For most of us, the first week of a new job is all about settling into a hitherto unfamiliar office environment.
The bonuses, backbiting and corporate ladder-climbing can wait; we’re talking about that blissfully gentle few days when the only professional expectations hanging over you are (a) to get comfortable at your desk, (b) to figure out how the company lifts work and (c) to appraise yourself of the canteen’s sausage, chips and beans.
Not so for Austin Daboh. Music Business Worldwide catches up with the London-based exec on day six of his new tenure as Executive Vice President of Atlantic Records UK – a senior role in which he reports, dually, into both Atlantic Records UK Presidents Ed Howard and Briony Turner, as well as Warner Music UK Chairman and CEO, Tony Harlow.
Thanks to lockdown, so far there’s been no gentle office introduction (and, tragically, no sausage, chips and beans) for Daboh at Warner Music UK HQ. He went from WFH in his old job (Head of Editorial, Apple Music UK & Ireland) straight to WFH in his new job.
The signs are there, though, that Daboh’s life, not to mention that of his record company employer, has taken an exciting new step forward. It’s also fair to say that Daboh’s first week in his new gig has a more intense global backdrop than most. Daboh’s career to date is deeply intertwined with the rise of British black music, and he joins Atlantic/Warner during a period of intense contemplation, nay reckoning, for the music business in terms of its treatment (and advancement) of people of colour.
That’s a topic, as you might expect, that looms large in Daboh’s Manifesto here; the five things, more than any other, he would opt to change about the music business as we stand today. Daboh is determined not only to highlight these changes, but also make a material personal difference using the weight of his new corporate position.
Said corporate position sees Daboh working in a fully fledged record company role for the first time. After stints elevating artists at the BBC, Spotify and Apple, now Daboh gets to invest in artists directly – and join the ultra-competitive rough’n’tumble of the record business. “It’s been a dope start,” Daboh says of his first few days at Atlantic, which he’s been using to “get up to speed on the inner-workings of a record label”.
“I want to build us to a place where everybody wants to see us win, because we’re helping out the entirety of youth culture, rather than just our own roster.”
He adds: “I’ve always sat in an agnostic position before, a partner to labels, offering my advice and support [to artists] from that neutral perspective. That’s something I want to carry on at Atlantic: I want to build us to a place where everybody wants to see us win, because we’re helping out the entirety of youth culture, rather than just our own roster.
“Think about when Roc Nation first came around, or Def Jam, or what Tinie [Tempah] and Dumi [Oburota] created at Disturbing London; everybody wanted them to win, even if you were signed to a different label, because they had established a place in the community that supported everyone around them.”
That’s Daboh’s goal for his own professional output, then. As for the rest of us? Allow Daboh, in his own words, to explain what he’d put at the top of our collective agenda…
1) More black female executives
During my time in the industry, there’s never been a black female label President in the UK, which is scandalous. Quite often, when you look at the DNA of a hit record or artist, it’s littered with black women, from songwriters and backing vocalists through to managers and assistants etc. Yet I can count on one hand the amount of black females currently working at executive level in the UK business.
That’s why point one on my Manifesto is ensuring that we have a real commitment to promoting black females to head of department and President level within companies. There’s been some really good moves made in the last few years by companies such as Warner Chappell – big up Amber Davis – and you’ve got people like Fay Hoyte doing great things over at Universal (EMI Records), but we need to see way more than there is at the moment.
“There needs to be a level playing field across the structures of these companies that allows black women to succeed.”
There needs to be a level playing field across the structures of these companies that allows black women to succeed. For example, how do we ensure that a black woman’s passion is interpreted correctly, and not as ‘aggression’? How do we ensure that the same safeguards we put in place to ensure people from different cultures have their rights and beliefs respected, are also afforded to young black women?
And yes, for a minority group who has faced systemic injustices over decades, you do sometimes have to use some affirmative action and say to yourself, ‘Okay, well, both candidates tick nine out of 10 boxes but, on this occasion, we’re going to choose this person to help us start to redress that balance.’
Interestingly, I find that from primary school age through to maybe college age, black men and black women seem to be at about the same level when it comes to confidence, networking, being out there in the music industry. etc. But, for me, something happens between the age of early twenties through to late twenties, where these black women seem to drop off that corporate ladder. We need to investigate why that is; why is there this drop off in black females
climbing up the industry at a rate that we just don’t see with white females? Ultimately though, we can talk about long-term plans and I can sit here and say ‘affirmative action’, but the ultimate solution is to just do it. Just hire more black women. That’s the answer.
