Fair Pay for Every Play, Ep 25: Henry Semmence - Being Prepared to Jump on Luck

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Henry: No such thing as a favorite song, it’ll change every day every three weeks

Kristian: That’s fair

Henry: Lying Eyes by The Eagles is probably pretty much one of my top songs of all times.

Kristian: Welcome to Fair Pay For Every Play by Utopia, a podcast about music technology for Music Industry professionals. My name is Kristian Luoma and on this episode, I'm joined by the managing director at Absolute Labels Services, Henry Semmence. Henry is a true Music Industry veteran. He's worked in the Music Industry since the 1970s and has revolutionized how the Music Industry operates.

He started the first ever label services business in the world, Absolute Label Services. Now that  Absolute has partnered up with Utopia Music, I wanted to ask Henry how he sees the Industry changed in the years he has been working and how he sees the Industry changing further with this exciting new partnership.

What was it like working in music in the seventies and eighties? And what does the new Utopia Absolute partnership mean for the wider Industry?

Welcome to the show, Henry, could you give us a short rundown of who you are and what you do?

Henry: Yeah, OK. I'm the joint MD of Absolute Label Services, which is a service business in the UK, which looks after British, European, and American labels. And we offer label services, marketing, promotion, support, distribution by digital channels and physical. We do neighboring rights collection. We do synchronization promotion. We do playlist promotion at Spotify and all the DSPs, we organize manufacture. In essence, we do everything that a record company does, but what we don't do is we don't own the copyright and we just take a percentage for all the services that we undertake.

Kristian: That's amazing. And as such a business, you were one of the first ones, if not the first one in the world to come up with such a business model, back in the day. We'll get to that in a minute. But what inspired you to join the Music Industry to begin with?

Henry: Okay. I fell asleep on a bus when I was 16 and got off at the wrong stop, looking for a Saturday job and the stop I got off at was a record shop that opened that day. So I walked in and said, ``Have you got a Saturday job?” And they said, “Yes, we open today and we need a Saturday boy, can you start next Saturday?” My career was defined by falling asleep on the bus basically. I was obviously into music anyway, so it was like, great. And the best Saturday job in the world.

Kristian: Absolutely. So you've had a long and fruitful career in music within music labels distribution. At the beginning, you also worked at Phonogram Records, is that correct?

Henry: That's correct. Yeah, that's obviously now Universal, what's now become, well, it’s part of the Universal Group. Yes, I started as a post boy and then went into manufacturing and then went into product management and then I set up the first, or did the research on the first, of what we used to call strike forces in the UK. And our job was to go around to all the record shops who made the charts up and give them free records and ask them to sell our records, to chart them higher than anybody else's records.

Kristian: That's a concrete promotion. How would you say the experience has evolved over the years? Like what's different in being a part of a label from today?

Henry: Just the point of access that you need to make things happen. I mean, in the old days we had two major radio stations, five or six local stations and three TV channels. And we had a range of independent shops, four or five chains, and three supermarkets. Now there's a million places where you can sell or have your music consumed and a million places where you have to get your music promoted to actually get to the point of consumption. So it's just a huge breadth of the size of the market, both top and bottom have expanded now, and it changes so fast. You know, there was a great change in four or five years on cassettes and CDs and vinyl where they were the norm. And it just carried on doing much the same. But now I wake up every morning and read the Music Industry journals and I'm behind the curve by nine o'clock. I have to get in front of the curve by 10 and then start again the next day behind the curve at nine o'clock and in front of the curve by 10.

Kristian: At one point of your early career, you were a part of the UK invasion around the world, pushing the most significant UK artists towards New York and the US market. Any sort of favorite stories from that era?

Henry: Oh yes. I remember I first landed in New York and bear in mind, I was a boy coming from suburban London who wasn't overly over-exposed to a big city, like New York, arriving in New York and going to the Mud Club, the famous Mud Club and getting there the first night to find raw meat nailed to the wall and Nick Cave doing his first ever New York show. It was very strange in the club and Nick Cave was really bad because it was his first ever show. And then two days later I ended up in Central Park watching Simon and Garfunkel do their famous Central Park Concert, which is obviously an iconic live concert. And just walking around New York, being very scared for the first two, three weeks because New York was a very different place, 35 years ago, that's for sure.

Kristian: And before Absolute Label Services, you also worked with the Total Records Company. How did they change the landscape of music distribution?

Henry: Well, slightly before Total, I was working in this promotions company and we'd started the concept of bolting on independent labels or aggregating them and then offering them deal out to a major distributor because in those days there weren't many independent distributors, it was all majors.

So independent labels had very hard access to the market. Total, therefore, became a joint venture between a company called Telstar who some of your people will know were a TV advertising company, a joint venture between us and them. And we basically did a deal where we aggregated labels and went to BMG.

That's the old BMG, not the new one and they distributed it for us. And we did all the work. So they just had one point of contact. So for them, it's like one label. But behind that, we had tens of hundreds of labels we looked after and we did sales and manufacturing. That was basically it, so it was a precursor to the label services business.

