Saturday the 22nd of November was a gloomy, grey day. At 11am I was still at home cleaning up my room when my classmate, Miyoung Gu, texted me. ‘We are already here and there’s a long queue.’ She was waiting in line to get into The Ultimate Seminar, an event where established music industry figures – record company executives, established songwriters, A&Rs and more – share their insights to an audience of aspiring music professionals. For free.
The event was held at University of Westminster’s Little Titchfield Street Campus. I did not try to catch up with Miyoung who’s already there from the start of the seminar. Instead, I had planned which panelists I wanted to see. One of them is Eliza Doolittle.
A young British singer-songwriter, she is known by a lot of people as that singer who collaborated with Disclosure on ‘You & Me’. Aside from that song, she has also released a number of successful hits such as ‘Skinny Genes’ and ‘Pack Up’. Her panel at the seminar started at 3pm. At that time I was already seated among the audience, eager to hear her speak.
Kwame Kwaten, the co-founder of The Ultimate Seminar, moderated the panel with Doolittle. Kwaten opened by asking, ‘young and new in the industry, what pisses you off?’ Doolittle responded by saying that the tension between art and business can be painful at times. There’s a lot of pressure for her to create hits, and not just to make music.
Doolittle then went on to talk about her influences. ‘Most stuff from my childhood stay in my soul,’ she said. Doolittle named Lauryn Hill, India Arie, Destiny’s Child, Spice Girls, and Janet Jackson as artists that have had a long influence on her music. She is also privileged to have been mentored by seasoned vocal coach Mary Hammond.
As with most musicians, she found it hard to name her top three favourite albums. She listed Destiny’s Child’s ‘Writing On The Wall’, D’Angelo’s ‘Voodoo’ and Janet Jackson’s ‘The Velvet Rope’ as her favourites, but also noted how important Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson have been to her.
Kwaten asked her about the importance of corporate gigs – shows that are either sponsored by or performed for a company. Kwaten elaborated that in today’s live circuit, it is rather hard for musicians to survive just using their tours. Doolittle said that corporate gigs are quite important, especially if the brand does not infringe her beliefs. Appletiser, a sparkling soft drink manufactured by Coca Cola, is one of the brands that has partnered with Doolittle in their campaign. Doolittle also told the audience of her experience in corporate gigging in which the brand requested her to ‘do one tweet’ as part of the contract. In the end, though, customers value genuinity. ‘Brands don’t wanna come across as fake,’ Doolittle said.
A lot of British artists consider themselves successful when they have penetrated the American market. Doolittle, however, said that she felt no such pressure. ‘I wanna go everywhere, but in the US it’s quite tough as radios want you to just play one specific genre of music.’
When asked about her career highlights, Doolittle picked a show at Montreal, Canada, to be the best. ‘The energy from myself and the audience was just amazing. I felt like I was the artist I’ve always wanted to be.’ She also pointed to working with Disclosure as another one of her career highlights. The collaboration with the electronic duo enabled her to also be alongside other artists she likes such as Sam Smith and Aluna George. As for her career low point, the moment when her creative control was taken from her was such a point.
Doolitle felt the need to share how much of a pain record labels are. ‘If you, as an artist, is not connected to a label, that’s a good thing.’ Kwaten asked Doolittle if she has any advice for the industry. She said that the industry needs more young, music-loving individuals and the business people should not hold them back.
The best part of the talk was when Kwaten posed this question: ‘how do you stop the label from influencing your third album?’ Doolittle replied, ‘I left them.’ Kwaten jumped out of his seat (literally) and made his way to the exit, before coming back to the hall a few seconds later. ‘I’ve never felt freer,’ Doolittle said, ‘I can create music from a pure place for the first time ever.’ Doolittle had not announced this news before, so it was an exclusive update that The Ultimate Seminar attendees got. And with that, the talk with Eliza Doolittle finished.
Considering how most of the music industry’s revenue does not go to the artists, their insights reveal how creativity struggles to stay alive despite the commercial pressures. In a corporate context, music is brutally undervalued. It is often used as a tool to sell something else. But there are passionate artists whose love for their music – and the people who appreciate them – is greater than the desire to increase their revenue. These artists, especially those that have a wide scope of influence (a.k.a the mainstream ones), should be championed.
Oh, I managed to take a picture with such an artist before she left the building.