Jamal Edwards: The Music Week Interview

Jamal Edwards: The Music Week Interview

As SBTV celebrated 10 years in business, founder Jamal Edwards sat down with Music Week last month to look back on a decade during which he made friends from Boy Better Know to Richard Branson and collected an MBE. In a discussion that took in MCs, A&R and the future of the music business, Edwards outlined how how unearthing new talent remains the main aim of his company. You can revisit our cover feature in full below:

 

Jamal Edwards has hardly slept, and Cillian Murphy is to blame. The chiselled Irish actor stars in Peaky Blinders, which Edwards has “just discovered” to his cost, in that it’s been keeping him up all night.

“I’ve just got back from America, and as well as the jet lag, I’ve discovered Peaky Blinders, which is sick,” he says, settling into a leather chair in the vast white boardroom of SBTV’s central London office. “I watch it, then it’s 8am and I’ve had no sleep!”

If he’s feeling the burn, he doesn’t show it. Fresh-faced and cosy in a duffle coat and baseball cap, he’s a bundle of energy, racing off on tangents (social media, his tips for 2018, his time working in Topman, “oomph moments”) while endeavouring to guide Music Week through SBTV’s decade in business.

December 2017 is a particularly busy time for a man who gives the impression he was born rushed off his feet.

Although SBTV’s Winter Weekender at London’s Printworks, scheduled to take place later this month, has just been postponed due to unforseen circumstances, Edwards is frantically applying the finishing touches to a film made with YouTube to mark the anniversary.

"The idea is to look at how the internet has changed the music industry, but also people’s lives in a wider sense," he says.

To do so, he's been zipping between New York and LA to film various music industry stars (the night before we meet, he was shooting with Ed Sheeran, a longtime friend and early SBTV adopter who filmed an acoustic A64 session in February 2010).

And YouTube is where it all started for the 26-year-old West Londoner. Back in February 2007, he slipped off during a school trip to film grainy handycam footage of MCs Soul and Slides going bar-for-bar by the Cadbury’s factory in Birmingham.

Now, his channel boasts a total view count of almost 580 million (the current most-viewed clip is Yxng Bane's Shape Of You rework, with 14m).

“I was doing loads of underground stuff, running around filming and annoying everyone,” he remembers, puffing out his cheeks. “I was always there with my camera, those were the early days…”

He sounds wistful, and rightly so. Driven by the viral F64 series - where MCs are filmed spitting an original 64-bar rhyme - and its spin-off A64, Edwards and SBTV have helped break a raft of artists from Sheeran and Emeli Sandé, to Wiley, JME, Skepta, J Hus, Nadia Rose and Dave.

All the while, Edwards was the face of young enterprise and entrepreneurship, awarded an MBE for services to music at 23, he’s also created and starred in a Google Chrome ad and had his face splashed across magazine covers from Time to Wired.

Really, his project has exploded beyond any expectation.

But, as Music Week finds out during an illuminating couple of hours in his company, Edwards is all about the music.

And while his Just Jam label venture with RCA didn't work out, he offers the cryptic morsel that he's "helping artists start businesses and looking to help them distribute".

From Island president Darcus Beese, to his college friends now filling positions across the industry and, of course, the artists (he’s on nickname terms with “Skeppy, Hus, Stormz” and more), Edwards’ contacts book is bulging.

And so is his reserve of ideas concerning the industry. He’s attentive, curious and thorough in conversation, consulting an iPhone (another is stowed in his bag) to scroll through notes made pre-interview so as not to miss anything.

With the growing mainstream imprint of grime and UK rap, the future of SBTV, diversity, mental health and new industry models all up for discussion, we strap in for a trip inside the hyperactive mind of Jamal Edwards…


What are you aiming to reveal with the 10th birthday film?

"I’ve been catching up with artists who have been on the channel, and then people with an interesting viewpoint, like Ethiopia Habtemariam, the president of Motown Records, and [Stampede Management's] Russell Redeaux, who was a part of Snoop’s YouTube channel.

"It’s about being democratic, DIY. Anyone can get out there and do it themselves. People in all different areas have that same DIY mentality."

Do you still feel like you’re at that street level?

