Write The Future is a series - in partnership with Meta - that showcases insights and trends in music.
Here, Vanessa Bakewell, client partner at Meta, talks to Yaw Owusu, a Liverpool-based creative consultant who builds projects that integrate music, culture and content production and deliver a long-term impact for creatives, brands, organisations and communities.
Owusu recently won in the Senior Leader category of the inaugural Changemakers Awards in recognition of his work at the intersection of music, culture and content…
Vanessa Bakewell: Tell us about yourself and your career...
Yaw Owusu: “I’m from and still based in Liverpool and I was born in the ’80s to a Ghanaian father and Jamaican mother, so you can imagine the role music and music culture played in my formative years. I didn’t know there was a space in the music industry for someone like me. I fell into it after I finished university, when I started my first business with my cousin, Kof, an artist. Since then I have gone on to work with Google, MTV, BET, MOBO, BBC, Universal Music, Levi’s, Liverpool Football Club, The Fader and more.
“Currently, I am creatively directing the programmes for Power Up for PRS Foundation, Liverpool International Music Festival (LIMF), the LIMF Academy talent development initiative, the Liverpool Against Racism festival and a few other projects. I also serve as a board member for the Liverpool City Region Music Board, Black Music Action Group and Generator NE, the music talent and digital sector development organisation.”
VB: What were your personal highlights of 2022, and what is your focus for the year ahead?
YO: “The first highlight was Liverpool Against Racism. I designed and curated the programme, which included live talks and debates as well as music and cultural events across the city. Second would have to be the continued impact of Power Up – an amazing initiative which I am sure the readers of Music Week know all about. It really has contributed to the careers of so many of our participants and has allowed us, and our partners, to really help those who are at crucial points in their careers get to the next level.
“This year is going to be very interesting. We have the Power Up Participant Programme Year 3, as well as wider work we are doing in Wales and elsewhere. In Liverpool, I have some large-scale work around sector development at a more strategic level focused on Black music, as well as various ambitious LIMF Academy talent development programmes and projects to help some of the best unsigned music creators in the region.”
Every organisation needs to embed creativity, innovative thinking, leadership and integrity in everything they are doing
VB: In the words of Will Page, the author of Tarzan Economics and former chief economist at Spotify, “Music got there first. Music was the first to suffer, and first to recover, from the forces of deep technological disruption, making it something that we can all learn from”. Can you see more disruption ahead for music in 2023?
YO: “There will always be disruption. We are in a time of great change – whether we think of that through a lens of tech, humanity, society, economy, environment or culture. So this will impact on the music, and the industry, for sure. However, I see great opportunities for new leaders, models, ideas and practices.
“Individuals and businesses should relish the opportunity to really refocus their energy and resources in a way that is beneficial not just to their bottom line but the whole industry. I think tech, if used correctly, can help us and contribute to things being done better. Anyone who is creative, innovative and who really feels this culture will always have a vital role. I’m positive and enthused by what can be accomplished!”
VB: What advice would you give to both individuals and businesses as they look at the challenges and opportunities in music?
YO: “It’s all about clarity of thinking, approach and execution. Some organisations that are very influential seem to have forgotten why they got into this industry, or just don’t seem clear in what their purpose is and who their customers are. A lot of that is down to poor or confused leadership. It is super-important right now for leaders to really hunker down, work out where they are going and why – and then lead. Every organisation needs to embed creativity, innovative thinking, leadership and integrity in everything they are doing.”
VB: What are the main challenges or areas of improvement for the industry? And what are the uncomfortable truths it needs to be addressing?
YO: “The leaders in this industry – at whatever level – need to be willing to explore new models that make more sense in the long term. We are still a far way off in regards to investing in, compensating and treating music creators fairly. We are far off from true investment in equality and equity for under-represented groups and under-served audiences. We need to do better.”
VB: We have both met at events in Liverpool for panel discussions on breaking into the industry. For The Ultimate Seminar, we saw Warner, Atlantic and Parlophone head up to Liverpool. What are your thoughts on why the industry should make looking outside of London one of its top priorities?
YO: “Leading companies should get involved in not just signing and ‘taking’ talent from the regions and nations, but trying to support and sustain the music ecology and economies in those places. That would then bear more fruit in the form of stronger music scenes, as well as new and high-quality music creators and music, new and dynamic industry professionals with different perspectives, audiences that are engaged in music, new networks and even new genres. It will make the UK music scene and industry much stronger and then everyone wins.
“We have seen how initiatives like this can work, such as PRS Foundation’s Talent Development Partner Network or BBC Music Introducing. But we could see this on an even larger scale if the major companies started to buy into the idea. It is good to see EMI set up in the North, [co-president] Rebecca Allen certainly understands the value of talent and scenes outside of London.”
VB: What advice would you give people looking to break into the industry?
YO: “My advice would be to work out what unique contribution you can bring to the table. Be respectful to the craft and the people you meet on your journey; work bloody hard; remember this is all a blessing and treat it as one; and just ensure you are leaving every room better than when you went in. If you do that, you will get a good reputation. Then, if the work is good, people will want to work with you.”
VB: Finally, what are you cautiously optimistic about in 2023?
YO: “I’m cautiously optimistic that equality and equity in every way is still important to everyone. Also, I am starting to see more holistic support and development for music creators across the board. I was at one of the majors a few weeks ago, and they mentioned they have an in-house occupational therapist that supports their signed artists as well as staff. That is beautiful to hear. Long may this type of practice continue.”