Eliza Doolittle at The Ultimate Seminar


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.

Eliza Doolittle and Kwame Kwaten at The Ultimate Seminar (22/11/14)

Eliza Doolittle and Kwame Kwaten at The Ultimate Seminar (22/11/14)

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.’

Doolittle did a lot

Doolittle did a lot

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.

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City Showcase’s Finding The Future: Talks On Live Music

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Following my previous post on City Showcase’s ‘Finding The Future’ seminar, I will now recap the two other talks that I attended. I could not come to the seminar on Friday, so I only came to the Saturday one. Plus I only attended two sessions: ‘Backstage Pass: A Career In Live Music’ and ‘Live Music: The Lifeline Of The Industry’. Those two address my interest. I don’t think I’ll write any hit songs soon, so I’m not attending a session about it.

‘Backstage Pass’, the first talk, was quite insightful. Claire Horseman (Managing Director of Coda Music Agency), Gemma Gilford (General Manager of The Borderline) and Rebecca Kane (General Manager of The O2) were the panelists. Paul Hutton (Co-Director of Metropolis Music) was in the panelist line-up that was published on City Showcase’s website, but he wasn’t present that day.

The session opened with the moderator, a representative from City Showcase, asking each panelists to introduce themselves and their work. They all provide a detailed introduction. Claire Horseman was nominated as one of the recipients of UK Music’s Women In Music Awards. Hearing her describe her job and accomplishments, it can be understood why. Coda Music Agency represents over 500 artists globally, including Rudimental, Emeli Sande, and The xx. Recently, it has partnered with Paradigm, a US-based entertainment talent agency to broaden its portfolio.

Horseman gave a bit of her career background. Her start in the music industry was when she worked on reception at Profile Records. She then worked at club promotions and marketing at independent labels before securing a job at BMG and later Sony, where she worked as the Head of Marketing for Columbia and General Manager of Deconstruction. To her, record companies do not have an easy-going atmosphere. She said that in record companies everyone works hard but also plays hard, which probably shapes the extravagant lifestyle image that most people had in mind. Horseman also set up her own marketing consultancy company before finally taking up her current position at Coda.

Speaking about the culture of Coda, Horseman mentioned that it is a people-person company. Much of what they do revolves around building and maintaining relationships. They work closely with promoters to build artists and put on events. Normally they would create a two-year plan to develop an artist. However, each artist is bespoke, so Coda has to treat them differently.

Gemma Gilford got the second chance to speak. Borderline, the club she is working in, is one of London’s nicest small-to-medium sized venues, which can accommodate around 300 people. It is located in Soho and has a distinct tex-mex feel. EMI used to have an office on top of the venue, so the space was often used for the label’s showcase gigs.

Gilford’s day-to-day work is pretty hands-on. She needs to ensure that everything in the venue is safe, customers are feeling comfortable and the staff can work effectively in a hectic environment. It is this ethos that gained them the trust of big companies (Marc Jacobs, Nike, Spotify) to put on shows using their ‘corporate budgets’.

When it was Rebecca Kane’s turn to speak, she basically echoed what Gilford and Horseman had said regarding work culture. The main difference would probably be the scale: The O2 Arena is the world’s busiest music venue anyway. With 9 million annual visitors and aiming to increase the number to 20 million, it takes serious work to keep The O2 at the top. Kane attribute much of The O2’s success to the team that she is working it. For instance, she mentioned The O2’s Festivals and Events Director, Milly Olykan, who is instrumental in looking for content from all over the world. She brought Sundance to the O2 and since then they began thinking of creating contents of their own. Country 2 Country is one of the fruits of their work.

Panelists of 'Backstage Pass: A Career In Live Music'

Panelists of ‘Backstage Pass: A Career In Live Music’

Kane told the audience that the British Music Experience, an exhibition at The O2 is now closed. She revealed that an Elvis exhibition will take its place soon. They are currently working to bring amazing artefacts, film screenings and tribute performers to the space. ‘There’s a lot to celebrate Elvis coming into the building’, she said.

The moderator asked the panelists regarding their opinion on agents. Horseman said that an agent is usually the artist’s first point of call aside from the manager. She also stressed that there are no traditional routes anymore, so a band can be successful without an agent.

Kane told an interesting story about Pharell Williams and his agent, John Giddings. She said that Giddings was at a meeting with Kelis, another artist he represents, when he saw a man laying on a sofa. Giddings asked, ‘who is that?’, and Kelis replied ‘it’s a bloke called Pharell Williams. You should be his agent’. For fourteen years Giddings guide Pharell. It was because of Giddings’ work that Pharell could play two nights in a row at The O2 a few months ago. The singer thanked the agent at the show.

As the digital revolution has influenced the industry in tremendous ways, the moderator asked the panelists for their opinion on this issue. Gilford said that social media has turned people judgmental and enabled them to give instant comments. She said that agents, promoters and venue managers need to have a tough skin in facing the rapid flow of criticism.

