Most of us, aged 24, were flailing around in entry-level jobs while stuck between the weird middle ground of post-education life and proper adulting.
Not Michael Adex. Today, aged 24, he’s the owner of a management company, publisher and record label, NQ, which has major backing from Universal Music.
He can also lay claim to the development of one of the buzziest new UK acts in Manchester — rapper Aitch. Do you feel unaccomplished yet?
You might be comforted to know that Adex started his music industry journey after a failed attempt at a career as a footballer (he admits he wasn’t the most hardworking sportsman).
He then started enjoying his late teens by going out and partying with new artists he’d discovered on SoundCloud.
There came a point, as there does for all of us, where Adex thought he better do something more prosperous with his life and find something he was passionate enough about to work hard at.
Music was the obvious choice and Manchester, where Adex was based, held a wealth of opportunity.
“Historically, Manchester has had a big music scene with Factory Records and The Haçienda, and in recent years with the emergence of UK rap, there was a lot of talent around [the city] that I felt were just as good, if not better, than the London-based and more successful artists.”
He explains: “Having travelled across the UK and seen loads of different cities, I realised that Manchester was a place that was very unique. Outside of music, it’s got two of the biggest football clubs in the world, the economy was growing and there was talk of launching the [high speed rail network] HS2 too.
“Historically, Manchester has had a big music scene with Factory Records and The Haçienda, and in recent years with the emergence of UK rap, there was a lot of talent around [the city] that I felt were just as good, if not better, than the London-based and more successful artists.
“I felt that I could utilise my connections, and pick the [artists] I felt had the potential to take it to the next level and make something out of themselves.” One of the first artists Adex picked up was Aitch, who hit No.3 on the UK charts last year with his AitcH20 EP (released via a licensing deal with Sony).
He followed that with a No.7 position for Polaris in 2020. Other artists to look out for under the NQ banner include rappers Mastermind (signed to Columbia) and Ayo Britain, plus producers WhyJay and LiTek, both of whom are published by UMPG. NQ is now three years old and has a six-strong team working across A&R, management and publishing.
They will soon be based at a newly purchased home in Openshaw — the NQ House — which will exist as a creative space.
Adex has further ambitions to buy a merchandise company this year, and outside of music, wants to move into sport, TV and film…
You’re a management company, label and publisher. Why offer all three services?
I wanted to make sure that I have a level of difference in how I do things. Very early on, I realised that within the music industry, a lot of [companies] are about taking, taking, taking, without giving. I really wanted our point of difference to be the fact that we add value.
“We’re a business, so of course we need to make money, but I’m a strong believer that if you do good work, the money will come.”
We’re a business, so of course we need to make money, but I’m a strong believer that if you do good work, the money will come. For me, it was important that I could offer the artist or any talent I want to work with whatever they need, rather than what I want.
So if we get an artist that comes to us who already has a manager, cool, we’ll offer you a record deal, and if they’ve already got a record deal, sweet, I want to be your publisher. We always go above and beyond to make the artist a success and to me, it’s irrelevant what we actually do, as long as we have a business relationship with them.
What are your business principles?
Being as transparent as possible and always seeking to add value — I would never sign somebody that I don’t feel like we can actually help.
You’re impressively young for a business owner — how did you learn your business savvy? Is there anyone you’ve learned from?
When I want to get into something, I seek knowledge in many different ways. That could be from reading books to being inquisitive when I’m in situations, and researching, looking at different articles and YouTube videos. This is the information age, so if you really want to know something, it’s literally a few clicks away. I did my best at learning the theory and applying it in practice and I tried to utilise other people’s experiences too. I try to live vicariously through other people and learn from their mistakes before I make them myself.
Is there anyone in the business who you would call an inspiration?
Definitely Jay-Z and what he’s built with Roc Nation, and Scooter Braun and what he’s built with SB Projects. Tim and Danny [of Stellar Songs] really inspire me too. They are the main reason why I purchased a building in Manchester to be our creative space — when I went down to LA and saw their Stellar House in Venice Beach, it gave me the inspiration to set up something similar in Manchester.
What attracts you to new artists?
Talent, but most importantly, dedication and hard work. Early on, the first two artists that I signed were Aitch and another artist from his area called Samurai. At the time, Samurai was a lot bigger than Aitch, but the difference was that [from Adex’s perspective] Samurai wasn’t as hardworking.
That taught me a big lesson. So I try not to look at their talent too much and look more at their willingness to listen and their willingness to work hard, because those two things will take you a lot further than just talent by itself.
You signed a deal with Universal eight months ago — can you tell us more about the nature of that agreement?
We are a fully independent company but we have got a publishing joint venture with Universal and a distribution partnership for our record label. The relationship is there to help give more opportunities to the regional artists we work with and also provide opportunities for southern-based artists to experience a different culture and work with different writers/producers. It’s important to be able to give more opportunities to our talent but also to incubate talent that’s already existing in the Universal system.
You signed a short licensing deal with Aitch to Sony — where do you stand on finding major record label deals for your artists?
I approach it on a case-by-case basis because every artist has got different needs and ambitions. I still believe that if you truly want to be an international artist, it’s important to have the right resources and major labels are your best bet. If you instead have the ambition to sustain yourself, and you’re generating enough money [to] do music full time – and if you have the creative control and the control in how you release your music without certain pressures — then I would say maybe an independent setup or label makes more sense.
