Barry Ashworth on the impact of Covid on mental health for musicians

Dub Pistols frontman Barry Ashworth blew a fortune from his Geffen deal on drugs in the noughties and was once named Caner Of The Year by Muzik Magazine.  Ahead of his third fund-raising wing walk, he discusses his recovery, as ...

Access All Areas: Ray BLK and her team take us inside the journey to making her debut album

Ray BLK’s debut album has been years in the making, and now Access Denied is finally here. After a rapid rise in which shewon a MOBO and topped the BBC Sound Of poll, BLK’s blend of rap and R&B has consistently delivered, while she’s become a vital voice in music, speaking out against industry racism, sexism and inequality. Here, alongside manager Sarah Stennett, Island president Louis Bloom and A&R Jade Richardson, she tells Music Week that her time has finally come...  WORDS: Anna Fielding     PHOTOS: Adama Jalloh, Ray BLK  "Maybe I’m the only weirdo that does this,” says Ray BLK. “But sometimes I like to schedule in a cry, like, ‘Tonight I’m going to go home, put the shower on full blast, sit on the floor, play sad music and scream-cry’. It feels so good. You know, I went to drama school, I’m a bit of a drama queen. Crying in the rain by the window, I love that stuff.”  This year, Ray – real name Rita Ekwere – should, hopefully, have less need of a scheduled cry, however cathartic they are. Ray BLK (the acronym stands for ‘Building, Living, Knowing’) has been the next big thing since 2016. But now, it’s really happening and it’s happening on her terms.  She’s a straight talker, an expressive rapper and a richly melodic standard-bearer for British R&B. Back in 2016, she released her debut mini-album Durt (11,796 sales, OCC), which featured collaborations from Stormzy and Wretch 32, and won Best Newcomer at the MOBOs. In 2017, she topped the BBC’s influential Sound Of list, the first unsigned artist to do so, beating Rag’N’Bone Man and Jorja Smith to first place. She also won the New Artist award at the Music Week Women In Music Awards. By 2018, she had signed with Island. In 2019, she opened for Nicki Minaj for the UK leg of the US star’s world tour. Last year, she wrote Warrior for director Sarah Gavron’s acclaimed film drama Rocks, and the song was shortlisted in the Sync Of The Year category at the Music Week Awards this month. But it has taken until now for her to release a full-length album. The world will be able to get into Access Denied on October 1.  “It was uncontrollable circumstances, really,” she says. “I wish I could be very cool about it and say that people could just wait for it. I would really love to be like Frank Ocean… He’s an artist I love a lot, but the perception is that he just disappears for a bit and does whatever he likes. And then, at some point, he’s ready. But I can’t say that, it wouldn’t be real.” Access Denied would have appeared last year, but, as with so many other records, it was delayed due to the pandemic. Prior to that, “It was about finding my sound, finding the right people to make music with,” says BLK.  “We took our time and allowed Ray the time and space to write and record,” says Louis Bloom, president of Island Records. “We assembled a great team who earned Ray’s trust and who, from day one, have delivered over and above. We steer the ship like we always try to steer the ship, believing in the artist, developing trust and mutual respect with the team, working closely with management, and hopefully delivering albums as great as this one.” Former Music Week Awards Strat winner Sarah Stennett of First Access Entertainment forms part of Ray’s management team, along with Laura Lukanz and Aisha Folawiyo. “It’s a brilliant, honest, bold record,” she says of Access Denied. “It’s real and thought provoking and is very reflective of the experiences Ray has faced in all facets of her life. As a Black female artist in a predominately white male industry, there is a lot to overcome, but Ray is an artist who isn’t taking no for an answer.” The record features US singer Kaash Paige, UK rap legend Giggs, Stefflon Don and others. The album, BLK says, “is very much rooted in R&B” and the artist blends her modes of performance throughout.   “For me, rapping is more expressive, it’s closer to poetry, but I feel singing with a melody can really move someone,” she says. “There are certain notes that do certain things to people’s emotions.”  Her own emotions have played a part in Access Denied, too. The title, she says, “Is about not allowing people into your space. I think over time, I’ve learned that it is important to create boundaries, and only allow people into your space who show you love and care and make you feel good about yourself. But at the same time, you could just put up walls, even for those who may be deserving of access, out of fear, and disappointment.” Some of that disappointment relates to previous experiences in the music industry.  “You put your hopes and dreams in someone’s hands,” she says. “Industry people sell you a dream and you believe in it, buy into it. And a lot of the time, things don’t turn out the way you expect them to.”  