This week we had the pleasure to talk to John Dawkins, famous for managing two of the UK’s greatest bands The Enemy and Milburn, along with a host of others. He’s currently working with Milburn on their sold out September UK Tour following their outstanding sellout 4-day hometown gigs, earlier this year, which saw the band sell 10,000 tickets in under 5 mins. He’s also sadly saying goodbye to The Enemy, who are going out on their farewell tour in Sept/Oct.
We took the opportunity to obviously talk about the bands that John manages but also to look at the music industry from a different viewpoint and rack his brains on his thoughts on… ‘What makes a successful manager?’ ‘Why he think’s bands are not breaking through?’ and ‘Why support slots for established signed bands are hard to come by?’
Thanks firstly John for chatting with us, can I start by asking how did you get involved in the music industry?
Well, I went to university to study Sports Science, the dream was to be a footballer but that failed and I left with a degree in Sports Science. I realised quite quickly that wasn’t for me. I was always really into music and my cousin was in a band signed to Subpop the same label as Nirvana. He then joined a band called AMEN who were signed to a Virgin Records, I’m an indie kid so it wasn’t my first choice of music, but he offered me some chances to get on the road with them in America, touring and stuff and that was my first introduction way back in 2002. I went on to get a job at the Camden Barfly and I used to run the bar downstairs, sometimes I did the lights for the shows, sometimes I’d help set the stage up. I did that for about a year and a half, I had a day job which paid the bills, the night job was alright money, but it helped me understand the ins and outs of the game and allowed me to join Grand Union Management in 2003 . At Grand Union I worked 3/4 days a week for free to learn the ropes, and that’s kind of how it all started for me really. That was about 14 years ago.
How did you get involved with The Enemy? Were you living in Coventry at the time?
No, I was working for Grand Union down in London and I’d scouted a lot of bands, I was also tour managing and teching for several acts such as Alexis On Fire / Boy Kill boy / Bloc Party – So I was constantly looking at new acts etc to develop or sign for the management company. I was bringing bands through and trying to get stuff for management, and The Enemy was kind one of the last in a long line of stuff that came through. Liam the drummer used to send me demos quite a lot from when he was around 16, and hadn’t heard from him in a while until was 18 and got back in touch via my mum who he worked for. They felt they were ready with a new sound and a new bass player, so they sent me a demo through my mum and I got round to listening to it after it was sitting around on my desk for about a month and that was it really…… It blew me away. That was very early 2006, the tracks on the demo were ’40 Days and 40 Nights’ and another tune called ‘Dancing All Night’ which became a B-side which I think is a really strong song, and there was some other weird stuff on it like super kind of bluesy stuff which I felt dated them, but decided to give them a punt and put them in the studio with a mate of mine. The original CD they gave me is actually now on display in the Coventry Music Museum.
Did you have to point them in the right direction or were they already there?
Like most bands they were, of course, miles off, but there was plenty of magic there to get very excited about. They needed an identity which they kind of had anyway and we sat down and was like look ‘What do you like what are you about? What do you want to achieve?’ We just went from there really, once they had a mantra of what they wanted to do, we just kind of pulled it all together and I put them in the studio with the right people and just got them out gigging and we just realised that ultimately you live and die by live. You’ve got to go out and play to people. A lot of people think less is more but it’s not, it’s about getting in the van and going up and down the country. Within 14 months of taking The Enemy on they were at number one. It’s the quickest thing we’ve ever done at the management company in the last 13 years, and it’s one of the maddest things we’ve ever seen, it just happened. A lot of things fell into place for them.
Do you think the enemy’s album We’ll Live and Die in These Towns get the recognition it deserves?
