Right now, there is no female rapper in the UK blowing up like Ms Banks, who’s taking a break from the studio when Music Week drops in to congratulate her on winning the Women In Music New Artist Award.
In the age of Britpop, Skunk Anansie were an outlier. Fronted by a striking, shaven-headed, black, openly bisexual singer, the multi-cultural, hard rock four-piece were a world away from the laddish, boozy, white boy indie of the era – and all the better for it.
“It was weird to have a lead singer like me,” acknowledges Skin, their iconic frontwoman. “There were barely any black people in rock bands as it was, and to have a black female singer was a very strange thing indeed. People thought that was a negative at the beginning, but we quickly realised that was actually what made us different.
“The thing that you think will go against you is sometimes the thing that makes you stand out. We embraced it and realised that maybe the establishment weren’t so keen on us, but the people loved us. We were quite shocking, but in a good way.”
Skin, aka Deborah Dyer, is the recipient of the 2018 Music Week Women In Music Inspirational Artist Award (“It was a really nice surprise, I was bowled over,” smiles the 51-year-old). As part of Skunk Anansie, she released two platinum-selling albums – 1995’s Paranoid & Sunburnt (333,863 sales – OCC) and 1996’s Stoosh (506,312) – half a dozen UK Top 20 singles and headlined the last Glastonbury of the millennium.
“The whole Britpop thing... It’s not that it passed us by, but we definitely weren’t part of it,” she tells Music Week. “We were, in many ways, ostracised from it, because we had a very different sound and didn’t have the look that was the British look at the time, so we decided to ignore it.
“We were in a different world really. All the bands that were going to be in the NME were in Camden, whereas we were in Kings Cross, playing out of The Splash Club, which was a real dive at the time. We used to rehearse around the corner and it was a little scene: there was us, an early version of Feeder and bands like that who were perhaps more American-influenced. We didn’t take much notice of what else was going on, we were in our own little bubble.”
Speaking to Music Week from Italy, where she currently resides, Skin expresses mixed feelings on the progress the music industry (and indeed, wider society) has made on equality matters. “For me, it’s like I’m fighting on all fronts – being gay, being female, being a black woman,” she says. “In one way you think things are moving forward and people are embracing diversity, but then at the same time there is a right-wing reaction, where people are anti-#MeToo and anti-women.
“At the end of the day, it benefits everybody to have a more diverse music industry. British music has influences from all over the place and I think that’s one of the reasons why it is the best in the world. We’ve got to keep moving forward in a unified way and not fall into this trap of separating people, which America seems to be falling into.”
The vocalist also provides some pointed advice for the next generation of hopefuls. “The No.1 thing is to be authentic first,” she asserts. “Before you worry about being diverse – being black, white, female, whatever – you’ve still got to be fucking good. Don’t put your band together for any other reason than because you’re good, you’re authentic, you feel it, you want it and you have that ambition.
“It’s important not to get distracted from who you are and what you want to be by trying to fit into the mould of what you think the industry, the establishment or social media thinks you should be. Firstly, be good.”
Skunk Anansie have stood the test of time and will celebrate their 25th anniversary next year with a new live album, 25live@25. Skin credits her manager, Leigh Johnson, with never losing sight of the big picture.
“She spotted me and started managing me from the very beginning,” explains Skin. “I’ve only had one manager and I think she’s the greatest manager on the planet: she’s authentic, speaks her mind and has always been there for us as a band and for me as a human. What she has is morality – doing things for the right reasons, not because it is going to make you more money in the short-term. She’s been the most important person in my life as a musician.”
Charlie Myatt, her live agent at 13 Artists, is also singled out for praise. “He started putting us out there before we’d even signed to a record label,” notes Skin. “Those two had a long-term vision from the very start, which people don’t really have now – they think, ‘Three albums, then you’re out.’
“We saw music as something we would do for a lifetime, whereas I think people now have the attitude that it is something you do while you’re young. Some of the most interesting music has been made by people at different stages of their life and we always had a long-term vision because we wanted to be doing this for a very long time.”
Topping the bill at Glastonbury with Skunk Anansie in 1999 remains a career highlight. “We were on fire,” she beams. “It is one of my best ever memories. We’ve done a million festivals and I’d say Glastonbury is still the best, so it felt like we’d made it.”
While a headline slot at Worthy Farm would mark the pinnacle of 99% of acts careers, Skin can go one better, having performed at Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday party in South Africa in 1998. “Singing Happy Birthday to Nelson Mandela with Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and Michael Jackson is not bad,” she laughs.
“We were one of the first, if not the first, alternative bands to play South Africa after Apartheid ended. I’d been backpacking in South Africa and was like, ‘You know what? It’s really cool.’ We made a point of doing the black press and the white press to make sure everybody felt included and it was a real moment. I still have people come up to me and say, ‘I remember when you guys played out in South Africa,’ and because of that Nelson invited us to his 80th birthday party.”
