'We have to keep improving': Island Records' Alex Boateng urges new music to keep pushing forward

'We have to keep improving': Island Records' Alex Boateng urges new music to keep pushing forward

As head of Island Records’ urban division, Alex Boateng (pictured above, left, with Island president Darcus Beese) holds a key position at the heart of new music in the UK. Yes, he works with Drake and The Weeknd, but Boateng retains a position at the coalface, and his work this year has been instrumental in developing JP Cooper.

His strong links to UK rap mean he’s able to look at the success of artists like Stormzy, J Hus, Nine and Loyle Carner – who, along with Dua Lipa, Harry Styles, Sampha and Rag’N’Bone Man have all released debuts that made the Top 200 of 2017 so far – from the inside.

In the final part of our series of Q&As with new music insiders, we quiz Boateng on creative campaigns, rap’s unstoppable rise and the industry’s prospects for the future. 

The stats say it’s a better picture for new music this year, is that really the case? 

Definitely. Harry Styles is a bit of an anomaly with how he’s entered that chart, but the other acts have been working for a while, none of them have exploded… J Hus, Stormzy, Rag’N’Bone Man. It’s not like you can ignore the work that the Harry Styles has done, but the encouraging thing is that these are acts that the labels and teams have been patient with, which is exciting. That, or they’ve put a lot of work in outside the traditional machine, like Hus and Stormzy.

Is it significant that UK rappers make up half the list?

You can’t ignore the excitement around urban music and culture; it’s the same thing you see at festivals, in fashion… It correlates with what’s happening outside music so it’s encouraging. Acts like Nines and Sampha, there’s years of work and releases and features, the encouraging thing is there’s a bunch of people doing the same thing now so it feels like it should continue. Us as the people around it should help to amplify that.

Were the records just not there last year?

Everything ebbs and flows, and a lot of it is down to release schedules, but last year was definitely a year of transition and people learning how to utilise streaming and things like that. All those [2017] campaigns have benefitted from support from streaming platforms, international love and PR campaigns that utilise the new environment we’re in. 

What’s that environment like?

It’s about streaming mainly. A lot of platforms you could trust to really explode a record or artist, are losing their power, in a healthy way. It’s spread across lots of places you need to have a presence; it’s not just about one TV moment, or one radio play… It’s about a lot of work over different platforms, live and what you do in the studio, social media, and your relationships with other artists. Things that were important on their own now have to be supported by a bunch of other things, which I think is healthy.

Is there more scope for creativity in campaigns for urban records? 

Yes, in a sense but we shouldn’t exclude any other genre. Because of the light being shone on urban at the moment, the engagement is easier to see from the outside, but I still think there are creative ideas around [elsewhere]. At Island we have got Sigrid and JP Cooper, they’re super exciting, we’ve turned JP’s massive live following into a hit and are setting up an exciting album campaign. I don’t think anyone outside urban can have an excuse; the challenge remains the same no matter the genre.

Will the good news continue for UK debuts?

It has to. We have to keep improving. We are learning to master the platforms and understand how to deliver album campaigns based on singles and streaming. It’s always been more difficult to deliver an albums artist than a singles artist and will continue to be, but we have the acts and the talent and in terms of the control we do have, we should be aiming to match and beat what happens this year for sure.

You can read Part 1 of this week's series analysing the year's breaking artists, in which Caroline Simionescu-Marin, A&R manager at XL Recordings, explains why UK rappers are making waves in 2017 here. Part 2, featuring Poydor A&R consultant and Renowned Group director Zeon Richards, is available here. For part 3, where we speak to Columbia Records head of A&R Julian Palmer, click here

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