The biz's brightest new talents tell their stories. This week it's the turn of Toast Press senior publicist Annabel Crowhurst.
Has music turned out to be what you thought it would be? “Truthfully, I had absolutely no idea what it ...
Jamie Oborne tells Music Week how his label is making its operation more sustainable...
“We’ve been thinking about it since around spring of this year. It’s looking at the most sustainable option for every decision we make [the label is working towards no single use plastics, renewable energy in the office, biodegradable shrinkwrap and more]. The conversation around it has been growing in everyday life. For me personally it wasn’t until I met Greta Thunberg and her father in Sweden that the penny finally fucking dropped and I forgot my own selfish desires.
“When you start reading up on this stuff it’s pretty harrowing. I’ve definitely been educated by others. The younger generation has a totally different perspective, it’s part of their education, my daughter runs the recycling at home, going through the bins and making sure it’s right. I’m always more in tune with youth culture than anything else; it’s definitely what motivates me. There’s a lot that can be done and too often people don’t do anything because it seems like an insurmountable problem. When we were shaping up to do all this stuff, the main thing people were saying was, ‘Are you not worried about being called a hypocrite?’ I have to say that totally threw me, I feel like it’s an excuse to not do anything. There are so many people in the world who are waiting for people to do something before they can legitimately do it themselves, and that’s bullshit frankly.
“We’re not going to have touring sorted out overnight, it’s going to take fucking ages to be honest with you. All the cards are stacked against us from the start, but I’d rather sort out 50% of it than be another person who stands around saying, ‘Oh, we can’t sort it at the moment because no one else is sorting it for us’. Pretty soon, it’s going to be too late to change it. I’d rather lead by example and potentially fail than not set any sort of example at all. My bigger motivation is my two young kids. I’m doing it for them more than any sort of industry fucking kudos. Really, that is insignificant in comparison to my 12-year-old daughter’s fear of the future.”
Crowned Independent Label Of The Year at the Music Week Awards back in May and home to The 1975, Wolf Alice and more, Dirty Hit is riding the crest of a wave in 2019. Music Week meets Jamie Oborne and his team at the indie’s West London office to hear the secrets of their success...
According to Dirty Hit founder Jamie Oborne, this is just the beginning.
With The 1975’s fourth album Notes On A Conditional Form coming next year, the label is working more campaigns than ever before, and its success was rewarded at the Music Week Awards back in May. Music Week meets the team on a sunny morning, and the first thing they do is dedicate the win to Mina Topley-Bird (daughter of Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird), a member of Dirty hit-signed Guildford act 404, who passed away the day before the ceremony.
“It was a very strange and sad day for us,” says GM Ed Blow, who joined when the label’s release numbers still started with ‘00’. “It made us very proud to be able to dedicate it to Mina and 404 to remember her.”
We join Oborne and Blow in the boardroom with digital marketing manager and recent Music Week Rising Star Jack Caldwell and A&R Chris Fraser to sip tea out of Dirty Hit-branded mugs (they have water bottles, too) and find out just how the label, which turns 10 in 2021, operates. The business is now well-accustomed to Oborne’s easy, flamboyant style, and Dirty Hit certainly seems a lot of fun. But we’re here to scratch beneath the surface and find out just how far the label can go. Oborne started it with the intention of delivering marketing campaigns that would rival the majors, and he wants to go even further. We’ll talk the label’s push for a more sustainable music industry, but first we sit down to discuss what makes Dirty Hit a unique proposition...
What did it mean to win the award? Jamie Oborne: “It means we’re the best indie label! [Laughs] I don’t know man, this year for me is the first year I see us being a proper label. A proper label consistently releases music, has a flow of artists and records coming out, and I feel that the latter part of last year and the start of this is the first time we’ve hit that sort of output level. It’s a great reinforcement of that to win the award in the year that I feel is the first year we’re a proper label. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve wanted to win it before, but I’ve always felt like you can’t really win it if you’re only putting out a couple of records.”
Ed Blow: “We’re just hitting our stride. The label has been growing the volume of releases, the team is growing, we’re working with incredible artists who inspire us. We feel excited about the future.”
What kind of culture are you trying to build? JO: “A few years back I sat down with [Hipgnosis founder] Merck Mercuriadis. He just wanted to say ‘hi’ and that he thought what we were trying to do was kind of amazing. I didn’t realise he’d set up Bravado and a bunch of other businesses that had done really well and he’s an OG music industry person. We talked about company culture and how he saw ours as really defined, and I became really obsessed with that notion. He probably doesn’t realise he gave me such a lot to think about that helped me make some quite important decisions about how I want this to be a place where people feel facilitated but where they also take responsibility for themselves.”
EB: “We’re trying to make it a creative and collaborative working environment for staff and artists alike. In the Dirty Hit crew, everyone has a huge amount of respect and feels a huge responsibility for our artists and making sure their art is presented correctly. We all turn up and work hard every day to make sure that’s the case. The notion of lifting each other up is important.”
