In 2017, after virtually the whole industry had turned a blind eye to them, returning pop sensations Steps went the independent route and released Tears On The Dancefloor – their first album of all-new music in 17 years. One gold-selling record and 200,000 arena tour tickets later, they had comprehensively proven their doubters wrong. Now Music Week asks the group, Fascination Management and BMG if their new album What The Future Holds can do it all over again…
There’s a lot of ways for an interview to start, but nothing can quite prepare you for the dizzying experience of an audience with Steps. One by one, they appear on the Zoom screen in a delirious blur of smiles, giddy proclamations and questions. And singing. First to materalise is Faye Tozer, grinning as she serenades Music Week with an impromptu rendition of George Of The Jungle. Next is Claire Richards, who’s quick to relay her hectic morning with her new puppy (“It’s hard work, all the biting of the feet, peeing on the floor and sleepless nights… But I must admit she is very cute!”). Then there’s self-described “Zoom whiz” Lisa Scott-Lee proudly posing in front of her custom neon Steps background while Lee Latchford-Evans shakes his head at how his vanilla wall is letting the side down branding-wise. Last but not least is Ian ‘H’ Watkins, who is grilling Music Week about our living room decor.
“What’s that picture?” he quizzes. “I’m curious!”
It’s been three years since we last spoke to the group and, back then, there was an altogether different question occupying Watkins’ mind.
“Why do you think people care so much!?” was what he asked us, pondering the immense reaction the group had received to their comeback single Scared Of The Dark, and news that their arena tour was selling out with astonishing speed. His confusion was telling and rooted in the failed behind-the-scenes campaign the group had previously conducted to get people involved in their planned comeback. It was Peter Loraine at Fascination Management who first had the brainwave to reach out to them when he realised that 2017 would mark the group’s 20th anniversary and be the perfect time to return with a new album.
“It’s quite funny actually, I sent H a message saying, ‘Are you planning anything for your 20th anniversary?’” recalls Loraine. “And he said, ‘I have no idea, ask Claire!’”
They were soon all onboard. Surely, labels would be scrambling to work with a group boasting such imperious pop credentials such as theirs – attaining a whopping 14 UK Top 10 singles, and three multi-platinum albums and career sales of over 20 million records, not to mention a number of wildly-successful arena tours. Right? Right? Wrong.
“I couldn’t get anybody anywhere to buy into my plan or my belief,” Loraine tells Music Week. “I found that incredibly frustrating. I was like, ‘They’re in the Take That lane here, they’re not in the lane of whoever else you might see on a retro tour’. They toured so phenomenally in their day and sold millions of records. To me, it was, like, ‘This is a really big deal.’”
So it was that Steps and Fascination – completed by Adam Klein, Kirsty Richardson and Sarah Jackson – partnered with Absolute Label Services for their fifth album, Tears On The Dancefloor.
“We were only independent because nobody else wanted us,” laughs Watkins. “The facts are facts. We shopped around every major and every upcoming label and nobody would touch us with a barge pole. We went, ‘OK, if we’re doing this, we’ll do ourselves!’”
The result? Tears On The Dancefloor entered the charts at No.2, only kept off the top spot by Ed Sheeran’s all-conquering ÷. It was the second best-selling independent album of 2017 behind Stormzy’s Gang Signs And Prayer, and has sold 125,940 copies according to OCC data. That alone would be cause for bragging rights, but it was arguably the smallest part Of the comeback: their Party On The Dancefloor tour sold out 22 arenas, shifting over 200,000 tickets in the process. Music Week can’t help but wonder if Steps have enjoyed the bragging rights of proving all the doubters wrong?
“It does feel good,” beams Lisa Scott-Lee. “It’s interesting when the tables are turned and the labels are the ones calling us like, ‘Oh, you wanted a record deal?’”
“They copy our business model now,” adds Watkins. “They’re literally using exactly the same business model that we did, but nobody wanted us!”
The post-TOTD campaign dissection led to some interesting revelations about why things went so well. One theory is that it was because it was a real reunion. “Every time we’ve come together since our initial split, we always said we wouldn’t get together unless it was the original five of us,” reasons Tozer. Another thing everyone in the Steps camp agrees on is this: it was the fact that the group re-emerged with all-new material rather than a nostalgia-fuelled greatest hits package that made all the difference.
“The majority of the music industry doesn't understand Steps: who we are, what we do”
Claire Richards, Steps
And on November 27 we’ll be getting even more new music as the group release their vibrant sixth album What The Future Holds on their new home of BMG. The belief is that the label will take Steps to the next level.
