A conversation with Andy Saunders

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June 4, 2024

Andy Saunders is recognised as a seasoned veteran in corporate communication with over 35 years of experience in the UK music industry. Early in his career, Andy was the Director of Communications at Creation Records, guiding the legendary label’s global communications strategy for nearly a decade. In 2000, he founded Velocity Communications, a company specialising in corporate communications strategy and implementation for music industry clients, including record labels, music publishers, live music organisations, tech companies, industry trade associations, high-profile executives, and distributors. 

In our conversation with Andy, we discuss his journey through the music industry, starting from humble beginnings working in a warehouse to becoming a prominent figure in PR and corporate communications. He recounts memorable moments working with iconic bands like Oasis and travelling the world during this time. Andy goes on to share his experiences through the challenges of piracy and the transformation of the Internet, as well as the current issues surrounding generative AI and the dilution of music’s ‘soul’. Andy also highlights the potential of blockchain technology to align the industry and serve as a collaborative framework to work on industry innovation proactively. Looking ahead, Andy remains optimistic about the industry’s ability to adapt and thrive, driven by a deep understanding of audience engagement and the importance of preserving the essence of music.

Navigating the music industry’s transformation with Andy Saunders

Tim Soens: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your work, and the areas you’re involved in, particularly for those who aren’t as familiar with the music industry?

Andy Saunders: Sure, of course. I started in the music industry in 1987, straight out of college, working in a warehouse. This was back when physical products, mainly CDs and vinyl, were the norm. My job was packing them in boxes and sending them off to record shops.

It was winter, it was cold, and it was reasonably miserable. But the money was okay. Then, someone came downstairs and said they had a sales position open. I put my hand up and asked if it meant I didn’t have to sit in the cold warehouse anymore, and when they said yes, I would be working in the centrally heated office, I immediately took the job. I became a salesperson for about a year and a half, initially taking orders from record shops over the phone and selling directly to them.

After that, I got an opportunity to work as an export salesperson, which in those days, pre-internet meant getting on a plane, arriving in a foreign city, finding record shops from the telephone directory, and straight up selling them records. I travelled to places like Amsterdam, Berlin, and elsewhere doing this. It was a lot of fun, and I got to see the world, but it was stressful.

Later, at a music industry conference in the south of France called MIDEM, I met a guy named Cees Wessels, who ran a company called Roadrunner, a famous rock and heavy metal company based in Amsterdam. We got on well, and he offered me a job running an independent label called Emergo in their London office, which I did for a few years. It ultimately didn’t work out, and we parted ways. This was tough as my wife was nine months pregnant and mortgage interest rates were 15%, and I had no income, so it was really hard for a while – crazy times.

After a few months of that financial struggle, a friend told me about a job in the PR department at Creation Records. Despite feeling it was a bit of a step-down, I took it out of necessity. Creation Records was a very cool independent label with amazing bands like Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Teenage Fanclub. I was there for almost ten years, and during that time, we discovered Oasis. Oasis became pretty much the biggest and most influential band of the mid-90s so it was wild to be in the middle of it. There were only 15 or so of us at the company, but there was a hurricane of attention globally, and we were selling millions and millions of records. It was an incredible experience.

When the company was sold to Sony in 2000, I was once again unemployed and started my own company, Velocity Communications. I built it up into a reasonably big agency and then transitioned to being a consultant about 14 years ago. Now, it’s just me, a mobile phone, and an office at the bottom of my garden.

Over the years, I’ve worked with many artists, especially during a time when we had only three major weekly music magazines in the UK: NME, Melody Maker, and Sounds. These were iconic titles, and there were many opportunities to place stories. However, all that print media has largely disappeared, and we’ve shifted to an online-focused approach. This resulted in a shift from working with artists to engaging more with companies and the music industry trade media. I pivoted to working exclusively with publications like Music Business Worldwide, Music Week and Billboard, which cater to the music industry rather than consumers. This allowed me to carve out a niche as a corporate PR specialist. I’m primarily known for this role, focusing on stories about the music industry rather than working directly with bands or artists. I also do a fair amount of crisis work, helping people and companies navigate the worst times of their lives. 

Tim: Could you share some memorable moments or stories from your time working in PR?

