The Big Interview: All On Red/Dirty Hit's Jamie Oborne

The Big Interview: All On Red/Dirty Hit's Jamie Oborne

Jamie Oborne is at the Parklife Festival in Heaton Park, Manchester. On stage are The 1975, the band that he has steered, as both manager and record label boss, to their status as one of the UK’s biggest breakout successes of the decade, despite pretty much everyone telling him they were going nowhere.

In the crowd are 80,000 Mancunians losing their minds. And, side of stage, Oborne is enjoying a revelatory moment.

“On the first album, The 1975 became the biggest cult band in the UK,” he says in his West London office, sat beneath framed posters for releases by New Order and The Smiths. “On the second, we became the biggest cult band in the world.

I was looking out and you couldn’t get any more people in that place. I looked at Matthew [Healy, 1975 frontman], he looked at me and I thought to myself, They’re going to be the biggest band in the world. You could feel it coming. And it was amazing…”

Oborne has had more than his fair share of amazing moments with Healy, guitarist Adam Hann, bassist Ross MacDonald and drummer George Daniel, since taking them on back when they were still called Drive Like I Do.

Indeed, having been “right there in the trenches with them”, as he puts it, Oborne has an empathy with the band to compare with the relationship between the members themselves.

But then he’s been on a similar journey before. A hip-hop obsessive in his youth, his parents would banish him to listen to his Public Enemy records in the car outside their house in Barnet.

One day, a passer-by was so outraged by the noise that he walked up to the teenage Oborne and punched him in the face. “At that moment, I knew I wanted to be in a band,” he grins.

And he was, up to the point of being signed (“A prize to whoever can find out which band I was in,” he laughs). But Oborne headed back to university after the group imploded, where a chance conversation about where his musical career had gone wrong made him realise the importance of good management.

He and a friend spontaneously started their own management company and had some success before Oborne went it alone with All On Red Management.

Amongst others, he looked after One Night Only, who signed to Mercury and had a Top 10 hit in 2008 with Just For Tonight (ONO guitarist Mark Hayton now works with Oborne at All On Red). But, when his clients signed record deals, Oborne found the “loss of control” exasperating, and started thinking about forming his own record company.

His hand was forced when, having met and become manager of The 1975 through a One Night Only fan recommending their MySpace profile, he was unable to secure them a record deal (“Everyone passed on them,” he says, ruefully, “And I mean everyone”).

So, having already put out a record by another management charge, Benjamin Francis Leftwich, Dirty Hit was born in 2010. Oborne soon secured a licensing JV deal for The 1975 with Universal-owned Polydor (Oborne has huge praise for both Joe Munns and Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, at the major when the deal was done, and the current Tom March/Ben Mortimer axis, as well as Universal UK chief David Joseph), but Dirty Hit remains a completely independent label.

Oborne’s backing of The 1975 came through spectacularly (second album I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It hit No.1 on both sides of the Atlantic and has now sold 269,569 copies, according to the Official Charts Company).

Dirty Hit is also home to indie rock stars Wolf Alice (“Their new album is a classic alternative rock record, it’s up there with Bossanova by the Pixies”), while across label and management Oborne has an interest in some of 2017’s hottest new acts, including The Japanese House, Pale Waves and Ben Khan.

Furthermore, like the labels whose artwork he sits beneath, Dirty Hit has cultivated an aesthetic that makes it much more than just another independent record company.

Oborne himself, a rather more emotional fish than the cricket bat-wielding top manager stereotype (“This is like therapy,” he notes at one point, “You should come around once a week”), is clearly a man who cares deeply about what his artists want, even if it’s not necessarily the best thing for his companies’ finances.

His methods, however, undoubtedly work. His Music Week Awards triumph is described as “new territory for me – I’ve never been particularly good at taking praise so it blindsided me in the truest way – I felt humbled by it”.

