‘Artists are the ultimate entrepreneurs, they put so much at stake to do their job and you have to remember that.’

Trailblazers is an MBW interview series that turns the spotlight on music entrepreneurs with the potential to become the global business power players of tomorrow. This time, we speak to Tommas Arnby, CEO and Founder of Locomotion Entertainment and manager of rising superstar Yungblud. Trailblazers is supported by TuneCore.

When Tommas Arnby first met Yungblud, the star was stood on a table, screaming his head off.

Arnby – at the time managing some big Scandinavian artists through his Locomotion Entertainment company – had been invited along to a Chris Difford songwriting retreat in the English countryside to check out this kid called Dom Harrison – who duly made quite an impression as he performed the song he’d written that day.

“His energy blew me away,” says Arnby today. “We got chatting. I had a relatively successful management business, but I was missing doing something disruptive, so me and Dom met each other at the right time.

“He felt quite misunderstood, so if I did anything for Dom, it was to empower him,” he adds. “People he’d worked with before me had told him he’d have to tone things down if he wanted a career in music but I was like, ‘No, you should go there. I can’t promise you’ll be successful, but in my experience you’re more likely to be successful if you’re authentic’.”

And so it proved. Yungblud, now signed to Geffen/Polydor and with two UK No.1 albums to his name, found the executive who would back his maverick talent all the way to the top, and Arnby found the mainstream-busting alternative star he’d been looking for throughout his decades in the industry.

Arnby’s own journey began in Denmark when, as a 12-year-old, he and his friends would spend all their spare time in the music shop across the road from their school. Eventually, the owner told them they had to buy something or get out – and the young Arnby shelled out on a pair of drumsticks.

A gig by ZZ Top inspired him to actually start playing and a few years later, having inherited some money from his grandmother, he headed to Los Angeles to attend the Musicians Institute, studying alongside future Chili Pepper Chad Smith.

From there, he went to London, hanging out on the vibrant 1990s Crouch End scene centred around Dave Stewart’s The Church Studios, even being gifted Clem Burke’s old drumkit by Martin Chambers of The Pretenders.

Arnby joined post-Britpoppers Subcircus on drums but, while the band toured with many leading 1990s lights, from Suede to Stereophonics, and were signed to Dreamworks in the US by Mo Ostin, Michael Ostin and Lenny Waronker (“The A&R staff were more famous than any of the artists!”), they never quite made it.

When the band split, Arnby joined Sony Music as head of A&R for the Nordics, signing and helping to reinvent US star Beth Hart and persuading David Bowie, no less, to guest on an album by Danish rockers Kashmir (“Well, Tony Visconti did that to be fair, but I helped push him over the edge”).

He formed a JV label with EMI, dabbled in tech companies such as All Digital Downloads and helped forge Lego’s music strategy, before forming Locomotion in 2010 in an era of rapid change for the music business.

“I knew I wanted to be part of where the industry was heading, rather than being stuck in the old system, which was falling apart fast,” he says. “I set up Locomotion as a platform to do artist development and take advantage of new opportunities. Sync was a big one, and we became quite successful at that quite quickly.”

“I was missing doing something disruptive, so me and Dom met at the right time.”

Locomotion’s flexibility also allowed Yungblud to blaze the road less travelled to the top, taking off in the Netherlands and Australia first, before taking the Warped Tour 2018 by storm and finally returning to his native Britain as an oven-ready rock star.

In 2022, Arnby formed artist development company Special Projects with Billie Eilish’s agent, Mike Malak, with clients including Nieve Ella, Hannah Grae, Chinchilla and many top songwriters and producers.

Today, Arnby is holding court in the compact-but-vibrant West London Special Projects office, fighting off jetlag from a trip to Los Angeles, but fizzing with enthusiasm over Yungblud’s future and SP’s roster of up-and-coming talent.

“There was no game plan for Special Projects, Mike and I just like working together,” he grins. “Mike is so prolific in identifying talent early and hopefully my job is knowing what to do with it.”

He hints that some external investment may soon be coming to Special Projects, and they’re actively looking to buy into other management companies, but he stresses the firm “definitely wants to maintain its boutique status”.

“We’re not in a rush,” he grins. “We want to build an empowering culture: we want people who work here to feel like they’re building for themselves as well as me, Mike and the company.”

In the meantime, it’s time for Arnby to sit down with MBW and talk Yungblud, TikTok and, of course, the 1990s…

Your band Subcircus never quite made it. How frustrating was that?

We were one of those close-but-no-cigar bands that came out of the nineties. There were lots of amazing experiences, but commercial success wasn’t for us. I had to figure out other ways of achieving that.

And, in retrospect, that was a really great driver for me to end up doing this job. Subcircus got the art right, but we didn’t get the business right and I almost needed to fulfil that for other people, because I didn’t have that myself as an artist. 

That feeling that you worked so hard but didn’t quite nail it for a number of different reasons was tough, but it was a great process for me to end up doing A&R and becoming a manager, understanding what it feels like when someone delivers bad news and when things don’t go to plan.

So your experiences as an artist gave you an advantage as a manager?

Yeah, hugely. If you’d asked me when I was a musician if I’d end up doing this job, I’d have told you to fuck off! It was the last job I’d have wanted to do. I was always the outspoken one that challenged managers and product managers. 

