maybe. But I know they genuinely love the artist. At the end of the day, David still got into this for the same reason we did. So did Jason [Iley], for that matter. So did Lucian [Grainge], so did Max [Lousada]; Max loves creative marketing for artists more than anyone I know. That hasn’t changed just because he’s running Warner.
With David, there are many reasons I value that relationship. He’s given me amazing advice and he’s very perceptive. When we were first talking about doing a label with Universal, he said, I’d like to get you a team of people who can help you execute what you want to execute. Because if you load yourself with too much, you won’t be able to execute at your best.
“John [Janick] is a very intuitive man, and a great economist. He sees solutions in a field of problems.”
He was completely right – I can see that now. I’ve been coming to the same conclusion myself as we build Dirty Hit. And with John [Janick], it’s interesting; I sometimes struggle with A&R-minded people because, to be honest, I feel like so often the view is that the artist is wrong 90% of the time, whereas I’ve learned the artist is actually right 90% of the time. Our job is the 10%.
When I first spoke to John, I didn’t know he was behind Fueled By Ramen and had signed and developed all of those artists. I just knew he ran Interscope.
We talked about music and I really connected with him, because I felt that he understood The 1975. His history with emo was important in that; I felt John’s emo heart, and I sort of loved him for that, especially as it was so unapologetic – he really reminded me of Matthew, actually. Over time, John and I have become good friends. He’s a very intuitive man, and a great economist. He sees solutions in a field of problems.
The first time I actually saw that attribute displayed was watching Korda in a planning meeting, where just utter shit was being spoken. And then Korda cut through it all like a scythe. In the personal movie in my head, he walked out, like the fucking Predator; having absorbed all the information, he put his eyes on the target, and shot. It was really impressive. I see that in John, and I aspire to be more like that.
Let’s talk about The 1975: Why make two albums?
In order for us to do what we want to do – touring where we want to tour, headlining the festivals we want to headline, spreading around the world in the right way – we can’t do that with one record.
The moment Matthew and I started talking about two records, it killed the conversation of one record. Ever since that day, it’s been the only way. He had a really resigned look on his face when we first talked about it; it was a face which said: ‘Yeah – it’s obvious isn’t it? This is exactly what The 1975 would do.’
Firstly, who else is going to take up the mantle? There isn’t another band out there that can do this, really. Take away heritage artists, and The 1975 are the best band in the world. Like, unquestionably, the best band in the world.
That’s not rhetoric and I’m not trying to be clever. It’s a statement of fact. So if no-one else is going to do it, and arguably no-one else is capable of doing it, it’s on us. We’ve sort of already won anyway, you know what I mean? As long as we’re all proud of our output, then the rest of it doesn’t really matter.
I’m confident that we have good taste. So the law of averages dictates that, commercially, we’ll make it work; we’ll be able to continue paying rent.
How have you built such a strong relationship with your artists?
Whether you’ve got to say something good or bad, [artists] can always handle the truth – what they can’t handle is being fucked around. That’s a real mantra of mine.
And, admittedly, sometimes I’m better at it than other times, because I’m human. The key thing is, it has to remain honest, doesn’t it? Because it’s the same with music: if it’s not real, you’re cheating yourself.
I feel like music is always-on now, for everyone. There’s a forward momentum. It’s all around me, really exciting, and… to be honest, it can be draining. Being at the front of something like Dirty Hit has its stresses, but I also feel so, so lucky. I feel like I’m strapped to the front of this rocket, you know? It’s not an easy place from which to get some perspective.
What do you want this interview to reflect?
I don’t want my idealism to be perceived as a weakness. Because it’s not. I think you can build a successful business, and I think you can still be virtuous and keep your ethics intact. The reflection of the label is probably going to be that I’m slightly odd. Oh well.
Well that’s probably an essential ingredient in your success. The strapped to the rocket thing is a great analogy but, sorry, you’ve created the rocket. It was the intention to shoot for the moon.
Yeah, true. And we will continue to shoot for the moon. In our darker moments, when we’re making these two records, we’re all sitting around the mixing desk, completely fucking terrified about what we’ve publicly committed to doing. But then, at other times, it’s like, This is it. This is happening.
I mean, what the fuck else are we supposed to do?Music Business Worldwide