STAR man: Society Of Ticket Agents & Retailers boss Jonathan Brown talks tickets

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How The Box Plus Network can help break your new artist

While much of the music industry has spent the past few months exchanging tips lists, Matt Rennie and his Box Plus Network team have kept their heads down. Beavering away in their Victoria offices, managing director Rennie and his colleagues were putting the finishing touches to their new emerging artist campaign Box Fresh, which launches this month. Simply, the idea behind it is to get more raw talent onto the network, with the dual aim of boosting the acts and satisfying an audience hungry for new music. All the while delivering the visuals radio can’t. Rennie explicitly wanted to avoid drawing up a list and chucking it into the mix with the others. “We did the media merry-go-round last year with our tips, it’s not about that this time,” he says. “It’s about allocating budget, resource and schedule to a platform for new artists, to create an ongoing situation where artists and labels can come to us and we can say, Let’s give them a shot.” After the successful May 2016 rebrand of its new music channel Box Upfront – dedicated both to new artists and new music from established ones – Rennie cooked up the idea of a campaign to focus solely on undiscovered talent. “We’ve been researching our core audience, who are aged 16-24,” he says. “Discovery and finding out about new artists are key drivers of their music video consumption. Clearly this is an important part of why people come to us, it’s important to our record label partners and for us it’s commercially really viable. Most platforms recognise the value of new music - it’s big when you’re young and sharing new stuff with your friends is a big part of our culture.” The campaign launches officially on January 31, when a 60-minute show titled Box Fresh 2017 Spotlight will begin airing across the network, featuring live video footage and profile pieces on four artists Box Fresh is supporting, Fatherson, Tom Grennan, Declan McKenna and Jerry Williams. As well as Box Fresh artists featuring across the network’s established charts and programming, Rennie is introducing new elements to support them. He plans intimate, collaborative working relationships. Every week, Fresh On Friday will see an artist play a session and answer interview questions to be broadcast live on Facebook, to a potential weekly audience of millions. This, Rennie says, is where the network will aim to place younger or unsigned artists, whereas more established new acts will be eligible for Fresh Focus, a monthly performance and interview feature dedicated to a new artist. Last year, via Box Upfront – which will coexist with Box Fresh – the network filmed similar sessions with artists including Dua Lipa, Anne-Marie and Rag’N’Bone Man. Rob Clark, senior TV promotions manager at Sony Music UK, handles TV appearances for Rag’N’Bone Man, and says last September’s session was an important part of the campaign. “They stuck their neck out on him in July before things had taken off, and he’s not the most conventional fit for them so it was fantastic,” he explains. “It was his first TV [appearance] pretty much, so it was great experience.” Clark describes the network as “a great outlet for developing artists”. He laments fewer and fewer opportunities for TV exposure and says doing it via Box Plus is “a really good way to introduce artists and for them to cut their teeth in an area you want them to have experience in”. Beyond that, he adds, “I know certain people seeing that session helped us get other bookings down the line, it gave the momentum you sometimes need at the beginning of a campaign.” Rennie – whose previous employers include Global Radio and Warner Music – agrees that new artists have fewer options now. “It’s hard to break records now, there’s so much more noise and clutter, back when I started in the late ‘90s there were certain set routes to break talent, those are crowded out by social media and everything else now.” With that in mind, just how much value is there in his network launching Box Fresh? Is it worth it or will it just add to the noise? Rennie’s answer is emphatic. “Yes [it’s worth it]! We wouldn’t be putting so much behind it if we didn’t think that. For a platform like us with access to 15m people every month, I think labels and artists need people like us and Radio 1 and our other competitors to invest our time in helping artists cut through into the mainstream.” That said, Rennie acknowledges the difference between his company’s role and that of the record labels. “For them [labels] it’s not only getting an audience for new music but translating it into sales and that whole curve… We’re kind of privileged in that we just have to find music we like and our audience will like, and there’s lots of that out there.” And that last point is the reason Rennie is so animated about Box Fresh – the impression is of someone for whom the idea that we need to produce more talented artists is preposterous. “There’s still lots of talent out there,” he continues. “Translating it into sales is a separate issue, but I would definitely love some of the new artists we work with to get mainstream commercial success. That would be positive for the industry, when you consider how few artists had a No.1 single last year [11]…. Those things need to be looked at.” Rennie finishes by outlining how he’ll judge Box Fresh’s success. “That for me would be bedding in as a destination for new talent, where a growing audience come and find artists they like, put them in their Spotify or Apple playlists, go and see them live and then come back and uncover more.” It sounds simple enough.