Skin, who also works as a techno DJ, released two solo albums during Skunk Anansie’s hiatus in the 2000s, Fleshwounds (2003) and Fake Chemical State (2006), and recently branched out into acting. She also joined the judging panel of the Italian version of The X Factor for one series in 2015.
“God, it was difficult learning a new language at the same time as trying to be witty and funny, but it was an interesting experience, one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done,” she notes. “Part of it was me throwing myself in at the deep end and digging myself out, which have been character traits I’ve had from the start. As English people we underestimate how important it is to challenge ourselves and get things wrong, and then dig ourselves out of a hole to get it right.”
With Skunk Anansie in the midst of writing new material, Skin is also planning to take time out to work on new electronic music.
Reflecting on her quarter century in the industry, she concludes: “The main thing I’ve learned is to embrace the struggle. It’s not an easy business, it’s a very difficult business and I think that helps gets rid of the chaff. If you just get into it because you want to be famous then you’re part of the chaff that probably doesn’t deserve it.
“It’s difficult to be good and it’s even more difficult, once you’ve had success, to maintain it. But I embraced the challenges because it made us better – we’d be making completely different music if it was easy.”
"We strongly believe that having a more diverse workforce, with different perspectives and different outlooks, means we end up having a stronger company,” says PPL chief executive, Peter Leathem. “This is about trying to do things well, to have good recruitment, good training, and ultimately having a diversity of views and opinions that can lead to very strong results.”
The proof is there in the latest set of figures for the collection management organisation, which this year made its largest ever distribution to performers and record companies – £150.7 million. The results, issued in July, showed a 12% year-on-year increase.
So while equal representation is undoubtedly a good thing for any organisation, Leathem also believes it delivers results. In which case, PPL’s growth over recent years has been significantly bolstered by the efforts of Kate Reilly, director of people and organisational development, and Juliette Edwards, head of people and organisational development.
“We do a lot of coaching and development,” says Edwards, who joined PPL in 2014 and was promoted within a year. “We have mandatory training to make sure that we cover unconscious bias in a positive way, and we ensure people are educated on what this means and how we can be a more inclusive organisation.”
For PPL, the diversity agenda begins at the recruitment stage, and the HR team work with organisations such as LGBT rights charity Stonewall to ensure language in job adverts is based around inclusivity.
For women employees returning from maternity leave, PPL helps with the transition process. “To provide that support, through coaching, is something that we’re very passionate about,” says Edwards.
As PPL’s reach extends to much of the UK music business, it’s only right that it should be helping the entire industry to do better on diversity. Reilly, who joined PPL in 2011, was promoted to her current senior role in 2015, which coincided with the launch of UK Music Diversity Taskforce. Over the last three years, she’s been involved in the industry-wide initiative to map progress and improve opportunities for people from all backgrounds.
“The Diversity Taskforce has been very positive,” says Reilly. “It has been a good opportunity for us to share ideas with other [organisations] so that we can contribute to our industry. Any opportunity that you’re provided with to discuss issues, challenges, and things that are working well with other members of the industry can only be a positive thing, just to share experiences and learn from one another.”
PPL is in many ways a model music company with a strong record on diversity. In 2017, it had BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) representation of 22%, based on those employees who opted to make a declaration on racial background.
The male-to-female split for PPL’s 342 employees last year was 56% and 44% respectively. With a mean gender pay gap of 6.6%, it has out-performed major labels in the recorded music industry and similar licensing organisations. If Leathem’s CEO salary was excluded, the mean pay gap would have been 2.2%.
PPL’s median gender pay gap is actually 4.3% in favour of women. The proportion of male and female employees who received a bonus is 84.2% and 82.8% respectively. PPL’s upper pay quartile has a better gender split than other music companies: 45.5% women to 54.5% men.
“We’re already in a pretty good place in terms of the gender pay gap and that’s because we have a lot of women in senior roles,” says Leathem. “It’s all a work in progress. We anticipate that we’ll just carry on trying to do things properly, trying to do things well and then benefit from the outcomes.”
While PPL has its fair share of technical and IT roles to ensure the smooth processing of licensing data, it has not become top-heavy with white, male staff – a problem that plagues some tech companies.
“Our head of IT is female, we’ve got a whole range of diverse technical roles,” says Leathem.
“The key for us actually is, regardless of gender, just hiring the right person with the right skill set for the right role,” adds Reilly. “The key to that is ensuring that your [recruitment] pool is as wide as possible, so that you do cover every aspect of diversity but you make the decisions for the right reasons.”
Under Reilly’s HR management, PPL was named Company Of The Year – Small To Medium Business at the Employee Engagement Awards last year. Now, their track record on diversity is being awarded with the top honour in the music industry at the Women In Music Awards. For Leathem, it’s a validation of PPL’s progressive approach, which internal surveys show has boosted productivity and reduced staff turnover under his leadership over the last seven years.
“Having any focus on diversity with this award, and an opportunity to talk about things and share experiences, has to be a good thing,” says Leathem.