Deep Dive: Achal Dhillon, The Music Federation

“That’s really where I feel like you guys are turning out every possible captain of this industry. It’s like you’re the Harvard of the creative industries. You’re encouraging people to set up their own planet rather than be intermediary for the existing one. That’s what I think you’re doing.” 

Achal, thanks for joining us on Zoom. Tell us about you.

 My name is Achal and I’m a boy from West London, a pretty sleepy borough called Ealing, where not a lot happens, but you’re not going to get beaten up as much as people from Acton. That was the main differential between us.

I’m brown, and because of that, I come from a particular background where only certain careers are signposted to people who look like me. The paradigm becomes a little more nuanced depending on your economic background. I always wanted to work in music. I didn’t have the internet back in the proverbial day or access to various resources, but the way that I managed to get somewhere was by asking around and trying to be the most charming version of myself that I probably could be at that point.

A real long story short, I ended up launching my first company, Killing Moon, around about 2010 or 2011. I’m not sure if I was even running it as a business at that point. It’s just a thing that I had. That’s where I learned how to release records, and do most, if not everything that’s involved in running a record label.

I worked out that it is incredibly difficult to make money from digital music sales. I learned how to promote shows and got involved with different subgroups within the music industry and the plethora of different stakeholders obsessed within that. It’s important to speak to people when you experience a little bit of what their lives involve if you’ve been in their position before. I think that’s led to a high degree of goodwill with what I’m doing now with The Music Federation.

What is The Music Federation?

I see The Music Federation, as a music business service, so you don’t need to know everything about running a music business. Perhaps you should concentrate on your strengths rather than doing what I’ve done for the last fifteen years, which is trying to do everything on your own! So, save some of your natural colour hair and perhaps buddy up with people a lot sooner. But in my industry people don’t profess to trusting each other. Instead, it teaches to kill or be killed. That is what I have been taught to do from the get-go.

In Music Week you described The Music Federation as having “a focus on the holistic and robust artist and business development…”. You have partnered with other creatives from different sub-sectors to establish The Music Federation. This is a more community-focused approach to business, right?

The Music Federation is, by definition, a community of people who help each other. I’m not here to tell people which artists to work with or what music to release. That isn’t my interest, but I am here to tell them how to do this in a way that means they will generate profit and will improve prospects for the rest of their wider community.

The long and short of it is that the backdrop of the music industry is rather telling. The fact that the broken record issue, which for those who aren’t aware of what that is, to quickly summarise. A Digital Service Provider like Spotify makes money. There are artists that trade on that DSP that don’t make so much money. I can’t believe it’s got to the point of an enquiry to figure this out, but there is something in between these two things that’s taking all the money! I came up with the idea of taking the creative and moving them up. That was the simplest idea that I could come up with. That way of setting up a business it’s not an unusual thing you know, artists start their music businesses all the time.

You told me that your experience with CLOCK had an impact on The Music Federation concept too. In what way?  

The original concept of The Music Federation is completely different from what it is now post CLOCK. The original conception of The Music Federation was as follows: I have worked out my competitors are buying catalogue. I’ve just decided the catalogue is better off in my hands, so I’m just going to become like them. Then a couple of other things happened. CLOCK was one thing and I fell in love with someone, and they reminded me of who I am. I think that is vitally important. If you are kidding other people as to who you truly are, that’s one thing. To a certain extent, humans must do that every day. If you feel the need to kid yourself, that, from hands-on experience, will only get you so far.

The pandemic had many negative effects on different businesses and different individuals and it’s a very debilitating sort of environmental change that’s happened to us all. It left me with nothing but time and these four walls to think about what the hell the point is of all this? If I am going to be like the people that I hate, then is anything going to change? If I tolerate this will my children be next? What am I going to pass down to them? I think humanity must reach this point of stopping to believe its bs, you know? Maybe for the last couple of years, we have felt quite asleep. But I feel very awake now and certain of what needs to be done. Before CLOCK I didn’t know what I had with The Music Federation.

What impact has CLOCK had beyond the influence on your creation of The Music Federation?

