TMF CEO Achal Dhillon and GM Siofra McComb.
The IMI 11th Aug 2021

The Music Federation: 'This is a reaction to everything that's going on in the music industry'

The brainchild of Killing Moon founder Achal Dhillon, and managed by Positive Subversion's Siofra McComb, The Music Federation is a services and distribution offering that hinges on independent music companies coming together with a spirit of co-operation....

Imagine a music business that did away with competition and instead focused on collaboration. A pipe dream?

This was the crux of a passionate conversation (over four or five pints) between Killing Moon boss Achal Dhillon and Positive Subversion founder Siofra McComb last year.

The pair initially met on The AIM Board at a time when Dhillon was feeling particularly disillusioned with the music industry after almost 15 years at the sharp end of the biz.

“I was having a really shit time,” he tells The IMI. “I felt like I was losing my sense of identity. After a lifetime of being indoctrinated, all of a sudden I couldn’t see the point of it.”

Dhillon founded Killing Moon in 2012 following A&R stints at Mercury Records and Quest Management. Today, Killing Moon includes a live promotion arm, artist management and a record label that counts Slaves, IDLES, Fickle Friends and Nadine Shah amongst its alumni.

“When I first started Killing Moon in my parent’s loft, it was probably the happiest time I ever had in the business, when it was just me and the music.”

McComb, meanwhile, started her music career in a record shop and as a DJ before becoming a publicist for distributor Bertus in 2010. She went on to hold label management and head marketing positions at The Other Hand and !K7 before founding Positive Subversion.

“I realised that the whole artist and label services model on the one hand was great. But, on the other hand, while a lot of artists are really good at making music, and some of them are also good at marketing, not all of them are great at handling all of the day-to-day elements of a campaign. That’s when I started Positive Subversion together with Motive Unknown. We like to say that we are a General Manager, a Rolodex and your assistant all rolled into one. It really works for a lot of people.”

That was in February 2020, just before the global pandemic would throw everything into disarray.

“During the pandemic, I started to think, ‘What is all this for?’” remembers Dhillon. “If it can be switched off so immediately, why the hell do we value it? What do we as a community value? Do we even have a community? Or is this just an array of frenemies that I have to politically align with?’”

McComb was also questioning the music industry’s status quo around this time.

“With everything that happened last year and the years previously, with the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, it’s definitely shown me that there is power in numbers,” she explains. “There is power in creating a community that holds ethics and integrity as the core foundations. The idea that you have to step on other people, that it’s a dog eat dog world – that mindset is very much changing. There is money to be made in running your business in an ethical way.”

It’s these two mindsets that have led to the formation of The Music Federation – a distribution and services offering like no other. One that is made possible by the coming together of like-minded independent companies in a formal capacity under a code of ethics and best practice. Members benefit from a list of services that Dhillon and McComb have determined as key for independent artist and business development – everything from financial support to distribution, promotion to playlist pitching.

The founding members are diverse in terms of size, stature and sector, including influential names in Believe, Fierce Panda and Metropolis, as well as Mumbai-based management and events company Third Culture; student events and ticketing curation platform; the discovery-based and emerging talent-focused Wild Paths Festival; and exciting young London-based label Polarface.

Rather than paying for services upfront, members commit a portion of revenue to be part of the Federation, as well as agreeing to share knowledge, skills, access and resources to procure the best possible prospects and opportunities for the collective.

Dhillon and McComb say The Music Federation’s unique model and collaborative ethos is a response to the broken pipes of the modern-day music business. From their perspective, a pipe dream is exactly what’s needed…

"The business’, professional and personal development pipes need to change... You do not need to be the exploiter to avoid being exploited."

How do you describe The Music Federation to people?

Achal Dhillon: For me, the most succinct way to describe The Music Federation is a natural reaction to everything that is going on in music industry.

I think everyone enters this line of work with a desire to want to change things. Along the way, you either just accept the way things are, or that desire actually amplifies. As I’ve been getting older, I seem to be becoming more liberal, more socialist, which is interesting, because I’ve been told repeatedly that I’m supposed to become the opposite.