Andy: I’m saving those for my book, haha. No, I’m just kidding. I have spent a lot of time away from home, travelling with artists and visiting foreign countries. In the ’90s, when we were selling many records, we used one strategy to get media coverage: offering journalists crazy experiences; we would basically bribe them with cool stuff. If they were hesitant to write about an artist, I’d say, “I know you haven’t heard of him, but trust me, he’s amazing and the next big thing. Oh, and we’ll fly you to New York to take pictures on top of the Empire State Building and party ‘til the sun comes up”. They really only needed to hear that last part, and that was it. I spent a lot of time on these trips, whether to mainland Europe, the US, or even further abroad, creating opportunities for journalists to write about these artists, especially when they were on tour. It was a fairly decadent lifestyle, filled with many stories that my family don’t ever need to know! I’ve been clean and sober for 28 years now, which gives you an idea of how excessive those times were. 

Tim: You touched on the industry’s transition with the emergence of the Internet. How has the industry changed during this evolution, particularly from a PR perspective?

Andy: So a fundamental change in PR is the death of the ‘long read’, the opportunity to have a six-page feature in a magazine, for example. It moved to a digital, news-based culture. The long-form, in-depth features have given way to bite-sized content for short attention spans. Social media and visual content have become crucial. The shift to a news-based culture in PR, driven by the internet and social media, has changed how we promote and protect our clients. 

Somebody said that the audience these days is very promiscuous. which I think is a very good expression. Audiences today scroll through Instagram and TikTok or whatever social media and are bombarded with a seemingly infinite amount of music. The all-consuming, fragmented nature of music today makes it hard for anyone to navigate it. For many people, music has become overwhelming. With so many options, where do you start? Do you rely on an algorithm for everything? Platforms like Spotify suggest music based on your preferences, and while some algorithms are quite good, they’re not the same as a trusted human curator. 

Tim: Like social media, everything has pros and cons. What are some of the current challenges in digital transformation in the music industry? 

Andy: The obvious one is the absolute fear of what generative AI can do to the industry. There’s a lot of concern about how AI will affect copyright, royalties, and the value of music. If generative AI can train itself on our existing copyrights, it poses significant challenges for us.

Breaking it down by sector, the music industry faces various issues, not always directly related to the digital transformation of the industry but often a collateral consequence. For example, supporting grassroots music is critical in the live music sector. The UK is losing two grassroots music venues a week, jeopardising the development of artists who can eventually play in arenas and headline festivals. To address this, there’s a proposal to put a £1 levy on every concert ticket for events with over 5,000 capacity. This has been and remains a contentious issue, but progress is being made, and we should see that come into effect later this year. 

Additionally, cutting or scrapping VAT on tickets could help the live music industry, which faces a disparity between large operators like LiveNation, reporting their best results for years, and grassroots venues struggling to stay afloat. This disparity mirrors the situation between major and independent record companies. Major labels benefit from enormous catalogues generating passive income from streaming, while independent labels struggle to promote and monetise their music.

In music publishing, there’s the phenomenon of large-scale catalogue acquisitions, with companies spending millions or billions on buying up music rights. The future of these acquisitions remains uncertain, as seen with the current situation at Hipgnosis. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how we can influence and democratise this investment landscape with some of the initiatives that the Web3 Music Association are exploring.

Tim: When we return to the AI topic, how are companies addressing these challenges right now?

Andy: The three major music corporations—Sony, Warner, and Universal—often take litigation as their default approach, but that’s unlikely to work in this situation. It never really has. Litigating against the quickly evolving world of AI and online systems will be very challenging. Instead, we need to look into other solutions, such as finding proper IP protection and licensing frameworks. 

The launch of the previously mentioned Web3 Music Association is a big step in the right direction. The organisation aims to bring people together to discuss these issues, examine them, and develop collaborative and coherent solutions for the industry. But it’s a very good question, and one I don’t have a definitive answer to at the moment—nobody does. We’re just at the beginning of these conversations. That’s why a collaborative effort is key. 

Tim: How have you seen the industry react to past disruptions, and do you see similarities in the current situation?

Andy: The industry has experienced several major disruptions. The first major shift I witnessed firsthand was the transition from vinyl to CD. We essentially told music enthusiasts, “Hey, buy your entire record collection again in a new format,” which many thought wouldn’t work. Major labels were sceptical, thinking it was unnecessary since vinyl was profitable and popular. However, they eventually embraced CDs, built pressing plants, and succeeded significantly. That was a major revolution in the industry.

