Interview: Phil Patterson of The British Music Embassy on Supporting UK Bands Around The World

Phil Patterson is the man charged with the task of promoting the UK’s up and coming musical talent around the world, heading up The British Music Embassy, along with partners including the BBC, PRS for Music and The Association of Independent Music, as the Department for International Trade’s music specialist. We caught up with him at SXSW, where the BME was hosting virtual showcases for the likes of Anna B Savage, Black Country New Road, Walt Disco and many more, to find out what exactly the BME is and talk Covid, Brexit and his memories of more than a decade of showcasing British bands across the globe.

How are you doing?

Better now that we’re actually in to SXSW. The last few days we’ve been organising a lot of stuff that we normally do physically. It doesn’t seem too bad now, but we ended up doing over 300 one on one meetings with people from Australia, Germany, Japan, Korea, South Korea, China, Canada, USA and Brazil.


That all happened over two days which was just… It all sounds easy to say but primarily it was the managers of the showcasing acts and labels who were involved and publishers and stuff. So we try and make sure that we are offering good connections and supporting the industry as best we can to deliver what their objectives are for SXSW and throughout the year. Now the showcases are up and running and the meetings are all out the way it’s a little easier, but I’m now organising a virtual songwriting camp in a couple of weeks’ time so that’s sort of taken my attention elsewhere.

Just looking through the schedule, it seems like the British Music Embassy pops up every five minutes.

We’ve got 2 hours a day. We recorded 35 acts in total at various locations because we wanted to try and make sure that it was the best production values. Do you go to SXSW normally?

No, this is the first time. The budget at Joyzine only just about covers the bus to New Cross, let alone flights to Austin so…

Well, for the last 15 years we’ve been running a venue called the British Music Embassy – the whole idea of it was that we put the best possible production and crew into the venue to give all the artists and businesses, the labels or managers or whoever was involved that was investing in the artists to go over there in the first place, it would give the best possible platform to make the most of that opportunity.

So this year it was obviously… I suppose I should go back to last March when it was cancelled because of Covid. You can imagine we put about six months’ work into it all, organising everything for the venue and the crew – it’s all British production: back line, PA and all the crew comes in with Production Park each year. The whole idea is to make sure that you get people who understand. It’s just things like knowing the bands, there might even be connections with some of the crew.

I think one of the directors of South By, after about five years of us doing it, said “Look at what the British do – that’s the gold standard of the showcase in there,” and we obviously hung on to that claim and tried to maintain it. So each year we try and up our ante a little bit.

Last year we were supposed to be moving to a larger venue, which was forced upon us because even though the venue that we had before was only 300 capacity it was always rammed and the location meant we could have an audience outside in the street looking in because it was a pedestrian zone and so that always created a great atmosphere. That was being closed down so we had to move. We were moving into a venue called Cedar St Courtyard last year – an awful lot went into it and then at the last minute it fell through because of Covid.

We had to find something else to do so we decided on Production Park who work with us – they’ve got stages and rehearsal rooms at their headquarters in Wakefield, but also The Mill down in Wimbledon. So I was saying, “Can we do any showcases or anything, just try and get something out there?” because obviously we had all the bands that were going to do it. We worked with the BBC and PRS and PPL and AIM and the BPI, they’re all partners in what we do. And so I said to them all “Look, we’ve got a little bit of money left in the budget that we would have been spending when we got there. We could try and pull something together,” and Ant at Production Park said, “Let’s do it at The Mill.”

So we worked things out financially and because all of the crew that would have normally been coming to Austin with us were going to be available, and The Mill as a studio was going to be empty, it was an ideal opportunity to put them in there. We recorded, I think, 15 bands or something, and put them on the BBC YouTube platform and BBC’s various radio networks broadcast some of the tracks. It worked out pretty well, so that was a good blueprint for what we’re doing this year.

Of course with Covid lockdowns, you have to restrict the movement of bands over borders so we managed to record in Wakefield and London and partnered with various people to do something in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland as well. And the results are what you are seeing now.

You’ve got a line-up of  35 bands for the festival – we often get more than 35 British bands emailing us a day wanting coverage on Joyzine, so how do you condense the hundreds or thousands of bands available to you down to that 35?

