By Mark Sutherland
THAT’S THE SPIRIT
Spirit B-Unique is living up to its name in the indie publishing world, combining the global reach of a major with the nimble decision-making of an indie. Music Week catches up with the group’s UK team to find out why size no longer matters when it comes to copyrights…
If you judge a company by its lift – and believe me, we at Music Weekoften do – then Spirit B-Unique is, like its elevator, going up in the world.
The publishing company – a slightly-more-than-one-year-old partnership between the British indie publisher/label B-Unique (‘We’re basically a record company that’s morphed into a publishing company, but still has a record company mentality,’ explains co-president Mark Lewis) and the ambitious US rights management company Spirit Music Group – may have modestly appointed offices by West End music biz standards.
But its lift is the sort of private, access-controlled-from-the-top-floor operation favoured by billionaire playboys and James Bond villains. And, if you’re lucky enough to be granted that access, you’ll find it opens slap-bang in the middle of the B-Unique boardroom – no reception, no anteroom, no soulless corridor – where the team are there to greet you. Although, somewhat disappointingly, none of them are stroking a white cat in a sinister fashion.
Still, there are co-presidents Lewis and Martin Toher, the founders and A&R heart of the operation and the men who signed Aqualung, Kaiser Chiefs and Kodaline. And there’s Rak Sanghvi, managing director of UK and international, who it would perhaps be easy to view as the operation’s newly-arrived ‘suit’, but in fact brings with him all the experience of running Sony/ATV UK for seven years as well as a genuine, ebullient love for the cut-and-thrust of the business.
Together – and backed by Spirit chairman David Renzer and administration from Kobalt – the trio are making waves in the increasingly over-crowded swimming pool that is indie publishing. They signed James Bay for publishing when no one else was interested and are reaping the rewards. They recently snapped up Snow Patrol’s Polar Publishing, including songs written by Ed Sheeran co-writer Johnny McDaid. And they’ve won signing tussles for the hotly contested Dagny and Tiggs Da Author.
The B-Unique boys praise Spirit for raising their sync game in the US, where Kodaline in particular have expanded their fanbase via some judiciously chosen placements, and where James Bay has just had two songs placed in upcoming Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster Space Between Us.
In return, Renzer hails working with the trio as ‘a joy’.
‘Mark and Martin combine the best of A&R talent with a strong business sense,’ he says. ‘And Rak has brought his years of experience. We’re building Spirit B-Unique into a powerhouse boutique music publishing company that is already enjoying tremendous worldwide success. From the global success of James Bay, to such amazing talent as (Beyonce songwriter) Jonny Coffer, Kodaline and exciting new signings like Dagny and One America, to the acquisition of Polar, bringing Snow Patrol and Johnny McDaid, we couldn’t be happier with our progress.’
Renzer also highlights what’s in the pipeline: Spirit B-Unique cuts on new albums from Sheeran and Sam Smith, plus a new Bay album due in 2017. Time then, to get back in that lift, adjourn to a nearby pub and quiz Sanghvi, Toher and Lewis about A&R, sync and how they knew James Bay would be a hit, even when no one else did…
It’s been just over a year since you partnered with Spirit. How are things working out?
Mark Lewis: It’s been great. We felt that Spirit had the catalogue, we had the creativity with new artists, and together that’s quite a potent combination. You need that (catalogue) in publishing and we’d only been publishing for four or five years so we didn’t have that. There’s benefits on both sides.
Martin Toher: The business had outgrown me and Mark. We were operating as pretty much a two-man band. We had no staff, so it was spiraling out of control.
ML: People would be truly staggered when they would find out. Americans would come to our office and be like, ‘So, where is everyone?’ ‘Er, there is no one!’
Rak Sanghvi: What you’ve just heard is fairly typical in publishing – there’s growth and then everyone starts lagging behind. In the case of B-Unique, there was such a mismatch that it was about putting in that infrastructure with the right partner and being able to just be global, get out there and compete every day. We’ve had amazing results over a very short period of time.
Does being part of a bigger company mean you have to change the way you work?
ML: We were just worried that we wouldn’t be able to keep everything up. But where we won before was actually by being involved in loads of great music.
MT: It works and you’ve got to just cling onto that, no matter what happens. Everyone goes on about new strategies and whatever, the changes that are going on at the moment in the world with streaming but, if you haven’t got any good artists, it doesn’t matter: you ain’t gonna stream nothing are you?
RS: That’s another advantage. We have this space to really think about what’s important, as well as the experience to act on it. We’re not here to denigrate anyone, everyone does their own thing and I have full respect for the majors and everyone else. But we’re certainly finding it advantageous to be in this sector and have the space to focus on what’s important: creativity and making the whole thing work.
There aren’t actually many publishing companies of your size left in the UK…
ML: Exactly. We’re aspiring to be maybe a Chrysalis or a Rondor. In publishing, the whole major/indie thing is outdated. It comes down to how many copyrights you’re publishing. If you’re managing millions of copyrights you’re a big company. Out of the whole of the Spirit group we’re doing what, 75,000 copyrights? Which is a quite bespoke amount. The sync team that serves that, the creative team can really work that.
Kobalt do your administration – are they now competitors as well as partners?
ML: They were back in the day, and now.
MT: It doesn’t feel like that though. You just do your own thing rather than worrying about competitors.
RS: That’s an excellent statement from Martin because really that typifies the ethos. In reality, we’ve managed to sign every deal that we’ve gone for since commencement of operations and several of those have been highly competitive deals with all of the majors. That’s testament to the package that we have to offer.
