A founding member of Mumford & Sons and an all-around interested and engaged human being.
Ben Lovett is a true multi-hyphenate. A founding member of Mumford & Sons, Ben sings, plays keyboards and drums, writes and produces music. He develops venues and promotes shows. He owns a record label, music publishing, is a restaurateur, activist, philanthropist and all-around interested and engaged human being.
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Ben: Thank you.
LP: Give Ben a welcome. [Applause] I have been struggling with how to introduce Ben to everyone because I feel like anything I say doesn't quite capture everything that he’s involved with and that he does with his life. So, I’m going to introduce him as a true multi-hyphenate. So Ben’s not only a Grammy Award-winning musician. He’s a multi-instrumentalist. He’s not only a businessperson but he has interest in concert promotion and record labels and venue management and publishing. And I’m going to guess the list goes on from there.
He’s an activist, a philanthropist, even a restauranteur. if I got that correct. And I’m sure there’s a bunch of other things that we could add to that list. But I have a thesis now of Ben Lovett, which is there’s a through theme with all of these different activities you’re involved with. And I think of you as sort of an engaged connected citizen. And I think that is the concept that runs through all of the different things you do.
And as I looked all these different activities, they aren’t separate silos in your life. They all seem to bleed into each other. So I want to explore that over the next little while as we talk. But I want to start at the beginning, and we won’t spend too much time on this. Where were you born?
Ben: Born in Cardiff, in Wales, goat country, which is a country of three million people in the British Isles. I’m very proud of it. It’s kind of neat.
LP: You’re a Welshman.
Ben: I’m a Welshman, but then I moved at a pretty early age to London and I lost the accent. The accent is amazing. Very proud Welsh family. Yeah, I guess you kind of love to have that little bit of difference, if you can.
LP: Are you supplanting Tom Jones as the national hero?
Ben: No. Actually, most of our hero’s wear jerseys on the rugby team. It’s rugby and singing, those are the two things about Wales.
LP: And you’re firmly on the singing side.
Ben: No. I played rugby in school.
LP: Through what age?
Ben: Eighteen, yeah, took it pretty seriously.
LP: How are your knees?
Ben: They’re okay. It was my ankle that finally gave up.
LP: Like a football player, yeah. Tell me about your family. Parents, siblings? What’s their racket?
Ben: Got a mom and dad.
LP: You know what I’m going to ask you.
Ben: Three siblings and five nieces and nephews, and pretty happy upbringing. My dad was self-made. He was born in Africa and grew up in Dar es Salaam, until he was 16, and then went into basically – kind of just before Branson in trying to figure out how to flip airline tickets, packages. So he would go and like charter a plane and then sat on the tickets for an uplift.
Audience: Woot, woot.
Ben: Yeah, exactly. Title hustler. He was doing that on the side of qualifying for accountant. And then he went on to do really well, as a management consultant. I mentioned him because it’s relevant to what’s happening in my life, today. Yeah, he was quite a big part of kind of inspiring me as someone who really just had to kind of figure it out and didn’t have the backing of any cash to get going.
LP: It’s almost like he’s the last of the generation of sort of like the post-Colonial British Europeans who made their way.
Ben: His dad was stationed in Africa. That’s why he was born out there during the second World War. And there’s a lot of people like him, including my godfather, who’s from Palo Alto, who he met in Africa.
LP: Lyle Lovett?
Ben: No. Godfather. That was good, though. No, he was called Bruce Beck and they travelled across the US together when they were kids and they kind of inspired me to have a bit of a sense of adventure and passion for America. Because they did like a road trip where they went and flipped burgers when they were 19 across Route 66, you know, kind of the classic. It was in 1968, so you can just imagine what it was like, properly. Like two beat kids. And then Bruce ended up putting his roots down, here, and he went to Stanford and met his wife. I kind of fell in love with this part of the world.
LP: That’s a true American experience at that time to drive that route through the country. You saw everything at that point.
Ben: Yeah, it’s probably like Kerouac.
LP: Amazing. Do you know much about that trip? Is it family lore?
Ben: Just anecdotally. It sounded fun. To the point where they would like work until they had enough to go on to the next leg of the [trip], which I love. I love that idea.
LP: That’s what you do as a touring musician.
Ben: Basically, yeah. There’s like seeding of that. This is going to be therapy, isn’t it?
LP: Hopefully, at the end, we’ll hug it out. And you’re welcome to cry. This a very empathetic bunch, here. Was their music and art in your childhood in any way?
Ben: My mom was a sculptor. She is a sculptor. But she was raising four kids, whilst my dad was out working. So she didn’t have much time to do it, but she definitely has more of the artist DNA. But no music, apart from like a great aunt, who I’m not even sure if I’m actually related to her but we called her a great aunt, who had some music in her.
LP: How did you come into music?
Ben: Just a point of difference. I was fourth, the fourth child. I wanted to be different. Couldn't find my niche to like separate myself from the pack and so decided to pick up an instrument. At age like five I think I saw the opportunity to like get my parents’ attention by doing something my siblings couldn't do. And then I went for it. I properly learned piano to the point where I was like competing in piano competitions, which actually exist, if you can imagine that. And learned lots of instruments and, yeah.
In a nutshell, basically what happened is I went to the same school at Marcus, from my band, and we met at eight-years old and we had our first paid gig at twelve. And we were just like in it from that point, going out, trying to get whatever gigs we could. All over London, bar mitzvahs, wedding anniversaries, you know, whatever.
LP: What was your early repertoire?
Ben: It was anything from like real book jazz covers, through to Dire Straits. It was pretty eclectic.
LP: Whatever the situation called for.
Ben: We would figure out how to play it.
LP: When did you guys start writing? Did you write as little kids?
