MBW’s World’s Greatest Managers series profiles the best artist managers in the global business. This time, we speak to Mark Gillespie, founder of Three Six Zero and manager to huge artists like Calvin Harris. The World’s Greatest Managers is supported by Centtrip Music, a specialist in intelligent treasury, payments and foreign exchange – created with the music industry and its needs in mind.
Mark Gillespie grew up in Redditch, just south of Birmingham, England – where, as a teenager in the mid-’90s, he developed his passion for electronic music as a record collector and amateur DJ.
From there, he met local promoter Eddie Boulton, who gave him a job handing out flyers for Birmingham’s soon-to-launch legendary superclub Godskitchen.
Within a couple of years, Gillespie – deemed something of an internet-age whizkid within Godskitchen – was becoming an increasingly influential figure within the club, helping pick out emerging DJ talent, while also building websites, launching digital marketing campaigns and acting as a talent liaison.
This was a heady lifestyle for an 18-year-old dance music fanatic, which, by Gillespie’s own admission, invited “all kinds of crazy shit” into his life. Including the fact that local gangs – particularly the notoriously violent Birmingham Zulus – liked to frequent the club.
“For quite a while, I wore a bulletproof vest to work,” says Gillespie, matter-of-factly. “That was just being sensible; there’d always be standoffs between various gangs over who was and wasn’t allowed in the club. And then one night, this guy pulled a gun out and waved it right in my face.”
Funny thing is, Gillespie (pictured) doesn’t actually count this incident as his worst ever day at work. That came a couple of years before, when he considered turning his back on the music game for a ‘proper job’, by starting an engineering apprenticeship (similar to an internship) at UK car maker Rover.
“They were good people, but I hated it,” he says. “One day, I just stood up and walked out; I realized I had to make my music stuff work, otherwise I’d be at Rover for the rest of my days.”
Getting a gun thrust in his mush for Gillespie was, relatively speaking, still living the dream.
By 2003, Gillespie had progressed to booking the DJ’s at Godskitchen and its related festivals, as well as processing payments for talent and managing project budgets.
If anyone ever tells you that learning on the job is somehow bested by an academic education, let’s just run through the skills that Gillespie acquired within a few years of joining a nightclub as the flyer kid, aged 16: promotion, artist liaison, accounting, digital marketing, coding, talent booking, self-preservation – not to mention one of the best contacts books in the world of electronic music.
The next step was inevitable, wasn’t it? Godskitchen began releasing compilation albums through Sony Music, giving Gillespie a taste of how the wider record business worked.
Inspired by the likes of UK indie labels Defected, FFRR, and Toolroom, he hatched a plan to launch his own part-time record company – while still working at Godskitchen – and began scanning MySpace “for hours and hours most days, just trying to find new music played by interesting people”.
Eventually, Gillespie landed on the MySpace page of Scottish producer/DJ, Calvin Harris, and hotfooted it up to Glasgow to meet him. Leaving the city deeply impressed, Gillespie made a life-changing decision. “I pivoted,” he says. “I decided I didn’t want to be Calvin’s label – I wanted to be his manager.”
This was the beginning of what would become globe-straddling artist management powerhouse, Three Six Zero. Via his role at Godskitchen, Gillespie had become friendly with influential UK DJ and broadcaster Pete Tong and, in mid-2006, Gillespie passed Tong a CD with a bunch of Harris’s music on it. Tong played his track, The Girls, on his Friday night show on BBC Radio 1, and Gillespie’s cell phone began lighting up.
“I made the decision, right then, to quit my job and become a manager full time,” says Gillespie. “Calvin said to me, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ Looking back now, leaving [Godskitchen] probably was a real leap of faith, but it didn’t feel like it at that moment.”
Before we come on to the status of Three Six Zero in 2019, it’s worth reiterating the enormity of Calvin Harris’s worldwide success. He has sold 12 million records globally to date, including 44 million singles, and has had 14 UK No.1s. He has also amassed over 16 billion audio and video streams.
Originally signed by Mike Pickering at Columbia in the UK, Harris is one of Sony’s bestselling, and perennially prioritized, global artists. He’s worked with everyone from Rihanna to Dua Lipa, Florence + The Machine, Sam Smith, Khalid, Pharrell Williams, Ariana Grande and Migos.
In tandem with Harris’s rise, Gillespie, alongside his former business partner Dean Wilson, has built Three Six Zero into a truly blockbuster player in the global music industry. Based in Los Angeles, TSZ has one of the strongest rosters in dance music globally – with Harris, Tiësto and Disciples on its books, amongst others. It also reps leading lights in other genres like Louis Tomlinson, Kacy Hill and Grammy Award-winning producer Noah Goldstein.
Gillespie has an excellent story about his first foray into the United States with Three Six Zero: A major record label was interested in hiring the British exec to run a dance music-focused subsidiary. He took the meetings, and the paid flights to New York, gladly – but while in town, he was also meeting with Roc Nation’s Jay Brown, with whom Gillespie and Three Six Zero ended up going into business with for almost a decade.
