“We were working out of a welder’s garage in Harlesden, under the the 2khz studio up there. I used to have breakfast with [Joe] Strummer most weeks. You’d see Grace Jones wandering around this scrap metal car park a fair bit. It got pretty bizarre.”
It’s fair to say that the company we now recognise as Various Artists, one of the UK’s best-known and successful talent management firms, didn’t have the most salubrious beginnings.
Back in the mid-noughties, Dave Bianchi (pictured) was working under the auspices of his first venture, Grand Union, where he and his small team were managing the likes of Californian punks Amen, British heavy metal band Raging Speedhorn and Mercury-signed indie rock act Boy Kill Boy. Clearly, this was a noisy, gritty roster – which rather suited a company housed in noisy, gritty surroundings.
And then Bianchi’s colleague, John Dawkins, spoke to his mum.
“The drummer of this band worked for my mum and she’s like, I think they’re really good,” says Dawkins, now nestled in the cosier environment of Various Artists’ Queens Park offices. “I was like, Be quiet mum! And she was like, No, I’m serious. So we listened to it, and me and Dave both said, You know what, this is pretty great.”
That band, based in Dawkins’ home town of Coventry, was The Enemy. Thirteen months later, in July 2007, they’d landed at No.1 on the UK charts with debut album We’ll Live And Die In These Towns.
In 2008 Bianchi – who’d earned his industry stripes years before working with Mark Morrison manager Johnny Laws – founded Various Artists alongside fellow directors Matt Luxon and Nick Ember, while bringing across Dawkins as its MD.
Today, Various runs offices in both the UK and Los Angeles, with ambitions for further global expansion. Its roster includes La Roux, The Libertines, Tom Grennan, Yonaka, Barns Courtney, Spiritualized, Reverend & The Makers, Zuzu, Elli Ingram, Vishal & Shekhar, Millie Go Lightly, Sad Night Dynamite and The Hunna.
Up until last year, Various also managed and developed British pop phenom Charli XCX, who co-wrote and featured on two multi-platinum global smashes across 2013 and 2014 via I Love It (with Icona Pop) and Fancy (with Iggy Azalea), as well as seeing her own global hit, Boom Clap, top Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40 in the US.
In January this year, Music Business Worldwide revealed that Various had sold a minority stake in its business to US-based sports and telco entrepreneur John McEvoy.
Music Business UK subsequently sat down with Bianchi and Dawkins to ask all about their successes and professional journey to date, their recent deal with McEvoy – and to enquire about their bugbears with the way the modern music industry is run…
Why now for the investment?
Dave: Because, speaking quite honestly, we had a bunch of approaches from various different global music companies to get involved with our business, and we found the right partner. We really enjoyed meeting everybody, but we felt like we wanted to be left completely autonomous, independent of any outside music ventures. Over two years of talking to John [McEvoy], we found somebody who was really into what we were doing, and really wanted to help, but wasn’t the usual music partner.
Why didn’t you want to do a deal with one of the larger ‘roll ups’, well known in music, who buy their way into management companies?
Dave: Often when managers do those kind of deals, they’re doing it to earn out, to take a lot of money off the table. We’ve always been cash rich as a company – we’ve never needed the money personally or professionally – and so the kind of deals that those people do didn’t fit into what we wanted. We wanted limited interference combined with the money and strategic knowledge needed to grow and invest. Of course we’ll welcome John’s opinions on growing the company, but he’s not going to try and replace our culture here in any way.
John: We’ve got our own DNA; we didn’t want anyone coming in, a music mogul – for want of a better term – to come in and start stamping their authority about. Me and Dave have worked together for 15 years, ‘cause we know exactly how each other thinks.
Why have you been attracting so much attention?
Dave: There was a time a few years ago when Charli was No.1 in America, and the Libertines had sold out Hyde Park [in 2014] when people really noticed that we were selling lots of records, and lots of tickets, across lots of artists.
People were like, ‘Oh, it’s them lot.’ I think it came as a bit of a surprise, when they looked into it, that we’d had four American No.1s, and sold out arenas and stadiums.
What are you going to do with the money?
Dave: It’s mostly for US expansion, building on the office we opened last year. We planned to have one or two people in LA to basically administrate UK acts when they’re in town, and that was the intention when Matt Luxon went over to run it.
But what we’ve found is that more and more people have started approaching us in the US, especially now Barns Courtney has a gold record over there – two and half million singles in – and he’s getting synced on everything. We’ve also got Millie Go Lightly, who’s signed to Capitol’s Caroline in LA. And we have ambitions for further global expansion, which we expect to make announcements on in the coming months.
We noticed you’re now managing Vishal & Shekhar, who are huge Bollywood composers that are comfortable working in pop music too…
Dave: They’re amazing. They’ve sold a billion singles, four hundred million albums – I’m not making that up, by the way. And they play theatres and stadiums in every country in the world. YouTube going into India has really opened the industry’s eyes out there: [Vishal & Shekhar’s] last song has got 600 million YouTube views.