Ben: Mid-teens, that kind of came in, lyrically. Composing, earlier on, when you think about just writing instrumentals, yeah, I guess.
LP: Banging out a few chords, jamming around.
Ben: Yeah, early, early days. Properly writing songs, which I consider to be lyric and melody, was like mid-teens.
LP: All the things that you are involved with, now, was music always the career path? What was your concept of what you were going to do? Did you think that way? Did you have an ambition?
Ben: I was so ambitious. I wanted to do everything. I was studying way too many subjects in school. I was just trying to do and do. I’m kind of like one of those slightly over-active people. And I was like that as a kid. I actually thought I was going to be an astrophysicist for a while. I actually got into Stanford to study – to do a bit of astrophysics. At 16, I completed a summer program of modules that would have fast-tracked me through.
LP: So you were that kid.
Ben: I was that kid, yeah. Also wanting to do like the play rugby and play music. I wasn’t that valedictorian kid. I was just the guy that was constantly doing everything. I remember when I was 14, I managed to convince the seniors at high school to allow me to run their yearbook, and I interviewed every single person at my school, at 14, and sold them the yearbook. So I basically compiled a yearbook and then I just hustled out a product. So I made a bit of money.
The next year, I went to four schools around our school and did the same thing and, yeah. Went from being like a written thing into being a video, edit a yearbook. And everyone was just like, “Who the hell is this kid?” I booked the end-of-year party at the local club. At 15, I wasn’t even old enough to be in there, but I booked it and sold tickets to it. And that was the beginning of club promoting for me. I basically learned that the best form of the ultimate hustle is club promotion. Booking shows is the most true form of fast-paced flip a buck.
LP: That’s an interesting – I’m glad to hear you say that because folks, here, have probably heard me say it a few times. I’ve maintained for a while that the real interesting entrepreneurial energy has always been on the live side of our business. I think at least in our adult lives. The record men, early on, were the sort of pioneers in the first wave of pop music. But pretty quickly it became the let’s put on a show. And those folks were the –
Ben: Yeah, with Bill Graham.
LP: That’s right. And all that hustling around the country and ultimately around the world, the history of the concert promotion business – [Sound of police car sirens]. There’s your ride.
Ben: That’s highly visceral. I think that’s the point. It’s just not academic. It’s like you are literally creating a piece of paper. I mean, this is going back to hiring out the local community hall and then just selling tickets to it. But you are taking a document that was seemingly worthless, and it was your point of entry to go and experience something. And you created that. There was nothing there, before. You were like creating a demand around an event. I love that. And so I ended up being a club promoter pretty incessantly around London and built up some good relationships. And it led to starting Communion when I was 18.
LP: That’s the next I wanted to talk about. So you were playing at that point. You were gigging.
Ben: Gigging but not as Mumford & Sons. We were just gigging. I was in six bands when I started Communion. Whoever needed anything. I was like playing in like punk bands and in a really bad pop rock band, called Hot Rocket. And I was like a hired gun for some folk singers. You know, you get 50 pounds a gig and it was a fun experience, free beer. That was the scene in London. And then during the days I was either working warehousing – I had this job for like a year-and-a-half where I was packaging wedding list fulfillment. You know, someone would order a bunch of stuff for their wedding, and I was packaging it into boxes.
LP: Table decorations.
Ben: Yeah, that’s what I was doing from like 8 till 4, and then go to sound check for the gigs and do the thing. I never saw myself being in a warehouse where I was the only person who spoke English and I was like, “This isn’t it.” So I then decided to go a bit more seriously into club promotion and Communion was actually quite a good way of making much easier money than working on an hourly rate.
LP: Yeah. Make money from what you know and what you can do, versus your back.
Ben: Yeah. I saw that in one evening I could make what I made in a month, basically. And at the same time, we were showcasing great artists. That was kind of a win-win. On a great night, and everyone comes, and it’s sold out, oh, an then you get paid, as well. This is awesome. This really works.
LP: If I can overlay this on what you’re saying, it seems like maybe that experience of working in that warehouse environment you specifically talked about that the diversity of people, there, and I would think that it’s reflected in some of your other work, in your activism or philanthropic world, where you use your position and your ability to work on behalf of social justice, whether it’s poverty or other issues.
LP: I would have to think those things are all sort of in the same pot. It’s all sort of happening for you at the same time. You’re seeing these different worlds, basically. You’re moving between worlds, between cultures, between social strata.
Ben: Yeah. I think that’s been one of the kind of the great blessings of being able to travel so much. I think it’s like 115 cities, this year. And you get to just experience all the differences and also the commonalities between people all over the world. So it’s a huge thing.
My point when it comes to any work in that kind of social justice space is that I just hate when things are rigged. When anything is set up in a way that it’s not kind of like a fair game, that’s what gets me going. And I think if everyone was given the equal opportunity, at the beginning of the day, we could really see huge [triumphs 00:14:58] at the end of the day. That would be a really interesting – people kid themselves that that’s what’s going on. And I felt like I made the best with the opportunity that I had, and I would back myself to be on an equal start line with billions of other people. And I would actually much rather that race. I’d much rather competition, than a slightly kind of distorted competition, of whatever is going on.
LP: That speaks to the heart of the issue of the dilemma or the hypocrisy in Western capitalism. Is that it’s not about may the best person win. There’s a finger on the scale. And some people see the finger and understand that that’s what’s going on; and other people, unfortunately, act against their own self-interest. They believe that it truly is an even playing field and they get caught in that misconception.
LP: It’s interesting that as –
Ben: We could go really political, here, couldn't we? I’m just not going to get involved.
LP: That’s fair enough.