In a word – NO!! – The thing is The Enemy connected with the masses but the London elitist left music media always tried to downtrod it and brand it uncool, it was a record that connected with everyone across the board, that spoke to a generation both lyrically and emotionally and it still resonates today. It’s what I call a tipping point record, where we did the best part of a doubled platinum which is 600,000 records. The rule of thumb is that whatever you sell the reality is that three times that have actually got or heard the record, so if you work on that you’re looking at the best part of one and a half, two million people, which is enormous.For me, it seems it went to everybody from the cool to the regular man on the street, mums and dads to everybody. On the whole, our fan base was just normal working and middle-class people which the left field media establishment in London doesn’t really like, and usually, dismiss with “lads” quotes – Just lazy!!! It’s a mad thing as I believe we still have these problems, I mean look at the laughable Courteeners situation where they are selling out 50,000 people in a field and arenas up and down the country yet have struggled for Radio 1 play, yet “cool” band’s who can’t do 300 tickets in London get daytime spins. It’s an elitist issue, which hurts the industry, and it has to come to a head soon. The thing is with The Enemy record it’s one of the great working class records that spoke to a generation and it’s kind of overlooked. It should be filed alongside The Jam, Billy Bragg etc because it affected popular culture positively on a mass scale. Due to a variation of things it isn’t, and that’s the one thing in my career to date that always niggles me. When people release top 100 records of the last decade and it’s never in there and other shit is….. I find that quite astonishing .
Do you think its bands not wanting to play the ‘London’ game then?
Well, it’s funny because I’ve lived down here for the last 18 year and I never used to think there was a North/South divide think that kind of got abolished. But in the last year/18 months or so I feel there has become a bit of a divide again, and certain genres work better in certain areas. Bands are certainly stronger in the north for instance. London is falling into old traps again. In terms of radio and media, it’s become a little bit trendy and a bit fashionista and London-based again, which in this day and age with the technology we have we should be able to get across everything quickly and fairly.
Can you see things changing?
Yeah, of course, I think it will change, but ultimately I think the only way things change is if there’s a catalyst and we need not just one but several. We need a few monster new acts that kill it across the board, and a few transitional period to come to fruition with radio and media, then the stars could align once more and the gates fling wide open. I’m currently looking around and I don’t see that catalyst band currently – the next Oasis / Monkeys / Blur etc. There are some good acts but no one has a ‘Live Forever’, ‘….dancefloor’, ‘Song 2’ do they?!
There’s a lot of good bands out there like but they are not breaking through, what’s your thoughts?
As I say above these bands haven’t got a ‘Live Forever’ or a ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ or ‘I Bet That You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ have they? They are still developing, and unlike the past, they have to do all their growing up in public – that makes a big difference. In fairness, I think the scene is developing nicely and in the right manner, a proper community. I think what Mikey at This Feeling is doing is great ,and I think one or two are starting a spot played on radio. The problem across the board is how do we get music through, we need to embrace new technology and we need to embrace radio, then radio needs to work in conjunction and things like The Courteeners highlights where it fails, but rather than fight it we just need to keep improving and making it impossible for people not to play things. Tickets sales and people at gigs say’s everything!!! There are bands out there that media actively don’t like but they are doing the numbers and ultimately can’t be ignored.
How vital is it for you to find and develop and who are you working with at the minute ?
It’s what I love doing, finding new acts, developing them and watching it grow and seeing if we can achieve what we set out to do sonically and aesthetically and go on to affect the landscape with what we both love doing, it’s a beautiful thing when it comes off! Currently, I’ve got The Enemy whom after ten years are about to embark on there on the final tour. I’m developing a little band called April from Nuneaton there going out on tour and have got their debut single OPEN MIND coming out on Killing Moon records who are responsible for Jack Garratt / Fickle Friends etc. They are also about to work with one of my favourite producers Steve Dub who has done every Chemical Brothers HIT. Milburn has been an incredible story we sold 10,000 tickets on Sheffield in under 5 mins and now have a sold out September UK tour. I also have a talented young Scottish singer-songwriter called Kerri Watt who’s had two tracks on Radio 2 A-list, we are currently working on her next single release for later this year through Warners. 21 year old Tom Grennan has signed to Sony Insanity and is singing on the next Chase n Status single! He has just released his first track “Something in the Water” and it has killed it – No.1 on hype machine / No.2 UK Spotify Viral / No.17 Spotify Global etc so a very exciting start!!!! Then Drum & Bass duo Fred V & Grafix who are killing it on the festival circuit currently off the back of a well-received new record and a BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix. Working across all the other acts on our stable also from Charli XCX and The Libertines to Rev & The Makers, Spiritualized and Barns Courtney to name but a few.
