Music Rights Manager Nick Baxter talks working with notable composers at BBC Studios

29 Jan 2020

Nick Baxter studied Audio Technology at SAE in the ‘90s, at a time when the music industry was booming and there were hundreds of studios across London. He sent postal letters to practically every studio listed in Music Week, which landed him an entry-level tape-op role at Rollover Studios in West London. His first ever session was remixing the funk and acid jazz band Jamiroquai. He said: “I was just making tea and plugging in the patch bay and stuff like that.” 

He stayed there for a number of years, gradually working his way up; programming samplers, a general assistant engineering role and then finally as an engineer. He grasped the opportunity to work with the electronic group, Leftfield, and then had a number one album, Rhythm and Stealth. After this, Nick freelanced across a number of studios in London. However, sensing that the industry was shifting and studios were beginning to close as music adjusted to the digital age, he started looking for his next venture. 

Nick then had a brief stint in post-production as a Dubbing Engineer, but found the work restrictive. He said: “I’d come into a completely different industry, off the back of doing a number one album with a very, very creative band who were asking their engineers to do really interesting things and push boundaries. Suddenly, I felt I was working in a really sanitised TV production world, where everything had to be done in a certain way – I found it was like painting by numbers and a bit dull.” 

Several roles at PRS for Music followed, which is the UK's music collection society, bringing together the Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society and the Performing Right Society under one umbrella. He said: “The work was very data entry-heavy, but I figured it’s good to learn as much as you can about this end of the music industry and indeed wherever you are, so I worked across the services, copyright and royalty departments, learning across quite a broad spectrum of how the publishing side of the business works.” 

Writing letters to places you want to work is a good way to stand out in the digital age

After learning as much as he could and then moving to Brighton, Nick started looking for jobs closer to home. He got work by, again, writing letters and following up with a telephone call to ask ‘Did you get my letter and CV?’. A couple of companies responded, and whilst he offered to do copyright work for a company called Sherlock Holmes Music, they actually offered him an A&R role instead. He said: “I took quite a pay cut, but I was alright about it because I eliminated the commute to London and it was a really exciting opportunity to learn even more.” 

His work was focused on dance music, and primarily US artists because of the differences in how rights are handled across the Atlantic compared to in Europe. Nick explains: “They don't have a society like the MCPS in the US - they have a society like the PRS, collecting performing rights, but they don't have a mechanical society. They have agencies, but they don't have a non-profit making society like every territory in Europe does. Sometimes songwriters, composers, authors of musical works don't realise that if a reproduction of their composition is made on a recording that there's actual license money – that there are record sale royalties for composition. What it ended up being was a kind of education to prospective clients, talking to a lot of US people saying 'Hey, look, Mr. composer/artist, you do realize that this UK label that's pressed up 20,000 copies of your record, yes, they've paid you royalties for the record sales, because you did a record deal, but there are royalties due to the licensing of MCPS repertoire to use your compositions and that's just (technically) sitting in a floatation account because you’re unpublished and you haven't collected it?’. So you then go off, negotiate a deal and make sure they get their money.” 

This work inspired Nick to set up his own company, Eclipse Music Publishing, which he was running when he got a job at the BBC within music copyright, the department responsible for commissioning and licensing music for all the broadcasters’ content. This involved dealing with record labels and publishers, negotiating commercial music terms. When asked what he thinks landed him this role, Nick said: “I think the ability to negotiate, a little bit more experience, having come from a commercial background and then coming to an institution like the BBC, they crave people who have an aptitude for commerciality. I think also, because I’d worked at PRS and a lot of this job at the BBC was surrounded with the licensing of DVD products and stuff like that, my skill-set was probably required. I was also attached to a working group between MCPS and the BBC, so, at times, I was kind of the BBC advocate or spokesperson on that side of things.” 

While Nick was in this position he was headhunted to manage the music publishing arm of BBC Worldwide. He eventually gave up his own business because of the demands of this new role but enjoyed the challenges that accompanied going out alone and launching an independent business. He said: “It’s rewarding when the successes are there, I signed some great artists, like Moodymann and Kerri Chandler, but it’s also tough when you’re not winning. When you’re running your own business, you never turn off. It’s like a drug.” (He imagines!) “The freedom you feel is fantastic, but it can be a bit scary at times.”

We talk about the feast and famine nature of working independently, with the example of one composer who Nick was speaking to the morning of our interview. The composer turned down work in December because he (understandably) wanted time off over Christmas, which has now impacted on his work slate for January and the coming weeks ahead - he doesn’t have anything going on at the moment. Nick said: “You either have to accept all the work and you’re feasting all the time, or it suddenly dries up and you’re not doing anything - and this guy is an established composer!” 

Nick was speaking to this composer because he is now the Music Rights Manager for BBC Studios, and he deals with big industry names such as Hans Zimmer, with his work central to the negotiations for Blue Planet 2 and Planet Earth 2. Nick’s work, in a nutshell, involves working extensively across the composer, publisher and media production communities - predominantly within the UK, but sometimes further afield - engaging with them to nurture talent; establishing relationships with notable composers; working with the people that are looking for composers to score their content. He is a conduit between introductions and negotiating the commercial terms of which a composer will undertake a job for BBC Studios. 






