The Music Week Interview: Insanity Group CEO Andy Varley

The Music Week Interview: Insanity Group CEO Andy Varley

It’s a few days after Tom Grennan’s album debuted at No.1, and Andy Varley is still buzzing about the chart result for his team.

“It was quite emotional for everybody, because we are such a family,” says Varley, CEO and founder of Insanity Group. “We all did FaceTime calls with Tom. But after two glasses of champagne, I fell asleep on the sofa by 8.30pm. So it was very different from the usual celebrations after a No.1.”

The label’s last spell at the summit was with Craig David’s 2016 album Following My Intuition (178,197 sales to date – Official Charts Company). So the success of Grennan’s second album, Evering Road, which opened with 17,322 sales, is a big deal for Insanity following the No.5 peak for his 2018 debut Lighting Matches (106,787 sales to date).

Varley oversaw the lockdown campaign in Brighton, where he lives with his young family.

“It’s been great for my mental health, living by the seaside, with everything that’s been going on over the last 12 months,” he beams.

Yet this self-made industry leader bristles at any suggestion that, almost 25 years into the Insanity story, it might be time to sit back and enjoy success.

“Oh God, no, it’s even more full-on, even more intense, longer hours and more projects than I’ve ever worked on,” he says. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Insanity covers a lot of ground, including artist management, digital clients, influencers and the booming brand partnerships business. The broadcast management roster has an extensive list of radio DJs, including Tiffany Calver, Maya Jama, Jo Whiley and Dev Griffin.

The company has also got into podcasts, starting with My Dad Wrote A Porno, co-created by broadcast client Alice Levine.

“We’ve turned that into a phenomenal global business with sold-out tours,” notes Varley.

Six months ago, Varley launched Orbit Talent with former UTA agent Dan Saunderson. The roster includes Nathan Dawe, Majestic and Big Zuu.

“A lot of people were asking, ‘Why the hell would you launch a live agency in the middle of a global pandemic where live revenues have been totally decimated?’” says Varley. “But I believe in us as a business, and we want to be at the front of the queue for when things do return to normal.”

Insanity’s management arm is already enjoying live success with drum & bass DJ Wilkinson, who’s booked a New Zealand arena tour next month. “The live business is really where the company started,” says Varley. “It’s always been a really important part of what we do.”

During our Zoom call, Varley happily reminisces about Insanity’s origins. The company dates back to 1997, when he was a 17-year-old still at school in Kent and putting on battle of the bands competitions.

Rather than join the family’s electrical shop (“the entertainment business was more exciting than repairing washing machines”), after completing A-Levels Varley alighted on the dot-com boom and set up an online booking agency for bands in Kent.

Operating above the family shop in Chatham, he would collect the £10 booking fee. When he started at Kent University, the business carried on growing.

“I’d wake up in the morning with a bit of a hangover from Freshers’ Week and there would be all this money in my account overnight through these automated transactions,” says Varley. “It was very much juggling studies and work. In the same way that I’m now trying to manage a big company with 55 staff and 200-plus clients, you just figure out ways of managing your time and keeping the plates spinning.”

While somehow finding time to be the student paper’s music editor, Varley made what would turn out to be an enduring friendship with Kirsty Williams. His fellow student is now the LA-based chief operating officer and runs the US business.

Soon after graduating, Varley landed his first big client. Then newly installed at BBC Radio 1, Zane Lowe took on the 23-year-old as his agent for tours and brands.

“He was such a formidable character,” recalls Varley. “His music knowledge was encyclopedic. We came up with this brand called Home Taping, which was a take on creating your own hip-hop mixtapes by recording music from the radio, and we turned it into a really successful touring business.”

The partnership during the noughties helped Varley meet artists and start to build the roster. Last year, he bumped into Lowe at a Roc Nation Grammys brunch and they caught up with each other’s lives.

“He taught me a hell of a lot,” adds Varley. “He was a very tough client to work with, he really kept you on your toes because he was incredibly ambitious. But he was also very generous with his time, his knowledge and his contacts book.”

A turning point for the management roster was the signing of DJ Fresh, who hit No.1 with 2011’s Louder (feat. Sian Evans) and Hot Right Now (feat. Rita Ora). Insanity went on to have further No.1s with SecondCity and Sigma.

By 2015, Varley was building a music management empire with global success and millions of sales. But halfway through his month-long honeymoon, he was fired by a key artist – an incident that reminded him of some advice he once received. “As a manager, you get hired and you get fired,” he laughs. “It’s what you do in between that counts.”