She’s expressed this disillusionment before. Last year, talking to Music Week about the #TheShowMustBePaused initiative and Black Lives Matter she said, “I’ve never felt this sad about a social issue before. Everybody has reached breaking point. A day isn’t enough to allow the music industry to feel the impact of Black people no longer taking part in the circus.”  In a 2019 talk for TEDxPeckham, she spoke about how she tried to change herself, her sound, her looks, who she was, to fit in. Today, she offers a pragmatic viewpoint on the matter.  “It’s a business,” she says. “That’s the main thing. I am an artist and, naturally, I’m led by that, but I’ve also worked in a professional environment, I worked in PR before I got into music. So I understand business and that the music industry is a business. And so as much as people say that they care about what you stand for, what you represent and what your struggles are, the reality is that, even if they care on a personal level, it always comes back down to whether or not they deem it to be beneficial for them.” For Jade Richardson, Ray BLK’s A&R and a member of the Black Music Coalition, this refusal to be starry-eyed is a plus point.  “She’s a real professional, I want her to win,” says Richardson. “I think she works really hard and she takes her craft really seriously. It’s a pleasure to watch and be around. There’s never an, ‘It’s too much’ or ‘I’m too tired’. She really gets the bigger picture, grasps that the industry is a business, but also has that sensitivityand that vulnerability to be really human about it.”  “To work with Ray is brilliant,” says Bloom. “We often promise artists that at the very least we will match their hard work and ambition and Ray has got those two qualities by the bucketload. Add her incredible voice, inner strength, amazing songwriting and personality and you have a dream artist.” “It’s just a lot of hustle, to be honest,” admits BLK. “I work really, really hard to have any of the opportunities that come to me. I’ve not just been given them, I’ve hustled relationships, I’ve gone out of my way… You have to push yourself and be uncomfortable to get the things you want.” Ray BLK has been pushing herself throughout this interview, leaving another photoshoot, getting into a taxi, going back to her flat to find a hat and then walking at pace to her next appointment, stopping to find shelter when the wind blows into the phone and obscures her speech. She doesn’t miss a beat throughout. But she’s used to putting in extra.  “One of the things I do reveal on Access Denied, something I think people will be surprised to learn, is that I was a young carer,” she says. “I was looking after my brother and trying to have a childhood at the same time.”  BLK was born in Lagos, Nigeria. When she was four, she, her mother and two siblings moved to Catford in South East London. Her brother is autistic and cannot speak.  “Caring for my brother formed a big part of me, it’s a big part of my identity, why I am the way I am,” she says. “It was a very adult setting, with some adult responsibilities. We were a single-parent household, so my sister and I had to juggle too. “My relationship with my brother is obviously limited in some ways, but we share a bond that can’t be explained. We have our own form of communication. My sister is six years older than me and we have a really good relationship now, but there used to be rivalries because I’m the baby. Also, I’m Nigerian and part of the culture is respecting your elders, even if they are your siblings. But I was quite rebellious and saw her as my equal, so I’d talk back and think, ‘I don’t have to listen to you.’”  Her family and her home borough are both places of retreat, where she’s still Rita and not Ray BLK.  “Catford is a place where, honestly, not much happens, but a lot also happens,” she says. “You can’t necessarily say, ‘Let’s go out and do this or that’, but it’s very community-oriented. You’ve got the characters that every Catford native knows. And when I’m around that area there’s also a 100% chance of seeing someone I went to school with. And I like that. I’m a very family-oriented person and I also like being around the people I grew up with. Because that is when I’m happiest. And to be honest, they remind me that all the other stuff that I worry about, that we all worry about in my industry, isn’t really that serious. I mean, there’s much more to life than my music.”  BLK’s flair for lyrics grew from a love of poetry and from doing English at school. She pursued the subject and studied at London’s Brunel University.  “I hold my English Literature degree with so much pride,” she says. “I’m so happy I did that because it definitely has impacted the way I write. When I write, I really think about what I’m saying and I think about how to create imagery in my writing.”  