Caius Pawson entered the music business in a way that many would consider ‘old school’.
Simply put, he loved music, wanted to surround himself with talented people and, like many before him, tried his hand at promotion. Whether it was live music or club raves, he had a burning desire to bring music to as many people as possible.
“I’d been able to do that at school,” he remembers. “You know, at the school disco and gigs with school bands. I just enjoyed being around creative people. I remember being in bands and being terrible, but I wanted to be near the talented people. There was definitely no plan, it was just, What am I going to do now? What am I going to do on Friday nights? I’m going to get some bands together and put on a gig.”
One opportunity came after another and, still only 19 years of age, Pawson began to attract the attention of the wider industry. He met XL’s Richard Russell at one of his raves and was eventually offered the chance to start his own label alongside the legendary records exec.
“I knew an artist called Jack Penate,” Pawson explains. “Jack and I had met at club nights that I was putting on and he started to gain heat. I’d never seen anything like it before. So whilst all the different labels were courting Jack, including XL, even though I wasn’t managing him – he was managed by Jonathon Dickins – I was hanging around with him. I met Richard through that, and then he came to the raves, and then he offered me the job.”
Russell had clearly earmarked Pawson as a keen curator, someone who could find music that would attract the masses and go from strength-to-strength with the right backing. His judgement wasn’t misplaced. Today Pawson runs Young Turks – a brand that encompasses an XL imprint, management and publishing company under the Beggars Group banner.
Since then Pawson has created a home for artists that allows them the time and space to grow and create, with the xx and FKA Twigs being two of Young Turks’ stand out acts in recent years.
Pawson picked up the Entrepreneur prize at the 2016 Artist and Manager Awards in November. We sat down with him to talk about his career to date, his approach as both a manager and a records man and his thoughts on the modern manager’s role.
What kind of options were you given by Richard Russell after he snapped you up?
Richard said name what job you want, name your price. I’d remembered a figure that my mum had told me was a good starting wage 10 years previously when I was a kid. I just said that and I remember Richard laughed and said, Sure, you can have that. It was way below what anyone else was getting paid and that was it, I was in the door.
What was the remit?
Do whatever you want. There were two things: I came into the office and I wasn’t sure what I was doing, I’d never had a real job before, let alone at a record label. So I didn’t know what it was about really. I’d collected records and I’d DJed but I never looked at the record sleeve to see the name of the record label. It always confused me wondering why the record label’s name was really big on vinyl sleeves.
And Richard said, Right let’s go and sign an act. I’d always put on Kid Harpoon at my gigs because I thought he was the most talented guy going. So we got the train up to Manchester and that was the start of it. He told me to sign some stuff to XL, set up an imprint label.
Were the xx your first move into management, or had you dabbled in it before?
I’d been doing the label for three years or so. I’d had a really good time, but I’d made a lot of mistakes. I met them and just knew that they weren’t ready for a record contract. So I said to them, Look, I’ll book you a couple of shows, I’ll pay for your rehearsal space and I’ll help you out until you find a manager. I’ll help you make a record, but I don’t think you need a record deal.
Then there was just very little interest so they asked me to manage them. There was no plan to become a manager.
Since then, they have become very successful. What do you think changed for them? What did you do that other managers couldn’t see the potential for?
I think I was extremely blessed because I had a stable environment in Young Turks and XL that allowed me not to rush it. It allowed to give them two and a half years to work out who they were as human beings, develop their sound and put the record together with no pressure. We didn’t do any press until the record was done. And, at the time, it was a period of hype acts, everything was about the Radio 1 playlist, getting NME on board and stuff like that. Because I’d had no success in any of those fields before, they didn’t seem that important to me. So we helped them to build it in their own way. They came up with no scene, no peers and were able to do their own thing.
I don’t think I would have been able to do it if I didn’t have a full time job where I did. And I don’t think that I would have known that we didn’t need to rush it if I hadn’t been allowed to make mistakes on other projects before. Those mistakes that I made were never made to feel like mistakes, they were just made to feel part and parcel of what was going on and I think that really helped my decision-making.
I suppose in a way, allowing things to build slowly is actually quite brave from a lot of perspectives in the music industry. Especially these days, it tends not to happen…
I feel like we give artists time and space. That space can be physical space to record in, it can be creating space around them so that they don’t have anything interrupting their flow, or it could be the kind of space that does disrupt their flow if that’s what they need. And time is both giving them the time to go off and make the right decisions but also getting the timing of things right. If you get the time and space right then everything else will come naturally. But it was only through the xx that I learned that and fully understood it.
