Monday, January 6, 2020

‘We want the artist to be at the heart of everything we do.’ | Music Business Worldwide

Could it be, as a wise woman once pondered, that it was all so simple then? In the case of plugging and promotions… possibly?

Certainly, a couple of decades ago there were fewer radio stations, fewer forms of media generally, fewer releases – and one goal: have a hit.

That’s still the main aim, of course, but where the road to that promised land used to be quite clearly sign-posted, now there is no map – and no single destination; a hit means different things to different artists at different stages of their career and in different territories. And lunch with Jo Whiley’s producer just won’t cut it anymore.

London-born Your Army came into existence, in 2007, just as a period of sustained decline was settling in, and with Spotify a year away from sparking the streaming revolution. In fact, the company’s very existence owes something to one of the bellwethers of those turbulent times.

Founder James Pitt (pictured left) explains: “I was at Virgin EMI, and I felt there were other agendas at work other than what was best for the artists and the songs; we were getting away from that. I should point out that this was during the lovely and hugely enjoyable Guy Hands period and bears absolutely no relevance to Virgin EMI today.

“I just wanted the artist to be at the heart of everything we do and build a company based entirely on good music, which luckily we’ve been able to do.”

“I just wanted the artist to be at the heart of everything we do and build a company based entirely on good music, which luckily we’ve been able to do.”

James Pitt, your army

Within a few months of going solo, he asked no less a sage than Annie Mac if there was anyone she knew, not from London, who had a real passion for dance music and had a bit of personality about them.

Funnily enough, she replied, there’s this lad from Sheffield… Christian Nockall (pictured right) was employee number one and right-hand man ever since. As Pitt describes him, “my first and still best decision”.

Between them they created a company that is now hugely respected, incredibly successful and increasingly global, working with pioneering artists including Disclosure, Christine & the Queens, Sam Smith, The Chemical Brothers & Dave.

Your Army have adapted to change but also embraced it, from the rise and fall of various genres to the increased complexity of distribution and consumption. At the same time, they’ve done it by not changing at all.

Pitt says: “If you love music, then you’ve probably loved turning people onto really great songs and your favourite artists etc. from when you’re a kid – and what we do is really an extension of that. That’s what all this is borne out of and why we both got into this business.”

Here are the five changes that have impacted their business – and the business – in their first dozen years:

1. The UK Music Landscape – A Shifting Mainstream

James Pitt: When Your Army started, dance music was omnipresent and that suited us, because we were bringing a lot of curated electronic music to Radio 1.

They learned to trust us and actually asked us to start presenting tracks to the playlist team, as previously we’d just been sending music direct to people like Zane Lowe, Annie Mac and Pete Tong. In recent years, the biggest cultural shift has been towards the consumption of urban music.

As that happened, we basically empowered our team to influence us as a business by going out there and finding music they love and music they want to represent. That’s how we came to work with artists such as Dave, Wretch 32, AJ Tracey, slowthai and Ms Banks.

If you trust your team then you can make them part of the strategy, not just the execution. And in our case, that’s certainly helped keep us really relevant at radio.

Christian Nockall: We get a kick out of taking credible music to the mainstream, that’s what Your Army’s all about; moving something from the margins to the masses, it’s been great to be part of that, something that’s actually affected culture.

But, of course, these things work in cycles and dance music feels like it’s in a good place again.

We’re seeing hits and 2020 could be the year it comes back with crossover acts – CamelPhat are flying, I think they’ll have a big year next year, alongside developing talent such as Prospa.

2. Media Diversification and Audience Fragmentation

JP: This has been a massive change since we first started. The fragmentation of the audience, fuelled by streaming and other media platforms, has changed music marketing and promotion forever.

But, equally, it hasn’t really changed the essence of what we do. We’ve just had to adapt, and one of the ways we’ve done that is use the data from all those sources to help tell an artist’s story, which is something we’ve always tried to do alongside promoting their music.

CN: I also think it’s important, though, in such a data-driven landscape, that passion and taste still come first. If you can back that up with data, it becomes more powerful, but passion and taste, for us, come first.

JP: When we started you could have a huge hit just with Radio 1 support, and blogs were also becoming very influential. We had a traditional press PR department back then, but we closed that because it wasn’t having enough of an impact or providing value for money for our clients.

What we still do is fight for every piece of media support on radio and TV, and now DSP editorial support and, of course, for third party playlists.

But what we’ve done subsequently is double down on a digital marketing department, which is run out of our LA office.

If we can get as many fans as possible to our artists through traditional promotion, then communicate to those fans through digital marketing, that’s a powerful combination. The more targeted we are, the more engagement increases and the more revenue the artist makes.

3. A Radio Revolution

CN: Radio stations have evolved into fully-fledged content platforms. There’s no doubt radio had to find its feet a little bit as streaming emerged, and a lot of the networks lost people to DSPs, which didn’t help, but they’ve adapted.

It’s certainly not all about audio anymore. It’s about visual content, it’s about social media, it’s about huge events with big stars and bespoke events with emerging artists.

Our radio and TV/visual departments certainly work a lot more closely together now, which obviously reflects that. As with everything else, data plays a bigger part than ever, with things like geographical Shazam or streaming numbers being part of the conversation with radio when it comes to the confidence to go national or international.

But, again, that data works best aligned with passionate curation, experience and strong relationships, and all of those things still exist at radio. Tracks can still get through based purely on passion.

Roberto Surace’s Joys, which was the biggest track of the summer in Ibiza, ended up on the A-list at Radio 1, totally driven by passion and enthusiasm.

For us, they all work together – radio, streaming, TV, digital – and they all actually feed each other. They might be rivals to a certain extent, to each other, but for us, good social numbers can be taken to radio, good streaming data is an argument for mainstream TV etc.

4. Globalisation

JP: This is something that’s massively exciting and hugely positive, not just for music, or the business of music, but for culture generally. On the pop side, I guess BTS is maybe the biggest example.

The audience can listen to the music on YouTube wherever they are, they’ve got access to lyric translations online; they can connect with the music no matter where they are. Any two points on the globe can be connected by music, and that’s amazing.

For us, working Christine & The Queens who was mainly singing in French when we first started working with her, and helping her become one of the biggest artists in the UK was such a joy.

Christine is also a very visual artist which helped tell the story to a wide audience via the TV appearances we got early on, things like Later… with Jools Holland, quickly followed by Graham Norton and then the Glastonbury performances.

We’ve also responded by opening offices in other territories [LA and Australia], which are great A&R sources, and also help artists to break other territories. On the other side there’s lots of localisation, with more home grown top 10 records in countries around the world than ever before, which is equally great to see.

5. Work Multiple Territories Simultaneously

CN: You can’t work one territory at a time, in isolation. A record can break on Radio 1 or break on Triple-J in Australia. Every release can build differently these days, so as a company we have to be ready to respond to that, to work more flexibly.

You have to work a record simultaneously in different markets to get the best results and maximum impact on streaming.

When an artist or a label comes to us, we can talk to them about a global plan, we can highlight territories where they might break first. With Lean On by Major Lazer, we saw it happening in Denmark first, then across Scandinavia, across Europe, down to Australia, back to the UK, where we got it on radio, then LATAM, then the US last.

That was exciting for us, being involved in an independent release that was worked effectively in multiple territories.

The UK office of Your Army is based at Tileyard London. Tileyard, located at King’s Cross, is Europe’s largest community of artists, studios and businesses, all revolving around music, ideas, collaboration and creativity. Music Business Worldwide


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