The IMI 27th Sep 2022

Paul Pacifico on his AIM legacy, the indie community he leaves behind, and where he might end up next

On the eve of his final AIM Awards show, we speak to AIM's outgoing CEO about how he feels the trade body has evolved during his six-year tenure, some of the key battles he's fought for the sector, and where he feels indie rights-holders sit in today's market...

Last month it was announced that Paul Pacifico would step down as the CEO of AIM at the close of 2022 – bringing a two-term, six-year stint to an end.

To say the industry, and indeed the wider world, has been through some turbulence during Pacifico’s time in charge of the UK trade body, is probably an understatement. As Pacifico points out himself, the effects of Brexit, the Covid—19 pandemic, war in Europe, and a cost of living crisis have made life very difficult for the independent community.

There has been of significant upheaval specific to the music business as well. Whether it’s getting to grips with the metaverse, the implications of big buyouts from outside parties, or the debates raging around streaming and the wider music ecosystem, there have been plenty of opportunities for AIM to stand up and fight for its members.

Pacifico feels he has developed an organisation that is more capable than ever – one that can roll with the punches while keeping its sights firmly set on a long-term agenda.

Here, on the eve of what will be Pacifico’s last AIM Awards, we ask him about AIM’s role in 2022, the position of independent music operators more generally – and whether he fancies taking on the top spot at a certain other UK trade body any time soon…

Why have you chosen the end of this year to depart as AIM CEO?

I took on the job at AIM with a really clear vision of what I thought I could achieve for the community. I feel, genuinely, that I’ve done a lot of that work now, and it feels like it’s been taken through a transformative period. It’s in a good place. It’s got a great team.

If the purpose of AIM is to influence on behalf of the independent music community, and if influence is the result of Relevance x Impact, then I think AIM is in a very strong place. That sense of relevance to our members, and our ability to leverage the strength of our members when it comes to the political debates of the day, discussions with platforms or whatever it might be, is really phenomenal. I feel like I’ve done my bit.

Six years feels really healthy. AIM’s CEO terms are three years, I’ve done two, and it feels like a great moment to hand over to someone else to bring fresh legs onto the pitch for that next phase. So, I feel satisfied with the job that I’ve done and proud of where AIM’s at.

"The streaming inquiry could have been something that the rights-holder community simply had to respond to, but I think we were able to frame our response in a way that allowed us to reinforce where we felt the music ecosystem should head."

Can you cast your mind back to when you first joined AIM? Where was the association at, and what was the lay of the land more broadly?

When I first came in to AIM, I was taking over from Alison Wenham, who had founded it, and who I think had had a very challenging few years in trying to set up WIN, the global organisation, while still being responsible for AIM. I think inevitably, therefore, when I came in, I felt it was a good time to re-energise it a little bit and re-focus.

I think the market had also moved a lot in the first nearly 20 years of AIM’s existence. When I came in, it was a good opportunity to answer some of the questions that have been hanging in the air for a while but not really answered, like, who is independent, what independence means, what we stand for, who we stand for… Those are the things that excited me about taking the job in the first place –  coming in to try and help re-state AIM’s purpose in a very positive way. And I think we were successful. I was successful in positioning AIM in a fresh way in the contemporary landscape. That made it much more relevant to many more members and we saw a consistent surge in membership growth and engagement.

We have a very passionate team with a shared sense of mission to work hard for our members. We believe in what our members do – whether they’re established companies or new starters – we’re there to support them and interconnect them.

We’ve been able to deliver very tangibly in training and education, climate change, social justice, access to capital and investment, and day-to-day member services. Whatever challenges you’re looking at, you can check in with the AIM team and we’ll be able to be able to help you move past that obstacle. That creates a virtuous circle, because we have members giving us advice and insight that will help other members – so the better we are, the more our members give because it’s more worthwhile and that in turn helps other members.

What specifically have been the highlights for you under your tenure?

There are lots of individual moments but the biggest take away is the strength of the connection with the community. As I walk away, we have a highly engaged, highly energised organisation with a highly engaged and energised community and a mutually supportive ecosystem. I leave AIM very proud of the fact that it feels relevant to its community. It’s not just something that’s a nice to have but an essential partner to independent businesses – a real catalyst. Being an AIM member could be the difference between having a go at building a music company and being really successful.

How has the industry changed over the time you’ve been at AIM?

When I first arrived, it was all about the evolution of the streaming market as it mainstreamed. Since then, we’ve had Brexit, Covid, a streaming inquiry and now we’re looking at an energy crisis. The pace of change is rapidly increasing. It’s a very volatile time, so I think refreshing AIM as a highly agile and able organisation founded on deep knowledge, insight and connection to the market is essential. You’ve got to be able to roll with the punches but, when you do that there’s a danger of becoming reactive – so you also need a clear sense of strategy to make sure you keep moving your agenda forward.

The streaming inquiry is a really good example of that. The streaming inquiry could have been something that the rights-holder community simply had to respond to, but I think we were able to frame our response in a way that allowed us to reinforce where we felt the music ecosystem should head for a positive future for all its stakeholders.

