‘Over 20 artists have now gone from nought to a billion streams through AWAL.’

Photos courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment

In May, AWAL President Paul Hitchman revealed the company’s new UK senior leadership set-up, saying that they were the team to take the business to the “next level”.

The trio tackling that challenge head-on are, MD Matt Riley and SVPs, Victoria Needs and Sam Potts.

They have worked together for several years and all move up from previous positions at AWAL, having joined before Sony acquired the company from Kobalt in 2021 for $430 million (a process that needed to go through regulatory approval from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) before being given the all-clear last year).

Riley brings the A&R chops, while Potts helms promotion and Needs has a wealth of marketing experience.

Artist success stories they’ve worked on to date include Bruno Major, Rex Orange County and Tom Misch, all of whom have reached more than a billion streams.

Recently, developing acts JVKE and Lizzy McAlpine have hit Top 40 in the UK. Newcomers to look out for include Icelandic singer/songwriter Laufey and new albums from Hak Baker, CMAT, Major and Bombay Bicycle Club, who recently joined the roster.

Riley is also tipping Hemlocke Springs, who has been signed out of the US, for big things.

Here, they talk about the impact of the Sony acquisition and their vision and ambitions for AWAL going forward…

AWAL was acquired by Sony in 2021 — what impact has that had on the company and your offering to artists? 

Victoria Needs: The company is exactly the same, with the same deals, same approach. We just have more resources and backing. Sony worldwide have opened their arms to us and we feel pretty lucky. 

Matt Riley: Across the company, there have probably been different opinions about what people felt would happen, but Sony feels like a real music-first company. Being in the building has been really good, there’s good energy around the other labels.  In terms of our deals and agreements, they’ve all remained exactly the same, thankfully. They haven’t come in and tried to change our business. They bought us for the good things we’re doing and we’re just continuing to do that. 

A recent MBW article speculated about the reasons Sony bought AWAL and focused on the idea that once artists reach a certain point, Sony can sweep in and sign them and then everything is kept within the business, rather than AWAL building up an artist and losing them and the investment to another company. Has that started to happen?

MR: Not at all. That’s not actually a thing. I read that article, which mentioned girl in red [signing to Columbia]. That actually happened during the CMA process, when we couldn’t have any collaboration or discussion with Sony at all. Whatever girl in red was going to go and do, that was up to her. We’re really strong believers that artists have choices. They can stay with AWAL, go to Sony, or go elsewhere. There’s certainly nothing that contractually elevates them into any of the labels at Sony. 

VN: Our job here is to do an amazing job for the artist. I think we’ve proven that, when you look at the global numbers on JVKE and Lizzy [McAlpine], we can take artists to multi-territory, highest level success. We’re really proud of that and we want people to stay here and have their whole career here. But artist choice and freedom is a really core part of what we do, so we don’t make artists do anything they don’t want to do.

And you have the resources to be able to deliver big, global, longterm success, perhaps especially now with the backing of Sony? 

VN: Our business has been built globally and I think that’s one of the really powerful things about what AWAL is. The whole company thinks from a global perspective. We do things slightly differently, but I know we can execute at the highest level.

Sam Potts: Because artists are in control at AWAL and we put them first with everything we do, they define to us what their success is. The idea that every artist has the same vision of success is obviously not the case. In some cases, artists have specific territories in mind and global ambition. In other cases, it may be more about storytelling moments or just having a sustained career over time. We will deliver that for them and partner with them to do whatever they need to do. 

MR: Our artists don’t want anyone to tell them what to do. They don’t want overcommercialising, necessarily. Therefore, AWAL is a fantastic place to be. I think we’re at over 20 artists now that have gone from nought to a billion streams through AWAL. For the ones that go elsewhere, all good, there’s always others coming through and there’s also artists staying here. We’ve had a great run from girl in red, Steve Lacy, Tom Misch and Bruno Major to Laufey and Lovejoy, who are now on the way.

As the newly appointed senior leadership team, what’s your strategy for ensuring that AWAL remains competitive in the independent artist space? 

VN: We’re assessing, adapting and changing it every week but ultimately, it’s about finding artists who have a vision. When we find people like that, that’s where we win. We’re not anything without the artist.

MR: We’ve come from this artist-first strategy and a place where [AWAL was about offering] services, but, over a decade, we’ve learned that we want to get involved in most facets of what an artist is doing. Otherwise, someone else will probably do it badly!  

