UK Music chair Tom Watson: The Music Week interview

Tom Watson

Tom Watson was viewed as something of a polarising figure during his time in politics – and some in the music biz are also unconvinced by the former Labour Party deputy leader’s appointment as the new chair of UK Music. In his first interview in the role, he takes on his critics – and pledges to get the industry working together to conquer coronavirus, Brexit and more…

Tom Watson is in a room full of music industry people arguing. Representatives of various music trade bodies with different acronyms are going at it hammer and tongs, unable to find much they agree on, let alone speak with one voice.

But this isn’t now, with Watson recently ensconced as the chair of umbrella trade body UK Music. This was in 2001 when Watson, then a newly-elected Labour MP, was an inaugural member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on music.

“You sit there as an MP and say, ‘Why are you in the room, what do you actually want from me?’” he chuckles today, calling in from his boxroom via Zoom, the coronavirus pandemic having prevented a face-to-face meeting. “And they were disagreeing with each other in front of us! So the logic of UK Music was very important and it has spoken with one voice for the sector. And, in this time of crisis, there’s never been a more important reason for UK Music existing, because we’ve got some very important conversations to have with government…”

And Watson knows all about those. He served as an MP, in both government and opposition, for almost 20 years, standing down shortly before the last election. In that time, he held roles including deputy leader of the Labour Party and shadow culture secretary, becoming a familiar and supportive presence at many music biz events.

During that time, UK Music also quietly established itself as the face of the British music business. Chaired by Beggars veteran Andy Heath ever since it started in 2008, the trade body managed to find a rapprochement between the industry’s myriad factions and has proved to be an effective lobbying presence for the industry on everything from copyright to diversity. The days of arguing in front of MPs are long gone.

Watson, however, who started at the trade body on April 1 – pretty much the day the entire music industry went into meltdown over the coronavirus crisis – is no stranger to a good argument. He was known as a passionate campaigner for Labour and a hard-but-fair political bruiser in Parliament. Later, he became somewhat persona non grata with the Momentum group within his party, who saw him as a disloyal deputy to Jeremy Corbyn’s leader. Members of that faction reacted with astonishment when Music Week broke the news of Watson’s UK Music appointment.

And it turns out they weren’t the only ones. His arrival may have been roundly welcomed by high profile names from music and politics, including health secretary Matt Hancock, PRS For Music boss Andrea C Martin, outgoing UK Music management team Andy Heath and ex-CEO Michael Dugher, PPL chief executive Peter Leathem and Kilimanjaro Live’s head of operations Zac Fox. But behind the scenes, a small group of senior music biz figures, including former BPI deputy chairman Mike Batt and broadcaster Paul Gambaccini, have been agitating against his appointment via an email campaign and a series of open letters, supported by pieces in right wing newspapers. Batt’s letter accused Watson of an “unpalatable and divisive history in public life”.

Some of Watson’s opponents’ criticism can be dealt with relatively easily. UK Music says that reports he will be paid £60,000 for two days work per week are inaccurate, while claims that his appointment was some sort of fait accompli do not appear to stand up.

The post was widely advertised, and received over 80 applications. Watson was one of six candidates interviewed by a panel (UK Music declined to name the panelists but Music Week understands they were a representative cross-section of the body’s membership). His appointment was ratified by the UK Music board and, while Music Week sources confirm the BPI voted against him over concerns about whether he could command support from the Conservative government he spent so long opposing, Music Week understands the labels body nonetheless respects the process. The BPI itself refused to comment.

But not all concerns are so easily waved away. Many of Watson’s veteran industry detractors focus on his controversial role in Operation Midland’s investigation into a suspected paedophile ring involving senior establishment figures. Watson highlighted the claims of Carl Beech, later exposed as a liar and convicted of child sex offences and perverting the course of justice. Some claim that damaged Watson’s credibility and that the investigation contributed to a climate that saw high profile industry figures, while not linked to Operation Midland, also falsely accused of historical sex offences.

Watson is reluctant to go over that ground again but does note: “I have apologised both publicly and privately to people on that. I was challenged on this during the [job] interview and I’d say I hope I can convince people I was just trying to do my best and behave with honour and integrity.

“But obviously mistakes were made and I regret them greatly. I hope that won’t impact on my ability to do good for the sector and to contribute something back to an industry that I feel very strongly about and love very greatly.”

Even without such distractions, Watson faces a big task at UK Music. He came in expecting to have to wrestle with the complexities of post-Brexit Britain, but immediately faces the job of helping to save, and then rebuild an industry ravaged by the effects of the pandemic. An easy post-retirement gig this is not (“At least I do have some experience of crises,” he notes, wryly).

And there can be little doubt about Watson’s passion for the role. A fanatical music fan since his Mum bought him a copy of Lulu’s I’m A Tiger (“This is where everyone in the music industry thinks, ‘I can’t believe they’ve appointed this guy!’” he quips), he spent his youth in the Midlands obsessed with ska, two-tone and The Specials (he’s thrilled that he can now wear Fred Perrys again after his dramatic weight loss, having reversed his Type 2 diabetes).

