Ever wondered what it would be like to head up a whole department at Columbia Records, Sony Music, whilst also founding two other companies? We found that person, his name is Sam Potts. Not only has Sam excelled in his career with a major record label, but he’s shaping the future like the supersonic catalyst he is by connecting the industry’s younger generation and collaborating with major brands to integrate tech city coders into the scene. Here’s everything you need to know about his journey and his advice to others seeking a similar path…
Getting to Know Sam
Tell us about your role as Head of Radio Promotions at Columbia Records…
I oversee a team of radio pluggers; we look after the label’s relationship with national and regional radio stations. We do everything from the radio promotions strategy to securing playlists for our records, booking interview sessions and maintaining relationships with artists, DJs and producers.
How did you first get a foot in the door with major labels?
I studied Business at Edinburgh University and whilst I was there I got into radio by working with the student radio station: Fresh Air. I then went to a student radio conference where I ended up meeting someone from XFM (now Radio X) and managed to get some work experience. During my time at XFM I noticed someone called Jane Arthy (now VP Radio, Warner Music Group) looking after the bands and thought ‘wow, what an incredible job to have’. So I approached her to find out exactly what she did and she explained she was a radio plugger at Warner Brothers, working with artists and within radio – the best of both worlds in music business.
At the end of my placement with XFM, the Head of Music said I should ring Jane and she offered me work experience with Warner Brothers. Shortly after I started my placement at Warner Brothers, one of the Radio Assistants left which meant a permanent position came up. I went for it and I got it. Ever since then I’ve worked my way up from being an assistant. I did two years at Warner Brothers before being headhunted to become a Junior Plugger at Columbia Records.
“I played a couple of instruments when I was younger as I come from quite a musical family”
What was life like before entering the world of music?
I played a couple of instruments when I was younger as I come from quite a musical family – my Dad’s a professional musician; he’s played for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for many years. I decided I didn’t want to play instruments anymore and instead wanted to be a DJ so I got a set of decks and became a DJ (as you do). From there I discovered my love for electronic music. I also loved the mixture of art and commerce when I was at Fresh Air. We essentially had to run a business to be able to deliver music to listeners and at that point I got the bug. I decided I really wanted to work in music and I wanted to work in the business side of music.
What’s the story behind becoming the Founder of Young Guns Network?
Young Guns Network is a professional network from and for young people in the media industry; it’s around three years old now. I founded it with Remi Harris, who I made contact with at university while studying for my dissertation, she was based in London working in the music industry and has been a mentor ever since. We went for lunch one day and got chatting about the lack of opportunity for young people in their first, second or third job. We knew young professionals have to expand their network and create their own opportunities to get ahead, yet there was a real gap in the market for connecting people at this stage with those who could help them get to the next stage.
We did a lot of research with 18 – 25 year olds in the music industry… got them around a table, workshopped ideas and came up with the idea of the ‘Young Guns Network’. We decided to invite speakers from across the media industry to speak, have free drinks, play music in the background and essentially create the chance for people to connect with those on the same wavelength. Seventy people turned up to our first event which totally blew us away; it exceeded all expectations. We’ve now been hosted by some of the biggest companies in the UK including Shazam, Spotify, BBC and Sony Music. We now have a young team running the organisation and Remi and I act as Directors.
“We’ve now been hosted by some of the biggest companies in the UK including Shazam, Spotify, BBC and Sony Music.”
How did you turn the Young Guns Network from an idea into something real?
I dealt with my frustration. I’d taken a day off work and bought myself a ticket to go to a one day music conference outside of work. It was full of senior music industry people talking about how different it was ‘back in the day’… it was really boring for anyone under the age of thirty. There was nothing exciting happening. I didn’t want to know what it was like ten years ago; I wanted to know what was happening today and what’s going to happen in the future. It stirred something inside me and all I wanted to do was put a young music professional in a room with a more senior music professional and watch them battle in some kind of verbal shoot-out. Of course, no senior member of the music industry would ever agree to this, so instead we came up with the Young Guns Network.
“I didn’t want to know what it was like ten years ago; I wanted to know what was happening today and what’s going to happen in the future”
When you face setbacks what is it that keeps you moving forward?
You get setbacks all the time in the music industry; it’s very difficult to predict what’s going to happen next. Things can change within a matter of days or even hours. As many experienced music industry professionals will know, anything can happen. So when you are faced with setbacks it’s important not to lose sight of your next big win, your next record or your small victory, which could be just around the corner. No one will ever write you off because of one or two things that you did. If you stay focused, maintain a sense of optimism and have a strong willingness to succeed against all odds, then you will make it through.
