We can make it work: Michael Dugher on UK Music's big agenda

We can make it work: Michael Dugher on UK Music's big agenda

He spent 20 years in Westminster’s corridors of power, but UK Music chief executive Michael Dugher believes that music makes an impact that politics can’t equal.

He heard his first Beatles record aged seven, and first picked up the guitar himself just before his 12th birthday – events that, he says, ultimately led not just to him becoming British music’s key lobbying figure, but also to him getting out of Yorkshire in the first place.

“There’s no way I would have become an MP or amounted to anything had it not been for music,” he declares, sipping tea that he made himself from a Beatles mug in UK Music’s Westminster office. “I was a fairly typical 11-year-old lad and, when somebody put an instrument in my hand, that was the thing that captured my imagination and gave me huge amounts of self-confidence.

“It’s like, I listened to the first Beatles record when I was seven,” he continues. “I’ve listened to a million things since but it always occurs to me that, 50-odd years after they put that stuff out, no one can touch them still.

I’m in my 40s now, but when they come on my iPod, you still get that feeling when you were seven or 17. That’s some power that music has.”

The likeable Dugher is undoubtedly a proper music fan. He enthuses at length about the genius of Shed Seven’s Instant Pleasures album and compares his new-found access to the nation’s record companies to Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket.

He’s even, belatedly, signed up to Spotify (“The Dugher family has joined the 21st century,” he quips).

But in his new role – he took over from the much-loved Jo Dipple, now at Live Nation, in May last year – Dugher is looking to leverage music’s emotional pull with the real power-brokers in Westminster.

He spent seven years as an MP – representing Barnsley East – after working as a special advisor and political spokesman for the Labour government, so knows the affection with which the music industry is viewed around Westminster.

His brief, however, is to turn “affection into action”. Music – and the global success of UK artists from Arctic Monkeys to Ed Sheeran – is often referenced as part of Britain’s “soft power”. But Dugher wants it to participate in the hard, industrial-level influence that the biz’s contribution to the UK economy deserves.

He recently scored his first major victory of a “full on” start with the news that the Government will support plans to build the “agent of change” principle into planning law to help protect venues from property developers.

The news came just days after Dugher led a demonstration at his old Westminster stamping ground, with the Government’s U-turn coming because, Dugher claims, with tongue firmly in cheek: “We made them an offer they couldn’t refuse”.

“I hope that protection under law from developers will make a big difference,” he continues. And the campaign was a perfect example of what the industry can achieve when we work together.”

But he’s determined to make such triumphs the start, rather than the end game.

“Too many grassroots venues are being clobbered with massive rate rises,” he says. “We also need more progress on licensing.

More generally, as Music Week made clear in its editorial last week, we need more practical help for musicians to access the live circuit - that means a range of things from more rehearsal spaces to help for youngsters, especially those from poorer backgrounds, to become musicians in the first place.”

So Dugher still has a full slate of issues to deal with, from Brexit, secondary ticketing and the value gap to increasing diversity in the biz and dealing with music’s sexual harassment problem.

But, famed as a tough operator in his political days (he was once named the second sweariest MP on social media), Dugher should be the man to make sure UK Music’s voice is heard loud and clear in political circles as it celebrates its first decade in the business.

“The industry sometimes collectively underestimates the strength that it can wield,” he declares. “Politicians like to come to our parties, but we have to make sure they also take us seriously.

We want to be feared as well as loved and, if not feared, we have to be respected and taken seriously, and for them to understand that we will play hardball.

So we have a fantastic relationship with the government, with the opposition, with all parties. But, when it comes to our issues, we will play very aggressively because that’s our job.”

Time, then, to channel some of that aggression into a first big sit down interview with Music Week…

What’s been the main difference between working in politics and working in music?

“I was always in politics to get things done. But I felt towards the end that I wasn’t getting things done and was thinking I could make a difference outside of politics.

That’s ultimately why I moved. I spent 20 years in politics, but I was never obsessed with politics but always obsessed with music.

So to get to work in it, and to bring some of the experience that I’ve got in Government and Parliament to the industry is great. I genuinely feel that we’re getting things done and we’re making a difference.”

