Matt Vines and Louis Tomlinson were sat watching the news.
The star – who found worldwide fame as part of One Direction – had just kicked off his 2020 solo world tour in Spain, a moment he’d been waiting for ever since the band went on hiatus in 2016.
But, four years after that bulletin broke a million teenage hearts, the world was changing fast. Tomlinson and his manager watched helplessly as, one-by-one, all the countries the long-planned tour was due to visit started shutting down as the coronavirus swept the planet.
“We had the buses all waiting when we made the call that everybody was coming home and it was game over,” sighs Vines, two years on. “That was incredibly devastating. Louis had waited years to do that tour. Coming out of the band, that was all he wanted to do, because that was his favourite part of being in One Direction, touring.
“It was over in a heartbeat,” he adds. “But it took us months to unravel it all, work out what to do and keep rescheduling and moving things.”
Fast forward another two-and-a-bit years, however, and the picture looks different again. After being rescheduled numerous times, Tomlinson’s 2022 world tour – which began playing in smaller theatres – was upgraded to arenas in many territories, and visited several countries that even One Direction couldn’t reach.
It finally wrapped with a stadium date in Milan in front of 35,000 screaming fans. That show sold out in less than 36 hours – a sure sign that Tomlinson’s career is, once again, only going in, er, one direction: up.
MBW catches up with Vines, founder and CEO of Seven 7 Management, at 5.30am New York time, the only window in his hectic schedule as he and Tomlinson trek across the States on a whirlwind promotional trail pushing the singer-songwriter’s forthcoming second album, Faith In The Future, due in November.
So far, Louis has starred on The Late Late Show with James Corden, Good Morning America and a host of radio and press stops, proving that Harry Styles isn’t the only One Directioner capable of stopping media traffic Stateside.
And alongside him every step of the way has been Vines, a manager who, on Instagram, bills himself as an ‘amplifier of musicians and occasional troublemaker’ and is adept at keeping his artists in the spotlight while he himself remains resolutely in the background.
That’s an art he learned throughout his early career, including a stint at the “Caroline Elleray finishing school” as a BMG Publishing A&R assistant while still at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. After that, he worked with Estelle Wilkinson as part of Coldplay’s management team.
“One of the first things I did was Coldplay at Crystal Palace athletics stadium,” he remembers. “It was very much an eye-opener, like, this is what you can do. It made me think, ‘I want to get to this point, but not just walk into it, I want to do it from the ground up.’”
To that end, he then went to work with Mark Gillespie at Three Six Zero, where his alt-rock knowledge perfectly complemented Gillespie’s electronic music skillset. There, he rose to VP, co-running the UK company, and started working with synth-pop duo Hurts, still a management client today, before leaving to set up Seven 7 in 2016.
Seven 7 is more than just your typical music management company, with interests in everything from eSports and gaming to digital strategy, social media management and production/library music. It has a new studio partnership in Tileyard with Theo Hutchcraft from Hurts, which will allow all Seven 7 clients access to state-of-the-art recording facilities free of charge, meaning they can develop musically without having to rely on external financing.
But Vines’ work with Tomlinson remains a key calling card. Tomlinson was the last 1D-er to release a solo record but, after a couple of early electronic pop singles and an album, Walls, on Syco, he has now headed down a Britpoppy, alternative route that more accurately reflects his own music tastes.
A lockdown livestream saw him break records by selling 160,000 tickets across 110 countries and raise a huge amount of money for charity and his own road crew. And since life returned to something approaching normality, Tomlinson has appeared on the cover of Alternative Press magazine and curated his own international Away From Home festival, featuring the indie-rock likes of The Vaccines and Hinds.
Tomlinson’s festival is now set to be an annual event and, with a new album on BMG that’s likely to take both label and star to new global heights, it’s time to finally pin Vines down for a chat…
How did it feel to finally get Louis’ world tour done?
It’s been a great tour. It’s had its challenges; we were one of the first world tours to go out in January at the height of the Omicron part of the pandemic, which was incredibly hard. We put a lot of back-ups in place, which allowed us to continue without dropping a show, but it was probably the most stressful touring climate I’ve worked in. And when you’ve been at home for two years, it was tricky coming back out again and doing that. But it’s been a great success and all credit to the fans for turning up as well.
