‘There’s trap doors everywhere in this game. The secret is being able to navigate them.’

John Dawkins has come a long way since his formative years in Coventry

The artist manager was born and raised in the Midlands city, a place that continues to influence his opinions on (and occasionally his frustrations with) today’s music industry.

Dawkins began his music industry career as a tour manager – complete with a stint in L.A – before achieving success by managing Coventry band (and hometown heroes) The Enemy, who became a Platinum-selling band with debut album, We’ll Live And Die In These Towns.

The Enemy sold over 1.5 million records and bagged four top 10 albums – but by his own admission, the experience taught Dawkins much about how quickly success can hit you in this business… and how quickly it can be snatched away from you.

“The Enemy’s first album came out in 2007,” he remembers. “Within two years, I was working on a building site. It was humbling.”

But it’s this insight, earned the hard way, that has made Dawkins what he is today.

In 2015, Dawkins joined David Bianchi at London-headquartered Various Artists Management. Dawkins has been a driving force in the business’s growth, which earlier this year opened a new L.A office complete with four bedrooms, writing rooms and a fully-kitted-out studio.

Amongst his personal roster of acts at Various – Rose Gray, Chappaqua Wrestling, Mugun, Frankie Beetlestone, Zuzu and Elli Ingram – Dawkins manages Tom Grennan, whose second album, Evering Road, went to No.1 in the UK album chart earlier this year. It’s since gone Gold, spawning two UK Platinum singles in Little Bit Of Love and Let’s Go Home Together (with Ella Henderson).

Dawkins was recently named UK Managing Director at Various, where he has been a partner for the past five years.

David Bianchi, Group CEO of Various Artists Management, said: “John has been a key figure in our success in recent years; what he has achieved with his own roster, especially Tom Grennan who is currently one of the UK’s most successful and important artists, is astounding.

“We are an ambitious company with a clear vision of what we want to achieve and John is the ideal person to help lead us towards those goals.”

Here, we speak to Dawkins about his time with The Enemy, his current success with Tom Grennan and his frustrations with the London-centric nature of the UK music industry…

What are your memories of managing The Enemy and how it influenced your professional viewpoint?

With The Enemy, it was one of those things, definitely a MySpace thing, where it just caught fire. A lesson I’ve learned now, in many ways with social media, is that good management for me is about when the horse bolts, can you control it?

That comes from experience. The Enemy really gave me experience that I didn’t think about until a good six or seven years later. I sat down and scrutinised myself, my management skills, my behaviour afterwards, where I’d gone wrong and where I could make amends. That’s management. You learn from your mistakes, and you don’t make the same mistake twice.

When I’m [helping artists] make records, in a sense, I’m thinking about making records for me when I was 14 years old. It’s such an important time in your life and it frames who you become. You gain a sense of identity in those formative years. When I was growing up, my dad was a mod and my mum was a first-generation skinhead. [As a young teenager] I loved Nirvana, but the messages of ‘I hate myself and I want to die,’ I wasn’t sure about.

I was trying to find something that was tangible for me, and then my sister gave me an Oasis tape. I loved it. Then I saw what they looked like, and they looked like older lads on my estate. Then I found rave and dance culture. Then all of a sudden, it formed my identity. They were the days for me, and that’s what I’m always thinking about when we’re making records.

Does your history of growing up in Coventry, outside of the London-centric bubble, influence your outlook on artist management today?

It definitely does when I’m trying to reach a market and sell records. I listen to this London-centric mentality, where we’re told that certain artists are massive when they’re shifting 15,000 units [in the UK]. There’s a terminology that gets thrown around, of things [happening] in ‘the North’. But it’s not one big place. Many towns and cities north of London are important. This is where we sell records.

Obviously there’s Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, but to anyone that I manage, I also say ‘let’s get into Bury, Preston on a Tuesday night, Scunthorpe, get yourself into Cleethorpes – let’s start building those small fan bases’.

“Those provincial towns and cities are so important but so overlooked within our industry.”

Those provincial towns and cities are so important but so overlooked within our industry. I sometimes think it’s fucking criminal, to be honest. If you make the effort to go to those places, the [local communities] respect that, they start turning out and they’ll turn out again and again. These places are where the scenes are now. We have white, middleclass gatekeepers [in London] who are petrified to make any mistakes, and it’s a fucking madness.

So, rather than me banging my head against the wall, trying to win those wars that are almost impossible for a lot of my acts, I’ll just go and get the numbers from the real people. The Courteeners get 55,000 people in a field time and time again, but I’ve heard people say ‘well that’s just a northern thing’. You may or may not like the music [as an industry gatekeeper], but that’s not what you’re there for.

Gerry Cinnamon is another one. He’s selling out stadiums with no label. Those things make a mockery of [the London industry] game. But if you get numbers with your artists to a point where you can ram them down [gatekeepers’] throats, you leave them no choice.

You’ve been having a lot of success with Tom Grennan. Going back to the start, how and when did you meet Tom?

He went to the same university as me, albeit 14 years after I left. I saw a video on the university’s Facebook page, and he was amazing. I sent him a message but got no reply. Classic.

And then about four or five days later, a guy called Alex Edwards rang me, who runs a label called Nice Swan. He started playing me a load of demos, and one of them was Grennan’s. About a month later, I got a message [reply] from Tom saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got managers already’, though it turned out it was two of his mates.

And then things started getting really serious for Tom. A lot of scouts started hearing him, and then he hit me up again. He’d heard my name mentioned a couple of times via Dan Lloyd Jones and others, and then all of a sudden, I asked him to meet for a pint.