And, as The 1975’s epic world tour finally comes to an end when they headline Latitude on July 14, he’s already planning their next moves.

“Procrastination is harder than doing something,” he says. “When I wake up, I get out of bed. If the sun’s up, I’m waking up and I do things. I can’t not be doing something. I’m constantly trying to move forward.”

And right now, that involves grabbing a cup of tea, sitting back on the couch and telling Music Week everything about Matthew Healy, duplicitous A&R men and why he’ll never do a streaming exclusive again…

You had a lot of experience managing bands that never quite made it. Did that come in handy when it came to managing one that did?

Absolutely. I learned a lot from that. One Night Only was a really hyped deal. It was crazy. Everyone wanted to sign them. I’ve never been in that position before, and I was influenced by the people I was working alongside about what was the right way to handle it.

What I learned mostly is that a good deal is a deal where everyone walks away feeling respected. A good deal is not a deal where seven people lose and hate you and one person wins and feels great. I learned that the hard way.

And then you had The 1975, which was the opposite of that…

Yeah. I had a very formed idea of how I wanted the band to be worked. I didn’t want to release singles to get a deal with a band of that quality.

That felt mental, to sort of debase what they were doing by trying to get a deal. I wanted to release a series of EPs so we could create a proper build.

We caught people’s attention, but for some reason it always fell apart. It happened three different times. The last person passed on them after we had a rehearsal and a chat [where he said], I want to sign you, I’ll send you an offer tomorrow.

He was trying to call this really famous producer while he was with us. Then the next day he calls and he’s like, I’ve had a think and I’m not going to move forward with it. I just started laughing, and he’s like, Why are you laughing?

I said, Because yesterday you told the band you wanted to sign them, that you were going to send the paperwork, and you started calling fucking producers and shit in front of them.

You made them believe that it was going to happen. Now you’re saying that we need to go away and release a single, and yet you’re a record company.

I remember vividly what I said to him: The thing is, we both know that you know they like Talking Heads. But you think Talking Heads made one album, when I know they made eight.

How do you come back from a frustrating experience like that?

It was very obvious to me that these experiences were actually really damaging to the band individually. As artists, it was almost like we were looking for people to validate what we already knew.

I remember one day just saying to them, Your work will be validated. You don’t need to worry about it. It was weird because, from that day, things started falling into place.

And thank God, because [that deal] would’ve been too early and it wouldn’t have been the right fit. It would’ve been a disaster.

That was the catalyst that made Matthew [Healy] and I decide to put everything into Dirty Hit. So I’m always really philosophical about these things.

Everything happens for a reason, and you make your own luck. As long as every day we’re moving a step forward, over a year, we can travel a long way.

Did you or the band ever come close to giving up?

No, never. It only made my resolve stronger to be honest with you. I can be quite bloody-minded. It only made me more determined to show people what unbelievably special British artists they are.

The label’s not just about The 1975. Did you want to build a label identity, like the classic ‘80s indies did?
Definitely. I always say, We’re not selling music.

What we’re actually selling is our identity. It’s about your company’s culture and how that informs everything. I’ve become quite obsessed with how different elements within my business inform the other elements. How the artists inform me, how my experiences with the artist inform how I engage with my staff. It’s about amplifying what’s already there.

For most people, managing The 1975 would be a full-time job. How difficult is it to balance with running a label as well?

The two things are intrinsically linked and symbiotic. A good manager should understand the label, in the same way that a label should understand the manager.

I know that what we do isn’t the standard, but we have an amazing rhythm. Our goals are all the same. So it doesn’t impact anything in a negative way and, rightly or wrongly, I am always on the side of the artist.

It’s just the way I’m built. I’ve got people around me who I trust implicitly, and who are brilliant. And the artists want to be part of this culture.

We signed an artist the other day. She didn’t meet with another label, she already knew she wanted to sign. When I started the label it was really important to me that the artists knew that I think royalty deals are fucked.