Chris Fraser: “I love working somewhere where the artists and staff can express themselves. It’s that ying and yang with artists. We get freedom to talk with our artists and internally about ideas, there’s not one set way. It’s quite fluid in how we can grow and expand.”
Jack Caldwell: “It’s just like a big family. Everyone here is one of my closest friends. It’s very comforting to work in a place where you can be so open with everyone and there’s never any apprehension about discussing something that there may be in other workplaces. There’s none of that here. There is a hierarchy, but it doesn’t feel that way. I’ve worked in places where I would feel very apprehensive about talking about some things to a boss or someone who owns the company.”
How do you attract the right people? JO: “You’re naturally predisposed to that way of working or you’re not. When we had the Music Week Award nomination in 2018, I was really nervous because I thought we would win it. I’m the most glass half full person you’ll ever meet. I was really nervous about the speech and how to accept the award. I was walking home one night thinking what would be a good thing to say and it suddenly occurred to me that everyone who works here is someone who’s approached me. I thought that was really amazing. Maybe that in some way backs up what we’re saying about trying to create a culture people want to be part of.”
What does the notion of competition mean to you? JO: “I don’t know actually. I exist in a vaccum of my own making...” [Laughs]
EB: “I wouldn’t consider any other labels as competitors, we want everyone to succeed as well.”
What are some of your favourite moments from the past year? JO: “The 1975’s Love It If We Made It video. Ed finished that single-handedly because everyone else had given up on it!” [Laughs]
EB: “It was a monster edit. There’s such a feeling of hope in the song, as well as the cultural and political issues. To match that visually was hard. We were in the trenches, but we’re super proud, it was just nominated for the MTV VMAs. That feels pretty important.”
JO: “Wolf Alice won the Mercury Prize. They were absolutely floored, Ellie [Rowsell, singer and guitarist] fell over as she found out. It was wild, one of my favourite nights in music, it was such a pure reaction. Ellie started screaming and then the whole table did.”
Does The 1975’s success mean there’s too much focus on them? JO: “People do focus on the other artists. Beabadoobee is a huge priority and she’s going to have a massive breakthrough next year, same with No Rome. The Japanese House has made the best LP we’ve put out. I don’t worry about that, you’re always going to have a different scale of artists across a label.”
What qualities are you looking for from artists? CF: “We all have similar wants for an artist. What excites me is an artist with vision and ambition. Even if they don’t realise it at first, that’s what we’re here for. I always want to work with artists that are driven, more than anything. We have to love the music. We all discuss new artists together, so it’s not just solely on myself and Jamie, it’s a team thing.”
EB: “It’s true artists, those with that instinctive creative streak. They have no choice but to express themselves.”
JC: “You can tell who those people are a lot of the time. They might not have realised it themselves but you can see something in them, you can see there’s a vision there.”
How can you help realise it? JO: “I’ll speak to Matthew Healy most mornings even now, a decade deep into his career, I’ll just be convincing him that he can do things, that he is creatively and technically good enough. Sometimes it’s just that, on the daily. Other times it’ll be more about the minutiae. One’s natural fallback is to think you can’t do something. Often with artists you get really massive egos with low self worth. So you have to somehow help them navigate that as well.”
What’s the creative process like with your acts? EB: “The starting point is us understanding their creative vision and developing that, whether sonically or visually. Listening to references or making mood boards and developing those, everyone in this office is involved in that. It’s about editing, having 10 ideas and finding the ones we can execute. Then we start building the campaigns.”
From the outside, it looks like you’re doing pretty much what you want? JO: “It’s about autonomy. The people who make decisions about what we do all work in this office, so we’re not reliant on a major label group [Dirty Hit has a JV with Polydor for The 1975] or a financier to rubber stamp our decisions. They’re based on conversations with the artists. Sometimes that overrides us, but we’ll only do stuff they feel passionately about. We won’t do the opposite. There’s not a formulaic, one-size-fits-all mentality that artists have to fit into. We’re trying to create micro marketing worlds that we then use to amplify outwards.”
What are toughest things you deal with? EB: “Doing justice to the artists. We want them to win and we want to build a platform for them, which is hard.”
JO: “Not everything is going to succeed, the world chooses, not us. I worry about failing in my commitment to an artist or the staff. A hell of a lot of people are dependent on things going well, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it feels more serious than it used to!” [Laughs]
Finally, what’s your vision for the future? JC: “Continuing to put out records we all absolutely love. Since I’ve been here, we’ve not put out a record that all of us didn’t love and I’m sure we’ll continue to do so. I can’t wait to work on stuff that hasn’t even been imagined yet.”
JO: “Expanding into America is happening. We’ll be opening an office in America, expanding the team here and building a team there. In America I want to have the same as what we have here, a domestic marketing label with its own staff and resources to better amplify artists in that market. If we had an office in London, LA and eventually in Asia, we could run comprehensive global campaigns without relying on anyone else.”