Today, after a transformational year, Three Six Zero is fully independent, and fully-owned by Gillespie. TSZ recently launched a new office in London, headed up by long-term friend of the company, Phil Sales.
“Calvin said to me, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ Looking back now, leaving [Godskitchen] probably was a real leap of faith, but it didn’t feel like it at that moment.”
Gillespie, a major movie buff, has also quietly made a name for Three Six Zero in the film world, managing the likes of feature-maker Brady Corbet, Shameik Moore – the lead actor in Academy Award-winning animated movie, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse – and bestselling author/ scriptwriter Bret Easton Ellis.
Three Six Zero’s ambitions in Hollywood moved up a couple of leagues earlier this year, when Music Business Worldwide broke the news that the firm had acquired Westbrook Entertainment. That firm’s on-screen talent – including Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jaden Smith, Willow Smith, Kenna and Crespo – are all now integrated into the TSZ family.
What’s more, Three Six Zero launched its own first feature film – the acclaimed Vox Lux, starring Natalie Portman and Jude Law – at the end of last year. The soundtrack to the movie was released on Three Six Zero’s in-house record label, headed up by Pete Tong, which Gillespie runs as a JV with Sony Music Entertainment.
MBW recently sat down with Gillespie over dinner in Los Angeles to map out Three Six Zero’s history, and to learn what the British entrepreneur has up his sleeve for the future…
You’re now flying solo as the head of an independent Three Six Zero – having always had business partners since you launched the company in 2007. What’s that like?
The idea of running this company solo used to terrify me. But now it’s different: I like the autonomy, and I like that you can craft decisions that are entirely yours.
There isn’t any interruption in what you’re doing. In some ways, it’s more difficult, but in other ways it’s more enjoyable.
What are the best things about the music business in the US?
I love the professionalism; people really take pride in what they do and that resonates with me. The level of execution that you see in the US business is very impressive – some of the festivals and the live touring setups in particular. You regularly come across people that are prepared to push the envelope [in order] to be able to ensure that really great and interesting things happen.
The potential scale in America is fascinating – the business here really thinks about things on a global basis. I’m really proud of the fact that we’ve managed to handle our business over here, and I’m really grateful that we’ve been enabled to do that.
We all know that some people [from international territories] come to the US with an attitude that they’re going to tell people what to do – to me, that suggests those people believe it’s somehow easy to conduct business over here, and it’s really not.
The flow of business and the way that things are done is totally different to the UK but I love it, and I’m hugely passionate about it.
Can you talk about the transition from Calvin Harris the frontman to Calvin Harris the superstar DJ? Some people in the States might not know that he started out as a singer, very much in front of the decks – before embracing his kingmaking role as the architect behind the scenes….
It’s one of the smartest decisions that he made in his career – and it was all him. He used the live touring circuit in the early stages of his career to help establish his business and hone his identity.
At that moment in time [indie/dance crossover acts with ‘frontmen’] was what was happening in the UK, but he saw what was coming and very intelligently saw that the world was turning in a slightly different direction. He also happened to write some of the greatest records ever released at the right time. That always helps.
How good is Calvin?
His successes broadly speak for themselves. I may seem biased but I think he’s the best writer/producer of his generation.
I love him as an artist and a person. He’s ridiculously hard working, always has been, and he’s a huge a supporter of mine. His drive has definitely helped pushed me along over the years.
Other than Jay Brown and Roc Nation, who else has been mentor figures in the US for you?
Rob Stringer. He’s really perceptive, and gave me some of the soundest advice in the early stages of my career. He’s also helped guide me, on more than one occasion, through what can sometimes be quite a complicated and political business.
Then there’s Michael Rapino – one of the smartest guys in the industry. He has a very direct, knowledge-based approach, which I respect him for. [That approach] is why, above anything else, I think he’s so tremendously successful.
On the subject of mentors, no-one comes close to my mum. She was an entrepreneur and raised three kids on her own. We didn’t have a lot, but she managed to get us into a place where we all had enough.
Redditch is a very ‘normal’ place; part of it’s really nice, part of it’s shitty, and the town center is ‘burger, fries and two black eyes’. It’s not South Central, but it’s not Kensington either. She’s been an incredibly good example to me that if you work really hard, you can achieve important things.
Why have you got such a hunger to make motion pictures or audio/visual content?
Partly because I think that the world that we live in now requires the ability to work across multiple disciplines. And partly because I love film, and always have.
Film, TV, short-form digital content, music and socials all used to be very separate, different disciplines. But over the past few years, with the massive growth in streaming, they’ve all moved closer together – and I think they’ll continue to move closer together.
“I decided to do a few things that made us a bit more of a [Hollywood] entity, and which showed that we have reasonably good taste.”
