MBW’s partnership with the excellent Did Ya Know? podcast continues, with Adrian Sykes interviewing Atlantic Records’ Rich Castillo about his experiences, ambitions, passions and gripes within the UK music industry…
Rich Castillo and his three siblings were raised in Nottingham in the eighties and nineties by their single mother.
It was an upbringing that taught him important lessons and instilled core values.
He says: “My dad had left before I was born, so I grew up with a bit of resentment in that sense. I always felt like my mum had to constantly do the job of two people. And if she could do that, then I’ve always thought I’ve never really got that much to complain about.”
Even now, one of the things he enjoys about the record business is when things go wrong. “I always manage to find some sort of pleasure in the process of rectifying situations. I feel like I’m just cut out to do this, because of my character, and what has happened in my life to date.”
And also, you suspect, because he’s rarely dealing with what the real world would call actual problems.
There were also lessons to learn and plenty to absorb outside the family home: “We have a really good palette of culture in Nottingham. We’ve got a big Jamaican community, a big Indian and Pakistani community; I grew up around a lot of diversity.
“I also went to a Baptist church, so I was raised around gospel music. And my mum, being Jamaican, played a lot of reggae music. I grew up doing chores to Lovers Rock. If I heard Freddie McGregor, I knew there were jobs to do!”
Having been in management, records and publishing (and a boy band, more on that soon), he is now back in label land as A&R Director at Atlantic UK, a label which Castillo describes as “the leaders when it comes to introducing domestic repertoire to the rest of the world”.
He works across the company whilst simultaneously building his own roster, including Tion Wayne and Darkoo.
Career highlights to date include discovering and breaking N-Dubz, working in Canada for Universal Music, returning to the UK to be part of the new Polydor and a flurry of big name signings at what was then Sony ATV.
Future highlights, he hopes, include running a label and winning a Grammy. First though, about that boy band…
When did you start thinking about getting into the music business?
I went to college to do a performing arts course doing choreography and music and auditions for local pop groups would come in on our notice board.
I went for an audition for a tribute band that were going to spend the summer in Spain, touring hotels. We were going to get paid what seemed like loads of money, we were going to meet loads of girls, we were going to have the best time.
It was a no-brainer! And that’s what I did, I joined a group that got sent to Spain, to Majorca and Menorca, for a summer. We were a tribute band to Motown and to the popular boy bands of the time.
I knew I couldn’t sing, but I could definitely dance, I was in decent shape and I could blag it, so I just thought fuck it!
I think that’s where I got the music bug properly and at the end of the summer we decided to try and go to London and get a record deal. There were people worse than us doing a lot better.
“I couldn’t sing, but I could dance, I was in decent shape and I could blag it…””
We got a book called Showcase International and we went through it calling about 200 to 300 management companies in this book, and we managed to get a meeting with a guy called Richard Park, who was on [TV talent show] Fame Academy at the time. He agreed to work with us.
So we move to London, we rent a two-bedroom flat in Stratford, we record a single – and then he pulls a plug before the song comes out. We’re all in London, with what we thought was gonna be a massive record deal, and suddenly we’re scratching our heads wondering how we’re going to survive. We all signed on, whilst doing all sorts of other stuff.
We’re sneaking into nightclubs, getting on guest lists, still managing to get drunk and live a semi-decent life on benefits. We figured out a system of how we could survive in London, literally on about £20 a week each. We were in debt up to our eyeballs, but we looked at everything like a challenge: London will not beat us.
My dole officer eventually said, ‘I’ve got to put you on a course, or you’ve got to show me that you’re looking for a job’. I said I only wanted to be in the music business, because I’d got the bug at this point. So they put me on a course, I think they called it the New Deal for musicians, where I did two days a week of college and then the rest of the time I’m supposed to be looking for a job.
Luckily for me, my dole officer also happened to be a member of the MMF (Music Managers Forum), and he heard about a role going at Shalit International.
I had an opportunity to get in front of Jonathan [Shalit]. He quizzed me a bit, and then at the end of the meeting, I’m like, ‘Oh, by the way, I’ve got this group, we’re amazing, you should check us out’.
Jonathan turned around and said, ‘To be clear, I’m not interested in your music at all, but if you want to get into the business side of it, I’m open to giving you an opportunity to work on a temporary basis here’. I said, ‘Amazing, how much money will I get?’ He said he’d pay my expenses.
I knew I could creatively manipulate that to work for me [laughs]. What that meant was, for my first three months of working for Shalit, I was out every fucking night at gigs, on expenses, because that was the only way I could afford to eat. My job was basically to support anything the other guys are already working on, and the first thing was with Jamelia.