“You can see what they did with Kylie and Rick Astley, and we do fit into that,” says Claire Richards of their new partners. “They get it. There aren’t many people that get it, and that’s quite a sad thing to say. BMG get it. Our agent [Gary Howard, UTA] gets it, our promoter [AEG] gets it, our management gets it. It’s taken us a long time to get this team around us.”
“It felt like there was more to achieve than was physically possible just by ourselves, particularly financially,” says Peter Loraine of their decision to end their DIY approach. “So, with the investment, not only financially, but of the people that work at BMG, suddenly it felt like a couple more really great music brains in the project would help us elevate it to its next level. The calibre of the things that they do, particularly with Kylie, all felt really right. We all learn from each other and, in this case, the more heads and brains on the project, the better. We’ve definitely seen pluses to doing it this way this time round.”
Suffice to say BMG – particularly on the back of delivering Kylie Minogue’s smash hit album Disco – are feeling quite bullish about what they can offer Steps.
“We have an amazing team who work harder and smarter than anyone,” states BMG’s VP A&R Jamie Nelson, oh-so emphatically. “BMG deals are amazing for artists, and we are super-competitive when it comes to delivering our campaigns successfully.”
At the heart of the What The Future Holds campaign is one thing above all else: making sure Steps are well-equipped with ironclad pop bangers. Indeed, Steps proceed to outline the kind of songs people think they want to record that are far, far too cheesy.
“A lot of record labels or even songwriters, they’ll send us demos and they don’t get it, they don’t really get what Steps is about,” says Lee Latchford-Evans.
“You wouldn’t believe some of the songs we get and what people that are asked to write specifically for us come back with, you just wouldn’t even…” says Richards, before exploding with laughter. “It’s like a song you would pitch to the Teletubbies or the Tweenies or something – and I don’t even know if they exist anymore!”
Last time around Steps attracted some big hitters including Fiona Bevan (Ed Sheeran), Ina Wroldsen (Calvin Harris, Britney Spears), Steve Mac (Jess Glynne, Little Mix), TMS (Lewis Capaldi), Carl Ryden (The Saturdays, David Guetta),?and Metrophonic (Cher, Olly Murs), as well as their cover of Story Of A Heart, a song by ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. They did incredibly well to secure such star names.
“A&R-ing 2017’s Tears On The Dancefloor was tricky in many ways,” says Fascination Management’s Adam Klein. “Many of the doors we knocked on were completely shut because people had a certain pre-conceived notion of what Steps were about. The industry didn’t realise how loyal their fanbase were or that there was still an appetite for joyful ‘pure pop’ music out there. Off the back of that album’s success, a new world of publisher, songwriter and producer interest opened up.”
Watkins has a theory that “everyone is a closet Steps fan” and it’s hard to argue with when you consider some of their collaborators. Assuredly, What The Future Holds welcomes back some of the aforementioned star writers, as well as Steps veteran Karl Twigg. This time around, too, Hannah Robinson (Kylie Minogue) is on board, while the album’s title track/launch single was penned by none other than Sia and producer Greg Kurstin (Adele, Foo Fighters). Let the record show that at the mere mention of Sia’s name, Watkins begins a worshipping gesture à la Wayne’s World.
“A couple of years ago, Sia sent a tweet talking about pop in the ’90s and that she was a fan of Steps,” explains Tozer. “Little did we know that there would ever be a song on the table that she’d written and thought was perfect for us. It’s a huge compliment, and it’s a little bit gob-smacking as well!”
“It means everything to us!” says Scott-Lee. “Ev. Ery. Thing. We’re all big Sia fans, she’s such an incredibly talented artist and songwriter. And when we heard the track What The Future Holds, we just thought it was a no-brainer, and that it was going to shape the new album. I feel like it really could take us to another level, it has sealed that we mean business.”
Klein says the song was “consistently one of the most-played tracks at BBC Radio 2 where it stayed on the playlist for five weeks”. Still the biggest part of the campaign is yet to come.
When it comes to Steps, as Gemma Reilly-Hammond, BMG vice president marketing, UK, explains, “physical is clearly king”, with 88,000 of Tears On The Dance Floor’s sales being physical according to the OCC. Unsurprisingly, then, there is something of a royal roll-out of editions in store, with What The Future Holds set to be released on CD, vinyl (plus a limited edition transparent pink edition) and cassette, including a special collector’s box with five separate transparent pink solo cassettes with an intro from each band member.
The goals for the campaign, however, extend far beyond week one physical sales, Reilly-Hammond pointing to an “18-month campaign”. Key territories that will be targeted include Australia, Southeast Asia and Belgium. Another key objective is to build their presence on DSPs.
