Can Sony break another major new British artist out of Europe?

It’s been four years and two months since George Ezra’s Budapest landed in the Top 10 of Italy’s national chart.

This was something of a landmark moment for Sony Music UK in the modern era: proof that a domestic priority artist could be broken as a commercial property in mainland Europe before building their story back home.

Ezra went on to score heavyweight success in the likes of Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland before becoming a star with staying power in his homeland.

His first album, Wanted on Voyage (2014), is now four-times platinum in the UK, while his follow up – Staying At Tamara’s – hit No.1 in Blighty last month with the fastest-selling album of the year.

Sony Music has seen similar success with other British artists who found their feet abroad: not least James Arthur (on his second album campaign) and Rag N Bone Man, who dominated charts in Germany in 2016 before becoming a multi-BRIT Award-winning star in the UK.

Now, Sony is aiming to repeat the trick for another British-born singer/songwriter priority, Tom Walker – who is signed to London-based Relentless.

Walker’s Leave A Light On, co-written with UK hitmaker Steve Mac, has become a bona fide smash in Europe.

The record, initially released in October last year, is already a platinum-seller in France, Italy and Switzerland, and has gone gold in Germany and Austria.

“Tom’s profile in Europe has been building to the point that it’s now getting a real head of steam,” says Sony Music UK EVP, Mark Collen. “George Ezra’s success started in Southern Europe and grew north, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing with Tom as we move into the Benelux and Nordics.

“It feels like we’ve got a record that’s really moving, but also, more importantly, that we have a real artist proposition.”

“George Ezra’s success started in Southern Europe and grew north, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing with Tom as we move into the Benelux and Nordics.”

Mark Collen, Sony Music

Ensuring that Walker has been able to capitalize on the track’s success in Europe, says Collen, has required consistent availability for promo appearances across TV and radio – not least France, where Walker has been playlisted by the likes of NRJ, RTL and Virgin, while climbing to No.1 on the SNEP singles chart, where it has spent 6 weeks so far.

“We’re very focussed on building a strong narrative around our artist stories – going deep before we go wide. It’s vital that we aren’t just chasing an opportunity on a record but building strong foundations for the next one, and the one after that,” adds Collen.

Says Walker’s manager at Covert Talent, Simon King: “I’ve always believed in building a strong foundation for a career artist like Tom and not chasing a quick one off hit. Relentless & Sony Music have been amazing at allowing us to do this both in U.K. and with their great teams internationally.

“This combined with Tom’s quality of songwriting, fantastic work ethic, ambition and commitment to growing a global live fan base has given him the springboard to build a long term career.

“We’ve had ‘Leave A Light On’ in our arsenal for over a year but have waited until the right elements were in place before releasing it and the patience to allow it to build globally.”

Sony’s plot to build Walker into a globally recognisable artist has been given a leg-up recently from a member of its extended family: Sony Bravia have just picked Leave A Light On as the sound-bed for its global OLED TV campaign, ‘Window Into Daytime’, which launches on May 7th.

Created by DDB Berlin, the creative was shot in New Zealand and will run for ten weeks across Europe with 60-second, 30-second and 20-second edits being published across TV and social platforms.

Interestingly, the artist may not yet be a blockbuster star in the UK, but that doesn’t mean local media back home hasn’t been plentiful and valuable – from one player in particular.

Walker’s inclusion on BBC Radio 1‘s Brit List last year (alongside Anne-Marie, Declan McKenna, J Hus, JP Cooper, Sampha, Stefflon Don, Stormzy, and The Amazons) has helped him connect with mainstream audiences in the UK and internationally. Sony and Relentless say it was a huge bonus to have a world-renowned tastemaker like Radio 1 backing Walker when pitching him to European radio stations.

“We’re always really encouraged by stories like Tom’s.”

Chris Price, BBC

Chris Price, Head of Music for BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra, says: “When we added Tom to Radio 1’s Brit List in July last year, he received a three-single playlist commitment including at least one A List. Knowing that you have the long term support of a major national network in your home territory is a powerful calling card to help build your story outside the BBC.

‘Leave A Light On’, Walker’s second Radio 1 playlist addition, stayed on rotation at the station for 11 weeks – enough to get him within sniffing distance of the UK’s Official Top 40 and bolster the airplay story in Europe.

Adds Price: “We’re always really encouraged by stories like Tom’s; of British artists using the springboard that Brit List offers to open up other media and new territories.

“That’s exactly the international artist development ambition we had when Brit List was conceived.”

The plan now for Walker involves studio sessions with Steve Mac in May, a new single in June, and an extremely busy gigging schedule with appearances booked at 34 European festivals over the summer, Tom’s first headline US tour in August, and a UK and European tour booked in October/November. His debut album will come in late 2018/early 2019.

If Sony can break Walker to the degree the major believes it can, he will become at least the third major-league British star at the company who has become famous on the continent before the country he calls home.

It’s not a phenomenon exclusive to Sony, either: Dua Lipa, with more than a billion streams and a US Top 10 album, is inarguably one of the hottest pop stars on the planet in 2018.

Yet as far back as 2015, the Warner Bros-star was topping charts in Belgium with Be The One.

Says Collen: “There’s a very receptive media landscape to big songs in Europe, combined with strong voices. It’s part of the strong music heritage of markets such as Italy and France where storytelling in song is a cultural centrepiece.

