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 she
won a MOBO and topped the BBC Sound Of poll, BLK’s blend of rap and R&B ...

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.”

Sam Fender and his team on the making of his second album Seventeen Going Under and what's next

After a stop-start two years put the brakes on his meteoric rise, Sam Fender is raring to go again. With his second album Seventeen Going Under right around the corner, Music Week joins the local hero with the world at his fingertips, manager Owain Davies, Polydor’s Tom March and Helen Fleming, and CAA’s Paul Wilson as they get the show back on the road... WORDS: James Hanley     PHOTOS: Charlotte Patmore/Visionhaus, Getty Sam Fender has never been happier to be hungover. It’s the morning (well, early afternoon to be precise) after the night before, when North Shields’ favourite son tore the roof off Stockton-on-Tees’ diminutive Georgian Theatre in his first live outing in a year. But if he is paying the price for his excess now, it was worth every proverbial penny. “We got a little bit carried away after the gig, but it was just outstanding,” reports the straight-talking Geordie, his Newcastle Brown Ale-assisted fragility almost tangible down the phone. “We had a proper mosh pit, a total circle pit and everything. We played Seventeen Going Under and it was so weird to play a brand new song where the whole room knew all the words. It was absolutely mental.”  Seventeen Going Under is the boisterous title track from the singer-songwriter’s forthcoming second LP, out October 8 via Polydor. The sax-powered stonker was one of two new album cuts to be aired during the 300-capacity warm-up show for the National Lottery’s Revive Live tour, in partnership with Music Venue Trust. Much bigger stages await, of course. But for Team Fender, the poignancy of the occasion transcended its environment. “It was overwhelming seeing the band and crew back where they belong and doing what they all love,” enthuses Fender’s manager Owain Davies. “It’s the perfect time to be returning and we can’t wait for more shows.” Fender’s live comeback turns the page on a frustrating couple of years for the 2019 BRITs Critics’ Choice winner, whose gold-selling debut Hypersonic Missiles (217,149 sales, OCC) rocketed to the summit in September 2019. His startling progress was slowed by the postponement of a slew of 2019/20 tour dates – including a Glastonbury slot and O2 Academy Brixton bow – on medical advice, before the pandemic halted proceedings indefinitely. “Covid has been difficult for everybody, but it has been super-difficult for Sam because he was on such a trajectory,” reflects his agent Paul Wilson of CAA. “Last year was going to see him play his arena run in March/April, leading into a big festival season, which all got taken away. So we’ve had to plan and re-plan to try and figure out where we were going.” Given the well-documented struggles of emerging acts since the advent of coronavirus, there is a sense of relief that Fender’s own breakthrough came prior to the March 2020 touring shutdown. “Oh, I’d be fucked, dude! I’d be fucked,” concedes the singer. “We have completely built our audience the old-school way – we just gigged and gigged and gigged. We gigged all over the planet, it was great. I’m so glad that I’m not an artist just releasing their first record.”  The rock firebrand was one of only a few domestic acts to perform in front of a crowd last summer, having rolled the dice on a brace of socially distanced outdoor concerts at the Virgin Money Unity Arena in his native Newcastle. “We were wary, because at that point there were lots of people with Sam Fender tickets for shows that had been rescheduled over and over and we were a bit nervous of putting new dates on sale,” says Wilson. “But we saw the concept and it looked unlikely there were going to be any other gigs last summer, so we thought, ‘OK, it’s his hometown, let’s do it.’ And it was a really good experience. Those shows got worldwide attention and I still get people asking about Sam from various parts of the world now because of it. I think they also helped him put this new record together, because they gave him a chance to play a couple of new songs in front of an audience.” With the Hypersonic Missiles arena run switched to this November, Fender finds himself in the unusual position of dropping his second LP before completing his first album tour. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a situation like this,” chuckles Wilson, racking his brain. “We had 80,000 tickets in the market for shows that he couldn’t play, but nobody wanted refunds. A lot of people have still never seen him live, so I said, ‘If you can get the new record out ahead of these shows, that is going to make them special.’ Not only are people wanting to see Sam because of his first album, they’re hearing the new record all over the radio, too.” If there is a silver lining to the last 18 months, it is the intense period of creativity Fender’s enforced absence from the road triggered within him.  “I had a whole lockdown to write,” he explains. “I ended up turning the magnifying glass inwards. Because I had nothing to point at – nothing to talk about, no social situations – all of the songs became introspective, about my youth in Shields and the self-esteem issues you carry through into adulthood.” Though a handful of tracks on Seventeen Going Under predate the pandemic, the peak of Fender’s prolificacy came smack-bang in the middle of it.  “I wrote 60 songs, man, it was insane,” he sighs. “I had to whittle them down to 11 tracks, which was really tough. But in the end, the more autobiographical ones picked themselves. “I’m mega-nervous about this record, because it’s more personal. It just means a fuckload more to us than the first one to be honest, so I hope people like it. We’re a ragtag bunch of Geordie idiots, but we are really proud of this album.” Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studio in New York had been booked to host the recording sessions, before the spread of Covid-19 necessitated a change of plans. The lion’s share of the album was conceived back home in Newcastle, as Fender reunited with Hypersonic Missiles producer Bramwell Bronte.  “We’re so lucky to have our own studio here in the North East,” says Davies. “Thankfully, Sam’s producer Thom Lewis – aka Bramwell Bronte – lives locally too, so they just knuckled down. His band moved into his place for a period and formed a bubble. We worked on tunes in the studio and kept each other sane. They also tried out a residential studio in Ireland, but I think the Guinness tasted too good.” Davies, who also manages Ben Howard, discovered Fender at The Low Lights pub in North Shields, where the then teenage guitarist was pulling pints behind the bar.    “He just saw something in us,” recalls Fender. “He was really drunk and came over and bought us a whisky, and he was like, ‘You’re fucking good, have you got any of your own stuff?’ So I played some of my own songs. They were shit, like, but I was 18 and he took us on. The next thing you know, we’re fucking gigging and recording.” “I didn’t realise the landlord went and ordered him to play his guitar for us, but he sat down on a little stool, the bar was heaving and rowdy, and his voice just blew me away,” remembers Davies, vividly. “Literally. Only a couple of times in my life had music made me feel that way, so I grabbed his number and the adventure began. From barman to the voice of an indie generation! Honestly, he is a freakish talent.” Polydor-signed Fender sums up his major-label experience as “fucking sound” (“Obviously it knocks two points off your Pitchfork review, but apart from that it’s fucking brilliant,” he quips). As with its predecessor, Seventeen Going Under was penned solely by Fender, who remains fiercely resistant to co-writing – at least where his own material is concerned. “When I signed to Polydor, they knew there was absolutely no chance I was ever going to co-write,” he says. “I would write with other people if it was for [another artist], potentially, but I would never, ever co-write my own stuff.” Whatever his methods, the Universal label’s co-president Tom March is blown away by the standard of work Fender has turned in. “He needed the time to craft a very special record and that’s what he’s done,” March tells Music Week. “The first record set him apart as one of the most exciting new voices in rock music, always with something to say and a lot of depth to what he writes about, and he’s taken the time to come up with something pretty spectacular. It sounds bigger, it’s better; it’s a more cohesive album. He has put so much of himself out there with this record and there are lyrics that are going to connect fans to him even more. He’s one of the most exciting artist breakthroughs of the last 10 years and I believe this is the record where he steps up and joins the greats.” Fender’s self-assessment is characteristically to the point. “I think it shits on the first one,” he shrugs. “It’s so much better. Everyone who we’ve played it to, in the label and everywhere, is unanimous that they think it’s better than the first one.” OD Management boss Davies can certainly vouch for that.  “It’s a stunning record,” he says. “It was a big ask, but he’s put his heart and soul into this record and conjured a real step up from his debut. Sam’s songwriting is something else.” Subject to change, Polydor has earmarked four tracks to be dropped ahead of the LP’s release to showcase its variety. “Some of them are important to us because of the lyrics,” says March. “I’ve never heard Sam so introspective and, at some points, damn angry. Some will be records for radio and there are others that just need their own platform. They are such powerful songs that you need to give them a moment.” With Seventeen Going Under (46,027 sales) peaking at No.44, Fender is still awaiting his first Top 40 single – just don’t expect him to lose too much sleep over it. “As long as the album goes to No.1, I don’t give a fuck,” he insists. “With indie music, it’s tough to get No.1s because we don’t stream as well as the Ariana Grandes of the world, but obviously I’d never say no to it. I’d love to have a fucking No.1 single, but I just don’t know if that’s the world I’m living in.” Nevertheless, Fender’s debut album was a streaming triumph, with more than half (58%) of its sales to date coming via DSPs, according to the Official Charts Company. Fender has 2.2 million monthly listeners on Spotify, where his most-streamed tracks are Hypersonic Missiles (53m), Play God (43m) and Will We Talk? (40m).  “Streaming feels like a big opportunity on this album,” says Polydor marketing manager Helen Fleming. “We’ve already seen an incredible response to the title track, with the original and edit hitting No.9 and No.10 in Spotify’s Singles Debut Chart on release. Sam’s TikTok profile has also grown rapidly since the start of the campaign [91k followers and counting]. The album is a coming of age story so it’s great to see it resonating with this younger audience.  “The support from our partners across streaming, radio, press and sales has already been brilliant and we’re working closely with all of them to create bespoke moments that will help continue the narrative for the record.”   March does not consider guitar-oriented music to be a barrier to crossover success in 2021. “I never look at it by genre really,” he says. “I go, ‘Is the music sensational? Is it spectacular? Is it going to excite and move people?’ And then, you often transcend genre.  “I don’t think guitars have gone away, I just think they’ve morphed into something that is maybe a little bit different to what we grew up with. We’re seeing more and more pop artists pushing guitar sounds back into the mainstream. The biggest records in the world have guitars front and centre again, which is exciting. Sam transcends that for me. He’s just a brilliant artist and a superb narrator of stories, and people connect to him above any genre.” Step aside Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, Neil Young & Crazy Horse and Bob Marley & The Wailers, here comes Sam Fender &... The Lip Scorching Rollies?  “We’re just coming up with loads of stupid joke names and that’s the latest one,” explains a semi-serious Fender in reference to his backing band. “I’m road-testing it at the moment. It’s about when you’re smoking a rollie and it’s at the very end and it proper hurts your fingers and lips because it’s really hot. So aye, that’s what they’re going to be called. I think we’re getting T-shirts made as well.” Indeed, had he come of age in another era, it’s conceivable the 27-year-old would be fronting a group, rather than trading under his birth name as a solo star. “I wanted to go under a band name,” he reveals. “There have been times where I’ve toyed with it. But my manager was like, ‘Just go with your name because you write the songs and it’s too good not to use because you’re called Sam Fender – it’s the name of a fucking guitar!’” With the release of his latest collection of impassioned, everyman anthems imminent, Fender is happy to embrace the “Geordie Springsteen” tag bestowed upon him by the media.  “Oh no, I don’t mind, keep saying it,” smiles Fender. “He’s a huge influence. If you listen to the last track on this record, it’s called The Dying Light, that’s super-Springsteen.” Like his idol, Fender has won plaudits for singing about relatable subject matter – the track Spice from 2018’s Dead Boys EP tackles the dangers of the titular drug, while the title track deals with male suicide.   “I write about my youth in the North East,” says Fender. “I’m passionate about where I’m from. I’m passionate about how much we hate the Tories. I write about life like that and I think that speaks to a lot of kids from towns all over the world. When I used to listen to Springsteen singing about New Jersey in 1975, for some reason I felt like he was singing about my hometown. I use writing as a form of therapy. If there’s something that gripes us, or pisses us off, or makes us feel moved, I’ll write about it.” Witness Seventeen Going Under’s blistering second single Aye and its provocative lyric, “All the woke kids are dickheads.” Prodding its author on the issue has an effect akin to lighting a powder keg.  “Without sounding like Piers Morgan – because I don’t want to sound like that tit – the online presence of the left wing… some of them are embarrassing, man,” he vents. “The shit that people are fucking complaining about just makes my head burn, and [Aye] is me being aggressively pissed off about the fact that I feel like it’s a purposeful distraction. There are all these stinking rich pricks who don’t pay their fucking taxes, and then you’ve got the left and the right being petty little pricks and trying to cancel everybody for fucking this or that.   “We’re not kicking off about the right things,” he continues. “We’re sat here fucking whining about something John Wayne said. The guy was born in like 1907, of course he’s going to fucking say something outrageous. He’s old as fuck – he’s dead! Do you know what I mean? Everyone just seems to have a fucking bee in their bonnet about the dumbest shit. That’s my newsfeed all day long. Sorry mate,” he trails off. “I’m really hungover…” March believes Fender’s unbridled authenticity is an integral part of the bond he has built with his growing fanbase. “For audiences to connect with artists – especially in the modern age – they need to connect to their lyrics,” asserts March. “It needs to come from the artist, it needs to be unfiltered. And if you believe in the artist, and what they have to say, you’re excited when they say it. For the artists that don’t say it – or say the same thing as everybody else – sometimes, it’s harder to cut through. But Sam is an artist that wears his heart on his sleeve. He is raw, genuine and honest and puts himself out there, and that’s brilliant.” “He’s real,” remarks Davies, concisely. “A genuine, down to earth lad, not afraid to share his views, and I guess that’s what resonates. It’s relatable.” After a roller coaster start to life in the fast lane, Fender is ready to rumble once more. A run of live shows is lined up for September, including appearances at Warrington’s Neighbourhood Weekender, Isle Of Wight Festival and Glasgow’s Trnsmt, alongside a homecoming headline slot at Newcastle’s This Is Tomorrow. His long-delayed Brixton debut is now set for September 25, while his November arena jaunt will take in venues such as Newcastle’s Metro Radio Arena, First Direct Arena in Leeds and two nights at Alexandra Palace in London. Fender is also due to support The Killers on their 2022 stadium tour. Suffice to say, all parties are in a hurry to make up for lost time.  “These are all big moments for him,” says CAA’s Wilson. “He’s going to be playing to 300,000 people ahead of putting his new record out, which will be a fantastic statement. Once we get through those festivals and rescheduled shows, we’ll then be looking at more arena dates next year. I think he can be doing big, open-air shows next summer, but we can also take this around the world. Sam is very much an international artist.” Top of Fender’s wish list is to headline St James’ Park, home of his beloved Newcastle United. “If I get that done, I’ll be pretty fucking happy with myself,” he says. “And I want to get things moving in America, because we’ve not done much there yet.”  Above all else though, Fender is just relieved to be back in the saddle. “I’m super-excited, I can’t wait,” he finishes. “I’ve had to basically learn how to fucking sing again because I’ve done nothing for a year, apart from write and record. I just hated it – I just sat and ate and played fucking Call Of Duty all year.” Sam Fender & The Lip Scorching Rollies: coming soon to a stadium near you...

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