As part of that I got introduced to Jamie Nelson, who is integral to what I’ve done so far, and not long after that I got introduced to Joe Kentish, who was working underneath Jamie at the time. So yeah, Jonathan gave me my shot.
And obviously as soon as I started to show a bit of value, he took care of me, but at the start… my first salary that I agreed with him was twelve grand a year. But listen, I was so excited, I couldn’t believe my luck. I could not believe that I was in London getting paid to work on something that I thought was fun.
Was that the point where you thought that a long-term career on the business side might be a reality for you?
Yeah, definitely. Within a few months of working on the Jamelia stuff, I felt like I could add value. I’ve been raised in culture, I understand the pop side of it, I’m driven, I can navigate and steer people. I just needed to roll my sleeves up, knuckle down, not complain, get stuff done and not be a burden, be an absolute asset.
And what did you learn from your time working with Jonathan?
I learned that when it’s go time, he really, really goes. If there’s an opportunity to win on a project, he will lean in so hard. When I was with Jonathan I came across this group called N-Dubz, and that was the pivotal point on my whole journey. I came across them at the In The City music conference in Manchester.
I remember I turned up in a suit thinking this is how we do it in the music business. I had no understanding of what was okay and what wasn’t, standing there in a three-piece looking like Shalit’s sidekick! I remember sort of stalking this band for months.
They already had a manager, who was one of their dads, and they had little deal with Polydor, for a single. But I just really believed in these kids, I always felt like they had something that the UK had not had before.
The dad sadly passed away and the next person to get involved had to be someone who had been around them and knew them. So, because I’d done that work, and with Jonathan having broken Jamelia and Big Bruvvas, it just made sense.
They didn’t have any real champions within the label [Polydor], so we were able to navigate them out of that situation and then drill into a proper album [Uncle B, 2008], which was the first album that I made myself. It eventually went double Platinum, which is incredible.
Your management role crossed over into A&R, which then leads you to work with All Around The World…
On the A&R side, as a manager, I didn’t know I was doing it; I was just getting the job done – organising sessions, talking to top-liners, bringing in engineers, I just leant into it because it was a necessity.
And by time we did the second record for All Around The World, there was no day-to-day A&R person. We would just send tracks in and they’d go yes or no.
Then, when you’ve had a hit album, all the big guys come in and the land grab starts. I was leaning towards Island, because I was close to Darcus [Beese] and for the second record [Against All Odds, 2009] we went through their system in order to get a bit more of an international approach.
Let’s celebrate the success of N-Dubz for a minute: one double Platinum album, one Platinum album, two No. 1 singles and six Top 10s. It was a wonderful achievement, and that’s when you really land, isn’t it?
Yeah, because people were asking who’d made the record with them. Labels are constantly putting out music and they need people who understand the processes and who can also communicate in an executive environment.
I had a masterclass from Jonathan Shalit, I worked with a bunch of kids that really needed reining in and guiding, and this was over a period of four to five years. It was relentless persistence.
Apart from the music, I’m dealing with the police, I’m dealing with baby mothers, I’m dealing with social workers… What I learned most from that was that our job as A&Rs and as executives is equally if not more so about making sure the person is fit to record and fit to be able to perform at their best.
Is that holistic viewpoint still prominent in the way you work today?
I think so. And I think in black music, especially, or anything that’s coming out of a genuine culture where life is a lot harder in general, our job is to help them be their best selves.
We’re looking at mental health support, we’re looking at financial education, we’re looking at supporting the managers around them and we’re making sure the lawyers around them have their best interests at heart.
I learned the hard way about all that, because some of the stuff we had to deal with along the way with N-Dubz has bled into everything that I do now.
I’m really interested to explore what you look for when you sign an act?
Obviously talent is key. But I’m looking for ambition. I’m looking for a point of difference, and I’m also looking out for where the pain is gonna come from. What will be the problem? It’s about work ethic and ambition. The talent has to be there, but talent without the work ethic is just pointless; we’ve all been there. I’ve been super excited, and then the artist just wouldn’t want to see it through, because they haven’t got the work ethic.
Where did the N-Dubz success lead you?
All Around The World get a big label deal with Universal, and they start running the catalogue department. I stop being a manager, I go in-house. I’m married by now, I don’t want to be waking up at four in the morning trying to get people out of jail.
I meet David Joseph, he’s super supportive and he, Matt [Cadman] and Cris [Nuttall] bring me in as a full time A&R exec. It’s all going really well, and then I get a call from a guy called Max Hole, who used to be Head of International at Universal, saying there’s an opportunity in Toronto to go over there and basically help stop the Americans stealing their [Universal Music Canada’s] signings.