But I ended up with an artist that needed someone to take the calls and I knew how to do that by instinct. I made a promise to myself: if I’m going to do this job – and it sounds like a cliché – I want to truly put the artist and the music before the business. And I think I’ve held that promise up. 

The artists I’ve worked with throughout the years, it’s always been about supporting their vision. They should always be the driver of their art and their career, rather than having to conform to other things in order to have a career.

What did you learn from being involved with tech companies?

What I learned is how little time you get to get it right. It’s very much investment-by-numbers for some of these start-ups and that didn’t sit very well with me, coming from a world of dealing with artists, where as long as there’s belief, there’s a chance that this can happen and be brilliant. 

You don’t get chances like that in tech. It’s very cut-throat. I mean, music is cut-throat too, but in a different way.

Yungblud was pretty out of step with current music trends when he started. How did you overcome that?

We were very much doing it on our own, but that mindset of being the underdog, not taking anything for granted and working super hard played in our favour. Once he got a taste and a bit of fandom, there was nothing stopping him. 

The thing about him is, he sees everybody. If he walks into a room and there’s a child there, he sees the child immediately and is at their level; that’s such an asset as an artist.

I remember one small festival in the first year where we did a meet and greet and 400 Dutch kids turned up. You could see how hypnotised they were and how he engaged them, there was so much compassion from him towards them. 

In the van on the way back to whatever shabby hotel we were staying in, I said, ‘How did that feel?’ And he said, ‘I want that everywhere, as much as possible’. I’ve worked with other artists who would have been like, ‘That was a bit much, next time can we make sure that’s a bit more planned?’, but any opportunity to connect with people, Dom was right in there.

How big can he get?

He’s about to get a hell of a lot bigger. We’ve never had a bonafide hit in America, but we’ve got songs that are double Platinum there. Alternative music is in the best place it’s been for many years. Anything is possible, it’s about how good the music is and how hard you work. Chasing a hit is probably a recipe for disappointment. Whereas if you focus on real audience and artistic growth then the sky’s the limit.

How would you describe your management style?

I’m a bit of a hippie. That’s no secret! It’s great that you can build businesses, but it’s really about putting focus on supporting artists’ vision, supporting them when they’re not confident, uplifting them and clearing the space. 

It actually gets harder the more successful you get, because there are financial expectations and expectations from label partners, but artists maintaining their authenticity and supporting them in being creatively fearless is the goal. I got to know [Linkin Park manager] Bill Silva a bit during COVID and he said, ‘Make sure you create enough space for them to be themselves and they will always surprise you’.

How often do you disagree with your artists?

All the time! There’s a lot of bad news, it’s all about valleys and hills, but you focus on the bigger picture. You’ve got to always be honest. It helps having kids, it’s a very similar psychology. 

“It’s a very competitive business and people want us to fail; let’s look at how we can win.”

Artists are the ultimate entrepreneurs, they put so much at stake to do their job and you have to remember that. Sometimes they’re vulnerable and you can help them by reframing what success looks like and make sure that is achievable. If you reach that goal today, you can reach another goal tomorrow and just keep focusing on progress.

That’s my thing. If I feel like they’re blocking themselves from evolving, that’s when we have the harder conversations. You’ve got to keep moving, it is still a very competitive business and people want us to fail; let’s look how we can win.

Yungblud is huge on TikTok. How do you feel about his music coming off there during the platform’s dispute with Universal?

It’s actually kind of liberating. The way Dom tackled that was so brilliant, he was like, it’s actually a reminder that maybe we are too bogged down with how our stuff engages on TikTok in the first hour, when we should really focus on spending more of our time writing music, and if it’s good enough it will find an audience. 

Most of my artists felt the same thing; let’s focus on the art, not on the engagement. You need more than a viral moment in order to build real value and grow real audiences.

Dom is massive on TikTok but he’s also an arena artist, so we are lucky we have many outlets to reach our fans. We also have 20+ fan accounts that we talk to on a daily basis, so we have a lot of control over what happens to our output outside of TikTok and thank God for that!

If you could change one thing about today’s music industry, right here and now, what would it be and why?

Sometimes there’s a disconnect between [managers] who take risks in order to give artists a fair chance in a super-competitive environment, and the legal community. They need to support
us more. 

Gone are the days when you make three demos, go and see your mates at a major label and hustle a deal, the lawyer gets the deal, you do your management piece and hope for the best. Today, there’s no hoping, you’ve got to believe and put your own resources into helping these artists grab the first audiences that hopefully become a career later down the line. 

You can actually build together, take risks together, learn together and sometimes the idea of partnering and investing into their rights as well as managing them makes total sense.

You can’t just say as a matter of principle that one size fits all. It’s not always a grab or unfair. The legal community needs to get with the programme, they’re a bit stuck in their ways sometimes!

Finally, with all the 1990s nostalgia these days, any chance of a Subcircus reunion?

[Laughs] I’ll make the call! But I’d better get my son to be the drummer, because he’s much better than I ever was. I’m a bit rusty!

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Trailblazers is supported by TuneCoreTuneCore provides self-releasing artists with technology and services across distribution, publishing administration, and a range of promotional services. TuneCore is part of Believe

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