In a new series within MBW’s Music Business UK magazine, we ask some of the brightest execs in the business to outline their five point plan for change. First up on the stump is Island Records’ President of Urban, Alex Boateng…
Alex Boateng has been part of the Island Records family for pretty much 10 years – but the unconventional nature of his joining means there’s no fixed anniversary and no cake with candles.
In fact, his entry into the business is highly relevant to one of the points in his manifesto for change.
Boateng had to more or less hustle his way in, as part of the team that launched Tinchy Stryder at the label in 2009. He didn’t apply for a job, bag an internship, or tap up a contact. Instead, hired as a digital consultant by Sarah Boorman, he brought something to the table, started on two days a week consultancy, and went on to make himself indispensable.
It’s a story that he believes will be familiar to a lot of young BAME execs now rising through the ranks in the UK music industry – but a story that he says should be just one option available, alongside much more traditional routes. More on that in the manifesto.
What is absolutely certain is that Boateng has gone on to become a key exec within Island UK. He was promoted to President of Urban just over a year ago, as part of a flurry of changes prompted by long-term UK boss Darcus Beese decamping to New York, from where he operates as the label’s US President.
Louis Bloom subsequently became President of the UK label, with Natasha Mann and Olivia Nunn also being named Co-Managing Directors in the reshuffle.
“It’s meant more responsibility, more focus, more planning, more thinking and, most importantly, more listening – more of everything really,” says Boateng. “There’s definitely an increased workload, but that’s good, because it means we’re amplifying more amazing artists.
“We had a great period with Darcus, and now we’re into a new era. There’s enough of the team who delivered success in the past who are still around for there to be a sense of continuity, but with a new vision and new ideas on top of that; I think it’s the best of both worlds.
“The most important thing is that Louis is a music man – we still work closely together A&R’ing JP Cooper – which is what we’ve always had as the leadership of this label. I can still play him a tune and get his opinion, and that is priceless. There are plenty of other companies where you can’t do that.”
Boateng says that in terms of the remainder of 2019 “we’re just pulling back the elastic ready to let go on a few new things”.
As well as continuing to drive existing campaigns with the likes of Giggs, Drake, Sean Paul, Ray BLK and others, Boateng flags up new work from Tekno, M Huncho, Unknown T and Sneakbo, as well as some new internationally-based acts such as Lil Tecca, Kiana Ledé, Col3trane, Emotional Oranges and Masego. One act he has great expectations for is North London’s Miraa May, predicting that “she’s going to be a very important artist over the next decade”.
He’s also excited about a new partnership with Amplify Dot’s label, Trakhouse, particularly Jada Kingdom and Shakka, as well as an entrepreneurial partnership with street brand, Lizzy.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the move to Universal’s new Kings Cross HQ “has not only made my journey home easier, it’s also nearer my barbers, which means I’m looking better at the office – which is good news for everyone”.
After a year of major changes for Boateng, then, here he presents five more for the industry at large.
1. Fewer Meetings, Shorter Meetings
So much stuff that needs to happen happens outside meetings – and talking about things achieves a lot less than doing things. I think, at times, meetings slow things down.
I’m getting away from that with my guys, but I’m pretty sure in other places it’s still an issue. I know people have to touch base and communicate, that’s super important, but we’re in the age of doing – and of making things happen rather than talking about it. The world’s so fast now, sometimes things are happening outside our door while the meeting’s going on, things that we need to know about and react to.
Sometimes there’s no point in being locked in a room for an hour. It’s a people business, I get it, and sometimes you have to see, hear, feel, experience – all of that – but the main place that should happen is in the studio; that’s the most important place for connections to happen.
2. Fewer Features, More Distinctive Artistry
Collaboration is great, whether it’s between writers or artists, but I think it’s starting to dilute the distinctiveness that’s required for really exciting and ground-breaking artistry.
There’s a temptation to chuck as much as possible at a track to make sure it works in certain places, but I’m hoping that we can be braver as an industry and go back to presenting artists for who they are, presenting their art in its purest form. It would also avoid the nightmare of having to constantly move records and projects around, because a certain feature means it clashes with someone else’s schedule and agenda etc.
You look at artists like Dave, Billie Eilish, Giggs and Stormzy and there’s a real purity to their bodies of work. They take you into their world, firstly with the music, and build the creative around it.
