In the latest instalment of our series talking to execs on the rise, having a moment or, most commonly, both, we talk to Carl Samuel, Senior A&R Manager at Columbia Records UK and manager of up-and-coming Brighton rapper ArrDee…
Carl Samuel might have only just started to trouble the charts in his role as Senior A&R Manager at Columbia UK, but he’s been having hits as a manager for a few years and, in a former life, made an impact as an artist more than a decade ago.
He explains: “I was the first MC to make a funky house track. I made a record with Katy B, called Tell Me that was one of the first UK funky songs to go really, really big.
“I was also part of the Crazy Cousinz collective, with Flukes and Kyla. They made Do You Mind and Go [Do You Mind was later heavily sampled by Drake for his 2016 hit, One Dance]. That was summer 2007 – 15 years ago, wow that’s fucking wild…”
He then took it up another level with the release of Funky Anthem (the video, shot in Aya Napa, featured Skepta, Tinie Tempah and other big UK rappers of the time.)
“I came home to England, gave everyone the song; nobody cared. I dropped the video; everything changed. The whole funky house scene blew up even more. I was getting bookings up and down the country for two or three years.”
It was then, though, that he decided to step off the stage, away from the spotlight and instead build a career behind the scenes, first as a manager, then as a label A&R (and still manager of key client, ArrDee).
Samuel’s first signing for Columbia, Liverpool rapper Hazey, reached No. 11 with his first single, Packs and Potions. ArrDee, meanwhile, has already gone Platinum and played arenas.
His manager confidently predicts that he will be a festival headliner next year and then go global the year after.
And if you think that’s ambitious, wait until you hear Samuel’s plans for his own career…
Why did you stop MC’ing and go into the management side of things and eventually the A&R arena?
Because I got tired of my own voice mate, to be honest with you [laughs]. Garage and funky house use the same lyrics over and over again. The crowd don’t want to hear nothing new, they want to hear what they know. There’s only so far that could ever go, I was wanting to get to the next level.
What was your first move?
I started managing AJ & Deno, who I’d seen on Instagram. Their first song did pretty good, and then their second track, London, really blew up, it ended up going Platinum.
I then found EO. I saw his song German on YouTube, got hold of him and said we’re going to make this a proper record. We went to Columbia, Ferdy [Unger-Hamilton] signed it, bang, Platinum song again.
Amelia Monét started going out with EO, I did a song with her called Baddest – that also got signed to Columbia. I thought, okay, every day is fine now.
Then Covid hit. What do I do? There’s no shows, no money – but there’s studio time. I thought, you know what, I need a rapper, a UK rapper.
I got a little studio in Woolwich and I got an engineer in, a guy from Crawley. He starts saying, ‘I know this sick rapper from Brighton, this guy called ArrDee (pictured), honestly, he’s sick.’ I’m like, ‘Whatever bruv, whatever.’ But then I saw him on Bl@ckbox, and you know what, he was very, very sick. I got him in the studio and that was it mate… [laughs].
What were your first impressions when ArrDee came to the studio?
I thought he was very talented, but would the UK take this deep talent of rapping? I told him he’s got to be a bit more cheeky and do a bit of drill. Going in that direction changed his life and my life.
How quickly did you become his manager?
Within a week of meeting him. It’s been a year-and-a-half now, he’s had two Platinum records – Flowers and Oliver Twist – plus he’s on [Russ Williams and Tion Wayne’s] Body. He’s played Wembley Stadium, the O2 Arena…
How did you get ArrDee signed to Island Records?
Every label wanted to sign ArrDee. I knew Sam Adebayo from the scene, from the German days, and he – and Island – made the best offer, simple as that.
How’s it working out there?
It’s all good, because he’s effectively got three A&Rs now, three people looking out for him, guiding his career.
What’s next for ArrDee?
Over the next year, ArrDee’s going to be headlining UK festivals, and then over two or three years he’s going to be a global superstar, 100 per cent.
How did you end up at Columbia?
During Covid, I spoke to Ferdy and I told him we should be working together more. He agreed and offered me Senior A&R at Columbia. So, I took that on, but I told him straight away, ‘Ferdy, I’m not gonna sign any acts I think are okay; I’m gonna sign acts that are gonna blow up straight away.’