Within a couple of minutes of speaking to him we just had a great connection. We had the conversation, me and Tom, we shook hands and here we are. It’s been almost six years.

Six years is a long time in the music industry. What was the plan when you started? And how has that changed since?

Tom’s big thing was wanting to get to the O2. It doesn’t quite happen that quickly, and 99% of acts never get there, so first and foremost we had to put the fundamental building blocks in place to get him a starting point.

The classic thing was to go through the demos, start working out what we liked, what we didn’t like, and how we were going to get things to a certain sonic level that we were happy with. The idea initially was to do a couple of mixtapes, try and get 10 bits of music out within the first eight to 12 months and start building a fan base.

“Tom’s big thing was wanting to get to the O2. It doesn’t quite happen that quickly, and 99% of acts never get there, so first and foremost we had to put the fundamental building blocks in place to get him a starting point.”

That went a little bit to pot, because within a couple of weeks Chase and Status got in touch to say they’d heard Tom’s single Something in the Water and wanted to use it. Tom was like, ‘I don’t want to give them that song, but I’m happy to go in the studio with them.’ So that’s what we did: Tom’s first time in the studio was right in at the deep end with Chase and Status, in control room one at Metropolis Studios, one of the biggest and most expensive studios in London. It was all a bit back to front.

They wrote All Goes Wrong in the room, they cut it and then they wanted to put it out [as a Chase & Status ft Tom Grennan track]. The plan had changed, and that goes back to what I said earlier: you’ve got to be able to adapt quickly. We built off the back of that Chase and Status release [in 2016], and that worked well with us. But before we had put anything out [as Tom Grennan solo], Insanity had already made an offer.

I had a very good conversation with them, I told them our vision, they told me theirs, I said I’d do the deal but I needed to write the terms and conditions and what he needs. They literally let me write it down on a piece of paper. Sure enough, the deal was signed within three weeks, and we started putting plans in place for the first EP to run off the back of Chase and Status.

That’s a pretty big thing to do, for someone fresh out of university to tell Chase and Status, ‘No, you can’t have my song, but I’ll feature on another track instead.’

It was either really brave and confident, or blind naivety, I don’t know, but it was definitely the right call, and it showed me his capabilities in the writing room.

When you meet Tom, he’s a bit of a roadman in truth [laughs]. Then he’d write lyrics, I’d read them, and I’d be like… are you sure you’ve written this?! He’d be offended, but laughing.

Chase and Status said he was a great writer too, and we’re seeing that now. He’s written the comeback Westlife single [Starlight], bizarrely, which came out of nowhere.

Once we started seeing that, we knew what we needed to do to piece things together moving forward. We wanted to get every inch of music and songs out of Tom on his own, rather than being lazy and throwing him into all these writing sessions that everyone seems to do straightaway.

The amount of artists that I see in writing sessions for years, with no music coming out… it just beggars belief.

You mentioned earlier that you made some mistakes with The Enemy. With your work with Tom, is that guided by the mistakes you’ve made in the past?

Definitely. With The Enemy, there were mistakes made in the way that we dealt with certain situations and certain individuals in that band. Even myself and my conduct.

I used to argue with people in front of the band… that’s not beneficial to anybody. I see the past clearer now. You know how to throw a timeline together, you know how to move flags accordingly when things happen. And when the horse bolts you know how to get control of it.

“If you’re working 100%, and you’re doing everything you can for your artist, that’s all you can do. If you get sacked for it, then so be it.”

If you’re working 100%, and you’re doing everything you can for your artist, that’s all you can do. If you get sacked for it, then so be it. You’ve got to be true to yourself, to take those negatives and make sure they don’t happen again. You’re going to make loads of mistakes in this game.

You’re dealing with sociopaths, psychopaths. bullshitters, pathological liars; there’s trap doors everywhere. The secret is being able to navigate that.

You’re navigating artists through those stages so they don’t have to [experience it], and giving them a fair shot at the title for their songs and culture. That’s what we do it for.

Tom has some upcoming US tour dates. How do you break a British artist in the US in 2021? Is it still as notoriously hard as it was? It is difficult.

If you want to break America, you’ve got to go in and do the groundwork. Ed Sheeran works the hardest out of anyone I’ve seen, and even at the size he is at he’s prepared to do everything.

He will work 15 or 16 hour days, doing promo and press that other artists would turn their nose up to. Grennan is very much the same as that. We’ve been going to and from the US for three or four years now, building relationships with the different teams. That’s part one. The other part is the hours, and days, and weeks, and years you have to put in to get a shot there.

“If you want to break America, you’ve got to go in and do the groundwork.”

We’re going on tour with Tom in March [2022]. It will definitely lose money, because we could have done it with a smaller band, but we’ve decided to do the show that we do in the UK.

Tom is prepared to put in £75,000 of his own money because he wants to showcase himself to the best of his abilities and give himself a shot at getting on the ladder in the US. Tom will do whatever it takes. That’s his mentality. He just wants to have the chance. If he blows it, he’s like ‘that’s on me, but let’s just do everything to get the chance’. That, along with his talent, is what will get him where he wants to be.

Are there newer, or different ways of ‘breaking America’ today? Can you be more creative with it now?

You have to be. [Various] has got a US office based in L.A, we’re about to open a New York office, but we’re always looking for opportunities, whether it be in brand or in sync.

With all the social media platforms you have available, and distinctive digital marketing in territories, you just have to take advantage of every one of those platforms.

There is a massive and always-growing number of artists all trying to do the same thing, so as long as you’re doing everything you can in all those fields to the top of its capability, we’ve got a chance. That’s the way it is.Music Business Worldwide