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'It really felt like a natural fit': YM&U talks UK and US connection

There’s a moment in DJ/producer Steve Aoki’s 2016 I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead documentary that always reminds Matt Colon of how far things have moved on since his Deckstar management company joined the YM&U revolution. “There’s a line in the trailer where Steve says. ‘I’m 35 years old, I don’t want to waste any more time’,” chuckles Colon, boss of YM&U’s Los Angles-based US music division. “By the time the documentary actually came out, he was 39.” By way of contrast, a forthcoming documentary for one of his other clients was conceived, financed, shot and shopped within six months, as Colon leveraged the power of YM&U’s other divisions to get things moving. “That’s a good example of how we can take an idea from a client who wants to do a project outside of music and fast-forward the entire production and execution process,” he tells Music Week. “It’s easy when you have all those resources in-house.” Colon founded Deckstar in 2007, initially to manage DJs, but expanded into rock with heavyweight clients such as Blink-182, Bush and Rancid. Deckstar was acquired by the James Grant Group in 2017, but it wasn’t until Iain Watt and Machine came on board last year that the US-UK connection really started bearing fruit. “It was like hitting the lottery,” says Colon. “With Iain and his team, it really felt like a natural fit.” Transatlantic success stories so far include James Arthur, whose US career has finally taken off with the help of some on-the-ground assistance, and The Interrupters, US ska punks who are cracking the UK with local support from Take That manager Chris Dempsey. “Everyone will say you can work from anywhere these days, manage an act in Paris from Bali if you want to,” says Colon. “But just because you want to do something, doesn’t mean you should. I’ve seen a bear ride a tricycle, it doesn’t mean it should! There’s something to be said for physically being present in the place. I wish I could tell you why it makes such a difference, but it really does.” With the addition of Steve Rifkind’s Loud group last month, YM&U now has a roster that encompasses rock, pop, dance and hip-hop. “Technically, we’re the largest management company in the world in terms of size of staff and roster,” says Colon. “But it would be disingenuous to say we’re the biggest, because we’re still figuring it out in terms of all these companies coming together.” Colon, however, is confident YM&U will get there. “I don’t have any delusions that it’s an overnight process,” he says. “But we will truly manage clients across all sectors and territories in a well-oiled fashion. My hope is that we grow, but my real hope is that the synergies of being one big entity start to show themselves.”

Watt's the story: The Music Week Interview - Iain Watt

He’s the East End boy gone up West in search of fame, fortune and international success. A fresh talent, who helped a small team punch above its weight, and is now trusted with taking an outfit full of Galacticos to the top. Yes, Frank Lampard has a lot on his plate as he steps up from Derby County to manage Chelsea. And so does Chelsea fanatic Iain Watt, who sold his Machine Management firm to the James Grant Group in September last year, and has now moved from Machine’s Hackney office to head up the music division for the company, now rebranded as YM&U, in its shiny Tottenham Court Road HQ. YM&U – an amalgamation of interests across film, TV, sport, comedy and theatre as well as music – even has Lampard as a client, suggesting they’ve cornered the market in hungry young managers ready and willing to take on the biggest challenges. “I don’t think we have a Russian boss,” chuckles Watt, as he heads back out east to sip coffee in Hoxton’s Nobu Hotel. “Other than that, I guess the similarities with Frank are there… We were an independent management company of 15 people in East London, now I’m running the music division of a company that has 300 employees. It’s quite a leap.” But then Watt is used to stepping into the unknown. His has been an unusual journey to the top of the management tree. He started off in PR at AbFab-inspiration Lynne Franks PR and also worked at ’90s publicity behemoth Freud Communications, trying to keep Chris Evans under control during his Radio 1 pomp. He then joined agency KLP, which pioneered the music branding deal via hook-ups between Virgin and V Festival and Reading & Leeds and Carling. After spending “a year on the road drinking whisky” with The Prodigy after brokering a tour sponsorship with Ballantine’s, he went back into PR as head of press at the Rob Stringer-inspired Epic Records. Then he had a crack at short-lived internet media start-up Switch2, before joining TV production company Done & Dusted. While there, he looked after Keith Flint’s solo career as part of D&D’s fledgling management operation, before deciding to go out on his own “at my kitchen table, with my laptop, and one producer-DJ client” (Tom Middleton). Machine grew and grew, masterminding Mika’s huge late-Noughties success, helping Clean Bandit conquer streaming and, with Music Week Women In Music 2016 Rising Star winner Martha Kinn at the helm, assisting Years & Years in becoming pop sensations. But Watt was frustrated in his attempts to expand the operation internationally (an experiment with an LA office stalled) and in his efforts to secure big global clients when they became available, as well as being distracted by the amount of time he had to spend on office management rather than artist management. Watt realised Machine needed investment to take the next step up and the bid from what was then the James Grant Group arrived at just the right time. As steps up go, however, YM&U represents a big one. Its TV division essentially owns British light entertainment, with the likes of Ant & Dec, Holly Willoughby, Amanda Holden, Davina McCall and Phillip Schofield as