When, as a student, Andy Varley would drive between the University of Kent and his home town of Gillingham, he would always have BBC Radio 1 on in the car.
As he tuned in to shows such as The Sunday Surgery, he would listen intently, marvelling at the faraway world of radio broadcasting and the almost mythical people who worked in it.
Fast-forward to 2023 and many of those people are now on Varley’s books at his company, Insanity. Indeed, some days, you could listen to Insanity clients almost from dawn to dusk: from daytime stalwarts such as Vick Hope, Jordan North and Mollie King to rising stars like Nat O’Leary, Sian Eleri and Yinka Bokinni on Radio 1 – plus the likes of Jo Whiley, Roman Kemp and Dev Griffin on other networks: Insanity rules radio.
It’s a measure of how far Insanity has come since a teenage Varley started it in his bedroom as a music events business, often promoting club nights that he himself was too young to attend (“I blagged my age for the first five years of my career!”). Having promoted shows all through his time at university, he moved into the booking agency business, eventually finding a “sweet spot” in booking radio DJs into clubs during the superclub era.
Indeed, it was one such client, Zane Lowe – whom Varley helped develop the Home Taping touring concept – who opened his eyes to the wider ecosystem developing around music.
“Working with a DJ like Zane who had huge ambitions for music really rubbed off on me,” says Varley today from Brighton, where he’s juggling his hectic work schedule with easing his son into the primary school routine. “There’s an argument to say that, if I hadn’t worked with Zane as his booking agent, maybe the company wouldn’t have ended up being as diversified as it has become.”
And, nowadays, the word ‘diversified’ scarcely does justice to the Insanity empire, which celebrated its 25th year in business last year.
From the record company (a joint venture with Sony Music and home to Tom Grennan and Joy Crookes, as well as the label which relaunched Craig David as a national treasure, before he departed on good terms to BMG); to the content creation house Insanity Studios; via management (of everyone from top broadcasters to cutting edge social media types); the booking agency and brand partnerships, Insanity’s influence now extends to every corner of the entertainment industry. And there’s a music publishing company on the way that Varley pledges will “turn the publishing world on its head” when it launches.
He credits his young, diverse team (the company has 80 staff in London and Los Angeles) with all of this success, but the way the company has developed way beyond music is surely down to Varley himself, a seemingly unflappable character who always has one eye on where the industry is going next.
The keen talent-spotting and artist development instincts that have helped Grennan and Crookes (both currently working on their next albums) become rare UK artist breakouts in recent years – and seen Insanity snap up burgeoning talents such as Talia Mar (management) and Siights (label) – have also been applied to that wider world. Insanity signed management client Maya Jama when she was a Rinse FM DJ and has helped guide her to her current status as perhaps the most in-demand presenter in
“When you look at our roster,” Varley notes, “We have over 200 clients with a combined reach of over a quarter of a billion followers globally. That’s getting on for the population of the United States!”
Which, presumably, makes him the equivalent of the President of America? “I definitely wouldn’t want that job!” he laughs.
But, when it comes to pretty much any other role, Andy Varley stands ready to serve. Time to find out what’s next…
You celebrated 25 years of Insanity last year. How are the next 25 shaping up?
The anniversary was a really good opportunity to look back and reflect on my career and the growth of the company. I’m enormously proud of what we’ve achieved as a business, but I’ve always been one of those people that never stops, who’s always looking at what’s going to be the next evolution of the industry.
The focus for us for the next 25 years is how we can double down on our service offering, and how we can break more artists, particularly on the music side. That’s been a challenge recently across the board for us as a country.
“The focus is how we can double down on our offfering and how we can break more artists.”
Part of that is potentially an overhang from COVID, while Brexit has provided a challenge in terms of people being able to get on a tour bus and travel freely around Europe to build their fanbase and promote their records. Over the next few years, we need to figure out a way of fixing that, so we can have more Dua Lipas and Ed Sheerans – that’s on all of us as an industry.
Tom Grennan’s breakout actually looks like an old school, long-term artist development story…
Yeah, we signed him in 2016 when streaming was in a very different place and TikTok wasn’t even a thing. It was about breaking artists through collaboration moments. It’s been a real labour of love. It’s important to allow artists to write songs and tell stories that are personal to them, whilst also helping them achieve their ambitions. Tom’s always been an artist that wants to have global success and he’s definitely on track to do that now.
Are there lessons for the industry in that?
It’s funny, because Tom’s never had the sort of TikTok moment that everybody talks about. The success that he’s enjoyed is phenomenal when you consider that. So, it’s about educating the next generation of music executives to understand it doesn’t always happen overnight.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen lots of TikTok records that can take an artist from zero to hero overnight. But what people are doing off the back of those moments is figuring out a way to create a meaningful artist proposition around the project – and that can take a hell of a long time. We’re seven years in now with Tom and, in a way, it’s like we’re just getting going.
Similarly, with Joy, we’re five years into the process of developing her and we’re just getting started. It does take a lot longer, but it’s the sum of the parts. Social media’s really important, but there’s such a huge amount of bandwidth in the music industry since the evolution of distribution and digital music products. We have to figure out a way of making enough noise for future fans to feel like they want to put their hand in their pocket and spend £50 going to see Tom Grennan play, or £10 to buy his album. It’s about leaving no stone unturned in any part of the A&R or marketing process.