Obviously it’s a very difficult thing to do… I worked in the industry all my life and now I work as a consultant for a government department to try and help offer support for up and coming acts and businesses to try and help develop them going forward but I would never presume, even though I’ve got a lot of experience in the industry, that I’m going to know exactly what’s going on in the current contemporary music scene. I know what I like and what I don’t like and I’m always willing to listen to new stuff, but what we decided when we first started partnering with the BBC was that we would work with various agencies and our partners in BPI, PPL and PRS. Everybody would be looking at the various acts who are up and coming.

The PRS Foundation, they’re on the International Showcase Fund, which is a scheme which offers funding to up and coming artists for international showcasing. And the Department for International Trade, who I work with, put some funding into that along with many other people. We also run a scheme through the BPI called the Music Export Growth Scheme, which again is what it says on the tin. That’s all government money that goes in with the BPI running it on behalf of the industry, it was brought in about six years ago when, mostly the major labels, but the larger independents as well, were cutting back on tour support and everything else. So there’s opportunities there.

All of those different things combined help us lead into how we were going to try and choose the acts for the show. We speak with SXSW very early on and find out which acts are applying for showcasing. We then look at the sorts of acts that BBC Introducing, for example, are working with, and the BBC will recommend some as well, so it’s a combination really of all of those different opportunities as to where we get the list of acts to support, because obviously it’s pointless putting on people who aren’t really ready to get out there in the big wide world and actually deliver something. One thing that we always say to everybody is that getting an invitation to SXSW or any other major showcasing event around the world, is that, ok you’ve got to work hard to get to that point, but once you’ve got the invitation, that’s when the real hard work begins. Because everything that you’ve ever done in your hometown or city or county or country even, you’ve got to replicate again in every market that you want to go to in the world.

Obviously in some ways it’s easier with the internet because people can discover you and your music a little easier, but equally it’s probably ten times harder because there’s ten times more music coming out because of the internet. You and I could record something now and get it out there and put it out to the world tonight. It’s that easy, but it’s also that difficult because everybody can do it.

There’s lots of different combinations of how we choose the acts. We’ve just got to make sure that we continue to do it for the right reasons. The track record’s been pretty good over the years. There’s not many acts that we’ve been involved with that haven’t gone on to do something to whatever level it’s going to be. So we’re quite pleased and proud to be a part – I often say to people it’s just a small piece of the jigsaw puzzle, but it could be the important part, which just completes the picture, if it gives you the opportunity to break in the States or whatever it may be.

You’ve got all sorts of things going on, as you said with all the meetings, what are the key things that the DIT, which funds the British Music Embassy…

I want to emphasise: it’s not just DIT, that fund it, it’s a partnership. It’s AIM (Association of Independent Music), the BPI (British Phonographic Industries), PPL and PRS for Music and the PRS Foundation as well, which is the charitable arm of PRS, they’re all the partners along with the BBC as well.

So with all of these people working together to put this on, what’s the end result that you’re hoping to get from it?

The government department, obviously the exercise there is to support British businesses to export to the world to bring revenue streams back to the UK. Some people might say, “Well, supporting a band to go to Austin, how does that work?” One, every act, whether they realise it or not, is a business. Two, they’re probably signed to a record label, so there’s another UK business we’re supporting. There’s probably one or two members of the band who are signed for publishing, so there’s a third one. There’s probably a British management company, there’s a fourth one. Potentially they have merchandise which they get through a British company as well, so there’s a fifth and so it goes on, so that’s where the DIT can be seen to be supporting British industry and British businesses.

From an AIM and a BPI perspective. It’s supporting their members who are in the main record labels, but more and more these days, distribution companies or 360 management companies that have labels, publishers and management. PPL are supporting the record companies, PRS are supporting the publishing companies and writers who they work with. And then the BBC, BBC Introducing in particular, are supporting British talent and culture around the world as well as great content that’s going out both domestically and internationally.

The great thing with somewhere like Production Park that I keep mentioning, they run up an academy up in Wakefield for sound engineers, lighting, tour managers, etc. so they always bring one or two of their final year students out to Austin as part of the crew, which is a great experience to do that sort of thing. So there’s lots of different ways in which it’s a great support of the industry and of the British economy and everything else that goes with it.

I’m always happy to defend when anybody might say, “Why are government supporting a bunch of people to go and have a party in Austin?” A lot of hard work goes into it. Hopefully an awful lot of revenue and returns come back as well.

One of the things that’s been in the news recently with the music industry and government has been the effect on touring in Europe of the Brexit deal. Has that had an impact on the sort of work that you do and the kind of support that you’ve had to offer to artists?