Ben: I think one of the things that we’ve learned is that as interesting and as kind of incendiary as American politics is, it’s not our politics, as British people. I think for a minute we felt like it was like the conversation was bubbling up, it was going to come out of us, and then I’ll probably save it just for like dinner parties.
LP: Yeah. What’s exciting for us is you’re finally in Britain, making us feel a little bit better about [the last couple of years].
Ben: I’ll save it to conversations with Brits.
LP: Fair enough. That’s fair enough. Describe Communion, to me. What was it when it started, and what has it become, and how do you think of it, now? Is it a media company? What is Communion?
Ben: Artist development, first and foremost. So, there was a couple of things going on. I think I slight undersold how it began, as if I was just trying to make money. The fact that I could make money out of it was awesome. I think Kev and I, especially. Kev was living with me at the time and he’s the co-founder. He’s also half of Bear’s Den, a great band.
I think there a small part of it, absolutely, that was financial. But I think the main thing was that we saw all these really talented artists that weren’t on any of the hot lists. So they weren’t on Ones to Watch. They weren’t on Pitchfork. And yet they were great, and they were moving, and they were writing songs that felt like they would move other people.
And so we kind of just took like a very unfiltered lens to unsigned artists in London. And realize when we started Communion, there was 10,000 unsigned artists in London. And we were like if we can just curate out of this five of the best among them without just following what everyone else is saying is the best five artists and just do it based on what we know is good music, then maybe that will work. And unbelievably, within two or three months, we had sold out nights and then it expanded, and we rolled it out into 16 different cities all over the world. Communion nights in Melbourne unearthing the best new artists in Melbourne. And it kind of evolved on that platform level of people respected the fact that we were actually going out and finding these artists.
And the we had the opportunity a couple of years into it to start developing our relationship with those artists. So that was when we started signing acts and our first wave of artists was Michael Kiwanuka, Ben Howard, I’m trying to think.
LP: Was that the compilation records?
Ben: No. Well, so, yeah, there was a compilation, first. That’s right, yeah. There was a compilation that kind of just spoke to all of our – it was like the Best Of the club nights. But, then, within months we were working more deeply on the albums. And that was fun. I remember being 20, 21 years old, sat in a planning meeting at Island Records and looking around and people would turn to me and say, “Well, what do you think we should do?” And we kind of were like, “This is crazy.” What do you think we should do? How does this work?
People genuinely felt like we were steering something. And then there was a ton of interest over the next couple of years and we kind of – it snowballed, right? so once people catch on to a hot label or a hot promotor, people want to sign with us and [unintelligible 00:20:09] big [unintelligible] records and we did, yeah, a bunch of stuff.
Probably one of my favorite acts that I was most sort of involved in was Catfish and the Bottlemen, a great rock band. And they were – a little anecdote. They were playing at this place called The Barfly, in London. It’s a 200-count venue. There was 150 people in there and they’re handing out free CDs at the end of the night. And I went downstairs – this was the first time I had seen them. And I went downstairs after the show and introduced myself to Van, the lead singer. And this guy comes over and introduces himself as the driver for the tour bus. And he walks away and Van was like, “That’s so embarrassing. That was my dad driving our van outside.” And it was so sweet. And it kind of set off the whole dynamic with this band, which is like they’re very honest, very real. And even though kind of sonically quite a long way from, say, Michael Kiwanuka. But Communion is not really defined by a genre. It’s more about authenticity and songwriting.
And so we’re kind of like agnostic when it comes to what it sounds like, as long as it’s real. And that band went from that stage to now doing arena tours and headlining festivals.
LP: That’s fun to see.
Ben: Yeah, it’s great.
LP: A couple more questions about Communion. When it starts as something that’s such a manifestation of your own taste and your own ability to curate and understand your local scene, and pick stuff out, how do you scale that across the world? How do you – do you have to find the you in each city?
Ben: Good question. Yeah, kind of. There’s a bit of it that’s a little bit of it that I think can be taught. I love people. So I love mentoring or getting into a room with someone who wants to actually learn and figure out those skills. And I can’t really condense it. But, yeah, absolutely. If anyone here wanted to just sit down and figure out how to go out into, say, San Francisco and put together the five unsigned acts and for that night to be good, I’ve kind of figure out somewhat of a format that can be repeated. And it’s a bizarre algorithm of sort of an insight into my own brain.
I think from Kev’s point of view, who’s such a big part of the curatorial part of Communion, as well, and really leads on the A&Ring for the record label. He just does it purely based on heart. I kind of engage both organs. I think he really just kind of decides whether he feels it.
LP: What’s the – and I would imagine this might not be the ultimate measurement for you – but what’s been the largest commercial success you’ve had on the recorded music side? Was it the Gotye single, or?
Ben: Probably as a single, yeah.
LP: That was one of those songs that just took a whole chunk of a year and it was everywhere.
Ben: Yeah, and it was so obvious that that song was going to be massive. And Danny Rogers, who managed Wally, Gotye’s real name, I remember sitting in a pub with him in London and he’d gone around to all the major labels and the reaction was that the chorus doesn't kick in for two minutes. It’s not going to work. And it was just so short-sighted from lots of different leaders of these A&R processors of major labels. We were like, it doesn't matter; it’s a good song. And it was already catching fire in Australia.
LP: They’re not hardwired to go for, “Oh, this is a song that sounds like nothing else on the radio right now.” That’s what I would think you run towards. But to me the thing about that song is the vocal performance. There’s so much conveyed just through the delivery of that melody is what makes it a classic hit.
Ben: Yeah. I’m not sure kind of album-wise what’s been the most commercial successful. There hasn’t even been really a metric of monitored, primarily. We’ve done lots of different joint ventures, took away the label at different points of the last, whatever it’s been, 15 years, 14 years, that we’ve grown that company.
