Jonathan Dickins on Adele, working with labels and what makes a great manager

In a very rare live interview, September Management founder and CEO Jonathan Dickins has discussed how some tricky past experiences with record labels taught him that his company must “try and be self-sufficient”.

“Everything I’ve done since [those experiences] is to build an internal team as shock absorbers, so that we’re [not] reliant on the MD [who then gets] fired, or the person getting promoted to another job or moving company,” he said. “That’s made us a lot more durable.”

Dickins (pictured left) gave a wide-ranging interview today (November 8) about his career and managing global superstar Adele. He was interviewed live on stage by BBC Radio presenter Huw Stephens (pictured right) at the BBC Music Introducing Live conference, which takes place November 8-10 at London’s Tobacco Dock.

The interview covered topics ranging from how Dickins met Adele, to his views on major record companies and other artist managers he looks up to.

September Management has offices in London, New York, and Los Angeles with a roster that includes London Grammar, Jamie T, King Krule, Paul Epworth, Rick Rubin, Rex Orange County and XL Recordings founder Richard Russell.

You can read an abridged version of Dickins’ on-stage interview below…

Take us back to the beginning – when did you first hear Adele?

In 2006, I think. At the time I worked quite a lot with XL and I worked with a couple of artists before Adele, one was MIA and another is a guy called Jack Peñate. The guy that signed both of those to XL, Nick Huggett, was going away on holiday and said, ‘You should check this girl out.’

At the time, the social media [platform] of choice was MySpace; you had a player that could hold I think three songs on it and on [Adele’s] was Home Town Glory, Day Dreamer and My Same and that was it.

I heard these three songs, and then we met. At the time my office was in a bedroom in my house. I was just blagging it on my own. I met her outside a petrol station, then she came to my house and we had a cup of tea and we talked.

It was really straightforward. She said, I want you to manage me. I don’t think she’d met any other managers and it was really simple.

Was there a bond there early on?

I think so, I mean we we’ve worked together for 12 years now.

Did she come to you because of your success with Jack Peñate and MIA? And you looked after a rap crew as well for a while?

The More Fire Crew was the first thing I’d ever managed. I had no clue what I was doing. So, I’m sorry! I feel bad for those guys. Lethal [Bizzle]’s done alright though.

[Adele’s] a big fan of Jamie T and at that time there was that scene in London where there was a lot going on. It was probably the last time London, outside of UK rap and R&B and stuff, had a lot of interesting alternative music [happening]. There was Florence, Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling and Jamie T.

She loved Jack and she loved Jamie and that was it.

you hadn’t seen her playing yet, when you first met?

I saw her the following week and she played a night club that no longer exists in Soho Square. It was an open-mic night. She played two songs; she got up, she sung, and it was like – that’s it. Game over.

It was just so unforced, so natural – everything about it was the easiest thing I’ve ever done. It’s probably the most successful thing I’ll ever do [as a manager], but it’s also the most straightforward. That’s what’s so special about everything.

Your mind must have been ticking really fast, thinking: what am I going to do with this talent that nobody else really had heard of at that point. what was your plan with Adele?

You need a great artist, of course, and I think I’m good at what I do. But you need luck; when you know you’ve got someone who’s good, you never go into it thinking it’s going to propel and get to the level it did. I didn’t know that.

Like everything we just made sure that we did it in the right way. We didn’t do stuff that [we] thought was shit to do; that’s very instinctual stuff, not selling out too quick, not forcing it down people’s throats, building it organically and taking our time.

The label [XL] let us get on with it really. It’s an independent label, [Adele] is a very different kind of artist for them.

“I want to be collaborative with the labels. But at the same time I’m not going to be reliant on the label.”

[Her debut album] took a while because she didn’t write much then. She was signed on the songs that were on her MySpace, and then she didn’t really write anything new for about four or five months. [During] that time, the A&R guy left and got a job at a major – they paid him a lot more money, which is understandable .

So it was really just the two of us, creatively, making that that record.

I saw [a similar situation] with Jamie T, who I worked with before her. That’s when I really started to learn to try and be self-sufficient; that’s not being arrogant or disrespectful to record labels, but there’s a revolving door policy, especially at the majors. You can’t [always] rely on people, because you don’t know long they are going to be there.

Since then I was like, You know, I really want to be a team player –I want to be collaborative with the labels. But at the same time, I’m not going to be reliant on a label.