As a fan, that’s what I look for: genre-defining artists like Nas and Dizzee, new school ones like Miraa, Col3trane, Easy Life, J Hus and Tekno, there’s a singular vision and a distinctive voice; they’re not relying on guest features so that they can get on a certain playlists; even collabs have to make 100% sense.
I think it will happen. Artists are realising that they need to offer something different – and, luckily, every single person on the planet is made different. The key is recognising and emphasising that, not diluting it.
Record labels have a role to play; they need to be patient and they need to give artists confidence. Plus, going back to the A&R side of things, it’s about finding people who do have those unique voices and who want to be themselves.
People are getting signed and putting records out because of their relationships and the audiences they can bring, which might be great commercially, but I’m a fan first and I want to hear someone’s full story, without someone doing a rap in the middle about something else that they recorded in another country.
The DNA of Island, from Bob Marley through Grace Jones, Amy Winehouse, and now people like Giggs, M Huncho (pictured inset) and Drake, these people are leaders and scene-changers, and that’s the sort of art I want to see and hear.
Making, distributing and sharing music is very, very easy now, meaning that, at times, things are rushed through without the desire to ensure that it actually deserves attention and is good enough to be on the radio, on Spotify, or wherever; it just gets shoved out there.
We’re in a loud world and a loud industry, and I think what we want to hear above all that noise is quality. That means taking responsibility and taking time and care when music is being made.
I think the industry needs to be collectively responsible, but it starts with the people at the coalface, making the music, including A&Rs and producers. We need to make sure everything is as good as it can be – not 90%, because that isn’t good enough. We have to strive for excellence.
The best artists in Island’s history have done that, but we also see it in the new artists, like Unknown T and Miraa May (pictured inset). We signed them and we’re excited about them because they strive for excellence. Even at this end of their journey, they’re not going to rush something out for the sake of it.
As annoying as it is sometimes, I love it when artists aren’t scared to say no, even when something could make them money. It can be frustrating, because at times we want them to make certain moves, but the most important thing is that they want people to be blown away by what they do, and we’ll always side with that.
4. More Female A&Rs
We have great female A&Rs at Island, lead by the amazing Annie Christensen. In the Urban team, Adele White and Jade Richardson are different in their skillsets and talents, but together they bring a great energy and great perspective to what we do. Also, A-Dot, one of our label partners, the way she manages her label, the vision and instinct she brings, alongside her radio ear, is a unique and invaluable addition.
We have two young guys in David and Kola who are really in the streets, who operate as scouts as well as running their own events, so it’s a really healthy mix in the Urban team, and that means our discussions and meetings around music and culture feel really balanced and informative.
But when I talk to people in other buildings, I feel that’s missing, particularly in records – although I do like the way my twin [Alec Boateng] and Briony Turner work together at Atlantic. There are a lot of great female A&Rs in publishing, but records needs to up its game.
It is changing. I can only personally do what is in my power to do – and I’m grateful I’ve been given that opportunity. Hopefully it’s changing at a wider level, and I think it is, because great people are great people and you shouldn’t ignore them.
The bottom line is, having more diverse A&R across the industry will make sure that great music is discovered and heard, and that’s really what it’s all about.
5. Diversity at a Higher Level
This has been a problem for a while and not just in the UK, but it’s still true that the higher up you go in a record company, the more everybody looks the same.
I think it starts with access to the industry. Just going by my own experience, my way into the building was quite unorthodox, whereas other people had quite a clear path – via their relationships, via their background, via their education.
And the people that had the more difficult path are just as good as those who had it easier, if not better, because of the edge that their journey gave them; they sharpened up just to get in the door.
They’re also usually a lot closer to the audience that we’re trying to reach, because in many cases that’s where they came from.
It’s also important that the people at the start of their career can look up and see that they’re represented.
The same is true of artists, of course; our roster is extremely diverse, and they want to see diversity at the top of the company they’re working with. When young artists and managers come in, they should see people who understand where they come from, how they grew up – and who know how to tell their story and handle their talent.
That’s why there needs to be diversity at every level, with the very top being the main problem. Companies are getting flatter now, because we have to get closer to the talent; you can’t have that distance between the people running the company and what’s going on on the street and on social media.
I think there is a will to make this happen now, and I have to give it to David [Joseph, Chairman and CEO, Universal Music UK]; whenever I sit with him and talk to him, it’s clear that this is a priority, and also when I talk about people who move this company, it does feel more and more diverse – that’s hugely encouraging.
There’s still more to do, but I know this company wants to do it.
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