Yes and no. The International Showcase Fund is there and The Music Export Growth Scheme as well. Even though there’s been no touring as such, we’ve tried to support them through those schemes in different ways.

The artists, where they’ve had to record stuff themselves, they’ve been able to apply for some funding towards that. We’ve just supported them for Eurosonic, and then there’s obviously travel costs in getting there and so on. So they’ve been supported that way as well through MEGS. People applied to get funding to support them with marketing campaigns and things for their new releases that were coming out between February and June to set up potential tours coming later in the year.

I myself haven’t done too much on the touring and visa side of things, but that’s obviously been a great big issue and I’ve personally supported various organisations like The Musicians’ Union and Music Managers’ Forum, who’ve been two of the leading lights along with UK Music to try and ensure that this was all looked at properly, and I know that DIT and the DCMS have been looking heavily into that side of things to try and alleviate the issues that have been brought up because of Brexit. AIM and the BPI have both being running various webinars on the different issues as well.

So there’s various parties at the moment talking to each other in the hope that there’s going to be some practical outcomes in time for spring and summer touring. Which management companies and touring companies and agents can look into and see if we can alleviate the issues that are going to be forthcoming.

I’m old enough to remember people telling me about touring before the European market and when there were visa issues then. It’s something which happened for many years and still happens today in certain parts of the world. Obviously we’ve got to get visas and everything else to go to different parts of the world for touring – it’s been great that people have been able to travel across borders and everything else, not just for music, and now what we’ve got to do is look into what the issues are, make sure that we can have the information easily at hand to support the management companies, tour managers, agents and promoters that are looking to take artists around Europe and make life as easy as possible for them to do that, have the answers and hopefully have support going forward that will help alleviate those issues.

My personal opinion would be that probably by the end of this year, I would imagine anybody that wants to know will know how to travel and work around those issues. Yes, it’s going to cost a bit more money probably, but again, personally I think that governments across Europe will come to a point where they will realise that it’s not just the British acts and the British music industry that’s suffering, it’s all of the European ones too because there’s no reciprocal agreement to come into the UK. And as you and I both know, the majority of artists around the world want to tour in the UK. So I think and hope that there will be some common sense at some point that helps to alleviate that issue – but that’s a personal comment, as they say rather than a government one (laughs).

I’ll just ask one more just to finish off – do you have a favourite South by South West memory from all of the years that you’ve been doing this?

An awful lot, to be honest – I suppose one of the early ones where we worked with Amy Winehouse, she was presented to us in the October, when Back to Black was going to be released just after Christmas and the singles were coming out and everything. At that point we were also doing Midem, a long running industry music industry event in Cannes, it used to happen in January but is now in June. She headlined at Cannes in the January and then we put a show on in New York, just prior to South By so she came in and did a show at The Knitting Factory and then came down and did the British Barbecue as it was – it was two years later that we did the British Music Embassy – that was a great memory of that year.

And then one year, I think it was 2014, we had The 1975 and Bastille on the bill on the same night. That was a great night – the Bastille album went to number 1 the same day as the showcase so it was great.

Another one was Franz Ferdinand playing – they weren’t part of what we were doing. They were just starting to break in the UK and they were playing, I think it was Buffalo Billiards on 6th Street. We knew it was going to be a big crowd and everybody was wanting to see them, so we were in there quite early.  Then I got a phone call from the South by South West Managing Director who was standing out on 6th Street saying, “Where are you?” And I said, “We’re inside with Franz Ferdinand,”  and he said “It’s so full Phil, we can’t even get in ourselves!”

But I suppose the fondest memory is the British Music Embassy and the development of that into what it became. We ran it in a venue called Latitude 30 on San Jacinto Boulevard just off 6th Street and the guy who ran it, Ahmad, he just became a great friend and made life so much easier for us. He ended up putting a steel girder in the ceiling so we could fly the PA, and he used to let us paint the building every year. It was just a great experience and it will live with me forever. It just became a sort of iconic venue for South by South West each year, so it was quite sad when they announced in the summer of 2019 that it was going to be closed and we had to find a new venue for 2020.

And then there’s loads of bands, great bands playing – the list is endless I suppose.

Find out more about The British Music Embassy on their website.

Interview by Paul Maps
Photograph by Thomas Jackson – Tyne Sight Photographic

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