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“So Much Of The Industry Is About Perception” - A Manager’s Life, With Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson, a prominent manager at Red Light Management’s London office, talks about trusting your instincts and patience, the details of

Girl with Micro Braids

JANUARY 28, 2020

Matt Johnson is a manager at Red Light Management’s London office, having joined back in 2012. He discovered and managed internationally touring pop duo, Oh Wonder, and currently manages singer songwriters Lewis Watson, pop artist Sarah Close and singer songwriter Kimberly Anne. You may have heard Kimberly Anne’s vocals on Sam Feldt’s track ‘Show Me Love’. He also manages songwriter Violet Skies, who most recently co-wrote Tiesto’s song ‘ God is a Dancer’.

I originally met Matt when I was 14, after he picked up one of my songs that had

been aired on BBC Introducing in the UK. Although I was at Chetham’s School of

Music, studying classical violin and composition, for half a year, I got a taster of the

pop music world. We recorded two music videos and released an EP, and met with

BMG to discuss a publishing deal. But at the time, I was much too young and decided to continue with my education, which eventually led me here, to Berklee. To this day I’m grateful for Matt’s influence and support, showing me that my dreams in the pop world were attainable. I’m also grateful that I stayed on in education, training classically and now finishing my degree in Professional Music at Berklee. They say life has a way of working out and taking a full circle. Matt and I reconnected on Instagram after I interviewed Punctual, one of Red Light Management’s artists, at Mysterylands festival this summer, through Berklee Groove.

Seven years on, I was very curious to discover the story behind his journey and passion that propels his work, at a time when my friends and I are either preparing to jump into the industry full time, or are already making their way. Read on to discover his thoughts on letting the process guide you, and trusting your instincts.

How did you get to where you are now?

No one really knows what they’re doing, even to this day. I’m constantly learning, as things are always changing. Different artists, or songwriters will have a completely different journey to the next one. There are no hard rules. That’s proven – I can’t think of any manager who has replicated the success of the previous project. Sometimes things just connect and take you on a completely different journey to what you’ve planned. I’ve been doing some form of what I do for almost twenty years now.

How did you get started?

When I was 16 I was obsessed with music and when I was meant to be revising I was listening to the radio and recording things, listening to the charts, late night evening shows and then around the time when the internet was becoming bigger, we got into it at home and realised there were other music fans online in forums. I started writing for an online publication – a really small thing.

I hadn’t really explained what I’d done to my parents and friends, and did it in secret. I’d get records sent to my house all the time, and parents and friends would always ask how I got albums before they came out. So when it came to choosing Uni, the only thing I cared about was music. At the time there were were only two courses in the UK. One was in High Wycombe and the other was in Manchester. I visited both and liked the vibe in Manchester. So I did a course, but didn’t learn that much. It was ‘music and new media management’ but ended up being quite a lot of people who hadn’t made it in the music industry and didn’t know how to teach people, so I’d find myself bored. I didn’t go in that much but handed in great pieces of work, and stuck in through two years. Ultimately I ended up doing work experience with one of the guest lecturers - a manager - and stayed seven years with him. Whilst I might not have learned much directly from the course, if I hadn’t done it I wouldn’t have met that manager. That gave me my first step into the industry. I might have struggled to get a job and had to have had a normal job. It’s easy to let people’s dreams disappear when they have to earn money and be realistic. I was very fortunate to have that break. It’s about making the most of those opportunities.

Did you have role models in the industry?

Gary, who was the manager who took me in, was in quite a big manager in Manchester, and very respected amongst the local business, in music and other avenues. It was a learning curve. I did everything from entering people’s email addresses that they left at gigs, to accompanying bands around the world, to running merch and fan clubs online, to doing press campaigns. It was like a crash course in a certain level of management. It set me up to see it as a career and gave me the freedom to explore other opportunities. Whilst I was there I also starting promoting gigs in Manchester, which opened me up to a whole different network of people in London, Manchester and elsewhere. It moved me up the ladder as how I was perceived in Manchester’s music industry.

I left Sparkle Street where I did my work experience because through my gigs, I was aware of a bunch of new artists. I took them to my boss at the time and things were too slow to act on them. The three artists I found all got signed to major labels. I felt like I kinda knew what I was doing, because if other people were investing in these artists then it was a shame that I’d taken them to my boss, but the opportunities have been missed. So I had a direct route in, which was the catalyst for me to start managing artists myself outside of the company.

