‘We were all on a total blag and holding on for dear life, basically.’

Ryan Lofthouse

From his vantage point on a Finsbury Park viewing tower in London, Ryan Lofthouse could see everything.

In front of him was his management client, George Ezra, playing the biggest show of his life.

But in the distance, he could also see his old, one-bedroom flat on the Holloway Road, where he lived during the start of his journey with Ezra. It was in that flat that he first listened to the demos of the songs that would go on to feature on Ezra’s multi-platinum debut, Wanted On Voyage, the songs that the singer-songwriter was now playing to 45,000 screaming fans.

“It was the most surreal gig I’ve ever been to,” chuckles Lofthouse today. “I don’t want to be too cheesy or romantic, but there’s a moment where you just have to go, ‘Fucking hell…’ You can’t really make sense of it.”

Ryan Lofthouse has had a few of those moments in recent years. Because, while it’s just a short hop across North London from Holloway Road’s bedsits to Finsbury Park’s moshpits, Lofthouse and Ezra’s trek to the top has been a much longer, stranger trip. And that gig – which confirmed Ezra as a genuine, pan-generational star – was not a destination either of them expected to reach.

Lofthouse now stands at the top of the UK artist management mountain – as Co-MD (with his friend and mentor Paul McDonald) of Closer Artists, also home to James Bay, James Morrison, Calum Scott, Holly Humberstone and many more. But he began in Darwen, Lancashire, a market town nestled between Blackburn and Bolton, that is not exactly renowned as the rock’n’roll capital of the world.

It was there, however, that Lofthouse first heard Oasis’ Definitely Maybe. It hit him like “a bolt of lightning” and he became obsessed with music. He joined a band (although he won’t reveal their name – James Bay has apparently been trying to get it out of him for years) and his rock-loving uncle took him under his wing, educating him in the classics on long drives across the North, an education that continued via a stint as the Saturday boy at Andy’s Records in Blackburn and at university in Newcastle. He pitched up there a few weeks after The Strokes’ Is This It was released, to discover “indie music was sexy again”.

He was soon dabbling in live promotion and, with the North-East becoming an A&R hotspot thanks to The Futureheads, Maxïmo Park, Field Music and The Golden Virgins, he forged connections with the London label execs who would regularly make excursions to Newcastle.

Lofthouse became a scout for Virgin and then moved to London with jobs at Famous and Independiente before joining Connected Artists Management, where Lofthouse first encountered Paul McDonald, who was already managing James Morrison. Eventually, the pair left to set up Closer (named after the Joy Division album).

At the time, the charts were awash with BRIT School graduates such as Adele, Amy Winehouse, Jessie J and The Kooks, so McDonald suggested Lofthouse check out what talent was coming through the nation’s other music colleges.

Sure enough, “a lot of terrible Soundcloud links” later, it paid off. James Bay was snapped up via BIMM Brighton after Lofthouse and McDonald saw him play an open mic slot and McDonald declared: “If we don’t do this, we’re fucking idiots.”

Lofthouse was pointed in the direction of George Ezra by Jon Harper at BIMM Bristol. In fact, Lofthouse signed the singer-songwriter up on the very first day he met him, after he travelled down to Bristol to indulge in “a five-hour drinking session, talking about music. I wouldn’t necessarily do that now,” laughs Lofthouse. “But I was 28 and didn’t know anything…”

Ezra and Lofthouse educated themselves along the way, together experiencing everything from their first sold-out gig to their first record deal with Columbia UK, then run by Alison Donald and Mark Terry.

The original plan was for Ezra to emulate Laura Marling’s slow-burning career path, but things took off after then-Columbia US president Ashley Newton spotted the potential of Budapest. The song duly became a hit around the world, powering the album to 5x Platinum status in the UK.

James Bay, who Lofthouse co-manages with McDonald, broke out at a similar time with his debut album, The Chaos And The Calm, and both artists have gone on to score multiple hit records.

Ezra’s latest release, Gold Rush Kid, debuted at No. 1 and cemented his status on British pop’s A-list, with performances on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage and at the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Concert, where he controversially censored the lyrics to Green Green Grass to remove the second half of the line ‘You’d better throw a party on the day that I die’.