I haven’t done a record deal in 10 years because the numbers don’t add up. So all of our deals are 50/50 profit splits. Some people might think I’m too much of an idealist. But I want it to be a partnership.

Is there ever a conflict of interest when you’re the label and manager for an act?

I have a very deep, special relationship with The 1975. That’s been created over a decade. I hope the other artists aspire to that as well.

I couldn’t manage too many things because I’m quite emotionally invested in this. I take my ethical duty as a manager and my emotional commitment to people really seriously.

I’ve been offered some really big managing gigs, but it’s a people thing. I need to connect with someone, share ideas and feel like it’s a relationship of mutual respect. I don’t think anyone sees a problem with it, because I don’t really manage that many people.

Is it difficult to manage someone you’re that close to?

No, it’s easy. They know I am the only person who’s going to tell them the truth. And I am pretty sure they look to me for that. It’s a very special relationship, it’s been nurtured for many years.

Within that relationship, we’ve had personal things happen that have brought us closer. It’s not just work. It’s our lives.

What happens if you disagree about something?

We have a rule, Matthew and I. We have, like, a code word. If one of us feels super strongly about something, to the point where we have to say that to each other, then that thing has to be left alone.

If it doesn’t feel like what The 1975 would do, then it’s gone. But we don’t argue about anything. I love him. I mean, I really do. My wife says he’s my other wife.

What’s your general management philosophy?

It’s the same, whether it’s label or management. It’s to empower artists, to amplify them, to try and keep in mind at all times what their vision is for the project.

If we execute that, that is us being successful. Money aside, success is staying true to their vision and giving them a career.

Are there different challenges for you as a manager and you as a label head?

Well, I’m sleeping good! But the challenges are the same. Most people see them from two different vantage points, whereas we have a better overview.

I definitely believe in this [streaming] model. If you’re Universal, Warner or Sony with your massive catalogues, that’s suddenly monetised. For independents, the upward curve is maybe not quite as steep.

I don’t have tens of millions of pounds coming in every month because of my catalogue, offsetting my mistakes. So we do have to be more cautious. But I’m optimistic, based on the artists alone.

Why did you choose to do an Apple Music streaming exclusive on The 1975’s second album?

The 1975 are a band that broke over the internet, which is a global market. I wanted a launch event that was global in order to position the band as a global artist.

It’s very unusual that you have a band of that size that’s never been on a TV show in the UK, never been on the front of a magazine. They’d never even had much press at that point.

They hadn’t had a radio hit in America but, at that point, we were already half a million records deep. So I wanted an event that demonstrated the scale of what we’d built today.

And doing it with Zane [Lowe] and the [Apple/Beats 1] team just felt like a natural fit. In truth, I would rather have not windowed it at all, because I don’t think it’s a good consumer choice.

But the objective was to have a No.1 record in America and the UK at the same time, and that was achieved. I do think that rooftop gig in LA was a contributing factor to that, and I’ll always be grateful to them for their support.

Would you do it again?

I would never window a record again, no. Because I don’t think a lack of consumer choices is ever a good experience. It was a moment in time. The market’s changed so much, even in the last 18 months. Spotify were incredibly gracious.

We had had conversations about doing something with them. It was just about doing something that was available at that point.

If The 1975 become the biggest band in the world does that mean Dirty Hit can become the biggest indie label in the world?

I hope so. I would be lying if I said otherwise. I’m not the type to have 50 management clients, it’s not my vibe. But with the label, I want to be independent but I want it to be a business of scale.

I want it to break artists. I feel like I’m always living in the future. I’m never really living in the moment. When I was at the BRITs I was thinking about our American tour.

I’m always looking six, 12, 18 months ahead, making sure that the road is properly surfaced so that, when we get there, the surface is smooth.

That’s great for people’s careers, if not great for my mental health! Ultimately, I just want to build a big, secure, artist-friendly label, that people want to be part of.

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