One factor in all of this comes down to assumptions. If you are a black music exec, male or female, who looks after rappers, then it’s often assumed that you can’t necessarily take the step up into being a head of a department. You’re pigeonholed as a specialist, an expert in black music culture and that’s that – dance and pop are assumed to be above your remit. But the music industry is littered with heads of departments that have no knowledge whatsoever in black music culture, who are giving opinions on whether or not black artists are signed.
2) Financial and mental health support for artists
Record labels should be providing cradle to grave services to artists, and that means offering support when it comes to personal finance and mental health. Quite often when an artist signs to a label, they’re introduced to an accountant… and that’s it.
We should be offering full financial mentoring, especially to those from low income backgrounds. And, while adhering to data protection regulations, we should also make sure that, for those artists who maybe come from more chaotic backgrounds, particular mental health support is made available.
Young artists who sign to a major label – whether it’s an indie artist from the north of England, or a rapper from down south – can go from being on the welfare state their entire life, watching, mum and dad struggling, maybe a single parent household, to suddenly have £100,000 put into their bank account, with no financial training whatsoever. It’s no wonder so many artists, after being given this amazing amount of money, find themselves in financial difficulty within a year or two.
What can we do about that as an industry? How can we ensure we’re not just throwing an accountant their way, but also giving them practical advice as to how to save their money, grow their money and invest their money?
This applies from a mental health point of view too. If you go from having a pound in your bank account to having £100,000 in your bank account, that puts pressure on an artist. That pressure is usually three-fold: (1) The internal pressure of the artist wanting to succeed; (2) The pressure that comes from suddenly being the breadwinner of your family, with family members coming out of nowhere to get in touch; (3) The pressure from the label you sign to and the music industry itself – that up-and-down rollercoaster of emotions.
On top of all of that, you’ve got the public judging you, and over social media it’s all too easy to hear the negative stuff people are saying. 20 years ago, before social media was a thing, if an artist didn’t read the newspapers, you really had to go out of your way to find members of the general public who didn’t like you.
“Now, within three or four seconds of typing your name into Google or a search bar on social media, you can find thousands of people expressing an opinion about you and your music. As EVP at Atlantic, I want us to really ensure we are giving artists the tools they need to cope, financially and mentally.”
Now, within three or four seconds of typing your name into Google or a search bar on social media, you can find thousands of people expressing an opinion about you and your music. As EVP at Atlantic, I want us to really ensure we are giving artists the tools they need to cope, financially and mentally, with both the heightened income and heightened emotional states they might find themselves in.
Part of that is obviously about transparency. One of the things we’re trying to do as Atlantic is ensure that when we’re having conversations with artists at the point of signing, we’re making it clear that if we’re giving you this amount as an advance, this is the business you will have to do, in real terms, to make that money back for us as a company. People can take bad news; what they don’t like are surprises.
Quite often an artist gets a nice chunky advance, then they spend it, then in a year’s time they’re like, ‘Hold on a sec, why does my bank account only have this amount in it?!’ If you’re honest with artists, it leads to much less resentment and a better situation for everyone.
3) A truly global education for artists – and executives
When we talk about breaking UK acts globally, we often really mean America. And while we love our cousins across the Pond, there’s also another five billion or so people to consider around the world when working out how to magnify an artist.
I was shocked when I first joined Spotify to see just how much British music was being consumed outside of the UK, not only in the States, but also in Germany, France, the Nordics, Asia and South America. I remember [ex-Spotify economics chief] Will Page saying that four out of every five streams for the average UK artist happens abroad [Page announced this via MBW in December 2018], and also that 80% of UK artists see the majority of their streams happening outside of their home market. That’s incredible.
There’s a reason why, historically, the UK is so culturally associated with the US, and language is no small part of that. But if you look at what’s going on in UK youth music at the moment, especially the rise of black music culture, [we’re] actually far more aligned with Germany, Spain, Italy and Russia – countries that are seeing black music culture come to the mainstream for the first time in recent years, just as we have in the UK. America is 25 years ahead – they had Run DMC and Public Enemy, and black people winning Grammys at a consistent level, over two decades ago.
“When we’re talking about breaking an act, we should be looking at Europe, and understanding the nuances of countries within Europe.”
So, with that in mind, when we’re talking about breaking an act, we should be looking at Europe, and understanding the nuances of countries within Europe. What is the MTV equivalent in Italy? What is the GRM Daily and Link Up TV of these different countries?