Kristian: And then we get to 1998. So you founded, was it with Simon when you established the company?

Henry: No, Simon had worked for me at Total, as Debs had, who’s one of our Directors as well. Yeah. They worked for me. Simon had come to me as a man who brings the proofs for the sleeves round in his little van from the printer.

And Debs I think was in the accounts department. Then when I started up, very quickly, I wanted good staff and I knew them and they came and joined me and they’ve just grown and developed and made Absolute a better place because of their skills.

Kristian: Absolutely. And, and, you know, that's how every success story has been made, with a great team. What was the sort of inspiration for setting up Absolute?

Henry: Total closed down, and I decided what I want to do is just take a few weeks off the cycle. I wanted to do my career. And then I decided at that point I was probably unemployable because I was going to cause too much fuss with people! So what I wanted to do is take the bits of Total that I thought had worked very well and bring them into a more organized situation in which I had control of, and that's how Absolute started. There were two clients, a label called All Around The World Records who were a very successful dance label who I’d helped put together back in the day of Total and a band called Black Lace, some of the English people will know had a song called Agadoo, which was a huge cheesy summer smash. And those two labels said, if you go to start-up, we will come with you to help you fund what you're doing as a business. So that's how that started.

Kristian: Could you share a few interesting stories from your journey with Absolute, I'm sure there've been many.

Henry: Just getting involved in bands and being, you know, very lucky to be brutally honest at some points we just had to be right time, right place with the right bands. Just for example, Riverdance, which was the big Irish dance troupe, which broke via Eurovision, but I did the deal with a guy in Ireland for that song. We released it six times before anybody would pay attention to it. And then finally it went bang! It's just about being able to do those things, right time, right place. Great. You know, I mean the record Industry, we all like to think we're all geniuses, but there's just so much luck involved.

You know, as Branson said in his book, which I always adhere to, is that luck is opportunity meeting preparation. That's the adage I live with.

Kristian: I'm going to take that segue and run with it. I think the same applies for great companies and missions - and ideas for that matter. And we feel really, really strongly at Utopia Music, that there is an opportunity for Fair Pay For Every Play now, true to the technology. As Absolute has partnered up with Utopia Music, what was it for you and Simon to want to take up this opportunity?

Henry: Several things, we'd actually decided a couple of years earlier that we'd grown from two or three people to 30 odd people. And the business was doing very well. We have some great catalog business. We're making money every year, not an issue, but we were getting squeezed by lots of other label services businesses who had a lot of investment in them. And we were getting squeezed out of some deals. So the decision was we could either regress into a smaller 10 person niche business or look for a way to expand our business by having some investment and having a series of partners that we could cross sell to and get to market.

And again, right time, right place. We got an email from Hugo and said would you be interested in having a conversation? And Simon and I, we looked at each other across the Zoom call, said what's going on here? Let's have a conversation. Let's see what it's all about. And the rest, as they say, is history. So again, luck, opportunity meeting preparation, right time, right place.

Kristian: Exactly. So tell me, within your role at Utopia, how does the ideology differ from where you were at with Absolute.

Henry: The ideology is different in lots of ways and similar in some ways. Obviously the world has changed where Simon and I used to make decisions and just do them the next day. Obviously that's going to be a slower process now because there’s a management structure, which we've got to become accustomed to

Kristian: Hopefully not much slower though!

Henry: Haha. For me, one of the great things is the way that Proper and Absolute are going to be able to integrate now and create a really massively important vehicle in the UK with both physical and digital and all the added services around it. We can add to that and then offer that out, across all the other sectors within the financial services, the publishing and rights company up in Liverpool. There's some great opportunities for synergies and creating business amongst all those other businesses, which we sort of do at Absolute to an extent, and I used to do at Total as well, so I'm quite keen on finding a core point of copyright landing. And then walking down a corridor past 10 offices and finding there are six of them, which can actually benefit that copyright and manipulate and do a deal with that office. And at the end you come out and you've got your copyrights protected and being monetized.

Kristian: Absolutely. Yeah. That's the mission we're all on, like enabling creators and copyrights to really maximize their assets, the creations that they produced. Yeah. In closing Henry, from your perspective, you have a long, and impressive history with industrial firsts in, in many ways, how do you see the Industry going forward? Are you optimistic about the future of Fair Pay For Every Play or do you have concerns as technology takes over?

Henry: I'm very, very optimistic about the future of the Industry. I think we're still in a growth period. I think there's other technologies coming, which will grow it further. But I think the challenge is, which is what Utopia is trying to do, is to make sure that those copyright holders are properly remunerated. And I think that's a very, very big challenge and I know it's one Utopia is trying to do, but I think it's going to be maybe harder than we think, but I think it needs focus. I think it is achievable. I think it's something that the Industry needs because there's too much money being left on the table, all over the place and unfairly distributed yet.

Kristian: So, the opportunity is there, and Henry I'm super excited to call you my colleague.

Henry: Thank you very much. Looking forward to the next few years, let me tell you.

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, efficient and fair. 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 are on, please go to utopiamusic.com.