That’s the long and short of it. Shawn Mendes had just signed to Island Records in the States, and he lives about a mile away from the Universal office in Toronto.
“I was married by then; I didn’t want to be up at 4am trying to get people out of jail.”
And they’ve had The Weeknd, Drake, Justin Bieber, Alessia Cara and a bunch of other hugely successful pop artists coming out of Canada that are not signed to the Canadian office. They go directly into New York, because the advances are a lot higher. My job was to stem that flow, give people a reason to want to stay, and allow the Canadians to have some ownership.
I move to Toronto and instead of fighting the Americans, which I quickly find out is pointless, I try to do joint deals with them, so that we at least had some skin in the game And then what happens is that the guy who hired me left and I get a new boss, who was a lovely guy, but he didn’t hire me.
And he came in saying that he’s going to run the A&R side, but he wasn’t an A&R guy, and at that point, I’m like Jesus Christ… So I hit up David Joseph again, who was always great, he kept checking in on me while I was out there. He was amazing and supportive even when I was abroad. The following week, I get a call from Ben Mortimer, who is just about to take over from Ferdy [Unger-Hamilton] at Polydor, and I came back to join him and Tom March.
That was 2016, and what was Polydor like then, under new leadership?
Between Ben and Tom, their mentality was, we are going to kill everybody. We were like a pack that were going to go out there and just dominate. We all had to really level up. And there was a camaraderie between us which was incredible; it was great to be a part of that.
How did you make your move away from labels and into publishing as Senior Director of A&R over at Sony ATV?
It was interesting, because my frustration at Polydor at the time was that we were winning, winning, winning, but we kept getting new people come in at a senior level.
I felt like the boat was being rocked regularly, even though we were doing what we should have done. Publishing was something I’d always wanted to get into, because of the focus on the writer and the behind the scenes stuff, away from the commercial end. I also wanted the opportunity to lead a team, and to develop people. That was probably my main reason to go to Sony ATV.
I liked the idea of trying to turn publishing into a bit more of a rock n roll thing. My ethos was, I wanted to turn the best writers into rock stars. If a writer had a massive year, I wanted us to scream about it. That was the energy I was bringing. I’m going to make some big signings and I’m going to shout about them.
I’m going to make sure that people want to sign to us because if they do their profile’s going to go through the fucking roof. I think that we started that process, and in that period, I managed to get D-Block done, I got Pa Salieu done, I got TMS done. I was only there for six months in the end, but during that period we definitely got a lot of signings in.
Before we talk about where you are now and what you’re up to, it’d be nice to go back and talk about what the business looks like to you and where we’re up to as regards a lot of the cultural issues that we find ourselves in, maybe starting with going into meetings with Jonathan Shalit, as a Black man, what was your impression of the music business back then?
As a Black person, the first thing I clocked was that there weren’t many Black people in the buildings. Jonathan was really good at putting me in front of Presidents from early on, but whenever I went into these places, you never used to see black people working there. And so, for Black culture, Black music, to be heard and to be taken seriously… It was a time when it was all guitar bands.
Someone said to me recently, people like to sign a reflection of themselves, because if they don’t, then they don’t understand it, which I think is part of what was going on then.
I think a lot of these executives didn’t really understand or appreciate Black culture, and therefore weren’t interested in supporting it. But I’ve always looked at everything as an opportunity, and I figured, okay, if no one is that, then maybe I could be that. Maybe I’m the person, maybe I’m part of that transition. Maybe me coming here today is the first step towards it not being like this.
As frustrating as it was, I was always like, how can I make this work for me? So that’s what I did. But it wasn’t right. And even now, at the three major companies, there isn’t a Black person leading any of them. There are a few Black presidents, but comparative to what we’re doing in the business, definitely not enough. Is it going to change? It has to, yeah.
In your formative years, who were the people that you looked up to and who you went to for advice?
Darcus, definitely. There have been times when I’ve called him and needed to speak to him and he’s always made time for me, talked me off the ledge or stopped me from really cussing someone out, he’s been brilliant. Joe Kentish is someone who I saw from very early, doing really well, and who gets it. He’s amazing and he always finds time for people. [Warner Music’s] Trenton [Harrison-Lewis] has always been super, super helpful. There are other people, but for me personally, these are the people I go to if I’ve got a problem. [Stellar Songs founders] Danny D and Tim [Blacksmith] are also always really helpful, they give good counsel.