We need to find the equivalent of those, not just in black music culture but also in indie music culture, pop culture, rock culture and dance culture. One of the things we’re looking to do at Atlantic is say, ‘How can we have closer ties to our European brothers and sisters?’ alongside making sure that we’re strengthening the bond across the Atlantic [ocean] too.
Making that mission even more exciting is this cross pollination happening with the African diaspora now, and the fact that you’re getting big Nigerian communities in places like Italy.
Plus, as we know from records like Despacito, if you have the right record today, language doesn’t mean anything. Look at Afrobeats, look at Burna Boy; language isn’t a barrier to that global success. It’s all about melody, production and vibe – and, again, that goes across all genres.
4) Apprenticeships for low-income young people
How do we ensure that talented young people who might be suffering financially are afforded the same opportunities as those people lucky enough to be born into situations where they can survive being paid pennies for the first few years of their professional journey?
This is personally very important to me. When I first arrived in the music industry, I came from a low income background. I was broke, I was on a council estate, but I was lucky enough to meet a mentor who paid me £50 a week, which meant I could just about afford my Travelcard and a sandwich for lunch. Not everyone is lucky enough to have those mentors or opportunities granted to them.
For some kids out there, the stakes are very high. Every time I went for a job interview, when I was trying to break into the music industry, it was like, if I don’t get this, then I’m back on the ends; I’m back doing things that teenage boys shouldn’t be doing to make money. I remember coming into the industry and seeing people who were roughly the same age as me, 19 or 20, and being like, ‘What? You’ve got flatmates and your parents helped you?’ Or, ‘Your parents gave you a deposit for a house?’ That was just mind-blowing to me.
“How do we ensure that talented young people who might be suffering financially are afforded the same opportunities as those people lucky enough to be born into situations where they can survive being paid pennies for the first few years of their professional journey?”
Some of the thinking that I’m keen to bring into the wider Warner Music Group is, ‘What can we do to support people from low income backgrounds, of all colours?’ This is as much a poor white boy or girl problem as it is a poor black boy or girl problem. How do we ensure that, for the first couple of years of their career, they’ve got the opportunity to experiment?
I grew up in a low-income family, but I was lucky: we struggled, like lots of people, but there was always food on the table and clothes on our back. I’ve got friends who grew up destitute, in the depths of poverty. They didn’t have a laptop in their house, they didn’t have an email address, sometimes people may be dealing with abuse in the household.
We have to all be mindful that there are issues beyond a young candidate’s control that mean that they don’t always present themselves as [other people might]. A big part of this is that we are an informal industry, so we can probably do a much better job of teaching and accepting people that are lacking soft skills, and then supplementing that where needed.
5) More research outside the M25
Please, let’s look beyond our noses when it comes to how people are thinking and feeling about music. There are so few meaningful initiatives in the industry that look at what’s going on past Watford.
How do we ensure that we understand how people are thinking and feeling in Middlesbrough and Bolton and Glasgow? Because, quite often, the reason why someone like Gerry Cinnamon can get to Brixton level without the London industry noticing is because we weren’t doing research on what was going on outside the M25.
It’s the same reason why Bugzy Malone was able to drop single after single and then end up with a top five EP without major label involvement – the labels weren’t looking at what was happening in Manchester.
“It’s my intention coming into Atlantic to ensure that we’re looking the length and breadth of the UK to find out what’s going on out there, whether it be the punk scene in Kent, or the revival of baseline in West Yorkshire.”
It’s my intention coming into Atlantic to ensure that we’re looking the length and breadth of the UK to find out what’s going on out there, whether it be the punk scene in Kent, or the revival of baseline in West Yorkshire. Where’s the next Gerry Cinnamon, the next Stormzy or the next Bugzy Malone coming from?
The ‘forgotten’ people are often the most creative. I’ll give you an example: in Dublin at the moment, there is an amazing amount of world class, street level talent that’s coming out of the black culture scene. Yet for years, nobody took black music culture from Ireland seriously. So these Irish artists sat there, forgotten about, watching and learning from their cousins across the narrow sea to the UK. And out of that forgotten culture you’ve now got artists like Jafaris, who is making incredible music.
Every single record label is based within a three mile square radius in London. It’s either Kensington or Kings Cross. So if you are a kid from Bristol – no matter how much money your family has, by the way – you have to question how feasible it is for you to get down and around those areas in London. As an industry, we have to ensure that we’re casting the net wide, not just on repertoire, but on our staff inside the building as well. How much talent is being missed out on if we don’t?
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