The great Columbian revolution is underway.
Sony’s frontline label – storied home of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Harry Styles and Adele – is under new management in the UK.
New President Dipesh Parmar and Managing Director Amy Wheatley took over from outgoing President Ferdy Unger-Hamilton in December last year, and one of their first moves was to appoint Jamie Spinks as the label’s new Head of A&R.
It’s just reward for Spinks after several years as one of the UK’s most highly rated A&R executives, during which he signed the likes of RAYE, Jax Jones, Celeste and Mura Masa.
His musical journey began when he got a set of decks for his 15th birthday. He immersed himself in the worlds of garage, grime and The Streets and decided he wanted to be a producer. He studied sound engineering and design at Ravensbourne University, where he realised that, while he liked being in the studio, he was better at working with musicians than making music himself.
He wrangled himself an A&R internship at Polydor – then run by Unger-Hamilton – and, while Spinks spent much of his time making tea and answering Cheryl Cole fanmail, the location of his desk right outside Unger-Hamilton’s office meant that he could often pick the boss’ brains.
When the internship ended, he persuaded Polydor to keep him on as an admin assistant and started attending A&R meetings. Having brought in Bastille before they signed elsewhere, the label’s then head of A&R Ben Mortimer spotted his potential, promoted him and Spinks went on a golden run of signings, helping to reshape Polydor’s roster. When Unger-Hamilton left, Spinks stepped up to work with Ellie Goulding on her smash Brightest Blue album .
He stayed at Polydor until Unger-Hamilton brought him over to Sony as an A&R and set up a joint venture on Spinks’ own Room Two label, a more boutique/underground offering than the full might of Columbia. And this time, Spinks didn’t have to answer any fanmail…
“Ferdy’s an incredible mentor and friend and part of the reason I came to Columbia was to reunite with him, because we worked incredibly well together at Polydor,” Spinks says. “But it’s the music industry and things change very quickly. Dipesh has come in and he’s a great guy, I’m really looking forward to working with him. I have huge respect for his career and what he’s done.”
So, now, Spinks will be running Room Two – named after the part of the club that plays the more interesting, leftfield tunes, and inspired by culture-leading labels such as PMR and Black Butter – and Columbia’s A&R operations, with Parmar praising his “wealth of knowledge and experience”.
“Jamie lives and breathes A&R,” Parmar adds. “He is meticulous when it comes to details and has exceptional taste – that’s what sets him apart from his competitors. My background is A&R, my focus is the future of Columbia Records and to work alongside Jamie to mould what that looks like is truly exciting.
“Columbia is an iconic label with a diverse roster of incredible artists, but it was clear the team needed shaping for the future and Jamie is exactly that. We are very similar in our approach when it comes to signing and are laser-focused on signing culturally relevant exciting new artists with a desire to win.”
And Spinks is already making waves. He has signed fast-rising drum and bass star Venbee, having a big breakout moment with Messy In Heaven, to Room Two, and has also snapped up the “inspiring” Rudimental (“They’ve always been great at using where the underground is and turning that into music that’s digestible for the masses,” grins Spinks. “I’m really excited to get into it with them”).
But, before he gets stuck into the new role, Spinks welcomes MBW into the Room Two office in Sony’s new London HQ to offer some revelations about the revolution…
How do you decide if an artist is right for Room Two or for Columbia?
It’s more down to the artist and their understanding of what Room Two is going to be, or if they’re coming from a certain place in culture. The intention isn’t for Room Two to be a dance label as such, but it is for it to come from a place of cool, slightly left-of-centre music.
If it’s just straight to market, big songs or a singer-songwriter that needs major label development and investment, then it’s more Columbia. It’s a gut instinct and a mutual decision; it’s happened naturally so far.
At Polydor, you signed a lot of new acts and then worked with Ellie Goulding when she was already a star. Did that require a very different approach?
In some respects. You have access to any songwriter you like. With a new artist you’re like, ‘If only I could get them in with that person’. With Ellie, you could get her into any room.
It was so exciting to be able to make those connections, especially in the US, with songwriters that are writing huge songs and working with Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and The Weeknd. Because the artists I had were growing, to have one at that level was a great learning experience.
You signed RAYE to her Polydor deal. What have you made of recent events with her?
I’m really happy for her and proud to have been involved with her development. I left Polydor before all that stuff happened.
There’s a lot of context to her journey, but it shows there are a lot of options for artists. I’m really happy that she’s had success – she’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with and she deserves it.
Was the original vision for her music close to what she’s doing now?
We were always trying to figure it out together. I always had a vision for her to be an albums artist. At the time, pop music was driven by quite a formulaic process of what a hit song sounded like.
She was a victim of her own success in a sense. She’d go in with someone else and write a song for them that was massive. She was good at everything – writing dance music or R&B so, for all of us, it was like, ‘What path do we follow?’
Now is the right time for her, whereas at the time it was hard figuring out what a body of work sounded like for her. And with music the way it is at the moment, it plays to her strengths. She’s unique and unconventional in her writing and that’s what works now.
Why did you decide to leave Polydor?
I’d been there 12 years and it felt like it was time for a change. I had a roster of artists that were brilliantly talented, but I’d probably given my all in terms of what I had to give to them and their careers.
It was also a healthy personal change. Having a roster like that, I could have rested on my laurels, but the ultimate ambition is to keep testing and challenging myself. Leaving and having a blank canvas felt scary and I wanted the challenge of that.