Do you think the economic success of acts like N-Dubz has been part of the catalyst for a greater acceptance and a resurgence of black ambition and black opportunity in record companies?
I think it’s contributed towards it. I think there’s loads of things around the world that have played a part, but I think within the UK that sort of success squashed the commercial argument, squashed the line of, ‘Yeah, but it doesn’t sell’. We could be, like, It does sell, so then what is it? ‘I just don’t like it’. Well, that’s not a good argument. So yeah, I do think it’s made a positive difference. But I still think we’ve got a long way to go.
Were there any challenges that you faced on a personal level as a Black person in the business?
Yeah. And it still happens all the time to people, I’m sure. To have an understanding of what you do culturally in music, and then be told by an indie guy, or a dance music guy, to tweak your records, or to change your records, to have someone else gate keep your culture, that you’ve been raised in and that you’ve proven yourself in over and over, that can get frustrating.
You’ve got to understand that at a record label, the ultimate say is with the President. Your release can’t go out without the President giving you that green light. And some of the frustration I used to get was, you’re telling me to change this, but you don’t understand what we’re trying to do with it; I feel like you’re just getting involved for the sake of it.
Let’s talk about where you are now, Director of A&R Atlantic Records; what are you up to?
Yeah, so I work closely with Austin Daboh, who’s an amazing person, and [Co-Presidents] Briony Turner and Ed Howard, who are incredible. Between them they’ve sold more records than pretty much anyone I know.
For me, going to Atlantic was about the quality of the records. Atlantic have been known over the years for delivering on artist propositions, and not just in a single market, they’ve seen things through to Grammy level on a regular basis. And for me, one thing I’ve never got so far is that Grammy thing, and I’m desperate; I work towards it every day.
My dream is to win Grammys with artists that we find in the UK, and who are world-beaters. Being part of a team of people that are so invested in the artist’s story and proposition was something that I couldn’t turn down.
And then having Austin in the mix, who has been at Spotify, has been at Apple, there’s nobody more informed than him around strategy, around data, he adds massive value to what we do as a company. And also being a fellow Black person at a senior level, who is able to move the dial on things internationally, I’ve never had that in my working life. I’ve also got a team of people that I work closely with and I have my own roster – Tion Wayne, Darkoo (pictured)…
You’ve been a manager, you’ve worked in labels, you’ve worked in publishing, which one would you choose if you could only ever do one?
You know, I love all my children [laughs]. But the record business side of it, the pace of it, the cut-throat side of it. I love the pressure, I love the deals, I love the win, I love the kill. So, I think the record side of it is something that I’m just not gonna be able to shake off, ever, because I just love it. Even when it’s going wrong.
How important is it for you to kind of hold your hand out and lead the next generation through?
It’s everything for me. I can’t do what I do without there being better ones behind me coming through. And I think I’ve got an obligation to leave the door wide open. In fact, I’ve got an obligation to actually drag people through the door with me.
As long as I’m in the business, I will always try and help and mentor and develop and bring people through.
Do you have any regrets in your career so far?
I wouldn’t say regrets. I do sometimes wonder, if I’d played things a bit differently, where would I be? I’m at the age now, approaching 40, where a lot of my peers are maybe heading to President level, and sometimes I think, Oh God, I need to keep the pace up, I need more hits so I can get to that place sooner. Ultimately, though, I think your journey is your journey, your race is your race, and you can’t look left and right, you have to keep moving forward. I do sometimes question whether I should have done more at this point, because I’m quite hard on myself. But I really feel like if I do my job properly, things will come.
What ambitions are there left for you to fulfil?
Obviously, I want to be a President at some point down the line, but I still feel I’ve got work to do to prove myself in that role. And then I would like, at some point in my life, the opportunity to have the choice to stop.
And has the journey been everything you thought it was going to be, to this point?
Way more, way more. I didn’t expect what I’ve had and I’m really grateful. I didn’t expect anything. I’m not from an affluent family. I’ve managed to go on nice holidays and buy a house, these are things I couldn’t have dreamed of as a teenager, genuinely. So yeah, I’m grateful for where I am, but I definitely know there’s a lot more in it. I feel like I’ve done a decent amount, but not nearly enough.
This interview is taken from a new podcast series, Did Ya Know?, which tells the often unheard stories of key figures in the British music industry, and is focusing initially on pioneering executives of colour. The team behind the new pod includes Stellar Songs co-founder Danny D and Decisive Management co-founder Adrian Sykes. Music Business Worldwide and our sister brand, MBUK, are proud to be partners and supporters of Did Ya Know?. You can listen to it wherever you find your favourite podcasts.
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