The Queen, of course, has since passed away (MBW met Lofthouse a couple of weeks before the news broke), while Ezra continues to reach new heights, with an arena tour running through to March next year, and a deal in place with a major streaming partner for the documentary of his walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

“At the moment, I wake up every morning and really love going to work. What else is there?”

Closer also continues to expand – they’ve just taken on veteran indie rockers Snow Patrol, the first time they’ve managed an established act rather than building them from the ground up. But don’t expect them to blindly follow the current management agency fashion for either selling up or dabbling in other areas of the music biz.

“It’s not what we want to do,” Lofthouse shrugs, an incongruously working class, Northern presence amidst the brunching yummy mummies in a Clapham café. “It’s not through any lack of ambition, and never say never, but we just really like being managers. And, having built this doing things our way, the idea that someone would say, ‘Now you’re going to do things my way and on my schedule – I don’t know if we’d like that every day! At the moment, I wake up every morning and really love going to work. What else is there?”

Time to find out…

Did Closer set out to manage lots of male solo artists?

(Laughs) It used to get my back up when people said that; like I’d seen the future and it was white, male singer-songwriters! I mean, I’d seen the James Morrison thing and I’d been big into David Gray and Damian Rice, but it absolutely wasn’t by design, it’s just the way it played out.

The only reason it worked was because they had a point of difference – don’t forget, there were also a shitload of singer-songwriters that didn’t do anything!

Your relationship with Paul McDonald must be key to your success as well?

Oh yeah, we’re family. Our values are really well-aligned in terms of what we’re trying to do, the sort of people we like working with and what we want out of our partnerships.

There’s a telepathic understanding between us now; we can be sat in a planning meeting with 20 people and I know exactly what he’s thinking. I’ve known Paul for 13 years now and we’ve never had an argument, but we challenge each other every single day. It’s a healthy marriage.

Closer manages a lot of big artists but still seems to fly under the radar. Is that deliberate?

Definitely. It’s not like I have deep friendships with these people, but I look at managers like Jonathan Dickins, Ian McAndrew and Rob Swerdlow and they’ve got it right. There’s nothing flashy; the music they’re part of says everything you need to know about them as people and I like that.

I find the idea of being a celebrity manager very unappealing – thinking you’re an extension of the artist; you’re not. You’re in partnership with that artist and I treasure that partnership, it’s unbelievably satisfying that that person has chosen me to be their representative in the industry. They only get one shot and they’re going, ‘OK – you’.

Will it be a very different challenge managing Snow Patrol to your usual work with brand new artists?

Yeah, but we’re applying the same logic that we would to a new artist. You now have to treat every record like you’re trying to break an artist. People are getting pulled in so many different directions. You’ve got access to every record that ever existed on your phone – and you’ve got Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, TikTok, Instagram and Facebook. Competing for people’s time is more difficult than it’s ever been.

When we came back with the George record at the start of the year we were under absolutely no illusions: you have to start again, essentially.

Did you think George would become a megastar when you first met him?

No, absolutely not! When I met him, he had a skinhead, looked like he hadn’t seen a vegetable in a month and was wearing this knackered Barbour jacket. I thought, that voice with him, that’s really cool. The music was quite intense and serious. 

Then one day, his sister said to him, ‘Fucking hell, these songs are miserable, aren’t they?’ And it wasn’t his personality: if you met him, he was this really funny, up-for-anything, laid-back guy. It hadn’t entered his mind that he could write fun music because that’s not what singer-songwriters did; you write very ‘serious face’ music. 

Then George and Joel [Pott, Ezra’s co-writer and former Athlete frontman] started writing different songs. Budapest ended up as a bed on a BBC trailer and the Shazams went mental. We were in 200-cap rooms, a 20-date tour and they all went straight away, so it was like, ‘OK – this is something’.

So did expectations suddenly get recalibrated?

Yeah, all of a sudden. We were making the record in Clapham North with [producer] Cam Blackwood who’s a fucking genius, but he wasn’t a ‘hit’ producer. Joel had had hits with Athlete but had never had a hit as a co-writer. So it was me, George, Joel and Cam all having our first hit together!

It made this thing really beautiful, we were all texting each other saying, ‘Fucking hell have you seen this? It’s No.4 in Ireland!’ It was so exciting, but suddenly it became, ‘We need to get this fucking album right’.