There’s this slight imposter syndrome: Do I deserve this? Was it luck? Can I do it again? I wanted to see if I could develop a successful artist again and that pushes you to do your best work. It was the right time, and I had the offer of starting a JV and having ownership over a brand. I loved working at Polydor and it felt like my home, but it was time.
Columbia has historically been a rock label. Now you, Dipesh and Amy are here, will it become more dance-oriented?
Columbia has an incredible roster of successful global acts and has longstanding and experienced A&Rs within the team. Whether it’s Julian Palmer at the helm of Rag ‘N’ Bone Man or Martin Dell working on George Ezra, I’m confident in the versatility of the wider team to be able to deliver the next generation of global acts.
There’s a reason Adele, Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith are the biggest artists in the world, because they’re 10 out of 10 in terms of talent, songwriting and vocal. And that’s what we need to be focusing on. Our ambition is to sign acts with the best talent and break them on a global scale.
There are so many different ways of A&R-ing at the moment: TikTok, data opportunity A&R, stuff coming from culture in drum and bass and dance music and then you have the old school development way of A&R – and it’s up to us to be doing all of that. You have to be open to all ways of having success.
What’s the secret to breaking artists in the current climate?
I don’t think there’s a secret. What I always look for is, obviously, number one, the talent, songwriting, the vocal. I’m looking for something different that I haven’t
With Celeste, her vocal is incredible – there wasn’t much of a decision to be made. But also, we realised there was something happening in the jazz community and there was a scene in which to incubate her. That’s really important.
Nine times out of 10 in the UK, an artist comes through a scene that’s incubated them or they’ve used really well to give themselves a platform. Ed Sheeran, Jess Glynne, Sam Smith with Disclosure: all artists that have made it having a community around them in the beginning. Whenever I see somebody with amazing talent and an idea of who their community is, that always resonates with me.
Why has it been so hard to break new artists in recent years?
Because, over the past three years, the pandemic has shut down any type of scene. We’re seeing a drum and bass era that we’re managing to push Venbee (pictured) through at the moment, but it didn’t exist when people weren’t allowed to go out. There was no culture, no DJs, no underground.
There’s been no community for anybody to incubate in, it’s just been, ‘Can I make the best content and the best TikTok videos?’ But that’s just a moment in time and can be gone as quickly as it comes.
Is too much emphasis put on TikTok as a way to break things?
There was, but it’s slightly more in transition now. During the pandemic, unless you were having a moment on TikTok, I don’t know if it was possible to break through.
It was an obsession, not just within the music industry, but outside of it too and it was the way you broke an artist. Now it’s an essential part of the campaign, but it’s not the only part, and that’s helpful.
TikTok or the way music breaks is very song-oriented, and we need to get back to trying to break artists and give them longevity. That’s how we’re going to have bodies of work and more sophisticated music.
What needs to change so that the UK starts producing global stars again?
We’ve come to a point where it’s a song culture and there’s no long-term buy-in. The audience likes a song, then they’ll go off and like another one. It’s about learning from Dua [Lipa] and Ed [Sheeran]; it takes time and patience.
Not every song needs to be a hit record. We need to be less scared of every song having commercial success and more worried about how you bring an audience in and make them care about an artist. Creating that longevity will enable us to break globally.
What’s the potential for an artist like Venbee? Could she be a global star?
I think so. With her songwriting and ability to relate to a young generation, she reminds me of a female Ed Sheeran. She has the ability to evoke emotion from people lyrically and she’s saying things in a very direct and honest way which I haven’t heard somebody do before. She can evolve into a global artist and
Does the success of RAYE and other independent artists pose a problem for major labels?
There are a lot of options artists can take, but there will always be a place for the major label way of finding a talent and funding them in the long term. I don’t think it makes it harder.
We need to think about how long it takes and for us to be patient with an artist. But there’s still no better way of building a career and an audience and we’ll always be here to invest in really talented people.
I remember having to go up against XL in deals, there’s always been a boutique label experience outside of the [major] system that people can offer. But with the investment we can offer, the A&R value and the marketing we can add, it’s still the best way to create a
When it comes to signings, do you rely more on gut instinct or data?
I listen to my gut most. But, in the world we’re in at the moment, it can be helpful to have data – although it can also make things more complicated sometimes. I normally do A&R on feeling – if you have the feeling and there’s data to back it up, it’s great. Having just one is harder!
If you could change one thing about today’s music industry, right here and now, what would it be and why?
I don’t know if I have to be diplomatic, but the one thing I face frustration with being an A&R is, I would like to see artists have more control over the amount of music that they’re allowed to release.
In my experience, it’s really affecting for somebody who is creative to be restrained in what they’re allowed to put out. I would like to see a world in which we release more music for different purposes. I’d love to see people being able to do stuff with more freedom for certain audiences, for their underground audience.
It’s really important for artists’ mental health – not being able to put something out that they love. You’d have music that presents your artist as an artist and not just a hitmaker.
What will success look like for you five years down the line?
I would love to have a few artists that have stood the test of five years, some artists with longevity. I want to be having hit records but with artists that people are going to be listening to in 20 years.
The UK has always developed those artists that have transcended time: Adele, Ed – I’d like the next generation of those and to feel like we’ve done our bit in taking responsibility, breaking artists globally and having voices and songs that are going to stand the test of time.
This article originally appeared in the latest (Q1 2023) issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK, which is out now.
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