Music Business Worldwide speaks to Sam Denniston while he’s reflecting on, and recovering from, another successful campaign for Verdigris Management.
Jungle’s latest album, Love In Stereo, recently hit No.3 in the UK album charts. It’s the band’s first release on AWAL, and their first since parting ways with their former label, XL Recordings. In 2013, Sam Denniston founded Verdigris Management as a young twenty-something from his London bedroom.
Now, the artist management company has staff in London, Los Angeles and NYC. Verdigris is home to well-established crowd favourites (Hot Chip, Jungle), Frank Ocean-tipped experimentalists (Superorganism) and space-pop dreamers (LA Priest).
In March, Jungle signed a global recordings deal with AWAL, offering the duo a full range of services, including global marketing, campaign coordination, synch licensing and global distribution.
“It’s been incredibly full on and time consuming, but it’s been an amazing experience,” says Denniston, looking back on the campaign as the dust begins to settle. “We had an amazing week one, and then it’s about extending the longevity out the back of it.”
Denniston is also settling into his role as a spokesperson for change within the industry. Earlier this year, he became a trustee of the UK charity Youth Music, an organisation that invests in music-making projects for children and young people experiencing challenging circumstances.
Here, we talk to Denniston about Jungle, how to cultivate longterm success, bagging a Billie Eilish support slot and why labels need to be more transparent with managers.
Congratulations on the success with Jungle, especially as the band went away from a major label in XL and moved to AWAL. How did that deal come about, and how has the deal changed what you do?
I’ve always been incredibly interested in label services, and I’ve been fashioning the company to be a company that can slot into whatever system the artist wants to work with. That’s our USP.
We’re not fussy about which partner we work with, but it has the partner that makes sense. We have very bespoke, tailored individuals who work at the company in a similar way to what a record label does. There’s a team of about 12 people worldwide that an artist can slot into. I really wanted that, so that whenever I took an artist into a system I had the confidence that they would be getting the bespoke love that you sometimes only get if you’re a priority at a record label. With AWAL, I’ve always been very aware of what they’re doing and how they’re trying to flip the music industry business model on its head.
“I’m a huge advocate of people who are innovative, and people who respect artist’s rights.”
I’m a huge advocate of people who are innovative, and people who respect artist’s rights. They’re not signing their life away, it’s something that’s a bit more artist friendly. Jungle, when they first came out, signed to XL. We had an amazing couple of records with them where they really helped set Jungle up to be the big artists that they are. The head of A&R, Imran Ahmed, was instrumental in not only helping get the band to a great place, but held my hand as a fairly junior manager. Some labels might see a 23-year-old manager come in and try and oust them, but they took the time to incubate me as a manager, as well as incubate the band. But that relationship kind of ran its course. Josh and Tom [members of Jungle] are very headstrong individuals and know exactly what they want, and it got to a point with XL where there were just too many creative differences.
XL and myself just had a very honest conversation, and we decided to mutually part ways. They could sense that it is better to set an artist creatively free to go off and do what they need to do. With Jungle, they needed to be in a structure where they had total autonomy and control. And having worked with AWAL on a few other artists and artist campaigns, I knew that was the best possible [home] for it.
But we’re not a management company who works exclusively with label services. For us, it’s about whatever we feel is the best for our artists. If they want to be a major pop star signing a major record deal and going all the way to the top, we can cater to that. But we can also take care of an entire campaign in-house. I’ve been doing this since 2013, and I have the track record to back that up. Jungle have gone in at number three in the charts. Not that chart positions are the be all and end all, but they’re still a good barometer of all the hard work that goes into it.
Well, getting a top 10 is never going to be a bad thing. But would you say this a relatively recent industry progression? That you have the opportunity and confidence in taking a band like Jungle to AWAL?
When having the confidence of taking artists outside of label systems, I watched big campaigns that AWAL were doing, and other label services like The Orchard. That gave me a lot of confidence. A lot of great people had moved into those systems, which is always a barometer of whether a company is good or not.
Within those systems, because you as the manager are in control of the entire budget, a lot of the people you hire are people that report directly back to you. When you employ a press and radio person in Australia, they’re coming back directly to you and you can quiz them on why the track isn’t on the radio, or if it is on the radio, how do we get it to the next stage. I felt confident going into that system.
Comparing a band like Jungle, who are three albums deep, to Hot Chip who have been around for decades, for you as a manager, how do you maintain and build an artist brand? Hot Chip are still the headline band, and Jungle will likely be the same. How do you cultivate that, and keep this lasting success?
I took Hot Chip on from their last record, A Bath Full of Ecstasy. There was definitely a bit of revival and a renewal process that needed to be done there.
They needed some excitement and positivity to be injected into the band. They themselves wondered if people really wanted another record from them, which obviously they did. They just very intuitively that they needed new management, at a certain point.
They felt like they needed fresh life around them. For me, as a 30-year-old at that point, who had grown up with them, it felt like a big reach for me going in to become their manager, but I think they saw in me an energy that needed to be brought to the project. I went into it pushing the band as hard as I possibly could to get them back into the forefront of everyone’s minds as the big, important band that they had been.
We managed to land the record just outside the top 10, at number eleven, which they hadn’t quite been to at that point. We changed up the show to really elevate it, and get them up to being that headline band that they deserve to be. The relevance is always in the music. Hot Chip are artists who are very aware of themselves, and they’re always trying to push themselves to make the best possible music. As a manager, it’s just about empowering them as much as possible.
