‘I realised that no-one in the music business knew what they were doing’

Just over two years ago, Carl Hitchborn was skint – having maxed out £15,000 on three credit cards in a high-risk attempt to get his business going. Today, he’s the owner of one of the UK’s most talked-about and disruptive new music companies.

London-based High Time is an artist management house and record company, in addition to being a music publisher, merchandise and branding hub and, of late, even an independent concert promoter.

Hitchborn’s swift journey from potless chancer to successful entertainment entrepreneur is one rooted in a belief that the traditional music business – particularly, the traditional record business – is wrong-headed, unethical and a bad bet for artists.

He believed it when he started High Time in 2015, he believed it while tirelessly building his company across the next two years, and he believed it backstage at Brixton Academy and Manchester Apollo in January, where High Time’s star charges, The Hunna, played a run of nights to packed audiences.

“Carl is someone who is not ‘stuck on stupid’ by legacy practices, but instead thinks in ways that work today.”

Lyor Cohen

The Watford band, signed to High Time across management, records, publishing and more, have an array of impressive stats in their industry armoury. These include over 80m streams on Spotify, 300,000-plus Facebook fans and more than 75,000 tickets sold to date.

Thanks to a licensing deal inked with now-Youtube global music chief Lyor Cohen, The Hunna are signed to 300 Entertainment in the US.

The rise of High Time, and Hitchborn’s impact on the industry, have left Cohen deeply impressed.

“The Baker, as I call Carl, is someone who is not ‘stuck on stupid’ by legacy practices, but instead thinks in ways that work today,” says Cohen.

“Direct-to-consumer is his passion; The Baker is undeterred in helping The Hunna find and cultivate their voice and fans.”

Carl Hitchborn (pictured, main) grew up in Norwich, where he spent the early portion of adulthood working in his parents’ local bakery.

This might seem a pretty unlikely setting for someone to learn the fundamentals of the music business – and, in a way, that’s exactly the point.

One day, in his mid-thirties, Hitchborn decided he was going to take everything he’d learnt in the world of bread-making, and apply it to the music industry. Just like that.

In doing so, he had an inkling that he could create a new kind of global entertainment company.

There was just one problem, which Hitchborn says his wife laid out plainly for him at the time: “You don’t know anything about the music industry, and you don’t know anyone in the music industry.”

A fair argument. But Hitchborn was determined to learn. And then he discovered something: the more he learnt about the music business, the more flaws he found.

“I thought, ‘What even is this industry? This is the most insane thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Hitchborn explains to MBUK: “I started to contact promoters in Norwich and Ipswich, then I started meeting studios and producers in London.

“I realised very quickly that literally nobody in the music business knew what they were doing. And I thought, ‘What even is this industry? This is the most insane thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’”

The biggest cognitive challenge Hitchborn faced, compared with the certainty of selling buns and cakes, was the fundamental truism on which so much of the blockbuster music industry is based.

You know, the one which reads: only a really small percentage of signed artists will ever end up with a happy result, and that’s the way it is.

“I worked out that people at labels were throwing mud at the wall and hoping something would stick,” says Hitchborn. “I said to my wife: ‘This is the equivalent of us making 25 different products in our shop, only one of them selling – and then us dumping the other 24 in the bin. We’d go out of business in a flash!’”

So Hitchborn decided, instead of singing from anyone else’s hymn sheet, he was going to do things his way – using the three rules he knew best.

Rule one of running a local bakery: make sure the product is better than anyone else’s. Rule two of running a local bakery: don’t scrimp on the deal you cut your suppliers, or it will impact their loyalty and motivation. And rule three of running a local bakery: target your marketing to your key captive clientele.

High Time’s first signing were Coasts, a band from Hitchborn’s home town of Norwich.  Having inked a deal with Hitchborn in 2013, the five-piece soon discovered how serious he was about translating the take-no-prisoners quality control of running a bakery into the world of music.

“I got given Coasts’ demos, which weren’t great, but I really liked them as people,” says Hitchborn. “In our first meeting, [Coasts guitarist] Liam said to me, ‘I want us to be the biggest band in the world and I want to be the biggest songwriter in the world.’ I loved that – but I told them the songs weren’t good enough, and they needed to give me product that was worthy of me putting my own money in.”

It was around this juncture that Hitchborn presented a contract to Coasts which still defines what he sees as one of High Time’s key differences to traditional ‘labels’.

Those inverted commas are essential, by the way, because High Time believes that reducing itself – and its artists – to one revenue source is foolishly reductive, and only benefits third parties.

