Northern powerhouse: Modern Sky's David Pichilingi on how to break new artists from the North

Northern powerhouse: Modern Sky's David Pichilingi on how to break new artists from the North

Liverpool-based indie label Modern Sky had an impressive run of Top 5 albums last year from The Coral, Miles Kane and The Lottery Winners, who stunned the industry with a No.1 result

Here, David Pichilingi, CEO Modern Sky UK and North America, opens up about a successful strategy for breaking talent from the North…

When it comes to breaking Northern artists, connection with their core audience is key.

When Lihui Shen, the founder of Modern Sky, expressed his desire to establish the independent Chinese powerhouse in the UK, he asked if I would consider a move from Liverpool to London to set up an office. 

Lihui's perspective at that time had been shaped by the vast geographical and cultural expanse of China, where a two-hour commute to Shanghai every morning is the norm. He didn't (at that time) understand the nuanced regional distinctions within the UK. How a half hour drive can take you to a different town and a new community of people with their own fiercely guarded identity.

Lihui Shen had the perfect excuse, and when I explained the unique make-up of our relatively tiny island, he understood why London is a million miles away from Liverpool – and why the North of the country was the perfect place for a culture-driven music company like Modern Sky. Cities like Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Glasgow, Newcastle and many others have always been a rich breeding ground for pop culture and raw talent. Why would we want to be anywhere else?

It’s baffling to me, however, that there are so many music execs right here in the UK that have the same blind spot when it comes to understanding the North's distinct musical culture.

For years, the North of the UK has been a crucible of musical revolutions, with cities like Liverpool, Manchester, and Sheffield influencing the creation of iconic sounds and scenes. 

When these movements gain momentum, you can always bank on the broader UK music industry (the vast majority of which is still based in and typically focused entirely on the country’s capital) with a frantic urgency, fumbling for their cheque book in fear of missing out on the next big thing. 

It’s a pattern that dates back to the Madchester era of the '80s, when those in the London bubble were caught a little flat-footed in terms of seeing the potential of the city’s emerging scene and so darted to the other side of the M62 to sign everything they could find in Liverpool. I can think of a number of acts from the city that had great potential but were ultimately under-supported or misunderstood. Bands such as The Real People, Top and Rain all had great potential but were the victims of reactionary signing policies – feverish enthusiasm that cooled all too quickly. 

We’re seeing a new generation of Northern artists establishing themselves now; particularly young indie guitar bands. Those in the UK music business capital will want to capitalise. And they can – if they have the right approach.

The North has been a crucible of musical revolutions, with cities like Liverpool, Manchester, and Sheffield influencing the creation of iconic sounds and scenes

David Pichilingi

The wrong way to do it is to try and leverage the region's rich musical heritage without really appreciating what has always been at the centre. There is a shared kinship in each of the Northern communities, a shared history – a shared struggle in many cases. I would argue that artists in the North maintain a greater connection with their hometown audiences than anyone else. To try to pluck them from those roots and break them using a ‘cookie cutter’ strategy often misses the point of why they managed to resonate in the first place.

If London’s music industry wants to share in the fruits of what is happening up in Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle…  the key to success is genuine investment and integration into the local scene. Modern Sky UK partnered with Virgin Music UK in February. That is, of course, Virgin Music UK based in the capital. But, under the innovative global and UK leadership of JT Myers, Nat Pastor, Vanessa Bosaen, and Jim Chancellor, Virgin has embedded itself deeply in the Northern music scene. This integration is driven by strong leadership, passionate teams and a genuine love for music with a ‘punk rock’ ethos, combined with a global vision.

In 2023 alone, Modern Sky UK saw Top 5 albums from artists like The Coral, Miles Kane and The Lottery Winners – the latter producing a No.1 album. Meanwhile, Jamie Webster is going from strength to strength having sold out two nights and 24k tickets at Liverpool Pier Head. Next year, he headlines his own show of 40,000 people in his hometown. He’s the epitome of that new wave of Northern artists that are establishing themselves now. Having released his debut album in 2020, we’ve managed to transform him into a modern all-rounder with physical, tickets and streaming all flying. Real people, real sales and real conversions – achieved simply by understanding the artist, the background he shares with his core audience, making sure that is held sacred, and using it as a foundation.

In the modern music industry, it’s easier than ever to sit on the end of an internet connection with a dashboard of stats and maybe make a quick buck at arm's length. Taking the time to understand artists, their identity, and how to work with them holistically is a rare and refreshing thing. As an indie in the North, we’ve been made to feel important and part of the bigger picture about what Virgin Music UK is trying to create on a world stage. For the first time in my memory, we're working with major label people who are as passionate as us and, more importantly, understand what we’re all about.

We will continue to see more Northern bands set tongues wagging across the country and abroad in the coming years. Acts that everyone will want a piece of.

In any other part of the world, being two hours away from the culture you are trying to promote probably wouldn't matter – but, if London’s music industry really wants to benefit from the rich musical output of Northern UK towns, it needs to burst the bubble and properly embed in our culture.


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