“If you stay focused, maintain a sense of optimism and have a strong willingness to succeed against all odds, then you will make it through.”
How is BuzzJam pioneering the crossover between music and tech?
Buzz Jam is a completely new concept in music and tech; it’s essentially a cross between a hackathon and a jam session. We get a large group of computer coders, developers and programmers. We then throw a group of emerging musicians and artists in there with them. Everyone is split into six teams; each with both musicians and coders. All teams are tasked with creating a brand new tech based musical instrument in the space of 32 hours, at the end of which they must perform to the audience with their instrument.
Buzz Jam came about as a partnership between Young Guns Network, Red Bull Studios, Sony Music, Weller Media Agency and We Make Awesome Sh*t, in addition to funding from the Arts Council England. The first event was extremely successful, it trended on Twitter and provided six emerging managers and artists with a platform to promote themselves. It also gave coders the opportunity to work with artists in a collision of tech and music.
“Buzz Jam is a completely new concept in music and tech; it’s essentially a cross between a hackathon and a jam session”
How do you see the music industry moving forward with tech?
The industry is now very adept at keeping up with advances in technology. In the past we have been a canary in the mind shaft of the digital economy; everyone knows the story of Napster and MP3s. Now, however, we’re innovating a lot faster than other media industries. We’re continuously exploring new ways to engage with fans, with streaming being one of the most important areas moving forward. It allows us to reach a global audience very easily and simultaneously teaches us a lot about that audience. Suddenly we can measure music consumption in a way that we’ve never been able to before, which is great for marketers and record labels.
Of course, there are all sorts of issues that come hand in hand with these developments. The industry is still trying to grapple with a lot of unanswered questions in terms of where the money is going to come from in the future and how the money will be distributed. Overall, tech can only help us do what we’ve always done in the music industry and that is connecting artists with fans. Fans may connect with artists through the radio, a CD or a tech platform, which means tech is merely a tool for us to enable the relationship between fans and artists.
“The industry is now very adept at keeping up with advances in technology. In the past we have been a canary in the mind shaft of the digital economy”
Why does music streaming need radio pluggers?
I recently wrote an article which looked at the relationship between music streaming and radio. It explores the interplay and symbiotic nature of radio airplay and music streaming, particularly for the top 1% of artists. Radio is the predominant music discovery mechanism for most people, streaming is trying to crack music discovery and the services’ playlists are becoming more like radio playlists I argue. So for music streaming to work really effectively for the 100% of artists, radio pluggers need to be more involved, and labels and artists should treat music streaming more like radio.
What do you think is crucial to success?
Mentorship. It is one of the most undervalued, under discussed and overlooked parts of the industry. They are the unsung heroes. Most successful people tend to have had a mentor officially or unofficially, who has provided guidance and advice on everything from the small things, such as which emails you should or shouldn’t send, to the big things such as your next career move. It’s really important to have someone that understands your industry, what you’re going through and enables you to move forward, learn and discover more on your journey. My current boss at Columbia Pete Black has actually been my mentor for a long time now. I’ve worked with him for ten years and he’s been a remarkable guide to me. I still learn a lot from him.
“Mentorship is one of the most undervalued, under discussed and overlooked parts of the industry. They are the unsung heroes.”
How would you describe the mindset of an entrepreneur?
Firstly, entrepreneurs are always looking to exploit opportunity and pull value where there wasn’t value before. You must have an open mindset and always question the status quo. It’s about asking ‘why is that done that way?’ and ‘could it be done a different way?’ Secondly, all the best entrepreneurs and leaders are able to listen and listening is a ridiculously underrated skill. You have to learn from those around you and in order to do that you must stop and listen.
“It’s about asking ‘why is that done that way?’ and ‘could it be done a different way?’ ”
Rebel Wrap Up
What advice would you give to people wanting to pursue a career with a major label?
You need to be very passionate about music. You need to have demonstrated already that you are adept at working in the industry. Even if it’s running a music related blog or getting paid experience, you need to be very aware of what’s going on in the industry. We’re faced with a lot of change and a lot of disruption and navigating that is going to be one of the key challenges. Anyone who wants to start out needs to understand the competitive climate we’re working in. The music industry can’t just view itself as the music industry anymore; we need to see ourselves within the entertainment industry and being part of popular culture.
What advice would you give to people hoping to work on their own projects outside of work?
You need to really believe in what you’re doing since it involves a lot of work in the evenings and weekends. Probably the best way to do it is to build something that compliments what you do professionally because then you can learn from what you’re doing outside of work to reflect well on what you’re doing in your main job. Having said that, it’s crucial to take breaks too… you can’t work all the time; you have to be careful and avoid burning yourself out.