“In essence, our deals with our artists are 50/50 on all income streams,” explains Hitchborn. “That’s recorded music, publishing, live, merch, brands – everything.

“The artist gets 50% net profit off the top; for every pound that comes in we get half each.

“50/50 makes complete sense, and it’s how it should be. It’s a heck of a lot fairer than the royalties you see in major deals which can be like, 16%, with 25% packaging deductions on digital – what the hell is that about?

“the structure that [music industry lawyers] have created is unnecessary and manufactured; I am 100% sure about that.”

“Lawyers are going to hate us because what we offer artists is a very straightforward deal with no need for negotiation.”

Ah, lawyers. Hitchborn has an interesting point to make about the industry’s legal eagles – and it’s not very complimentary.

To be blunt, he thinks they’re screwing everything up for everyone else: “The self-interest of lawyers has created this situation where artists apparently need separate parties as their label, their publisher, their merch provider, their publicity agent, their live promoter etc. The lawyers get paid off all of those deals. But the structure they have created is unnecessary and manufactured; I am 100% sure about that.”

He adds: “When you have all these different people in an artist’s life, you can’t get anything done. I’ve seen it first-hand in the majors – certain decisions above a certain price need a certain number of approvals, and you finally get the green light six weeks after it was supposed to be done in the first place. That’s bullshit, and it’s damaging to artists’ careers.

“It all feeds in to the industry’s typical model, where the artist that wins pays for all of those that don’t – and then even the one who does win is tied to a contract that’s such a screw-over they’re never going to make any real money. That setup is wrong, both ethically and as a point of principle, because we’re talking about actual people’s lives.

“Most of these artists are are young and naive, and they think signing to a record company is the realisation of a dream – that signing a deal means ‘making it’.

“The sad fact is, if these people were put through the right processes and it was done in the right way, ‘making it’ is exactly what they would be doing.”

As you can tell by now, Hitchborn isn’t exactly scared to put forward opinions that challenge music business norms.

Before he lets rip on a couple of other ways that he believes the music business needs to change in the modern era, let’s go back to autumn 2015 – when Hitchborn maxed out fifteen grand on those credit cards.

“The Hunna were ready to launch, we made sure they had the songs and the work ethic,” says Hitchborn. “We knew what we had and felt if we could get things moving we could leverage the opportunity. That was when I decided to go for broke.”

He adds: “At that point, I literally had no spare money left, enough to feed my kids and just about pay the rent. So I went to Virgin, Lloyds and Barclays, got three new credit cards – £5,000 on each one. We made a 45-second sizzle video for no money, then in September/October 2014, we literally spent the entire £15,000 in seven days on social media marketing. And then it went boom.”

Hitchborn’s risky roll of the dice came two years after his first foray into the music business with Coasts. On that project, he used spare cash from his bakery business to invest in the Norwich-based band, up to the point of them writing and recording an EP – Paradise – which, after much quality control, was deemed up to scratch by Hitchborn and released in 2013.

Its standout track, Oceans, has ended up shifting over 100,000 units (including streaming equivalents), and has to date been played over 12m times on Spotify. The subsequent attention Coasts received led to a services and distribution agreement with Warner’s ADA, which has since been scaled back to a pure distribution arrangement.

“Everything we’ve achieved at this company is thanks to the money we invested at the very beginning in social media, particularly Facebook.”

High Time is now widely regarded in the industry as having something of a ‘secret sauce’ when it comes to marketing on Facebook in particular. Across Coasts and The Hunna alone, the firm’s roster has almost 500,000 Facebook followers, while Hitchborn says its mailing database has surpassed 100,000 fans.

“It’s not really about any kind of special formula, it’s about commitment – and thinking very carefully about what fans actually want,” says Hitchborn of his firm’s social media marketing strategy. “People at major labels working on new acts just can’t access the same level of money that we put into social media – there are too many barriers.

“Everything we’ve achieved at this company is thanks to the money we invested at the very beginning in social media, particularly Facebook. We can genuinely say we broke The Hunna, primarily, through our investment in that one platform.”

He adds: “I went to a get-together in the entertainment industry last year [at] Facebook where there were a lot of heads of digital marketing from the major labels. The discussion was about the fact people don’t listen very often to the sound on videos on Facebook – something like 85% of video is watched without the volume up.

“At the end [of the presentation] someone put their hand up and said to Facebook, I’m really not happy about this – you need to tell us how to get people to listen to our videos. The answer is actually simple: get over it.