“Steps continue to produce contemporary music and have a universal audience with
a varying age range,” explains Gemma Reilly-Hammond. “It’s important for us, like we have done successfully with other artists of a similar profile, to establish a foothold at DSPs and grow the audience and streaming business which we are doing well. As well as having an incredible catalogue to build on, we’re working closely with all DSPs to look at profile-based initiatives around the album and have been dropping new music regularly and growing streams and followers since the start of the campaign.”
Klein points to the in-roads they’ve already made with several track placements on New Music Friday and New Music Daily, plus playlist features including A-List Pop on Apple and A Perfect Day on Spotify. The group have also focused on refreshing and promoting the band’s Best Of and Completely Collection playlists on Spotify.
Steps are in the Take That lane, not the one of whoever you might see on a retro tour
Peter Loraine, Fascination Management
So, what does the future hold for What The Future Holds?
“We have noticed from their previous record and looking into data that they are picking up younger fans,” says BMG’s Jamie Nelson. “When Steps originally launched there was a lot of pop music around. In 2020, there is nothing anywhere near what they do, and so they are benefiting from that.”
“I think they’ve already solidified themselves as not just being on the retro trail,” agrees Loraine. “They make new music that’s played on the radio, they still sell concert tickets, they can perform new songs and old songs, they still have a fan base, and it’s a growing fan base. It was interesting on the [Party On The Dancefloor] tour, there were people that were in attendance that were definitely too young to have been to their shows before. That was amazing to see.”
So will 2020 see Steps finally get the respect they deserve?
“They are certainly respected, however, I’m not sure everyone realises what a massive group they are and I think people forget all the hits they have under their belt,” says Reilly-Hammond. “It feels their recent success can still take people a little bit by surprise and this is something we hope to change as the success continues to roll, as we have no doubt it will.”
“For every Steps campaign, we almost need to prove ourselves once again, over and over, as if people have a short-term memory about their history of success,” says Klein. “While it can be irritating, I don’t actually mind as it’s a great challenge which keeps us all motivated.”
As for the group? It doesn’t really matter if people underestimate them...
“We’ve never taken ourselves too seriously, we never tried to be cool,” says Watkins. “We always stayed true to who we were, and who we still are. We’ve always been the ones to laugh at ourselves when people were laughing at us. And we, ultimately, have the last laugh because the stats prove themselves.”
Watkins starts giggling to himself....
“I don’t want that to sound cocky!” he continues. “We’ve never taken ourselves too seriously. We’ve always been in on the joke. That’s the point.”
Without further ado, then, it’s time to dive into the world of the pop titans…
Ahead of your 2017 return, were you scared of becoming ‘a greatest hits group’?
Lisa Scott-Lee: “When we came back, we sat down and said, ‘OK, where would Steps be placed now in the music industry?’ And that’s one of the hardest questions to answer. We definitely had the conversation, ‘We could just be a greatest hits band, go on tour again and sell it off the back catalogue – but do we want to do that?’ And none of us did. Steps fans deserved new music. We wanted to thank them for being so loyal. It would have been easier to say, ‘Let’s roll out the back catalogue,’ but, actually, we made the conscious decision to do something new.”
What The Future Holds seems like it could be a victory lap for Steps. Are you at all nervous about how it will be received?
Claire Richards: “I still have nerves, because it would be arrogant to just expect it to happen [again]. When arrogance sneaks in, you drop the ball and the quality isn’t as good. We all really, really care about what we do, and the quality of what we do. I think the majority of the music industry just doesn’t understand Steps: what we are, who we are, what we do. The perception from the outside is just that we are this novelty act that’s all just for a bit of a laugh, and it’s not a serious thing. Last time around, the record companies didn’t want to know so we did it ourselves. And it was great. We had a massive success with very limited resources and limited funding.”
Given all that success, why did you opt not to self-release this album?
Faye Tozer: “For us it was really important to have a mega machine behind us to take the pressure off business-wise and take it up a level. Worldwide, we can reach further with BMG, and their back catalogue and everybody on the label now just get pop. The deal that we have with them is exactly what we needed and it’s respectful towards us. It all just fell into place. We just feel so grateful to be on their books and have this massive machine behind us.’”
So what was the big lesson from your DIY approach last time around that you’re bringing forward with you?