We’ve just been through a copyright inquiry. The DCMS Select Committee has made some rather sharp recommendations to government, and it remains to be seen whether this is, in fact, the first time that government might step into this space. I do not know why we are not regulated due to all of the poor behavioural and business practices that we know take place in this line of work that has led to the inquiry being warranted in the first place. The money is not trickling down to the rights-holder, and that’s a problem for everybody.

The reaction is: people like us – and there are a shitload of us, by the way – are all getting a little bit sick and tired of feeling like we’re constantly in abusive relationships in our work lives. On the other hand, refuse to accept that we live in a [music] world that is complimented with just zeros and ones, as if that’s the only thing we’re meant to ultimately aspire to.

I think a flipping of the narrative rather than just talking about it has been needed for a while. The aspirations here are far more creative than financially driven: officiating with AIM style governance, being fair, not going into every business relationship with the intention of screwing the other person and rewarding ourselves. We actually believe that’s what makes The Federation unique.

Siofra McComb:  There’s a narrative that’s being built by the music industry right now, that anyone can make it as long as they work hard enough. Yes, in a sense, that’s true, but you need a community around you to make that happen. When I was talking to Ach, I felt that was what he was trying to do with The Music Federation – to build an entire community that opens up revenue opportunities for labels and their artists. They can opt into them when they want, they can opt out when they want as well. They can look at what is best for them, and we can look at what’s best for the entire community.

AD: I think the business’, professional and personal development pipes need to change. We’re coming out of an age of disinformation where value was based on your ability to get away with shit rather than actually just doing it. We want people to know that you do not need to be the exploiter to avoid being exploited in this business. And, on the flip side, if you give people what they need, you actually enable people to work their way out. I think the British people have done that quite a lot, and I think a lot of the members due to come into this Federation have a proven track record of doing the exact same thing.

TMF staff: Danny Gillies (Project Manager), Isabelle Ljungqvist (Project Manager), Jasmine Hodge (Head Of Promo), Sam Hong (Head Of Live)

How does The Federation work practically? If I’m an independent company and this is the first I’m hearing of it, what do I need to know?

AD: The first point is we’ll have a conversation with anyone, but the foundations for that applicant need to be absolutely robust. Especially with ethics. A community is only as strong as the constituents within it. At first there will be a vetting process of sorts – but it will be, ‘Are you a cool person?’ rather than, ‘Is the music that you carry super buzzy?’ It’s getting away from extreme opportunism, which I feel exists in the modern distribution landscape and moving to true business development. We really are signing businesses in a diverse range to the Federation.

Not just labels. We have managers, festivals, venues, AV companies… a number of different stakeholders in the music business coming to this because they want to get in on the streaming economy. Some of our members aren’t music-content based. Once signed up and on-boarded, you pick a baseline services tier, which essentially determines the fee that you’ll pay to The Music Federation based on a non-exhaustive list of services that you’ll receive ongoingly during your time with us. It might include access your own advance granting facility, access to our head of DSPs who will carry a pitch for you… It’s a contextual development approach, asking, ‘What do you want to do? What are you trying to achieve?’

Then we’ve asked how we get away from the accounting that has plagued the industry at least since the advent of streaming. Distributors have either been unable or unwilling to do any form of research and development into accounting to people at release level, as opposed to whole income level, which I firmly believe is the main disruptive problem with distribution recompense. What we’re doing compared to what other people are doing is repairing those pipes, making it a lot cleaner and allowing true campaign management to take place so that you can denote a value on a release, at release level. By delivering finance to a person at release level, you can absolutely attach a service of a certain financial value.

The other point to raise is determining which services we felt were appropriate, trying to work out what the common problems were. Access to promotional resources is definitely one of them, access to funding is another that’s always going to be an issue for the rights-holder community.

"We're trying to create an environment in which we can all work together, we can all learn from each other. That's something I haven't really seen that much of."

Beyond these services, what are the business incentives for the individual members taking this collaborative approach?