Her dissertation was on Postcolonial Nigerian Literature, and she names novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as a favourite, along with an essay collection, All About Love, by the American feminist and social activist bell hooks (real name Gloria Jean Watkins). “I’d love to do a masters,” she says, with real joy. “When I find the time, I’m going to do a masters degree.”  Her passion for bell hooks isn’t surprising. Like the writer, one of the most famous theorists linked to intersectional feminism, BLK has done a lot of thinking about what it means to be Black, what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a Black woman. “I believe that I represent a group of people who don’t often get heard and don’t feel seen,” she says. “From what people tell me, and from women who see me in the street and approach me… I believe it makes them feel represented, let’s them know we’re all living a similar life and that their story is worth being told.”  “Ray represents something that I represent,” says Richardson. “And it’s nice to come together and be able to feel more powerful, as a force, tackling those things. I think just being a woman – a Black woman or woman of colour in music – in the UK and making R&B would have a different journey to a Black male doing rap or drill, or a white female doing pop.” “I realised that a lot of the things I had experienced were also the experiences of women generally,” says BLK. “Then there’s the second layer of being a Black woman. It’s not that things are impossible or that you always hear ‘no’, it’s more that you have to put in three times more effort to have the same level of recognition. There’s no room for mediocrity and that can be terrifying.”  When it comes to discussing Ray BLK’s musical career, there’s also the question of being a British R&B singer. There are many Black women singing R&B, but the genre, or at least its mainstream end, is more commonly associated with America.  “I think that we need more opportunities and more platforms,” says Richardson. “I think we need more support globally from streaming partners to support British R&B artists. At the moment, all the big R&B playlists are driven out of the States and it’s very difficult to get onthose playlists.” It has, BLK says, been suggested to her several times during the course of her career that she should move across the Atlantic. But she doesn’t want to do that. Breaking new ground is what motivates her.  “Music moves in trends and I feel that’s really obvious and lazy,” she says. “Even within the ‘urban’ scene… Like, now, people can see there’s a trend in drill music, so it’s, ‘Let’s put all of our focus and attention and money into drill’. And people allow trends to dictate what they do instead of creating a trend. And to me, that is not innovative at all.”  She has a team around her that will fight for her. She describes Stennett as, “A woman you want in your corner of the boxing ring”.  Stennett herself says she’s prepared to do “trench fighting” on BLK’s behalf.  “My relationship with Ray,” she says, “is borne from my respect for her craft, her courage, and her ability to walk her path with pride and strength.” At Island, says Bloom, “Ray has a core team around her who have brought us to this place where we’re about to drop the album.  “She is a special talent,” he continues. “One who is constantly developing and challenging herself, and us as well, to keep moving forward, to become stronger and to keep improving. If I was a young artist on the up, I think what Ray stands for, the way she has maintained control of her career, how she has led the creative process while working closely with ourselves at Island and management, is a great lesson on how to do things the right way.” “We’re not looking at what numbers she can do in a particular lane,” says Richardson. “I don’t think it really works that way around. I think we can only put out amazing music and hope that people gravitate towards it, by making sure we’ve presented it in a way that reflects the quality of the music.” The right way for BLK means taking chances and backing someone and something new. “If you’re going to let an algorithm tell you what good music is, why do you even have a job?” reasons BLK, who has 577,958 monthly listeners on Spotify. “It can’t always be about numbers and data. I mean, Primark sells a shitload of clothes. But are they good clothes? I feel a lot of the best stuff is more exclusive. I think it would create a more interesting experience, in terms of new music and other stuff, if people just paid more attention to the music and the art, rather than allowing the algorithms to dictate what they do. Let’s create the trends!” Access Denied’s lead single is MIA, a “summer anthem about escape”, according to BLK, that features Kaash Paige, has been well received in the press and has served as a reminder of who Ray BLK is and what she can do. She has the talent and the intelligence to break through barriers, both the algorithms she talks about and the boundaries created by race, class and gender. Ray BLK is a woman against the machine. And, now, she really is the next big thing. 