Obviously, Louis has a huge platform from his One Direction days. But how difficult is it dealing with the preconceptions that come with that?
We spend our life slowly re-educating people on who he is, to try and remove any preconceptions about what he might be, what he wants to do or even who he is as a person.
The tour has helped a lot because, as we go round the world, we meet media and label partners locally who engage with him and come to the show. The show always gets the same reaction: ‘That’s not what I expected’. So having the tour before we go into the campaign for the new record has been really helpful. It’s been a case of slowly opening the doorway to what he does.
How difficult has it been moving him into a world where he can be on the cover of AP magazine and curate his own festival?
They are things we’re massively proud of on this campaign. Getting the AP cover felt like a big moment for him, because a lot of the reaction was, ‘I didn’t expect that’. But actually, when you listen to the music, it does fit perfectly with that demographic.
I’ve worked with guitar-based acts for 20 years and one of the biggest challenges you have with a British guitar-led act is travelling internationally. To be able to do that with an artist like him, who has that footprint already and can give you those opportunities globally, gives you a really exciting platform to build a campaign around.
How do you take his original fanbase with you?
Well, the campaign always starts with the fans. They’re the most important part of this process. It’s community-led and that very much comes from Louis. Every night on stage, he says, ‘I need you and you need me’. And when you’re in the middle of this, you see that as well, it’s very much a two-way street. So everything we do is geared around what’s good for the fan experience. There are only so many places we can go on a tour, but we make sure they feel included on a global level.
The livestream actually gave us a lot of confidence on pushing the capacities in some territories. It really helped with some of our promoter conversations as well. One suggested we should come and play a 3,000-cap venue. We shared the livestream data and said, ‘Look, we think you’re really under-estimating this’. We ended up selling 20,000 tickets in that city.
Is it difficult facing comparisons to One Direction’s achievements?
We don’t really compare to what One Direction did. What Louis does and the music he makes is very different from any other members of the band, and indeed the band’s music. So it’s less of a comparison and more that it’s helpful to us. We use the data from what he did in One Direction, look at the activations they did and how they ran their campaigns and use elements of that which we feel will work within his campaigns. It gives us a healthy understanding of the audience.
How about the comparisons with the other members?
You do get it and he gets asked about it quite a lot. What Harry’s achieved is absolutely phenomenal this year, you can’t deny it’s absolutely incredible. But that’s exciting – and it shows the power of the fanbase. That’s one thing that Louis has and the band had – the audience is incomparable to anything that I’ve ever seen.
With every promoter we’ve ever worked with, we say, ‘You’re going to have to prepare for this, because the fans will be there a week before the show, we have to put on facilities and security – you’re not ready for what’s going to happen here’. And every time they say, ‘Yes we are’ and afterwards they go, ‘Holy shit, we didn’t expect that to happen’! There’s a duty of care that comes with that that we put a lot of time into.
Does Louis actually want that 1D-style mania now?
Absolutely, he loves it. But he’s definitely got an executive head on him. Within One Direction, his role was not only chief songwriter, he was also the decision-maker. That’s something he wants to employ going forward, whether it be managing artists or from a label perspective and those are all things we’re looking at doing.
With launching the festival last year and expanding it this year, we’ve seen an interesting opportunity where we could help new British acts and give them a platform they wouldn’t traditionally get.
BMG has had huge success with older artists. What made you sign with them?
BMG was an exciting choice, because Louis didn’t want to do the conventional major label deal set-up that he was used to before, coming out of Syco. What took us about BMG is that it’s very much a partnership. With the way the deal’s structured, we’d go into this campaign where we have complete creative control and essentially control over the entire campaign on a global level.
They work with us as partners and with an artist like him, who is so global, having complete oversight over the whole campaign has allowed us to be quite nimble.
We can adapt the campaign on a granular level within various territories – that’s tricky to do within major label deal constructs. It’s the biggest thing that BMG have done, it’s their global priority and it’s been great working with them on that level.
Is it difficult to keep such a low profile when you work with such a high-profile artist?
I’ve always had the mentality that I let the artist do the talking, that’s what people want to see. But there’s an interesting side to it that people don’t really know about, it’s a fascinating project to work on. People don’t see the intensity of the demand and the audience – the chaos, essentially, everywhere we go.
