ON TREND. Caius Pawson founded the independent British record label Young in 2005, initially as a series of raves and gigs known as Young Turks. Young now works across a broad spectrum of the arts and sits within the Beggars Group of record labels. Young’s evolution and diversification has seen them producing festivals, short films, contemporary ballets, and an assortment of other artistic activities.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Caius Pawson, why did you start running parties when you were very young? 

I was a partygoer, and music was already a huge part of my identity. I was at an age when you lack identity. I didn’t feel that if I walked into a room I was particularly this or particularly that, so I tried to assemble the room. I went to a school where you were given a lot of free time and I spent a lot of that free time in the music block, but I was spectacularly untalented at music. All I could do was form bands, put on concerts, parties, raves.

You organised raves and parties back in 2005?

I had done a series of legal ones in nightclubs that had the momentum of youth. Every week there was a different one, responding to opportunity. Then I got offered the use of an abandoned school in Hoxton Square in Hackney and very early on in the night the police were called because I had organised it terribly. There weren’t enough toilets and there was a huge queue and there were no exits. The police said, “Look, you can keep your sound system, your money, and your alcohol if you shut this thing down now.”

Since you were putting on legal parties why did you also do illegal ones?

The culture around the legal ones was quite grim, you had to deal with club owners and with the council who were very restrictive and very racist. We had quotas we had to deal with on who could and could not come in. In being able to find other places that you could do things in, you had less of that. The second rave we organised was in an abandoned TFL (Transport for London) building in Shoreditch, with three floors of sound systems and a floor of bar, but the police were following what we were doing and riot police turned up very early and it all fell apart. But it was there that I met Richard Russell from the record label XL and that started my career.

“As a teenager, music allowed me to feel and to express my emotions.”

Caius Pawson, inspired by a 1981 song of Rod Stewart titled Young Turks you created the Young Turks?  

Young Turks was the name of the collective that put on the parties and raves, and when the final rave was shut down by the police and seemingly I had lost everything, that’s when Richard Russell from XL suggested that I turn Young Turks into a record label.

Which then became part of the Beggars Group?

Yes. The Beggars Group is an ingenious invention, because the artist looks after the art and the record label looks after the artist, and Beggars Group sits above it and provides the back end and looks after us. Martin Mills founded it. He is a real pioneer in independent music culture and he set this up to support different record labels. It was because of Beggars Group that I was able to run a record label – which is a big operation.

When you talk of record labels today, what are you talking about? People do not buy records anymore!

In 2006 we were at the start of a decline that lasted another ten or 11 years, but record labels sell music and now you mainly sell it via streaming. People buy monthly subscriptions and the streaming companies pay the record labels who pay the artists. There is a huge vinyl resurgence – we sell more vinyl now than we have ever done in my lifetime – and we sell music to adverts and TV and film. The record label is one part of what I do. I also manage artists’ careers, and we publish songwriters.

You have worked with bands such as The xx, Jamie xx, Sampha, FKA twigs, Kamasi Washington, SBTRKT and El Guincho. Do young people today idolize their stars?

The big difference today is that in one sense things have homogenised. Youth culture is largely centred around TikTok and social media, which has brought everybody to one place but it has also completely fragmented. In the 1990s most teenagers in the UK would have known what the number one single was. In this day and age, no one knows what it is. Because the internet has brought people together you have large pockets of niche and you can exist within your niche in a much more expansive way. Before the internet, if you had 10,000 fans in each country to get to them would take huge distribution and would render you quite small, but now lovers of different niches are connected round the world to give smaller acts a much bigger audience which they can have a career off and respond to and make their art.

What is the primary music of today?

There isn’t one. Multiple genres are currently having a huge moment: K-Pop; American country music and regional Mexican music are all currently huge but none is inescapable. The beautiful thing about right now is things are not essentially dictated as they were when The Beatles got to America in 1964 and played on The Ed Sullivan Show, the one thing everyone in America was watching.

There are still many concerts?

More tickets were sold this year than any year in history. I’d guess that Taylor Swift sold more concert tickets in one year than the Beatles sold in their entire career, but that does not mean she is as culturally dominant as they were then. Because things are so much more spread out than they used to be the narrative of a single artist is not breaking through in the same way. We live in an age of infinite media and there are trillions of TikTok posts going up regularly. Media is disseminating, but narrative and storytelling does not get through as much. We are not living in an era where one artist can feel like the complete zeitgeist or one genre can feel like that. We have the possibility for very authentic artistry to have a much bigger audience than it used to do.

“There is a huge amount of scientific data to show that the arts can shift public opinion on global issues.”

Caius Pawson, you are also interested in ecology and support the environmental law charity ClientEarth. How do you manage your philosophy of life together with your management of artists?  

For a long time, I thought everything was separate and that taking a path into the arts precluded me from doing other things I was interested in.  About five or six years ago I got more heavily involved in the environmental movement. ClientEarth write environmental law, train judiciaries, and sue polluting organizations. I realised that the power of arts and culture to story tell was a vital part of the solution, and if I could help artists harness their power, that was the most value I could bring. With Matthew Slotover, who founded Frieze Art Fairs, I founded a charity called Murmur, which aims to help bring about a cultural shift led by artists on the subject of climate change. There is a huge amount of scientific data to show that the arts can shift public opinion on global issues.

Are young people interested in art?

Art has spoken to young people for the entirety of human existence. In a massively logical and rational world, it is still a way to express and touch your feelings. The first time I heard music as a teenager it did something to me hormonally. A certain song and I would flip my bed over; a certain song and I would cry for an ex-girlfriend who I did not realise I would miss. As a teenager, music allowed me to feel and to express my emotions, and as I’ve got older and discovered new art forms, they have done the same.