He adds: “If you want to truly break an artist proposition, over just a track, it’s a huge help to have media backing like that to help further contextualise an artist over and above their streaming success.”

“our plan was based on live shows and streaming”

Tom Walker signed to Sony’s London-based Relentless Records two-and-a-half years ago.

Below, MBW interviews Relentless Records MD, Shabs Jobanputra (pictured inset) about how the label has worked to build the artist to date – and its plans for the future…

How and when did you sign Tom Walker?

We signed Tom two-and-a-half years ago, really early – he didn’t have a Facebook page, hadn’t really done any gigs at all, just come out of a songwriting course.

We loved his voice and we really liked one song he had, so we went to see him live. We thought he was a universal voice with a great character. We spent the last two and a half years basically building a platform and doing artist development, building his repertoire of songs.

We helped his songwriting, people he’s working with – all this stuff people say labels don’t do!

What was your strategy for him?

It was always about building an audience, and our plan was based on live shows and streaming. How do we build a bunch of songs, like an independent artist would do, in order to get shows and start making money?

It was less about ‘can we get on radio’, more about can we build a repertoire of songs that would give him a streaming platform that would enable him to get more shows.

From there he would build his artistry, become more confident, he’d be working with different people and we just kept having that general organic build where things would get moving ahead slowly but surely, until we thought we had the right repertoire to move it a bit further.

People do say labels are signing acts later and management and publishers doing a lot of the development work. What do you thing about that, and what made you want to get involved with Tom so early?

People always have a go at labels for goal-hanging! But the job of Relentless has always been to try and do things and develop them, whether it’s Cage The Elephant, Seth Lakeman, KT Tunstall or Tom Walker.

We use those really good values about building artists and their repertoire and letting them build in their own time.

What capacity venues is he playing now?

All his tour dates are sold out, but Tom is still at an early stage – it’s the start of the beginning as it were. It’s at that lovely point where it’s about to break, probably worth 2-2.5k tickets in each area it’s moving – but you can see that it’s going to get to 5 and 10k if all goes well.

He’s breaking on his own terms, confidently, with a bunch of songs to come that are outstanding on top of what we are doing now.

It’s not, ‘Oh we’ve got one record let’s quickly go and find another one.’ We’ve got a bank of repertoire that’s great because we’ve taken the time doing it. In a nice way we’re quietly confident about where we are going and the size of venues and scale. We’re 1.5m singles globally but we’ve only just started.

How important were territories outside the UK and was there anywhere you focused on in particular?

Radio 1 have been really important at the start, they put him on their Brit List. We were saying to them there’s been a history of acts breaking out of GSA (Germany, Switzerland, Austria) and coming back, why don’t we do it together?

They were great because they gave us the confidence and backed the artist which is really important. It meant that we had much more confidence within all the territories, particularly where it started which was Italy and Germany, and Switzerland.

What do you make of the idea that it’s hard to break new acts in the UK right now?

I completely agree with that statement. Streaming has meant that people can make a living which is great to a certain point if you’re independent or doing your own thing, but it means there are a lot more artists who are faceless to people. Ones that they can connect to as real brands are really hard to penetrate because there is so much wallpaper, for want of a better phrase. It’s hard to cut through and go, ‘Right, that is someone you can trust and believe in.’

The BBC have got to a point where they know how hard it is and we’ve all got to that place where we know how ridiculously difficult it is to make a brand that cuts through alongside a Netflix show, or Ed Sheeran, so the scale of the task is greater – but the dividends are greater once you build that brand.

With tom, do you use radio to accelerate streaming or vice versa?

Our whole plan was live and streaming. Get streaming to work, sell tickets, build an audience, then when we felt we had records that were relevant and had a hope at radio we went there.

How did you gain traction on streaming services with a new artist?

We’ve had him on all these playlists [typically] on in the background – at home cooking or whatever – and it builds some familiarity but there is no awareness.

So then you’ve got to build awareness by doing shows – and then you’ve got to understand the data. Where we advertise builds more awareness, more familiarity, more tickets, better playlists, more traction that leads to more radio and all the things that work. I’m simplifying what is a very painful and long process but that is the rule.

There is no fast ‘let’s get it in radio, let’s get a couple of TV spots, press, and bish bash bosh’, that doesn’t exist anymore. You can’t market your way out these things like you used to be able to.

It’s about repertoire, it’s about the artist and whether people care.

What can we expect from the album?

It’s a bit early to say but we’ve got a really fantastic set of songs to come. It’s just at that nice point where we know what we want to do, but we can slightly switch it if we need to. The bank of songs and repertoire is so good. It’s one of those albums you can listen to in many environments.

The songs have a real character and charisma, that can go from guitar solos to heart warming songwriting, 1-1 to big productions like Angels, so live is fantastic and that’s why it’s really working. The album will be along similar lines.

Of all the great things I could say about Tom, and there are so many, I really trust him in the studio in terms of finding the sound that’s good for him.

His inbuilt antenna in knowing what is right for him – and what will connect to an audience – just works.

In the list of best selling albums in Q1 this year, there are only two entries in the Top that have been released this year and both are from the US. How important is hitting a high chart position to you?

Obviously I want to get the numbers. Where it charts? Everyone knows that sometimes where a record charts and how long it lasts are not the same thing.

I’d rather have a long-selling great body of work that the artist is overjoyed to release and jumping up and down wanting to play live than just a number for the sake of a number.Music Business Worldwide

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