I saw Hazey (pictured) doing Packs and Potions going viral. I knew we had to get him in the studio. We got him in and we made the whole song properly. It was my first signing and it went to No. 11 in the charts. I thought, you know what, this is good, this is very, very good.
When and how did you find Hazey and what made you want to make him your first signing?
I first saw Hazey in February, and straight away I thought he stood out as a star. He was from Liverpool, he was fresh. I want to sign artists who bring something new and different to the table. A lot of rappers in the UK are all ‘bad man, bad man’, but this was different.
Everybody wanted to sign him, but from the beginning, he was like, Carl, I’m with you.
What is it about Colombia that made you want to join the team?
Columbia’s the best label at Sony, headed by one of the best businessmen in the industry, Ferdy.
They’ve got the best artists – Harry Styles, Adele, Calvin Harris; they’re about careers. They’re not about singles or tracks, they’re about building artists up properly.
What makes a good A&R person today, what are the most important skills?
A good A&R person must know exactly what’s going on on social media, that’s so important right now. And, of course, you must know a quality song. Not necessarily what you like, you’ve got to know what the kids like.
How do you go about discovering talent?
Connections are important, people are important, but it’s all about social media right now. I can spend the whole day on my phone today and I will find someone worth following up. That’s the game, really.
And is TikTok the main place to look?
It is now, yeah, but I look everywhere. I look on YouTube, SoundCloud, everywhere. You can’t just look on TikTok, because everyone’s seeing that. With the labels, if something’s popping on TikTok, everyone’s seen it and there’s a bidding war. That’s not A&R, is it?
I started managing ArrDee when he had 6,000 followers, he’s now got 1.1 million. I must know something! [laughs].
When you’ve secured a signing, what’s the most important thing you can do for an artist after that?
What I tell young artists is, okay, you’ve got a deal, but this is where the work starts. I also always tell them: don’t buy too much stuff, and try and stay away from smoking weed. I’m being serious!
I’ve managed and worked with a lot of young artists, I’ve seen good times and bad times. I’ve definitely seen things go wrong too many times. And it’s always to do with weed, girls, or their friends telling them mad things. Ignore all that.
How hard is it to get that message across?
It’s tough. I was 28 when I signed my first deal, and I made some of those mistakes. Imagine being 18, with double the money – two hundred, three hundred grand. What you gonna do, go home and read a book? You’re not, are you? [laughs].
Have you made any signings recently that you can tell us about, who maybe haven’t even released any music or been announced yet?
I haven’t signed anything since Hazey, because nothing stands out. There’s a lot of good rappers out there, a lot of good singers out there, but it needs more than that, you need to stand out, not just be saying the same old stuff, gang, gang, gang. I get it, but it gets boring.
Look at 6ix9ine. What made 6ix9ine stand out? It’s because he was a crazy guy with coloured hair. You couldn’t see him without wanting to know, who is this guy?
You gotta make people press share. If they’re not pressing share and they’re not talking about you, you’re fucked.
I’m not signing anyone just for the sake of it. I’ve got to see more than just a good artist – and I’ve got to see someone who’s as hungry for it as I am.
What one thing would you change about the business right now, which issue do you think isn’t being addressed?
Too much TikTok, that’s the issue. I love TikTok, they support us a lot, but everything can’t be based on TikTok. It’s making people laaazy. It’s more or less all about having a meme and going viral. Great, but
Have you had any mentors in your career to date?
To be honest with you, the only guidance I’ve had so far, that has been really, really useful, has been from Ferdy. He’s the one who showed [me] how to make career artists, how to think about 10 and 15 years, not about two or three years.
And Colin Basta, to be fair, because I’ve seen him go from managing artists, to being the main man at Universal’s distribution company, plus he’s got another thing happening real soon. I’d like his career! [laughs].
What are your ambitions?
I’m going to have the biggest record label and management company in the world, with Sony, in the space of four to five years. That’s it. Remember I said this.
And within that I will have in-built counselling services for all my artists. I think all artists under the age of 25 in the industry today need some sort of counselling.
What would your advice be to a young exec just starting out?
If you ain’t got heart, don’t even think about it. This industry is cut-throat and you have to be fully in it. You have to be as in it
and as committed as the best artists. If you’re half-hearted, if you just want to make a bit of money and bounce, you’ll get nowhere. Make sure you come ready, and be tough, because this industry is not a game.
All physical subscribers will receive a complimentary digital edition with each issue.Music Business Worldwide