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Back in the day there weren’t as many platforms as there are now, so people are getting their shots on other platforms, but we still have the power.

"We’ve done Dave, J Hus, Nadia Rose and Mist recently. I always class it as symbiotic, they’ve got the talent, we’ve got the platform. Our audience is a bit different, varied, so that’s why we can still help artists, even if they’ve been on other platforms."

Is that still what you’re trying to do?

"Yeah. A&R is the most important thing. The other part of it is helping to build creative teams. When Ed Sheeran did his first videos with us he used to joke because we were the platform where it was predominantly grime and rap, and when I put him on there he blew up.

Nowadays, there are other platforms and artists are using their channels as platforms, like Stormzy and Lady Leshurr. That’s how the game has changed. It inspires me to think, ‘What else can I do, how can I help?'"

And what else can you do?

"When I filmed with Dave, I hired a director called Dir. Lx, he directed Dave’s first video, Jekyll & Hyde, and I also put him on J Hus’ Lean & Bop. After that, he has directed all of Dave’s videos. That’s the evolution of how I think I can help artists, as well as doing content and showing them ideas of different formats, different strands.

"I’ve come across some amazing talent over the past few months, but I haven’t filmed them yet, I will. But I’m still on that discovering new talent. Even if they’ve been on other platforms I can still put them on SB. I’m always trying to find new artists, but even if they’re out there already I feel like I can put them in a new space."

Does it get harder to do that as SBTV gets bigger?

"To be honest, the thing that stops me is getting busy with other things. But I’ve removed myself from that, I’ve got a [smartphone] notepad full of all these new artists and when I’m ready I’m going to get a studio and start filming.

"I want to stick to the creative and other people in the company can handle the business side so I can hone in on A&R and breaking new acts."

What else are you doing when it comes to A&R?

"Well, Riley, Marcus Darryl, and a girl from Birmingham called Muna, those are three young people [new talent spotters] to watch. There are A&Rs that are in actual labels, but these are outside, raw round the edges, the youngest one is 16. I want to help them, so I’m trying to figure out how.

"This is the new breed of A&Rs, outside the framework of what an A&R is. All it’ll take is platforms like mine or a label for those three to put on an act that no one knows of and for it to blow. If it does well, I’m not here to take fame and glory; I just want to put people on."

What are the main ways these acts are breaking nowadays?

"The different platforms, live shows, doing things culture-wise, then you have Spotify and Apple playlists.  Merch too, like Blade Brown and BXB, his merch, that has added more to his music.

"That’s quite a few ways compared to back in the day, no one would have been able to get involved in that. I don’t know if anyone apart from JME and BBK were doing merch. This is what I’m excited about, artists becoming more and more entrepreneurial, from 10 years ago to where it is now is crazy.

"Then you’re getting teams of people building around artists, Stormzy, Skeppy… all these artists are building teams around them, rising above and smashing it. That’s where the evolution of the scene started."

Is that one of the biggest changes you’ve seen over 10 years?

"Yes. Artists becoming empowered and realising they don’t have to rely on platforms, radio, TV… They’re just their own bosses, doing it on their own terms, how they see fit.

"Now you’re getting the most Top 20s, Top 40s from the grime and rap scenes. It’s healthy, man. If I can just play a little part in that I’m good, I just want to build and be a part of something that is standing the test of time."

How have these artists been able to make such a big impact, particularly over the past couple of years?

"The audience has been growing. The scene has always been there, people have been working harder than ever.

"When opportunities arise, it’s like, ‘Woah, if they can do it, I can do it'. That’s for platforms, artists, people who make merch, do events… You get J Hus and Dave selling out tours, then there’s a knock-on effect.

"I feel like we’ve broken through the door and every time someone does, it smashes open even more and more artists can come through. People saw that and ran with it."

What does mainstream exposure mean for the scene?

"We uploaded [grime classic] German Whip after Meridian Dan sent it to me in 2012. I was in America and people there were listening to it, I was like, ‘Woah, woah, woah!’ Then we did the first grime showcase at SXSW.

"That showed me it was getting somewhere. I went to Soccer AM with Meridian Dan, he was saying, ‘Rah man’s on Soccer AM!’.