Some people might be surprised to hear that it’s easier to get things done in music than in Government…

“It’s much more doable than some parts of the industry appreciate. All of our strengths are our weaknesses. The great strength in the music industry is, it’s full of incredibly passionate people and I find that hugely motivating and inspiring.

Most of the people around the table have pretty much worked in nothing else but the music industry. People might go from being an artist or being predominantly a writer or producer to the business side.

But so many of them stay in the industry – that’s a huge source of strength but, occasionally, people fail to have a wider perspective. Or even just the psychology of the glass, is it half empty or half full? Sometimes you listen to people and there’s nothing in the glass at all.

That’s just not the way I see it. Maybe it’s because I’ve come from outside, but I think we achieve an awful lot together. It’s not easy – there’s a reason that there isn’t [an equivalent of] UK Music anywhere else in the world – but actually it’s a source of tremendous strength.

There’ll always be issues where there are differences of opinion, and we have to have the self-confidence as an organisation and as an industry to let that play out. I’m always talking about those who create and invest in music, because fundamentally there’s so much of a shared agenda there.

That’s what we must get UK Music to focus on.”

Sometimes your members’ views must be diametrically opposed though?

“I can perfectly understand why Horace [Trubridge]’s members at the Musicians’ Union might sometimes have a real issue with some of the record companies, and that’s OK, that’s for them to resolve. Managers will have huge issues with the live side, and that’s OK.

As long as UK Music and the industry more generally doesn’t lose sight of the big prize here. As an industry, if we make progress on the big issues that unite us, then we all get a drink out of that.

Like with venues; we’re not doing this just for the Music Venues Trust, we’re doing this for the labels because they need a talent pipeline. We’re doing it for the artists, because they need somewhere to play. We’re doing it for the managers, because they need their artists to have somewhere to play.

Everyone has got a shared interest in the big objectives that we set ourselves and I’m very disciplined about ensuring that we focus on the big issues and on the prize.”

Having been on the other side, how much influence does the music industry really have at Westminster?

“Look at the election. All the major manifestos contained a lot of things that we as a music industry have been campaigning for.

I can’t think of a previous election where the music industry has been as high profile within those manifestos and there’s almost an arms race now between the major political parties as to who can bend over backwards to accommodate us.

But it’s about how we turn affection into action. [When you see] some of the things announced recently on secondary ticketing, we’ve made progress in that area.

But, when you type in ‘Ed Sheeran tickets’, the fact is, the first few links that come up are all Viagogo. Google could personally fix this secondary ticketing thing tomorrow if it had the will to do so.”

So their recent steps don’t go far enough?

“No, not at all. We’re going to keep making a lot of noise about that. We had a debate in Parliament in the Autumn about the contribution the music industry makes to the UK economy, in the main chamber with the minister having to respond. So we are making progress.

The key thing over the next 12 months is to accelerate that and raise our profile even further. It will be around the three biggest issues; Brexit, the transfer of value and the value gap, and how we ensure the right infrastructures are in place to support this industry. We’re going to be very aggressive about that.”

Does the fact that you’ve been lobbied yourself in the past give you an advantage?

“[Labour deputy leader] Tom Watson once said to me, ‘You can never kid a kidder’, and I think when you’ve been lobbied, you have a fairly good understanding of what’s good and what’s crap. I want us to be really, really good.”

Has your long association with the Labour Party caused you any problems with powerbrokers in other parties?

“Not really. Music is not something that divides on party lines. We work entirely on a cross-party basis, and politics – maybe through its own fault – doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

There’s far more cross-party work than the public see, and when you’ve got a government with no majority, the campaigns that are most successful are the campaigns that are on a cross-party basis. I hope that we can capitalise on that opportunity.

Over Christmas, I took a bunch of people [including Conservative MP Therese Coffey and Labour’s Stella Creasy] to watch Shed Seven and it generated a sort of Twitter storm.

The fact that a former Labour MP is being criticised for taking MPs of different parties to a gig… I’ll take it as a sign that we must be doing something right.”

You called the blogger responsible for that story “a sad bastard” and said he “wouldn’t know what the public interest was if someone shoved it up [his] arse”.

That’s a rather more robust social media presence than most senior music industry execs would go for…

“(Laughs) I know my language on social media is occasionally choice. I restrain myself for most of the time, but occasionally I cannot resist telling very stupid people or people who are being abusive to fuck off, and I’ll continue to do that.

