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Interview: Dirty Hit’s Jamie Oborne on the "business of selling identity".

Interview: Dirty Hit’s Jamie Oborne on the "business of selling identity".

London-based record label Dirty Hit is home to the likes of Wolf Alice, Pale Waves, The Japanese House, Superfood, and The 1975, responsible for soundtracking the hopes and dreams (or as label head Jamie Oborne says, "identity") of hundreds of thousands of millennials searching for kindred spirits, change, and musical escapism.

Originally founded by Oborne in 2010 as a solution to no record label wanting to sign Benjamin Francis Leftwich or The 1975 - the latter of which whose sophomore record notably debuted in the top spot on both U.S. and U.K. album charts last year - Dirty Hit’s reputation for a familial camaraderie shared between acts on their roster now precedes the label and is widely envied, a feat which has rarely been seen since the 60s and 70s heyday of Motown, or more recently, Fueled By Ramen’s mid to late 2000s zenith.

Between dropping in and out of The 1975’s European tour earlier this year and signing new act No Rome, Oborne recently took time out of an incredibly busy schedule to sit down with Coup De Main and share some of his thoughts on Dirty Hit operations, the music industry, and his relationship with fans as the manager of their favourite bands...

...we’re not really in the business of selling music, we’re in the business of selling identity. That’s why I fell in love with music.

COUP DE MAIN: Dirty Hit Records and All On Red Management existing together as a joint operation is sort of a unique situation in the music industry. How do you think this benefits the artists (The 1975, The Japanese House, Pale Waves) signed to you on both rosters?
I think it means that there’s a symmetry of vision, and I think it makes for one of the reasons that I started the label. Obviously the primary reason was that nobody wanted to give The 1975 a record deal, so the primary reason was for that, but it pretty quickly became a vehicle for me to sort of protect my artists’ vision by having our own label so we’re not subservient to...
CDM: Someone else’s agenda?
Yeah, exactly. So I think one of my mantras is that I like to make sure that we facilitate, as opposed to colour someone’s work. Hopefully that is what we have achieved by making-- my mode of A&R is, like I said, I don’t like to colour, I like to facilitate and amplify. And that’s the same whether it’s management or label, we’re ultimately subservient to the artist’s vision. We try to make sure that we execute that and only amplify their vision, and not colour it.

CDM: In your early twenties you were part of a signed band. What was that experience like? Did it shape how you treat your signees now?
Yeah, it did. I initially started working in music on the management side through a conversation I had with a friend of mine. My friend was asking me what my experience was like being an artist and what my experience was like working with a management company and label. My work at All On Red and Dirty Hit was kind of informed by wanting to create a more nurturing environment for artists, where they were empowered and felt that their voices were not debased by a need for financial gain or someone else’s agenda. In life, all you have really is your experience, right? So naturally, one’s personal experience informs how they interact with other people. So I think, yeah, it played a part, but I would never class myself in the same group as the artists that I work with, because I think I’m naturally attracted to people who perhaps are better than I was. I didn’t really start-- when I was in a band, it wasn’t because I wanted to be a rockstar or...

CDM: What did you do in the band?
I sung and played guitar. I started a band because I just wanted to express myself, so I never really thought about what that meant outside of people that I was playing music with.

CDM: What are your thoughts on how 360 deals have now become a norm for record label signings?
I don’t know... I don’t really have opinions on those because I don’t really do them. I would never... I think historically they came into play because record labels’ revenue streams were in the mode of decline, and they wanted to bolster them with new revenue streams that perhaps they weren’t the best place to be part of. I would never impose that on an artist because I feel that if you’re inadequate enough to not be able to make your business model work, then the artist shouldn’t be penalised. <laughs> I’m a bit of an idealist.

CDM: Why did you decide for all Dirty Hit deals with artists to be profit splits rather than royalty deals?
With artists? Because I don’t believe in conventional royalty deals. I don’t think that they’re weighted enough in the artists’ favour.

CDM: What do you think record labels should be offering their artists instead?
I don’t know about other record labels, but I think my record label will always be offering the artist support, and nurturing, development, amplification, and the ability to have a career, and hopefully financial security so that they can create more.

CDM: Dirty Hit artists have a tradition of creative album campaigns and being innovative when it comes to cutting through the marketplace and not being stock standard. When you’re planning the lead-up to an album, what’s the brainstorming process like?
It is exactly that, it’s a brainstorming process. It’s a forum where I encourage everyone to speak as freely and as creatively as they possibly can. From those discussions both with artists and with my team, we try to come up with new ways of marketing records, or better ways of marketing records, or more concise ways of marketing records. I think everyone who works here and most of the artists that we work with are quite obsessed with marketing and communication, and what that means--
CDM: You all really like postcards!
JAMIE: We do like postcards! In this digital time, we like giving people something that they can actually hold. I like that.