Everything [September’s] done since is to build an internal team as shock absorbers, so that we aren’t reliant on the MD [who then gets] fired, or the person getting promoted to another job or moving company. That’s made us a lot more durable.

Is that still the same do you think, at major labels now?

Yeah, I think the only the only thing now is that there’s fewer labels. The same stuff happens.

Fast forwarding some several years, you did work with a major label [Sony in the US]. Obviously Adele is a worldwide star. So you have to look after her interests across the world. You didn’t just sign to one label worldwide. You looked at different territories and figured out what was best for her?

Yeah. We were on an independent everywhere other than the US, but we signed to Columbia and it was great. They believed in the artist.

They kind of knew and understood the path that we thought was the right one to take and were very supportive of that and especially in America. In the UK it was more explosive.

I remember hearing Hometown Glory on the radio. Zane Lowe was playing it on night time Radio One and was different to everything else around at that moment. There was something magical about that record, wasn’t it?

Do you know that she wrote that when she was 16.

How important was radio for Adele in the early days?

I think, sorry guys, that it was more important then than it is now. It was very important. If you look at the BBC stations, and I’m not just saying this because I’m at a BBC event… when you go internationally and you look at radio stations and how they’re set up, especially in America, you see how regimented the formats are. You have fixed formats for local radio, which is bullshit.

You get Radio 1 here or 6 Music or Radio 2, where they’re playing, a pop record next to a rap record, next to a dance record, next to an indie record – that kind of variation makes the BBC quite special.

You really realize that when you start to see how radio works outside the UK. Australia is probably second best, they’ve got a very similar style to the UK because they’ve got stations that can play a wide variation of music, but the rest of the world can be pretty brutal.

So everyone latched onto Adele in the early days?

No, we had to graft. In the UK we were all good but everywhere else, in America, we put in a lot of hours. You have to navigate through radio formats in America and some of the ones that we would naturally suppose [she] fitted into were really slow.

I probably heard Chasing Pavements 300 times a week or so from radio shows and going out to do acoustic sessions. So the rest of the world was more difficult.

And the fact that she wasn’t rhythmic [genre-wise]… I remember even Australia on the second record. I mean, I won’t talk about what the station was, but one of the big commercial stations in Australia didn’t hear Rolling In The Deep. Said it wasn’t a record for them – and a few people here [in the UK] said the same thing. And then they were very supportive when it exploded!

How important was the live side of things for Adele for the first year or so? Did she go out on the road and play a lot?

She played a lot. It’s very important, and still is. We started early and we didn’t really skip steps. We took our time and we played small clubs and then we went to theatres, from theatres, we went to arenas and from arenas to stadiums. We didn’t miss any steps on the touring circuit and yeah, she’s done a lot of touring.

How involved were you as a manager in the touring and looking after Adele, was it just you on your own at this point?

Do you remember Mr. Hudson? I think the first tour we ever did was with him. I tour managed. We drove and I had a Ford Escort. It was just basically her and a guitar, so it was pretty straightforward, but we did a bunch of dates. I remember we played a library in Lancaster and I was the tour manager and I quickly got out that.

Were you prepared for that success? How scary was it for you as a young manager and fairly new manager as well?

Well, I wasn’t that young. The thing is, I was in my early thirties. I mean, I’ve got people that I work with now that are much younger. That helped me, actually. I don’t know if I could have dealt with it in my early twenties; that’s just me.

I think nothing prepares you for it really, but you learn as you go and you always are learning. I still learn now.

“I’m never disrespectful of anyone’s experience nor am I disrespectful of youth, because I think that the business is all about young people.”

I never ever thought I knew it all. I’m never disrespectful of anyone’s experience nor am I disrespectful of youth, because I think that the business is all about young people.

And I love to surround myself with as many young, talented people as I can find because they’re the future – I learn as much from them as I do from a guy that’s been doing it 40 50 years, you know?

Do you have those older managers, the the kind of lifers if you like, the ones who managed the Bruce Springsteens and the Dolly Partons, giving you advice?

I don’t know Dolly Parton’s manager but I do know Bruce Springsteen’s manager and he’s amazing. There’s a guy called Roger Davies that I look up to, who manages P!nk and Sade and Tina Turner; he is an amazing manager.

