Andy Musgrave is pouring coffee, mid-morning in late August.
“I was working till about 3am, so I’m a little bit tired,” he tells Music Business Worldwide. He’s working late, he says, because the last couple of weeks of August are “kind of the most hectic time of the year”.
With the festival season winding down, and our interview taking place just two days after AJ Tracey’s back-to-back Reading and Leeds main stage performances, you might expect the manager of one of the UK’s biggest rising stars to be giving himself a bit of a break.
But while others are sleeping, Musgrave is hard at work behind the scenes at Supernature, his artist management and artist development business under which he manages Tracey, plus Manchester producer and artist Murlo, Lil Yachty producer MISOGI and composer Sega Bodega. And Musgrave is determined not to lose the summer’s momentum.
“I’m a real believer in kicking off autumn with some sort of direction,” he explains. “I use August as preparation. When most people are probably off on holiday, I’m just here pulling my hair out trying to get everything in order.”
Musgrave’s methodology is based on team Supernature’s acute awareness of seasonal public perception in the modern age. “There are two points of the year where the public realign and say, ‘Right, cool, I’m going to get back to work.’ And that’s early January and straight after summer,” he observes.
“People usually feel a bit guilty about overeating, or overdrinking, at Christmas, and [then also] not doing much work in the summer. That makes them more receptive [following these periods] when you’re announcing stuff and talking about what you’re doing as an artist. I like to capitalise on those moments.”
The results of Musgrave, AJ Tracey and Supernature’s collective work ethic over the past few years are clear to see.
AJ Tracey’s self-titled debut album hit No.3 in the UK Album Chart in February, with standout single Ladbroke Grove – a UK garage track, no less – hitting No.3 in the Official UK Singles Chart with over half a million sales equivalents to date.
This success has been achieved completely independently, bar a distribution deal with ADA. “Do you think a record label would’ve allowed us to put that amount of work into a UK garage record?” asks Musgrave of Ladbroke Grove. “It never would have happened.”
“No-one’s ever given me a job; I’ve never been employed.”
Musgrave’s music career started as a hobbyist, DJ’ing and collecting garage records in the late nineties. He also insists that he’s “never had a proper job in music”.
“I mean it,” he emphasises. “No-one’s ever given me a job; I’ve never been employed. I got into music as a young child and around the age of 11 or 12, I would just start hearing songs I liked on the radio and would go and buy cassettes at the weekend.
“I remember listening to the radio and hearing this really repetitive, monotonous dance record on the radio. It was Music Sounds Better With You by Stardust  and I hated it; I couldn’t stand it.”
Around this time, an older cousin had become a big fan of French dance and hip-hop and taught Musgrave about those music scenes. As a result, he was introduced to artists like Cassius and DJ Alex Gopher – and soon changed his mind on Stardust.
“Once I understood the scene that this record had come from, I suddenly really appreciated it,” says Musgrave. “Now it’s probably my favorite record of all time. It was an early lesson for me in how the context of music can change your appreciation of it.”
Musgrave’s interest in dance music grew and he started collecting records and DJ’ing in the town he lived in, Worcester. “I used to go and DJ for 30 quid in little wine bars on a Sunday night, just so I could play my house records on a slightly bigger sound system than I had at home,” he remembers.
“I want the message out there. I want people to know that it’s totally doable if you’ve got that tenacity and if you can just find the self belief as a new artist…”
He was training in visual art at the same time, and then went to study graphic design in Bristol in around 2003. After he finished his course he started working at an architect’s firm, designing brochures, before putting on his own events under the brand of Crazylegs – which also became the name of his first record label.
About seven years ago, Musgrave took on Rinse FM founder DJ Slimzee as his first management client outside the work he was doing with Crazylegs. Slimzee, says Musgrave, is “arguably the man that united grime as a sound”.
Since then, Musgrave has built Supernature into a “holistic” artist development business, not only offering management, but also creative, marketing and label services. He’s become a passionate advocate for artists choosing an independent route to market.
He argues that “streaming has created the potential for a healthy career” for any musician who has the patience required. “In the old days you were either a star or you were unknown,” he says.
“Now there’s a huge healthy middle tier of artists who earn £50,000 or maybe even £100,000 a year from doing a couple of low-level tours, having all of their music independently delivered to streaming, living a happy creative life. Not megastars, but also not having to work a day job.
