‘Right now, it’s us against maths, isn’t it?’

This is Pete Simmons’ first interview (about himself, at least). It won’t be his last.

Not just because he’s a young executive on the rise (in October he was promoted to Head of A&R at Universal Music Publishing UK), but because he’s really good at them – even if he says he’s not, or at least, when he first meets MBW, predicts he won’t be.

Before the tape is rolling he says that he’s well known for saying things without thinking about them. In which case, he must have good instincts – very useful for an up-and-coming A&R.

And he jokingly predicts he’ll most likely be fired as a result, which is the most outlandish prediction of all. Because Simmons’ career is only going one way.

It started when he was at university, doing a degree in radio production (“don’t ask me why I did that”).

The course offered “a Willy Wonka golden ticket type deal” to join an intern scheme at Radio 1 – and Simmonds pulled a Charlie Bucket by landing the gig.

He recalls: “Obviously, a lot of artists pass through the doors, going to the Live Lounge or whatever, and every time they did someone from A&R would be with them. And I’d wanted to do A&R from the age of about 16, ever since I found out what it was, basically.

“George Ergatoudis and Laura Lukanz, particularly, were always the ones introducing me to loads of amazing people. Via that I used to go to Universal Publishing once a week for like an hour or two to play music that I’d found on SoundCloud. 

“I did that for a little bit and thankfully the folks at Universal Publishing thought that the music was good and they asked me to come and do more permanently when I finished my degree.

“I started at Universal Publishing the day after I finished uni. I handed in my dissertation, jumped in a car and drove to London. That was 2014.”

Here, Simmons discusses the big signings and lessons learned in the subsequent eight years, as well as “crazy deals” and his relationship with maths…

You started as a scout, who were the first artists that you signed?

In the first A&R meeting I ever did, I played Tom Misch, who I still work with to this day, and I played this young rapper called Stormzy. Okay, I didn’t sign him, but the ambition was there, do you know what I mean?

Does that sting a bit, looking back, that you didn’t sign him when you were obviously keen – was it a competitive environment already at that point?

Nah, it was way before that. I didn’t really know what I was doing, neither did he. It was one of those ones where it was exciting and new and then, for whatever reason, nothing happened. But yeah, I do often look at our Twitter DM’s and smile…

Who was the signing that first got you noticed?

Sigala was the one that really made a dent. People who wouldn’t traditionally reply to my emails suddenly started replying.

Where were you finding artists at this point?

Okay, so, basically, I’m pretty rubbish at loads of things, but I’m really good at finding music on SoundCloud. Even to this day, I spend more time on SoundCloud than I do on Spotify, YouTube or TikTok

What have been the milestones in terms of signings and successes since then?

I signed a young man called Rex Orange County really early on, and that seriously accelerated the conversations I was having and the sort of people I was talking to. 

Everything elevated after that; it kind of shaped my career, because without signing him I might not have been able to sign other artists who are in that world. It gave me a level of respect that I don’t think I had before. People started to really trust my taste for the first time.

I signed Tom Misch. And I signed a young girl called Maisie Peters when she was 15. Me and Darryl [Watts], who works with me here, we spent a lot of time setting up sessions and introducing her to people and that turned into this really exciting project.

That all led to Girl in Red, Griff, etc., that’s when I started to get confident.

What’s it been like being part of Mike’s team since he returned as MD?

Mike’s been brilliant for me, because he totally trusts me. He really believes in my vision for what I want to do with my roster and he believes in my taste, which is kind of all you need in A&R.

He’s always encouraged me to go for it, be fearless and execute. He’s not really like a mentor as such, he just lets me get on with it and lets me try stuff.

What I love about working with Mike is that he’s really inquisitive. He always asks questions and always wants to know more, and that’s definitely bled into what I do. He’s unleashed me rather than held me back.

How would you describe the wider company culture at UMPG right now?

It’s wicked, it is actually so good. I’ve worked for Universal for nine years, and right now feels like the best time. We genuinely all get along, we’re all mates, we all hang out after work, we all go to shows together.

We do these kind of five-yard sprints where if I need a hand on something, someone will help me, and vice versa. There’s a real culture of togetherness and a real team spirit at the minute. It’s always kind of had that, but particularly now; we’re all definitely one unit.

What are the most important attributes that an A&R person can have these days?

I think one is being ultra-organised. I’m really methodical with my time. My morning routine is minute-by-minute, in terms of when I look for music, and I think that’s been really valuable for me over the years.

I think the inquisitive thing is vital, you know, asking questions, wanting to know more, wanting to discover more, wanting to understand more.

And you’ve got to live it. Like, I’m in the mix every day, I’m at shows all the time. I’m in and around the culture at all times, because I love it and I live and breathe it. I think you’ve got to be obsessed, because right now it’s us against maths, isn’t it?

Where’s the most important place to discover tracks and artists these days?

There are two departments in A&R right now, it’s been split in half. There’s the gut feeling crew, which is what I think I’m part of, and then there’s the maths department,

“There are artists you can discover essentially using algorithms, using data, using technology. And then there are the people that have 17 SoundCloud tabs open looking for the thing that’s got one follower and six plays. Neither of them are the right or wrong thing to do.”

Because there are artists you can discover essentially using algorithms, using data, using technology. And then there are the people that have 17 SoundCloud tabs open looking for the thing that’s got one follower and six plays.

Neither of them are the right or wrong thing to do. I used to call the gut feeling crew ‘lifestyle A&Rs’, because they were the people who were at the right shows and around the right people, collecting information and getting an advantage by being there.

Now it’s more, have they got enough TikTok followers? Have they put out enough content for the amount of time they’ve been active? That’s the split right now.

And you’re very much on one side of the fence?

