Interview with JONATHAN DICKINS, manager for Adele, Jamie T, Jack PeŮate - July 14, 2008
ďFor a girl whoís just turned 20 years old itís unbelievable how focused [Adele] is in terms of what she thinks is right for her career.Ē
Having being born into an impressive musical dynasty, Jonathan Dickins had a lot to live up to by pursuing the family way, but with success, first as A&R to Panjabi MC (Top 10 Germany), then in signing M.I.A. to XL Recordings, and now as manager to Adele (No.1 UK), Jamie T (Top 10 UK) and Jack PeŮate (Top 10 UK), the Dickins elders will no doubt be beaming with pride.
The September Management head gives an array of valuable insights into his work and approach, and also proof that putting the artist first is a key to success. Dickins also talks about recent changes in the live arena, champions the high quality of UK radio, and explains why he is excited rather than concerned about the current industry climate.
How did you first start out in the music business?
I come from a family where everybody is in music. My grandfather [Percy Dickins] co-founded the NME magazine in the UK and invented the pop charts in 1952. Before that it was done as sales of sheet music. He came up with the idea of a Top 20 sales chart based on sales of phonographic music. My uncle was the chairman of Warner Brothers in the UK for fifteen years. My father is a booking agent to this day and looks after Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Diana Ross, and Jamiroquai.
I grew up in it; itís all I knew. It took me a while to find my niche; I was very conscious of trying to make my own career in music and not follow in their footsteps - not doing the same things as they did, but hopefully being successful in my own sphere of the music industry.
How would you characterise yourself as a manager?
The great thing for me about management is just that I find it very exciting. Iím a very creative manager. Iím somebody who likes to get involved very early on and have an opinion on the music. It really excites me to be involved in every aspect of an artist career and development. Especially now, because with the way the music industry is changing, I find it really exciting and innovative.
What was your original vision for your company, September Management?
I started September Management in March of 2006. I only wanted to work with career artists that play music that I really love. I believe every artist I look after is a career artist that has a great sense of what they wanted to achieve.
No doubt my influences in terms of management were Elliot Roberts and David Geffen, what they did in the Ď60s and early Ď70s. Working with the best artists from around where they grew up. Iím not comparing Adele with Joni Mitchell or Jamie T with Bob Dylan, but I think that theyíre great artists.
Did you start out with any particular strategy for breaking artists?
Iíve always focused on touring. I came from a live background; my father is an agent. Iíve always felt that the grassroots of an artistís fanbase has always been in the live side.
Itís changing a little bit now, in relation to how it was maybe a year ago. The problem with the live thing at the moment is that itís just getting absolutely exaggerated. Thereís too much choice; there are too many festivals - the ticket prices are too high. But still, when youíre looking at people who are willing to pay more to see an artist live than they are to buy a CD or download an album then that tells you a lot. I think that people you develop on a live touring base are people that generally stay with you from record to record.
Radio play is great, but dangerous. Radio in certain regards is becoming less and less relevant.
How did Instant Karma start?
My uncle [Rob Dickins] had a label called Instant Karma and I had a label called Showbiz working through it. Instant Karma didnít really have any hits. On my label I put out this record called ĎI Monsterí, which gave Instant Karma its first hit.
I then signed Panjabi MC, and that was phenomenally successful in the UK, Germany and in the rest of Europe. But then the budget got pulled by Sony because there wasnít a lot of success within the label. I took my label off and started putting records out independently.
The first record that I put out on my label was M.I.A. ís ĎGalangí. I signed M.I.A. to XL after developing ĎGalangí. After she got picked up by XL, she asked me to manage her. Thatís why I got into management; management wasnít necessarily a strategy at that stage - I just wanted to be involved with music.
So I basically came into management in 2003 through finding and developing artists and putting out their records.
So previously it was more A&R work?
Yes, more record company stuff. The funny thing is that when youíre working in a major record label, you only really know your job. Thatís what makes me laugh about the whole music business; if youíre an A&R guy at a major record company, all you know about is signing the artist and making the record.
When I was putting out M.I.A., suddenly I was doing everything from the distribution side to the manufacturing side to the PPL and PRS side through to the radio promotion. And that was really the first time I wasnít just geared into one area of the business, which was really exciting for me. From there it made it a little easier when she asked me to manage her, to come in and expand my knowledge and go into management full time.
The label is still around, but itís taking a little bit of a back burner because Iíve been very busy. For the last two years Iíve really been focusing on management.
How do you choose your projects?
Itís really simple. I still do it the old-fashioned way. I always go with a gut feeling: would I buy it; would I listen to it?
What needs to be ready in order for you to start working with someone?
One thing that every great artist has is a clear sense of what they are and what they want to achieve. Thatís absolutely essential for me. This business is completely and utterly driven by great artists, not by managers, lawyers, record companies, or radio. All I do is provide a service industry; I facilitate and protect and nurture their dream.
How should up and coming artists prepare themselves before they come to you?
You have to get stuff going for yourself. Anybody who waits for a manager or waits for a record label to put their stuff out must know that it doesnít work like that; you have to be proactive.