"These moments, oomph moments, an artist or producer might have seen that and… Grime will always have its rawness, but it’s being put on those platforms and going to a wider audience, which equals more awareness, more interest, more bookings..."

What does the future hold?

"I feel like everyone in the scene is embracing themselves as entrepreneurs. That will get bigger. Artists will tour worldwide, Asia, Australia, I see that getting bigger, show sizes getting bigger.

"I also see cool collaborations with artists that aren’t necessarily in the genre. I see everything getting bigger. I had an artist called Damndef send me videos from South Korea doing a grime track. That will happen more.

"If he pioneers the grime scene in that area, he’s gonna build a following, artists can come over and get booked and he can do collaborations over here. If that happens all over the world more, it will keep on growing. That is exciting."

And how will SBTV grow?

"I’ve always looked at my past 10 years as the end of an era and I’m beginning a new era. I remember I did an interview with Darcus [Beese] at Island, he was saying he’d been in this 20-25 years, long! Ten years is halfway to a career.

"I’m looking at that as putting a pole in the ground and saying, what about the next 5-10 years? I never thought I’d be able to reach these places, everyone’s a local voice, we’re all local voices, on a global platform, whatever you put on the internet, can reach kids over there.

"I want to do this globally, but never forget where I started, which is in West London."

You’ve been involved with Boy Better Know since the early days; did you know something special was brewing?

"Yeah! Every single one of them is a character. Jamie, Skepta, Wiley, Frisco, Jammer, Shorty, Maximum, Sam… I’ll start reeling off lyrics in a minute! I’ve known them for years, from when I filmed them in Watford for Maximum’s birthday, to doing the behind-the-scenes of the Too Many Man shoot.

"JME’s entrepreneurial spirit has always inspired me, when he was doing SIM cards or Tropical CDs. When I’m with him, he’s always so content and stays true to himself. I’m thankful I’ve been there. I’ve always felt it. They’re one of the grime crews that are still here, pioneering as ever."

How  do you rate mainstream industry dealings with the UK scene?

"If labels or publishers are working with the artist and the artist knows what they’re doing, it can only add an extra flavour.

"These artists have always known themselves and what they want to do, so if anything, the music industry will just help elevate that.

"Especially if these artists are focused and they know their sound and audience, it can only help."

Even the major-signed acts such as J Hus are keeping their independence…

"J Hus, he’s nuts! When I sat down with his team in here, they know what they want. People building their teams and consistent sound is so important and so admirable.

"I know they’re looking after other artists and they’re building their management company into something. Ten years ago I don’t think people were thinking like that."

Do you see yourself as part of the music business?

"I think I am. I’ve got loads of friends in it as well. [Columbia's]Joel Quartey, I went to college with Joel, he was always on me, wanting to be in it. [Sony/ATV's] Angela Mastronardi was in the same class, too.

"Off the back of knowing them I’ve created other industry friendships, as well as the artists, everyone else plays their role, I just feel as the scene gets bigger there’s more people creating opportunities for each other."

Is it in a good place?

"Definitely. We’ve had Mercury nominations, Ivor Novellos, imagine Grammys too, that would be sick. That would be unreal. The world’s our oyster, I feel, the music is empowering people all over the world."

You’ve worked to raise awareness for mental health. Is the industry doing enough?

"I did a documentary about male suicide with The Guardian. I had a lot of females message me going, 'It’s not just males.' That made me think, 'I need to do another one,' so I did mental health in the music industry. I did Sasha Keable, Dave, Cleo, Despa Robinson, I caught up with some professors too, that opened a whole other thing. It was needed. A lot of up-and-coming musicians feel isolated.

"As much as artists are becoming successful and it should inspire people, some might look at it and think, 'Why can’t I do that? It can sometimes have a negative effect. I wanted to show people that it is glitz and glam, but you do have your down moments as well. Anxiety comes over me at the most random times. I wanted to create awareness.

"As much as music is my entry point, I feel a responsibility to talk about these other issues. I wanted to get people talking to each other and they have been, I’m happy."

Finally, is the music industry diverse enough?

"I don’t want to talk out of turn because I don’t walk through labels every day, so I can’t say. But from the people that I know, I feel like it’s more inclusive compared to back in the day.

"It’s definitely getting better, but it could be even better…"

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