“There’s more than 1.3 billion people in India, and they have a middle class that’s over 15 million people bigger than the entire population of Britain. The potential numbers out there are preposterously good.”
Now, with Spotify and Apple going in there, it’s really exciting. There’s more than 1.3 billion people in India, and they have a middle class that’s over 15 million people bigger than the entire population of Britain. The potential numbers out there are preposterously good.
Various Artists was officially 10 years old last year. What’s been your proudest moment at the company so far?
Dave: Charli’s Boom Clap going to No.1 in America, and The Libertines selling out Hyde Park, both in a very, very short space of time. The journey for Charli had not been easy – there’d been a lot of doubters; and equally there were a lot of doubters about The Libertines’ capability to sell out that gig.
When we put that on sale there was audible laughter in the industry. I remember people calling me, saying, ‘You’re an idiot. You’ve misjudged it pretty badly and you’re going to make yourself look like a fool.’
And that was polite compared to what I was hearing from other people in the background! We opened, day one, on 50,000 tickets. The day that it sold out, on 63,000 tickets, we put three Ally Pallys on sale in London – 30,000 tickets in total – and they all sold out too.
John: Mine’s quite a small one actually, but it’s about validation. Dave gave me a chance to be a manager, and you never think you’re good enough, you know what I mean, but you’re trying your hardest. So I really remember the first ever front cover of the NME [Various] had, with The Enemy. Me and Dave got in the car, went down to the newsagent and bought five copies. And when I looked at it, it was like, ‘Fucking hell, I can do this… me and him, anything’s possible.’ I’ll always carry that with me.
“A significant music executive, like very successful, when I brought Seasick Steve to him, shuts the door behind [Steve] and said to me [hissing through teeth], ‘Are you taking the fucking piss out of me?’ And that year we outsold all of his new signings!”
Dave: I’ll tell you another important one for me: we took on Reverend & the Makers half-way through their first album. They’d had a big hit, but it was going downhill for them. On the next tour they’d gone from selling 2,500 tickets in Manchester to 300 tickets, it had really sunk that low.
We worked really hard for Reverend & the Makers because we particularly like them, and they’re a band that has been much maligned in the UK [media] for not very fair reasons. And last year, they sold 2,500 tickets in Manchester again. I stood on the balcony [of that show], and nearly welled up thinking about that story.
John: It’s funny: me and Dave, we love a battle, proving someone wrong. But we don’t always know who that someone is!
Dave: I’ll tell you two other things. A significant music executive, like very successful, when I brought Seasick Steve to him, shuts the door behind [Steve] and said to me [hissing through teeth], ‘Are you taking the fucking piss out of me?’ And that year we outsold all of his new signings! There have been people along the way with Charli that said she couldn’t write a song that ended up calling, desperately trying to get her to write for their artists.
The Reverend & The Makers thing is interesting. They were really pilloried in the NME for a while, weren’t they?
Dave: There’s two things about Reverend & The Makers which make me laugh, and they’re both brilliant. The first one is Jon McClure, when he did the Mongrel album [2009’s Better Than Heavy], put 22 UK MCs on a record backed by an Arctic Monkey, a Babyshamble and a Libertine, and he did that because no-one was interested in British MCs; people [in the industry] were interested in bands.
Now, it’s hard to get a band away and a bunch of those MCs are really successful [they included the likes of Mic Righteous and Wretch 32].
But the most fucking amazing thing about Jon, and you can argue this in whichever way you want to, but it’s all fucking true, is that the NME slated him time and time again, saying, ‘Who gives a fuck about Jon McClure’s politics? Shut your mouth Jon!’ Then [in 2017] Jon McClure introduced Jeremy Corbyn onstage at Tranmere Rovers, at our Libertines gig. And it was the day when the [‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!’] chant began. Jeremy Corbyn then introduces Jon onstage at that Labour Live event and said, “I want to introduce you to the man that changed the course of the last election.” The NME no longer exists and Jon McClure changed the course of the last General Election. Come on, there’s something fucking delicious about that, right?
You’ve clearly faced the negative side of old media gatekeepers like that. But with how hard it is today to make people care about new artists, is that changing media landscape a good thing, on balance?
Dave: Yes, it is. Listen, the demise of the influence of old media, combined with the staggering growth of digital streaming platforms, whatever else you want to say about it, has done one really important thing: this business is now never ‘over’ for any artist, ever again. You can’t be written off.
“Spotify, YouTube and other services are completely democratic across race, age, sex, geography and economic background. Now, yes, there’s definitely an editorial void on those services.”
Spotify, YouTube and other services are completely democratic across race, age, sex, geography and economic background. Now, yes, there’s definitely an editorial void on those services.
