“I wish I could say there was a plan,” says Niko Michault, describing the origins of P.U.S.H. Music Management, which he founded with Danielle Livesey in 2010. “It was just a case of trying to break an artist and get paid whilst doing it.”
P.U.S.H. is actually an acronym for ‘Play Until Something Happens’ and, today, things are certainly happening for Michault, Livesey and their small roster of acts. Take one of the company’s earliest signings, and current Absolute Rights Management client, Jack Savoretti. He’s just earned his first UK No.1 album with Singing To Strangers, following two Top 10 LPs – 2015’s Written In Scars and 2016’s Sleep No More, both of which were released via BMG and distributed through Absolute Label Services.
Another P.U.S.H. client, Gizmo Varillas, who is able to operate completely independently via Absolute Label Services, will be hoping to follow a similar trajectory at his own pace, and his star is certainly rising. He’ll release his next album later this year, the first single from which, Out Of The Darkness, was released earlier this month and saw support from Jo Whiley on her BBC Radio 2 show.
“Over the last five years, we’ve gotten a greater understanding of what we are and how we do things,” says Michault, thinking about the evolution of P.U.S.H. “There are so many different opportunities and directions that we could go in. But remaining small and independent is important to us. A bit like what Absolute does in distribution and label services, we’d like to do in management – a tailor-made approach for our clients and a long-term relationship with each of them.”
As a manager, what do you make of the distribution landscape at the moment and the companies that are competing in it?
You’ve got distributors like CD Baby, TuneCore and AWAL that just stick your music up everywhere. They’re straight-forward, but that’s all they do. You might go to them if you can’t get the interest of a full label services company like Absolute and so have to do it on your own. You go to Absolute when you’re developing an artist and need the support but want to remain fiercely independent. They’re amazing at that. If they believe in an artist enough to take them on at a really early stage in their career, working to our brief, then they’re a real asset. We do Gizmo Varillas with Absolute and he now has a career because of it. We have various licensing deals in various territories with Gizmo, but I’d never think of replacing Absolute because I foresee a future where he’s a big artist but still incredibly independent, and that’s possible with Absolute.
There are a lot of management companies out there that now have their own labels. I’d love to have my own label, but more so I could put out the music I like for fun. When people say, ‘Why don’t you just do it all yourself?’ that’s great but the amount of work that goes into doing what a label does is immense. The expertise needed is completely different to that of a manager. So, if you are looking to do that, you go to Absolute who can be the label without being the label.
When people talk about DIY artists and managers, this is the reality of what they mean. This is the way to do it, otherwise you’d have to employ a lot of extra personnel, infrastructure and expertise…
Absolutely. If I was brutal, thinking about it purely from a manager’s point of view, I’d put labels and label services all in the same bucket because it’s a case of deciding which route you want to take as an artist. There are definitely certain artists that need that label structure. From a personal point of view, I’d always rather do it the independent way with the likes of Absolute, because you’re so much more nimble and in control. You’re building a business rather than going for that big hit.
Would you say that the artist/manager team is more powerful than it’s ever been and, if so, is that why more and more companies are looking to move into this sector?
I think artists have always had the power but, in the past, the manager’s role has been to get the label deal and then beat up on the label or get the artist out of the deal if it isn’t going well. Now, managers work across all parts of the artist’s business. And, especially on the records side, managers have to be more involved because labels can no longer afford to be. There’s been a shift in terms of where the money’s going and responsibilities have changed as a result. I find it very hard to criticise labels when they say, ‘We’re just trying to sell records here.’ In the past, managers would have said that was a record company being greedy, but that’s not fair, it’s in the name. I get frustrated with labels when they aren’t focussing on selling the record, but building up the artist – that’s the manager’s role now. The music comes first, and the first contact between artist and fan is the record – but it’s a bigger picture now with social media, live and the rest.
When I started out, a lot of people were telling us that we should sign 10 artists and one of them would be the one that worked out. That’s just such an exhausting way of working because of the amount of time we put into one artist. You need to know how everything works. With Jack Savoretti, who Absolute distributed to a point and now handle neighbouring rights for, it’s gotten to such a level that I don’t have time to do all of it but, during that growth period, I was over everything. I much prefer that because it means I can work quicker. That’s definitely changed. In the past, someone would ask the manager about merch, for example, and they’d refer them to the label.
When it comes to the majors, there’s still a lot that they do that the manager doesn’t have to worry about and I find that very alien.
Well with Absolute, for example, you can ask them to sort some artwork and they’ll happily do it – and they know all the people that a manager would need for that – but, ultimately, they’ll ask the manager and artist what they want. A major will give you three alternatives and ask you which you prefer. A lot of the time, none of them will be what you envisaged so you’ll end up starting from scratch. With Absolute, you’re the decision-maker and they provide the support, which I really like. It’s more time consuming than if you had a big label but, at the same time, they take away so much of the workload. And you’re always dealing with a person, which I know might not be necessary in today’s digital world, but it is so important to me.
How did you come to the decision to bring Gizmo Varillas to Absolute for label services?
We built our relationship with Absolute through the early Jack Savoretti albums and Gizmo was an artist in development with us. Back in those days, I might have been of the mindset that we’d put Gizmo out through something like AWAL and do everything on our own but, after working with Absolute with Jack, I thought, ‘No, we should totally be speaking with Henry [Semmence, Absolute MD]. Imagine if we got his expertise on this.’ We played Gizmo’s stuff to him and he loved it. So, from day one, Absolute have distributed everything for Gizmo and added on their label services. It feels like Absolute is Gizmo and Gizmo is Absolute at this point, it doesn’t feel like two separate entities.
It’s interesting because Gizmo is still what you might call an emerging artist. For a long time, label services and emerging artists weren’t thought of as things that could go together, but that’s obviously changing…
Yeah. The most exciting thing for me over the last few years in the music industry is that, back in the day, artists like Gizmo would not have existed. With the likes of Absolute and Spotify, you have an artist who doesn’t yet have a following but is still able to pay his monthly bills from music alone. This is his third album and his development as a songwriter and performer is incredible but also, as a person who can go and do media promo, he’s almost a pro. He hasn’t had the pressure to do all that from day one, he’s said that he wants to build slowly and we couldn’t have done that with anyone other than Absolute.
What’s coming up for you?
We’ve got Gizmo’s new album, obviously. Jack’s album is still ongoing. Then we have another act, P.S, who are songwriter/producers, who are in the process of setting up their own label to release their own music that doesn’t get released elsewhere. Beyond that, in a more general way, it’s just a really exciting time for independent companies like us with small rosters because it’s become so much easier. Again, because of companies like Absolute and the structures they offer.
What kind of position do you think management companies like yours will hold in the business over the next 5 – 10 years, considering the changes you’ve seen already?
There’s definitely be a massive shift and I think it’s still ongoing. I don’t think anybody knows yet. The majors are really consolidated, then you’ve got the big independents, and then, below that, you’ve got this tier of very independently-minded operators that want to be their own boss and successful but don’t want to be the size of larger independents or the majors. You get all sorts of companies in that category – label services, distributors, small indie labels and management companies like ours… We never wanted to spend our days managing people, we wanted to manage artists and, if you grow too much, you end up doing things other than what you got into it for. We’re in a unique space where we can work with both global artists and small developing acts. As long as we remain small and avoid big overheads or a bloated roster, then I only see us improving.