It’s always the act anyway. They would have made it regardless. If it wasn’t me, and nobody was interested, they would have done it on their own and somebody would have become interested. You can only really work with acts who would be successful without you. When you fall into the trap of thinking that you’re doing anything for them, you lose sight of which acts to work with and you lose that precious dynamic with the act. It’s a very existential game, they will go out and make themselves successful and you can either help clear that path towards the success that they want, or you can get in the way.
What’s the balance between management and label at Young Turks?
It’s pretty cyclical. There are 12 of us who just do Young Turks but then we plug into XL and Beggars for the records. We have a partnership with M-Theory in the States for management and, on the publishing, we have a partnership with Beggars Music. So every separate bit that people are involved in has its own team.
Management is the area that goes in cycles the most. You’ll be relatively quiet for a couple of years and then massively manic. It’s pretty much equal between the other two.
Do you have any particular policies in terms of the artists you choose to work with?
We work with artists who have a strong vision, because it’s difficult to work with someone that doesn’t have a clear direction to begin with. But there’s a different relationship when it comes to being a manager or a label. When you’re the manager, you have to have a special relationship with your acts on a very high level – and we’re only human, there’s only so much time and energy we can put into an artist. A label is a very intense relationship but for a shorter period. It’s vital in the artist’s career but it isn’t 24/7. You have to consider when you decide who you manage and who you sign.
Are there times when being both manager and label can be a problem?
The main benefit of having a record label and management – although they are separate companies with separate employees in our case – is that there’s a full integration with a single vision and proper communication.
The dynamic between a manager and label has to be both cooperative and questioning, but I think that’s still possible when the label and management are the same if you put the right checks and balances in. Then you get the added bonus of incredible rhythm between the two parties.
Some of our management clients are on other labels, we have loads of acts on our label that are managed by other people and we’ll do a publishing deal if it makes sense. It’s definitely not about land grabs – it’s about putting the best team together for the acts.
Do you think then industry is going towards a place where it’s becoming more sensible to be a company that fulfils multiple roles?
I think it’s down to the people and the situation and the changes all around the world. Germany is full of companies that are DJ agents and record labels mixed together, and that works well.
I think for us it works very well, but XL, for example, is a completely different beast – it just sells records, it takes no ancillary rights, it has never pretended to be anything else. It doesn’t do anything apart from sell records and it does it very well. There are lots of different business models that work well for different people and different places, so I don’t see a general trend.
I think, more than ever, you’ve got fewer partners that have bigger influence and people like Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, YouTube… they are easier to work with than our previous partners and they are more willing to work with independent artists, managers and labels. Before, you needed a bigger distribution network to get things done, whilst now I feel models can change. People will be doing direct deals, and if not they’ll be doing marketing or promotion directly through these companies. So I still think there is a place for major record labels, indie labels and management companies but maybe some companies will come together combined. But it won’t necessarily be the right thing for everyone.
Do you think all that makes managers more powerful? There are more tools available…
In a sense, yes. I think it’s the same thing that it’s always been. In the sense that the very large acts have a lot of power, and then the medium sized and the small ones have none because the majors have it all. If you’re an act that has a lot of sway, you can go directly to these people and have a very big career working with them. However, in a streaming catalogue business it’s a quantity business, and there are a couple of companies that have several million copyrights. So I don’t think there is going to be any huge swing of power any time soon. It’s just that when you can go direct, it’s a lot easier than it has previously been.
What’s the future looking like for yourself and Young Turks?
Doing more of what we have always done. We have an xx and a Sampha album coming out in January and February and we will be doing management and records for both. FKA Twigs is making her next record, John Talabot is making his next record… We manage Arca who is on XL who is releasing an album early next year. All of these are big steps up for us.
We’ve released nine records in 10 years, so to be releasing two records on the label minimum, plus another one on another label is a big step. Because we do the management and the records, we don’t need to release quite as much but, when we do, it’s a lot more work.
What’s brought the big step up at this time?
It took us two and a half years to help develop the xx before they released an album and then a similar amount of time with Twigs. It was seven years with Sampha, we have been working with John Talabot since 2010… We slowly work with more and more acts and they very slowly put together records. It’s very natural, like a very slow rolling stone.
Do you have an idea for progression and change looking further ahead?
Every new artist that we have worked with does a new thing and every record is like a new chapter for us. On a personal level, I like to work with artists who take me to a place I’ve never been before. I’m not particularly excited by the idea of re-tracing steps, so I’m very excited to see where in the world this new xx, Twigs and Sampha records take us. And as long as I can help the artists we work with currently to keep evolving, or find new artists to take us to completely new places, for me that’s the aim- to keep evolving.
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