That’s why we ended up building a huge team across the board, from A&R to what Sam’s team does, which is pitching Spotify, DSPs, Apple and everyone like that. We’ve got international, we’ve got marketing. We’re doing more than ever for artists.  At the heart of it, it’s always been about us, as a three, covering each other’s weaknesses and inspiring each other and the team, hearing and validating them, and building a great culture. The thing that we really want to do right now is build a new level of intensity to AWAL, but in a thoughtful way.

What do you mean by a new level of intensity?

MR: We look around at what everyone’s doing in the labels and some of the ways they go after success with artists is fantastic. We want to bring some of that to what AWAL does. But we need to find our own way to do that, where we maintain our integrity when it comes to artist-first and try to deliver what the artist wants, rather than industry goals. 

SP: I’ve never been at a company where there is this genuine sense of shared mission and purpose. That’s one of the first things I noticed coming into AWAL — there is a unified vision and shared purpose that gets people up in the morning.  It’s about putting the artist first and delivering on their goals. That culture is something we talk about a lot and we really believe that if we maintain it, we will attract the best people and create an environment that allows them to do their best work. 

VN: We have some really incredible people. The structure of the way the business is set up is modern and appropriate for now. So it’s about taking the years of experience that we’ve had, maximising the incredible structure and people that we have with us, and taking it as far as we possibly can. 

When announcing your appointments, Paul Hitchman said that you three are going to take the AWAL business to the next level in the UK. Do you want to delve any more into what he means by that? 

MR: We talk a lot about what makes us win with artists, and I think it’s the storytelling and how we build those artist propositions. AWAL, around the world, but particularly in London, has been really successful at exporting artists. They might not be British artists — girl in red came out of Norway and grentperez is an artist we’ve signed out of Sydney.  Going back to your earlier question about what Sony has come in and done — we maintain our global P&L and how we do things globally. We think being a real hub of fantastic creators and exporting them globally is a real journey to success for AWAL, particularly in the UK. 

SP: I love how grent is an example of an AWAL artist who is Australian but has Filipino heritage. He has a huge audience in America, a huge audience in Southeast Asia and we’re doing a lot of that work from here, in collaboration with our team in America and Australia. My team is dealing directly with Southeast Asia. We’ve got a structure and a way of working that I think is pretty unique. 

MR: If you were signing grentperez just with UK numbers, it wouldn’t really make that much sense. A frontline label here would struggle to sign that right now. But because we work on the global structure, a million streams globally all good.

What are your ambitions for AWAL this year, next year and beyond? Do you have any specific goals you’re working towards?

VN: We want to be the best artist development company in the world, we’re all pretty clear on that. We’re still a young company, we’re built for this era and it keeps moving and changing. We love targeting a billion streams but we also love creating culturally important moments. Those things are important to us. We want to keep listening, learning, changing and moving. 

MR: A lot of the time, we talk to each other and our team about why we do anything. You’ve got the art, the music, at the centre — that has to be great. You’ve got the commercial success that I’m sure Sony would like and we want too.  The third bit is why are we doing anything? What kind of world do we want to build? The culture side of it is really important. As much as we want billionstream, massive hits, we also want to have artists who can work commercially but have got something to say.

I’m so proud of Hak Baker’s record, I think it’s going to be really culturally important in the UK. For us to have the opportunity to be running this record company and supporting an artist like Hak, who has been developing on AWAL for four years and played an incredible show at The Great Escape, is really edifying. That’s what gets us up in the morning.

It’s so good to see when artists come from being quite sketchy when they start playing live to evolving to play those shows and becoming really good. We’re really excited about Lovejoy as well. They are around 50 shows in, but they’ve never not played an under-play. That was the plan and the strategy this year. So if you want to see them, you’d have to buy a ticket within about 90 seconds.  They played a secret show at The Great Escape a year ago, they were really sketchy and now they’re coming into their own and getting really good. You’ve got to do the work and we never shy away from that. 

What’s your strategy for artist development and how have your various backgrounds influenced that? 

SP: Patience is a really crucial part, we’re all seeing that. We can sign an artist who might be sitting in their bedroom at their mum’s house and patience allows us to give them an environment where they can grow on their own terms and in a way that doesn’t compromise themselves.  Sometimes, that takes a long time. Some artists are growing up personally as they’re growing in their music career and you need to allow time and space to do that.