One Direction fans can be very vocal online about the people who work with their idols…
It’s water off a duck’s back for me, I don’t really pay attention to it. Obviously it’s there, and I do spend a lot of time talking to my team and the people who work on the project on what to expect, because it is different from what you might have seen before. It can be positive and it can be negative, so it’s just something to be prepared for.
What made you want to start Seven 7?
The reason that I did it, and what I’ve tried to instil as we’ve grown, is very much the feeling of a boutique operation, where we work as a team. When we do company calls, be it about Louis, Hurts (pictured) or anyone we represent, everyone has the opportunity to input on how those campaigns work. We have actually taken things we’ve done with Hurts and applied them with Louis, it’s interesting the effect you get – we essentially move as a unit around the different campaigns.
As well as very successful artists, you’re also involved in the less glamorous world of production music…
That was something borne out of the pandemic. We spotted there were huge opportunities in that area. ASMR music [Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response sounds that help listeners relax] is one of the fastest-growing areas of playlisting with Spotify. So, throughout the pandemic, we formed partnerships with a lot of music makers to release that music, whether it be white noise or nursery rhymes. What struck me is when you see a white noise tune on Spotify with 300m plays. That was a bit of an eye-opener so. At that point I was like, ‘We should be doing this’.
What’s your management philosophy?
It would be lovely to do a deal, take a big advance and spend three years developing an act, but the business doesn’t work that way anymore. It’s all-encompassing.
“It would be lovely to do a deal, take a big advance and spend three years developing an act, but the business doesn’t work that way anymore. It’s all-encompassing.”
I have this conversation with all the artists I work with, the idea of a ‘manager-artist relationship’ is a bit outdated and, actually, we’re simply partners in running a business. It’s a very transparent partnership and, when you put that mindset on things, it gives you the opportunity to do things differently. Louis has done everything and he knows how the business works; he’s incredibly intelligent and street smart.
Same with the Hurts boys, we’ve done this for nearly 15 years now and they’re very well-educated on how the business works. So it’s very much a partnership and, at times, about keeping the train on the tracks. You’re 50% business manager, 50% social worker!
If you could change one thing about today’s music industry, right here and now, what would it be and why?
I’d allow visa-free entry to major touring markets for artists performing smaller shows. In particular, the US and now Europe as we are seeing the effects of Brexit, so we can aid the promotion of international touring businesses for UK-based artists who don’t all have the benefit of major label tour support.
And I’d remove default merchandise concessions at venues. The concept that venues take a gross percentage of an artist’s merch sales for no input, when the venue is already being hired for a fee, and keep all food and drinks sales, is outdated. When you take into consideration that a lot of acts are subsidising their touring losses via merch, and the manufacture and delivery costs for those items are going up, it’s just putting more financial pressure on the artist.
What’s the proudest moment in your career so far?
More than anything, I’m proud of working with artists where – and I’ve seen this with Hurts and Louis – you sit with them and have a simple conversation at the start of everything: ‘What do you want to do? Where do you see this going? What do you want out of this? What do you want to achieve?’
When I met Hurts (pictured), they had nothing. They used to get the Megabus to London overnight, put their second-hand suits on and we’d go and take label meetings. I remember them editing demos in my flat in London and I gave them money for a loaf of bread and a Pot Noodle.
And seeing them now, five albums in, they’ve got a multinational arena touring business and are well-respected musicians with a long-term career. Do they still eat Pot Noodles? I don’t know, maybe!
And what’s been the biggest challenge?
One of the biggest challenges currently is the well-being of artists and the demand on artists through social media. As a manager, you see the effect of that first-hand. It’s something we all need to be aware of, and have best practices and duty of care in place for, because it’s easy to see those demands consume artists.
“Artists are being pulled every which way on tour, and it’s easy to feel the pressure, especially when you’re having success, to keep filling the time.”
As a manager, more than ever, you have to say no to things. Artists are being pulled every which way on tour, and it’s easy to feel the pressure, especially when you’re having success, to keep filling the time. But the power of ‘no’ as a manager is crucial in maintaining artist well-being and health which is the most important thing.
This article originally appeared in the latest (Q3/Q4 2022) issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK, which is out now.
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