Which new art forms?

An amicable divorce left me reassessing my life, and I decided to immerse myself in something that I knew nothing about and so I bought a bunch of tickets to contemporary dance. I slept through the first five. I did not understand the next five. On the eleventh one I realised I did not have to understand it; I started to feel something. Fast forward seven years and I was on the Michael Clark Company Board of Trustees and helped curate music for several different dance performances, starting with Wayne McGregor. I have just directed my first contemporary dance performance with a choreographer called Sharon Eyal, and that’s touring the world. It goes to the Park Avenue Armory in New York in September of next year, and comes to Sadler’s Wells in London. I cannot dance and I know very little of the history of dance, and I cannot tell you what it means, but it allows me to access emotions I could not before. 

How do you and your peers feel about the world today?

There is a huge variation in opinion and outlook on the state of the world. People tend to have the capacity for one major cause. In this very particular moment, there is a lot of anguish and hurt around the wars that are playing out.

Am I right to have the feeling that people today, because of the time they spend on the Internet and on the phone, are very different from before?  

My personal experience is that people are still incredibly impassioned about the things that they care about. The things that have changed is how they get their information; it is much more streamlined. The phone had the potential to bring in a lot of different types of information and views but the algorithm is honing people into their existing interests. But maybe that would have existed before with people pre-selecting. If you were into music, you bought a certain music magazine. If you were into left wing politics, you bought another magazine. If you were into ancient history, you were in the library. Now what we have is people’s phones and social media channelling all those things. I work in a business which is in one small part about the zeitgeist and what is being made now, and then in another very large part about nostalgia, and the vast majority of people are listening to music and buying tickets for concerts by artists who were big when they were between the ages of 14 and 24. The idea of the multigenerational artist is dying away. Whilst I undoubtedly think that things are changing, I also think a large part of the change we perceive is because we age and so we start to see things differently. Every generation has fostered ambivalence and concern about the following generation.

Do the classics endure?

I went to The Globe to see a friend in Macbeth and it was full of teenagers. If you want to sell out a museum show you must do a classic. I would be very surprised if concert halls were not still selling more tickets for classics than new work. My own personal perspective is that the classics maintain.

Caius Pawson

Young x Client Earth x The Standard (pictured Lil C, Joy Orbison and Benji B)

Caius Pawson

Kwes Darko’s Studio at Young Space

Caius Pawson
Caius Pawson

Setting up for Sampha’s LAHAI Playback at Young Space

Caius Pawson

Still from R.O.S.E at Manchester International Festival

Caius Pawson

“How you work with artists to bring out the best in them is vital, and that has opened up over the years.”

Caius Pawson, you are optimistic about music, but are you as optimistic about the environment or global warming?

We have all the tools at our disposal to fix the situation and there is a great desire for change, and so in a sense I am optimistic. Things will change and we will learn to deal with that change. Right now, I am fully concentrated on the many things that we can do and making people feel and able to engage in those things. I have met an unlimited number of artists who would like to do something about it, but most of them feel they do not have the capability to do it.

What really is your work?

I listen to people all day, be it an artist or a colleague or a collaborator or a partner. There’s a lot of hearing people’s dreams and visions and talking them through it. There’s a lot of strategizing how to make those visions come to life. I am very lucky to work with a phenomenal team. I love what I do, and the artists change, and therefore we change and so there is always something new to engage with.

How many people are in your team?

Young is 20, Beggars is over 200, and then each of the artists has their own teams. They might have publishers and lawyers and accountants and touring teams and branding teams and a whole army to help them get their message out there.

When you work with your artists, what kind of relationship is it?

The shape of relationship changes, artists to artists. We try to work with the artists in the way that best plays to their strengths. The general aim is to find someone, find what is unique about them, and then find a way of working with them in that field. The record label is very much about making the music and selling music. We also manage some artists and that’s a look at their entire careers and their entire lives. Then we will work with people in non-contractual ways as well, and that broadens the scope out. How you work with artists to bring out the best in them is vital, and that has opened up over the years. Some artists who I am desperate to work with on records, it would not make any sense for management and vice versa.

How do you find them?

By being informed and then listening. A million songs get added to Spotify every week so there is a huge amount going on so you develop your networks and you develop your ways of hearing things and we do a lot of informal talking with artists. The people who look for artists are called A&Rs, which means artists and repertoire, and they go to raves or concerts, be on the Internet, see what’s happening on social media, meet people in the industry, meet other artists. They are the ones who sign the artist. I started out as an A&R and then progressed from there.

Do some artists come to you and say I really want to work with you?

We do get a lot of that, but you would only really look at that if the artist was much more progressed down their career and there was a very certain reason they would want to do that. It tends to be that you have more success in you looking. The very best artists tend to be self-involved and doing their own things, so if they are wasting their time calling me it probably means they are not completely enveloped in their own world. They tend to have a self-confidence that means that they are going on their own path.

How do you train yourselves to find artists who have something unique?

The unique spirit in the work is often obvious if you are really listening carefully. The world changes rapidly, but it is still about finding an individual who is being authentic to themselves and is finding ways of authentically representing themselves. Very few people can do that through any given art form, but there are accountants I work with who can authentically represent themselves through numbers and that, for me, is like their art form. We are looking for a tiny subsection of the population who can genuinely get across their individuality through whatever the art form is. And that’s the art of finding the really good artist.

Caius Pawson, thank you.