clients. In the acting world, it reps Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Jamie Dornan, Karen Gillan, Keeley Hawes, Richard Madden and Ruth Wilson, and wants its music division to be every bit as ubiquitous. It’s off to a good start, having already amalgamated the likes of 10 Management (Take That), Hall Or Nothing (Manic Street Preachers) and Deckstar (Steve Aoki) under the YM&U umbrella. Such super-management outfits have occasionally struggled in the past but Watt is confident this one, pulling together the diverse talents of managers such as Matt Colon, Chris Dempsey, Martin Hall and Watt’s own Machine team of Kinn, Sophie Bloggs and Phil Morias, is already onto a winner. Just so long as he can get the outside world to understand what they’re trying to do… “When you sit down with people and say, ‘I ran Machine Management and I’ve been bought by James Grant Group, but it’s not called James Grant anymore, it’s called YM&U and then there’s Hall Or Nothing and Deckstar in America… People go, ‘What are you talking about?’” he chuckles. “It’s confusing.” Time then, for Watt to order some brightly coloured macaroons, sit down with Music Week and explain exactly why YM&U’s name-changer is such a game-changer for the world of artist management… What are the advantages of being part of YM&U as opposed to having your own company? “Before, if one of our artists was offered a potential film or TV, in terms of our immediate field of expertise we needed a little bit of help. Now, we have that expertise in-house, we can go downstairs and make sure we’re making the absolute best decisions for our artists and clients. We now have the significant resources that we wanted. We have a digital team, a streaming person, a brands person and we have the LA team… It’s like being a kid in a sweet shop. You’ve got all the stuff you were saving up for for weeks and weeks.” How has it been adjusting to a more corporate environment? “When we first got in here, it was a change but I worked at Sony Music. That corporate muscle in my brain that hadn’t been used for a long time, it was weak but it came back! I just had to get that muscle match fit again.” As MD, are you still able to do hands-on, day-to-day management of your artists? “We have teams on every single act that we represent. But it’s really important; as the head of the company, you have to be in the game. If you lose that connection between the artists and the people you represent, things move so quickly in the music business, it’s hard to give creative and strategic advice if you’re not aware of what’s happening on the ground and the things you need to do to take an artist from A to B. Am I managing every single act on my roster? Definitely not. But it’s really important that you maintain your relationship with at least one or two. People like Martha, Sophie, Phil and Chris are brilliant at what they do, they all operate in slightly different areas and have different areas of expertise. And that blend is really helpful to me.” How will you convince the outside world that this is the right way forward? “There’s nothing more soothing than a hit for people to understand what you’re doing. We’re clear on what we need to do and we’re super-focused on delivering as much success as we can. Everyone in the music business just wants to have as many hits as they can and be as successful as possible. They might not be so obvious as to say it, but ultimately record companies want more tracks to be streamed and promoters want more tickets to be sold. When you have the opportunity to sit down and explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, people are like, ‘Oh OK, that sounds great’. Because it means there’s more opportunity to deliver success for their tour, record sales, streaming, whatever it is. If they’re in business with us, the opportunity for success is increased.” How does it work with the US office? “When I joined, one of the key things was working out how we join up with the US company. Matt [Colon,] who runs the US division was totally on the same page. We spent a lot of time out there working out how we work together, how we structure things together. For key clients that have a chance to be successful in both countries, they have a lead in the UK but also a team member or two in America and vice versa. We’re also building out our team in LA. We have three people there who are effectively our people. I used to go to LA a lot and be in the room with an A&R person who’d be saying, ‘Justin Bieber’s writing camp finished last week, it would have been great to have Jack [Patterson] from Clean Bandit in there’. Now Melissa [Sabo, head of A&R] is doing the hustle on the ground in LA and she’s coming to us with opportunities.” Are you looking to take on more acts? “Yeah. If there was a big global artist on the market, Machine probably wouldn’t have been on the list [of possible management companies]. But now, people in the legal and label community have that real understanding of our joined-up global thinking, and they’re going to say, ‘We should put these YM&U guys on the list’. Then it’s down to us doing the best possible pitch and getting on with the artist to see if we can get it over the line. With the advent of streaming and global releases, you can’t have that very narrow geographical thinking.” You’ll still be up against some very big companies though. Why should they choose you? “From an expertise and resources point of view, we’re probably more equipped than any of them. If you list big US companies, they might have an amazing US office, but they don’t have the 25 people in the UK that we have. There are some brilliant UK management companies that may have offices in LA, but there aren’t 40 people in those offices that are focused on music. And then you add on, when a film opportunity comes in, we’ve got the best film team in London; if there’s a TV opportunity, we have that expertise in house. We’re building this house and, if we break an act significantly, or bring