Gone are the days of needing a label behind you to “make it” in the music industry. These days, music can be created in someone’s bedroom and instantaneously shared with a worldwide audience. Artists are starting to do things autonomously or with help from independent labels. With the latter, artists (generally speaking) have a greater say over their art and how they’d like it to be made. Here at WFA, when we think of Independent Labels, we think of things like creative control and artistic freedom. This is one of the reasons we wanted to sit down with the “Father” of DeepMatter: Tom Pickford. Instagram has become the new business card and as Founding Editor, Abena found out: Tom’s is an ode to the label he’s spent so long nurturing. We managed to meet Tom in early December 2018, just before the hustle and bustle of Christmas had taken over London completely. Read more below to hear about everything from how DM began, all the way to how the current streaming model helps or hinders artists from making a living from their work.
Picture this: Shoreditch, the edge of London’s East End. Wet, windy and just a “meh” early December day. I was making my way to meet Tom and excited to hear more about the reasons behind starting DeepMatter (DM). To reach out to interview someone for WFA, I have to really have a genuine interest in what you do musically; whether this be in front of or behind the scenes. I first came across Tom’s Instagram and remember thinking how much I had admired the grind of DM over the years. Naturally, Tom & I started talking through Insta and it was an answer to a question I posed to him which sparked my interest to interview him:
Q: What made you want to start an independent label?
Tom’s Answer : I love ‘real’ music. I mean raw music that connects on a higher level beyond the superstar/commercial status. …I just get a huge pleasure out of helping others and potentially being a big part of changing someone’s life.
And with that, I knew we had to speak more about the story behind this label.
We ended up meeting and having some comfort food at Pizza East. (Later on you’ll find out how this location ties in to Tom’s future plans 👀). Initially we started to talk about where Tom’s love of music came from and he opens up saying “From a young age, my mum and dad were always playing Soul, Motown etc. My mum is a huge motown fan; if motown isn’t on [in the house], there’s something wrong. My Dad was a lover of RnB and Hip Hop. So my Dad would always have Aaliyah on.” - yup, you read that right. Tom’s dad was enjoying hits from the “More Than A Woman” singer. It was then that I realised, Tom’s dad may just be the coolest dad alive. But it doesn’t stop there, his dad also introduced him to Hip Hop:
“My dad is a big influence on my musical taste and introduced me to hip hop like Tupac. And then from there, as I was growing up, I started listening to Jazz because my dad loved jazz. It was just a mad mixture that came from my parents and I just became obsessed.”
But now it seems, that Tom has become the one teaching his dad new music as the two of them enjoyed seeing rising star Tom Misch late last year on his sold out UK tour.
So up to this point, we had established what drew Tom to music and it was now time to move on to how DeepMatter started off in the first place.
So we have a nice foundation of your love of music. But if we look at DeepMatter now, what made you want to start it?
I basically owe everything to Simon Jefferis (he’s an artist on the label). DeepMatter as a label, is not even 2 years old. As a brand, it’s 4 years old but before that, I met Simon 9 years ago in Norwich. We both worked at Hollister. It was our first day, and we just bonded. He was like “you should come over to mine”. He literally gave me a lift to his and then I met Koko (who’s one of my best friends), David (who did the re-design of our logo recently and is one of the best designers in the world), and Ricky who I founded DeepMatter with in the beginning.
So it started off as Illustration, Design and Web Design based around musicians. We did illustrations of musicians like Erykah Badu and she retweeted us as well as a bunch of other people. So from there, we built a foundation around music and art as well. Then we went to the Prince’s Trust with a business plan, pitched our idea and we got funded. Fast forward a year, sadly it didn’t work out and I was sat there not knowing what to do with it. Rick was like “you need to continue with it because you are DeepMatter.” At the time, I was promoting musicians on Soundcloud through social media.
I was sat there for a while as the year went on and actually, three of the artists [I worked with] went on to get signed and blew up. So I was sat there like “that should be me that could be benefitting from that.” Cos I felt like I was the person who had that first bit of belief in them. I was just working with artists and pushing them but not knowing what the next step was. I was talking to Abhi the Nomad who is an incredible musician but is also Head of Creative for the label. I said to him “I’ve gotta stop this from happening” and he was like “Just start a label. You’ve got everything set up, you just need a distributor; you have a job so just do it on the side.” So we set that up and I had no idea what I was doing.
It got to March 2017 and my boss at work was really pissing me off so I just quit on the spot. In my head I was like, I know I can go freelance. Work half the day freelance and half the day DeepMatter in order to build it up. It was really slow in the beginning but then it all kind of kicked off around October 2017. By Jan/Feb 2018, I stopped all my freelance stuff. So it took nearly a year to get to that point and now I’m doing it full time.
