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‘There’s a shortcut now’: Dickinses talk artist development

Tech’s impact on the biz and the rise of more diverse artists were some of the key topics covered by Barry, Jonathan and Lucy Dickins at Eurosonic Noorderslag

By Anna Grace on 20 Jan 2020

Jonathan, Lucy and Barry Dickins with Greg Parmley

Jonathan, Lucy and Barry Dickins with Greg Parmley

Barry Dickins, the co-founder of ITB, his son Jonathan, founder of September Management, and daughter Lucy, head of UK music at WME, came together to share their industry expertise – as well as a few family anecdotes – in a keynote interview with ILMC MD Greg Parmley at Eurosonic Noorderslag (ESNS) on Thursday (16 January).

With over 100 years of industry experience between them, the trio reflected on the most significant changes to have taken place in the business in recent years.

Social media is the best way to make new acts visible nowadays, said Barry, who founded ITB along with Rod MacSween in 1978, adding that the touring circuit for emerging acts is “not the same” as it used to be.

Jonathan, who manages artists including Adele, Jamie T, London Grammar and Rex Orange County, agreed, saying that most people are finding their music online nowadays, rather than at live shows. The disappearance of a small club circuit, said Jonathan, means that “we often come across artists that are fully formed on the recording side but completely and utterly undeveloped on the live side.”

“For all its benefits,” he continued, “technology has made people lazier. It’s like there’s a shortcut to being popular now.”

“We often come across artists that are fully formed on the recording side but completely and utterly undeveloped on the live side”

The data-driven nature of artist discovery can also be a problem for the industry. “We have to be careful to not always give people exactly what they want,” said Jonathan. “The true phenomenon comes from giving people what they don’t know they want yet.”

Adele, who Jonathan and Lucy discovered and started working with at the same time, yet independently of each other, is an example of this “true phenomenon”. Lucy cited the success of artists including Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith as a result of Adele’s opening the door for a less conventional model of pop star.

“We are risking getting a more generic type of artist if everything is based on data,” concluded Jonathan.

If not based on data, how do you spot if an artist is going to be a hit, asked Parmley. “You can’t,” said Lucy, whose roster includes Mumford and Sons, Hot Chip and Mabel, in addition to Adele. “It has a lot to do with gut feeling – if it’s something I truly love, I want to work with it.” In the case of Adele, though, it was special. “It is very rare that something like that comes your way,” said Lucy. “She [Adele] blew me away song after song.”

The advent of technology has, however, also brought a lot of advantages to the business, said Lucy, who picked up agent of the year at the European Festival Awards on Wednesday. She cited the diversification of artists that are discovered nowadays, with many non-English-speaking acts breaking through. “It’s great there’s so much more diversity now,” said Lucy. “I’m so excited by how many new types of music are out there.”

“It’s great there’s so much more diversity now. I’m so excited by how many new types of music are out there”

Jonathan agreed that it is good to see things “break from beyond these borders”. “We will see genuine African superstars this year,” he stated. In particular, the September Management CEO believes there is a lot of “super-creative” work currently being done in hip hop, and that drill music will “be the rap music to unify the genre and stop hyper-local stuff”.

With so many new kinds of music coming from all over the world, Barry emphasised the importance of keeping a young team around to ensure enduring relevance. “I want to see development within ITB and see the company get some great new young people,” he said.

Artist management has also changed over the years, said Jonathan. Deals are way more transparent and flexible, there’s an easier route to market than ever before and a lot more choice of artists, he said, but “it’s still all about working with the artists you believe in and taking a long-term approach”.

“I’ve always played it long,” he said, explaining that he works with artists that he believes will have a long career, rather than taking “quick money”.

“It’s not a race – it all depends where you end up.”


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