In regards to support slots for bands, who comes up with them. Do you think the whole process is fair?
Ultimately with all my bands like The Enemy on their farewell tour they’ve picked every support, that’s what they do. Milburn will pick every support that they want because they want certain bands that they like on the tour. Sometimes for other bands its friends of theirs, sometimes some bands don’t give a shit so the promoter might put them on because they think it might sell a few more tickets. That’s just the way it is, it’s just hard work. The band’s that are playing down their local pub or trying to get its break who don’t know any promoters or don’t know the band, unless they are incredibly lucky and someone stumbles across them (like winning the lottery) it doesn’t really matter, they are probably not going to get on. It’s very rare that it works like that! you need to look at how bands set up online etc, how they present themselves and how do they get down the tracks so far! It’s easy to look at a successful act and trace back the steps of how they got there. Ultimately you live and die by your music and how good you are live. Sometimes you see bands that aren’t that good getting a bit down the track because they are intelligent and seen how the game works, where they put a radio plugger in place, or put a press person in place and put an online in place and that’s how it works. I like to think inevitably it falls down cos their music is shite….. but sometimes it doesn’t ha ha. There are some naive people out there who are like ‘Alright mate I’m in a band, can we support such and such?’ and I’m like ‘No not really because you haven’t done the fucking ground work’, you can’t just jump the queue, you have to pay your dues. Unless It’s a very rare case where I listen to something and I’m like fuck me this is great, and trust me that doesn’t happen very often. The reason being is that you don’t know them, you don’t know what gear they’ve got and you don’t know if they understand the rules of the road. Look, I understand frustrations with people but at the same point, there is a protocol to follow firstly and secondly its what me and all my bands have worked around to make things happen for ourselves.
In your eyes what makes a successful band manager?
Two things really – It’s hard work and believing in yourself! Whatever you take on you have to one hundred percent believe in it, you can’t take anything on you don’t believe in as it just won’t work. It takes a long long time and it’s putting the graft and the hours and really working on your craft and investigating it, like ‘Who did this? How did they do that? Who’s this? What person is in charge of that company and how can I get in touch with them?’. In fairness, I didn’t have any real success for the first three years until I got to The Enemy.
For those three years, I had a job at The Barfly in the evening, I had a job in the day and then I’d go out on the tour so I was doing three things and I was trying to learn. I would go and sit in the corner of an office for ten hours, not being paid and listening to what was going on, seeing people make mistakes, seeing them people learn from their mistakes showing how it was done correctly, making contacts and then going to gigs at night. If The Enemy had come earlier it may not have worked, as I wasn’t ready. If you enter this game to make money, fucking pack in now – TRUST ME. You’ve gotta love it and you’ve gotta live it if you can do that you know the money won’t come straight away. Believe me, it can tick through but it’s fucking hard work if you want to make money. I want to make records that people listen to it and go fuckin hell, yeah and they get something from it. It affects their life and they come up to me and say I fucking love that record and that’s what it’s about. When I was growing up I liked Oasis and Ocean Colour Scene and bands like that. When I was like 14 in 1994 they affected me and they made me become the person that I am today. That’s what I want to do. I want to soundtrack people’s lives and I know that sounds really arrogant and ambitious, but I just want to affect people in a good way and a positive way. People loved The Enemy’s record, I can remember doing it and I don’t think we ever realised how big it could be, but I know we were all on the same page and wanted to make a statement and make a difference!!!. I can remember having a bit of a ding-dong with someone at a gig in Manchester he was behind me and jumping up and down think he was mates and there were only about 15 people watching The Enemy. It was early doors in the lad’s journey and he was shouting ‘These are fucking shit!’ I let it go initially, but eventually, I turned around and said ‘How’s about you shut the fuck up, these lads are 17 and 18 years old and they are having a go!’ It was at that point I just knew they were going to be massive, it was obvious to me. Toms a great songwriter and people say I was a bit blinded by it, and I remember saying in 18 months times these will be back here and they will be number one. I just knew it, they were the right guys, they were in that moment and everything was just right, the zeitgeist, everything was on point. They killed it live, they were young and aggressive and we delivered a great record packed with big songs and lyrics that spoke the youth of the nations language, everything was absolutely on the money and we smashed it and we did affect people, which is good but its kind of a double edged sword. We’ll Live and Die in These Towns is something I’m really proud of but its a bit of an albatross in the sense that everyone comes up and says it’s ‘The Enemy guy’ and don’t get me wrong it’s really nice for a few years, but I want to be known for something else, that’s kinda why I opened a night club because then I was the Rehab Warehouse Guy in Coventry, which is what the club was called. It’s like now I want another number one record. For me, it’s very rare that you find a band like The Enemy which is just ready to go. I think Tom Grennan who I’ve got and I’ll put his on record now and watch it and I have the same feeling as I did with the enemy – He is going all they way to the top.
What manager do you look up to or take inspiration from?
I always looked up to Tony Wilson,The way he galvanised a city and challenged the elite and made everybody believe anything was possible!!! He was just so ambitious, he was a bit pompous and ridiculous at points but look what he did, He had arguably the coolest record label of all time, he was a creator of club culture in this country, and he put Manchester on the map and gave us some of the most important bands of the last 30 years and spawned a platform for many more – what a Legacy!!! Mcgee at Creation Records was another maverick with a phenomenal back catalogue. I do Love Rob Gretton who managed Joy Division / New Order the most though I think. He just took no shit, was always true to himself and did things for the right reasons. He said it how it was and was a bit of a blagger in a way and I loved his spirit. Everything I read about Gretton makes me admire the man more, a genius and it’s such a shame his life ended shortly. Even in this day and age I still use a pen and a notepad because that what Gretton would do!!!! If I can do a quarter of what these guys have done, I will be a very happy man x
The Enemy Final Tour
Sep 02 Wedgewood Rooms Portsmouth, United Kingdom Tickets
Sep 03 O2 Forum Kentish Town London, United Kingdom Tickets
Sep 04 O2 Academy Bristol Bristol, United Kingdom Tickets
Sep 07 O2 Ritz Manchester Manchester, United Kingdom Tickets
Sep 08 O2 Academy Leicester Leicester, United Kingdom Tickets
Sep 09 O2 Academy Liverpool Liverpool, United Kingdom Tickets
Sep 15 O2 Ritz Manchester Manchester, United Kingdom Tickets
Sep 16 O2 Forum Kentish Town London, United Kingdom Tickets
Sep 17 The Empire Coventry, United Kingdom Tickets
Sep 21 O2 ABC Glasgow Glasgow, United Kingdom Tickets
Sep 24 O2 Academy Newcastle Newcastle Upon Tyne, United Kingdom Tickets
Sep 25 O2 Academy Leeds Leeds, United Kingdom Tickets
Sep 26 O2 ABC Glasgow Glasgow, United Kingdom Tickets
Oct 06 The Empire Coventry, United Kingdom Tickets
Oct 07 The Empire Coventry, United Kingdom Tickets
Oct 08 The Empire Coventry, United Kingdom Tickets
Sep 19 Wedgewood Rooms Portsmouth, United Kingdom Tickets
Sep 20 Thekla Bristol, United Kingdom Tickets
Sep 23 Koko London, United Kingdom Tickets
Sep 29 Rock City Nottingham, United Kingdom Tickets
Sep 30 O2 Ritz Manchester Manchester, United Kingdom Tickets