“The consumer is on a platform where they have demonstrated they want to watch, not listen at that point. Your job is to then get them onto a platform where they do want to listen – Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes etc.

“People over-complicate Facebook and focus on the wrong thing – trying to change the habits of everyone in the world to fit into their view of how it should be. That’s a road to insanity!”

It’s not just spending power that has given High Time an edge in the digital world, however. Hitchborn has invested significant resources in full-time photographers and videographers, which he says creates a constant feed of “real-time social media content”.

He comments: “Go to most record labels and they’ll get someone to take some tour photos for a new artist which they’ll then use the whole year round. What they don’t seem to understand is the value of context, the power of: ‘Hey we’re here right now – we just did this.’

“We invest in quality people and quality content, and then we invest in amplifying that content. If you amplify content that’s rubbish, you will get rubbish results.”

“In today’s world, if you don’t realise that to be globally successful you have to be a tech company at the core of your business then you’ve got an issue.”

Interestingly, until recently, Hitchborn’s 13-strong UK staff didn’t include a single employee who previously worked in the music business. In fact, the third person he recruited was a software developer – and High Time now has two full-time coders.

“There’s a certain way people in the music business do things, majors especially, where you get a traditional product manager’s view of what marketing is,” says Hitchborn. “That inevitably means you have to compromise on how things should be done today, and you lose the vision.

“Bringing in people with no preconceived ideas of how the music business should work is healthy. It has a honeypot effect – I get emails every day from creative people with portfolios who want to be part of what we do.

“In today’s world, if you don’t realise that to be globally successful you have to be a tech company at the core of your business then you’ve got an issue.”

Hitchborn has continually re-invested High Time’s profit to expand his operation. His company recently became an independent promoter of its own acts’ shows, although it still part-relies on WME as its agent.

This WME partnership has seen both The Hunna and Coasts start the year with tours in Australia, Europe and shortly the USA. Once you know what you’re doing in the complex world of live, says Hitchborn, bringing promotion in-house makes a ton of business sense.

“It’s time-consuming, but there are a lot of advantages,” he explains. “Take, for example, The Hunna at Brixton. Had we gone with the usual large promoters we would have been given a cookie-cutter package, ‘This is what we’ll spend on national ads, print, Radio X…’ and before you know it they’ve spent the bulk of the marketing budget in the first week.

“The more we grow, the more power we’ll have.”

“We were cleverer than that. Our methods of marketing allowed us to spend a fraction of what others would spend to sell out The Hunna shows, because we knew precisely who to target and how to target them. And now we can re-invest the money we saved by doing it our way in more sensible areas of the artist’s career, such as building in new territories.”

Hitchborn even has an aspiration for High Time to run its own branded UK festival in the next few years, featuring an exclusive roster of its own artists. You wouldn’t bet against him.

“We’re getting pools of data about fans and audiences we can access right now,” he says. “We’re building our own ticketing engine. The more we grow, the more power we’ll have.”

One person who certainly believes High Time’s power will continue to grow is Christian Tattersfield, founder of Good Soldier Songs/Records and the former boss of Warner Music UK.

Good Soldier has partnered with Hitchborn’s company on publishing for The Hunna, and the two firms enjoy a close working relationship.

“Carl is an original thinker and a force of nature,” says Tattersfield. “It’s been a great experience partnering with him on the incredible rise of The Hunna.”

Despite his keenness to rubbish longstanding music biz strategies, Hitchborn concedes that certain A&R executives hold at least one principle with which he’s in full agreement: quality is everything.

“Spending years as a baker made me so product-focused,” he says. “Working in that environment teaches you that a great product is simply a product lots of people want to have. We’ve taken that approach to music.”

“Carl is an original thinker and a force of nature.”

Christian Tattersfield, Good Soldier

As Hitchborn’s company has grown and re-invested, so High Time has forged working relationships with top songwriters such as Jamie Scott and Jonny Coffer, who have both been working with emerging High Time artists.

“Every single project we do is a process,” says Hitchborn. “We hammer down on getting the songs great first, because that’s where everything begins. Then it’s about going into the studio and making the demos as good as they can be, before recording the final cut.

“After that it’s about putting into practice everything we’ve learned about blowing an act up. So much of that is in contrast to what the music business has always done, and it means we are investing heavily while minimising our risk.

“The things I hate about the music business will be there forever, which is great news for High Time.

“It means we’re always going to be able to do things that others simply can’t do.”

This article originally appeared in the second issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK (pictured), which is out now.

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