The next big challenge I experienced was industrial piracy facilitated by companies like Napster. Some people felt the music industry had been overcharging them, so they turned to piracy and started using platforms and tools that made it easy to download music for free. It’s easy to forget that this almost destroyed the entire industry.

It wasn’t until Steve Jobs came along and introduced the iPod and iTunes that things began to change. He offered music fans a cool device and an easy way to purchase music legally, which helped steer people away from illegal downloads; it was an excellent legal alternative. For a while, this solution worked very well for the music industry. However, as an industry, we were naive in handing everything over to Apple and Steve Jobs. The music industry tends to go, “Thank God someone has come along to fix this! Now go ahead and take care of everything.” And so, a couple of years later, the same thing happened with Daniel Ek from Spotify. He introduced an elegant and user-friendly streaming interface, and once again, the industry eagerly accepted it. They could have built their own system or encouraged more competition in the marketplace but didn’t, instead putting most of their eggs in the Spotify and Apple Music baskets.

This historical lack of collaboration stems from the adversarial nature of the music industry, where competition overrides cooperation. This has been the case throughout those three seismic revolutions I’ve experienced. Ultimately, the industry has always managed to adapt reactively rather than proactively. We’re not good at getting ahead of problems because we operate on the basis that our business is all about market share and beating the competition. However, once a challenge arises, we react well and adapt our industry.

This is why blockchain is so interesting and why the work of the Web3 Music Association is very promising. They propose creating a protocol that we can own and develop as an industry together, not as competitors. A framework that incentivises stakeholders to find alignment around things that benefit the entire industry. Something which has not been possible in the past. In this way, the industry can be more proactive, building upon a foundation that protects rights, allows for innovation, and offers industry ownership. This way, we don’t have to rely on figures and companies like Steve Jobs or Spotify. We can build and own these solutions, without being forced to adopt something because we have no other choice.

Tim: With your “helicopter view”, where do you see the future of the music industry going?

Andy: It’s difficult to predict due to the many variables, but understanding the audience, fans, and their preferences will always be crucial. Algorithms and playlisting will continue to serve the masses. Algorithms create “best of the 90s” playlists and similar content, maintaining the audience for established artists. However, the focus on developing new artists has waned in recent years, with more attention given to catalogue music since it’s a safer investment. But eventually, the industry will need to shift back to artist development. To do this effectively, they’ll need to understand data—how artists perform online, how fans engage with artists, and who the superfans are. Nowadays, an artist’s strategy often focuses on billions of streams, ticket sales, and sync opportunities. Still, it’s also crucial to drill down into how to super-serve fans with unique experiences and charge a premium for it. This detailed understanding of fan engagement will be key to successfully developing and breaking new artists. Again, this is a promising avenue for blockchain technology.

In this sense, there’s a clear shift in the industry towards targeting superfans willing to spend more on tailored experiences. The focus is moving from mass marketing to engaging deeply with dedicated fans. I think the industry will continue to be very data-driven. Still, the industry must balance the data-driven approach with maintaining the soul and creativity that make music special. While data can help understand trends and behaviours, the essence of music should not be lost. However, it’s important to say that the independent sector is still doing great work, promoting challenging and innovative music and staying true to the art. The key is to keep music exciting and central to people’s lives, not just another commodity.

Tim: To close off on a positive note, what excites you about the current state of the industry?

Andy: The campaigning for grassroots music venues has been particularly exciting. If we lose our grassroots music venues, they are gone for good. These spaces will be converted into flats or restaurants and won’t return. Making music fans understand that these venues must be saved and supported is crucial. Over the last two years, seeing small organisations like Music Venue Trust take on global corporations and effect real change through smart, relentless campaigning is inspiring. It highlights the importance of preserving cultural spaces vital for developing new talent. This ability to still mobilise support and make a difference despite lacking the scale and resources of the big corporations is what has excited me the most.


Brought to you by the Web3 Music Association (“W3M”) – a non-profit entity with the goal of orchestrating innovation in the music industry. Its mission is to educate music industry professionals, support their digital transformation, and bring them together to collaboratively develop innovative use cases. Created from an extensive three-year collaboration, the association is a lead contributor to the Music Protocol – a dedicated blockchain for intellectual property registration, management and monetisation. To learn more about the Web3 Music Association, click here.

Contributor

Tim Soens – Web3 Music Association Analyst

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