Ditto Music are revolutionising the way independent music operates and have been doing so for some time, Getintothis’ Del Pike drops in for a chat and finds out what wonderful work they are doing.
We love music here at Getintothis, that much is true, and avid followers will already know that we hold as much regard in the industry as in the musicians themselves, consider our end of year reviews and GIT Award judge’s panel for proof. It has occurred to us however that there are certain figures in the industry who we know so little about but who are doing great things and covertly keeping the cogs turning. In a short series of articles, we will be searching out these unsung heroes and finding out exactly what goes on behind the speakers, first up Ditto Music.
Ditto Music are based in the Baltic Triangle in a large open warehouse space that is at once welcoming and warm and even has its own office dog. Company co-founders are brothers Matt and Lee Parsons, Birmingham born and bred but with their hearts firmly rooted in Liverpool. To call Ditto a distribution and record label services company would be to vastly undersell what the brothers do, as their recently launched, award winning Record Label in a Box (RLIAB) product shows.
Anyone who still holds the ideal that music business heads are cigar munching, bolshie tyrants, or slimy Simon Cowell figures need to meet Matt and Lee, two nicer guys than you are likely to encounter. Their aim, in its many forms, is to give up and coming artists a chance to break through in the music industry and avoid the obstacles that they faced as a struggling act back in 2005. Clearly in tune with each other, their intentions are clear, and refreshingly, making money isn’t at the top of their agenda. Their story entirely reflects their daily crusade and Lee wastes no time on filling me in.
As a young band in Birmingham, they found it incredibly hard to hold any faith in the music industry. They were signed and then unceremoniously dropped on the day their first single was due to be released. Following a disastrous showcase with SONY they self-released a single that got to No. 72 in the charts and made them very little money or fame. Struggling on, Matt ran a mobile computer repair service, Ditto Computing, while Lee ran a bouncy castle hire, also called Ditto – mass phone sharing confusion ensued. Seeing other bands struggling as they did, they started to release friends’ music online through their Average Bear label, and got into the habit immediately. Their first signing from a 60 something Scottish gentleman set them on their path, and he still releases music through Ditto to this day (free of charge).
Their breakthrough came with Colchester band Koopa, and their track Blag, Steal and Borrow. Ditto put the track on pre-order for three months and bought up boxes of sim cards from Ebay to allow mobile downloads. Matt tells me of how he tried to convince HMV in Colchester to stock CD copies of the single but they were reluctant to sell an unsigned act, “We only take Robbie Williams or whatever…” Sticking to the digital format, the song charted at No 31 in the UK charts making it the first single to chart without being “officially” released. Matt rejoices, “It was HMV’s ignorance that gave us our first entry in the Guinness Book of Records”, where it still remains. A large canvas of the digital download cover for Blag, Steal or Borrow hangs proudly on the Ditto office wall.
“Over the next year,” adds Lee, “we had nine top 40s with unsigned bands.” The trend continues with Ditto being responsible for launching debuts from the likes of Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith who released his first track through them when he was still at school. Recent successes include multi-award winning rapper Stormzy whose WickedSkengMan 4 reached number 2 in both the UK RnB and Independent chart at the end of 2015. Matt and Lee are incredibly excited by these achievements and appear to treat their artists as family, following their success with continued guidance and support.
Trying new stuff is the key to what they do and their ventures have included producing a music show for Sky TV’s Red Channel, Ditto Music Live. The project lasted a year (2008-2009) but Lee explains “It was good but it cost a lot of money so we quit it in the end”.
The expansion of their distribution and record label services empire has now gone international, Lee enthuses, “We launched in America in 2010 (there are now offices In Texas, San Diego and Nashville), then we opened offices in London and Melbourne”. There are plans to expand into Canada, Sweden and Germany. It’s a lot to manage but Lee globetrots for most of the year, spending only about a month at home. Family man Matt settles for a summer month in Nashville. Lee explains what the international outfit offers, “All the offices provide label services now so we have in-house radio pluggers, PR, social media teams and we handle campaigns for bigger clients. We do SONY BMG’s video promos like the Sigala track, Easy Love, which went to Number One.”
It’s the diversity of activities that have kept the Parsons Brothers in business and Matt is more than aware of how far they have travelled in ten years, “It’s good to see where we come from, just working and being respected. Over the years we realised we needed to diversify what we’re doing, if we were still just doing distribution, putting records out like we started doing, the market is dropping out.”
Record Label in a Box is their latest addition to the Ditto legacy and is a wonderful thing. Housed physically in an aesthetically pleasing orange and black package, this has fast become the answer to many a budding entrepreneur’s dreams. Lee puts the product into context, “When we started off, we didn’t know what to do. We wanted to make a product that had everything we needed at the time, so when you buy RLIAB you get your limited company set up for you, the label set up for you; you have an online system that makes contracts. So when you want to sign a band instead of going to a lawyer, you just write up the template of a legal contract, it comes with 25 pages of legal contracts”. This is vastly important, cutting out the lawyers, as Matt points out, “You can spend that money on recording, which is much more worthwhile.”
It’s a very exciting new direction for the company and Matt informs us that every time they sell a box, he receives a text from Lee breaking the news. This further reveals how they are in it for much more holistic reasons than making money. “If you’re going to create a product,” says Matt, “don’t do it just to make money. The only reason RLIAB works is because we created it because it needs to exist, it addresses the problems we had”.
They explain their service as providing a roadmap for new bands and managers. Each sale tells a different story, like the guy who Matt spoke to who had gone on to tour America and played at the famous Bluebird café in Nashville. We asked if they were concerned about their lack of control over what is released off the back of their product but both agreed it was not an issue. Matt sees it as a tool “like when Apple release a computer, it’s up to them what they do with it, any ownership goes to them and we support it”. He expands on this describing the package as something physical, “to show your friends and hang on the wall”.
Media interest has been strong and RLIAB recently picked up the Merseyside Innovation Award. What amuses the brothers is how all of the media that has shown an interest have had a go themselves at using the kit. The Times, off the back of reviewing the company set up their own label and have released music. Lee smiles, “Everyone is having a go and from that point it’s just grown and grown”. MkII is already planned and a support package in online accounting, this is very much a live product that is ever evolving.
Matt likes to see the business as a dating agency in some ways, with over 85,000 clients on their books, requests like “We want to sign a soul band from Huddersfield” can be arranged. Lee adds, “Australian artists want to break into England, English bands want to break into the States and we help them with our PR team over there, we are joining the dots for the artists.”
When asked why Liverpool was their choice for a business base, it soon becomes clear that they wanted to escape from Birmingham, as Matt admits “that there are a lot of talented artists there, but a very old school music industry mentality exists and there’s not enough support for artists”. They first visited Liverpool for 2009’s Sound City and were immediately taken. Having also considered Manchester and London (too expensive), they were encouraged by a taxi driver who told them, “In Liverpool if you go out for a loaf of bread you come back with a loaf of bread… and a conversation”. “We just really liked the city” says Lee, “and wanted to live here”.
The confidence and enthusiasm of the brothers is inspiring and despite the pressures of those 85,000 plus artists they have helped to launch, they still appear to enjoy what they do for all the right reasons.
To get involved in the music industry avoiding lawyers and the like, take advice from Ditto and explore Record Label in a Box.
Pictures by Getintothis’ Simon Lewis