Whether that means youíre funding a little record that youíre putting out by yourself very cheaply or going out and playing live, building your fanbase, being creative online with a cool blog, Myspace, Facebook, or just distributing your music.
Do you actively search for new artists?
Itís funny, but Iíve been so busy. Iím very proud of the track record here. I feel that very few management companies have an artist roster where everybody has got a career. I donít have a Coldplay yet, or an artist that is a million seller worldwide, but I went gold and platinum with three brand new artists. I donít have any filler on my roster. I generally donít want to take on too much, and thatís the strength of my business.
Every artist that I take on, we achieve something with. I donít have one massive artist and then ten are swept under the carpet like the case is with a lot of managers.
I also feel that too many managers take on way too much stuff and they lose focus. Itís very, very hard to manage. When I see some of those management companies and theyíve got a couple of guys working there on ten or fifteen artists, I just think, ĎGod, how can you do this, and do this well?í
Do you have time to listen to anything new thatís coming your way?
Iím starting to look again now. My last signing was Adele, which was two years ago.
Up until about two weeks ago, I had the blinkers on. Obviously, Iíve been listening and buying and reading about a lot of new music, and seeing a lot of stuff live, but I havenít actually been that proactive in looking for new music. Now I feel that everybody is kind of settled and some are on their second record, so Iím looking for something new.
What does it take to grab your interest?
Brilliance. I donít think that you can be genre specific in this market nowadays. In every local market there are probably four or five things that come through each year that are great. Iím not going to sit there and say, ĎOh, Iím looking for a four-piece guitar band,í or, ĎIím looking for an electronic artistí.
Management is a skill and if youíre a good manager you can apply it to any genre of music. But I wouldnít apply it to music I didnít particularly like. Iím just looking for things that make me feel excited and make me feel like I would buy them. I have a very clear vision in terms of how we should set them up. The real art to management is how you introduce an act into the marketplace.
Whatís the best way to target the UK market nowadays?
Everything I do is concentrated and focused on a grassroots level. The record labels and the publishers probably come last for me. Iím not one of those people who sits there and goes, ĎIím now going to take a bunch of meetings with a load of record companies and try to get this artist signed.í
I believe in making it a little bit self-sufficient to begin with - getting a sufficient amount of interest by doing it independently of any third party - and then looking for the right deal when the time is right. Rather than, ĎIíve got a new artist. Great, now let me go for my phonebook and call up twenty record company guys.í
What artists are you currently working with?
Adele, Jack PeŮate, Tom Vek, Jamie T. Then thereís I Monster, which I never managed, but theyíre on my label.
How did you first come across Adele and then start working together?
The first person who told me about Adele was actually the guy that eventually ended up signing her, Nick Huggett, who was at XL at that time, but now Head of A&R at Columbia Records in the UK.
He said I should check this girl out. I just got a Myspace URL. We had one meeting and just got on great. She was a massive fan of Jamie T. She was 18, just out of college, and wanted to make a career in music. We started working together in early June 2006 and eventually we signed her to XL in the end of September 2006.
We discussed music in that first meeting. I always listen to artists. The other key factor for me regarding management is listening to what an artist wants - Iíve got better at that. Adele is incredible; for a girl whoís just turned 20 years old itís unbelievable how focused she is in terms of what she thinks is right for her career. So, I listened and threw in some ideas, and generally it just clicked. It wasnít about me going, Ďthis is what I can do, bla bla bla Öí I try to let the artist take the lead with matters now.
How involved are you with repertoire and production?
I was involved with a lot, especially with Adele. The songs she got signed on, sheíd written herself. ĎChasing Pavementsí was a link-up that I put together of her and Francis ĎEgí White. The ĎMake You Feel My Loveí Bob Dylan cover was a song that I loved for years and played to her, and she loved it and that got on the record.
I like to be hands-on and be creative and having a musical opinion, even if the artists disagree with it sometimes.
How do you settle disagreements?
Iím an opinionated guy. Itís important for a manager to have an opinion; itís important for you to say things to artists that sometimes they donít want to hear. But ultimately the final call is that of the artist - thatís how I always run it.
As a manager, as a record company, as a publisher, as a lawyer or as an agent, whatever we do in the music industry, you donít work with one artist; you have a roster of artists. Artists for the most part have one chance for their career. There are exceptions to the rule of course, but generally people have one shot. Artists ultimately know whatís best for them, better than anyone else, because theyíre in it, theyíre feeling it, itís their name.
There were times when an artist would say a thing to me and I would disagree with them and we will have a heated discussion - itís an important thing to do. As a manager youíre paid to give an alternative viewpoint; if you just agree with everything an artist said then why have a manager, just have an assistant.
How come Adeleís single did so well in terms of being picked up by press and radio?
Sheís just brilliant; I donít think thereís any science to it. She is possibly the best singer, or one of the best singers, Iíve ever heard in my life. That voice is incredible. A combination of that voice with a song like ĎHometown Gloryí, which was the song that really started here, was incredible - it completely and utterly stood out.
Where we are lucky in the UK, and far luckier than anywhere else in the world, is that we do have radio stations like Radio One that are willing to take chances with new music.