Horseman said that digital tools definitely help her work, but she emphasised on the importance of getting on the phone. Coming up with decisions and creating opportunities can be done faster when people talk on the phone instead of waiting for hundreds of emails and replying them one by one.

An audience member asked the speakers as to what specific marketing tool they found to be the most effective. Kane mentioned that The O2 has an audience database, which enabled them to do specific customer targeting. For instance, the database can tell them that people who watch Justin Timberlake won’t buy a Jack White show ticket. Kane also said that more people would go to shows when they know if it’s happening, so a precise targeting would help them inform (and influence) the right people.

Merchandise has been an integral part in a band’s marketing strategy. It has also often been used as an income stream that supports touring. Gilford mentioned that many rock and metal bands fund their tours completely through their merch revenue. Kane added that it is important for musicians to put a lot of care and attention when crafting their merchandise. It should be an extension of their musical work, and not just some boring design or logo offshoots by uninspired designers. Florence Welch is an example of an artist who adds her quirkiness to her line of merch. They felt genuine, so she would always sell out her merch.

When the seminar finished, I had a chance to ask the panelists some questions. I asked Horseman whether they are up for getting good bands from countries like Indonesia to play in the UK. She replied by saying that Coda currently focuses on UK acts, but there is a directory of agents which can be used to find who’s interested in bringing Asian acts over.

The second talk had an impressive line-up. I would say that I decided to come because I wanted to hear those people speak. Leo Nicholas (Spinefarm Records’ Label Manager), Scott Witters (CEO of Glownet), Stefan Heller (Carrier Relations Head at OpenMarket), and Ivor Wilkins (Director of MAMA group) were the panelists. Liz Stokes, the editor of Record Of The Day, moderated the talk.

From left to right: Scott Witters, Stefan Heller, Leo Nicholas, ivor Wilkins, Liz Stokes

From left to right: Scott Witters, Stefan Heller, Leo Nicholas, Ivor Wilkins, Liz Stokes

True to the talk’s title, Liz opened by asking each panelist ‘will live music save the industry?’ Stefan Heller said ‘I think it’s crap. It won’t save the industry’. Leo Nicholas elaborated by stating that the revenue from live music will never completely counterbalance the decline of the industry. According to Ivor Wilkins, the live show market is currently saturated.

Liz then asked whether new bands can make money in the live sector nowadays. Everyone said ‘no’. Witters argued that it is so because the price of live music has gone up disproportionately to ticket sales. He suggested that if new bands want to be noticed by booking agents, they should not send demos as it is a waste of time. Instead, they should offer the booking agents their audience, composed of the scale of their fanbase and the scope of their audience, which are best reflected through their online presence.

When asked whether there are funding schemes that help young bands, Heller replied ‘yes, and they’re called record labels’. Witters mentioned that brands like to invest in young bands, but only if they can create an impressive social media traction.

Still related to social media, Witters said that it is important for bands to get an expert to handle their social media work. If they do it themselves, then they would not have the time to make good music. Witters told that in the US, where he is based, bands do a lot of text message promotion through certain companies. The other panelists and some audience members became curious about it. He explained that since text messages are more direct, it can grant the bands more following. However, there is also the risk of overexposing themselves.

One thing that I should mention is that I looked forward to hearing Leo Nicholas speak about metal. His label represents artists I like such as Electric Wizard, Killing Joke and Rammstein. Liz asked him whether there’s more pressure for a niche genre like metal to survive in the live circuit. Nicholas responded by saying that going on tour and doing the ‘toilet circuit’ (small shows where the bands hardly make any money) is what metal is all about. Metal bands need to consistently put themselves out there, until perhaps an agent stops them for overexposing themselves.

The metal man in the panel, Leo Nicholas.

The metal man in the panel, Leo Nicholas.

Livestreaming gigs have become an issue discussed a lot in the past three years. The panelists were asked if they think that the technology brings positive impact to the industry. Witters said that livestreaming is good as long as gives the artist receives money from it. However, he stressed that it can never replace actual live experience. Livestreaming can be too overproduced and in actual gigs people can do stuff that they can’t do at home. ‘People buy tickets to our festival even before we announce the artists, so it shows that people are going for the atmosphere and the experience, not necessarily the music’, Witters said. Wilkins agreed on Witters’ point, saying that the excitement of being in a live gig, something that he has loved since punk’s explosion when he was sixteen, is the most crucial element.

Closing the talk, each panelists were asked if they are optimistic about the industry. Witters said ‘yes’. Heller said ‘maybe, because it’s really about the individual business models and how they get customers to spend, not the industry as a whole.’ Nicholas said ‘yes’. Wilkins’ response was longer. He said that he would love to see more companies investing on the grassroots level. He criticised Live Nation for building a business model that just takes new acts when they are famous and successful with little concern for nurturing them from the initial stages of their career.