LP: Communion parallels sort of your career with Mumford almost year to year in terms of starting around the same time, hitting around the same time, growing to global scale around the same time. Either one of those would be an amazing career. So how do you do both?
Ben: I think it was just a case of trying to – there have been moments where it’s really kind of butt heads, especially early on before I realized what I’m about to say. It’s completely different muscle groups. The idea of going and writing a song, or touring, requires a totally different level of endurance or concentration so going to a gig and negotiating a deal. So I see it as kind of a completeness. And they balance each other out. Hours of the day, forms of communication. Communion and I guess what we’ll talk about next, a lot of emails. Mumford Sons doesn't email. I don't have to—there isn’t a jam of all these things kind of talking the same language.
And I feel partly because of the way that I said I’ve always been. I’ve just got a certain amount of bandwidth. And then, also, just teams. Constantly building teams and trusting and pairing and never micromanaging teams. So finding smart people and trusting them and that their intentions are good and that they know what the vision is and what’s up, like what they’re to do.
There’s an amazing book that I read that kind of summarizes that called “Traction,” which is heavily pegged on this idea of [OST] thinking. Where you just lay out the vision and then stick to the plan.
And so I found that the way that I can move quickly and do a lot and, I guess, I think I’m young, but I feel less young.
LP: You’re young. Trust me.
Ben: I don't know where I am in the spectrum, anymore, but I’m like nearly middle aged. None of that would have been possible if I got bogged down in the detail. I think that means that I’m not a complete offering. I’m one part of the piece to anything that I instigate. I’m only one – I can come up with a good idea, you know, I’d love to sit around with like a white board and we could literally come up with any brand or business idea, today. I probably wouldn't follow through on that because I learned that mistake. I’ve had a couple of businesses that haven't gone anywhere, as well.
LP: And it’s because you don't like to get into the slog. You like the vision?
Ben: I love the slog, as well. I love the follow through. But I know what I don't know. So I think that ultimately – Jamie Emsell, who’s the managing director of Communion, way smarter, way more capable, much more on top of what’s happening than I am as co-founder. You know, we had a bit of a mandate that we laid out in front of that company and I think we stayed true to it. Steering vision is not just – isn’t just a soft job, you know. I think people often think that that’s like the easy bit.
I feel most of my life outside of the band is spent on staying true to a vision. Either creating or staying true to a vision and then people. Just constantly trying to find people that can help deliver that.
LP: That’s this right here. That’s what we go through all the time. Our founder has the vision and then we have this team around them that – it’s not easy to assemble all those folks that are living inside that laptop. That is the difference between the business that keeps going and the ones, like you said, that you just have to give up on at some point because you can’t execute.
Ben: I think it gets exponentially harder, even with one bad egg. That can just spin out the whole office dynamic or the whole company dynamic. And it’s like, you think that they’re going to be great because they interview really well and you buy into their resume and their references and tell you that they really want to work with that company and they turn up and they sit next to someone and they just don’t get along with them.
LP: Yeah, they’re at cross purposes.
Ben: And you’re like, shit.
LP: When you’re not on the road – actually, I have one more question about Communion. You said you think about it in terms of artist development and career development, I guess. Or artist development is what you said. The other avenues or the other business lines that Communion is in – publishing, what have you.
Ben: [Unintelligible 00:30:18] Records and Live, are sort of the three key pillars [unintelligible].
LP: Do you – at the risk of getting overly nerdy, how do you engage with an artist? What’s your business deal? Do you do a 360 deal? Do you sign contracts?
Ben: Unique to each artist. I think we find that where we can get involved across-the-board, we have the most value. We can add the most value. But sometimes we’ll start promoting an act like we do Bastille’s UK touring. He’s signed and published by two different majors.
LP: So if an artist turns you on and you can get in business with them and help them, you just get involved.
Ben: Yeah, we’ll get as involved in – I think if you’re going to get involved, you might as well go all the way sort of thing. I don't quite understand why, if you have a publishing arm, and you believe in an artist, why you would just sign them for records. And for those that don’t understand the difference, records is just the actual recordings of the masters. So anyone could have written the songs. Mariah Carey, it’s a great records deal because she shifts because of her voice covering at all our recording other writer’s songs. But a lot of the artists that we work with at Communion write the song that they record. So you’re kind of buying into both sides of their business. And I don’t understand why you wouldn't.
Catfish, for example, we worked on both sides and it’s great. Because the publishing side is kind of a little more admin heavy. Every time someone plays a song on the radio, a little piece of money goes into a pot that finds its way back to an office and then filters its way through. It’s very much like that. Records is much faster. Some just bought something on iTunes and that cash hits their account. Nothing is as fast as Live, though. Live is still kind of like going to Vegas. And I find it really interesting, especially in the States, knowing so many of the promoters in our own country that the guys that have done well are exactly the people I would expect to see around a craps table in Vegas.
LP: That’s right.
Ben: They are wired that way.
LP: When they get into ancillary businesses, it’s always, oh, let’s go make a film. Let’s go open a restaurant. It’s never like, oh, let’s go put our money into some annuities and sit back. There you go.
Ben: I think I’m a promoter, that’s why I relate to the same people. I love it. It’s just pure hustle.
LP: I think there’s two things that are interrelated. People in the business side always lose sight of the fact that fan is short for fanatic. And we can have that discussion in a minute about what fans are and their role in the ecosystem. And people on the consumer side, or on the fan side, forget that what promoters are doing, and it’s what restauranteurs are doing, it’s what movie producers are doing, is that they’re enabling artists. They’re bringing artists to market. And that’s risky.