Determined to diversify into recorded music, during the flight back from his holiday he sent some emails to bosses of label groups. Sony Music UK & Ireland CEO and chairman Jason Iley got straight back and, over breakfast, Varley pitched the idea of a brand new dance label.

“We signed the deal with Sony Music in August 2015,” says Varley. “About a week later, I met Craig David at Notting Hill Carnival. I was managing Shy FX and he performed on Shy FX’s stage, and it just went crazy. He’d not performed in London for the best part of 10 years, the police had to shut it down temporarily due to overcrowding.”

After comeback success with the single When The Bassline Drops (693,845 sales), David then signed to Insanity for a full album deal. Following My Intuition’s No.1 success would have been matched by 2018 follow-up The Time Is Now (No.2 peak, 54,303 sales) but for The Greatest Showman. 

David has now left the label, though they remain on good terms.

For the last three years, Insanity has been developing Joy Crookes via a relationship with MistaJam’s Speakerbox label. A BRITs Rising Star runner-up last year, the UK R&B singer’s release plans were then paused because of Covid.

“She’s been able to spend the last 12 months during lockdown really focusing on writing and recording,” says Varley. “We’re very close to finishing the album, the music is sounding incredible.”

Varley’s fellow execs are full of praise for the dedication to his artists.

“Andy and the team at Insanity Records are passionate, focused and have brought an exciting energy into Sony,” Jason Iley tells Music Week. “I’m delighted at the success they’ve achieved, from relaunching Craig David to Tom Grennan’s recent No.1 album and the new music coming from Joy Crookes is amazing – I have no doubt she will be a global star. When our partnership began there was a real sense from the team that they could achieve anything… and I’m pleased to say I still believe they can.”

Matt Bates, ICM Partners’ head of international and Grennan’s agent, sums up Varley’s combination of easygoing attitude and drive to succeed.

“I’ve always had such wonderful conversations with Andy, he’s a lovely guy, but a force of nature,” he says.

“Andy and the team have had my back from day one and let me develop at my own pace, at no point have I felt pressured or compromised to change,” Tom Grennan tells Music Week. “Andy is available at the drop of a hat for a call or advice – a proper team player and leader.”

The singer-songwriter also salutes his “incredible” label team, which includes general manager Alice Beal and head of A&R Alastair Kinross.

For all the success of Insanity, though, what happened to the plan for club hits?

“This was the running joke with Jason,” laughs Varley. “He says, ‘You pitched me a dance label, you’ve never had any dance hits!’”

Insanity is now building up Irish DJ Welshy, whose single Haiti was playlisted at BBC Radio 1.

Although he’s an industry veteran of two decades, the Insanity Group boss is still hungry for success. Here, he reveals his global game plan… 

How has Insanity Group evolved over the years?

“I always wanted to have a diversified business model, I was always really fascinated not just with music but with entertainment as a whole. With talent being at the heart of the business, the different divisions provide opportunities for talent and give us a wide breadth of market intelligence as well. So, for example, we’ll utilise our digital influencer clients to market our music artists, and then maybe we’ll have our broadcast clients interview our label roster on TV and radio and be responsible for contributing to breaking their careers. And then we have the live agency, so the synergy across the business is endless.”

You helped revive Craig David’s career, what was the reaction from his team?

“Colin [Lester, founder/chairman JEM Music] was really impressed with our entrepreneurial mentality and the fact that we were part managers, part record label. They were really great partners. Colin and I have always had this really great relationship, he’s an exceptional manager. He’s always got his artists’ best interests at the forefront of his mind. When that is your approach, you sometimes have to have quite difficult conversations with your record label. But we just had the same goal and ambition, which is that we wanted to have global success with Craig, we wanted to hit the top of the charts – and we did.”

How does the JV with Sony Music work?

“We operate as a frontline label. We have a full-time team of seven people within Insanity Records split across marketing and A&R. And as we’re all based in the Sony HQ, we plug in to the infrastructure – sales, distribution, creative services, sync, insights and data analytics. Jason has always been incredibly supportive. Rob Stringer has this idea of making Sony incredibly entrepreneurial. For somebody like myself, who is an entrepreneur by heart, they’re the perfect partners. We operate very much as an indie, but then we’ve got the global infrastructure of a major, and that’s what sets us apart.”

You’ve made some key appointments in the last few years...

“Alice Beal is our general manager and she is, without question, one of the most incredible executives I’ve ever worked with. Alastair Kinross joined us coming up for two years ago to head up A&R, and he’s done a phenomenal job with Tom’s sophomore album.” 

How did you discover Tom Grennan?

