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The Music Shapers: Part 1

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

The Music Industry is a multi-billion global enterprise with numerous components ensuring the factory runs smoothly. From songwriting, musical compositions, live shows, backing vocalists and selling recorded tracks, the music industry within the digital age continues to flourish with exceptional talent. However, the aftermath of COVID-19 has led the UK Music industry to ask for assistance from the UK government due to its economy in partial recovery. In 2021, the UK music industry was up 26% from 2020, but despite this increase, it's still down by 31% from its pre-pandemic peak in 2019. The decline doesn't end there. It's been reported that there has also been a decrease in the total number of employees from ethnically diverse backgrounds: 21.04% of employees identify as Black, Asian or other. With the numbers only revealing one side of the story, what's surfacing within the physical realm are similar shades. The BRITs' pitiful R&B erasure at this year's awards show echoes the lack of appreciation the genre receives from those in boarding rooms with little to no ties to the sound.

Behind the scenes, music shapers adoration for what the UK (and beyond) has to offer, and silences false facades as they stand sentinel, moulding soundscapes of tomorrow. We sat down with five music creatives we know should be on your radar and the makings of their contributions to the industry so far.

Estée Blu: Musician, Activist and Curator of UK R&B Legacy Playlist

A conversation with Estée Blu provided a glimpse of the new age moulders, actively using their voices to ensure our scene progresses with the care it deserves. Her emphasis on paying homage to those who contributed to the scene today highlighted how music could not just fit within the business frame but rather be a spiritual practice. Wearing multiple hats of a musician, activist and playlist curator, Estee Blu's relationship with music started at the shy age of six years old. Having a mother who adored all things Whitney Houston, Blu's musical ear developed vastly through Huston's soundtracks flooding the home's hallways. "I was obsessed with Whitney Houston, not only because of how incredibly beautiful she was," she told us. "But her voice was just captivating." Joining the children’s choir at the church on Kilburn High Road, Blu found herself centre stage, learning what's required of having proficient stage presence while belting solos, resulting in TV performances on what was then GMTV. "[Performing] was really like, second nature. I was known as the girl who sang. So really, that's just what I did. But I didn't think it would ever be a career."

"My background is Congolese, and as an African, music and the arts are just a hobby. So, I went to study languages at uni and would do something in international space travelling and working in government."

After obtaining a French and Italian degree, Blu delved deep into her adventures and woke up to contrasting sceneries. But discrimination continues to wear the same mask. "I returned to music in that moment. I spent a year out in France. And in Italy, for about ten months, on my own. I didn't have many friends. It was quite challenging to make friends as an international student in general. I turned to music and writing. And I told myself, 'when I return home, I will give this a go'. That was like 2015 times. I didn't know anyone in the industry. I didn't know what I was doing, but I was like, I'm going to give it a go. So I started putting up music on SoundCloud and Bandcamp."

Was this done independently?

Oh, 100% independently. I'm as independent as you get, as in I do everything. That was also really interesting to discover. When I learned more about the business that artists don't do everything: that there are labels and there are managers, and then press teams, and brand partnerships teams, all these other vast and vital parts of building an artist's career. When you're starting out, there is a big misconception, and I think it's done on purpose. To keep you from knowing how the industry actually works. Because it is a huge industry. There are hundreds of people employed to make one person successful. There are lots of people that are a part of that, and there's a lot of investment that is a part of that.

As much as it's great to do everything by yourself, it's also very difficult because you need more resources and expert advice from professionals who can get you from emerging to established.

The music industry can be quite gated in the sense of, there can only be ‘one’. How is navigating in that space as a Black Woman?

It's so interesting. So I last released music about three years ago now. It's been quite a while since I've taken a break— a bit of a hiatus. I've been here and there, running my mouth online. And that's been fun. But I couldn't have analysed the industry like I had if I had stepped back from it. When you're in it, you're on a hamster wheel. As a woman, as a Black person, that intersection of how people treat you differently compared to a Black man, a Mixed-raced woman, or a white woman. When you're on that hamster wheel: performing, writing the music, trying to put in funding applications to get some money and progress with your business, you don't have much time to process everything that's going on. I've spoken to other women in music about this, and you can go through a period of burnout.

Meanwhile, they have managers and labels behind them. That's the biggest scam. Telling Darkskin Black women that we need to work harder when we're not getting the same opportunities as our counterparts.

In 2021, The Guardian reported there 63% of music makers experienced racism within the UK industry. 71% were said to have faced microaggressions, and many Black women found themselves in conversations centred on their physical appearance and earned much less than white female artists.