CDM: With your artists creating art, and you operating as their business-arm, do you ever have to draw a line between the two? Or do you consider the 'business’ to be driven entirely by the art and the artist’s vision (even if it’s not a 'smart' business decision)?
No, we always encourage our artists to make smart decisions whether that be creatively, or in terms of a sustainable business model, for sure. I would never let the latter overtake the former because I think ultimately, all an artist has is their creative expression. I think I have a pretty good balance of the two - I’m pretty creatively driven, but I also have a good understanding and mode of executing the business side of stuff as well. I see it all as one thing. It’s their careers, and I will defend their rights both creatively and commercially until my last breath. I take my ethical duty as a manager really fucking seriously, so I can be quite-- I feel like sometimes I can ride people pretty hard, but it’s only ever done with its guiding parameter being protecting my artists’ rights.

CDM: In the past you’ve said in an interview about The 1975, "We live in our own vacuum, we’re more worried about what the fans think than the press." How up to date do you keep with what fans are saying online?
Daily. I engage with the fanbase pretty much on a daily basis. I like knowing what people are talking about, I like knowing what experiences they like and what experiences they do not. It’s very difficult to please everyone when you have a band who are pulled in as many directions as The 1975 - it’s very difficult to keep the entire world happy and satisfied, but I think we do a pretty good job, and I like passionate voices around me. Even at their most negative they still are driven by passion which is good and I applaud that.

CDM: Are there any particular situations where you’ve made decisions based as a reaction on what fans have been feeling?
I think the fans’ voices always pay in a part in every decision we make, but my primary concern always has to be the band’s wellbeing and of course their creative output. We’ve made lots of decisions for the fans, but I don’t think the decision is ever made solely for them because ultimately our decisions have to be made for the good of art, otherwise the fans have nothing to engage with anyway. It’s like a chicken and egg scenario. But I’d like to think-- I mean, you tell me?

CDM: There was a lot of debate online about The 1975 pride merchandise. Some fans were quite unhappy, but then you partnered with the It Gets Better Project?
The ironic thing about that is that was always what we were going to do. Things like that, you have no idea of the legal hurdles we had to jump through before we can announce stuff like that. Also I wanted to make sure that the people that we were partnering with were the right people and the donations were going to go straight to good use. It’s not as simple as, on a day we decide something, on the same day we announce it and on the same day we execute it. When you’re dealing with a band as big as The 1975, that timeline went a long time ago. We have to do things in the right way and sometimes that involves getting all the information, analysing it, and making sure that we’re making the right move. I think people’s attention online doesn’t really stand that length of time - that timeline. But we were really happy to do that, it’s a good thing, it’s such a big part of our community - both in terms of our work and our personal lives. We’re not just talking about fans, we’re talking about our friends’ rights. It goes beyond [us], it’s a life choice, not a The 1975 creative choice - that’s not linked. It’s something we believe in, it’s what we believe.

CDM: At The 1975’s Madison Square Garden show earlier this year, Matty said that he considers The 1975 to be a "fans’ band". As their fanbase grows bigger and bigger, it’s obviously harder for them to do things like meet fans at the backdoor of venues or outside their tour-bus. How do you plan to manage the expectations of fans who want to meet their favourite band?
Sometimes what I think the fanbase don’t see as well, is that we get shut down from doing that stuff. Honestly, you have no idea the amount of times a promoter has stopped us from doing that. The problem is that when you have that many people it becomes a massive security risk. Venues are so hot on that stuff these days, and it makes it really difficult to do. It’s a shame because I know Matty really misses it - he needs it. He needs that interaction with the people that he started the band for. We need to figure something out because it has been really tough on this album tour with doing that, we just get shut down at every venue we go to.

CDM: I really respect that you’ve vowed that they will never do paid meet and greets.
Oh yeah, that’s bullshit. But that’s part of our issue. The venues won’t help us meet fans, but they don’t mind charging the fans to meet us. They’d be cool with it if we were making money out of it and they were getting a cut out of it, but because we’re not; they’re not. That’s bullshit. We will never do a paid meet and greet, it’s not going to happen, ever. We all as a group of people, we would never do that, and I will never allow an artist on this label to do that. It’s just how we feel about it.

CDM: Having been tipped off to the existence of Drive Like I Do by a fan of One Night Only via a Myspace message, do you ever think about what your life would be like right now if you hadn’t met The 1975?
No, I don’t think about that to be honest... I don’t know why. It’s funny actually, because that is true, I was tipped off in that manner, but I also had an email from Adam Hann like two months before. He’s showed me the email - him and I had been talking and he hadn’t sent music but was about to send the same track ['Robbers'], and after that I got in touch with him, which is kind of funny right? I know it’s true because he showed me the email, it’s so funny. I was like, 'Did I reply?' And he was like, 'Yeah yeah, you were really nice and I was going to send you the music.' So I think it might’ve happened anyway. Let’s hope so. I don’t know... You can’t really look at life like that. I like to move forward, I’m not really one for looking back.