I worked at Warner Music for a while and it was during a pretty heavy period of transition. It was before streaming really exploded. And a new ownership group came in. This isn’t the verbatim discussion, but the point of the discussion was: Why don't we just put out the records that hit and not put out the other 200 records a year? That’s makes great sense. Yeah, we should just put out the records that hit every year.
Now, the problems with that are the artist development piece. Sometimes an artist needs 10 years, or 5 years or 3 records or whatever it is. But if we could only figure out what the good records were, of course – if we knew what connected with the public, we would put that out at volume.
Ben: I’d love to know who came in and said that in the office.
LP: We’ll talk about it off-camera, when we talk about Brexit.
Ben: I think that there’s a huge mistake that was made, there. I think it’s so important to remember – and one of the things I love this industry, is it’s so young. Recording music and live music, we’re talking two generations at best. Pretty much just one generation. Like the same people that wrote the rules are still alive, today, and they are the chairmen of these companies that are like, “Let’s just shelved 200 records and keep the good ones.”
For my bands, I think our debut album, the first week of release, came in at like 110 in the charts. And then 18 months later it was No. 2. If we had been subject to the type of A&R guys that you’re talking about, which luckily we weren’t and we had great management and we chose not to work with the bad side of the industry, we just wouldn't – nothing would have happened. We would have got shelved after say like three weeks and they wouldn't have bothered pushing it anymore.
So, yeah, I mean Communion – I think there’s good guys and bad guys. I think it’s that binary. I think this industry is made up of them. And I invest a lot of energy into the good guys and I try and not bother talking at all to the bad guys.
LP: Yeah, the interesting thing is over the last few years, and maybe it’s always been the case and I’m just – because I’ve gotten older, I can see it better. It’s kind of easy to spot. There’s tells and it’s generally about how people think about a deal. Even how they talk about art – you can tell. You can generally tell what people are in it for.
One of the interesting things about what you just said is 110,000 records is a No. 1 record, today.
Ben: No, no. We were No. 110 in the charts.
LP: Oh, 110 in the charts, okay.
Ben: Yeah, we weren’t even in the top 100. That’s my point.
LP: You worked.
Ben: Yeah. It was a slow burn.
LP: You had the time.
Ben: It was a slow burn. We had to just keep them touring. We’d go out in the audience and –
LP: Go find your audience, yeah.
Ben: In the US, we worked with a guy called Daniel Glass. And Daniel Glass is like – He was Disco Danny in the eighties. He’s like straight up –
LP: He’s a record guy.
Ben: He’s a record guy. He’s a promotor, as well in the sense that he like genuinely believes in going out and saying, “Listen to this band.” He will knock down a door. If anyone ever has the opportunity to spend like five minutes, he will give a bit of his energy.
LP: Maybe we’ll get him in here.
Ben: Yeah, that’s pretty awesome.
LP: To talk about Mumford, a little bit. You guys have had a very distinct way of operating from the very beginning. It seemed very intentional, whether it was I think about the way you guys look after your fans. You leave money on the table or you’re not about let’s take it all every time. You go away for a little while and clearly that regenerates the creativity. It lets the audience miss you. I mean, I don't know how strategically you think about it but it’s just doing it is a strategy. I want to talk a little bit about the ticketing thing. That’s what we do. It’s how we’ve worked together. It’s actually my first interaction with your team was several years ago on some other ticketing initiatives. How did that work? Did you go guys sit down and say, you know, if we’re going to be a band, we’re going to be a different kind of band. How intentional was this thing?
Ben: The intention was there. Not very well-articulated by us at kind of 19, 20-years old. I’d say about 90 percent of the good decisions that are being made have either been created or directed by Adam Tudhope, and his team. Just got one of those managers who is really smart. He’s got a good moral compass and he doesn't overstretch himself. And believe it or not there’s like no managers who are like that. You can’t say those three things about managers, in general.
There are some really smart guys that have rosters of 100 artists. As an artist on their roster, you get one day every three months of their time. Adam’s got a roster of 4 acts and he’s got a team of 8 people. It’s insane how he set up his stable and I think it was just a good match. I think we love the spirit of acts like Pearl Jam and Grateful Dead. Like we saw bands like that, and we were like we respect that.
We bonded as a band over the idea of keeping ticket prices low. Because we, as music fans, hated it when our favorite bands would price us out of a gig just because they got successful. I’d say it was a two-way street but a lot of it was being driven by Adam and his vision for respectability in the industry. And one of the ways of doing that is not kind of getting in bed with anyone. We just kept our powder dry in a big way.
Even our record deals are licensed deals. [Unintelligible 00:39:52] owns the masters. We signed ourselves to ourselves, and then we licensed it for a time. But no one can control what we do. And I have to kind of be very forewarning to a lot of artists who are now getting rolled up into the AEG or Live Nation tour deals. Because I just think they’re the devil. I think they’re so dangerous to cut off your ability to negotiate on what’s best for yourself and for your fans, basically. And if you’re not looking after those two things, I don't really understand what you’re doing. You’re moving cash but it’s short-term cash. I think it’s crazy.
And I’ve had that conversation of like – I remember Omar from Live Nation, who is a big architect of their touring, now. I sat down with him with dinner in London about a year ago and just was like going at him about it. I’ve got no – I don't have to like watch what I say on and off. I feel like I represent a truthful, honest position. We work with Live National, AEG. I don’t see them as – I don't see the companies, themselves, being – undoing the industry. I think there are some amazing people who work in both companies. But I think that some of their actions, some of the ways some of their kind of revenue drivers or like profit milkers are bullshit, basically.
LP: Yeah. How does the artist doing an overall deal with them limit the artist’s options? What do you see as the trade-off in artists making – I give you a big check and now what do you have to do for me? Or what can you no longer do?