Wasn’t Insanity actually supposed to be a dance music label?
Yeah. Around the time I started having conversations with Jason Iley, we had this amazing two-year run with artists like DJ Fresh and Sigma on the management roster that had countless No.1 singles. Jason was like, ‘Maybe you can bring some of those dance successes to Sony?’ So we did that and then our first signing was Craig David! With him, and then going on to sign Tom and Joy, there was probably a point where he was like, ‘Hold on a second, I thought you were meant to be signing dance acts!’
That being said, we had the highest-selling dance single of last year with Lost Frequencies and Calum Scott’s Where Are You Now, which we worked here on behalf of our Dutch counterparts at Sony Music, so we finally delivered!
In the early stages, we were building a culture and what the label stood for. It was important to ensure the signings felt as diversified as the wider Insanity business. And, in those three artists, we really created an identity for ourselves.
What has been the secret to the label’s success?
Insanity is this beautiful blend of a dynamic independent, with the backing of a global machine in Sony. We can often play on other parts of the wider Insanity business, whether that’s the brand partnerships side that has led to some really significant brand opportunities for the artists that are signed to the label, or opportunities for syncs into commercials that have been brought in by the wider Insanity business.
“Insanity is a dynamic independent with the backing of a global machine.”
We also have the Insanity Studios business in podcast and TV production, that is producing content for our records signings. We add really significant value and I’d like to think that goes some way to explaining why artists that sign to the label have enjoyed such success.
Is it very different managing musicians to broadcasters or influencers?
Since the explosion of social media, talent often comes to us with a following and a business that’s already moving, so you almost have to work twice as hard. You essentially become MD to 200 diversified businesses, which is pretty challenging!
You have to be a strategist, a marketeer, an accountant and a lawyer – and what I’ve done with the Insanity business, particularly in the last five years, is try and provide as much of that capability as possible in-house. That’s very different to a traditional music manager, who’s essentially negotiating deals and taking 20% commission.
Take into consideration having to deal with the mental health needs and requirements of the clients that you’re representing, to be a shoulder to cry on when something is happening in their personal life and to then be able to switch things up to be strategic and drive their career forward, the role of the talent manager is changing significantly.
Whilst there is a transactional element that comes from representing certain types of clients, particularly in that digital-first space, we’re much more than that. We’re way more strategic.
Has your success put you in competition with the huge corporate talent agencies and management companies?
Early on in my career I saw those companies as a threat, but now we go toe-to-toe with the behemoths of the global talent representation business, so we figure out ways of working with them.
We have great relationships across the board with the big three in WME, CAA and UTA, and collaboration really does come with that. You always run the risk of having people see that your clients are becoming bigger and more successful.
“I saw those companies as a threat, but now we go toe-to-toe with them.”
Early on in my career, I remember Simple Minds’ manager Martin Hanlin giving me some advice on being a manager: ‘You’re going to get hired and you’re going to get fired, so just make the most of it’. That stuck with me and I was like, ‘I need to make sure we don’t get fired’ – and that’s about ensuring you’re always offering the best level of service. We’ve got to the stage now where talent can see we’re very much up there
with the key players in the UK representation space.
Would you ever sell part or all of the business to a bigger player?
We’re a rare breed in the sense that we are completely independent, we have a positive balance sheet and we have zero debt, which is pretty much unheard of in an industry that’s rife with private equity [cash]. We’ve fielded so many enquiries over the years from companies that wanted to acquire the Insanity business and I would never say never.
If the right partner came along and offered an opportunity for us to not only preserve the Insanity brand, but be able to provide significant global leverage, then that would be a great thing, not only for the company, but the talent we represent. We’re always trying to figure out ways where we can be one step ahead of the game so, if there was a strategic opportunity to enter into a deeper, more meaningful partnership with one of the global entertainment businesses across representation or content, I’m sure that would be something we’d welcome.
Is AI an opportunity or a threat to your business?
It’s both. Like, when you look at Fake Drake, that was definitely a threat and it was really encouraging that the DSPs took the necessary action to remove it.
But I was reading something about people starting to use AI for pitching songs – for a songwriter, being able to demonstrate how an artist’s voice could potentially sound singing that song, at the point it’s being pitched to a manager or a record label – perhaps that provides an opportunity for songwriters.
It’s going to evolve over the coming months and the smartest executives will be those that figure out the ways of turning artificial intelligence into an opportunity. We have to keep a really close eye on it.
If you could change one thing about today’s music industry, what would it be and why?
The industry has gone about such huge change, certainly over the 25-odd years of my career. As a manager, your role is so varied that I’m not sure this 20% [commission] deal works in 2023.
Part of the reason I started Insanity Records was to have some level of ownership, and I can totally understand why many managers are cutting deals with the artists they’re representing to have some ownership of the masters or publishing, as well as embarking on that role as manager.
We all have to look at ourselves as entertainment executives; you might be A&R-ing a record one minute, diving deep into marketing the artist the next, then coming up with ways to add value across brand partnerships, content,
Whilst there are nuances to this, I’d love to see a change in the relationship between managers and artists to really acknowledge the amount of work managers are putting in to grow clients’ careers. An artist-manager relationship is a real partnership, and the deal should reflect that.
Music Business Worldwide