I got a degree in Music Business Management during that break, and it was the best investment I could have ever made. Nobody can give examples of people who look like me and are household names. You can't. Not in this country, no. They're not investing in Darkskin women in that way. But what's interesting is that all the stylists, choreographers, dancers, and backing singers are all Darkskin Black Women. They want to invest in something other than us to be the stars. What I've been working on [with other Black Women] is becoming our own ecosystem. So how do we put ourselves in the centre? Similar to how Grime used to work It's a collective effort. The conditioning of the industry says that there can only be one [Black Female artist]. I encourage people to get out of that mindset and ask if they think that. Or is that the industry's conditioning that says they can only be one? This idea of competing with other Black Women: is that what you want to do? Or is it something you've been told to do?

Why did UK R&B Legacy Playlist need to exist? How does it fuel a conversation that goes beyond this small island?

It stemmed from the constant erasure of Black people's contributions on this island. Especially when it comes to R&B. R&B is a Black Female led genre, which has always been. In the UK, we've had different ways of vocalising. We've always vocalised: either in the church, on a Reggae song, or Dance and Electronic music… That's always been our version of R&B and our expression and stories we want to tell.

The Brit Awards' decision to fuse the Pop and R&B category but not have any R&B artists in the nominations it was obvious what game they were playing. There was this big outrage, but I had to ask, 'why are you guys outraged?' Remember the system we're in. I feel like the music industry is another version of colonialism and slavery regarding Black Art forms. It does similar things – extracting parts of Black and African cultures that they like, putting it on a lighter and whiter face, and then exploiting that. That's why I wasn't surprised about the BRIT's awards.

I wanted to remind people that we've been doing this. The playlist goes back to 1982, which was around the time American R&B emerged. I had some great collaborators, including one of my good friends whom I've known for about ten years, Romey Sky, a poet and a selector who is of Jamaican heritage. He helped me with that. So did Jesse Bernard, who is an avid R&B lover, and we've had several conversations about UK R&B. I will continuously work on this to show people that UK R&B didn't just start today. It didn't start yesterday. It started 40+ years ago. And there are different sounds and flavours it took. Let's not forget.

Your activism is incredibly inspiring. What brought you to this calling? And what does equality and accessibility look like to you?

I asked myself the question of how we can change this. Because we can't keep being passive, we can't keep letting things happen to us when it's to do with our culture and spiritual systems. There's an element of me reclaiming back my power. I've been singing since age five, but how else can I use my voice? Your voice can sometimes be the first thing to go in this industry. When the Black Lives Matter movement resurged in 2020, and we were all stuck in our houses, that rocked me—and forced me to confront specific conversations I've been having with myself. At the beginning of my career, I was so focused on my singing voice that with my speaking voice, I toned it down. And there was a divide between how I presented myself versus who I was in real life. The activism helped me reveal who I am and brought that gap together. But also fiercely protecting my culture. Not just for me but for other Black Women too.

Regarding equality and accessibility: people really need to do the research. In terms of what the founders of our music were. When you start researching, you'll find that many prominent Black singers were disabled, neurodiverse, queer, and plus size. They had these different quirks about them that made the music. Ensuring we honour them and not become a weird version of capitalism in Blackface where we're excluding Black Women, excluding queer people. We need to make more spaces for ALL Blackness to exist. The best version of that I saw was at AfroPunk London a few years ago.

You are in the process of recording and co-producing your project as well. With the knowledge and experience you've obtained thus far, what will you be doing or have done differently with this project?

I'm doing everything differently. I used to rush a lot. I needed to learn how to build a plan beyond a single release. I was doing what I thought was the right thing. Consistency as well in all my releases that's important to me. And also, I think one thing that I'm so excited about is that most of the people working on this are Black women. From the production to the executive producer to the creative: the majority are Black women and women of colour. When I first started, I didn't have a choice. I would work with people because I liked what they did. But there was a power dynamic that I wasn’t aware of in that relationship. Some people didn't see me as an equal collaborator. They saw me as a Black Woman. and would behave in really unkind and discriminatory ways. T. I get to choose who I work with now. And because of the type of stories I'm telling, I am so grateful that I've built genuine relationships with them, and they will handle my story with care. They see me as an equal collaborator. For those of you who have been waiting for me to say something in a song, I think they will be taken aback by the evolution. I get to marry all the things I've mentioned in articles or panels with music that isn't cheesy but speaks to a real experience of Black British womanhood. I love it.