Although, in the past, you’ve had success with artists that were not so highly sought after…
MT: That goes back to the record label, the Kaiser Chiefs got passed on by everybody…
ML: I think they got passed on three times! We must have the only act ever to have been dropped by Beggars (when they were called Parva and signed to Mantra)!
So what did you see in Bay that no one else did?
MT: He was just incredible. We were invited to a gig by his management and he just stood out. There were lots of publishers there that night, but most of them walked out. He was engaging, his voice was incredible and he just had some great songs. It was just about how to get him to an audience, that was our thing.
ML: Sometimes you take the call on the artist on pure gut feeling. I remember doing that with John Newman, and not long after signing him getting an email with the attachment Love Me Again on it. You press play and within 30 seconds your whole body is kind of going, ‘Oh my god, wow’. Bay was the same. Hold Back The River came into my inbox and like, ‘holy shit.’
MT: John Newman didn’t have to sign to us, he was walking round town with a No. 1 single, and I was thinking, There’s no way he’s going to sign to us. Our sell was, It’s all great when you’re having hits and people are high-fiving. You need us in case you get some turbulence in life. When we sign you it’s the most important thing in the world to us, because it’s our own business.
Rak, you ran Sony/ATV for a long time – is this a very different way of operating?
RS: Yeah, it’s very different. We are still going through similar intellectual exercises in terms of signing decisions and looking at what’s going on. But it’s vastly different when you need to move quickly. There’s more room to think and breathe, frankly. I’m not saying that this is what drives the majors, but there isn’t any imperative to go and pick up things for purposes that are not directly related to the creative aspects of what you’re doing. There isn’t any of that pressure, and we’re therefore able to offer a much more focused, bespoke service. It’s much more fun as well! It’s very hard work, we’re all on call all the time, the three of us are very similar in that way, the phone never goes off, everyone has our mobile numbers and we’re just available.
There’s been a fair degree of upheaval at the major UK publishers, with mergers and leadership changes. Does that create an opportunity for smaller companies like yourselves?
RS: To some extent. But all it does is add to the fact that the waters are choppy and people are constantly looking for a better solution. Whenever that kind of occurrence happens there’s going to be fallout in terms of dropping service levels whilst they stabilize, and that, I guess, is an opportunity. But I think it would be too simplistic to put it in those terms. Everything is thought through, we don’t go out there and just do it because we can!
ML: There’s not a lot of looking over the hedge with us, it’s more about what’s happening in our own garden.
MT: We’ve always been outsiders anyway, so you’ve just got to get on with it.
You’ve made several new signings lately. Are there the same worries in publishing as there are in recorded music about the lack of new artists coming through?
RS: The worry is actually heightened in publishing, because you are that one step removed from what’s happening at the label. You’re not the label so we have to be really on our toes – and we are.
ML: There has to be a level of concern at the acts we’re breaking in the country. As a publisher we’re looking at it across the board so, if we just sign 10 artists, you know for sure that a lot of them aren’t going to work because, as a nation, we aren’t breaking 10 artists over a period of three years, never mind one. There is definitely some trepidation about that. But you know, Martin and I will always find something and sign it because we love it.
RS: You can sit there worrying about Armageddon coming but you’ve just got to get on with it and find something great.
There’s an ongoing debate about streaming’s role in that lack of breakthroughs, particularly in the UK. But streaming has put the business’ emphasis back on the song – that’s got to be good news for publishers, surely?
RS: It’s obviously offset by the fact that people aren’t buying or downloading albums by and large, which is a really big question. It’s definitely an opportunity, certainly for publishers. But if you’re not part of the American streaming game you’re basically missing 50% of the global market. It’s just logic really.
ML: Obviously you’ve got to have that song. We’re thinking about developing artists for 2019, or even 2020.
So where would you like Spirit B-Unique to be in five years time?
MT: I’d like to break some meaningful artists.
RS: Some more meaningful artists.
ML: Some more significant, meaningful artists. That’s why we’re here.
MT: It’s that mantra we went back to a couple of years ago. Where we sat down in the office and went, ‘How can we make this publishing company really big?’ At the time we picked out another publishing company. I won’t say who it was. And said, ‘How do we get to that level?’ We had to re-focus from a record company to publishing and we had to sign some significant artists. And we’ve signed some incredible artists now.
How close to the company you had in mind are you now?
MT: (laughs) We’ve surpassed it! And they’ve pretty much gone out of business…
ML: A few years down the road it will all be about the quality of what we started. I hope people look at us and go, ‘Oh yeah, they had some good stuff here.’
Praise for Spirit B-Unique’s London crew:
‘Mark and Martin are two of the most passionate, creative and ambitious people I have come across in the music business. They are constantly thinking of different ways of giving their writers and artists exposure – often finding opportunities where others may not be attentive.
‘They have been instrumental in breaking Kodaline with a continuous stream of syncs that has helped build a global fanbase for the band. The addition of Rak to the team has brought a whole new wealth of experience to complement Mark and Martin. Teaming up with Spirit has also enhanced their creative resources and global reach…it’s the best of both worlds!’
- Ricardo Fernandes Zambak, Red & Gold Management
‘The unfathomably magical track record of B-Unique and Spirit’s legacies on their own speak volumes. Getting to work with them both in a creative and business capacity has been nothing short of stellar. Myself and our clients couldn’t be happier.’
- Evan Taubenfeld, Crush Music
‘In our dealings with Mark, Martin and Rak we have met with swift and competitive deal-making, transparency, pro-activity and excellent party-hosting. And in plugging into the global activities of Kobalt and now Spirit, the artists they represent have enjoyed an excellent service of royalty collection, A&R ideas and sync activity, the things we look for in our better publishing partners.’
- Paul McDonald, Closer Artists