CDM: How involved in the A&R of Dirty Hit are you nowadays?
Completely, 100% involved.

CDM: If a band wants to submit a demo to you, what’s the best way for them to send it to you?
Send it to:

CDM: Do you try and listen to every demo?
We listen to every demo we get.

CDM: Personally, what’s your favourite platform to discover new music through?
Through Chris [Fraser] who works A&R at Dirty Hit. <laughs> I don’t really trawl through Soundcloud or YouTube, that’s never been me - I’ve never gone out looking for artists. What I wanted to do was create an environment where people wanted to come here, and that’s definitely happening now. At the beginning it was always through a series of serendipitous events that I would meet people, never through looking on Myspace or Facebook or YouTube or whatever. That has just never been my story.

CDM: What do you find most exciting about the future of the music industry?
There has been a huge cultural shift in how people consume music, that’s really exciting. Ten years ago if I’d said to you 'download', you may have said like LimeWire. Five years ago if I’d said 'download', you would have said iTunes. Two years ago if I said to you 'download', you would have been like, 'What? You mean streaming?' You’re not like a normal consumer because you work in media, so you have access to cultural change quicker than most people - when did you become aware of streaming services?
CDM: Probably from Spotify?
So a couple of years ago? Now what you’ll find in the next sort of year or two is that will become the mass mode of music consumption. So what has happened in a decade is that we’ve migrated from an illegal non-monetised form of consumption, to a 100% legal totally monetised form of consumption, and then what that gives me as a label is the ability to heavily invest in artists’ careers. That’s exciting.

CDM: So you’re a fan of streaming?
I’m a fan of legitimate music consumption, because it means that I can work with more artists and I can invest the money that we make into new artists and into developing new careers and continuing our reach into popular culture. And that’s an amazing thing.

CDM: Do you think radio is still relevant / as important as it once was?
Yeah, I think radio is really important. I think everyone likes to break things down into different component parts of what is more important than the other, and what I find is the best marketing campaigns, they are multi-faceted and use many platforms, and all those platforms link back to the same thing which is selling identity. I often say, we’re not really in the business of selling music, we’re in the business of selling identity. That’s why I fell in love with music, it wasn’t because I necessarily wanted to-- the first record I bought, I wasn’t buying music, I was buying a little piece of identity. Of course, for different people that’s different things - for one person that might be a Taylor Swift record, for another person that might be a Rammstein record, and for another person it could be a really fringe techno track, or for another person it could be The 1975.


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CDM: If you’re at liberty to explain, I know there are a lot of The 1975 fans who would love to know what happened to the ‘She’s American’ music video...
I’m happy to tell you. The 'She’s American' music video-- we made a video that we really believed in. We had a video treatment we really believed in and we executed it, and Matthew wasn’t 100% happy with it. He is incredibly particular and critical of himself in everything he does, and then Trump won the election, and we just didn’t want to put it out anymore after Trump won the election. Matthew didn’t want to make another video after Trump won the election from ‘I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It’, he wanted the next video that we released to be something that comments on that. He wasn’t comfortable with not commenting, and by virtue of that video being made before Trump was elected, he felt he had a duty to not release it, which I think a lot of fans will really struggle to understand. But Matthew stands for something, which is what a lot of artists don’t. The video had its own message, and it had some amazing things in it that I’m sorry that people will never see because it is a great video and it is a video with a message. Speaking on his behalf, I think the message would have been a harder message. The message was already reasonably hard, but it would have been a much more extreme message, had we had thought for a moment that that was going to happen.

CDM: Is that a similar reason as to why the ‘Loving Someone’ video got shelved?
Yeah, it is. It is because like I said, all of those songs were written pre-election and came out pre-election, and what we do post that point is directly informed by everything that happens in the world and in our lives, right? Art is based on your experience, and I think Matthew wants the next visual expression to be something that is a reflection on that, or at least in some way informed by that. And do you know what? He’s right. He is. Annoyingly, he’s right! Believe you me, there have been times since where we’ve been like, 'Oh, maybe we should put out the video.' We go back to watch it and be like, 'Oh it’s actually an awesome video,' and then we’re like, 'We should put it out.' But then we’re like, 'But we can’t put it out!' Because that happened - it happened and it’s not going to change, so we can’t put it out. Because if we’d known that was going to happen, we would have made a different video for 'She’s American’. I respect his integrity, there are not many artists like that, and there is not many labels who would listen to him and trust his judgement. He’s amazing, he’s a force of nature.

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