“I want the message out there. I want people to know that it’s totally doable if you’ve got that tenacity and if you can just find the self belief as a new artist…”
Where did you get your philosophy about artist management from? Did you have any mentoring or did you see the way anybody else was operating?
Philosophy? Jesus. I’ve got no idea how my philosophy came about. I never had any formal training and the fact that I’ve never worked in a formal music business environment meant that I never picked up any bad habits.
I never had any ideology forced on me; I actually consider myself to be quite non-business minded. I’m very artistically-driven and that that is why I have such a good relationship with the artists that I work with.
“I’m not here to take a piece of art and figure out how to sell it. I’m here to understand who the artist is and what they want to achieve in their life.”
I’m able to understand what they’re trying to achieve in a way that a lot of the music business people just can’t. I’m not here to take a piece of art and figure out how to sell it. I’m here to understand who the artist is and what they want to achieve in their life, and help them to strategize getting to that point.
What does success look like to you?
It’s not about financial gain, it’s not about chart positions. For me it’s about helping the artist to reach their goals, whatever they may be.
If that is financial gain, cool we’ll go for that, but in a lot of cases I have artists whose dream is to be able to sit at home and create art – to live a comfortable, humble life and just be a working artist.
“My approach to this is, and I feel like this is how all managers should approach their work, it should always be absolutely 100% geared towards achieving the goals of the artist. A lot of the time [in the wider business] it isn’t.”
That’s some people’s goal and if I really appreciate what that person is putting into the world then I’m on board. I don’t care if it’s going to pay me well or not.
While a lot of the time I feel like I’m sometimes at a disadvantage because I have not worked in music business environments, at the same time I wouldn’t change it for the world.
My approach to this is, and I feel like this is how all managers should approach their work, it should always be absolutely 100% geared towards achieving the goals of the artist. A lot of the time [in the wider business] it isn’t.
Are you talking about artist management, the label side or something else?
Oh even more so from a label side. Remember, when you boil it down, a label is just there to generate money from a set of rights they’ve acquired. A label only has one avenue of earning money from an artist so it’s going to squeeze every penny out of that. It’s going to squeeze the life out of it. The old model of separating all of these revenue streams and having management [operating independently] from these different parts of the business is outdated.
“The old model of separating all of these revenue streams and having management [operating independently] from these different parts of the business is outdated.”
You really need someone, I don’t know if you would even call it a manager or a label, but you need [one] entity that has a holistic input over the whole thing. That’s how I’m building my business. I started Supernature as a management company, but I very quickly decided to build other functionality into it.
We are effectively a distributor, so we can deliver the full service of a record label for our artists in-house without having to go out there and work out who’s the best partner. You’re never going to get that long term strategic mindset from a partner who only has a vested interest in the artist for a short period of time. Management, for me, is open ended. If I do a good job I’m here for their whole career. So I’m out to make sure that there’s longevity. That’s so crucial.
I found him through Murlo. I was already aware of him because I was generally aware of the grime scene that was bubbling up at that point. There were a lot of MCs on radio and keeping busy, Mez, Capo, all of The Square lot and Novelist. I was aware of AJ, but I hadn’t seen anything from him that made me think he was [extra-special] at that point. I wasn’t aware enough.
Then one day Murlo actually said to me, ‘I sent some beats to that AJ Tracey.’ I was like, ‘Really?’ Because Chris [Pell aka Murlo] is notoriously selective about who he wants to work with. Chris said to go check out Wifey Riddim on his SoundCloud.
That song showed me AJ’s ambition. It showed me his willingness to think outside the box a little bit. I got in touch and we met up in Brixton. We went and got some Caribbean food, sat outside McDonald’s and chatted about ideas and went from there, really. I’ve never started managing anyone with a formal, ‘Let’s sign [this contract] and go’. It was more of, ‘I’m here to help. Let’s move forward and anything you need help with, I’m here.’
Quite quickly we went to meet Rebecca [Prochnik, Earth Agency] who was already doing live bookings for Slimzee and Murlo for me at that point. During that meeting, Rebecca was keen to take AJ on and she said to me, ‘Are you going to be managing him?’ And AJ was like, ‘Are you?’ And that was basically it. Rebecca very quickly started getting the shows in and we were working.