When I speak to UK people theyíre always moaning about the state of radio. But then I go to other places in America or in Europe and you think weíre blessed with radio stations that are not just playing safe lowest common denominator pop music with no artists and faceless generic producer-based records.
How was Adele able to feature with ĎHometown Gloryí on the season finale of Greyís Anatomy?
It came through Jonathan Palmer from Columbia in America. Heís very friendly with Alex Patsavas, who runs Chop Shop [Music Supervision], and is one of the most powerful sync ladies in America. She came to see Adeleís first show at Hotel Cafe in LA. She listened to that song and she found a space for it to fit in a scene.
How did Adeleís US tour go?
Yes, she just finished her first US tour, which was fantastic. The reviews were incredible. The reviews were so good in some of the markets it was like Iíd written them myself.
Donít you have to be with her on tour?
Iíve been in America for eight times already this year. Iím in and out. I didnít do the whole tour with her. She has a tour manager. And I made sure she had an assistant on the road, so she felt comfortable. Iím out and about with her quite a lot. She goes out to tour again in America in the middle of August towards the end of September.
Is it always your goal with your artists to break the USA?
The US is a new thing for me. My goal is always to break the UK first; you start where the artist is from. Iíd love to break the US - Iím learning about the US all the time - but itís a very difficult market to break Ö
Somebody told me some weird statistic the other day, I donít know how true it was: out of the artists that break America, 97% are domestic. Compare that to the UK where 49% of breakthrough artists are domestic and 47% international. That gives you an idea of how hard America is. On a long term Adele has a very good shot with America. We can get a good solid base with this record, in terms of sales and also in terms of touring. And we can grow it on to the next release.
I still think that everybody treats the music industry like a race at the moment. The one thing you have to do with record one now is to get in the game. Artists that come with a first record that is phenomenally successful, sometimes leave you nowhere to go.
I like it that music is changing that way. Itís very hard these days to be signed to a major record company and have your first two albums completely stiff everywhere and then still be in a record deal. In terms of growing from record to record, in terms of both your fanbase and your record sales, I still think thatís achievable.
Muse is arguably one of the biggest live bands we have and yet theyíve taken five records in order to be able to sell out two Wembley Stadiums. They wouldnít have done it on album one. Same goes for Amy Winehouse.
How did I Monster songs appear in TV ads and programmes?
A lot of people are creative and they like to search out new music. L-agencies have very good people involved as well. The same as the sync companies do. They have their ear to the ground. Theyíre clued up.
The really positive thing at the moment now is that everybody is working with some online service. Whether thatís downloading or going to Hype Machine or Pitchfork. The world has become a worldwide market. Thatís exciting. People hear songs that they like and theyíre clued up, and they bear those songs in mind, and the next thing you know someone is calling you from an L-agency or a production company and theyíre interested in licensing your track.
Dean Honer from I Monster is also in a band called All Seeing Eye that had a few hits on London Records about seven or eight years ago. They play live, but ultimately theyíre producer-based.
In what way do you adapt to all the changes over the years as a manager?
Itís always about being open to new ideas and new suggestions. People love music, and they always will. Because youíve got different income streams, itís about getting your music heard. Itís easier in 2008 to get your music heard than it was in 1998.
People are scared of that, because they think people arenít paying for it. No doubt, physical sales are down, but the problem is that major record companies did not embrace new technology quick enough. Iím the complete opposite. Iím always about being fresh, being open to new ideas. Even the business models and how you can monetise some of these other things, is creative. Iím very open to that.
I have a thirst for knowledge. Iím always wanting to learn. The great thing about the music industry is that itís an evolving industry. Nobody knows everything. Itís really exciting to me that weíre finding out how people are going to be getting their music in five yearsí time. I just donít want to be formulaic.
As you find new avenues to develop your artists, youíre always trying to get the act up to the highest standard behind the scenes. What does that highest standard consist of? Itís all about having incredibly strong attention to detail. And a lot of that is driven by the artist. Tom Vek, for example, is a graphic designer. He designs all his own sleeves, his own website, he does his own merchandise.
Iím lucky in certain cases that I have artists that are pretty hands-on with not just the music but with every other aspect of it.
Whatís coming up in 2008 for September Management?
The things that Iím conscious about are continuing the Adele record. And weíre now in a situation where there are three of my artists working on their second album.
The one interesting thing about the music industry now, and also the frightening thing about it, is that you can go down from a million records to 100,000 overnight. You see these artists that have these phenomenally successful records and the second one comes out, and itís like theyíve sold 10% of what the first record made.
I donít think that ever happened before. There is so much choice now that I donít know if in terms of record buying loyalties what itís anything like it was ten years ago. If you had an artist that sold a million records ten years ago, you could sell half of that with the second album even if itís a poor production. Now if you have a poor record, you can go down from huge sales to a fraction of what you sold before.
Iím focusing on making sure that weíve got a really good strong second album from Tom, Jamie and Jack. And Iím starting on Adeleís second album, and would also now like to take on something new.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* XL Recordings head Richard Russell on Jack White and M.I.A
* Adele writer-producer Fraser T Smith on working with Tinchy Stryder