Ben Lovett Interview:
Communion Records

Words by Naeem Alvi - Photography by Roo Lewis

 

In Issue 3 of The Quarterly, we speak to the people behind Communion Records to find out what motivates their success and take an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at how they operate. Here, The Quarterly’s Features Editor Naeem Alvi, and Creative Director Roo Lewis, sit down with Communion co-founder Ben Lovett (Mumford and Sons) for an extended in-depth discussion of Communion’s history, ethos and illustrious plans for the future.

Founded by Ben Lovett (Mumford and Sons), Kevin Jones (Bear’s Den), and celebrated producer Ian Grimble, Communion originally began as a weekly live music night, under the name ‘Communion Presents’ at London’s Notting Hill Arts Club in 2006. Over the years, Communion Presents shows have taken place across the UK, and more recently further a field in Melbourne, Nashville, San Francisco and New York City.

In 2009, Communion was developed into a fully-fledge record label with the ambition to create ‘’a close working family in which to allow artists to develop at their own pace.’’

Over the past five years, Communion have produced more than 40 records and arguably discovered some of the biggest acts of the last decade—including the likes of Ben Howard, Noah and the Whale, The Staves, Willy Mason, Gotye, and Matt Corby.

With plans to launch Communion live music nights at 18 venues across America by the end of 2014, and a wealth of globally acclaimed acts on their record label, we caught up with Ben at Communion’s headquarters in London to talk about Communion’s ethos, their plans for the future, and their ongoing mission to do things differently to the mainstream music label industry – despite it nearly costing them everything on more than one occasion.

Let’s start at the beginning. When did you first decide to set up Communion? So Kev and I were in a band, it wasn’t very successful, and it was a band I joined the day I left school when I was 18. Kev was living with me at the time at my parent’s house because there wasn’t much money coming in. The band was called Hot Rocket. We were trying to get demos done and Ian Grimble (Communion co-founder) was a producer — quite a benevolent and charitable producer. He took on some big gigs for some time and then he started donating his time to bands that he really believed in. He saw us at a gig one night and asked if we wanted to do a record with him. From there, we went in the studio with Ian.

What was that like? It was a pretty positive experience. We talked a lot about how hard it was getting ahead and he was like, well why don’t you guys do a residency? Ian had worked with a bunch of people over the years. This one residency he ran came from his relationship with Notting Hill Arts Club. At that time the club night was called The Revelations Book of Soul. A Sunday night affiar, kind of tongue in cheek, not by any means anti-religious, but a kind of a play on the concept and it was time to move over the curation of it. Ian asked us whether we would like to take it on. Kev and I naturally out of our time in the band just fit into the role very well. I had a lot of friends already who’d made music and we got to know people as it went on. And that was it, we were the house band for like the first year at Communion. The bands that we booked around us and the artists we booked around us all went on to incredible success.

How did you find new artists for those first Communion shows? Well it was just stuff that we liked. We were out every night and normally went to like 2 or 3 gigs a night but that was just our lifestyle. It wasn’t really like scouting, it was just socialising. Whenever we saw something that we thought was really good we would just walk up to them and say, do you want to play at our club night? And there was some basic things about it like the things that we wanted to do differently to the industry. The key thing I think was that we wanted to make sure the bands didn’t go out of pocket by playing at Communion. We made sure we could guarantee a flat rate for people to play at the club night and that was kind of what set the tone for how we went about stuff. Like imagine if you could create the perfect night.What’s that beer company called that do like probably the best something or other?

Carlsberg? Yeah. that’s it. This was like if Carslberg did the perfect club night. We’d get young crowds in and do a really good job of telling all of our mates, and tell them to get their mates to come. When we started out I remember telling some of my best friends that if they didn’t use the flyer as there profile picture on Facebook, I wouldn’t let them in. And if they brought down 10 friends I’d give them free shots all night. Stuff like that. You know just basic things which help to build up momentum, and we were just lucky that when everyone came down, the bands were good. They’d see like The Holloways or they’d see Noah and the Whale and be like wow, these guys are really, really on it.

So that first year must have very different to what it’s like at Communion now? Well yeah it changes every year. I don’t think there’s ever been a glory year. That’s the weird thing about it. It just got stronger and stronger over time. Those core principles we outlined from the beginning went into how we went about business as a promoter and wanting to do things slightly differently. You know, more artist friendly. A lot of these music companies were originally set up on a functional business model that has failed to adapt over time to changes in how people process and digest music, which means they’ve kind of crumbled, contorted and struggled with their acts. But when we came to it, it was like a blank sheet of paper and with everything we just sat down and asked what should we do? And how can we do this better? How do we approach this industry in a way that’s positive for everyone? In a way that no one gets exploited. No one loses out. And so far, whether it’s as a club promoter, which is great fun, or as a promoter in earnest when we’re taking higher risk on bigger shows, or as a record label, or a publishing company, we’ve always found the way that we want to do things slightly differently.

And those principles of how you found talent when you first started, is that still how you do things now? Yeah, it all comes down to the songs.

So it’s as simple as listening to things and liking them? Yeah it’s just songs. At first, people kind of misundertood us as being a kind of acoustic singer/songwriter music label, but then a lot of the artists we worked with went on to other things. For example, as a lot of artists do when they’re just starting out, an artist might just write a song on an acoustic guitar and then they progress. My favourite example is Justin Young who originally played as Jay Jay Pistolet probably 3 or 4 times and he DJ’d every month for about two years at Communion and then went on to form The Vaccines and now he’s seen as one of the young indie-rock icons of the UK. So we recognised the fact that, apart from being a friend outside of it all, he’s also just a bloody good songwriter and his songs resonate with people. It’s always been that way. It could be like anything from a Deap Valley song to a Gotye song, to a Ben Howard song. They’re all just good songs. There’s no like, is this cool? Is this within our remit as a label? Or does this represent us? It’s more about is it simply just a good song? It’s quite an easy process really. There’s like seven people sitting up in the office right now. When they hear something it’s just asking themselves that simple question. Are you feeling anything? Is it a good song?