And whilst that’s a problem when you’re talking about breaking artists, it also means that Despacito can become the biggest song in the world. It’s the same with the India thing, or the rise of BTS; no-one in the real world cares about the things that record companies used to think they cared about.
John: It’s true that it’s much harder to contextualize things for a new artist now, though. Back in the day you could get a Zane Lowe play, maybe a Radio 1 spot play in the day, and an NME Radar piece and you were flying. Now, looking back, that all seems like a very strange time.
It seems to be a momentous challenge breaking new acts in the UK today – making the public actually bother to look deeper into who an artist might be.
Dave: About three years ago, we took on Tom Grennan, Barns Courtney (pictured inset) and Yonaka. I don’t consider any of them ‘broken’, but I will say this: Tom Grennan is in a very small club of UK artists that have broken through to the level he’s broken through to, selling about 60,000 or 70,000 tickets on the last run, and with a debut album which will end up going Gold. He feels like an artist, a proper artist, not a guy that’s just had a hit record. It feels like people will care about him in 10 years time, and I’m very, very proud of that.
Barns Courtney is a very different kind of character, and is pretty much based in America. We realised that we weren’t going to be able to rely on the traditional route to market with what was basically a rock and roll act in a time when that concept is a difficult one to break.
“The bottom line of it is we’ve got three acts holding guitars in 2019, and they’re all doing increasingly well. I think we’ve been part of helping, for the industry as a whole, to create a lane where those acts can live.”
And so we attacked the syncs so hard, I think at one point we were the most-synced artist on the planet, turning over seven figures sums. That propelled us onto American radio, where we’re now on our third Top 20 alternative track, at No.8. Barns can sell 500 to 2,500 tickets in every city on planet earth, and he’s half a billion streams in. Again, not totally ‘broken’, but firmly on the runway.
Then there’s Yonaka, signed to Atlantic. After a year and a half of getting our heads around it, over the past six months, there’s now no faster-growing band in that lane. We’ve got from no tickets, to 1,000 tickets, to 2,500 tickets in London. We’ve got great support from Radio 1, great support from Radio X, amazing support from Spotify and all the DSPs. So we’ve got three new acts, none you could call ‘easy’ [to break], and all of them are in a position where they’re growing.
The bottom line of it is we’ve got three acts holding guitars in 2019, and they’re all doing increasingly well. I think we’ve been part of helping, for the industry as a whole, to create a lane where those acts can live.
What about Tom Grennan in particular?
John: Grennan’s definitely in prime position. Once people either see or hear him [live], they’re completely sold. If you look at his numbers online – Twitter, Instagram, Facebook – they’re not huge, but we can sell 60,000 or 70,000 tickets. We’ve got between 100,000 and 200,000 Instagram followers; you’ve acts that have got millions on there and can’t do that number of tickets.
“We always ask an artist what they want to achieve when we first sit down with them. Tom [grennan] said everything I wanted to hear.”
Dave: Tom Grennan’s biggest streaming track is a healthy 40-odd million. Yet there are people with many more streams out there that wouldn’t be able to sell out Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
John: We always ask an artist what they want to achieve when we first sit down with them. Tom said everything I wanted to hear. He wanted to be a career artist, he didn’t want to be chasing hits.
I got a really good vibe off him. With new artists, it’s not just about what it sounds like, or how they look… you’ve got to have a connection with them, otherwise you’re fucked from day one.
Do you think guitar music has a shot at recapturing its commercial past glories, or is it over?
John: We’re doing what we doing, but I’ve been looking at the other management companies out there, and I can see people starting to take on guitar acts, and trying to develop them, and it’s nice to see that happening.
Dave: I went to see everybody [at labels] in the States you can imagine recently, and the vibe from everybody was: the next big thing can be anything now. Two years ago it wasn’t that.
Don’t talk about hip-hop going away, it isn’t; don’t talk about pop going away, it isn’t. But guitars has a place. Interestingly I feel like that for the first time in a very long time, because hip-hop has got really interesting, and really left-field, and really brilliant, [labels] are willing to allow other people to [experiment] as well. I think we’re in for a really interesting ride for the next 10 years. We’ve had this homogenised period. That’s now over, and we’re moving into something else.
“The one thing I don’t buy into, probably ever again, is that old thing of ‘guitars are coming back!’. Because nothing’s ever coming ‘back’ again.”
John: It’s the same with the DSPs this side of the Atlantic; going in and having a conversation about a guitar band two years ago was a difficult, non-starter conversation.
Now, there are conversations afoot and I’m hearing the right noises about how they can develop that particular scene, because there’s no doubt it was becoming a problem. It’s certainly become a problem in terms of festival headliners, and I think we’re starting to see the doors open a little bit.
