interviews

Lauren Laverne - The Music Week Interview

Synonymous with both BBC Radio 6 Music and the corporation’s television coverage of Glastonbury, Lauren Laverne is gearing up for her busiest month of the year, which comes hot on the heels of her latest Music Week Awards win. To ...

'Kids can't afford to get into shows': Yungblud on BludFest & changing the live industry

On August 11, Yungblud intends to send shockwaves through the music business with the launch of his own festival, BludFest. The event is billed as a righteous alternative to rising ticket prices and homogeneous line-ups, and the chart-topping rocker believes it can change the live sector. Furthermore, he doesn’t mind one bit about ruffling feathers in the process. To lift the lid on the whole shebang, Music Week meets the wild-eyed star, alongside Special Projects and AEG Presents UK, to discuss his masterplan and hear how the industry can treat artists and fans with the respect they deserve… WORDS: JAMES HANLEY     PHOTOS: TOM PALLANT Aged just 26, Yungblud may be about to shake up the live music business. The Gen Z icon – real name Dom Harrison – has injected his own special kind of chaos into a festival scene ripe for disruption, devising his very own “affordable” one-day event, BludFest.    “I was home towards the end of last year; we’d come back from Asia and I was looking at myself, going, ‘What is the next logical step for me?’” recalls Harrison. “I’d had the idea of BludFest for three years and my head just went, ‘We’re going to do that.’” Harrison will headline its first edition on August 11. Set for Milton Keynes Bowl, the event promises to be unlike anything that has gone before it. Railing against overpriced tickets and unrepresentative line-ups, Harrison has capped admission at £49.50 (excluding fees), while hand-picking a genre-diverse supporting cast led by Lil Yachty, Soft Play, The Damned, Nessa Barrett, Lola Young and Jazmin Bean. Days after our interview, the bill for its second stage is revealed, featuring Noahfinnce, Jesse Jo Stark, Landon Barker, Hannah Grae and Aziya. “I was sick of being told, ‘You can’t do that, it’s just the way it is,’” sighs Harrison. “We were playing 6,000 to 7,000-seat amphitheatres in America [last summer] but 500 seats would be completely empty because they were $200 a ticket. I’d have 1,000 kids outside the venue who couldn’t afford to come in and I was like, ‘Something’s got to change here.’” The warm-hearted Yorkshireman is in supremely sociable and sweary form taking time out from rehearsals in London ahead of a pre-festival season tour of the Baltics for an unfiltered hour-long sit down with Music Week. Dressed all in black, complete with a hat bearing Yungblud’s trademark skull and crossbones logo, he wastes no time in ruffling feathers. “I see the price of big artists at the minute and I think it’s bullshit,” he laments. “[The Cure’s] Robert Smith was a massive inspiration last year, because he called it out in America, and I was like, ‘Right, sick, I’m doing it.’ A lot of the fucking industry don’t really like us. A lot of the critics in the UK don’t really like me. My fanbase is all I’ve got and we get each other, so all I want to do is put them first. And I want to fucking play to them.” Signed to Polydor in the UK, Harrison already has multiple tours and two No.1 albums under his belt – 2020’s Weird! (which has 127,232 sales to date, according to the Official Charts Company) and 2022’s Yungblud (51,184). Allied to his openness on heavy topics such as mental health and sexual assault, he has built up a 14.5 million-strong social media following (not to mention 7.6 million monthly Spotify listeners) powered by his Black Hearts Club army of superfans. Yungblud’s manager Tommas Arnby, discusses how Harrison has been able to inspire such devotion.  “By giving him space to express himself unapologetically, without filtering and encouraging him to just be completely ‘authentic’, I think he became a torchbearer not just for alternative music, but also for the fact that you can have that connection with a community that goes both ways,” says Arnby. “He always says that Yungblud is 50% him and 50% them, which I think is beautiful, and he lives by that. It’s not just something he throws out there to get engagement, he truly stands by it.” Faithful to that community ethos, BludFest will feature a Make A Friend tent alongside free photo booths, as well as designated safe spaces and welfare areas. A Yungblud museum will showcase artefacts from across Harrison’s career while, in a further quirky addition, one of the festival bars is being remodelled to emulate his favourite pub, Camden’s The Hawley Arms, complete with its own branded burger.  “I have these mad ideas when I wake up in the middle of the night, and I’ve got a team that’s mad enough to fucking go with me,” shares Harrison. “I was like, ‘The community is massive. It’s global. It’s fucking huge, so let’s put it in one place and really make a statement.’” The Doncaster-born musician, who launched the festival in March with an impromptu gig in Camden Market, is buzzing for the big day. “I’m really lucky to have a fanbase that will follow me and allow me to do shit like this,” he says. “I’m not really feeling pressure; it’s a lot of fun and we’re doing it for the right reason.”  If Team Yungblud held any reservations about the wisdom of BludFest, the way Harrison put the news into the public domain ensured there was no turning back. “I told the guys about it at the end of November, and then I went on the red carpet at an awards show and basically said, ‘I’m starting my own festival,’” smiles Harrison. “That forced my managers into being like, ‘Oh fuck, we’ve got to do it now!’” Arnby recalls the incident vividly with a chuckle.  “I think he was chatting to Louis Tomlinson and then a journalist got in the mix and [Harrison] said, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m starting my own festival next,’” grins the manager, who insists he was always fully on board with the plan.  “It’s something we’d obviously talked about and have been totally aligned on,” adds the Dane. “We have a [range] of verticals: the festival is one; he’s got his first book for young adults with Penguin coming in August; there’s a lifestyle brand; there’s acting; there’s a long-form documentary... So it’s not about him convincing us, it’s more about, ‘When are we doing it?’ His ideas are so prolific.” After declaring that BludFest would be a festival “that cuts the corporate bollocks”, Harrison faced allegations of hypocrisy when it emerged he had partnered on the event with global promoter AEG Presents UK. He hit back ina TikTok video, stressing he was “barely breaking even” from the event.  Referencing the backlash, he tells Music Week: “As I said in my statement at the time, if you want to change a corporate industry, you’ve got to change it from within. You can’t just sit in the pub and be like, ‘Fuck the system, man,’ because that gets nothing done.” In case you hadn’t realised, Harrison is not one to sit around… “Any time you try and pop your head above the fucking trench, you’re going to get fucking shot at, you know what I mean?” he continues. “It used to affect me, but I’ve now got to this point where it’s like I’m a punchbag for people and I’m into that, because at least they’re feeling something. Any sort of feeling towards this brand, they’re welcome, because that’s the whole point of it.” Harrison’s primary point of contact on the AEG front has been the company’s SVP, promoting division, Lee Laborde.  “Dom took care of the biggest challenge and that was the vision,” reflects Laborde. “When you work with an artist who knows himself and his audience so clearly, it becomes a relatively easy process. We’re starting a festival from scratch, but the ethos and community have been there for years already.” Laborde predicts that more and more artists may take the lead on festivals – immersing their fanbase into their worlds. “A great example is what Tyler, The Creator has done with Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival – it’s the standard bearer, really,” he observes.  On the ticket price, Adam Wood, who is part of Yungblud’s management team, speaks of Harrison’s determination to lower the barrier to entry (the singer previously arranged to sell tickets for his 2023 US tour for $20).  “Dom identified a problem, which was that the price of tickets – combined with the cost-of-living crisis – means that certain kids aren’t being allowed the experiences that we were,” says Wood. “So he took this idea to Lee, and Lee said, ‘The finances don’t work.’ And Dom was like, ‘Well, we need to make them work…’”  Laborde confirms that Harrison’s commitment to keeping the cost of entry as low as possible was clear from the get-go. “It’s something we worked really closely on and I believe we got it to a level where he was happy, and for me that’s a big win,” he says.  From AEG’s point of view, the relationship has been nothing but positive.  “It’s always exciting to work with creative people who want to find different ways of engaging with their fanbase,” says AEG Presents UK CEO Steve Homer. “Yungblud is focused on delivering fan experiences that reflect their shared enjoyment of his music.” Indeed, contrary to what some people may think, Harrison is very much the master of his own destiny. “A lot of people don’t believe that it comes out of my head, or think this has been a whole masterplan from some other entity, but I hate to disappoint you,” offers Harrison. “It’s just fucking ADHD, Dr Pepper, coffee and no sleep that gets this shit going.” With that, Music Week delves further into Harrison’s plans for BludFest, shaking up the status quo and exactly how he arrived at that price point…  In terms of ticket sales, is there a figure in mind that will make BludFest a success? Or is it not about that? “To be brutally honest, it’s a 10-year project and it’s been completely overwhelming. We were going to do it at Warwick Castle, but we would have sold that out on presale. We did the Bowl because it can hold between 25,000 and 70,000, so the next 10 years are going to probably get us to that 70,000 mark. I’m really happy with the way tickets have gone; it’s going to be mobbed and the biggest show we’ve played. It’ll be a celebration of the past five years of this thing: from playing to 300 people in Dingwalls in Camden to Milton Keynes Bowl at nearly 30,000.” Do you have a genuine sense that BludFest is upsetting the status quo in the industry? “This is what I’ve wanted to do for my whole career: I want to change things and this is me putting my money where my mouth is. I took a fucking risk and I could have burnt a lot of bridges, but I always wanted to do it respectfully and say, ‘Listen, you’ve got to look at what people’s reality is right now.’ I don’t want people to ever think it’s just me being like, ‘Fuck you for fuck you’s sake.’ It’s never that; it’s always in the name of a better idea.”  You’ve described the idea as “poking the bear”. Did you expect it to rub certain people the wrong way? “It should piss promoters off! It should piss an industry off that has been taking the piss for a while. Everything I do pisses people off, so I was pretty geared up for it. I knew that Fred Perry dads would have a problem with it – they always do – and I’m into it. I think they should all come. I think they’ll have a really good time.”  But could some of that rhetoric see you talk yourself out of getting booked for major festivals in the future? “If I am, I am; that’s just the way it is. I never lead out of fear. If you lead out of fear in music, you get left behind. If you wait for an opportunity that may never come, you’re going to be waiting a long time. My vibeis to uplift young artists, to bring people together, let them make memories and have a really good time. If people can’t see I’m trying to do it from a place of love, that’s when I’ve got a problem with them.” What do you want the ultimate outcome to be?  “At the end of the day, all that matters to me is did people have the best fucking time? I don’t care how much money we spend. I don’t care how much money we lose. I don’t care how many people turn up. Did the people there have the fucking best time ever and make insane memories? That’s it for me. When BludFest comes around, it’s going to be like, ‘Look what we created here.’ Not me, all of us: look what my team did, look what my fanbase did, look what we all did. I’ve been playing with my drummer since I was 14, with my guitar tech since I was 10. It’s a fucking family affair, and it’s going to be the biggest family affair anyone’s ever seen.” Are there plans for beyond this year? “We’re talking about taking it to America and Australia. I’m going to try and reach out to The Smashing Pumpkins or The Cure for next year, then the plan is to take it to America in the middle of the year. That looks like it’s happening. I want it to be this constant thing that people can come to every year and for it to be affordable, to show that music is for everyone. At the minute, it’s not; it’s becoming inaccessible and that’s bullshit.” You already know Robert Smith, right? “Oh I love Robert Smith, man. I met him at the [2020] NME Awards. Seeing him at the table I was like, ‘Fucking hell.’ I took my mum as my date to the NME Awards, and we sat at the table and I went, ‘Where the fuck’s my mum gone?’ She’s over in the corner talking to Robert Smith. So I run over and say, ‘Hello, Mum, whatare you doing? Hello, Robert.’ He’s like, ‘Hello, you’re a Doncaster boy, aren’t you?’ Some of his family were from Doncaster. At the start of Tissues, we sampled Close To Me. I emailed him for the clearance and he emailed back, saying, ‘I love what you’re doing.’ And Robert Smith types emails in all capital letters – he shouted at me!” Going back to this year’s line-up, was representation a key concern?  “It was massively important for me, from genre, to race, to gender. It was literally just like, ‘This is what we’ve got to do.’ It couldn’t be like, ‘Oh, it’ll be alright, we’ll get better next year.’ I’m like, ‘No, set a precedent in the first year – go.’”  We’ve seen more than 40 festival cancellations in the UK this year. Does the future of the sector worry you?  “And in Australia with Splendour In The Grass – it’s everywhere. Again, it’s by not realising the current climate of the world we’re living in. Don’t be blind to what is going on. The world changes and people haven’t got a lot of money right now. Offer something that is a reality to their lifestyle, as opposed to saying, ‘We’ve charged £250 for the past 10 years, why have tickets not sold as well this year?’” How did you settle on the ticket price for BludFest? “I just said, ‘11 bands for £49.50.’ Everyone was like, ‘£60? £55?’ [I said], ‘No, £49.50, that’s it.’ I was like, ‘Milton Keynes Bowl, Yungblud, 11 bands, £49.50.’ Getting people on board with the price and convincing them it’s coming from a real place [have been the hardest aspects]. And sleep – I’ve not fucking slept since [launching].”  So can BludFest change the business? “It’s definitely going to incite something. I think it already has, and the fact that America wants it is pretty big. My agent, [CAA’s] Paul Franklin, has been incredible at facilitating every mad idea or telling me if it’s too mad. But I called him and he was like, ‘No, I don’t think it’s too mad, it’s exciting.’ It’s about positive change and giving power back to the artists. If you look at Raye talking about songwriters, or me putting on my own festival, as long as enough people follow you into the fucking breach, then it will change.” Can you give us an idea of how hard it is for musicians now?  “I don’t really make money from my music. I have to go on tour and sell merch. That’s how I can eat. The fanbase, I owe them everything. That’s why I never take them for granted. I look at some of the labels; everyone’s talking and then I put my two cents in and go, ‘You’re forgetting about one fucking thing – the fans.’ If I start a label and get an office, I’m going to paint it on everyone’s desk or make sure everyone gets it tattooed on their arm. Everything should serve your community and that’s how you should make your decisions, as opposed to cashing in. For my brand, everything’s got to have my eyes on it and my tone of voice. One wrong move can make the whole thing come crashing down because it has to be from a place of authenticity and respect.”   So how can the industry lift up artists better? “If major labels in the UK did nights in independent venues – not just in London, but in Manchester, in Birmingham – they would find better acts to sign. They would lead less off the algorithm and more off what real people want. My plan in the future – and you can put this in print so I can hold myself to it – is to start a record company that has these things in mind, because my favourite times, where I learned so much about Yungblud and the people coming to my shows, were in 50 to 200-cap shows.” How do you see the picture for small venues at the moment? “I love grassroots venues, that’s where I get a fucking kick. That’s where I found fans, I still go to the Sebright Arms on a Friday night to see what the fuck’s happening. They’re your learning grounds, where you find the most connections, friends, your favourite band, where you try your fucking favourite lager. With BludFest, I want to make it a mission to adhere to that and on my next tours, I want to donate a portion of the ticket price [to small venues].” Have you always been interested in the business side? “I love it. The thing that captured my imagination was the Sex Pistols and the way [their history] went hand in hand with Vivienne Westwood. I always see it like this, if this doorway is success, every fucker at a club is waiting at the door to get in, right? So you either wait there or you hop the fence and come in from another side.” Has the industry chatter about superfans come onto your radar?  “I roll my eyes when I hear that shit. It’s funny when terminology comes into fucking play. I’m like, ‘You’re late.’ Bottom line is, speak the truth. Love your fucking fanbase. Try your best and listen to them and it’ll be fine. So it’s so funny when I end up on a mood board in a corporate building where they’re saying, ‘This is how it should be done.’ And it’s like, ‘No! Because it doesn’t work like that for every artist.’ You couldn’t put my method onto fucking Harry Styles, he’d go bankrupt. I’m on a different mission. I didn’t get here through a talent show or a hit record, I got here by meeting person-to-person. I can’t just rely on the label, the machine, to do it for me. I have to fight for every monthly listener and fan against the world. It’s always a battle, but as long as I’m with them it’s lit.” To shift focus for a moment, you’ve spoken out about topics such as ADHD and sexual assault – why was that so important, and how has that affected you? “It’s all been pretty liberating for me. When I put Parents out, everyone was like, ‘Don’t do that, that lyric’s mental.’ No radio station wanted to play it and the label thought it was too out there, but all my mates were talking about it and that’s what I’m led by. [Trigger warning] I got fucking sexually assaulted by a doctor. I got repressed in that environment. That’s what actually happened, so why not sing about it? Because that’s my story. You don’t know what song is going to define you – you just don’t – that’s not up to you, so just put it out. I might never have a big song again, but I know that Funeral, Parents, Lowlife, Polygraph Eyes, I Love You, Will You Marry Me, up to now, have defined what you think of when you listen to Yungblud. I want this next bit to define me, but it might not. You just don’t know.” There have also been numerous high-profile instances recently of artists cancelling tours citing mental health issues, from Sam Fender and Arlo Parks to Lewis Capaldi. How do you view that situation? “Lewis is a good mate. He’s just a fucking dude from Scotland who’s a really nice guy. He’s funny as fuck and writes songs. It’s mental pressure, but I love that guy and he is what he says on the tin, in the same way that I am. It’s hard being on the internet, and the craziest thing about being ‘successful’ – whatever that means now – is that you have opinion in real time. Can you imagine if Pink Floyd had that while putting The Dark Side Of The Moon out? They probably wouldn’t have fucking done it. They didn’t have the whole world on their phone going, ‘You’re sick, you’re shit, you’re fake, you’re a liar, you’re dope, I hate you, I love you, my sister loves you, blah, blah, blah.’ People love you or hate you, and it’s really hard to deal with because you become fucking ketchup. It’s like, ‘You fucking love ketchup on your bacon sarnie or you fucking hate it.’ Once I’d got that into my head, it was like, ‘This is just the way it’s meant to be.’” What’s your own relationship with social media like these days?  “I wouldn’t have made it without it. Everyone in a position of power turned their nose up at me, and all that mattered was the people and me being able to have a platform. But also, it’s damaged me more than anything in my life. It’s made me afraid to go outside or to the pub sometimes, because those people who were so savage about me could be in that bar. So it’s pretty dark, but it’s also beautiful. You live by the sword, you die by the sword. It’s coming to terms with the fact that people will like me and people will not, and that is not in my control.”  How will the next Yungblud era look? “This next album is the most ambitious I’ve ever been, I’m taking the biggest swing of my career. It’s music that makes us all feel invincible and it’s the light. I’ve sung about darkness, depression and anger for so long, it’s why I stopped myself after Lowlife and Hated. I was like, ‘These songs are sick, but I’m repeating myself, stop.’ I want to sing about having a good time. Is it reinventing the wheel? No, it’s just fucking good rock and roll music that I grew up on. And if it all blows up in my face, sick, but I don’t think it will, because it’s the deepest shit I’ve ever felt. It’s the first time I’ve ever surrendered myself to the universe. Instead of writing with my head, I’ve written with my gut.” Finally, are there any misconceptions about you that you’d like to clear up? “I feel like a lot of people don’t think I’m real. A lot of people think I’ve had everything handed to me for some weird reason. But I’ve just got to do my thing, with truth, for as long as I fucking can. This is probably the most unhinged I’m ever going to be because I’m the most exhausted I’ve ever been. I don’t think about the consequences because if it all ends now, we did something massive that people will talk about in years to come. Everything else is extra.”