"Whatever the rate of acquisition of independent businesses over the last few years, there’s been a 1% net incremental growth of market share for independents year-on-year. That’s incredible."

Where do you feel the independent community is at the moment in terms of its empowerment and its position in the market?

We know the business has changed fundamentally. Undoubtedly, the independent community is in an incredible position. Whatever the rate of acquisition of independent businesses over the last few years, there’s been a 1% net incremental growth of market share for independents year-on-year. That’s incredible. It means more new businesses are starting year on year and there’s net growth in spite of the acquisitions we’ve seen.

However, it is true that it’s really difficult to scale up and get a business going. The level of knowledge and sophistication is increasing so you need access to good people, good technology, good systems… It’s a much more demanding marketplace than it was. That’s where AIM becomes more important. We can help level the playing field.  In the old world, people with the right contacts, family and social capital would have an unfair advantage. We’ve done a lot of work in that area to deliver social capital to the broadest range of entrepreneurs in music across the UK. We’ve made knowledge freely available, which is a huge enabler. It’s a real substantive way of breaking down barriers and creating opportunities to make sure the music industry is meritocratic.

What’s the biggest challenge for your members at the moment?

I would say access to capital, particularly for investment in new music. We saw billions of dollars come into the music market from private equity and elsewhere. As far as I can see, every single dollar went on acquiring catalogue, which takes cash flow out of the reinvestment ecosystem. None of that money went to the higher risk area of our market, which is new music – whether that’s from emerging or established artists. I think we need to work with government and other organisations to figure out how we solve that problem. It would be sad to think that all the best music has already been made. We need to support those new voices and those new waves of culture so that we have a forward-facing, dynamic music market in the UK.

What are the biggest opportunities?

That the global market is a plug and play market. The structures are there for you to build an independent business whether you’re an artist, manager, a record label, a publishing company…. Anyone who wants to start a rights business in music can do so because the tools are there. Even with limited capital, you can come to market and compete on terms that don’t prejudice you against even the biggest players in the world. A stream is a stream. I love the fact that, in our market, whether you are global star or just starting out, your stream is worth just as much as anyone else’s.

"If The BPI came and asked me if I wanted to be their next CEO, I would have a straight conversation with them, as I would with anyone."

How have the AIM Awards evolved during your time?

Massively. When I first arrived at AIM we put in place a three year strategy that we called The Road To The Roundhouse. It culminated in the 2019 AIM Awards at The Roundhouse with a big live show featuring Johnny Marr, Ms. Banks, Georgiaand AJ Tracy as well as number of amazing DJs. We were really excited about getting there the following year.  And then, obviously, in 2020 the shutters came down. We had to pivot quickly to an online delivery, which gave us the opportunity to explore all kinds of technology and virtual possibilities.

Now, in 2022, we’re finally back at The Roundhouse. It sort of feels like we’re getting back to where we should have been in 2020, but there’s a huge energy and excitement about getting the show on the road and being back in the room. We’re really excited for all the nominees but the live show, in particular, really shows the potential to grow and challenge any of the biggest awards ceremonies out there to show the power of the independent community. We’re 27% of the UK market. That’s a big slice, and I think it’s only going to grow. I’m hugely optimistic about the future of independent music, particularly in the UK.

What’s next for you?

That’s a really good question. I don’t know, is the honest answer. I made my decision to step down for the reasons I outlined. I didn’t want to make the mistake of staying too long in the role – it’s a really tough gig, it takes a lot of energy and I’ve had a good stint.

I’m having a number of really exciting conversations. I don’t know what I want to do, but I do know that I want it to be impactful and meaningful. I want to continue with the work that I feel I’ve done across my career – whether that’s in my own commercial business, at The FAC, at AIM – whatever I’ve done, part of my work has been about being an enabler of positive change for the music industry. Whatever I do next, I’d like to continue that mission to make music a better place to be.

Your name was out there as a potential to succeed Geoff Taylor at the BPI. Do you anticipate being in that kind of role, representing a community in that way as you have done twice before?

If The BPI came and asked me if I wanted to be their next CEO, I would have a straight conversation with them, as I would with anyone. I think they know who I am and what I stand for. If they wanted that kind of leader, then it would be a really interesting discussion to have. But there are a lot of ifs there. Time will tell whether they want to have that conversation, whether they would see me as the right person to take that organisation forward and whether it would be the right move for me.

What’s your message to your successor?

Think really carefully about what connects your personal values to those of the community and the organisation. It’s a high-pressure job, it isn’t 9-5 and, if you’re going to stand out there as the CEO of AIM, making the case for the independent community, you have to find a way of aligning your personal values with it so that you can do so authentically. Because, when the going gets tough, you have to make a call on where you stand. Our market is full of passionate people building business around their hopes and dreams, which can sometimes make for a heated environment. If you know where your values are grounded, it can help you to figure out the right way forward, both for you personally, for the organisation and the community at large.

I’d also say: really dwell in your humanity. Ours is a collection of small businesses and individual people, it’s not a big corporate tug of war, so you have to centre yourself in your humanity. Deal fairly with people, no matter who they are.

Finally, remember you’re there to serve the community. You don’t lead the community; you support and serve.