Changes in the music business are a pretty darn popular topic of conversation these days. And since there’s no surefire route to success, somebody somewhere is trying just about everything under the sun. In the case of Communion, those conducting the experiments to great success happen to be musicians themselves.
Long before the world knew him as keyboard player for Mumford & Sons, Ben Lovett teamed with fellow musician Kevin Jones and producer Ian Grimble to launch a regular club night in London. Out of that grew Communion Records, Communion Presents and Communion Publishing.
Lovett is now in the thick of exporting his artist-friendly ventures to the U.S. CMT Edge caught him as he navigated New York City on foot, headed for a meeting with one of the many local promoters with whom he’s partnering in the launch of nine new Communion club nights in cities from Philadelphia to Nashville.
CMT Edge: I’ve read a lot of interviews that you’ve done about Communion over the years. Seeing independent musicians around you struggling with that prompted you to start this. Did you borrow ideas from any working business models out there?
Lovett: It did all start with the [Communion] club night [in London]. It was just a club night for the first four years.
There were other friends in other companies in London doing club nights. And I think the difference with our one was that it was more about the music. … We went to those nights on other nights of the week, and they were great fun. We just wanted to start our own committed club night, and we wanted to have lots of different types of music.
Originally, the idea was that the best music fans could escape on Sunday nights because they’re the most committed people. Sunday night’s always the night to [stay] in, if any night of the week is. We felt like the people who wanted to come and invest in some music were the people who went out [on a Sunday]. So Communion became this kind of tongue-in-cheek alternate congregation for Sunday evening.
Then after the fact, to be honest, we started to learn about things that had happened a few decades ago that had made a big cultural impact … the whole independent promotion legacy going back to probably Bill Graham, the best American example. That really kind of ignited a fire in us. We certainly were aligning our tastes with a whole bunch of people who were filling out the club nights. And so we just had a duty to build on that. The artists who we were picking certainly had a lot of crossover potential to a wider audience.
Since you started those Communion nights in 2006, have you ever had to have a conversation with an artist to help them embrace the team spirit of it? In the music business, there’s often an “every-band-for-itself” mentality.
We’ve just led by example. We’ve never tried to preach too much to artists because people do it different ways. Communion’s just one way. Some people do a bit of stuff with Communion, plus a lot of other things.
We wouldn’t say our way is better. We would just say that our way is how we would want to do it as musicians. … So in the past, we’ve found we can build trust in it just by showing people the way.
I’m sure part of the leap of faith was due to the fact that you chose to tour in VW buses which can be notoriously finicky, mechanically speaking.
Yeah. But I’d like to believe that … what happens when you get into one of those old camper vans is it just slows everything down for a minute and you can actually just appreciate the distances.
Those vans can only go so fast, so I’m sure that really changes the experience for a group of musicians out on the road.
Ben Howard on that tour, I think, was the most initially skeptical about the whole thing. Because he’s an arena artist in the UK. He’s a high-profile award-winning artist, so getting into a camper van and driving 10 hours a day seemed romantic initially. And then within a couple of days, he was like, “This is really intense.”
What everyone famously experienced was, “Well this is nice. We’ve got nothing to do — other than travel to the next show. What now?” And I think between my passion for it and — Gill Landry from Old Crow Medicine Show was one of the other drivers — I think between us, we basically convinced people to cherish the real moments, those breaking stages of being an artist. For a lot of them, it was their first U.S. tour. And just to cherish that because, in some ways, it doesn’t get any better — the lack of responsibility. That was just one part of it, but it was fun putting that together and kind of showing the Communion way.
Weren’t you both driving one of the buses and handling merch on that tour?
Those were my two primary duties, plus a bit of map-reading.
Talk about intimate involvement.
Yeah. It was my idea. You can’t come up with something and leave people to do it.