PJ Somervelle: Music Manager and A&R

Meet PJ Somervelle. A music manager and independent A&R, who had been working in the charity sector for a number of years after graduating from university until he moved to London and started to dabble in the world of music. Toes soon started to dabble in the music world when he moved to London in December 2020. An encouraging friend's love and support resulted in Somervelle birthing his music blog and pitching to publications such as Line of Best Fit, CLASH and New Wave Magazine. "I enjoyed writing about music so much that it was time to look at changing my career. The charity work was physically and emotionally draining, and I had to take action. I started to look into what I could do in the music industry as writing (at my level) wasn't going to pay the bills!" he told us.

Looking into becoming a publicist, he received advice from the likes of Chloe Mykel, Amar (Parasoul, formerly known @1994Collective) as well as Brenda Juliet and Giovana Mae (from @myBlaqBook).

"I was building my presence on social media (namely Twitter) and

realised that management and A&R were also exciting and untapped areas of my creativity."

"UK Rap and UK R&B are very close to my heart because they are the main genres I listen to, but they are the most exciting and evolving genres worldwide," he claimed.

"So when platforms like RNB Radar (shout out to Tomi, Lisa and the team) saw what I was doing online to push UK R&B, I knew I was on the right track. Everyone I've ever interacted with in music has shown nothing but love and positive energy, and I want to reciprocate that in my work. So two years later, I'm here!"

What does the role of an A&R consist of?

With any role in the music industry, there are positions and actions. You can ‘be’ an A&R, but you can also ‘do’ A&R. In many conversations when someone says they ‘A&R’d’ something, they mean that they put the artists, songwriters, and producers together and created a song out of it. But, like anything on the internet, context is everything.

There are a lot of roles for an A&R, and there’s a lot of confusion between different positions in the industry. Unfortunately, some people take advantage of this.

You have the traditional ‘industry/label’ stuff and the more disruptive/modern approach. Google and TikTok will tell you what a standard A&R does, so I won’t go into that (signing and developing an artist’s catalogue). Twitter allows anyone to speak on the subject for better or worse, so look out for threads!

My vision for what a modern INDEPENDENT A&R does is simple: to support the development of independent artists and their music underpinned by ethics and well-being. Most importantly, to build up and prepare artists for whatever success/fame they aim for, to ensure that their music has longevity and their community stands the test of time.

According to the BPI, UK record labels invested £494.8 million in supporting artists’ careers and development in 2021 through A&R, marketing and promotion. The A&R spend alone was 106.6% more in 2021 than what was invested back in 2016 (approx. £173.3 million).

I want everyone to be crystal clear that an actual A&R would never ask an artist for money. Unless there are clear agreements, contracts (legal advice), and expectations laid out and the person is providing actual services, you should not be paying an ‘independent’ A&R. You can pay for publicity and marketing services, sure. You can pay a manager 20% of your income, but, as A&Rs almost always are employed by the label they represent, it’s unethical, a conflict of interest and even could be a breach of their contract if they were to take money from external sources.

You provide daily insightful tips for emerging artists. What’s one mandatory piece of advice you’ll give those beginning their journey?

Learning is mandatory! If you aren’t a student of the game, then you are going to lose. You can make all the music you want and enjoy being creative, but it’s an entirely different thing if you are pursuing a career in music. Don’t ever be pressured into doing this by friends or family who say you should. Be sure you’re doing it for the right reasons and that you’ve had some life experience first. Maturity and the ability to manage yourself (take care of your mental and physical health) are essential on this journey, as learning who you can rely on and trust.

You’ve been managing a pop artist for three months; congratulations to her on her first show. How does being a manager differ from being an A&R?

Thank you! Berry Galazka is a one-of-a-kind, pure creative artist, and I am lucky to have encountered her so early in her journey. She smashed her first headline show and is currently getting a lot of industry attention.

Management will always come first before an A&R is in the mix. A manager will do everything in the early days and, as time goes by, look to employ new people to help support the artist/business infrastructure. Managers develop artists, set up sessions, advocate on the artist’s behalf, coordinate, liaise, etc., but most importantly, before an artist gets a manager, they should be able to manage themselves.

What does your music career look like in five years?

It’s all open. Music will change beyond anything anyone has ever seen in the next five years, and I’m here for it. I learnt early on that being ‘independently minded’ (something Raleigh Ritchie told me in an interview) was the key to my success.

All I want to do is work with and support people with good intentions and positive energy. And music is the environment that I find myself in!

Somervelle's push for self-governance within his own career and with those he crosses paths with is admirable. His career, so far, pushes forward the importance of artists recognising their voices' power and independence. Having such a pillar involved in your journey promises a career reinstating the blessings of a community, but most notably, remembering that one's mere passion is more than enough.

Follow Estée Blu and PJ Somervelle on their journeys via socials and the second part of this mini-series here.


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