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Russ Tannen

Head of Music at DICE

Russ Tannen is the Head of Music at DICE in London. When we spoke he told me a great story about how he started booking bands at his hometown's local pub at the age of 15 and wasn't able to actually watch the shows himself because he was too young to enter. That started him on a career path in music, programming shows for Vice's venue in London, and eventually into his current role. DICE is an app where fans can buy tickets to shows with no booking fees, and Russ and his team are responsible for curating all of those shows. Russ talks about the challenges of growth and prioritization and how he ended up in his role at DICE.

Tell me more about your role at DICE?

I'm the Head of Music at DICE, which means that I am ultimately responsible for the inventory that we have. I have to be across all the relationships with promoters, agents, managers and anyone who we might be selling tickets directly on behalf of. It also means I'm working on getting exclusives with established artists, and looking at which new acts we should be supporting.

I work closely with the marketing team helping shape our voice and how DICE should be pitched to fans and partners alike. I also work with the product teams to ensure that new features we build reflect the interests of users and artists.

I’m in charge of the culture, and making sure we keep that right.

My team is eight people, out of a total 38 here. DICE is a technology-led business, but really it’s a music company and music is at the core of everything we do.

“I was really into Punk and Hardcore music. I started to book bands myself to play at the local pub. For the first six months I wasn't actually allowed in the venue as I wasn't 16 yet.”

I’d love to know more about how you came to be in this role and your path to where you are now?

I grew up on the Isle of Wight, which is a small island off the south coast of England. I was always really into music and seeing bands but there wasn’t exactly a huge amount going on there. I'd have to save a couple weeks' paper round money to get the boat over to Portsmouth if I wanted to see a band. When I was 15 I'd had enough of that and started promoting shows myself.

I was really into Punk and Hardcore music. I started to book bands myself to play at the local pub. For the first six months I wasn't actually allowed in the venue as I wasn't 16 yet. I'd book someone, they'd take the ferry over from wherever they were in the U.K., I'd be there at sound-check and then have to stand outside at the back with my mates while they played. At the end of the night the guy who ran the pub would come out and give us cash to pay the band. We'd pay them in the car park and they'd jump on the ferry home.

I was promoting shows, running a zine, and a CDR Record Label, and I was caught hook, line and sinker with the idea of working in music.

I studied photography at university in Kent and ended up taking pictures of bands. I went to SXSW when I was 20, shooting people like Amy Winehouse and The Horrors, and got caught up in that world. I met a couple of guys from Universal Records whilst I was in Texas and got a message from them a while later asking if I wanted to come in and host a YouTube series for them, this was about ten years ago now. Eventually I ended up hosting for E4 music and Channel 4.

I was still promoting shows myself, and a job came up at Vice to program their venue in London, The Old Blue Last. While I was with them we threw some great parties. I booked the first U.K. shows for Lil B, Death Grips, Purity Ring, loads. We did a lot of cool stuff and we weren't really constrained too much by budgets.

I saw a band called Peace play their first London show, met them and ended up managing them. I left Vice to focus completely on management and partnered up with Phil (now DICE Founder/CEO) at his company Deadly. We signed Peace to Columbia Records and had a great run of it. I've been working with Phil ever since then.

When he started to knock the idea for DICE around the office at Deadly, I knew I wanted to work with him on it. We went quickly from talking about DICE over a couple of beers every now and then to partnering with ustwo (the creators of Monument Valley) and launching the app to the public in September 2014.

“If you've got five priorities then really you’ve got none. You need one task, you need to start every day saying, "This is the one thing I'm going to get done today."”

That’s a great story. So back to present day, what would say are some of the main challenges you face in your role?

There's definitely a major challenge of trying to keep focused. That's been about trying to block off time just to get one thing done, to prioritize.

If you've got five priorities then really you’ve got none. You need one task, you need to start every day saying, "This is the one thing I'm going to get done today." When I've actually managed to do that, it's been great. The hardest thing in the world is to be able to really say, "No, this is not as important as this." That, I think, is the biggest day-to-day challenge.

Growing also has it’s own challenges, especially when you’re hiring lots and lots of people so fast. For the last six months it’s felt like we’ve hired a new person every week. Getting someone that might not come from a music background to understand why we're doing what we’re doing, that’s hard. The culture here is so important to us.

What does a typical day look like for you?

It’s Wednesday, so let’s use a Wednesday as an example. We have a weekly leadership meeting with the founders and the other heads of departments where we run through all the high-level stuff that's happening. We made sure it wasn’t just us updating each other on what we've been doing, instead we deal with stuff like, "What do you need help with? What do you need to deal with? What's going on with your team?"

Then we do a weekly A&R meeting. Everyone on the music team plays each other new music we've heard. We talk about shows we've been to see. We make sure that everyone on the music team knows what business development deals we're working on. We get everyone’s feedback on what artists are in the app or what shows we’ve been sent - we curate everything on DICE. It's a moment to go, "Okay, should we have taken this show? Is there something else we should have gone for? Is there a show we don't have that we need to get?”

It's very typical for me to sit down with a manager or someone over lunch and just catch up, see what they’re working on.

This afternoon I’m planning a presentation. I do presentations quite often - I might be at an agency or with a promoter, with a group of people, pitching to get a specific show. The presentation I'm working on today is for a large event that's happening next year.

“Getting someone that might not come from a music background to understand why we're doing what we’re doing, that’s hard. ”

What would you say are the top five tools you're using on a regular basis?

Trello - I use this to keep track of all the bigger shows we might be working on. The whole music team uses it. We add new shows in there as and when they come in, moving them to ‘discussing’ or ‘confirmed’.

Slack - We use Slack religiously. Everyone probably says that I’m sure. I think most of our product team don’t look at email at all.

Email - We have this thing every month where Google tells us how many people have sent and received emails. Sadly I’m always near the top of that list, so I have to count email.

Apple Music/Spotify/SoundCloud - All of those are really important because we’re listening to music all the time. I always have a few SoundCloud tabs open where we’re listening to new artists that are coming through, that’s still the easiest platform for very new artists to get their music out on.

Google Docs - We use it for absolutely everything.

How do you find balancing all of the different communications you need to keep up on versus doing your own personal work throughout the day?

I try to do email in blocks and I'm trying more and more to set time aside to get work done versus doing emails. You read about people that check email three times a day or something like that but I don't know if I can do it that infrequently. Because I have a business development role, email is super important, I don’t know very many people in the music industry who are using Slack.

“I love feeling that every step we take is helping us achieve something good, it’s not just about building a business, it’s about having a positive impact on culture and the music industry as a whole.”

Why do you do what you do? What makes it meaningful to you?

I've always worked in music and I'll always work in music. It was a big deal for me to move out of doing management, which is kind of what I always thought I'd do. At the same time I really believe that what we're doing at DICE is having a positive impact on the live music industry, for artists and for fans. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I love feeling that every step we take is helping us achieve something good, it’s not just about building a business, it’s about having a positive impact on culture and the music industry as a whole.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

His name is Jimmy Asquith. I know him because he was promoting shows at The Old Blue Last when I was booking with Vice. He’s started an incredible techno label called Lobster Theremin. The name is like if you hold a lobster above a boiling pot of water and move it up and down, it would make a noise like a theremin you know, the instrument?

His business is unbelievable. He's growing it by himself, releasing vinyl. He's selling thousands of records and expanding into distribution and loads of other areas. He's built it up to a team of seven people in the first year doing something which everyone is saying shouldn’t work, releasing vinyl. Every time I talk to him, I think his working day must be absolutely insane. He's doing what 30 people should be doing. He’s a legend.