SM: Collective bargaining power. As an individual label, you might not get as good a deal as you would if there are five of you coming together. That’s the business incentive for us. If we get together, we can make it better for each and every one of us, financially speaking.

AD: When there are a lot of copyrights to talk about, all of a sudden, certain avenues open up, as opposed to when you only have two or three releases under your belt. We’re able to marshal a community that has very established labels like Killing Moon and Fierce Panda through to more developing ones like Polarface.

What’s also great about this is that, just like The Federation in Star Trek, we’re not just trying to orchestrate paradise in the way that it subjectively appears to our members. There is an outsource, a double function with all the services that we are providing which generates a further revenue stream for us alongside our members’. Not everyone wants to join a federation, but sometimes, if the Klingons are giving you a bit of gyp, maybe there’s something we can do to make it a little bit easier to manage.

A lot of our members are actually giving us 50% of their revenues in order to be with us due to the influx of services [they will receive]. They feel that they are getting a co-pilot that will actually help them and pull them up the stairs. We’ve built in contractual mechanisms whereby over a set period of, say, every six months, we’ll be actively reviewing what services those members are using. If we feel that, actually, the fee they’re giving us is disproportionate to the actual use of service, we will put them on a lower fee.

In addition, members have the ability to activate particular “non-label services”, at release-level – this is perhaps in recognition that I feel most indie labels worth talking about do far more than passively release masters through a distribution or aggregator account – and so we’re expecting, for example, a lot of our member activity in 2022 to take place in the live sector. I think we can do a lot with these label brands holistically, meaning we can take the Killing Moon spirit into a much larger deployment across the indie sector. I’m really excited to extrapolate what we can do as a community in this sense.

The services you’re providing aren’t just coming from yourselves and the staff that make up The Music Federation, but they’ll be exchanged between members as well…

AD: It’s a mixture. We want to really open up to people who share an extremely similar mentality to us and want to grow with us. Over the past decade, there have been some rather novel approaches to services provision, especially in the space of PR, playlist plugging, and the main proponents of promoting a record, for example. So yeah, some are owned and operated by us, some are third party, some we need to make a determination on. Part of my role is to look out for cool new toys and stuff that I feel will actually improve the prospects of our members as a whole. Siofra does that as a matter of course, by virtue of her Positive Subversion company and what she’s doing for The Music Federation currently.

SM: I think one of the things that makes it very different is, in part, the membership that we have. It doesn’t just consist of record labels, we do have festivals who are interested, we have live booking services who are interested in joining us. We’re trying to find different revenue streams beyond music royalties and employ them in a way that’s going to be beneficial for the artists on a long-term strategy, not just for the short term. We’re trying to create an environment in which we can all work together, we can all learn from each other. We’re trying to operate in a transparent way. I think that’s something that I haven’t really yet seen that much of with other distributors, labels or label services companies. It’s looking at how we can create a 360 model for artists that works for them [without] automatically taking a share of each part of their business.

TMF founding members include Believe, Elephant Music, Export Quality, Fierce Panda, Killing Moon, Native, Polarface and Wild Paths

Will The Music Federation only serve the artists of its members or will it go beyond that?

AD: We are directly signing artists to The Music Federation. At this point in time, I’ll say that I will personally not have a frontline record label amongst the membership of The Music Federation, because it is my strong belief that such a conflict of interest will prohibit me from sending the best opportunities and the best services to my members.

But, in terms of continuing what I feel the ideologies of Killing Moon are and extrapolating that, we do have plans to take a certain number of artists per calendar year, and put them directly into a very rigorous training and development programme, which involves releasing records, putting on shows, and seeing them as one of our own.

If our members want to get involved from various angles – live and masters would be a fairly obvious area to look at, particularly for our developing members who haven’t started to build a catalogue yet – then the Federation is perfectly positioned to do that. In fact, given the centralised distribution element, if all of our members wanted to release a direct signing at the same time, technically we are capable of doing that. Although that would be mental.

