‘From the start, we knew we were going to be the biggest in the country.’

Wesley Earl Banton (centre) with D-Block Europe – Dirtbike LB (left) and Young Adz (right

Trailblazers is an MBW interview series that turns the spotlight on music entrepreneurs with the potential to become the global business power players of tomorrow. This time, we speak to Wesley Earl Banton, Manager of UK rap duo D-Block Europe. Trailblazers is supported by TuneCore.

The success of D-Block Europe is undeniable. The rap duo have sold out seven O2 Arenas, while scoring eight Top 10 albums/mixtapes in the UK and 30 (thirty!) Top 40 singles. Their first two full albums reached No.2 on the UK’s Official Albums Chart.

In January, their third, Rolling Stone (distributed by EGA), hit No.1.

They’ve had global streaming smashes too – not least Prada, a remix of their Ferrari Horses duet with RAYE, which to date has over half a billion plays on Spotify. (Ferrari Horses itself has another 100 million-plus.)

At a time when longevity is arguably harder to sustain than ever before, DBE’s 10-year trajectory is impressive. There is also, of course, the minor detail that all of the above has been achieved independently.

Manager Wesley Earl Banton has been steering D-Block Europe’s career from the get-go.

He initially started working with DBE member Young Adz on his solo career — an informal ‘big brother’ relationship that began because Adz is the best friend of Banton’s actual younger brother, Ricky. Then, when Ricky, aka Dirtbike LB, joined the team, D-Block Europe was born.

The source of Banton’s music business education has been two-fold.

Firstly, a family link with Jadakiss led Banton to New York, where he spent a lot of time with the artist. “That’s where I really learned the fundamentals, because I saw it first hand and at a high level,” says Banton.

“When I then went back to our thing it was easy, because I’d already seen [a music career] at its peak; what it involves and everything that we needed to do, step by step.”

Secondly, Banton’s uncle is British reggae singer Maxi Priest, whose success inspired the now-artist-manager from an early age.

Here, we are granted a rare interview with Banton to chat about DBE’s success, the importance of independence, and much more…

Across your time managing D-Block Europe, they’ve had a huge amount of success – and sustained success, across both albums, singles, live and more. What are the factors that have gone into achieving that?

Releasing amazing music, consistency and an extraordinary work rate. They are the key elements. I feel like all three of us basically work all year round, seven days a week.

Have you had a defined strategy for their career since it started getting off the ground? Or has it been more of a case of working hard and a snowball effect?

Definitely a snowball effect – plus patience and ambition. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go because they’ve had a high in their career and then, all of a sudden, they are not hot anymore and don’t know how to soldier through it.

They just think, ‘Oh, that’s it now’ and get disheartened. With us, we’ve had to keep going and going, not really paying attention to the highs and lows.

“We’ve had to keep going and going and not pay attention to the highs and lows.”

Sometimes I refer to it as a delusional mindset, where you’ve got to believe [you’ll achieve] your main goal, whether it’s true or not. From the start, we all knew we were going to be the biggest in the country. We knew that before we were selling records. Some people would have thought we were delusional. But without being delusional, how can you have faith in yourself? There was no other option.

Do you think there’s anything the wider music industry could learn from the D-Block Europe story?

People always say to me that D-Block Europe need to be studied at universities. It’s easier for someone from the outside to see it than someone like myself, but I guess something you can learn [from us] that’s quite obvious: teamwork, loyalty and work rate. If you learn how to work in a team, it’s a lot easier than trying to move a mountain by yourself.

Do you have any rules you try to stick by when it comes to maintaining a cohesive working relationship?

The main thing is loyalty. People say you shouldn’t work with family, or that it’s difficult to work with family. That can be true, but one of the keys to our success is that you never want to let family down, so you go over and beyond. If I just had a normal client, I wouldn’t take the approach of putting my life on the line for our success. That plays a big part in the mindset, determination and passion that goes into it.

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned over the last 10 years of management?

You can’t trust everybody that wears a suit. I’ve had to learn that not everybody you do business with has your best interests at heart.

“You can’t trust everybody that wears a suit. Not everybody you do business with has your best interests at heart.”

Sometimes, people are only looking to do business with you to benefit themselves and they may do whatever they need in order to accomplish their goal. At the start, I didn’t think it would be that cut-throat.

Is that one of the reasons why you’ve stayed independent?

That’s the main reason. Also, the independence thing is about the long run. For us, it wasn’t about taking some money upfront and changing our lives for a short period of time, because everybody knows that money comes, money goes. Say you sign a deal, get an advance and sell no more records; that’s your career over.

You’re in debt and you’re not making any money. With independence on our side, we’ve got everything on the back end. If you sell music how we’ve sold, it’s 10 times more rewarding. I understand that some people may need the money upfront, but we didn’t.

Is independence something you would consider giving up in future for the right deal or is it an absolute no go?

Not all of the independence. I guess you can tailor a deal to how you want it to be. But giving away everything and not owning a part of what we’ve built over the last decade… the chance of that is really slim.

It can be difficult for artists to make a living from streaming unless they are top-tier, global-selling acts. D-Block Europe have done well on multiple levels, including sales and chart success.

What’s your perspective on streaming? Is it working for you?

When we’ve released music, we’ve gone up against some legendary acts and have absolutely demolished them streaming-wise, but they sell a lot of physical. What I’ve realised is that streaming doesn’t [fully] measure how big of an artist you are: streaming [numbers] can be [high due to] hype in the moment or a viral point in your career.