No one has made me account for my bs, as Frank Sweeney (CLOCK mentor) did. To account for why I think my idea is great and explain, with specifics, how it will work. To the point that we’ll award you for it, award you the piece of paper that says you might know what you’re talking about, you know?

The absolute point of participating in the creative economy is the inalienable right to create. Now I misconstrued creations to be I can play guitar, or I can point a phone camera at myself saying ‘hey, I’m creating’, that kind of thing. CLOCK made me ask myself what I am doing for other people dealing with such disparagement in society, whether due to neurodiversity, gender, or to do with POC or other areas. I’m not going to cure sexism by hiring women all the time, but I might do if I give every single one of them a business that they will own, irrespective of whether they are working for me.

I needed CLOCK to at least tell me that I am not completely insane. And, you know, with the validation, that goes alongside it, they stopped calling me insane. They start listening to me. So that has helped my business. But it’s also greatly helped my self-esteem, which also helped my business.

Thanks for sharing and being open about your journey in the last two years. It’s great to hear how CLOCK has benefitted you, beyond your work.

Now I need to start utilising CLOCK as executive development. I need people to have gone through this process, so they understand who they are and what they’re capable of. Because a large part of my job is motivating and encouraging people. I can’t do that unless I am myself encouraged and motivated. We all need validation. We all need motivation. We all need someone telling us we’re doing all right.

That class I was in at CLOCK, it was cold to begin with and then by the end of it we were all mates. You know, one of the people in my course, her participation was vital to remind me what situation I was in. She was tuning in from Bolivia, I believe, and it was like, “sorry, I have to be fast. We’re actually in the middle of civil war and I have to move.” And I’m imagining if on top of the pandemic there is someone actively trying to kill us outside of the places that we’re living in. She was all smiles and just, there were some of the greatest people I’ve met on this planet thanks to CLOCK. Because they are all out for societal change. And I just want to drown myself in that community because the CLOCK alumni community is just so wide-reaching.

As a CEO my job is to hang out with people, and they give me money. The CLOCK community, that’s the sort of people I want to align myself with. Those are the sorts of people that if The Music Federation actually comes up, I want to fund the next set of graduates coming from CLOCK. That’s really where I feel like you guys are turning out every possible captain of this industry. It’s like you’re the Harvard of the creative industries.

We’ll quote you on that.

(Laughs) You’re encouraging people to set up their own planet rather than be an intermediary for the existing one. That’s what I think you’re doing.

Most, if not all, of my colleagues have noticed this behavioural change in me, even in the way I speak now. It’s like watching the music industry’s version of The King’s Speech. I’ll send my general manager your way this year, she really needs to do this because I’ve got to do something about that, ongoing imposter syndrome that we all have. I mean come media launch, we’re all suddenly panicking and I’m the person saying, “I’ll take over!” I think this is the confidence that you instil in people, that is a big weapon for them to take to market if they know who they are.

What excites you about the music industry right now?

Increased uptake of this wonderful word community. I have not seen the word community used in the music industry very often. I have seen it based on conquests. I’ve seen it based on ownership. I’ve seen it based on who’s got the biggest ego. Community for me, basically means that you can rely on other finite sets of people. I would like the word finite to turn to infinite one day. You can rely on a finite set of people who have got your back. When things go wrong in this line of work, and believe me things go wrong every five seconds, you have people that you can fall back on.

So, moving away from that culture of individualism too.

We can have, both! How did they do it in Star Trek? Star Trek, now follow me here, is extreme communism. It’s basically that. The reason that communism doesn’t work right now is that we know what humans are like too much. Would you trust your bank manager with everything? Would you trust your partner with everything? Have humans evolved to the point where we truly trust each other? No, because we’ve only evolved out of the strands of how much we control each other. Control is not trust. Control is kind of letting go of the wheel on the basis that someone else will take it. When does that ever happen for you? That’s what a community is. You can blindfold yourself but will someone else realise that you need help and instantly take control of the wheel? That’s how we see this stuff and the basis of that is community.

It’s been brilliant being in conversation together. Thanks for your time.

No worries.


Author Liz Appleby


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