A lot of people ask me whether I’m moving more towards film [at the expense of music] and I’m not. I work pretty much every moment that my eyes are open, and the film thing began as a hobby. I decided to do a few things that made us a bit more of a [Hollywood] entity, and which showed that we have reasonably good taste.
We’ve had a few successes now, and I think that all of the practical lessons that we learn from the [film] business will be hugely beneficial to the music side of our business. But, by no means, am I getting out of the music business. If anything, I’m more focused on music than I ever have been for my entire career; I think this is the most exciting time that the music business has ever seen.
There are fewer barriers. There is opportunity for all different types of music to be able to break through.
Also, streaming is working, so there’s the revenue there, if distributed correctly, for the industry to develop and build big artists.
Interesting things are happening in the music business on a daily basis. Since the start of my career, I’ve been hugely into technology, and hugely into music, and I feel like at this moment in time, I get to do a bit of both every single day.
Why did you start a label with Sony?
Three Six Zero has always run labels since the beginning of our business. [The company previously released albums from the likes of The Prodigy in the US via a JV deal with Warner Music Group and label-managed Mau5trap, Rising and Fly Eye Records.]
Running a label helps define your level of taste as a company. It also means you can have different levels of involvement in the careers of talent. The most enjoyable part of that is the ability to work with other managers, actually.
“Sony’s a really good company at the moment with a great perspective.”
As for why Sony, part of it is because [via Calvin] I’ve spent eleven years getting to know everyone in that system; if I need to ask a question of somebody in Mexico, I know who to pick the phone up to. I know all the label heads in all the major markets, and there’s some really great people there.
Sony’s a really good company at the moment with a great perspective.
You’ve had some big characters as clients down the years, including Travis Scott, Morrissey and Frank Ocean. One of the most notorious moments involved Frank and the release of Blonde, where he completed his album deal with Universal with a video-LP, Endless, then independently released what appeared to be his ‘real’ album within days. How did that situation come about?
Frank is a private guy, and that’s part of what makes him so great. So if that story is ever to be told, he should be the one telling it.
What do you think is going to be the next major technological sea change in the music industry?
The business needs to find a new format, in order to protect itself.
The biggest threat to the music business right now is decentralized networks. Thanks to Daniel [Ek] and Spotify, a new economy has been created in the business from streaming, but decentralization is a potential threat to that. Decentralization [i.e. blockchain technology] is something that was super buzzy for a year or two, and has gone away a bit, but I think it will swing back around at great pace in the next five years, and could be potentially devastating for the entire entertainment content business.
“The biggest threat to the music business right now is decentralized networks.”
What happens after streaming is something that we need to focus on. The good news is that there are people within the major record companies and major publishers that are a hell of a lot more technologically savvy than they were when Napster hit.
One other thing is that I think other streaming platforms, from outside music, will want to get into music. That’s going to make things interesting but it’s potentially a threat as well – making sure that music is valued at the correct amount when that happens.
What’s next for Three Six Zero?
We’re in a place where we can largely do what we want, which is interesting. Over the last eighteen months, I’ve spent a lot of time reconnecting with my British roots, and I’ve come to the conclusion that, if everything came to an end tomorrow, I’d like to be seen as the guy who took some good British stuff to America and made it successful.
I hope for us to do more of that, which means spending a bit more time back in London, re-establishing the business there. I love seeing some of the new, young managers from the UK having a go at moving out [to L.A] and getting stuck in.
And obviously I’m really excited to see what we can achieve with Will [Smith], Miguel [Melendez] and the Westbrook guys. I’ve known them for seven or eight years, we all share a similar philosophy, and they’re very smart and innovative people. There is a real opportunity to work with them to grow our intellectual property [portfolio] while expanding our entertainment management business.
What’s happening with Three Six Zero UK? Last we heard it was being closed but now it’s back.
It would be impossible for us to be champions of British talent and not have an office in London. Phil [Sales] is our head in London; we’re partners in the UK business and we’re building it around him.
He’s very direct, he’s honest, he truly loves music, and he’s incredibly passionate about what he does. I’m seeing lots of great things happening in the UK, musically.
The British business seemed to get very locked off [outside the US] for about a year and a half, but that seems to be changing now.
What size do you want Three Six Zero to become as an independent company?
I’m definitely not looking for mass scale – I’m not trying to be the biggest anything ever again. That’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my career so far; being the biggest is not necessarily being the best.
Continually re-assessing what success means to you – especially after you have prolonged success – is the most difficult bit of running a business, but it’s essential.
A specialist in intelligent treasury, payments and foreign exchange, Centtrip Music works with over 450 global artists helping them and their crew maximise their income and reduce touring costs with its award-winning multi-currency card and live foreign exchange rates. Centtrip Music also offers record labels, promoters, collection societies and publishers a more cost-effective way to send payments across the globe.Music Business Worldwide