As time goes on, we’re still streaming, but our physicals are going up to a point where we’re starting to compete with old school acts on that level too.

When we got the No.1 album, we outsold on both sides: streaming and physical. It goes hand in hand. Streaming can mislead you. You can think, ‘Oh, wow, I’m streaming, I’ve got this number of millions of streams’ and then next year, you could have none.

With physical, year-in, year-out, you will be selling a bunch every time you release. Streaming is great for the income but don’t get too caught up on it. You’ve got to have a fanbase that buy into your physical releases. That’s what measures the artist for me.

How did you increase those physical sales?

It happened organically. The bigger we got, the more invested our fans have been. It also has a lot to do with touring. We’ve tied it in with presale tickets for the O2 Arena etc.

Our tickets always blow out really quick; within hours we sell out arenas. So we started using methods like letting fans pre-order the album to get early access to the tickets.

Do you feel that the success of D-Block Europe is adequately recognised and supported by the wider music industry?

I think it is. If you’re in the music industry, you know what’s going on and what fans are listening to and buying. It’s hard to be in the industry and not see that someone’s just sold out four O2 Arenas in one week. It’s hard to not see a No.1 album. But, for a long time, the industry was turning a blind eye, maybe because of our independence.

The industry is run by the majors so if we’re outdoing them, why would they embrace it? From a business perspective, you don’t congratulate the competition, especially if they’re embarrassing you.

What’s the appetite and success like for D-Block Europe outside of the UK, and in the US in particular?

We did have a North America tour that had to be cancelled because of work visa issues. We were also on the line-up for Rolling Loud in New York but couldn’t play because of the same problem. We’re doing a European tour this year, where we’ve toured in the past. Sometimes, the reception is crazier there than in the UK.

What was the visa issue?

You’ve got to get a work visa and if you’ve got a criminal record, it’s not as simple as just being accepted. It’s a process.

Do you have ambitions in the US? Can you get around the visa problems?

Yes, it’s just a matter of time. Hip-hop originated in America, so it goes without saying, the ultimate goal is to tour all 52 states. We have a lot of relationships in America with other artists, A-List celebrities, so it’ll be quite easy once we get there. We won’t be starting from the bottom. The plan would be to get out there in a year or two.

Is there anything you would change in the British rap scene today that would help sustain and further grow it in future?

The main thing I’d change would be artists working together more often, whether that’s for collaboration projects, albums or tours. We see that a lot in America but it’s never done in the UK. If D-Block Europe and Central Cee went on tour, I suppose it would be a stadium tour. That’s what they do in America.

More generally, what would you change about the music business and why?

I would change artists being slaves to labels. If you’re offered a deal with a major record label, it should be a 50/50 partnership.

I’d get rid of the whole 360 [deal] and 80/20 [royalty split] in favour of the label. It’s never going to work.; it’s very short-sighted. If you’ve built an artist up to believe they’re a superstar but they’re not financially compensated at a superstar level, after a few years, once they’ve spent their advance and haven’t recouped, the mental side of things kicks in and that artist can only get demotivated.

It’s not good for business. If an artist feels like their situation is even and you’re both benefiting from each other, they stay motivated to continue to make great music.

Do you get a sense that’s changing at all and getting fairer?

I think it is changing a bit because artists are starting to get wiser so it’s harder for them to be finessed. But it still exists. In the long run, it will probably even out.

What are the qualities that make a good music manager?

For me personally, you’ve got to be trustworthy. If you’re not trustworthy, I don’t see how you can be a good manager. Then standard stuff like work rate and being passionate about what you’re putting your time into.

What’s the most exciting or interesting development that’s happening in the music business right now?

Being able to start [a career] overnight with social media. We’ve seen it quite a few times where someone can go viral on TikTok and become an artist in the space of a month. Someone couldn’t even dream of something like that in the early 2000s. We’ve seen comedians, reality stars and professional footballers become artists.

Is that a good development?

I think it’s good. It only creates more awareness of music in general. You could have a big football fan who doesn’t really have an interest in listening to music but if they see one of their role models or heroes has a passion for it, that might turn them into a music fan.

Do you have any plans for growing your artist roster as a manager or are you strictly D-Block Europe only?

I don’t have any plans. I like to deal with quality over quantity. I like to dedicate my whole life to D-Block and make sure I’m giving it my all, rather than spreading my time to potentially make more money but end up earning less because I’m not maximising my efforts.

You’ve ticked off a lot of big successes with D-Block Europe. What’s next?

It would be great to have a No.1 record in America. People in the game that I’ve learned from have told me in the past, ‘You just need one No.1 record in America and you probably won’t need to work anymore’. So that’d be great.

What advice would you give to a young manager starting out?

Study the game and learn the business side of things. Learn about contracts, deals and touring. Learn it before you put it into practice. It’s very good to learn on the job, like myself, but nothing could be better than being prepared.

I was lucky enough to be able to go to certain people who have already lived it for advice, but not everybody’s going to be able to get a shortcut or crash course like I did.

The artist is only going to benefit from you having that knowledge and it could keep you in the job. Whereas making a wrong decision is going to get you kicked off the job. If you’ve got a lack of experience, just make sure you’ve got knowledge.

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Trailblazers is supported by TuneCoreTuneCore provides self-releasing artists with technology and services across distribution, publishing administration, and a range of promotional services. TuneCore is part of BelieveMusic Business Worldwide

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