Ben: You know the answer.
LP: Yeah. Well, from an artist’s point of view. I mean, as an artist with a business mind. What is it about that that is fundamentally – and I don't want to say good or bad, just constraining?
Ben: I’ll just give the single biggest problem with it, which is that all of a sudden, in every single city, even if you just do a US deal, but most of these deals are looking global now. You have to play in that market with the local guy or girl, the local promoter, which is like one of their own promotors, in the rooms that they operate, with the ticketing deals that they have. You can’t control anything.
And they don't have all the right rooms and all the right promoters in every market. It’s like there’s a great guy in Kansas City, and there’s a great guy in San Francisco, and then there’s actually a really good indie guy Missoula, and if you lock out your entire deal, you can end up with someone who like somehow convince Live Nation that he was doing quite a good job in Boise, and he then gets rolled up into the Live Nation framework and then you’re actually doing a great job as a band and you roll into town and this guy has just completely dropped the ball on your show. He has no idea what he’s doing, and he actually doesn't even run the theater where everyone watches bands. He’s got the House of Blues down the road. And the fans are like, “Well, this is an awful experience.”
All of a sudden I have to pay for these ticketing fees to Ticketmaster and I’ve got to pay for a $15 Bud Lite.” I think it’s nonsense that people have to put up with that. I don't even understand how it’s legal, to be honest. I’ve kind of been asking that question a lot, recently. I think we’re kind of in a very unregulated market. And it’s not good. It’s fun for like trying ideas out and for like the growth of the industry but these guys are running riot by now. Does that make sense? That’s the core problem with it. Is that you just don’t – I’m not willing, at this point, to say for the next three years I’m only going to stay in Hilton Hotels wherever I go. I want to go somewhere and say, “Okay, I’m in San Francisco. What’s [unintelligible 00:44:09]? What’s got the good reviews? I stayed there five years ago, but it’s now a bit tired. What’s actually working? And that’s kind of what it’s like. And the Hilton is being generous. We’re talking more like a, I don't know, [unintelligible 00:44:29]. They’re not delivering that kind of excellent service, regularly enough to be deemed kind of a high-end hotel chain.
LP: In the ecosystem of your business, as a touring artist, as a member of a band, a couple of questions about that. How do you all make decisions?
Ben: Very democratically. The majority of day-to-day things. Show post of [unintelligible 00:45:02]. We sign off on everything. Gavin it’s the pain of his life. Sign off on everything, or try to. We’ll do majority on tiny things. For anything that involves like this is going to have an impact on our reputation, or an impact on money that we’re making or anything like that, all four of us need to be on board with that.
It can be a bit slow but it means that there’s no regrets about any decision you’ve made, so far. We all signed up to it and we knew what we were doing, and we could see it. So, it’s good, you know. Interesting we talk to a bunch of artists that haven't got – either bands or – I was chatting to a DJ, who I won’t name, a pretty high-profile DJ, the other day. And he’s in a 50/50 partnership with his manager. And he’s like, “I just let the manager choose what I’m doing.” I said, what do you mean? “He’ll just tell me where I have to go.” This is a DJ who’s like festival headlining DJ. He’s worth tens of millions and he was saying to me, last weekend, if my manager tells me I’ve got a gig to do next weekend, that’s what I’m doing. I’m getting on a plane and doing that gig. That idea is crazy to me.
We say, “Hey, guys, do we all want to go to South Korea and play a show?” “Yeah, that sounds fun.” It’s like a complete different format. But, yeah, I love how we do our thing. It’s cool. I just realized I sound really angry about stuff. I’m not angry at all. I’m just passionate, just passionate.
LP: It’s interesting because ticketing is where kind of the rubber meets the road on a lot of this stuff. You know, you talked about those decisions about how you do business with determine your fan experience. They determine what your fans pay. They determine what your product is priced at. If your show is your product. Is the manifestation of your art on any given night, some of those deals constrain your ability to have really much influence over how your ultimate end product is priced, outside of what the band is going to get paid. There’s all this other stuff that you don't necessarily influence all the time that determines what your fans pay.
How far into the band’s life cycle did it become clear that you were going to have to care about ticketing, particular. Because that does seem to be something every cycle you guys try to have some approach and solve for.
Ben: Really early on. And that was partly there by Lucy Dickins.
LP: UK agent.
Ben: UK agent, rest of the world agent. She’s now at WME. She’s brilliant. And she actually encourages us to self-promote. So Mumford, we put on our own show [unintelligible 00:47:51]. So that was a year and a half after we started the band. And she explained the reason for it, and it involved ticketing, it involved being able to control the experience. I’d say pretty much our entire career we’ve kept an eye on that stuff.
The secondary market was a really hot issue. I think that we’re on a course of correction, now. I think lots of people have made – are now aware that it’s a hot issue, whether they were originally a part of the problem, or new companies have bubbled up to help genuinely, you know, sizeable businesses now that are actually focusing just on it, like Twickets.
I’m less fearful than I was a few years ago, when we were right in the hot seat of that and we had issues where a lot of secondary inflation was going on. I can’t remember what the stat was. I think they were saying like the tour before this one, US tour, the average ticket to one of our shows in North America was $296, and our face value average was $80.
LP: That’s tough, man.
Ben: I mean, that was like, the BEP. And the fact that there was like a whole – the majority of that cash, which was coming out of hard-earned people’s, you know, talking about everyone having like starting at the same start line of a race and not having it rigged. That’s why I get wound up about secondary tickets, which is it’s exactly the something about social justice. It’s just not good enough that someone has had to overspend for a manipulated market. And it wasn’t our fault. And to be honest, it wasn’t really the venue’s fault unless they are also the promotor, who is also the ticketing company, that also owns the secondary platform, which obviously happens, now.