I think it actually evolves the nature of those direct signings and the nature of what a development signing really is. It’s not that 360 approach of sitting on all their rights because we put money in first, it’s actually taking the time, the first sort of 18 to 24 months, to work out what is really working for them and developing them accordingly by having reversion to this wonderful array of members, and the different services that we provide.

What can you tell us about some of the founding members?

AD: I can give a cross section of the ones that we are launching with as founding members. I guess the one that really started the whole concept was Fierce Panda. That is a big deal for me personally and professionally because I grew up studying Simon Williams and actually trying to be him. People like him and James Endeacott. They’re doing it because they just love the bands. They love seeing how far they can go. And their businesses are entirely community based, especially Fierce Panda’s. I based myself on Simon when starting out, I used to read about him and Fierce Panda’s formative days and the early Coldplay, Idlewild and Jimmy Eat World releases which they did purely because Simon dug that shit before it was alright to. We have a similar ideology, and I just respect the man through and through. I look up to him and am absolutely flattered that he’s joining us.

Then you’ve got Metropolis, which, could, hopefully, be our real run on having a true Motown style model. They want to improve development pathways, especially for more impoverished areas of society. I know that Richard [Connell – CEO] is very keen to impart an accelerator programme for artists that cannot afford those sorts of facilities. I’ve really gotten to know him over the last year, and I love how immediately he got what we are trying to do.

I also want to talk about Third Culture. They’re launching a new label with us called Export Quality. For me that’s more personal. I went to Mumbai a few years ago when I was feeling particularly heartbroken over a lot of different things – that cliche of going to India to go find oneself. I connected with the people in Mumbai, got introduced to the local music scene, and it was an absolute trip to see people who look like me, in the country of my heritage, into the same music as I am. I’ve been working with Tej Brar, the owner of Third Culture. They also have a huge stake in a lot of the live industry in that area of the world, so we are setting up bilateral export opportunities. Things like Neon East Fest in Mumbai are great to play and there’s a high concentration of the music industry there.

There’s one more that I want to mention that I’m really excited about: Polarface. I got to know one of the guys who runs it, a wonderful chap called Jason Ngimbi. He reached out to me saying that he was excited that I was involved in an accelerator programme called Rip It Up, which addresses the lack of diversity at certain echelons within the music industry and encourages people of colour towards this line of work. Jason reached out to me out of nowhere on LinkedIn saying, ‘Thank you for making me feel represented and that I actually have a shot at this [career in music].’ I’m British Asian, Jason is Black and it just feels way more awesome that I can do that with someone who I know is going to encounter similar issues that I did in the last decade. I feel like I’m living vicariously through Jason. I want to tell him where all bodies are buried, when the mines are going to go off and really help this guy kick ass. I really have them pegged as the next buzz A&R label, at the rate they’re going and growing.

There’s been a fair amount of overcompensation in last year, of course, due to certain events, about how to deal with inequality or inadequacies really as they exist in the music industry. I suppose this is our way of approaching the problem, by creating or growing POC-owned businesses. Jason, to me, represents the very best of where the new crop of indie labels are going irrespective of those social issues, and the brightest prospects in terms of societal changes that should happen in the next five to 10 years.

What do you hope this becomes in, say, five years’ time?

AD: For me? The big reveal is I’ve been obsessed with the destruction of the music industry for at least as long as I’ve been working in it. I honestly believe that roots need to be augmented, at certain junctures conservation needs to be brought in. You clear the field in order to replant it, sometimes. Then grow everything using the best, conscientious stuff, through a community.

I believe that we have needed regulation in this space for a long, long time. I think it’s arrived at a particularly poignant moment of people craving societal change. I guess this is our version of it.

My dream in five years’ time is emulation and adoption by the wider industry. If the creation of this Music Federation gives the next buzz label or artist pause for thought before they sign away a shitload of rights, meaning they might actually have a sustainable career rather than a two year [flash in the pan], that alone would be a success for me.

SM: I would really like this to be the first port of call for artists and labels as well, to really see us as a business that runs things in the right way. We’re really looking at growing artists, labels and other music brands in a sustainable way. This is a true collaborative effort of everyone within our own community.