I did that with Dave, who I met through my college course. We managed a few different things, at DIY level, but we survived and believed in the journey of growth. We got to the point where almost every meeting was in London. Ultimately I made the move, which meant Dave and I had to go separate ways. I was securing new artists, and wanted to grow in a different direction.

I was recommended some companies to speak to. Most of them were going to give me a desk and take half of what I earned. But I wanted to be a core part of a company. Red Light management were new in the UK. They’re a much bigger American organisation. James Sandom set up the office, and we got on really well - they invested in me, after looking at how my rosta was doing. It was a small company at the time but we have grown from four to 25 people and I’ve been there seven years. Being in Red Light gave me a bigger global infrastructure to tap into and moved me up the ladder.

It’s human nature to respond to companies or email addresses you recognise more. Red Light is the biggest management company globally and it means when I’m talking to new artists, or business opportunities, people are perceiving it in the right way. So much of the industry is about perception. Essentially I’ve been able to work on my hobby for 20 years and I hope it continues.

When you joined Red Light did it tie in to achieving a bigger personal goal?

The same as it always has been. I want to manage some of the biggest artists and songwriters in the world. You never know when those opportunities will come. I’ve had some great things happen but I’ve not had an Ed Sheeran or Adele moment. The dangling of the carrot is what keeps you going when you’re a manager, when it’s a real roller coaster of ups and downs. One morning nothing happens or you have to deal with annoying reviews or after a lunch meeting you might have the best news of your career. Oh Wonder was probably the biggest thing I’ve done so far and they’ve sold over a million records worldwide which is crazy. For an underground band to have had lots of success, is an amazing feat.

How did you find Oh Wonder?

I was working with Anthony West, the male half, on another project. I knew him because I band I used to manage in Manchester supported his old band. Oh Wonder was a side project, never meant to be a band, just trying to put songs online to showcase their songwriting and then their music connected with people around the world and suddenly they were a band when they hadn’t planned to be. They have a debut album, live shows and continue to this day to tour the world. I don’t work with them now but they’ve had a brilliant amount of success and so my goal is still the same, to go beyond that. Whilst we sold lots of 5000 ticket rooms, I want to be doing 50,000 – have an arena level act. On the songwriting side I’ve fallen happily into working with people who are artists but also write for others. So Violet Skies, who I look, after is super busy as a writer. She has Tiesto’s last single and has been working with Black Pink, plus has interest in a song for Rita Ora and she’s working with some of the biggest writers in the world. She’s just relocated to LA. So that’s taken me into another place. I aim to have very successful artists and songwriters. The two worlds cross over in different ways and continue the journey.

How hands on are you with managing artists?

Very. It would be impossible to do it if you weren’t. I live and breath it. I find it hard to delegate although I have an assistant and other people I can tap into, because the artist and I are the central core of the project. My brain is thinking about it all the time. Delegating it to someone else who isn’t thinking about it all the time weakens the proposition. I’m as hands on as I can be, everything from standard stuff, to working with the team, plans, going in the studio and working on mixes. I can never pretend to write or produce a song but I can give valid opinions on changing sections or tweaking for US radio etc.

Are you involved in the PR and marketing as well?

It depends on the different campaigns. Some of them have less of a team around them so you do everything. Some of them are with major labels and there’s a plethora of people working on it. The manager’s job is to be the central person and oversee everything and to push everything, to make sure people are doing their jobs. Everyone including the manager is so busy with various things, you have to make sure the team are delivering for your artist and get to the top of their pile, because they’ll have ten other managers on their back. So the manager’s job is to coordinate the entire team whether that’s booking agent, PR, tour managers, monitor engineer, guitarists etc – you’re in the middle of all of those conversations which is brilliant and allows you to be a bit of a control freak, but also completely takes over your life and means it’s non stop all the time.

How do you balance it with having a life?

Good question. I do. There are moments when you can switch off. It becomes a challenge where clients spend longer in LA than they did, so just as you’re finishing standard office hours in the UK, LA is waking up and you’re working through the night. I try to get some sort of life but I wake up at 6am so I’m catching the end of LA’s day, so when an artist or writer comes out of a session I can deal with anything that’s happening for the next day. It’s a balance, but it allows you a lot of flexibility. I can work from home or can take a day off and will just check in on emails when I need to. Otherwise you can become so consumed in it that you’re not stepping away from your laptop and that’s not good for anyone.