in a global client and prove this works, then we’re totally in the game. We’re six months in and the next year or two we’re going to have to deliver.” Why is it so hard to break artists nowadays? “There have never been more choices and ways you can connect with an artist. That’s an opportunity but you almost have to be omnipresent in so many different places and people’s attention span, because of all this stuff, is getting shorter and shorter. To be meaningful with your engagement of the audience consistently over a period of time so they actually give a shit is challenging. You need amazing social media, style, editorial content, brilliant visuals and videos on YouTube, you’ve got to be on all the streaming services and you still need press… The scale of what a new artist has to do and the places they need to be compared to how it used to be is a totally different beast. And that’s where management companies come in. Record companies are brilliant when something’s moving. They still have that button marked ‘global priority’ that can get you going in as many different territories as possible. But it would be fair to say the bit they struggle with is development. That is being put more and more on the managers. The artists have got to be multi-disciplined and so has the management company. Then if you’ve got some sparks and a fire going [a label] can hopefully pour some petrol on it.” So do artists still need labels? “They do. When I’ve been going out explaining what we’re doing, the next question people ask is always, ‘Are you going to be a label?’” And are you? “No. Our whole philosophy is to deliver extra scale and resources that enable us to work closer with our label partners to deliver more success. Record companies are everyone’s favourite punchbag. But if your aspiration is to be a globally successful artist, then you need a record company to help you get there. There’s no one better to take you from selling out Shepherd’s Bush Empire to being globally successful. I don’t see anyone else who can do that currently.” Would you ever do a direct licensing deal with, say, Spotify for one of your artists? “Never say never, but Spotify or any streaming service’s expertise is very narrow. They can help you become successful on streaming services but they’re not investing in A&R, marketing, international. Whether that eventually comes or not, I don’t know.” Has the balance of power shifted away from labels nowadays? “We have more leverage as artists and managers. Record companies are being more flexible than they’ve ever been in order to make sure they can feel like the right home for hot new artists or successful artists that might be coming out of a deal and need a new home. If you have a hot artist and a good management team, then that gives you really good leverage with a record company. But our philosophy is not actually about how big the cheque is. If you can do us a deal that is sensible for all parties and are doing interesting things in terms of rights retention, royalty rates… Those things are more meaningful than a bigger advance. No one ever had a career based on advances alone.” Clean Bandit were one of the first new UK acts to actually succeed on streaming. How did that happen? “They’re almost the perfect artist for the streaming paradigm because, while they’re relatively faceless, they make amazing music that’s a weird combination of classical and dance, so it pops out when it’s on a playlist. You look at the streams that they’ve generated and it’s incredibly valuable. When I met them, I knew they were super-talented but I couldn’t have told you they’d turn into the streaming behemoths that they are now. When we did the record deal, Max [Lousada, then Atlantic UK boss] who signed them said exactly the same thing. He said, ‘I don’t know where this is going to go, they’re just really talented people’.” What did you learn in PR that’s been useful in your career as a manager? “It’s stood me in good stead. The thing I learned in PR is, when you have nothing going on with an artist project, people expect the press person to conjure up an opportunity. So you had to be pretty creative to come up with ideas to get shit moving, and to be able to do that has always been a brilliant thing.” You came up in the glory days of the ’90s. What did you pick up from that era? “The ’90s was interesting because that was the last time when what I would call a table-banging, aggressive manager held forth. I’m almost the polar opposite of that. At the end of the ’90s, when the music industry started its recession, people didn’t have time to listen to people like that. People were being sacked left, right and centre, record companies were getting smaller, less money was being invested in artists. If the stressed product manager has two phone calls to make, one manager’s being reasonable and one is shouting, guess what? You’re not going to make the call for the one who’s shouting.” Are you friends with your artists? “We’re friends with all our clients but as a manager there’s always a grey area. The artist has to respect you and you have to respect the artist. If a manager gets too close or goes into the artist bubble a bit too much and loses that line of demarcation, that’s dangerous, because your judgement becomes clouded and you’re not making the right decisions in the interests of your artist’s career. If an artist just wants to hear the word ‘yes’, I’m sure there’s an app for that!” Finally, where do you want YM&U to be in five years’ time? “We want to be the pre-eminent global management company. We want to have proved the concept by having one or two globally successful clients that are managed out of LA and London with a team in both places. We’d love to have a bigger team, be more successful and deliver more hits, but that’s the key. In five years, if we can be really joined-up in our global thinking and have proved it by making one or two artists successful, I’d be over the moon.”

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