He famously attended Glastonbury Festival in 2013 before quitting his position on Labour’s front bench, recommending indie rockers Drenge to Ed Miliband in his resignation letter (he’s still a fan).

On lockdown, he’s been listening to a lot of blues (recommending Robert Cray’s new album) on vinyl or via Spotify, in between berating his sons for not paying proper attention to Bob Dylan and being brought up to speed on the biz by acting UK Music CEO Tom Kiehl (“Tom’s depth of knowledge and networking across the sector is vast,” says Watson. “He’s taking a new member of the board on a learning journey very, very quickly”).

“Music of all types has nourished me throughout my life,” he says, of why he was interested in the role in the first place. “I’d left 20 years of public service in Parliament and I wanted to give something back. I’ve got a skillset that I thought might be deployed by the board in the right way – and I thought there was a job of work to do.”

Will that be enough? Time to put Tom Watson in the hotseat and find out…

There's never been a more important reason for UK Music existing

Tom Watson

It must be a strange time to start a job like this…
“It’s a very steep learning curve! Obviously, it’s an industry that’s hurting. When I applied for the job, it had a very different context. I was hoping to play a strategic role with the board in helping prepare ministers for a post-Brexit world for the creative sector. But day one saw an industry in total crisis. We’ve had to totally recalibrate our priorities as a board and that’s taken a lot of work whilst I’m getting to know everyone. So it’s been a tough few weeks…”

What was the attraction of UK Music for you?
“I’ve seen UK Music develop as an institution from the other side. Andy Heath has built a very mature and deep organisation. In the minds of most public policy makers now, certainly in Parliament, it speaks with one voice for the commercial music sector. And that was not the case when I was first elected in 2001.”

Andy Heath, of course, has decades of experience within the music business. You don’t. Is that an issue?
“It’s always difficult to take over from someone like Andy. Not only does he have a lifetime of experience in the industry, but he’s a genuinely decent human being with very great qualities. But, remember, I’m just one member of a board that provides strategic direction and we have an executive team that knows the industry inside out. I’m obviously a very different character with very different skills and experiences, but I hope that we can have a balanced team that will ensure that people with a great depth of knowledge in the sector can work with people who understand government, politics and parliament at a very deep level as well.”

Some people have questioned your qualifications for the role…
“What I’d say to people is, UK Music is the body that talks to government. And obviously I’ve been brought in because I’ve had very great experience in parliament and they know I’ve got a skillset there. And I hope they know I was at a level in politics that means I can work with a team. The role of chair is very different to that of CEO. So I’d guess the board wanted someone who’d got parliamentary experience and skills and they’ll balance the team in other areas.”

Your role is to unite the biz, despite it being riven by factions with opposing views. Do you have any experience in that area?
“[Laughs] Yeah! A lot of this is making sure that all voices are heard around the UK Music table. The goal is always to hide the wiring, speak with one voice for the sector where you can. Obviously, there will be points where there’s disagreement between members and you have to handle that. But if there’s any upside to the current crisis – and there are very few – it’s that everyone is working very closely together. The first task we had was a mapping exercise to see how the industry was looking after its 190,000 people. Three quarters of those are self-employed, and all of them are hurting. The team did an audit to work out where the hardship was, who was supporting whom and where there were gaps. That’s helped fuse a real sense that we’re working together.”

A perennial bone of contention for the industry is that it isn’t taken seriously by politicians, despite its huge commercial value. Can you change that?
“The staggering thing when you look at the numbers is, the creative industries as a whole, not just the music sector, [are worth] £111 billion to the economy; bigger than the auto sector, aero sector, life sciences and UK oil and gas combined. It is a massive export sector for the UK. And commercial music alone is £5bn of that – it is, by any scale, a really important part of the UK economy. That’s one of the great successes of UK Music: there is now recognition of that scale amongst politicians that take an interest in the creative sector. And that probably wasn’t the case a decade ago.”

Won’t it be even harder to get the government to listen now the world is falling apart?
“When you want liquidity back in the economy after restrictions are lifted, one of our tasks is to make sure the government understands that we’ll be part of that and there are questions we need to ask. For example, we all fully understand why ministers are hesitant to talk about when restrictions might be lifted. But this is a sector that’s so valuable to the economy it requires planning ahead. Some indication from government about timelines would be really important. You look at the live sector and, even though the Music Venue Trust tells me their 640 members could get bands on within 24 hours of the lockdown ending, if you’re running a tour you need a few weeks to put these things together. That kind of engagement, not necessarily in the public eye, with ministers and senior civil servants is really important so the sector can plan. Tom Kiehl is doing weekly calls with ministers and talking to departments most days. I’m talking to ministers as well. This year’s Music By Numbers report will be really important. It’s been slightly adapted so that we’re left with some very hard numbers to give to ministers and policy-makers about the impact of the virus on our baseline figures. One of the things I’m trying to do is make sure the strategic goals of the organisation pre-the virus are maintained, because eventually this is going to go away and we are going to have to go back to doing what we do best.”