LP: I know we have to free you back you back into the world, shortly, and I want to give folks a chance to ask you some questions. But how do you deal with that when you wear your Communion hat? Does it not impact you as much because it’s not the same level of intensity around your shows? How do you think about these issues in your business?
Ben: We have intensity in our shows. We promote George Ezra and James Kay, and these are hot shows. We work with See Tickets, as a primary seller and they are very transparent about what happens with the tickets and it’s the best that we can do. Communion is quite uniquely positioned where we’d much rather have open books, than make up some nonsense web of lies.
I kind of like that’s where we went wrong in ticketing. Is that people just created layers of complexity to make the whole thing so – you almost forgot what was actually happening, transactionally.
LP: And you stopped trying to find out.
Ben: Yeah. And then companies got really rich off of it, you know. I’m obviously [unintelligible 00:51:29], but companies like Ticket Fly and Eventbrite, they were in a way benefitting from the fact that ticketing is almost this like black magic. Whereas, my point of view, I used to literally just get like a pack of raffle stubs, and I would sell them to someone to gain entry into something I put on. So when [unintelligible 00:51:50] tickets, just because we ditched live ticketing doesn't confuse me. But I think for some people that’s like, yeah, but you have to consider this and this and this and then all the fees. But actually there’s no administration to creating the vehicle for an artist to interface with a fan. And I’d love to demystify it and I hope that I’ve got enough time ahead of me to work with folks like yourselves and others to actually make an effort to unpack that stuff.
LP: That’s great. One last one from me and then we’ll open it up to the floor. What are you involved with right now in terms of clause related work that your particularly interested in or you want to share a little bit with us about?
Ben: We didn’t even get there but venues. So I realized one of the big things was that at the end of the day the venues have locked in the deal. So as a promoter or an artist, we were like butting up against issues that were multi-year deals with venues. So I was like, okay, what are we going to do? Build venues. I started a venue in London three years ago, called Omeara, which is a 320-cap venue. And built it as if I was building a dream experience as an artist.
So there’s like an artists’ loft, with three different rooms and shower. For a 320-cap venue in London, it’s quite unique. The fan experience is amazing. Separate bar with tequila selection. I mean, tequila it’s actually proper cocktails. And essentially, it landed incredibly well, and London embraced it and we had some amazing shows in there. I think objectively, it’s the No. 1 venue of its size in London.
And off the back of that, I started getting some phone calls from people. In February, we’re launching a 600-cap venue in London. Later in the year, we’ll be announcing two more venues, one smaller, one larger. So there’ll be four venues in London. And we’ll be at a point – and I got this bizarre phone call where the city of Huntsville, Alabama, have reached out to a consultant who had also worked with the London mayor’s office, and had said, “How do we get an entertainment industry building in Huntsville?” Because no one knows Huntsville. But actually there’s a lot of people who live there and they’re smart and they’re interesting and they’ve got disposable income. There’s a lot of R&D. It’s like NASA’s R&D.
And weirdly I ended up picking up the phone and said, like, hey, do you want me to fly to Huntsville, Alabama and pitch on an entertainment plan? And now we’re building multiple venues in Huntsville. A 9,000-seat amphitheater, which is going to get announced in a month’s time. This isn’t live, is it?
LP: No, no. I mean, we’re live.
Ben: I was like, oh, my god.
LP: This is on Mumford and Son’s.com right now, being picked up by CNN. Well, the interesting thing about that, though, is when you’re talking about a portfolio of venues in a city, then you’re in the artist’s career for a long time and it’s how it used to be.
Ben: Exactly. You build a ladder of venues but that means you can control what’s happening on the ticketing side. You can strike those deals with the right people and slightly start to democratize it all again. I’m excited about I think I might have just got to the inner sanctum of this maze and I’m starting to see what the middle is like. And the middle does involve a few key things. There’s property, in terms of property value. It’s taxes, in terms of what the city will and won’t support you doing as an operator. And the way to do that is to control what’s happening, from the bars and the parking and that stuff.
Then your contractor to the city that can award you the license, and the hours to operate and won’t shut you down. That’s where these guys are really – that’s the power center to all. And off that comes shows and fan experience. I might just continue to go into the center and find out it’s not that at all. But right now it looks like it’s about the venues, themselves.
LP: It’s amazing. We talk about this all the time, yeah. And the other thing is I think – to bring it full circle – I think your examples have all proven my thesis. So, thank you. Which is the key to all of your successes, or your initiatives is that you are a connected and engaged member of whatever community you’re operating in. So you go into Huntsville and you find out who’s the community I need to become a part of there. Not just a guy that flies in once in a while, or gets on a conference call. What’s the landscape, here? What do these people need and want? What contributes to the community so that they want me there and we can present an opportunity together? That’s a unique mindset.
And I think the other piece that I find interesting is that not all artists, whether it’s Mumford, as a group, any of you as individuals, not all artists bet on themselves. They don't always bet on their vision or their ability to have taste or to make decisions that are right for longevity. And I think that’s why sometimes it’s easier to take the check, or that seems like the smart thing to do because you don't know if there’s going to be a next tour, or there’s going to be a next shot at it. And I think just having the confidence in yourself and your vision and your art and your fans to bank on yourself gives so much optionality, long-term.
Ben: Some of my favorite entrepreneurs in the world who I’ve spoken to, or I’ve read the biographies of, have gone bankrupt a few times. They have bet the house, without fear of losing. And whether you own a business, or you’re just doing that with your next step in your career, I think that’s a really healthy mindset. I think you go for it. So what? If I lost everything, I genuinely feel like this. If everything I’ve built for the last 15 years went away, tomorrow, just get a white board and start building a new business. I’m not – I’m complete unphased by it. So I don't even care if someone tries to threaten or bring the heat, or whatever. Or, if, like a radio station decides to play another band, instead of my band. It’s all good. I’m not so worried about the fear. You can’t be governed by it, you know?