What I’d like to say is that I’m data-informed rather than data-led. Right now, especially in the label world, because data has taken over, I’m seeing a lot of my friends chasing opportunities, rather than just signing brilliant songwriters.

When I joined Universal, every single one of my mates that worked at a label had a little development project, signed for a very modest amount of money. And they had time to learn and develop. Over the course of, say, a five-year period, there’d be loads of money spent, a serious amount of investment.

Right now, none of my mates at labels have got that development project, because they’re all just spending money on TikTok opportunities, or data opportunities. I don’t think that’s the wrong thing to do, it’s just a different thing to do.

One of the problems is that the management companies can’t afford to have that level of investment on that many artists. And I think a big part of why we’re in this situation, where we’re breaking songs rather than artists, is because we’re investing in opportunities, not in brilliant artists and brilliant songwriters. I think that it’s kind of our duty, as a music industry, to do both.

Are the goals – and the methodology – in publishing A&R and label A&R fundamentally different?

Yes and no. I think with songwriters, our job and our mission here is to make sure we sign the best writers who aren’t already signed and then make sure they’re in the best possible position to make the best possible music. And obviously labels have the same goal with artists.

But labels also have got that balance of kind of ticking over, maintaining income and success with what could be ‘TikTok singles’ or whatever, whilst also trying to sign those bit big runaway success stories, career artists. 

My focus is absolutely on just signing brilliant songwriters and hoping that brilliant things will happen.

What’s the most important thing you can do for an artist after signing them?

I think a lot of it is protection. We have to protect artists from either bad people or bad opportunities. We have to make sure that they’re safe and that they are looked after, both in terms of their mental health and their physical health.

“I think artists should write their own blueprint on both sides, and then the company, the people in the company, should follow that rather than write it.”

I’m really passionate about us and labels not setting the blueprint. I think artists should write their own blueprint on both sides, and then the company, the people in the company, should follow that rather than write it.

A lot of what I try and do before signing is help them visualise and understand what that blueprint is. So then, when we go into a deal, we know exactly what we all want, and we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet rather than having varying opinions on how it should be.

How competitive a sector is it at the moment?

[Laughs] It’s insane. It’s like an arms race, because basically everyone who uses data tools is finding the same music essentially at the same time. It’s almost like F1, the margins are so fine. Someone might find it at it one minute past three and someone else finds it at two minutes past – and they’re too late! It’s that tight now.

And, deal-wise, there’s this strange phenomenon where the record labels have sold this dream to the artist that they should do really small record deals and really big publishing deals. Whereas actually, based on the finance and economics of the business, it should be the other way round.

I think as publishers we should do a better job of reversing that myth. Because if you look through history, publishers have done brilliant work, developing acts and then bringing them to labels when they’re ready.

Even to this day, some labels sign things three years too early, and then a lot of those artists don’t get the opportunity to kick on because they’re dropped before they have a chance to develop. Yeah, deal-wise, it’s crazy. it’s never been more competitive, it’s never been more expensive.

I’ve only done this job for a short while but, the level of deal that used to terrify me now makes me really happy. The new level that terrifies me is off the scale…

One of the things that [UMPG CEO] Jody Gerson said when your promotion was announced was that ‘he has a great way with artists’. What do you think is the key to that?

Honesty, number one. And I think I just really care. I really give a massive shit about my artists. If it’s going brilliantly, I’ll be there; if it’s going terribly, I’ll be there.

I feel really passionately that these artists and writers are trusting us with their entire career, and I feel personally responsible to make sure I’m with them every step. If they’ve agreed to commit however many years of their life to work with me, that’s absolutely a mutual thing.

Also, it might sound a bit boring, but I just think consistency is so important. I think all A&Rs’ jobs really are just to be useful, and I’d like to be able to say that I’m consistently useful. I hope that all my artists know that when they do call me, I’m not just there, but I’m going to be of use, I’ll bring something, I’ll solve something.

The new job is more of a leadership role, what does good leadership mean to you?

From my point of view, I think we can build something really exciting here, where everyone’s voice is heard, everyone’s allowed to have big ideas and your ideas will get executed.

“Energy is really important, and I come to work every day with a smile on my face. I can’t wait to be useful and help people. I think that’s an important part of leadership, or at least it’s important to me.”

I think if you can have an environment where everyone enjoys each other’s company – and enjoys the company, Universal – then great things will happen.

And you know what, since I’ve started this job, one of the things I’ve found is the importance of leading by example and setting a tempo of work rate. Energy is really important, and I come to work every day with a smile on my face. I can’t wait to be useful and help people. I think that’s an important part of leadership, or at least it’s important to me.

What have been the main changes in your day-to-day life since the promotion?

I am married to Microsoft Outlook. We’re in a very deep and committed relationship. When I started in A&R, six months in, I was like, Wow, I’m that busy guy that I always thought I’d be, I’m sending emails, I’m doing calls… And then six months later, you’re like, No, no, no, that’s nothing, this is busy.

Basically, every six months, you think you’re at maximum capacity – until you realise you really weren’t.

When I got this job, I thought it’d be similar to that, but actually it’s an entirely different sport. And right now I am just existing in the chaos. You know, some days I’m the head of HR for my team, other days, Hallelujah, I’m actually doing A&R. Other days I just sit and weep looking at how many emails I have to do; it all depends.

And yet you’re still enjoying it?

Seriously, if you told 15-year-old me that I’d be doing this when I was 29, I would have been absolutely delighted!

And if someone said it’s bloody hard work, you’d say, fine, I’ll take that…

It doesn’t feel like hard work, honestly, please don’t think I’m complaining for one second. I love it. All of it. When you get to work with the people I work with… go on my Spotify and look at my most-listened-to artists; nine times out of 10 they’re people I have the pleasure of working with.

Music Business Worldwide

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