CR: “One of the main ones was probably knowing that, actually, we do know what we’re talking about. We do know Steps better than anybody else so our input is really valuable. To have that confidence in ourselves is actually really nice, because it means we did have something to do with it. And also the whole financial side of it, I know exactly how much everything costs now. I never did before. I’m always the one going, ‘How much is it? Why are we paying for that?’ I’m constantly asking questions, but probably more last time around because it was all our money and we had a very limited budget. This time, I’m not being quite as, ‘How much are we spending on coffee pods!?’ I’ve learned more in the last four to five years about the music industry than I have in 23. That’s a really good thing. When you’re young, on the road, and you’re all friends having a lovely time, it doesn’t feel like it’s a business, it’s somebody else’s problem to deal with all of that. But it is a business and record companies should teach young artists that. Because again, you hear the same stories about kids who saw a massive injection of fame and all of a sudden it’s gone, and they’ve not been taught how to invest their money properly. Yes, it’s lovely having a chauffeur-driven car every time you go and do TV, but you’re paying for it. Time and time again, it’s the same story. Nobody ever invests their time into teaching young artists that side of it as well, It’s just, ‘Get on the road, do your job!’”
A lot of pop acts from yesteryear rely on nostalgia package tours, yet you’re headlining arenas by yourselves. What did you do differently that worked?
Ian ‘H’ Watkins: “I have a theory about this. It’s because our music was never targeted at the teen market. It was always a lot more sophisticated lyrically and melody-wise, so we always attracted parents. And that’s why they didn’t mind coming to our concerts, whereas our peers, lyrically or musically, [with songs like] C’est La Vie [B*Witched] or Slam Dunk Da Funk [5ive], they never crossed over like we did, and that’s no disrespect to them.”
How big a part in your career revival did Fascination Management have?
LS-L: “I feel that we’ve got the best team around us now that we’ve ever had. It’s taken 23 years to find them. Honestly, I mean it sincerely, it’s taken a long time, but it feels really good. We feel confident moving forward, because we are so strong as a collective with BMG coming on board and giving us that international outreach and support and also Fascination, our beauty team and Halestorm PR and everyone around us. ”
FT: “What’s lovely about Fascination is we feel like they’re partners in the Steps team, rather than people telling us how to do things. They ask us for our creative input all the time. And we feel like it’s wholly our baby these days whereas before, in the early days, it was, ‘You sing this line! You sing that line!’ and everybody was asleep under a table until it was their turn. It’s a completely different process now, and it feels so amazing to be part of such a great team who get it.”
You mentioned the early days just then and it’s no secret pop groups were – and still are – worked extremely hard, often playing twice two shows a day…
CR: “I defy anybody to keep going and going and going for years on end without ever having a break and taking a step away from it without either falling out of love with music or the industry. Or at least just going, ‘God, I need to stop.’ We used to do [two shows a day], and not many people do that anymore. That is a way of just raking in the cash – that’s somebody going, ‘Oh, we can do two shows a day because we only have to pay one venue hire, but we’re making double the money!’ Sometimes it’s not even exhaustion; you get to the point where you think, ‘I’m not in control of my own life, I’m not in control of myself’. And the only way you can be in control is to go, ‘I’m leaving – I’m taking myself out of this situation so I don’t have to deal with it anymore’, because if you’re not in it anymore, then there’s nobody telling you what to do every day. Pop groups, I think notoriously, are all about making as much money as possible as quickly as possible before it all goes wrong.”
Lee, back in the day you spoke about not getting to do many vocals. Is everyone much happier in terms of what they get to do in Steps now?
Lee Latchord-Evans: “Yeah, I think so. I never really moaned about not singing [much] because, for me, it was a job, and I know what my job is within this band. I am not the lead singer of this band; to a degree, nobody is. We all harmonise, we all sing, we all take lead vocals at different times. But, let’s be realistic, it’s a predominantly girl-led band. It has the male harmonies coming through, it has male leads, sometimes, but that’s what creates the Steps sound. If we were all battling, saying, ‘Oh, I want to sing that line!’ it would never work. You’ve got to be very, very honest with yourself and not try to be something that you’re not. I couldn’t sing the lead lines on a lot of these songs, because it’s in the wrong key for me for a start [laughs]. It just wouldn’t work. I know what my job is and I want to do my job well. I’m proud to be part of it. Nowadays, it is probably more equal – I listened to the album the other day and I said to my wife, ‘I can hear myself more on these tracks.’ It’s really nice to hear myself come through and I’ve had so many comments from fans online, which is phenomenal. But I wasn’t ever crying in the background about it, it is what it is. I think, nowadays, we’re all in a better place for many reasons.”
Finally, you were famously conceived by Pete Waterman as ‘ABBA on speed.’ How would you describe the Steps we hear on What The Future Holds?
CR: “ABBA on cod liver oil! It’s good for the joints!”
IW: “Erm, Cyber Steps! I don’t know! I’m definitely powered by gin… Wooo!”