So yeah, it went from highs of getting funded and getting a chunk of money thrown at us, to lows of no longer having a partnership.
Okay, so you touched on the journey of beginning your brand and starting the label. How did it feel when you signed your first artist?
I was speaking to Natty [Reeves] (an artist on the label) and he was like yeah, we should definitely do this; I trust you. Fast forward a year and a half later, I’m his manager, I run the label he’s on, he’s my best mate, we’ve just got back from 2 weeks in America. Yeah it’s crazy.
We can’t control how people receive our music, it’s down to the music. But we still have to get press, get radio, we have to make these connections with the curators, the editors. So what I’m trying to say is: the artists trust us with so much and it’s scary that we potentially control their future. But saying that, they’re all super understanding.
So you spoke about making connections, how hard is it for a small label to penetrate the industry?
It’s hard but we’ve been fortunate. We have big connections with a lot of the online publications. We’ve got Nishant who looks after our press in NYC. And he is the most connected human being I’ve ever met. Like I’d message him saying “This publication would be perfectly suited for this release, do you know anyone?” And within seconds, I’ll have an email or something so so quick. We were fortunate with Spotify too. We know the most amazing person called Athena Koumis (who’s left now) in the US. She curated all the playlists for the styles of music that we’re into so Jazz/Soul/Hip Hop. She was like a little angel for us and she loved the music.
How important is it to have the right people around you; how big are your team currently?
I would say that I’m quite a person’s person. I like to know how well people are doing. We’ll talk about work but also check in on people in terms of their personal lives. So all the team except for me are in the US. It’s just four of us but then if you look at the bigger picture, all the artists are involved.
We spoke about integrity before, how do you keep yourself focused on the music without getting lost in the numbers?
I don’t know if I do. It’s not about the numbers, it is about the music. Like I said, I’m doing this to help people. All these people do deserve to do music. You do kinda panic when you see numbers drop but… I never react straight away; I’m one of those people where, I’ll panic but I won’t react. I’ll go quiet in the corner for a minute while I figure it out. I try and analyse everything and remember that it is all about the music.
If an artist wants to go in a particular direction, how much say do you have over things?
I never tell them [to do things] ever. I don’t want to. Control-wise, I never make them do anything [or] stop them doing anything; it’s all down to them.
In the beginning, how did you find navigating things when you didn’t really know what to do; did you just dive in and figure it out?
Basically yeah. Where I used to work, there was a client of mine I had grown really close with. And I said to him “Look, I wanna make this happen but I need to learn how to make the connections.” He sat me down and he was like “You’ve gotta network network network. Go on LinkedIn and find the person you look up to, email or message them on LinkedIn and say hey, I’m doing this, I was wondering if we could sit down or you could introduce me to someone.”
And essentially, it’ll be like a chain reaction; you would have met/talked to so many people and there’s nothing wrong with that. Especially in the independent scene, people are happy to help. That’s why when anyone approaches me, I am happy to give them my feedback. I may not be able to help them but I can say you need to do xyz.
Trust me, I still don’t know shit; I feel like I’ve winged everything. Have you heard of Gary Vee? He’s like the best person. If I don’t know what to do, I listen to him; he speaks so much sense.
How do you deal with failure?
For work, I don’t like to be down. Most of the time, I’m quite positive. If a release doesn’t do as well, I think okay how can we do better for the next one? I know I have quite a few artists/people depending on me so I kinda have to be [positive].
How do you stay motivated to keep pushing harder and harder?
It all comes down to: I’m not just doing this for myself. Like, if it was just me there wouldn’t be that further push. When other people are involved, you have to push even harder.
What do you think about the dominance of labels on radio play?
I think they’re needed but that it’s up to the independents to make people see that there is music outside of that too. I’ve got mixed emotions to be honest.
Are people focusing too much on the numbers and not on a gut feeling?
I think [the industry] has become numbers obsessed. It does come back to: people wanna make a living out of it so it is about the numbers. If you go onto someone like D’Angelo’s Spotify, his numbers are nowhere near where they should be and he’s a legend. People still go to hear him live and that’s the other side of the numbers game. It’s a funny one and I don’t know what to think about it. What I don’t like is using the numbers to determine if someone is good. Playlists are algorithms based and based on social media numbers, i.e. are people getting enough press (virality). And it shouldn’t be about that. You could have someone with 10 million monthly listens but their music is shit. Really good music is being overshadowed by really shit music because they have a big social media following.
And finally, to end our conversation, what is your definition of success?
I have two goals:
I want to get to a position where every single artist [on DeepMatter] can live off their music.
I’m obsessed with pizza so one day I want to open a Jazz bar that sells pizza.
It was a pleasure to sit down and chat with Tom about all things DeepMatter. Be sure to follow him and the label on socials to keep up with the releases of their artists.