I can’t change who I am. People complain that their politicians are out of touch and nothing like them, and then some people complain when politicians do what they do.

I can’t be somebody else. It is robust but I get my point across. I think people know that if I go into bat for something I really go into bat
for something…”

You still seem to get a lot of flack over Jeremy Corbyn. Wouldn’t you rather get away from all that?

“Yeah. The truth is, nine times out of 10, I ignore them, which is the best way of dealing with it.

Occasionally, when people have given abuse to me or particularly when they’ve referenced my family, then the red mist descends. I’m just not having that and that’s OK.”

Brexit also gets people fired up: how will you make sure the music industry gets the best deal?

“Occasionally I wish you could block Brexit in your Twitter feed, but the truth is, it’s a massive issue for us. We’ve got to make sure the copyright protections that we currently enjoy through the EU will transfer to the UK statute.

And, actually, there’s an opportunity to go much further, to strengthen IP protection but also about free movement.

The ability of artists from the EU to come and play in our increasingly vibrant growing live music scene and the ability for UK artists to play in Europe without the visa arrangements that could be bureaucratic and prohibitive, that’s massively important. So there’s an opportunity around Brexit as well, and that will slightly raise eyebrows.”

Does the music biz’s opposition to Brexit make it harder to grab that opportunity?

“When we did a survey, only 2% of the industry were in favour of Brexit. I have to say I’ve not found that 2% yet! But the truth is, Brexit is happening so we need to make sure that the music industry is absolutely top of the tree when it comes to the protections that we need.”

Can music really compete with the City or agriculture or the motor industry?

“It’s a competitive lobbying environment but I relish that challenge. My ambition is to make UK Music the most impressive and influential trade body in the whole country and I don’t see why we shouldn’t be.

We’re a £4.4 billion industry, we bring huge added value to the economy. We really punch above our weight, so it’s important that politically we punch above our weight as well.

We’ve got a lot of work to do but I’m hoping we’ve got the right relationships in place to make sure that the people who are going to be influential in those negotiations understand the importance of the music industry. We’ve had most of them in this boardroom, so we are well placed.”

So how would you like it to play out?

“It may be that we stay in the single market, and the customs union, that we can get a much better deal on transitional arrangements.

I’m hopeful of all of those things and we have to keep fighting away at them. But we are coming out of the EU so you do have to think, ‘What are the opportunities?’ The government’s talked a lot about trade deals. There are potential opportunities there for the music industry.

The government has said the first trade deal should be with the US. The US is the largest market in the music industry and the UK is the third biggest. I’d like to see the music industry as being a big part of a trade deal.

Could we use that as an opportunity to make progress in terms of visa arrangements for bands that want to tour the States?

Can we make progress on copyright where they don’t have the same kind of protection as we have here? All of this is worth trying, given that it’s such a hugely dominant Anglo-American product.

Making sure the music industry is a big part of those trade deals has got to be a focus, not just mitigating against some of the negative impacts that Brexit undoubtedly has.”

Sexual harassment in the entertainment industries has also been a big story in recent months. Does the UK music biz have a problem?

“It’s a problem for all industries and we need to make sure the music industry is leading the way in getting its house in order.

I hope that we are very much playing a leadership role in making sure that victims feel that they can come forward, and that we send a very strong signal that this is completely unacceptable and won’t be tolerated in the 21st century music industry.

Our role is to promote the professional expertise and help that is available through the MU and other areas. So individual victims are able to get access, they can speak out and get proper help and advice and support, including legally.”

Does the music industry boom make your job easier or harder when it comes to lobbying?

“The industry has a vested interest in coming together to protect the current success and strengthen it in the future.

The fact we’re making such a significant and growing contribution ought to make policy-makers sit up and listen to what we have to say, because we are bringing something to the party. This is a world-leading industry, a jewel in the crown for the British economy.”

Finally, how long do you see yourself doing this job for?

“I’d hope it’s a long term thing. I hope we’ve raised the profile, I hope we’re doing more and having more influence than in the past, building on the foundations others have laid for us.

My enthusiasm and passion for the industry is undiminished. I’m enjoying every minute of it.”

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