On a similar note, how do you cultivate these long careers for mixers and writers on your roster, such as Heba Kadry and Japhna Gold?
I’m simplifying here, but mixers and writers are typically stuck behind a desk, and maybe take a backseat to the artist. How do you place these mixers and writers more at the forefront? A lot of the mixes and writers we work with come from our stable of artists.
The idea came to us during Covid [quarantine], when obviously live music was completely wiped off the table and we had to think about how we could diversify. Matt Wiggins [mixer and producer for Adele, U2 and Coldplay] approached us and said, ‘Look, I love the culture that you guys have around the artists that you work with, would you consider working with me as a mixer?’
We took him on, then word got out that we were doing that and others joined. We try to keep things within our own stable as much as possible and give mixers and songwriters a leg up from some of the bigger artists on our roster. It’s about getting them working on cool projects, knowing who the best new artists are, talking to A&Rs and publishers and making sure that our mixers and writers are at the forefront of that.
When you have a breakthrough act, like Kero Kero Bonito or LA Priest, how do you manage their expectations when they first blow up to have a long-standing career later on?
Is that something you have to be conscious of? You just have to do your best as a manager, ultimately. Sometimes the relationship isn’t right, or an artist will have a tricky record that won’t perform as well as they wanted it to. More often than not, the manager is the easiest person to blame for that, but it can be the songwriting, or something can be a masterpiece but it just doesn’t really connect with the public.
The best artists are the artists that can self-reflect on that, and as a manager it’s about those having honest conversations with artists. The artists you stick with for a long time are those who understand that there are ups and downs. There’s a huge amount of luck in artist management, and you never know what email you’re going to get in your inbox that can completely transform something. Jungle will be supporting Billie Eilish on her tour, that’s a huge opportunity.
I bet that Billie Eilish email was a good one to land in your inbox…
We’d seen that Billie was a big fan of Jungle’s first record and would often post about them on her [social media] stories. There aren’t many people in the world that Jungle would support, but they felt really honoured that she wanted them. It’s a great way for them to play to a slightly different audience, too. It’s just a no brainer.
Was that opportunity something that came out of the blue?
It was something I went after. Well, I say I went after it. I literally just put two and two together. But it felt like a great pivotal moment. Having the coolest teenager in the world giving you a co-sign felt like a great marketing moment before the album came out.
I read an interview around October around Youth Music’s Reshape Music report, detailing the experiences of disabled musicians in the industry. Since then, how has your work as an advocate for greater access for disabled people progressed? And what did that report highlight that needs to change?
I was very honoured to be asked to be made a trustee of Youth Music this year. It’s not so specific to disability and access to music, but generally breaking down some of the barriers and allowing young people greater access into the music industry.
For Jungle’s upcoming shows at the Brixton Academy, we’re enabling teenagers from the local area to come and shadow Jungle’s crew for a few days to see all the different components of how a show works.
“With a lot of modern subjects people are scared of saying the wrong thing, but we should empower people to ask the questions they need to and understand different people’s needs.”
The dream would be that one day, hopefully, someone that came down to that show who really wanted to be a lighting designer or a monitor tech could then get their skills up to a point where we could put them out on tour with one of our developing artists. Disability is a newer topic within music, and I don’t think that anyone’s doing anything wrong, it’s just that people need to be discussing it a little bit more.
With a lot of modern subjects people are scared of saying the wrong thing, but we should empower people to ask the questions they need to and understand different people’s needs.
Has that changed in recent years, an openness to look at these problems and not shy away from the conversations that need to be had?
Definitely. We’re moving very steadily in the right direction. Has that particularly changed over the past 18 months, when many areas of the music industry were put on hold overnight? Did that pause maybe allow people in the industry to change, rethink and reshape how they do things moving forward? I hope so, but people were also incredibly panicked about their livelihood as well.
“I’ve always been very fortunate that I set up my own company, I am my own boss, and no one’s checking where I am.”
For a lot of management companies, that did have such an important income from live music, I wonder if they’d have had the opportunity to sit down and think about that when they were really struggling. The difficulty is that I’ve always run my own company, so I don’t know what it’s like to work for someone else. I haven’t had to tell [a workplace] ‘I need to be in hospital for two days every two weeks receiving a treatment. Can you employ me?’ I’ve always been very fortunate that I set up my own company, I am my own boss, and no one’s checking where I am.
Finally, what one thing would you change about the music industry, and why?
I would love it if record labels had a bit more faith in managers in terms of what they put down. I would love to have a bit more transparency on marketing budgets with record labels, so that we weren’t like X amount of singles in to be told the money is drying up.
What’s been so amazing about working with AWAL is that we had complete transparency on the budget and were able to manage it. Weirdly, it almost makes managers make the money work harder.
“I would love it if record labels had a bit more faith in managers in terms of what they put down.”
We’re more aware of the pot, as opposed to the notion of always pushing the level to spend more and more. When you have a critical single that’s just before a record is coming out, and you’re told that you’ve already spent in excess, if I knew I was getting through it at that rate then I would have spent £5k less on each video so that we had a nice pot of money for the final video. It’s about letting managers into the inner workings of it all a little bit so that they can manage expectations a little bit better.
But I feel like we’re really going in the right direction with fairer deals. There’s so much noise in the industry about streaming and the money that flows back through to artists and labels, and I think there’s enough people championing that change at the moment. I do think that we will see a change in the coming years, and I do think that record labels are doing fairer and fairer deals for the service that they do offer
This article originally appeared in the latest (Q3 2021) issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK, which is out now.
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