SQE Music Service Firm

By August Brown, Los Angeles Times

June 30, 2012, 7:00 a.m.

Seb Webber stood in a stark office space 12 floors above Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, surveying his new domain. The 27-year-old London expatriate and the recently minted managing director of the music-services firm SQE was dressed in his typical plastic Buddy Holly glasses and skinny black jeans. His office’s polished concrete floors lacked furniture for the moment — move-in day was a week or so away — but he had a gorgeous floor-to-ceiling panorama of the Hollywood Hills to his north and, on this clear day, almost to Catalina Island in the west.It’s a workplace view befitting a lavish new tech startup or a cash-flush film production house. But Webber’s company is in a more volatile (pessimists might even say doomed) line of work. SQE is a contrarian bet that the music industry won’t be saved by novel technology or a radical new profit stream. Its magic bullet, if there is one, is absolute flexibility and transparency in handling a growing stable of artists like the punky Coachella 2012 headliner At the Drive-In and pop-savvy dubstep auteur Rusko.”Our idea was, ‘Isn’t there a good company where you don’t feel cheated?'” Webber said. “I see us as a service. We literally just execute on their behalf. No one knows better than them what they want.”

The L.A. office of SQE is the American arm and new flagship of the British Columbia-founded firm that President Nathan Beswick and Chief Executive Duncan MacRae — both in their mid- to late 20s — started in 2010. Duncan is also the CEO of Seeker Solutions, a Victoria, Canada-based IT firm.

SQE’s first big coup was landing Webber. He left his position as the vice president of A&R for theU.K.-based XL Recordings to helm the firm. Billboard had even named Webber one of its “30 Under 30” music-biz stars in 2010 for his regional scouting acumen for XL.

But after working on Adele and M.I.A.’s A&R teams and cosigning Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator to the label, Webber wanted to build something from the ground up instead of being an L.A.-based “Our Man in Havana” for an English hit label.

“It was really difficult being the L.A. point person for a U.K. company,” he said. “I’m still close with Richard (Russell, XL’s founder), and the one thing he hammered home was that nothing exists without quality music. But if there was any time to stand on my own two feet, it was now.”

SQE’s business model is simple — find ambitious artists, ask them what they need to realize their career goals and be able to do anything that can help.

Many traditional record labels and management teams farm out aspects of artist-caretaking to specialists at different companies — a label fronts advances and distributes physical albums; a licensing firm places songs in commercials, films and TV; a publicity company wrangles media coverage.

SQE can do all these things for an artist — or take on as few as one of those jobs. SQE handles management, licensing, press, marketing and record label duties in-house, with a staff of around 14 who specialize in each field. When they sign an artist, the musician can choose which aspects they want to use. Don’t call it a “360 deal” — SQE has banished that term for a deal in which a label gives larger advances but takes cuts from all streams of an artist’s income from its offices. But the firm does imagine music management as a holistic project.

“Artists are able to control a lot by themselves nowadays, and considering the established awareness of how the business side of their art works, a la carte is a no smoke-and-mirrors, transparent way for them to get what they want when they want it,” Beswick said in an email.

For artists, that transparency and selectivity is the key selling point. SQE handles artists at all points in their careers, from a seasoned and recently reunited act like At the Drive-In down to the young Irish electronica artist Mmoths, who was signed off a YouTube demo and has barely an EP to his name. For an artist like Rusko, who is beloved in serious beat-music circles but who has also produced for Britney Spears, Rihanna andT.I., SQE’s flexibility is an asset in navigating an unconventional career.

“They do it all for me, or at least figure out how to get it done. Many times, they’ll take initiatives and bring cool opportunities that I didn’t even think about,” he said, highlighting SQE’s recent work with [highlight]Cat Stone of Stone Management[/highlight], a film-placement and promotions firm. In a music business defined by decimated record sales, that creativity is essential — even for an artist who headlined the 3,800-capacity Hollywood Palladium to rapturous crowds. “In one week, I’ll play to more kids in the U.S. than have bought my first album. I have only received one royalty check in my life, and it equaled the same amount as two months of my T-shirt sales.”

After a brief signing spree in which the firm snapped up promising young electronica acts Audrey Napoleon and Data Romance alongside locals L.A. Riots and Daniel Ahearn & the Jones, Webber is ready to dive into the details of making careers. He was about to fly to Texas to join Rusko — one of the few clients he personally manages — on the road for the Western leg of his U.S. tour. But he was eager to get back to L.A. For him, SQE has become as much a space for music-management creativity as much as it is for any of his artists.

“When you become a home where artists can explore, eventually you’re going to get an Andy Warhol,” he said. “But you can’t just go out and buy an Andy Warhol.”