It’s good to have people [like that] that you can vibe off and get ideas from and experience from but as I say, I think that works two ways, you know.

I like being informed about what’s going on that’s new. There are generations below me that are way more plugged into what 18-20 year olds are into than I am. So I try and stay connected.

You could retire. You could just quit and live off everything that you’ve made so far if you wanted to but you’ve chosen to kind of grow the management company. So what do you look for in young managers? And what do they need to have for you to get them on board?

One of the things I realized was that you can’t manage a lot of things personally – doing everything – because your attention to detail is super important [as a manager] and your time management is important. Also what I found was that your role evolves and changes.

“I’m very secure in what I’ve achieved not to get in the way of other people’s successes.”

I love, in a weird way, managing managers. They’re partners; I’m very secure in what I’ve achieved not to get in the way of other people’s successes.

I look for I suppose, a taste that’s similar to mine, whether that’s good or bad taste, but it has to be aligned, because I feel that with the company I’ve got, curation is important.

Again, this is about styles. It’s not about right and wrong. I’ve always done it what I thought was right musically rather than what would make money.

Of course opportunity comes now [and again] from commercial artists, or managers with commercial artists, to come and partner with me and it just doesn’t really fit the ethos of what I’m trying to do. I think an aligned musical taste is important, and an instinct.

I’d like to think that I’ve generally got good judgment on who I can work with and the qualities people bring.

Management is a two-way street. Sometimes it’s important to be very much single-minded, and other times having people around you that you can bounce ideas off, that are collaborative, is really really beneficial.

So during the success of adele’s debut album 19, were you managing anyone else at that point or were you solely concentrating on managing the one artist? 

I was managing Jamie T and Jack and by that time I had brought in Rose Moon who has worked with me form the beginning really. She came in about six months after I started my company and she’s been great. She’s a tough, no-nonsense Glaswegian. She took a lot of the weight off and she’s been with me ever since.

Is it different managing producers to managing artists? I’m guessing there’s less touring. That’s a good thing isn’t it?

That’s a bad thing – you make money touring!

It’s different. It goes back to the self-sufficiency. I like the idea of having record makers in our midst because I feel that it’s quite good to gain an opinion from people who are actually making music.

I like music, I’m the last person you would want to be in a studio with. I haven’t got a clue about anything technical nor do I pretend to.

So to have people around you that are craftsmen at what they do I think is beneficial. And Rick [Rubin] is amazing. When you speak with Rick, he’s like this Zen master.

When Adele had the success, was there an influx of artists who sounded like Adele who wanted to be managed by you? how do people approach management companies like yourselves?

I think don’t approach management companies like [us]. To an extent the barriers are broken down to get music heard and it’s so much easier than it was 10 years ago. Artists need to be proactive, do things themselves and start to create noise – and then look for the opportunities as and when they get presented.

I don’t know if courting managers or courting record labels is the right way to go. I think if you are good, you have got to be a little bit self-sufficient to start with – it’s good for the soul.

Would you advise that [artists] let their mates manage them?

If your mate’s good – that’s the issue. You need people that are good.

What’s happening now is that everything happens so quickly, there’s probably people attached to artists that are probably a little out of their depth in some instances, Some learn quick, some are smart, and sometimes you can know too much. I think there’s a lot to be said for naivety; there’s creativity that comes from naivety. I was a manager that knew nothing once.

The thing about managing artists is that there’s no right or wrong; the thing about the music industry is that there are no rules and that’s why I like it: you can make it up as you go along.

What are the challenges with an artist like Adele in bringing her back?

The only other thing I know about other than music is football. I’m clueless about pretty much everything else.

I read something that a very famous football manager, Bill Shankly, said about football: that it was a simple game, complicated by idiots. I kind of think that’s the music business. So I like to try to keep things really simple.

What’s different now is that an artist comes out and there are a million different business strands. The branding opportunities, the partnership opportunities, fragrances, sports shoes, clothing book deals, films, TV, you name it. It’s all there.

I’m  a believer that if you keep the music great, all those opportunities are still there.

[But] if the music’s great then I always believe that we will find the path to work out how to put it out. But it has to start with the music, because the music is central to the business.

People get blindsided by all the other spheres of their business. Trust me, no-one’s career has ever got worse when the music is great.

[Photo credit: James North @jamesnorthphoto]Music Business Worldwide

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