'You need nerves of steel': How AJ Tracey became the fresh face of independent music

'You need nerves of steel': How AJ Tracey became the fresh face of independent music

In the new issue of Music Week, AJ Tracey and his team tell the story of how the West London MC became one of the biggest and best rappers on the circuit. 

Tracey has done everything independently ever since he burst onto the scene with Swerve N Skid in 2015. With distribution from ADA, he’s about to release his self-titled debut album, which features Not3s collaboration Butterflies. His biggest single to date, it peaked at No.19 and has sold 485,733 copies to date. Tracey also hit the Top 20 with his Secure The Bag! EP in 2017.

Here, in an exclusive extract from our interview, the rapper talks about how he became the fresh face of independent music.

What does being independent mean to you?
“Everyone’s going to be annoyed and people hate when I say this, but if you’ve got a major label and a machine behind you and you get a No.1, that’s all great and well, but the machine did a lot of the work for you, some might say most of the work. Whereas me, I’m completely on my own, so if I get a No.1, it’s 100 times harder, literally. So, me getting a Top 20 with Butterflies is like getting a No.1, that’s unheard of, everyone else in the Top 40 was signed, so for me that’s amazing.”

I’m completely on my own, so it’s 100 times harder

AJ Tracey

How different would life be on a label?
“I put out whatever I want, whenever I want. Obviously I’ve got an album coming out and it would severely mash up the roll out if I was to drop a song now, but I could if I really wanted to. On a label you could never do that. They’d say, ‘It’s not a good idea’. But when they say that they don’t mean it’s not a good idea, they mean you are not putting out a song, which is just horrible, how can someone control what you want to do with your music? It’s insane. In the UK scene out of everyone who’s doing well I’m the last one who doesn’t have a situation [deal].”

Why stay independent?
“I’m not anti-label. I’m in a position where, unless they can do something for me that I can’t do myself, I’m not going to take the easy way out. If I can do it I’ll do it. Look how long I’ve been doing it for. There’s not point being like, ‘Take over’. I can do it on my own, I get Top 20s and plaques without a label, so if they come in it’s easy cash [for them]. Labels are cool and can do a lot for certain people but unless they can do something I can’t achieve myself, I’m not interested, regardless of the money.”

What do you need to succeed as an independent artist?
“Pssssshh it’s a long list! It’s very hard, it’s not easy at all. Every achievement you see me get, anything I manage to do, I work harder than everyone else to win it. People don’t see it. I foot the bill, there’s no advance, no one to fall back on. If I drop three videos in a row that cost 50k, that’s 150k and if I don’t recoup from those songs then I’m just down 150k. No one’s going to give it back to me. You’ve got to be courageous, to believe in your music. If you’re on a label and you don’t believe in your music, then they can force it on radio, put billboards up and make sure you get a certain amount of play. With independent artists it’s completely down to the fans. I’m at the mercy of the fans, if they don’t like it, I don’t make any money from it. To be independent, you need to have nerves of steel, to be prepared to take the hard route on everything. It’s not for a lot of people, they think it is until it gets to a stage where you’re doing the same numbers as someone who isn’t independent and you have to compete with them without the resources they have and then you see how hard it is.”

Do you think it affects perception of you from outside?
“I think some people look at what I do sometimes and think ‘Oh it’s just AJ, he’s got a couple million views on that video and he got playlisted before the song come out, it’s not that special, he’s a famous rapper.’ It is special, because other rappers you’re seeing do the same things have got a 100-strong office working all day and all night to get those things and we just have our little team.”

Subscribers can read the full interview, with contributions from Tracey’s manager Andy Musgrave, Earth Agency’s Rebecca Prochnik and former GRM Daily editor Caroline Simionescu-Marin, here.

Read AJ Tracey’s Music Week On The Radar interview, from 2016, here.

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