The Hot Seat: Nick Gatfield

Published in The Music Network


Nick Gatfield is a highly-sought breed of music industry exec; he’s a music man with a head for international business. Gatfield arrived at the helm of Sony Music’ s UK company in the latter months of 2011, bringing with him 30 years of experience on both sides of the Atlantic, and from both sides of the negotiating table. Gatfield was a member of Dexy’s Midnight Runners when they briefly ruled the airwaves with Come On Eileen. But his greatest achievements have arguably come as a major-label A&R. Gatfield signed Radiohead to EMI, and has worked closely for the likes of Amy Winehouse, Keane, Sugababes, and Tinie Tempah. TMN caught up with Gatfield on a recent “tour of duty” to Sony Music’s Australian affiliate.

You’ve now worked in senior exec positions at three of four majors in last 5 years. What are your thoughts on the Sony culture you’ve moved into?

The EMI experience was interesting, largely working at a music business controlled by a private equity firm. The great learning from that is there is absolutely no comfortable marriage between private equity and creative industries. This is not a criticism of Terra Firma. A lot of stuff they did was actually very positive. But we’re always accused of being luddites, or trying to preserve our musical integrity. The role of A&R, which is the entire driving force of the business in my mind, is a dark art. It’s incredibly hard to quantify. It’s incredibly high-risk. And the exciting thing for me at Sony is it’s populated from the very top with music people who understand that risk and understand you’ve sometimes got to speculate to accumulate. Doug Morris, our global CEO, is a music man. It’s such a pleasure being back at a company being run by music people. And it’s run as a very efficient business. The company is in good health, considering where the overall industry is.

Australia doesn’t have a “graduated response” law. Should it?

I said something in The Guardian which turned out to be fairly explosive, where I said a lot of ISPs’ businesses had been built on the back of piracy. I got a huge amount of flack for that. But in the last few weeks, BT has been pulled up on the company’s practises of selling broadband. They were absolutely encouraging people to acquire content through illegitimate means. The ISPs used to say, “We’re just a pipe, we can’t control what’s coming down the pipe.” When they’re trying to sell broadband packages off the back of illegally downloading our content, that’s clearly not on. And clearly they’re not behaving in a legitimate manner. Part of our lobbying has been very much about search engines through to illegal site (identification). In the U.K. now there’s a mandate to be at the cutting-edge of super-fast broadband, so of course this has woken up the movie industry much more than it has before. Music has largely been a single voice in that space about protecting IP. Now you have a louder voice, and a collective voice of rights controllers, which is definitely having an effect. There’s now enough evidence around the world to say a combination of legislation and good customer services is turning the market around. Sweden is a case in point, with Spotify. We’ve seen significant growth on the back of the Hadopi law (in France). I’m optimistic, but unfortunately our government’s a bit slow.

You were a member of Dexy’s Midnight Runners. What did you bring from your artist background into your exec career?

I always say to artists, “I’ve been in a successful band, we had hits, I’ve had stiffs, I’ve been dropped, I’ve been signed, I’ve been through the entire range of career highs and lows. I’ve toured the world as part of a very successful band. And toured the world as part of a not-so-successful band.” My conversation with a lot of artists is about their level of ambition. If you sign with a company like Sony, which will have global ambition for you as an artist, we want to make sure our ambition for you matches your ambition for you. Because if it doesn’t, it’ll probably be an unhappy fit. Coming out of Dexy’s, there was a tension back then between and artist and the company. There was a creative tension and – Kevin (Rowland) would probably forgive me for this – perhaps a lack of ambition within the band which meant some opportunities weren’t necessarily taken. There’s a cultural change now. I really do view artists as our clients now. We stay in business because of the level of service we provide, and we have very good working relationships with our artists. And we have the same ambitions and dreams and aspirations for them.

Do you still have a set of the dungarees you wore?

Oh, yeah. I still have the dungarees. I’ve got a beret. God knows where they are. They’re probably in an attic and my kids are using them.

Sony’s repertoire in the last 10 years has been largely driven by reality-TV shows. Will that continue to be the case?
There’s been a shift in that the reality TV artists had a stigma attached to them. It was always a case that they didn’t travel. Not any more. One Direction is a case in point. Rebecca Ferguson, Olly Murs are others. The X Factor happens to be a very legitimate platform to introduce new artists. When the artist is good enough and the record is good enough, it will travel. I don’t take the platform for granted. It is a gift. Some say it’s a curse. My role is how to balance the success of the reality TV artists with the other side of the business. The X Factor is almost unique; the more we get involved in the show, the more there is a real music component to it in terms of music professionals, the better the talent that comes through. The X Factor in the UK is a cultural phenomenon. It’s still the biggest show on TV with 15 million viewers a week. We’ve done three million units from artists who came through that platform in the past year. That platform is phenomenal.

Will you bring back some locally-signed repertoire and feed it into the machine?

Yes. I was very interested to see both Timomatic and Reece Mastin. On an immediate level, when I first heard the Timomatic single (Set It Off), it comfortably fits into UK commercial radio. I wanted to meet the DNA guys – and they’re coming back to the UK – because they’re making world-class music. These are records that will compete on radio anywhere. Having seen Timomatic on a performance level, he’s got it. There are other European territories also taking a shot. Reece has some opportunities. The recent success we had with One Direction might give us some sort of pathway of how we break him. It’s entirely driven by social media. What One Direction has taught us is that teenage girls are the same worldwide, whether its Australia or UK or US, they have exactly the same motivations and passions. It’s just reaching them. If we can find that same lane for Reece, and have social media start that conversation and create a platform for him, then there’s an opportunity there. He’s got that broad pop-rock appeal. He’s got exactly what that audience wants. Denis Handlin invited me down to the company a few months ago. I wanted to see for myself how the business down here operated because these guys have been so successful in delivering U.K. talent. It is one of our centers of excellence at Sony. I decided it was about time I saw what they were doing and how they get it right all the time (laughs).

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