There are things that me and George look back on now – certain meetings and conversations we were in, when we were so amateur hour! It was like, chancers of the world unite. We were all on a total blag and holding on for dear life, basically!

Well, he’s now on his third massive hit album so you must have been doing something right…

Yeah, George uses a record company in a way that all artists should use a record company. The germ of the idea starts from him and they amplify it. I try and tell all new artists now that the record company will not make you a star or make you famous. The universe you create around you has to come from you – what you stand for, what you say, what you wear, then they’ll help you.

I try and tell all new artists now that the record company will not make you a star or make you famous. The universe you create around you has to come from you – what you stand for, what you say, what you wear, then they’ll help you.”

But the record company will not come up with all this for you – and the second they do, you’re subjecting yourself to a committee. A camel is a horse designed by a committee; there will be 15 people who have a different idea of who you are, and it’s fucked from that point.

Is your job very different now George is such a big star and you have to deal with things like the Jubilee gig controversy…

I just thought that was funny! They wanted us to play another song but we said, ‘It’s a party, he has to play this’. The song’s no more about dying than Budapest is about Hungary. 

But we had no idea it was going to be a thing at all – I guess you don’t think people are paying that much attention, or they don’t know the song well enough to even know you’ve done that. But it became this thing and it made the song blow up.

We find most of those things hilarious, because how can you be playing a gig outside Buckingham Palace and not piss yourself laughing all day? Knowing where it all started, this is mad. You know, being at the BRITs is mental! Being on the Pyramid Stage is mental! It’s pop music, it’s a laugh. Just chill out. It’s going to be fine.

There was another recent story that George was about to quit music…

All he was saying in that article was, ‘I’m very aware this doesn’t last forever and I’d like to make the decision when that moment is’. But who are any of us to get in the way of a salacious headline? [Laughs]

Even if he chose to do that, it’s his decision. Of course I’d be disappointed, because we’re having a lot of fun, but he doesn’t owe me anything.

How do you choose which artists to work with?

I couldn’t ever manage anything just because I thought it was going to be successful. I’ve got to want to go to the gig and be really proud to be around records I would buy if I wasn’t involved with them. Everyone I work with, I really love. We have been offered stuff in the past where there was an absolute financial upside to doing it, but I just wasn’t arsed. I said, ‘Nah, I’m just not into it’.

It’s not that we don’t want to make money, but getting rich is not the driver at all. It’s about finding someone, really believing in them and trying to make it as big as they want it to be – and not much else.

If you could change one thing about today’s music industry, right here and now, what would it be and why?

I’d like to see fairer remuneration in record deals for artists from streaming. When times were lean, artists and managers rolled over and bought into 360 deals – some taking a gross position on live. Now we’re told the good times are here again and the deals look exactly the same!

“When times were lean, artists and managers rolled over and bought into 360 deals – some taking a gross position on live. Now we’re told the good times are here again and the deals look exactly the same!”

Don’t get me wrong, I understand there’s a great financial risk taken by the labels at the outset, but I still find the 80/20 split quite shocking.

If you could go back to the start of your career and teach yourself one lesson about the industry, what would it be?

Don’t worry what people think so much. I worry a lot. So just calm down, chill out and keep going because, when you get there, it’s going to be amazing.

You do seem to have a lot of fun managing people…

Oh yeah, I fucking love the music industry. I romanticised it for years from my bedroom and now I’m in it, it’s everything I wanted it to be.

I love it because on the one hand it is really serious, you’ve got to work so hard – but I was never workshy anyway. And, on the other, it has been and it still is loads of fun, and the opportunity seems endless.

“The idea that I could go back to my house and there’ll be an MP3 waiting there that’s going to change my life – it’s so intoxicating, it’s a drug you keep chasing.”

The idea that I could go back to my house and there’ll be an MP3 waiting there that’s going to change my life – it’s so intoxicating, it’s a drug you keep chasing.

I remember walking in Clapham when I got a text from James [Bay] (pictured inset) saying there’s a song in your inbox, see what you think – and it was Hold Back The River. I remember George calling me and he said, ‘I’ve never phoned you to tell you this before, but I think I’ve got one’ – and he sent me Shotgun. And that might happen again this afternoon, or in a year’s time.

This article originally appeared in the latest (Q3/Q4 2022) issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK, which is out now.

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