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Renowned U.K. music mogul Rob Dickins (CBE) held master classes in A&R (artist and repertoire) last month at the Berklee Valencia campus for students in the global entertainment and music business master’s degree program. The former music director of Warner Bros Music Publishing (who signed Prince, Chic, Madness, Vangelis, and the Sex Pistols, among others), was also music director and then chairman of Warner Music (signing Howard Jones, Aztec Camera, Simply Red, Enya, and Cher, among others) before starting his own independent record label, Instant Karma, and independent music publishing company, Dharma Music. He is a four-time chairman of the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), which represents the U.K.’s recorded music industry, and is one of the BPI Council’s longest-serving members. He also dedicates time to supporting to furthering the arts through his numerous roles in various universities and arts institutions.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
A: I was born in the East End of London and my father was a saxophone player and one of the founders of the New Musical Express (NME magazine), and he also started the British music charts. My older brother was a teenage agent for The Who and Jimi Hendrix, and so I grew up seeing the greatest gigs, which further fostered my love of music.
I graduated from Loughborough University in political science, sociology, Russian. And whilst there I was social secretary, chairman of entertainments, and chairman of both the Film Society and the Folk Club. I also deejayed at the dances two nights a week.
Q: Can you give us a bit of background; how did you start out in your career?
A: My first job was at a magazine publisher as a writer, but I quickly left when I was offered a job at Warner Bros Music U.K. as a promotion man. I spent a lot of time with the music director and the head of copyright and business affairs to take every opportunity to really learn the business in detail.
Whenever I could, I spent time watching, listening, and learning in recording studios.
One of my early mentors was a unique character, Derek Taylor, who took me under his wing very early. Derek was at Warner Bros Records, but had previously worked with the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Byrds in Liverpool, London, and California. He was also one of the organizers of the Monterey Festival in 1967.
One week before my 24th birthday, I was offered and accepted the job of managing director, and within three years took Warner Bros Music to the No. 1 spot in British music publishing—where we stayed for the remainder of my time there.
After five years, I was made head of Warner Bros Music International for the world, except the U.S.A.
At 32, based on my success in music publishing, I then took over the chairmanship of Warner Records U.K.
Q: Did you always plan a career in the arts and entertainment industry?
A: It was so much in my upbringing and university experiences, I suppose it was inevitable. The music industry encompasses so many other arts disciplines and I became fascinated by these, developing my interests further.
Q: You are no stranger to lecturing and education, and hold honorary doctorates and visiting professorships at other institutions, can you tell us about these roles?
A: I have a hands-on role at London Metropolitan University and put the A&R course together with my colleague Pete Dyson. As visiting professor I teach there three hours a week in the spring term.
I was a visiting professor at the University of the Arts London (UAL), where I guest lectured on various aspects of music history and how music connects with the other arts disciplines such as video and filmmaking, games design, fashion, graphics, photography, and sound and stage design, etc.
UAL has now awarded me an honorary doctorate and I will be involved with the development of the London College of Communication, which is a very exciting prospect.
Q: Can you give us some details about your master classes at Berklee’s campus in Valencia?
A: My focus is on A&R, the discovery and development of talent. Whatever evolves from changing technology in recording, marketing, and music distribution, working with the creative talent at source will always be at the root of our industry—and that will never change.
To work with such talent, we have to have deep knowledge of music and music history to provide the foundations. You have to know the past to understand the future!
Q: Was this your first trip to Valencia? What did you think of Berklee’s international campus there?
A: Yes, this was my first time in Valencia, a city which, during this trip, surprised and delighted me. It was brilliant of Berklee to choose such a wonderful and inspiring location.
I was hugely impressed with the quality of the up-to-the-minute technology and facilities, combined with very open teaching rooms and a performance stage all within the same area, which is very beneficial for the student.
Q: What were the highlights of your visit to Valencia?
A: I always love meeting new students and working with those at Berklee, even for this short time, was very uplifting.
The beauty and architecture of both the old and new cities—history versus modernism, with both emerging as winners and neither interfering with the aesthetic of the other—a wonderful example of thoughtful town planning, which is fairly unique these days. I hope your students realize just how lucky they are!
Q: You have signed many great artists. What, in your opinion, are the key attributes required to succeed in A&R? How important is an education in music? And what advice would you give Berklee’s master’s students planning to pursue a career in A&R?
A: There is a natural talent in identifying great musicians and songwriters who will become very successful, and this talent cannot be gained simply with education but, as with all gifted people of varying degrees, such natural talent can be strengthened, disciplined, and brought to its maximum potential with the right education and direction.
The best A&R players have self-belief, a love and great knowledge of music, especially in their particular fields of engagement. They need to be decisive and it helps to have a business sense and an understanding of image. Finally, they should be very aware of what can be (and has been) achieved in a recording.
Q: On the other side, what tips and advice would you give our Valencia master’s students looking to succeed on the international stage as artists and performers (and be signed by a Rob Dickins)? What do you look for?
A: First and foremost, talent. Plus originality, image, confidence, charisma, and being driven by ambition.
Q: What spurred and inspired you to set up your own independent label with Instant Karma, and independent music publishing company with Dharma Music? What major challenges have you faced? And what would you say have been your most rewarding achievements?
A: After being at the helm of major companies for over 25 years, I was intrigued by the thought of being independent. There are many freedoms in doing this, but there are indeed challenges, too: not having control of distribution; difficulties in competing against the financial power and depth of the bigger companies in signing, marketing and promotion, and international networks.
Regarding the independent scene, I was proud to have achieved the first-ever U.K. Top Five hit in Hindi (Panjabi MC); a Mercury Music nomination for Album of the Year (Helicopter Girl); album chart success (the Alice Band); International Top Threes (Addis Black Widow); one of the most-used indie catalogues in advertising (I-Monster); and the music for the very first iPhone TV commercial (Eberg). And on the publishing side: covers on my songwriters with Cher, Miley Cyrus, Rod Stewart, Girls Aloud; and winning a prestigious Ivor Novello Award for the song “Pure & Simple.”
Q: How do you balance your time between your own companies and the other numerous roles you hold as trustee, fundraiser, adviser, and consultant with, among others, the Theatres Trust, the culture minister’s advisory board, and Handel House Museum?
A: I spent well over 30 years in the music industry and achieved more than I ever could have hoped, and have now stepped away from active involvement to free up time for my other loves of art and design, arts education, and traveling.
My love and consumption of music continues unabated, but nearly 40 years of the business side was enough!
Q: You were also one of the BPI’s longest-serving members as well as a four-time chairman. Why is the body so important and what role does it play for the industry?
A: The BPI provides a strong voice for the British recording industry and has been very effective in copyright legislation. I also really appreciated having a “talking shop” where many aspects of the industry were discussed from the different viewpoints of large, medium, and small companies. It organizes many events in the music calendar, most famously the BRIT Awards, which I had the honor of also chairing for three decisive years, during which time I changed broadcasters and completely revised the brand.
Q: Would you like to add anything else?
A: Just to say how much I enjoyed the experience and I believe I gave your students a further insight to the real workings of the music industry and hopefully stimulated them to greater studies in listening, reading, and presentation. As I tell my London students, A&R is based on 3 things: knowledge, knowledge, and… knowledge!