What are some of the biggest things you’ve learned from mistakes or challenges you’ve had?

It’s easy to respond straight away to emails that are flying around, but important to step back and think about it before having a knee jerk reaction to things. I’ve definitely learned that and don’t always apply it. Emails and texts feel like they should be responded to immediately but ultimately taking 24hours to respond to something that might have wound you up or needs proper digesting and means you come back with a clearer mind.

As things grow and the level of touring becomes easier, with more money around you and a bigger team, it means you’re dealing with more people and different countries, languages, time zones. It can be a challenge – but hopefully you can put the right people in place to manage that.

Do you have any habits or ways to help you discover new artists?

A lot of it is networking. People send me stuff. I’m not as on it with all the hot new bands as some other people are. In our office I’m probably the most pop leaning, but I’m not out there taking the next Strokes, because it’s not a world I’m in. I’m always conscious of how many things are on the rosta, if you’re taking things on you need to give the full service to that client. So there’s not a mad rush for finding new stuff all the time. However things that are great often become a word of mouth thing.

What determines whether or not you sign someone?

For me it’s down to the music. You do end up looking at Spotify, Instagram, where they’ve toured, and what other artists might have liked them – but it’s always the music and if something doesn’t grab you then even if they have got a great label interest or lawyer, I don’t think that’s the right thing to be jumping in on. You have to believe in it, whether other people get it or not. You have to believe the journey is there for the growth. It’s like the dangling of the carrot to find the next great artist – that’s what keeps you listening to stuff. I’m very conscious to listen to everything that comes into my inbox because you never know why something connects to you and not to another person. Most of what comes in is not very good – but worth listening to see where you get to.

Are there any artists right now that are growing and you think are worth keeping an eye on?

I’m going to be really biased and say it’s this new artist I’m working with called Luz and she’s an 18 year old Irish singer songwriter. We’ve already turned down labels, because it feels too early, already had support from Lewis Capaldi, Dermot Kennedy, Dean Lewis, Maisie Peters, and all her favourite artists have shared her covers online. It’s super early days, but she has one of those voices that could be international and so I’m very excited about that. I love all my clients. Trying to think of something that isn’t mine is a challenge become so consumed in your world, and I’m not really looking at other stuff. I love people like Julia Michaels, great writer and artist, and Sasha Sloan who’s really good. There is always something around the corner.

How do you set up co-writes?

A lot of it is the network of people you know. You have to treat it in the same way as you treat new artists. There’s a hierarchy and a ladder. You have to start at the bottom and prove you’re a great writer. When people hear about that, or maybe one of those songs gets talked about more, that moves you into the next room and suddenly you’re writing with more established people. Then one of those songs might get covered by an artist and that moves you up again. That’s what’s been happening in Violet Skies’ world – there was interest from Zara Larsson, then she co-wrote Tiesto’s song ‘God is a Dancer’ and she’s relocated to LA. That’s where some of the best rooms are in terms of songwriters and producers, and she’s been there 2.5 weeks and is already in incredible rooms. But there’s still more levels to go. You keep going. I’m always looking at opportunities for her and she is too, that’s the thing with artists, both sides have to be hustling and moving the conversation forward.

What’s the difference between an artist and a songwriter in getting up that ladder?

They’re both as hard. They’re different industries in some ways but with a cross over. The approach is the same, just dealing with a different circle of people. As an artist you put out a song and if it connects, that launches you. You can have the same thing as a songwriter, then everyone wants to work with you. It’s a journey and every artist or songwriter aims to perfect their craft. It has to be nurtured and it can take years. So much of it on both sides is about patience. Having a foolish belief that it’s worth doing is the belief that drive it forwards.

How do you get in the groove?

I’m always in the mindset. And it’s just pure motivation for more success. It’s the carrot of wanting to work with some of the biggest and most successful creatives that there are. That’s what makes you deal with the minutiae of what’s going on every day because they all add up and lead to this bigger aim. You can get frustrated by the little things but they lead to the end result. My ambition is to grow something bigger every day.

If you had advice for yourself when you were starting out, what would you tell yourself?

Having that patience is really important. Every journey of an artist and a manager is so different. Patience and perception. The perception you create around an artist or yourself can add so much value as to how people react to things or want to get involved or how the public react to an artist. When I was younger I had no idea. Trust your instincts and have patience with it.


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