Nick stresses the importance of proactively putting yourself out there as a composer to secure such jobs - the opportunities aren’t going to come and find you. He said: “I think you always need to be making sure people know who you are, or you’re trying to get out there at least and try to apply for as many jobs as you can. At least then they’re aware of your presence, and you might not get that first job, but at least you’ll be on their radar in the future.” 

Part of it involves having a solid portfolio and proactively putting yourself forward for opportunities. But luck plays a big part in it as well. Nick said: “Last year, there were lots of programmes to commemorate the moon landings with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin etc. and my team and I coordinated several pitches for different programmes. We often do, we put in roughy 8-10 composers in the mix and say ‘Here's some footage, pitch to this’ and then producers make a decision - a bit like the X Factor but with composers! They were up against some tough people - I don’t want to mention names, but as an example, the type of composers that were included were members of a well-known Scottish band,  big US film composers and a couple of guys that we had met and thought 'they might be good, let's just give them an opportunity’ – wildcards you might say. One of the wildcards beat off the really established and notable composers, got to the final two and he lost to the guy that produces Massive Attack and whole host of other film/TV work, Neil Davidge. I/we don’t favour anyone, but although he lost, off the back of that he stayed in contact with the producer and a few weeks later - I think he did the Sound Design because that's what he predominantly had built his career around previously - and then subsequently another producer contacted them and said the team from Moon Landing recommended you to me for this job. The composer was like 'okay so do I need to pitch' and they said 'No, no, you've already got the job, I'm fine going on his recommendation'. So it opens doors to these kinds of opportunities and that's luck, right? It's luck that he came to see us at the right time, or spoke to us and we offered him an opportunity and he didn't get it. But his talent still made sure that he’d done enough to get through - so it's luck and talent. There's a whole catalogue of examples like that. But you can't teach people luck!”  

If you’re wondering if there’s anything in particular the BBC looks for in new hires, Nick said that when he is recruiting he looks for people who are adaptable. He said: “When I'm recruiting and depending on the role, I actually want someone that doesn't come with loads of experience because we need somebody that we’re able to adapt, nurture and develop into understanding what the sensitivities are that are required at the BBC. What I mean by that is that if I have someone that comes in and goes, ‘I've done so much, I'm really good at this, and I can do that’ they might be too upfront and bullish to be handling quite protective people that are guarded about their projects. It's a bit different to how you might do it at other broadcasters, or a tech/SVOD company or wherever, but here you have to be a little bit more diplomatic about everything that we do because we're a public service broadcaster and we are scrutinized a lot more than perhaps other UK broadcasters.” 

The specific skills or experience you need to show on your CV will vary depending on the role you’re applying for, but one way you can get ahead of the game with career opportunities before it comes to the end of your studies is by proactively engaging with mentoring schemes, as this can help you get ahead with industry connections and improve your employability prospects. A few observations that Nick has from his current and previous mentorships are don’t undersell your skill-set, especially as you approach the end of your course and start looking for work. He said: “Students might have ‘Student Composer’ on their LinkedIn. When it's like no, you're not - you're a professional media and film composer. Put that.” 

Set big goals for yourself - there's no reason to wait until May to get business cards printed!

Similarly, set big targets for yourself. Nick said: “I’ve had students that have said things like, 'I'm going to get some business cards done up by May' and you're like 'Why May?' it's a 10-minute job, or 'I want to do some more networking, I want to get up to like 150 people on LinkedIn'. I'm like 'All right, but you could get 150 people on LinkedIn within 10 minutes. Literally just sit there while the telly is on.’ Why would you set yourself such a shit target?,” he laughs, “Think bigger. With the business cards, for instance, I could literally go up to my desk right now and find a website that would do it and probably print it for less than 30 quid, or maybe free - do you see what I mean? It's not difficult. They just need to set grander targets for themselves.”  

Looking ahead to his own future, Nick has toyed with the idea of working for one of the big technology companies that have transformed the consumption of media while he’s been at the BBC. He said: “The thing with the BBC is, it’s constantly evolving, so it’s not like I’m bored, quite the opposite! I’m constantly being challenged because the nature of the industry has changed. Five years ago, companies like Netflix and Amazon etc. weren’t even a consideration to anyone in TV land really. Whereas now, the changing market and the public’s consumption of media is completely different to what it was five years ago. So that has brought new challenges, but also a new complex day-to-day work for myself regarding music rights. So for instance, BBC Studios now creates content for companies like Apple, Netflix, Amazon. We're making content for what you could argue are our competitors, but they're paying us to make these programmes. I'm across those deals and I'm making sure that those deals are complete and the commercial terms are correct for every party involved.” 

At the same time, Nick finds there’s a certain warmth that accompanies working for the BBC, that he’s not sure he would find elsewhere. He said: “It's a really rewarding role because you go home and you see the content, and feel a part of something bigger - I might have worked on something two years ago, finished the deal and it's out the back of my mind and then you turn the TV on and it's on. And you go 'Oh yeah, I forgot about that'. It's quite rewarding to see the feedback, or you hear someone on the bus or train and they go 'Did you see that show?' and you go 'Yeah, I worked on that'. So it's cool, all these little things build up and you think you're a bigger part of the whole machine.” 

Find out more about Nick by connecting with him on LinkedIn.