The Big Interview: Music For Nations' Julie Weir

Julie Weir is a natural outsider who suddenly finds herself on the inside. She spent 20-odd years as a key figure in the indie rock/metal world, with Visible Noise Records and Wiseblood Management, and had a hand in some of the most notable UK rock successes over that time: Bring Me The Horizon, Bullet For My Valentine, Lostprophets. It seemed like her natural environment, yet now she’s happily ensconced at a major label, Sony Music.She’s there as label head of the revived metal imprint Music For Nations. Founded by Martin Hooker in 1983, it became legendary in the ‘80s for releasing albums by the likes of Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth. After lying dormant for a decade, it was initially revived in 2015 as a catalogue label with a reissue programme led by label manager Joel De’Ath. Weir still has her management company and some other projects, but her job since she joined in April last year has been to once again turn MFN into a “fearless” frontline  ROCK-with-a-capital-everything label that will help artists “facilitate their best possible positioning for a lasting career with the rock, metal and alternative genres”. Hooker tells Music Week he rates Weir “very highly”, adding: “She understands the genre and knows what needs to be done. Hopefully she’ll get the financial backing she needs to see it through. I’ve seen copies of most of the releases so far and they are very impressive. No expense spared on the packaging which is always good to see.” She’s already made her first signing, grime-metal kings Astroid Boys, with more to come soon and seems settled in at Sony, even if she developed a stiff neck soon after starting “because there’s people walking past my office all the time and I’m looking at what’s going on!” And there has, of course, been a lot going on. Weir should still be Sony’s new kid on the block, but events at the majors’ other frontline labels mean she’s already one of the longer-serving label heads. That doesn’t seem to bother her, however (“I feel like I’ve come in at a massive time of change, but sometimes great things come with great change,” she smiles), and – given what she achieved as an (almost) one-woman band – it’s hard not to see her attaining her goals with the full backing of Sony behind her. We meet just as the Team Rock debacle is in full flow, a situation that sees Weir both despair (at the apparent mismanagement of much-loved magazines) and rejoice (at the sense of community shown by the metal world in staging the mother of all whiprounds for those laid off without any redundancy money). That Metal Hammer and the other brands were, ultimately, saved by Future is testament to the rock community that Weir herself has served so loyally over the years. So don’t expect a corporate makeover: she still shoots from the hip and remains the sort of executive you’re more likely to see in a moshpit than a boardroom (our interview takes place in the pub, all too unusual for major label executives nowadays). So Music Week got the drinks in and sat down to talk Spotify, Sony and why rock will never die… What’s the biggest difference between being at Sony and working for yourself? It still feels like an alien universe to me! You can’t pat yourself on the back when you’re working on your own, but we’ve got a digital team here, a sales team, you’ve got people with more knowledge. I like to think I know a lot about a lot of stuff in the industry, but there’s so much knowledge in that building it actually scares me! Coming from a background where I’ve broken bands like Bullet, and BMTH, and obviously worked with a lot of smaller acts without any of that support or structure, I’m hoping that our signings now will move a lot quicker. We’re in a rush to sign people. So, after 20 years in the indies, what made you want to join a major? I sent a proposal to [former RCA president] Colin Barlow that was then passed on to Jason [Iley, Sony Music UK chairman/CEO] and Nicola [Tuer, Sony Music UK COO]. Just saying, this is something we should really be thinking about. That was the time of the whole Lostprophets situation [where frontman Ian Watkins was convicted on child abuse charges]. I honestly didn’t think I was going to come back from that, because I was so entrenched in that band. I was absolutely heartbroken, shocked by what had happened and also, it was the fact that I had worked for 16 years with the band. I recorded and published everything, it was basically my pension. Suddenly, the rug just went and we lost a hell of a lot of money and a load of assets. It was a horrendous