What was it like running an independent campaign like the one around AJ Tracey’s album?
It was an insane amount of work. It was terrifying, incredibly high pressure. I didn’t sleep a lot for three to four months. October/ November last year was a very intense period of time. And then the opening weeks of 2019, where we were quickly getting the last bits delivered, yeah, it’s quite a process.
You come to understand why so many people [are employed] at labels when you realize how many people’s jobs you’re doing as an individual. I learned a lot from it. I always say this, but I’d much rather the artist was able to make the decision and be wrong, than [for them] to have no say and lose control of their own ship. There were points in the campaign where AJ on a whim decided, ‘I want to do this at this point.’
Unless I think it’s a really bad idea I’ll accommodate that. Sometimes it’ll work and sometimes it won’t but I’d much rather be in a position of being able to accommodate those things than being in a label deal where we don’t get a say. Back to what I said before, the artist’s happiness is the most important thing.
Why did you decide to go with ADA as a distribution partner?
I had got to know Howard [Corner] from ADA quite well over the month before that. Like a lot of people, he’d shown interest in AJ quite early, but he was never too pushy with it. He was always just cool and very forthcoming with help and information, and I just liked him. It just felt like the natural next step.
It was also good to know that they’d just done Stormzy’s album to such a high standard as well. [ADA] handle the sales conversations, do the delivery and product stuff. But the marketing and the strategy, that’s all the result of conversations between me and AJ – and Howard’s opinion on that is valuable as well. I chat with Howard a lot; it’s useful having him on our side, because he can tell me best practices… and then we can decide whether we want to do the best practice or not! And he really knows how the industry works. Yeah, ADA are brilliant.
Watching interviews with AJ, it seems like he has a very clear vision of how he wants to run his business, and where he’d like to end up.
He’s quite a spontaneous character. If you ask him what he wants to do or how he wants to execute something, it can change from one day to the next. But I came to accept that’s who he is as an artist and that he connects with people brilliantly; the unpredictable nature of what he does musically is one of his biggest assets. It keeps people guessing. I don’t think you’d be allowed to be quite so spontaneous if you’re a signed artist.
“I’m a big believer in consistency in art. Both visually, musically, a consistent message is really important, but I came to learn with AJ that the consistency doesn’t have to be in the genre or a visual style.”
You’d be pushed down a route of trying to fall into a certain sound or to be putting records out that sound like the last one. I’m a big believer in consistency in art. Both visually, musically, a consistent message is really important, but I came to learn with AJ that the consistency doesn’t have to be in the genre or a visual style.
Consistency can be in other areas. It can be in the message of the artist: what they say, what they communicate, what they stand for. That’s an important thing for me to always remember with AJ: his character really drives this whole thing. So if he wants to experiment and put out a UK garage record in 2019, then I need to back that because, as we’ve seen this year, anything can happen.
What did you think when you first heard Ladbroke Grove?
I loved the bravery of it. I loved what it stood for and I loved the idea of going all-in on a single campaign for a UK garage record in 2019 because UK garage is my music. That’s what I love and always have done. It’s so, so rewarding to be in this situation where we have contributed a lot to renewed interest in this genre in 2019. I think we’re going to see a few more artists put garage records out this year and something bigger could happen [as a result].
What does AJ’s global potential look like from your perspective? How are US audiences and the US industry reacting to the music he makes?
They like him. They like who he is; they like his character. We’ve never tried to rush it over there. We’ve always been present, we’ve always been working with American artists, we’ve obviously got records with people like Jay Critch, Denzel Curry and Clams Casino. We’ve collaborated in a very authentic way with various American artists.
AJ certainly exists out there at a cult level. A lot of your more underground hip-hop heads out there know exactly who he is and are fans of him. And that’s the best position, I believe, to be in. I would never want to be introduced to America via a big radio campaign or anything like that. I want to come in at ground level and build upwards, build through word of mouth. It’s just going to be a long process.
What do you think about the general state of rap in the UK? How strong is it, where it’s going, how you see it developing?
It’s amazing. It’s clearly the most important kind of cultural movement of the last few years. Black music is right at the forefront [today] and I don’t think it’s a phase; it’s here to stay in the same way that it happened in America however many decades ago.