In this new venture, you’re doing monthly dates in various U.S. cities, and the first round features Rubblebucket, Willy Mason, Roadkill Ghost Choir and Yacht Club DJs. That’s quite the stylistic variety — a psych-pop dance band, a singer-songwriter, a folk-rock group and mash-up DJs. How do you decide who to throw in the mix together?
I think it’s perfectly eclectic. It’s the perfect combination of artists to fit together. There isn’t much of a thread besides the sort of people that they are, which is open, willing and inclusive. I think everyone’s gonna have a really good time and get along very well. Willy Mason, Rubblebucket and Yacht Club DJs have been together already on the Gentlemen of the Road tour [with Mumford & Sons].
Willy Mason is easily one of the most underrated songwriters America’s produced in the last 10 years. It’s interesting being a songwriter, especially when it comes to markets like Nashville, because he’s going to be going onstage [playing] to a room full of singer-songwriters. What I like about Willy going out on that stage is that his writing is so good that I feel like he’s gonna convince anyone in there who’s aspiring to write good songs. He’ll inspire them with his music, which is another part of why we do what we do.
You’ve been asked many times about your overall criteria in choosing artists to bring into the Communion fold. You’ve said quality songwriting is what you look for. Which might sound obvious until you start considering the fact that there are neo-soul, blues and jazz song interpreters and virtuosic instrumentalists who don’t write many songs. So why is songwriting the center of gravity?
There is quite a lot of music out there, whether it be a performing artist doing someone else’s music or instrumental groups. You know, for the last few years, I’ve been around a lot of bluegrass bands, a lot of great trad bands. I think they’re all great, but for Communion, the focus is, “How well can people express themselves?”
It’s all completely subjective, but for me, these people on these dates speak to me, and it makes me want to move or it makes me reflect on something. Their songs actually speak to me. As a songwriter, I know that’s not an easy task. So I think that’s what I mean by quality songwriting — something that I hear that I connect with.
You often use terms like community and curation — language that emphasizes the distinctiveness of the Communion model. And from what I’ve seen in the club nights I’ve attended and the documentary footage I’ve viewed, it draws a younger crowd among both the artists and audiences. Do you think there’s a generational piece to people identifying with this?
There might be. But I think by agreeing with that, it would be kind of going against the ethos of “come one, come all.” I think that naturally, yeah, there is an interesting way of people kind of connecting more so now than ever with. … It’s hard to explain. I think it would be best for me just to disagree. (laughs)
Fair enough. So why are you doing these standing monthly club nights in various cities instead of a standard package tour?
That was just a way of making sure that we get the quality of bands like Rubblebucket out on all the dates. More of a practical thing.
The real premise — and what we’re going for — is having a monthly event in each individual city. It’s actually more like we’re simultaneously building nine different communities.
On one hand, you’ve taken a vision hatched in London and spread it all over the UK, then to Australia and the U.S., and drawn in artists from all of those places. On the other hand, you seem very invested in cultivating ongoing communities in specific cities. How does one transcend geography and foster local scenes at the same time?
Honestly, it’s in the collaboration with the people on the ground. … Working with [local] people and not just coming in saying, “We know what’s good for Communion, the bands. We’re gonna tell Nashville where things are.” … It’s about being all ears. The most successful artists that we’ve worked with have been recommendations from someone else. How else do you ever hear about anything? If you think about it, it’s almost always from a friend or a trusted source. And we’re exactly the same. We’re just a huge sponge.
Here’s a list of the Communion Presents tour dates:
Oct. 1: New York City (Rockwood Music Hall)
Oct. 2: Philadelphia (Johnny Brenda’s)
Oct. 3: Washington, D.C. (Black Cat)
Oct. 8: Bloomington, Ind. (Bluebird Theater)
Oct. 9: Louisville, Ky. (Zanzibar)
Oct. 10: Nashville (The High Watt/Mercy Lounge)
Oct. 15: Minneapolis (Varsity Theater)
Oct. 16: Madison, Wis. (Frequency)
Oct. 17: Rock Island, Ill. (Daytrotter)