Henry Marsden had a career as a touring bass player and producer before setting up Bespoke Records in 2015. Alongside a publishing catalogue of 400+ songs and a global revenue collection structure, Bespoke is an independent label releasing music from artists including Lydia Evangeline (writer of a Billboard top 10 dance track) and ON/OFF/ON, whose latest single was just added to Spotify’s New Music Friday. We invited him to be one of the guest speakers at our event ‘Inside Music Publishing’ (with PRS for Music) to talk about his transition from musician to music publisher and find out what the first three years of setting up an independent publisher involved.
Why did you decide to step into the arena of publishing by setting up Bespoke Records?
As a musician travelling around with artists, I began to hear their frustrations (and confusions) with labels and publishers. Those kind of deep conversations you have on the road - you get to know what is really bugging someone.
I was also working as a producer, and a friend suggested instead of getting artists to pay me upfront I could invest in recording them for free but own the masters, put their records out, collect the income and pay them royalties (i.e. become a record label). So I set up this limited company to look after some of my friends’ recordings; friends who then began to ask me whether I could handle publishing too. I was just trying to help my friends - those I cared about or artists I really believed in. I started signing people to protect them, invest in them and empower them.
Publishing felt like a black hole of knowledge - even people who had signed deals as songwriters and were providing their creativity to the industry didn’t really know how it worked. I just signed up as a publisher with PRS as I thought they’d all be earning income only in the UK. One of my friends had come out of an existing publishing deal where some of his songs had gone international so I realised I’d need some way to collect revenue internationally. I asked around and found a company to do that administration on my catalogue’s behalf beyond the UK.
What has the cost been of investing in publishing music?
The investment has been huge in terms of time, though not very big in terms of finance. There have been a couple of practical things to pay for, such as contracts and registering with PRS/MCPS as a publisher, but there have been relatively few outright costs. Sub-publishing deals have been on a commission-only basis. The returns have been tiny in comparison to the time put in, but because publishing is such a long-term game you hope income will slowly build as the catalogue grows and becomes more reliable. With the record industry you put a big chunk of cash in and quite quickly get some cash back; you have your moment and your peak. However, with publishing it takes time to bear fruit.
Most of my time has been on the straight administration of data and spreadsheets, as well as working out how to do stuff like PRS registrations, how to sign songwriters, the difference between different types of deals, how you can license songs and where you get the revenue from. I still don’t know it all, but having spent a few years learning and growing and building a structure to house songs, I now feel ready to fill it with a pipeline of really good music.
We’re developing the creative side such as sync - going for coffees with music supervisors, connecting with agents and so on now that the administrative side is ticking along.
Another thing we’re doing is building a royalty platform. When you’re small you use Excel, when you are big you develop your own in-house software. There’s a gap in the market in-between these - there is only really one software that people currently use (Vistex) that is pretty pricey for small catalogue holders, so we are developing an in-house software that other small companies could also use. We’re building a company for the 21st century - one that is super efficient in the back-end which means we can spend more time on the creative side and trying to grow revenues, knowing that we have a solid machine behind us collecting revenues, analysing data and accounting to our writers.
What’s in your catalogue so far?
I want to develop a reputation for really good quality music, great songwriting - beautiful and emotive songs, irrelevant of genre. A lot of our catalogue is Christian/Worship/Gospel because of my context and I definitely want to keep that, but I want to transcend that genre by having really quality songwriters. We have some amazing songwriters who are writing Christian content music, but they are also writing music that isn’t for that market and I don’t want to put off people who see that genre as a pigeon hole for Bespoke.
Christian music has become really homogenised, some of the creativity has gone and commercial values have replaced creativity so I’m keen to re-inject creativity, offer fair deals and provde empowerment for writers - protection for creative people.
In the beginning we did really over-the-top good deals for writers, hoping it would entice writers to stay with us in the long run, but it didn’t at all. We now do really fair deals, but not at our own expense. In the long run we need deals that are sustainable and invest in more people and in creativity - deals only stand the test of time if both parties feel they are winning.
On the records side, we’ve put records out with Lydia Evangeline. Her fifth single got into the New Music Friday US playlist on Spotify. She’s a really gifted writer - one song she penned for a trance DJ got billboard top 10 dance radio play. Another artist is ON / OFF / ON and we’ve just put out two singles (again with Spotify editorial playlist placements), with another three tracks in the works for 2019.
What would you advise other musicians who are wanting to organise their publishing rights?
The thing I heard as a musician the most was “I feel like I’m being screwed over” or “I think I’m being taken advantage of”- but no one was ever sure. The first step to being empowered is being educated, so I would encourage writers to go and learn about what music publishing is before they try to find a publisher. Find out where the money comes from, what kinds of deals are out there, what kind of commission you’d expect to give for certain services and get all your options lined up. When you start to talk to publishers and look at options to monetise your creativity you’ll be more clued up as to what to expect and there’ll be less chance of being exploited. In the meantime, keep a well organised spreadhseet of all your songwriting (including splits and co-writer’s CAE/IPI numbers, etc.) and sign up to PRS as a writer member to get hold of any revenue that’s already being generated from your works.