Orfium CEO Rob Wells talks global expansion, TikTok & tracking royalties from user-generated content

As an ex-UMG president of global digital business, Rob Wells played a key role in the industry’s move to streaming. In 2017, the LA-based exec joined Orfium, which tracks music use for rights holders. Here, he tackles big data, the benefits of AI and maximising income from TikTok... How does Orfium cope with the sheer scale of data for music rights management? “It’s definitely a challenge. You get delivered vast reports from the big UGC platforms, such as YouTube and Facebook, with petabytes of information. Even on a monthly basis, there are millions and millions of lines of information that need to be processed, so it needs heavyweight tech. Once you commit to delivering a solution for the rights owner, the broadcast sector or a [collection] society, then you have to stay on the bleeding edge and reinvest.” Is AI tech helping that data processing? “It’s interesting that the industry is very focused on generative AI. Very little has been written about the beneficial impact of these new technologies, whether it’s LLMs [Large Language Models], machine learning, neural networks or any AI-based tech. We’re finding a lot of money for rights owners, broadcasters and collection societies by using AI tech, and that’s to the huge benefit of the industry, the songwriters and the artist community. So there is another side to the fearmongering that you get with generative AI.”  What did the acquisition of music reporting and audio recognition company Soundmouse last year mean for Orfium? “The core business prior to the acquisition was always focused on rights owners, for which there’s the three big companies and a long tail of independents. The breadth of the client base we brought in with the Soundmouse acquisition is huge – there are thousands of clients, including PRS, the BBC and Sky, and small production houses in far flung corners of the world. As well as the customer base and executive team, the other reason for the acquisition was data. Everything we build at Orfium is based on machine learning algorithms – it’s predominantly AI-based and those machines need to be fed.” One of the technologies that we have can recognise compositions, whether they’ve been sped up or slowed down or as cover versions Rob Wells How are you expanding internationally? “What we’ve done in the last 12 months is really profile the growth in Japan – we’ve announced a lot of deals. Japan for us is a jumping-off point for other markets in Asia. Indonesia is huge, India is the second fastest growing market for YouTube – the volume of use on that platform in India is vast. We like the look of Latin America and providing solutions in that region as well. We’ve grown significantly but we’re also crossing over into other sectors. Our Bandai Namco deal in Japan covers anime [music] repertoire. There’s expansion across platforms, new technologies and products, so there are lots of growth vectors for us.” With UMG settling its licensing dispute with TikTok, do you think the wider industry can now maximise income from such platforms? “I hope so. If you look back, YouTube was the bogeyman once. To be fair, they’ve invested in the back end and content ID is very robust. They’re now seen as a huge partner and for a lot of markets they’re the industry leader from a revenue perspective. What the industry needs to try and do is move TikTok and Meta into that sphere and demonstrate the true value from the music being consumed on those platforms.” How effective is Orfium at tracking both the song composition and recording? “This is an essential part of what we do. One of the technologies that we have can recognise compositions, whether they’ve been sped up or slowed down or as cover versions. It is pretty critical that you can separate the recording from the composition, especially on UGC-based platforms. We do that on behalf of all the major publishers and independent publishers as well.” Finally, given your previous role in digital at UMG, has it played out how you imagined? “No, it’s been way better than I thought it was going to be [laughs]. I was in the chair at Universal during the formative years. There was the first conversation with Spotify and we did renegotiations. We closed the iTunes deal in the UK back in 2002. I’ve always been aware of the impact that technology can have. But I couldn’t have forecast the scale and pace of change, and how it has impacted the entire industry.”  

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