Dave: The one thing I don’t buy into, probably ever again, is that old thing of ‘guitars are coming back!’. Because nothing’s ever coming ‘back’ again. The industry’s never going to be all about a ‘scene’ ever again, I don’t think;
it’s just going to be about fucking brilliant music.
Do you worry about the idea that streaming is helping break tracks but not really superstars?
John: But in hip-hop and grime, there’s loads of stars isn’t there? Proper stars. Drake, Kendrick, Travis Scott, Stormzy… it’s top, top level. Where are the rock and roll stars?!
I’m a total indie kid, but it’s just like, empty. I remember a band coming to me about two years ago and they were like, ‘Can we see a 12 month plan, please?’ Fuck off! If you’re going to be a band, be in a band for being in a band’s sake. All the great bands are and were either outside of what’s going on, firstly, and secondly they never thought they were going to get signed.
Dave: Do you know why The Libertines keep playing headline festival gigs? Because they keep being asked
to. Because year in, year out, there’s no-one to replace them. The Libertines might be the last rock and roll band ever.
Should the charts give more value to streams that are ‘lean in’, that people have searched out and played, then those they’ve passively heard?
Dave: Yes. That and people saving tracks to their own collections. This is the only era where music people actively dislike is counting towards the charts, because they people don’t necessarily like those tracks when they’re played on their account. There is a certain kind of act that works well at the top of certain playlists – and those playlists happen to be the biggest playlists in the world.
I don’t think because something is editorially pushed [by a service] and is put at the top of those playlists, that should mean that automatically the artists behind those tracks should be No.1 or No.2, No.3, No.4, No.5, repeatedly, ad nauseum, forever, on the [UK charts]. Tom Grennan’s Found What I’ve Been Looking For is probably a more recognisable record in this country than most records that have hit the Top 10 recently, because so many of them are not real hit records. They’re artificially induced.
What’s the metric that matters most when you’re seeing if an act is ‘breaking’?
John: I’m seeing artists, who shall remain nameless, who get all the industry hype, streaming like nobody’s business, struggling to sell out a 750-cap venue out there.
“I’m seeing artists, who shall remain nameless, who get all the industry hype, streaming like nobody’s business, struggling to sell out a 750-cap venue out there.”
Dave: Everybody is waking up to that now. For a long time, the industry’s been in the streaming gold rush.
There was such euphoria at realising that the music business wasn’t dead, it wasn’t finished. But I think that euphoria has now been tinged with a realisation that [labels] are not really creating that many stars any more. It’s arguable whether it’s the contemporary delivery [methods] and lack of editorial which are responsible for not creating those stars, or whether those [special artists] are just not there, outside of the hip-hop world in America.
But one thing I’m almost certain about is pretty much everybody at the top end of the industry is realising the need to have stars again. Ultimately, a star has a 10, 20, 30 year career. Whereas arguably 90% of the acts that are currently achieving large scale chart success now will be probably be forgotten within a few years.
Are 360 deals still a source of frustration for you?
Dave: As managers we’re all on the same commission that we’ve been on forever, booking agents the same. But we do an awful lot more work now, and I think everybody would agree on that. It seems weird to me to some extent that the record companies are putting in more and more money, when they’re doing less and less work.
Is  frustrating? Yeah. Do I understand it when it happens? Yeah. Does it need to be looked at as we go through? Yeah. Am I noticing things getting chipped out of contracts slowly? Yep. Are digital rates increasing? Yes they are. These things find a way. There are a lot of good artist lawyers out there…
Where do you sit on the rise of independent artists versus the usefulness of major labels?
Dave: As it stands, right this very second, and I’ve been having this same conversation for 10 years now, there is still no better system in music glued together globally than a major record company. For the simple reason that they have offices in most major cities, in most countries, around the world.
Are there sometimes frustrations? Do the contracts throw up difficulties? Is the way that other, rival companies structure their international agreements sometimes better? Undoubtedly. But when you’ve got the attention of a major record company globally, there’s still nothing that compares.
Plus, there’s still no better way financially of doing it than with a major. When you think of the huge risks that are put out there by the major labels, for money that may never come back… well, there have been many weird schemes that have tried to replicate that, but at the end of it there’s always some confused financing guy going, ‘Erm, where’s our money gone?’ All of that being said, we sign things to the people who most desperately want our acts. If somebody at BMG, Kobalt, Platoon, whatever it is, desperately wants to work with a [Various Artists] act, if they can match the ambition and we share the same vision, we’ll sign anywhere.
What makes a Various act?
Dave: We work with people that we really love and really believe in – that’s it. There’s always an integrity to it too, whether that’s Tom Grennan, Spiritualized, Charli XCX or anyone we’ve worked with. We get off on people that really believe in what they’re doing, and people who treat their music as an art form.
This article originally appeared in the latest (Q1 2019) issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK (pictured), which is out now.
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