Fair Pay for Every Play, Ep 22: Drew Hill - How The Proper Music Group and Utopia Align

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Kristian: Welcome to Fair Pay For Every Play by Utopia, a podcast about music technology for the Music Industry professional. My name is [00:01:00] Christian Wal-Mart and in this episode, I'm joined by Drew Hill, the Managing Director of Proper Music Group, one of the UK’s leading music distribution services who help artists like The Wombats and Pet Shop Boys achieve chart-topping releases.

In this episode, I was keen to ask Drew about Proper's recent partnership with Utopia and how it brings us closer to a fairer, more transparent Music Industry, who are Proper Music Group and how are they helping pave the way to a fairer Music Industry?

Welcome to the show! Would you be kind enough to give a short rundown of who you are and what you do?

Drew Hill: I'm Drew Hill. I'm the Managing Director of all of the companies within the Proper Music Group. So I run the UK’s largest, fully independent physical sales and distribution company.

Kristian: And you've been working with music pretty much throughout your career? What was the spark of that? Like what inspired you to join?

Drew Hill: The Music Industry runs in my family. I grew up surrounded by the music business. My mother is one of eight children and four of her brothers were in the music business. So as a youngster it was always something that was very visible to me. When I went to university. I was DJing and promoting club nights. Probably not studying as much as I should! But I really enjoyed being part of the scene. I had a brief stint as a DJ at the student radio station in Leeds, so I always knew that I wanted to follow in those family footsteps and get into the music.

Kristian: That's amazing. Earlier throughout your career, you had roles in record labels, as well as working for the Walt Disney Company as a Product Manager. When did you learn about the Music Industry in those very first years of your career?

Drew Hill: When I started out at Curb Records, it taught me a little bit of everything that you need to know working for a label. We were only a small team working in London, a team of six, looking after the world - ex-North America - for Curb. I joined hot on the heels of a worldwide number one single for LiAnn Rimes, with Can’t Fight The Moonlight. It was just an amazing time to join a little indie label that was having so much success. But it was right in at the deep end. I couldn't have asked for a better training ground. I had a really tough boss at the time, you know, almost somewhat out of a caricature from a film or something. But, you know, it taught me a huge amount and I can recognize in hindsight that that was just his way of teaching. I'm eternally grateful for everything I learned there. After about six years of doing everything within the label I wanted to move on, I always thought that I wanted to work for a major label.  Being on the indie side, you know, the grass is always greener! And this opportunity came up to go and work at Disney, basically. Curb had a license agreement with Warners and Disney had a license agreement with Warner's and Disney were looking for somebody that understood the Warner's machine and Warner’s put me forward. And again, I joined Disney right place, right time, just as they were having a massive worldwide hit with High School Musical, which wasn't necessarily my own personal music taste, but it was just a juggernaut of a record to be involved with. And then it just led to hit after, hit after hit. Disney was totally the opposite end of the spectrum to working at Curb where I'd been involved really hands on, to going into this kind of worldwide corporation where you’re a cog in a machine, and, you know, the orders would come down from on high, what you had to do. I didn't really feel it was the environment that I wanted to work with. It was a fantastic time and got to be part of some huge successes. I guess I learned that success has many fathers and mothers,  but it wasn't the creative environment that I wanted to work within. And it wasn't as quick moving as an entrepreneurial as I’d been used to.

Kristian: That makes a whole lot of sense. Reflecting back on those days, what are the tangible changes you've seen in the industry? How is the Music Industry different?

Drew Hill: I think I've been really lucky to work through the first two decades of the 2000s. I've lived through the transition from a predominantly physical business to where we are now with the singles and track business that's almost exclusively digital - the economics of the business has had to adapt to that. You can't market a record to fans anymore. I saw a time where if you had enough money to spend and you were prepared to throw it at something, you could make people buy something, you could make people like something, you know, if you think back to pre digital, you didn't know if an album was really going to be any good to you. You bought it and got it home and put it on your record player. And now we live in the real try-before-you-buy era, which I think is a much better place to be. That's been the biggest change - that shift from physical to digital.

Kristian: Right. That's an interesting observation, but absolutely accurate. And, still, having insights on what music is trending is valuable. At one point in your career, you spent some time in the Official Charts Company. Do you have any good memories from that period of time?

Drew Hill: I had a role on the board at the Official Charts Company, which  still continues now. The board is made up of a cross-section of industry figures to make sure that the charts represent everyone fairly, it’s not skewed towards the majors or the indies and so it remains as reliable, accurate, and relevant for fans as possible. I think it probably sounds a lot more glamorous than it is. It's a lot of board meetings and a lot of trying to referee discussions about how many streams are equal to a download, or equal to a sale. There's a lot of stuff that goes on in the background there, making sure that the charts, certainly the charts in the UK, are the kind of the international gold standard. The highlight of it though, is that the Official Charts Company always gave a very good party at the Brit awards every year - so that's, that's a good reason to be in!