Ivors Academy CEO talks streaming inquiry and royalties campaign

Ivors Academy CEO Graham Davies says the trade body is making good progress with its campaign to “put the songwriter and composer centre stage”.Last month’s DCMS Committee report on streaming made several recommendations in line with the trade body’s reform agenda for the industry.The Ivors awards ceremony, which takes place at Grosvenor House, London on Tuesday September 21, will be a chance for the songwriting community to come together for the first time since 2019. “It’s been a terrible 18 months so it’s really important to try and get back together and celebrate,” he told Music Week. “There are a lot of people who want to get back to the Grosvenor for that moment.” As well as the recently announced category nominations for The Ivors, the Rising Star Award with Apple Music is back for its second edition with contenders including Allegra, Holly Humberstone, Kamal, Rachel Chinouriri and Willow Kayne. “In our first year the Rising Star Award had the most applications for any award in the Ivors’ 65-year history, and we’ve seen a significant increase in applications in year two,” said Dan Adams, global head of creative services, music publishing at Apple Music. “Some of those applications came direct from songwriters, some from managers, and many came from publishers of all sizes, so I feel like we’ve created something of real value to the community, and we couldn’t be prouder of the award and our growing relationship with the Ivors.” Last year’s inaugural award for Ivors Academy members under 25 featured a shortlist including Griff, Amahla and Mysie, who went on to win and secure a label deal with mentor Fraser T Smith. “The under-25 category is now our fastest growing category among the membership,” said Davies. The Ivors Academy is busy campaigning for reforms on royalties that it believes could help the next generation of songwriters. “In May last year, we put out a statement saying that we needed a fundamental review of the streaming market,” said Davies, who gave evidence to the DCMS committee. “We campaigned, we got the review and every single one of our arguments for change has been reflected in the parliamentary report. “It is a victory in terms of a staging point but our work isn’t finished, we need to effect change. For us, it continues to be [a campaign] to put the songwriter and composer centre stage.” Davies said ministers and the industry should engage with the report, which calls for a competition inquiry and urges the government to consider how to increase the value of the song to support writers. After DSPs take their cut, around 55% of revenues from streaming go to recorded music rights-holders, while up to 15% goes to the publishing and songwriting sector. Historically, the disparity was partly due to the costs involved with distributing physical music. “There is analysis that shows streaming is a song economy,” said Davies. “You’re seeing many services like TikTok where it’s about the song. It’s not the performance of the artist. “So there’s a strong argument to be pushing for parity on royalties, not least because streaming is cannibalising broadcast. [Spotify CEO] Daniel Ek is on record saying that Spotify wants to eat up radio.” MPs on the DCMS Committee also want the government to explore the practicalities of a musical works database to help reduce the amount of misallocated and unclaimed royalties. The Ivors Academy revealed its latest research to Music Week on the scale of non-attributed revenue. It estimates that so-called ‘black box’ revenue is at least £500m a year for total global streaming publishing royalties attributable to the songwriter, publisher and other rights-holders. “That’s money that doesn’t go through to songwriters and composers whose music is being streamed,” said Davies. “It’s not the DSPs’ fault, but that issue had to be raised and we’ve got the inquiry to agree that it’s a problem.” The MPs’ report said the government should push the industry to come up with a minimum viable data standard within the next two years. They also want black boxes to stop being distributed pro-rata and for the revenue to be reinvested to support creative talent or develop solutions to royalty distribution issues. “We’ve got to raise the voice of songwriters and composers,” said Davies. “We need to get more of the money coming through to them, because the recording doesn’t exist without the song.” As well as campaigning on the issue of remuneration for songwriters, the Ivors Academy has been addressing diversity within the industry. Applications for The Ivors have increased by 40% after a chart entry criteria was removed from the rules, which is designed to open up the awards to a more diverse range of songwriters. “We are committed to equality and diversity,” said Davies. “We’ve been doing many things at the Academy to work on that, and one of those was looking at any barriers [for songwriting talent].” Autumn elections will create a 40-strong senate, with up to 11 members appointed to the board. “We’ve got more control over the diversity of our organisation and our governance, we’ve got gender parity on our boards for the first time in 75 years,” said Davies. “It’s a good springboard now with these new governance changes. So we will be reaching out, hopefully, to a much broader set of people to get involved in the Academy.”

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