You were literally in opposition to the ministers you’re now talking to. Will that cause you any problems?
“I don’t think so. It’s a different role, isn’t it? And the one thing I’m very keen to remind people of is, I’m no longer a politician. Matt Hancock, one of my most formidable opponents when I shadowed him at DCMS, was very kind about my appointment and there’s been a number of Conservative as well as Labour MPs who welcomed it. I’ve enjoyed very humorous relations with Boris Johnson over the years. I’m trying to set out the strategic direction for the body that represents the whole sector and, if anyone is worried about the role I’m playing or what I want to do, then come and talk to me about it. Let’s have a chat and hopefully I’ll be able to convince you that I can do a good job.”

What do you say to people who’ve criticised your appointment?
“Give me a bit of time and judge me on outcomes. That’s all you can ask really. I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with Mike Batt, but I’d love to talk to him, if he wants me to convince him my intentions are to try and help the sector. I’d say that to anyone, if they want to engage and ask what I’m trying to do with the organisation. I gave a lot of time and energy to the industry when I was a politician and aligned a lot of the policy I was responsible for to the asks that came from the sector. The talent pipeline, support for venues, schemes that would have nourished the grassroots, came about because of the people I spoke to when I went to events. In the music industry, there are opinions and voices from all sides, you’re never going to get everyone agreeing on everything. So only time will tell if I can build a good team at UK Music and make sure we still have strong networks.”

Are you confident you can command support in the media, given the clashes you’ve had over phonehacking?
“Look, I was a high-profile politician who political journalists wrote things about. But music is such an important part of all our lives that I hope the media will want to report what we’re doing at such a critical time for the industry.”

What has the biz told you they want you to do?
“Every organisation in the music industry has been dealing with the immediate crisis and the hardship. So the creators who literally need to pay rent and food bills at the end of the week, has been one part of it. The second bit is putting in frameworks to get the sector up and running after restrictions are lifted. When can record shops open? Do you open small venues early, larger ones later? Making sure there are no surprises from government in any of those outcomes – it’s my job to make sure that the industry voice is heard and they know our very great concerns. Thirdly, the ‘going back to normal’ issues. We’ve got to make sure that bands can tour, which means getting touring visas right. We’ve got to make sure copyright protection is in place, even though we won’t be part of the European arrangements. Setting post-Brexit trade arrangements is key. All the issues that were there two months ago are still there and we’ve not lost sight of that – and we haven’t got the clarity we need on some of those really important issues.”

Can the music industry actually recover from this?
“We’re all going to be changed forever, in many ways we don’t yet comprehend. But I’m very confident about the fundamentals of the industry, I do genuinely believe it’s the best music sector in the world. The worry I have is, how long will it take to recover? And how do we rebuild quickly? If we can’t get live music back on track quickly, then people are going to lose their livelihoods. That’s why it’s important we have a ‘no surprises’ policy with government. We fully understand how difficult it is for ministers who are doing day-to-day crisis management and dealing with the spread of the virus. We just hope that our relationships are strong enough that we can get through this together in partnership.”

If the coronavirus crisis creates biz ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, how much harder will it be to present a united front?
“I hope I can hold the unity. That’s not just on me, that’s incumbent on everyone. There’s huge unity around the table right now from people who may have contradictory views on the future, but everyone knows our immediate focus is getting through this crisis. That’s not a bad thing and hopefully some good will come out of that in the long run.”

How is the search for a CEO to replace Michael Dugher going?
“We’re about to start the process. We’ll make sure everybody hears when we’re ready, but that’s imminent. We’re blessed we’ve got a really strong team led by Tom. I’m really proud of the work they’re doing, so let’s get through this crisis before we do a proper appointment.”

Is this your life now – or will you go back to politics one day?
“My days of frontline politics are over, I don’t want to go back to the Commons. When Keir [Starmer, new Labour leader] was elected and he was appointing the shadow cabinet, I looked at the list and thought, ‘They’ll be having good fun in that role now’, but I didn’t have any regrets. I’m definitely an ex-politician.”

Does that mean you’re at UK Music for the long haul?
“Strictly speaking, it’s a two-year contract, reviewed after a year, so that’ll be down to the board and how well I do at holding the board together! The two rules I set myself on leaving politics are: remain an instrument for good and only work with relentlessly positive people. And so far that’s working for me. I know there are a lot of tensions across the music industry, but everyone I’ve met is fizzing with energy. They’re very creative people, out there in the hustle, trying to get their artists heard, trying to get deals done. I enjoy their company and I want to try and do some good for them.”

PHOTO: Colin Thomas

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