‘In the first meeting, she basically told them to f*** off and that she didn’t need them – but they came back for a second meeting.’
All managers should find themselves a client who looks at them the way Becky Hill looks at Alex Martin.
As Hill picked up her Artist of the Year prize at the 2022 Artist & Manager Awards, she gave Martin, her manager for over 10 years, perhaps the greatest endorsement an artist has ever given the person looking after their career.
“You are a shining example of exactly how to work in this industry, putting your moral compass at the forefront of everything you do, and it’s been inspiring to watch you work so tirelessly at making this fucking thing work,” she enthused.
“You were the first man I wasn’t related to that showed me true trust and loyalty. I’ll never forget that day you said you’d fund me living in London out of your own pocket, because no one else saw your vision for this. I couldn’t have done any of [this] without such an honest, loyal and ambitious person.”
“We got off stage and someone said to her, ‘Jesus, it was like being at you and Alex’s wedding!’” laughs Martin a few months later, as he meets MBW at Polydor, Hill’s label. “I asked to present that award to her because I really wanted to publicly recognise her achievements. But I didn’t expect the speech that she gave back. She’s an absolute pleasure to work with.”
Hill has made a habit of endorsing her manager on such occasions – she famously got an extremely reluctant Martin up on stage at BRITs 2022 when she won Best Dance Act (“The biggest moment of her career and she chose to share it with her manager – wow, true class,” Martin marvels) and shouted him out again in February when she won that BRIT for the second year in a row.
But the duo’s path to the top wasn’t always rooted in the glitz and glamour of awards ceremonies; in fact, it’s been one, long, odds-defying slog.
Alex Martin’s music career began as a boy chorister at Westminster Abbey, but, after studying music at Newcastle, he decided more contemporary sounds were where his true passions lay. In the 2000s, he applied for a job at the Marquee Club, then undergoing yet another relaunch in London’s Leicester Square, even travelling back from Greece for his interview.
“I thought it was my big break,” he laughs. “But it was actually an interview for bar staff!”
Nonetheless, he took the job and it proved to be his way in. Soon, he was promoting nights with Charles Baybutt at the Marquee and then all over London under the name Curious Generation, featuring the likes of Ed Sheeran, Tinie Tempah and Jessie J, and launching branding and consultancy divisions.
After realising the business wasn’t quite equipped to step up to the top level, Martin moved on and launched his much-less-imaginatively named management company, AM Music. He had some success with French electronic wonders Caravan Palace and then sought out some more experienced partners, linking up with former Island Records boss Marc Marot, then at SEG. Marot introduced him to Talvin Singh, who Martin started managing, and when Marot moved to the Crown Talent & Media Group, he brought Martin over and introduced him to founder Mark Hargreaves.
AM partnered with Crown in a JV and today Martin praises Hargreaves and Marot for “showing incredible trust” in his vision (Crown and AM remain partners to this day). But, back then, Martin was still looking for “a young talent that could change the chart of my career”. And one day in 2012, he found her. Although, admittedly, so did millions of other people, as Becky Hill’s powerhouse vocals captivated viewers of the first UK series of The Voice (she’s still by far the show’s most successful graduate).
“The biggest moment of her career and she chose to share it with her manager, true class.”
Martin got as far as writing ‘Call Becky Hill’ on his to-do list, but – still short on contacts and music industry knowledge – had no real idea of how to get hold of her. Until Hill – who was being mentored by Crown client Jessie J – just happened to ring the Crown office and a receptionist asked a passing Alex Martin how she should direct the call.
“I couldn’t believe my luck,” he laughs. “I said, put her through to me and, 11 years later, we’re still working together. It was a Sliding Doors moment – if I’d gone for a piss five minutes later, she would have been put through to a different person!”
When Hill was eliminated in the semi-finals, Martin suggested she didn’t use the show as her calling card, but instead went back to basics. It worked, and after becoming the featured vocalist and co-writer on huge hits such as Wilkinson’s Afterglow and Oliver Heldens’ Gecko (Overdrive), Hill was ready to launch as a solo star.
Except her single flopped and she was swiftly dropped by Parlophone. Martin and Hill rebuilt her career as an independent artist until she was ready to re-enter the major label system at Polydor in 2017. Since then, Hill has been unstoppable, becoming the third most-streamed UK female artist in the world (behind only Adele and Dua Lipa), scoring smash singles, a hit album (Only Honest On The Weekend) and an absolute streaming monster of a compilation (Get To Know); and playing live everywhere from Reading Festival to the final of the women’s Euro 2022 tournament.
Martin – a manager with an unusual openness about the mistakes he’s made along the way – says AM Music will always remain a boutique company, but it’s also been growing from its one-man-band origins, with more staff and big plans for clients such as fast-rising singer-songwriters Alex Hosking and Beren Olivia. But, ultimately, Becky is the Hill that Alex Martin is prepared to die on.
“As I grew a little bit more astute in my older years, I began to understand that spread betting wasn’t going to be a suitable way forward,” he says. “I decided to really concentrate on finding exceptional talent I wanted to work with and that wanted to work with me, and then focus in
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How did you help Becky make the leap from having hit songs to being a hit artist?
We just followed our noses. When we were doing a lot of collaborations, they weren’t really the done thing, they were sniffed at. On Afterglow, we deliberately didn’t credit Becky on the record, because we wanted people to hear that voice and go, ‘Who is that?’ Wilkinson’s team, who were fantastic to work with, were very happy to go with it as a Wilkinson record.