”I don’t think there’s ever been a glory year. That’s the weird thing about it. It just got stronger and stronger over time.”

I know you’ve started doing a lot more overseas recently with Communion live nights, what are your plans for the future in regards to global expansion? Well I live in New York now and I’ve kind of set up the infrastructure of the American operations. The plan is by the end of this year they’ll be 18 cities in America with a monthly club night like we have in London.

18? How many are there now? Nine, and they’re selling out every time. We just had 650 people turn up to New York last night at a 500 capacity venue. It’s just cool. It’s really cranking now.

Have you announced which nine American cities you’ll be moving into? No, not yet. They’ll be announced in September. But yeah, it’s growing rapidly. Going into it we’re aware it’s a very unique situation as most people only have the time and resources to exist as either North America or the rest of the world and it splits like that into two separate companies because of the workload America takes, but I think that if we can exist as fully formed in both, we can make sure these artists don’t get misrepresented. For example, if we’re going to work with The Staves as a promoter, they shouldn’t have to go out and play a show in Minneapolis and have everything mishandled. We should always be able to promote a show for them out there as well as we would if they had a show in Melbourne or Glasgow. That one-stop shop, unified service is what we want.

Cool, well I imagine the last few years must have been a massive learning curve? Yeah, definitely. Just think of how many shows we’ve done in the last eight years. We’ve done club nights in up to 25 cities and learnt quite a lot about how to put on a good show.

And you do quite lot on the festival scene? Yeah we do a lot stuff where we have stages and help curate. People really recognise from the outside where they want to use our services as a curator.

Like the SBSW (South by South West music festival) out in Texas?  Yeah that’s like an industry thing but we’re doing a stage this year at Bonaroo, which is like the Glastonbury of America. That should be pretty amazing. They’ve given us free reign on a Thursday night of one of their good stages. It’s all just growing all the time. The nice thing is that as long as we stay honest and good in our intent in how we approach the industry, we’re finding that the people who want to work with our company, and the artists who want to work with us are the sort of people who we want to be working with.

Do you think that’s something that isn’t true of other labels? Having such a strong reputation for integrity? I think it’s very hard to keep your integrity. We’ve really struggled. In fact, we’ve almost gone bankrupt four times. It’s been tough but you’ve just got to ride it out. The only other option is you take more money and you lose a bit of integrity and that’s a slippery slope. Once you’ve compromised even a little bit, it’s hard to climb back. I think you’ve just got to keep a firm line on stuff and stay true to your principles.

Good to hear. How do you recruit new people for the Communion team in the office? So Maz (Mazin Tapuni, head of Communion Live) and I grew up together. We’ve been friends for 15 years. Jamie, the General Manager, came through a festival we played as Hot Rocket way back. He was one of the co-organisers of the festival and he asked us to curate a stage and get Communion going. Matthew and the Atlas, who were on of our bookings. Jamie went on to manage Matthew and the Atlas and from there we just recognised his intelligence and ability to manage, which we saw as something he could do for all of the Communion entities, of which there are quite a few seperate corporate entities now.

So you also work on a lot of side projects at Communion. As with The Flowerpot Sessions and New Faces are you announcing any new collaboration releases in the near future? Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff in the works. We haven’t settled on anything in particular but we love doing concept pieces that help to shed light on bands. Whether we’re all the things that we are, we exist as a promotions company first and foremost. We promote records, we promote songs as a publisher, we promote gigs so if can take something like The Flowerpot and create a cool collaboration, or interesting concept we’ll go for it. We did this thing a while ago where we took Ben Howard, The Staves and Bears Den on a two and half week concept tour in 1960”s VW camper vans across America.

That’s pretty cool. Yeah, it was awesome. It’s just such a good talking point from our point of view. As Ben’s label, we were trying to elevate his profile in the states, and what a way to roll in to open a city in a Californian VW. It just helps. Stuff like that’s important. Sometimes bands do it themselves but I think it’s important that someone does it separately. It’s our job.

With Communion becoming a record label in 2009, was that always part of the plan? Or did you just suddenly realise you could do it yourselves? That was just a natural progression. We found out that we were discovering all this amazing music and some of it wasn’t getting signed. A lot of it was getting signed. Like 6 bands on a bill. More often that not, a year later, 4 of those 6 would be signed to label which was amazing. The stats were crazy but every now and then one of the bands wouldn’t get signed and we needed to find a way to get a record out. That’s one of the ways we met Helen Sims who’s the label manager. She’s someone who’s been in the industry for a while helping people release records who don’t really know how to release records. She came along in 2009 and showed us how to put an album out. We had no idea. We didn’t even know about how to put a barcode on a record. She taught us about everything like vinyl manufacturing methods and all of that. Still to this day is at the helm of the company with like 40 to 45 releases under her belt.

Nice. We’ve probably taken up enough of your time. Is there anything else you want to mention to our readers? No. I think we’re good. I think it’s just important to remember it’s the spirit we have as a company that matters. It’s continuous. The way that we are with each other at work. The way that we interact with managers, radio programmers, or bands, it’s just one approach to doing things and it’s working for us. We’re very excited about the future and this year is going to be a big year for us. We’ve got some key albums coming out.

The full Communion feature is available exclusively in Issue Three of The Quarterly.

 

Buy Now