LP: It leads to bad outcomes. Decision-making driven by fear leads to bad outcomes. Well, thank you. Give it up. [Applause]
Let’s just take a couple of minutes and see if there’s any questions. Does anybody have questions for Ben? Justin.
Justin: A real quick one. I’ve got two. First real quick one, what’s your favorite you’ve promoted?
Ben: We had Beck play at my 320-cap club and it was like two years ago and I was just pinching myself all the way through. I love Beck. And they were packed on this tiny stage. It was the whole band and he was such a nice guy, as well.
Justin: Second question is: You touched on owning venues as a part of the solution for some of these high conglomerate companies. What’s your take on them starting to buy small and medium-cap clubs?
Ben: It’s the same thing. It’s the same strategy. Merge, acquire or build from scratch. I don't think it’s necessarily a proprietary strategy, though. And they don't have – The thing that’s going to make the difference is how special the environment is. How good the product is that you’re buying when you’re in there. So there’s a venue, and there’s a venue. And, yeah, they could go out and clean up a bunch, but I’m pretty sure, or I back myself to go and build a venue next door that’s better than the one that they bought. They can’t do anything about that. And once you’ve done that, then you train the staff to deliver a better-quality service.
So I’ve sat on the board of the Barclay Center, in New York, for the last seven years, and every single person who works at Barclay Center is diligently trained. They go to Disneyland, learn how to interact with consumers. And it’s the second-best No. 2-rated arena in the country. And I think part of that comes down to they made an amazing facility. The product is local, quality beer and food and the service is exceptional. And so they found a way into the market where everyone was like Madison Square Garden. There’s no space for another arena in New York.
I think they are on a massive rampage right now when it comes to buying and building. I kind of don't really see much of a difference even though one’s publicly traded and one’s private. In a way, I kind of – I slightly forgive Live Nation sometimes, because they have a responsibility to just make profit. That’s what they technically have to do. Don’t go public.
LP: Anyone else? Danny?
Danny: Do you have a strategy for discovering new artists? Do you go to the smaller shows that are given at local – like just talk to people?
Ben: It’s changed a lot, honestly. When I started out, it was MySpace and it was going to other showcase nights and finding good acts off those. I think it’s gotten really hard. Like the kind of open source music is really confusing, now. I think there’s more music out there than ever, but less ways to untangle it and to figure out what’s good. What would I strongly suggest? I mean, I think you kind of have to find either a playlister or a provider who you agree with three times. So, if they write about a record, and you listen to the record and you say, yeah, I totally feel the same way. Or they add a song to the playlist that you’re following on Spotify and you’re like, “I love that song.” And if you’re in step with that, then you can know to keep going deeper into that well. It’s such a subjective thing. It’s a personal journey, there. I don't think that you can go to New Music Friday and just be like that’s just hot. That’s never going to work.
Danny: It sounds like you have to be a detective and you have to –
Ben: A little bit. But only initially, right? Because once you find that, there’ll be someone who’s putting in the hard work. I’m guessing – I’m not sure what you’re doing here. But you probably don't have 50 hours a week to go out and find those artists. So let someone else do that for you, you know. A company like Communion does that for lots of people. Tens of thousands of people a week open up our main mailer and there’s like five tracks on that. And for those people it’s like, great, well, here’s my consumption of new music. But we’re not the only ones who do it. So there’s lots of other, for different styles.
Audience: What streaming service do you [unintelligible 01:03:55] on?
Ben: Oh, man. I use Spotify. I don't know if I stand behind it. I’m not sure there is one that I would say like from an artist’s point of view has done it right. But from a fan point of view, you know, the functionality of – I think Spotify is great in its tech platform. I don't think that Daniel Ek did that to contribute anything to the music industry long term. And that annoys me.
Kyle: Mumford Sons made a transition from largely acoustic music to more electric instruments, what was the conversation like amongst you all to make that decision? It was a brave decision to change your sound almost entirely. What was the decision like?
Ben: It wasn’t that – it kind of doesn't evolve like that. But I think we all felt a little bit like we were being pigeonholed too early in our artistic lives. So people were like, “Oh, you’re that band.” I think one of them moments was when we turned up at the Grammy’s and Ken Ehrlich, who was producing it, had put festoon lights across the entire audience for the awards show. And then he came out and I think his opening statement was like, oh, we’ve Mumforded this event, tonight. And we suddenly felt I think self-conscience that we were defined by things like plaid shirts and –
Ben: – craft beer and string lights. It was like, “How did we get here, all of a sudden?” That wasn’t the idea. We just thought [unintelligible 01:05:49]. We weren’t trying to be attached to all those conversations. So I think we naturally kind of reacted a bit and we ended up going into a garage in Ditmas Park, in Brooklyn, that was garaged at the back of Aaron Dessner’s garden, from the National. And he was like, “Let’s just rock out for a couple of months.” And actually what came out of that was our next record. He just helped us kind of forget what the world thought we were supposed to be, rather than us saying let’s go and change what the world thinks of us. Does that make sense? We just weren’t self-aware, and we just started to make music that wanted to make. And that’s what we’ve done.
LP: That’s great. We need to get Ben on the road. So if everybody is done there. Thank you so much. [Applause]
Musician & Entrepreneur
Benjamin Walter David Lovett (born 30 September 1986) is a British musician and producer, best known for being a member of the Grammy Award-winning British folk rock band Mumford & Sons.