What are the most significant changes you’re currently witnessing in the music industry?
I see that major labels will have to start doing more artist-favourable deals, like profit share, in order to convince artists to sign — especially those who work at a bigger level and have created their own infrastructure. I think trying to sign someone with a small [advance] nowadays is very difficult unless you’re offering them more favourable terms.
“It doesn’t really make sense for an up-and-coming artist to go to a label that is not going to utilise all their resources and still [ask for] 80% of the artist’s income on a royalty deal.”
A lot of people understand and have access to the information that if it does go well, the label will benefit a lot if [the artist is] on a royalty deal. Also, unless a label really believes in you, they are not going to put in the same amount of money for an established artist than they would for an up-and-coming artist.
So it doesn’t really make sense for an up-and-coming artist to go to a label that is not going to utilise all their resources and still [ask for] 80% of the artist’s income on a royalty deal. The artist could just do it themselves, build up their leverage, and then ask for a better deal.
Do you see those deals changing already?
100% – I feel like the average deal cost has gone up because artists are coming in with a bit more leverage or understanding that they know their worth, or their potential worth.
Do you see that change having a wider impact on the music industry?
Labels right now have less power and that is because there is just much more talent doing it independently. Now you can go on Ditto or DistroKid, pay a fee for a year, upload your music and that music is listenable worldwide.
So the barriers to entry are lower, labels are seeing things a lot later, and when they are seeing it they are having to remunerate the artist for the time and effort they’ve put in beforehand. It’s a lot more difficult for [labels] to break through with early acts because of the amount of people trying to pursue music.
How do you break an act?
We invest in what we believe in, we simply seek to add value where we can. It’s less about what we want to do and more about what the artist wants to do. We always want to reach for the stars and be able to work with people at the highest level possible but those things you can’t really guarantee, so it’s about believing that someone can achieve something and being able to invest in it.
That’s all we want to do. If they then become the next Aitch, we are all happy, if they don’t, as long as we’ve done our job, added value and tried to accomplish the targets that the artist has set for themselves — and that we’ve set for the artist — that is all we can work towards.
What do you think success means in music today?
I think it means a variety of things – one person’s view of success is another person’s view of failure. Success for me, personally? I want to grow my brand to be nationally and internationally recognised, I want to break truly international acts, create opportunities around our brand and grow and develop regional infrastructure to the level that it impacts the world.
“There are artists out there who are making serious money off of streaming but aren’t necessarily interested in winning a Brit Award.”
For someone else, however, success could be the opposite, where they might just be doing music for fun. Again, because the barriers of entry are low, anyone can do anything they want.
There are artists out there who are making serious money off of streaming but aren’t necessarily interested in winning a Brit Award. For a person to have true success they have to run their own race. I want to compete at the highest level and I want to have the accolades, get number one albums and singles. That’s success for me.
What would you change about the music industry and why?
I would try and make it more honest [when talking about] what you can offer someone and what you can do for them. There are a lot of intangibles that people say they can offer but I think it’s about trying to make those intangibles more tangible so it doesn’t get to a point where an artist is signing because you’re saying x, y and z, and once they are signed, you’re not giving them x, y and z. It’s all about being honest and delivering on what you’re saying you’re going to deliver on.
Do you see a lot of dishonesty going on?
I think there is but not necessarily on purpose. In the music business, there are a lot of pressures involved in certain roles where you have to get results at any cost. If you’ve got to tell a white lie here or there just to get a deal across the table, I understand it, but I don’t think that’s fair to the artist and I don’t think telling them or advising them on what’s best for you is best for them. You constantly see that leading to the same thing — the artist gets unhappy when they realise what decisions have been made and now there is a big dispute.
Disputes will always happen but I think, even for your own conscience, have the conversation at the beginning and give the pros and cons of the situation. If you go to an investment advisor [for advice], they will tell you yes, you can make half a million [on an investment], but they’ll also say you could lose half a million.
In music, I think a lot of times people just focus on what they can make, rather than what’s at stake. It should be about giving people all the information so they can make an informed decision.
What are your ultimate ambitions? Where do you want to be in 10 years?
I want to have built an entertainment company that spans different sectors but is true to its mission statement of adding value to all its clients. With the content stuff that we are looking to do, I want to be able to tell interesting stories about people and showcase the creativity within different spaces in the UK. I also want to work on an international level and bridge the gap a bit more by taking artists from the UK and exposing them to different territories by doing international collaborations.
I was born in Germany so I understand the size of the world and just how much is out there in terms of opportunity. I never want to get side-tracked in just thinking about Manchester, England and the UK Top 40.
That’s why Aitch has toured in Europe already; he was meant to do a New Zealand which couldn’t happen because of the COVID situation, and he’s done a lot of things in America as well. But the main point is to really fulfil our mission statement, which is to be a place of true value. For anyone we work with, we want to be able to help facilitate what they want to do and grow it to something that hopefully is internationally recognised — if that’s the aim for the artist.
This article originally appeared in the latest (Q3 2020) issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK (pictured), which is out now.
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