As Matt just mentioned, we’ve got Hak Baker putting out his debut album after being with us for four years.  From my perspective on the partnership side, this has been a journey with Hak. We’ve been working with him for some time, building the relationship between the partners and him and making sure awareness is there. That awareness is growing all the time but I don’t ever see an end to it. I don’t see the album being the end of this process. Hopefully, we’re with Hak for a very long time beyond this album.

VN: What Sam’s just described, we’re picking that up and applying it across multiple departments. Matt’s bringing the music in, the music will always be the centre of what we’re doing, the most important thing, bar none. But we bring the artist in and we understand the stories they want to tell and figure out how to start building those relationships.  What’s happening in the audience development space, is also happening internationally, across the marketing teams or sync and brand partnerships. Ultimately, we are trying to tell those stories on behalf of the artists, to build relationships for them for the long term. 

MR: We do a lot of work in the A&R team and in the marketing team to get that proposition right. There’s a couple of things we always think about: first of all, data is always in the past. We’re a bit nerdy at AWAL but we realised that if you just follow data, you’re not bringing any inspiration.  Often, the way we think about it is you’ve got to try something or put something out there and then we like to play tennis with the data. You might put out music or put out a new artist, do a marketing campaign, hit the ball over the net, and then we look very closely at what’s happened to see if what we’re doing is working and if we need to adjust and get somewhere with it.  Really, what you’re looking for with artists, to develop them, is that they become sticky, is how I describe it. When you encounter an artist, it could be the first or fifth time, if they’re starting to be sticky, you start seeing real metrics. They start getting followed on Spotify a lot, people engage with them in a way that starts to roll, like a snowball down the hill.

The other thing which is really important in artist development is that you can keep doing great things and make it set on fire quite a long way down the line. We worked on Rex Orange County and I think he put out 20 tracks. I don’t think any of them had got to a million streams, and then we launched a track called Loving Is Easy and Tyler, the Creator had just put him on his album and everything clicked at the right time.  A track like Best Friend had been out for a little while by then and done around 900,000 streams. Then, the whole catalogue exploded. Those catalogue tracks, like Best Friend, did around a million streams in Rex’s first year and now it’s at 580 million streams. It just shows you what can happen when it starts to click for an artist. For the artists that go elsewhere, we still hold onto that catalogue, which is just ploughing away. Girl in red is still very much an AWAL artist — all her music is here.

SP: There’s another element that we’re seeing now — getting the pre-release strategy right, getting that week one right and beyond, whether it’s for an album or a single, is always very important. But it’s also about having an agility built into the company, being able to adapt and be nimble.  I think we’re very good at that. As Matt said earlier, you can start off with one record and it could be the focus there and then, but you need to have the company ready to put its focus on a track that maybe we released eight months ago, and constantly have that going all the time. That’s one of the things that defines our approach these days.

It can be really difficult for artists to cut through the noise with the amount of tracks that are released per day and build a sustainable career. Would you like to see anything change that would make that process easier?

MR: I guess you’re alluding to how much music is being released, but as a company that has come through this era, it’s been a fantastic opportunity for artists to cut through. I don’t think Tom Misch could have had his career in the decade before – the gatekeepers at the time wouldn’t have allowed that kind of music [to come through]. But he’s a billion streaming artist, doing what he’s doing.  We’re seeing a big number of artists building sustainable careers on AWAL. The opportunity for artists is better than ever before, but so is the global competition. For artists, the hard thing is that you’re not owed it to just work out. You have to have resilience and drive but also an understanding that there’s a million other kids trying to be artists too. It’s tough out there, but, also, the world is yours. Artists can come from everywhere and succeed and I think that’s a good thing What would you change about the music industry and why? 

MR: The music industry is changing every single day, all the time, we’re kind of resigned to that and it’s fine. I don’t think I have the ability to change it apart from just keeping doing great things. I got into music because I wanted to be a positive force within it. I just keep doing that. I think AWAL is changing things for the better so we’ll keep on that one.

VN: It’s always changing and that’s one of the reasons I love it. I feel very privileged to be part of AWAL where we can shape, change, mould and adapt our business all the time. 

SP: The independent part of the business particularly is evolving so quickly and it’s exhilarating being part of it. As long as we stay true to what we always have done and our core principles, I think we’ll be able to address any challenges that come down the road and continue having great success.

This article originally appeared in the latest (Q2 2023) issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK, which is out now.

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