Dan Lloyd Jones, who’s now at Island, was then at Sony/ATV. I got an email from Dan saying that he’d just had this demo from a young kid who was still at college. It was a track called Something In The Water, which actually ended up being on Tom’s first album. There was a show at this little pub called The Finsbury, next to Finsbury Park. I went down with [former Insanity A&R] Ali Fletcher. We loved Tom, he had the most incredible voice. He hadn’t really been in music, he’d wanted to be a professional footballer. He would always be the guy who was singing in the changing rooms.” 

What was key to his development as an artist?

“One of the things that we’ve always placed a major focus on is live. Tom actually sold out Brixton Academy before he even released his first album, which is a phenomenal achievement. John Dawkins, his manager [at Various Artists Management] is exceptional.”

How has the management business been growing?

“The 7980 acquisition [in 2018] was a real turning point for the music side of the business. Jon Bailey and Marc Sheinman, who are brilliant executives, brought in Wilkinson, Friction, Jvck James and Cadenza. We helped them to re-sign Shy FX, who was formerly a client of mine. We’ve also signed Tiffany Calver. I actually stepped out of my paternity leave to come and do the signing – I’m not sure my wife was totally impressed. We signed Tiffany across her entire career, we negotiate the radio contracts, the brand deals. We work really closely with her live agent, Craig D’Souza at Primary Talent, across touring strategy. She’s really brilliant.”

What are the opportunities on the broadcast side of the business?

“We’ve always had this reputation for being developers of talent over the last 10 years. Roman Kemp, Maya Jama, Alice Levine, Vick Hope – they have all started their careers with us and they’re fast becoming some of the most popular and recognisable broadcasters in the UK. It’s important that when the high-profile clients are getting bigger and more established, you need to be coming through with the next generation of broadcasters. In the last few months, we’ve hired two more broadcast managers.” 

Can your influencer clients connect with your music clients on campaigns?

“Yeah, totally. When we were chasing for the No.1 position [for Tom Grennan], we fully galvanised our entire digital influencer roster, which has a reach of well over 250 million followers globally. We had Tom doing workout videos with fitness influencers, he was doing chat show conversations with lifestyle influencers, and at one point he was doing a food tasting thing with some comedy clients. So it’s very much a USP for us as a label to have that offering in-house, when most other labels have to pay external companies to do that. And other labels do pay the Insanity management business for marketing services for their label roster. The digital content creator and influencer business really is the future of the entertainment business.”

You manage Jo Whiley, how did you handle the fall-out from the short-lived Radio 2 drivetime partnership with Simon Mayo?

Jo Whiley is a complete professional. She’s been in the industry for years and remains one of the most popular and respected radio broadcasters in the country, so she takes everything in her stride.”

What are the US plans for Insanity Group?

“We initially focused on the digital influencer marketing side of the business in the US. Despite the pandemic, over the last 12 months we’ve done over 1,000 brand activations through a very small team. It provides really great sources of revenue, but also brilliant opportunities to then tie in music syncs as well. For the next stage of the growth in the US, we’ve signed a deal with Sony Pictures to develop a scripted project which has a strong connection to music. We’ve also signed a deal to develop an animation project with 20th Century via Disney – both really exciting.” 

How did it feel to be recognised at the Artist & Manager Awards in 2019?

“I felt incredibly proud to be honoured with that Entrepreneur Award. It’s not just about me, though, it’s about the whole team. I’m one guy who, when he was 17, had a load of ambition to create this global entertainment company. But if I hadn’t been fortunate enough to work with all these incredible executives, we wouldn’t be achieving anywhere near the level of success that we’re achieving right now.”

How do you see yourself as an executive at this point in your long career?

“It’s important to be really diversified in your knowledge and skill set. And being managers, we don’t give up. If you take on a project, you’ll keep working it until you make it successful. That’s very much been the case with Tom, who has been with us for five years, but in a way it feels like we’re just getting started with him now.”

You’re a consummate deal-maker but you clearly don’t fit the clichéd image of the tough-talking, aggressive executive...

“I’m just not that type of person really. Don’t get me wrong, if someone crosses me then I give as good as I get. But I’ve talked about this culture of collaboration that we have at Insanity. You get the best out of your team and artists if you give them the support and encouragement they need to be successful. Look, we go to war for our clients to ensure that they get the best deals, but it’s done in a way that doesn’t feel confrontational. That’s just not my style.” 

Finally, what are the global opportunities for the label?

“I want to continue to grow the label. Tom Grennan is now a global priority for Sony Music. That will open up further doors for Insanity as a record label to become incredibly competitive globally. I’m incredibly ambitious, we’re just getting going with Insanity Records. If we sit down and speak in another five years’ time, it’s probably going to look very different. The industry as a whole is going to look very different in five years.”

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