I remember hearing it on Radio 1 and the calls coming in – ‘That’s an amazing song, Wilkinson’s fantastic – but who is that vocal?’ Maybe that was a naïve play, but it really paid off – and you would never get that now. You would never not credit someone on a song because you wanted to get that noise around it, but that was OK to do back then.
What went wrong with Parlophone?
We’d had huge success across the summer [of 2014], and we had an amazing song that everyone was a long-standing admirer of, called Losing, that Becky had written with MNEK. We’d released a taster single [Caution To The Wind] and were looking to release Losing as her first proper single.
We released it in November, and I look back at that moment with a bit of sadness from a managerial point of view, because really I should have been stronger and said, ‘That should come out top end of next year, when the ground’s a lot more fertile.’ I’ll be honest, I just didn’t have that experience. So, we went with it in November, it slunk into the chart at No.56 and from that stage on, it was a struggle for whatever reason.
Parlophone had spent a fair amount of money at that stage. I should have had a stronger strategy lined up for my artist, so I apologise for that to Becky publicly now. It’s not just that of course, there are lots of different elements as to why it didn’t particularly work at that moment, but that would’ve helped. But in a perverse way, I’m glad it turned out like that.
It must have been tough to come back from being dropped?
It was really hard to give her that news. It was just before Christmas and I said, ‘They’re not going to be moving forward, but we’ve got some really great music, I’m going nowhere.’ And I’ll never forget what she said to me: ‘I effing well hope not, I never even thought you would! Now you’ve put doubt in my mind…’ [Laughs] I was like, ‘I shouldn’t have said anything!’
So it was Becky, myself and some of my team literally flying by the seat of our pants and just doing it. That’s the music industry: you always have to think on your feet and learn how to do things. I know a lot about lots of things, thankfully, but I don’t know everything and I’m not an expert in anything. I would never believe my own press to think I am, because the pace of change in the industry happens so quickly. You always have to learn
Presumably she was quite reluctant to go back into that major system?
Completely. She’d been burned and it was painful. But the aspiration we both had for her career was always to do something great. You can do that with a label of your own, but when you’re a female pop artist, it’s a challenge to run your own label and truly get to the very top in terms of
We needed the major label system to help us get there. It was going to take a certain type of personality and label to get us back on board and Polydor was that label.
What convinced you it would be different this time?
In the first meeting, she basically told them to fuck off and that she didn’t need them – but they came back for a second meeting, so that was probably it to a large degree! They really believed in her and recognised she hadn’t been given a fair crack of the whip.
It’s about who’s going to do a great job, but it’s also about trusting people. And having been through the experience, we were in a much better place to drive the ship forward. We never felt we were at the behest of the label, we were true partners.
“Polydor really believed in her and recognised she hadn’t been given a fair crack of the whip.”
Becky and I feel comfortable bringing our own strategy and ideas, but also listen to their ideas and strategy and we work together to make it happen. That didn’t happen at the previous label, not because they weren’t receptive particularly, but we never approached it like that.
Again, that’s probably my error. Becky has made a career out of being shrewd and being able to see the right moves, listening to the advice around her and I forever respect that. She’s an incredibly intelligent woman and her ability to see the wood from the trees has enabled us to foster a great working relationship and trust, but also to progress her career.
She says you’ve always been honest with her. Have you never even told a little white lie?
Well, it’s about how you communicate certain things, rather than if you communicate them at all. And it’s about timing, when you communicate certain things. But I’ve never kept things from her or lied to her. Complete transparency has always been the absolute hallmark of our relationship.
There’s a lot of hot air in this industry and I’m not interested in that. I prefer telling it how it is and being more black-and-white about things. She likes detail for her own level of comfort and to feel that she knows what’s going on.
It’s impossible for her to know everything – and that’s not her job; that’s for me to know. But she does know everything she wants to know about her career. We go through every contract and, actually, that accountability makes you a better manager.
I can genuinely, hand-on-heart, say I’ve always taken decisions in the best interests of her career, every single step of the way.
There have been some opportunities where I’ve gone, ‘I don’t think we should do that’, and she says, ‘I don’t know many other managers who would turn that down’, because they come with big pay packets or whatever.
And I’d say, ‘I just don’t think it’s appropriate for you’, and, if she says she wants to do it anyway, that’s fine! That’s a good foundation for a
If you could change one thing about today’s music industry, what would it be and why?
It would be the burdens and pressures put on artists to deliver an infinite amount of content for multiple platforms. It’s not specific to one platform, but that’s a real challenge at the moment.
The music industry changes, it’s changed over the 10 years I’ve been working with Becky and the 20 years I’ve been working in music and you move with that.
But what I’d really like to see is – for artists who aren’t native to certain platforms or aren’t comfortable with delivering the volume of content demanded of artists now – for us to restructure the narrative as to what a successful or relevant artist is, if they can’t or don’t want to do that.
You can still be successful if you’re not doing that. It’s a systemic change that needs to happen but I’m not sure it will or can.
And where does Becky go next: global superstardom?
The MO from day one was always, let’s see how far we can take this, without ever compromising on what she wants to do.
Rewind 11 years and she had that voice, her writing, her hard work – all of those things can take her to the very highest level. We are at an incredible level now, but we don’t just want to be in the top 1%, we want to be in the top 0.1%.
This article originally appeared in the latest (Q1 2023) issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK, which is out now.
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