situation, personally it was pretty horrible as well because, as an independent, your contacts are everywhere. The good thing about a major is that you’ve got this wall, nobody really knows who you are, it’s quite nice that anonymity. I was getting death threats, all kinds of stuff, when that happened. I have to say, Mike Smith [former Columbia president] was very supportive then saying, If you need anything, our legal team is here to help. We’ve had an ongoing relationship with Sony for a long time and I’ve always got on with people there, so it was a logical step for me to go in there. Even with your experience, it must be quite a challenge to revive a classic label like MFN? It’s a massive challenge, something that gave me a lot of sleepless nights before I started the job. Obviously Joel had gone in 18 months ahead of me and he’s done a brilliant job of it. But also, in reactivating that catalogue, it brings back the old school identity of Music For Nations. That wasn’t exactly my remit for wanting to do this, but there’s no negating the fact that the label has a fantastic heritage – it’s just that you can’t really sign those bands here and now. It’s not a viable thing to do but we’ve got to support the old school fans, so Joel’s been doing that with all of the reissues. Signing Astroid Boys was pretty controversial; we announced the signing and were basically hiding under our desks waiting for the fallout of old school metallers but it’s been surprising. We’ve probably had about a 10% backlash, all of these people are like, What about Metallica? What about Megadeth? and it’s like, That was 1983! But when you explain to people as music fans they actually get it. If they listen to Astroid Boys and they break it down they can hear the Metallica and Megadeth riffs and it makes them actually feel part of the experience again. So, what’s the plan for the all-new MFN? My remit from Nicola and Jason is to not be afraid, take risks, go out there and sign what we should be signing, not because there’s loads of statistics that are going through the roof. We’re taking it back to real old school A&R where you can actually have the feeling and think, This is amazing. That’s what we did with Astroid Boys. All of the stats and metrics in the world can’t change the fact that a great song and a degree of gut feeling and belief in the artist is also a massive part of the recipe for success.  What are you looking for in a new signing? I don’t want to say we have a type. We need something that’s heavy, fearless and something that’s doing its own thing. When we were with Bring Me The Horizon, for every 50 demos we got, 48 of them were from a BMTH-style metalcore band. Why do you want a second rate version of something that’s amazing? Go out and create your own vibe. I think kids are scared of doing that. There’s such a lot of access to music that everybody takes bits from everything and it ends up sounding like one big mess. People are scared about going out on their own and that’s what I’m looking for, people who’ll just walk on their own and not give a shit. Do their own thing, not care if anybody’s trying to sign them or anything. The reason we signed Astroid Boys was to challenge the norm. Just because it’s heavy, it doesn’t need to be metal. It can be heavy in its aesthetic, its sound, even in its politics. Do you think a British rock band can still take on the world the way some of your former acts have? Well, it hasn’t happened for anyone [in any genre] for a while, I don’t think it’s just rock. In the community we’re in, we’ve got more chance of breaking a rock act because they’re easier to communicate with and the fans are more loyal. The one thing we do have problems with is playlisting. Every playlist is always geared towards happy, sunny, the gym, driving, blah blah blah and it doesn’t really work for rock - we want miserable, dark, Goth, Halloween! (Laughs) I don’t think it’s easy to curate things like that properly. Those [playlists] are built for people who want a lean back experience, they want music thrown at them, they don’t want to dig for it. In order to dig for music that’s more leftfield on those sites, you’ve really got to care. It’s too easy to press Discover Music Friday or Happy Wednesday or whatever it’s called! What I’d really like to do is get a [rock] coalition together where we can actually go into Spotify and go, Let us help you. But even I find myself listening to albums less and less. Because of my job, I do find myself pulling an A&R playlist where I’m just listening to bits and bobs left right and centre. It’s no different to when you were a kid and you used