Few people know their way around the music industry better than Speech Debelle. Eight years ago she won the Mercury Prize and heaps of critical acclaim for her debut album. And then? Well, let’s just to say her career didn’t quite work out as planned.
This week she told university students in Southampton how it all went wrong. How she didn’t have the right lawyers, accountants and publicists around to support her. In a nutshell, she had not been ready to play the fame game, so the music industry chewed her up and spat her out.
Eight years later, she is older and wiser, and has a new album to publicise. But let’s not be too cynical on this occasion. At Southampton Solent University, she spoke eloquently for an hour about how the industry works, some pitfalls to watch out for, and how to enjoy musical and artistic freedom without losing a fortune, and maybe your reputation, in the process.
What’s going on?
Debelle commended the (mainly) young people present for studying how the music industry works before throwing themselves into it. At the same time, she acknowledged the value of learning from mistakes, as she did.
It is just as important to follow one’s gut instincts, she explained, as it is to employ a good lawyer. Meanwhile, the explosion of grime and perhaps bedroom-produced pop/electronica is helping the likes of Little Simz to manage their musical aspirations as well as their lives.
DIY bands and artists are not just making important strides commercially but rejecting some of the traditional features of the industry, such as a manager or agent. And it’s not just grime or hip-hop artists who are going their own way.
Punk band The Tuts, mentioned in this blog already on more than one occasion this year, are among those who trust nobody – except themselves:
I’m not going to claim that The Tuts are setting the music world alight yet in 2017 (though their music is fantastic). The important thing is that they are going about things as they wish, mixing tours of smaller venues with support slots for bands such as Feeder, and headlining low-key festivals.
Spinning the truth
You may have noticed that everyone referenced in this blog is female. And that is how it will continue. For two hours after Speech Debelle’s appearance at the university music conference, Radio1’s first woman DJ, and now its oldest DJ of either gender, took to the stage.
Anne Nightingale has an incredible ability to hold an audience’s attention, even if most of them are 50 years younger than her. There were stories about working as a young journalist in Brighton, then meeting her musical heroes, and finally landing a job as DJ at Radio 1.
She recalled how she was initially rejected by the station because, as a woman, she was not in a position to be a surrogate husband to the listeners, who were assumed mainly to be housewives. (Yes, these were the 1970s.)
Today, the gender of DJs is not an issue of Radio 1, although stations such as Radio 2 and Radio X remain horrendously male-dominated. When interviewing musicians, Nightingale urged any aspiring broadcasters to be friendly and respectful, but avoid being ‘gushing’.
This is something that more established DJs and broadcasters could occasionally make a note of, especially when the latest NME-approved guitar band arrives in the studio, or a US rap star with an over-sized ego grants an exclusive interview.
Then again, this is the publicity-driven music industry, where you need your wits about you to be a credible success, not simply a pawn.