Kristian: Obviously your representation as part of the Official Charts Company attributed to your important role as the head of Proper Music Group. Now you've seen the journey of physical distribution changing and the shifts within that market through Proper and obviously Proper touches, also digital distribution, how do you see the music consumption, changing over your time at Proper and, and, how has Proper adjusted to the changes?

Drew Hill: As we've grown and as distribution has become more attainable for more artists and more labels, the long tail has just got longer and longer and longer. We release nearly 350 albums every week and that's us only representing maybe, 12, 13% of theUK physical market. And I can only see that long tail getting longer. We've definitely seen the volumes of hit records diminish, so it doesn't take as many sales to get into the chart as it used to, and I do wonder that maybe we've made distribution almost too accessible. There are no filters, there's no real gatekeepers. And it's great that it's been so democratized, but there's so much music out there. I do wonder sometimes how the average fan get to listen to everything. You’d have to be listening to music all day every day and not have a job!

Kristian: There's a flip side, which is we're talking more and more about environmentally friendly choices, all across different industries. And as Proper is very resource heavy and is focused primarily on physical sales. What are the steps that you're doing in Proper Music to make sure that the processes are as environmentally sound and friendly as possible?

Drew Hill: We take that very seriously. We try wherever possible to be as environmentally friendly as we can be. We only use recycled or recyclable packaging materials, we minimize packing wherever possible, but on the flip side, still use enough to get the product to the end consumer safely. There's nothing worse than having to replace records because they got damaged in transit. We've invested heavily in technology, for our direct-to-consumer fulfillment business, you know, I reckon conservatively two thirds of all of the records, all the vinyl and CDs that leave the warehouse probably ended up making their way to the consumer through their letterbox. We're trying to cut out the unnecessary supply chain steps of sending goods to other companies, warehouses, to be unpacked and repacked and put in the post. We're trying to get many of those records straight into the post and into the hands of the consumer. I think that's probably the biggest way that we can impact the environment. At the end of the day there is still a very viable physical music business out there and sustainability has more than one definition that isn't just about looking at the environment, it's also about looking at jobs and sustaining a healthy music business. Consumers clearly value the choice that they've got. They can stream and they can buy things physically. I think as long as we're doing everything we can to make that physical business as environmentally friendly as it can be then that's clearly got to be a good thing.

Kristian: We partnered up together with Utopia Music and Proper Music Group. We've started a new unit that covers distribution and related services. How do you see this partnership helping Utopia’s mission to achieve Fair Pay For Every Play?

Drew Hill: This is probably gonna sound a bit corny, but the Utopia mission of Fair Pay For Every Play could easily have been Proper’s mission. Transparency, efficiency and fairness have always been at the heart of everything that we've done for the labels and the artists that we represent. I hope that we can help Utopia bring this mission to more labels and artists. I think that Utopia is now going to give Proper that turbocharge and scale that we can bring the shared mission to even more people.

Kristian: Exactly true. What do you think needs still to be done for the mission Fair Pay For Every Play? What can we do as an industry to make sure that the whole value chain, as well as to creators, get rightful compensation?

Drew Hill: I think the thing that's going to be number one is the speed at which the money flows through the machine. In 2022, it really shouldn't take as long as it does for the rightful revenues attached to consumption of music to make their way through from the consumer, through the DSP, or the radio station, or the retail, all the way back to a distributor then to a label and onto the creator. It really is due to antiquated systems, maybe a lack of investment, the technology not being available before. But that's what needs to be fixed and I think that we are the people to do that now. And I think that this is what's most exciting about the mission is the ability to apply a new thinking and a new strategy to a slightly overlooked part of what's fundamental. Cash flow is what keeps artists and labels going and in the past they've had to wait so long for that money to come through. I think if we can fix that, then I think we're going to make a huge difference.

Kristian: Absolutely. I couldn't be happier to welcome you as part of the Utopia family of services and the great people that we've been able to hire, Drew. Thank you so much for the conversation.

Kristian: Thank you for listening to this episode of Fair Pay For Every Play by Utopia. Utopia Music is dedicated to giving Fair Pay For Every Play. We provide the solutions to make royalty payments transparent and efficient. The artist and rights holders for the music featured on this podcast have been rightly paid for their contribution. As always, please remember to subscribe on Apple Music, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts or your favorite music to find out more about what we do and the mission we're on.

Please go to utopiamusic.com