to be sitting there taping the Top 40, hating it when the DJs would speak! Can rock as a genre ever get back to being the sound of the mainstream though? I don’t think rock’s days have ever gone, it’s always existed whatever happens, but it’s never wanted to be part of the mainstream, it’ll always sit on the sidelines and happily just tick along - it doesn’t need anyone. The people who believe in it - we don’t need the charts. (Laughs) Someone at Sony is going to kill me for saying that! Does Sony buy into that idea? It’s not a ‘mine, mine, mine’ situation which everybody led me to believe a major label was going to be, everybody told me it was going to be very arms length. But since I’ve got in there, everybody’s really helpful. I must have looked like a scared kid on the first day of school - I’m pretty honest about stuff like this so I was just like, I’m shitting myself, I don’t know what I’m doing! I’m going to have to re-learn 20-odd years of experience. Whereas normally I can turn round and go, Yes, now I can’t immediately, it might take a week. But I’d rather do that and have the support and backing of all the people we’re working with. When you sign an artist, it’s not just playing with something, you’re taking responsibility for their lives. I’ve always felt strongly about that, I know a lot of labels are like, An artist is a commodity but I’ve never felt like that, ever. Every artist I’ve worked with, I’ve known mums, dads, family members, I’ve been at weddings. I don’t get personally involved but I like them to know we’re always there to have people’s back if they need us. I want to keep that aesthetic alive at MFN, because we’re just a very different label. MFN is part of Sony Commercial Group. How are you finding working with Nicola Tuer? Nicola’s brilliant. I report to [Sony CG marketing director] Jon Cauwood in commercial, who reports to [Sony CG MD] Phil Savill, who reports to Nicola, but I have catch ups with her every month or so. She’s very involved, she was the one who was going, Take risks, don’t sit there and be vanilla - alright then, brilliant! When we started, we had two MFN commandments and one was, Don’t work with dickheads. It’s worked for us so far!  What was the other one? I can’t remember! It was in the pub! I think it was, Only work with bands you believe in personally. There’s a lot of stuff we can see the value in, but if we don’t get it personally, we’d be doing a disservice to the band. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry in your 20 years? The length of time and the amount of work it takes to break a band. You used to sign four or five bands and maybe get two or three away. Now you might not even get one. How you gauge success is completely different.  So how do you gauge success? I’m not really worried about chart [success] right now, we need to develop artists that are going to have three, four, five album careers. On the first album we just need to get the profile there, get a team around it. There’s definitely a new generation of kids coming through that really give more than a shit - because streaming’s growing, people are at least engaging with something, accessibility over ownership is working. The measure of success [for some people] is definitely the profile of an artist, but somebody could have a massive profile and negligible sales. I find that absolutely mind blowing. I’m obsessed with things like Artificial Intelligence and how tech and music can interface - Virtual Reality is also another big thing. It’s all about experience. Nobody can take away an experience, especially the live experience and this is why record companies and promoters need to work together more. Music facilitates a great deal of the digital world, as well as massive industries like gaming, film, consumer electronics. The wealth of data we have is helping to educate us in audience behaviour and how to reach them. We need to make sure people are excited about music as it is so readily available. And where do you want Music For Nations to be in five years time? I’d really like to have MFN back as a brand in its own right. It has a lot of good will around it, being at a major is different to being an independent entity, but we’ve always got on really well with everybody. That and having a couple of really good artists who’ll be headlining stages at Download or Reading and Leeds. Craig [Jennings, Raw Power Management CEO] said in Music Week, People will run through brick walls for Raw Power and that’s what we want to be able to do. People will run through brick walls for our bands.

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