I believe that black music is finally embedding itself in British culture and it’s amazing to see. It’s not just that rap/hip-hop/grime or whatever artists are [becoming] successful, it’s also the fact that young solo creators are able to go from being unknown to having a track on GRM [Daily], have a million streams and end up in the UK charts.
That’s testament to what streaming has done for the music industry. Artists can release something via Distro Kid or CD Baby, they don’t even need a proper distro deal, let alone a record label. But people can genuinely create independent success just by having a talent and working hard.
You and AJ Tracey are clearly both fiercely independent. Would you ever consider entering into a record label deal in the future?
It’s never a closed door. I’m always having conversations. There’s some great people heading up certain labels. I’m just quite aware that the major label model is not really built for the way the music industry is today.
They’re scrambling to rearrange their services and make it more artist-friendly out of necessity, but really I believe that it’s the newer companies like Kobalt, Ditto etc., it’s these companies that have been founded in the streaming era, or come to prominence in the streaming era, that are going to be the best positioned to service the artists of today, because they don’t carry the weight of decades of the old music industry.
“With AJ we’ve managed to build his business to a point where we can see all the benefits of doing this yourself first-hand. We can see the monthly royalty statement and we can do the math, so we can say, ‘Hang on, the amount of money we were being offered six months ago we’re now turning over in the space of two, three months’.”
There are ideologies that still drive the major labels that, in my opinion, don’t fit very harmoniously with the idea of artistic independence. They’re still based on the model of purchasing rights, buying rights from an artist – not just the rights of material that’s been recorded but buying all the rights of that artist, so anything they record is automatically owned by the label. [That approach] just doesn’t work anymore, it’s not necessary.
If we were to do a record deal it would have to be something much more modern. We would not be selling our recording rights, we would be licensing selected recordings for a term. And that may or may not even be in the best interests of the label [in question].
The fact is that with AJ we’ve managed to build his business to a point where we can see all the benefits of doing this yourself first-hand. We can see the monthly royalty statement and we can do the math, so we can say, ‘Hang on, the amount of money we were being offered six months ago we’re now turning over in the space of two, three months.’ So it just gives you the sense of like, let’s hold out, let’s keep going. Because all the things that we thought we couldn’t do, all we did is exercise patience and found out we were able to do them.
What effect did that ‘Alex from Glasto’ viral video have for AJ Tracey’s streaming numbers?
It was great. It was at a point where Ladbroke Grove was already in a hard upward spike and that just amplified everything. You can literally see the spike in our streaming numbers on the day it happened; it moved our base level daily streams up a significant amount. It’s such a funny thing because actually AJ was meant to be there that day with Dave. We had done two days at Glasto. We weren’t staying over, we were driving there and back.
We’d gone Friday and we’d come and done Ladbroke Grove on stage with Jorja, we’d come back on the Saturday, we’d done our own set on Saturday evening. We had promised Dave’s team that we would come back on Sunday and come and do Thiago Silva on stage with Dave.
AJ had lost his voice, essentially, after the Saturday night and on the way back he was like, ‘You know, I don’t think I can go tomorrow.’ And I was like, ‘Oh come on. It’s going to be such a moment.’ But he didn’t do it in the end and, yeah, that happened. So, no regrets! If I’d had my way, he would have performed with Dave. So that’s definitely a little ‘I told you so’ moment between AJ and I!
Do videos from Glastonbury or other festivals improve visibility generally?
Do you see the spike from those, too? Massively, yeah. All it takes is a good 30 second video to go online. It’s driven by the internet, it’s not really driven by the audience there, but if you can get a good clip of a song going off at a festival it can go mad.
The view counts we’ve been getting on videos from festivals this year have been crazy. We used to put stuff on Facebook and you might get a thousand Likes if you’re lucky. We’ve been putting stuff up now and it’s getting 30, 40 thousand Likes and a few million views, just a clip of AJ on stage at a festival.
It’s enormous. Stormzy has been kicking doors open for all of us for years. You could argue that he’s played a big part in creating this moment for everybody. He’s such an important cultural figure.
“Stormzy has been kicking doors open for all of us for years.”
It’s hard to even call him a musician at this point because he’s so much more, but the way that middle England has embraced Stormzy is incredible and it’s a testament to his message and his ambition, his vision, his work rate.
The way that he’s been embraced just means that anybody from a similar background or with a similar story can [aspire to reach] that level as well.
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