How long have you worked in the music industry and what initially attracted you to it?
It’s pretty much all I’ve done since I left university, although I had a brief stint as a PA in a sales business. After a year, I knew this work wasn’t for me so I handed in my notice, got a job in the box office at the Assembly Rooms during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and then had a year off as an au pair in France. The Assembly Rooms asked me back to work as an administrator for the following year’s Festival. I then left with one of the Directors and General Manager to set up a new company, Assembly Direct, promoting jazz at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh and producing national tours.
To be honest, getting involved with music at the beginning was down to chance – being in the right place at the right time – although I was always prepared to work hard. It helps to make you stand out from the crowd.
A lot of your early career roles were based around jazz and classical artists and organisations. What are the differences and similarities between the classical scene and the urban one?
The work I did for the jazz promoter, Assembly Direct, is similar to Urban Development’s work in a way – booking artists, producing and marketing shows and setting up tours. When I was doing this work in the late ’80s/early ’90s, jazz was really popular in the UK – artists like Courtney Pine and Steve Williamson were in the charts, and it was the early heyday of Jazz FM – very interesting times. It reminds me how urban has moved from niche to pop in recent years, although the current urban scene is on a bigger scale. I reckon urban music is the latest creative form of black music to bubble up from the underground to the mainstream – in the way that jazz did at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The classical music scene is different – the soloists and conductor I worked for were planning their engagements two to three years in advance. My work was a support role, helping with the smooth running of their lives and liaising with their agents, orchestras and record labels. I loved working for them – it gave me an insight into a completely different world and I got to travel and live in different countries.
You lived in Monte Carlo when working as assistant to the legendary jazz musician and composer John McLaughlin, and concert pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque. What are your memories of that time?
I have great memories of my time with them. The job was a lot of fun, although very busy. Katie, Marielle and John travelled a lot but I was lucky and met some really close friends that I’m still in touch with. Life was quite glamorous – I got to meet Placido Domingo, Daniel Day-Lewis and Madonna. And, in the summer, after finishing work, we headed for the beach.
How did you end up moving over into the urban scene and what makes you passionate about it?
When I left Monte Carlo, I started working with Assembly Direct again – managing their European jazz tours, based in Paris. One of our tours was Courtney Pine’s Modern Day Jazz Stories featuring hip hop DJ/turntablist Pogo and producer Sparkii. Not long after that, Assembly Direct took on the programming of the Rhythmic Jazz Club in London and I developed two projects for its programme – DJ Pogo’s Lyrical Lounge and Jonzi D’s Apricot Jam (I’d met Jonzi through Pogo).
I was beginning to feel that I wanted to be involved in a music scene in a specific place – rather than putting together tours – and in the Rhythmic Jazz Club saw the potential to create a hub for British talent. These musicians were collaborating increasingly with hip hop artists, and turntablists were playing/ improvising live on stage as part of the band.
Lyrical Lounge grew from the Rhythmic to a residency at the Jazz Café and then the Scala, with help from Arts Council England funding. As the relationship with the Arts Council developed, we were invited to apply to a new scheme to support black artist-led organisations. Once this funding was in place, we constituted Urban Development as an organisation, set up in Stratford and began to develop the programme to include work with young people.
Has your gender affected your career in the music industry?
I don’t think my gender has ever held me back – I’m a grafter and just get my head down. I also need to credit my first (male) boss at Assembly Direct who really pushed me and threw me in the deep-end – it was a very good foundation. The first show we did in London was at the Barbican and featured Van Morrison and I had to run it pretty much by myself. Thankfully, I survived.
I would say, though, that I found it tough when I took maternity leave and then worked part-time for a couple of years when my son was young (he’s still only five). I’ve been lucky; because I’m my own boss to a degree, I’ve been able to work flexibly, but I’m not sure whether people we work with really understand when I’m honest that I can’t make a meeting because I need to pick up my son from school.
You run an all-women team over at Urban Development. Was this an intentional thing, or did you just happen to find you were surrounded by talented female peers?
Although our work at Urban Development is about supporting as many young people as we can and helping them get on the ladder of the very competitive music industry, I guess I’ve also wanted to give young women a chance – it’s an instinctive thing. Quite a lot of the people who work for us started as interns and volunteers, and proved themselves through energy and commitment.
Tell us a little bit about Urban Development, and what its aims/motivations are
Urban Development stands at the crossroads where the creativity of underground music meets the professional music industry, and plays an integral role in the growth of urban music in London, by combining business acumen with an understanding of youth culture.
Through our three key themes of professional development, live events, and learning and participation we aim to build the capacity of the infrastructure supporting urban music, and to support young artists to prepare for sustainable careers in an industry where audiences have the appetite, and critical faculty, to appreciate the best that urban music has to offer.
Our vision is for Urban Development to be the premier agency for spotting and supporting UK urban music talent – recognised by the public sector for the social and cultural impact of our work, and respected and rewarded by the private sector for the value we add to the commercial music industry.
Why is understanding and catering for the youth market so important?
They are the future.
Given the current economic climate and public sector cuts, I’m worried about youth unemployment. Urban Development reaches and engages young people in the most challenging social and economic circumstances, offering alternative provision to the formal music education curriculum and providing resources that are not typically found in ‘deprived’ areas. We enable talented young people to fulfil their creative potential, raise aspirations and increase their opportunity for progression
What makes your job difficult?
The vagaries of funding. Juggling future planning and delivery of current projects.
What makes your job rewarding?
Seeing the business grow, watching young people progressing and artists we’ve supported the mainstream music/the charts. We’ve watched as Talay Riley and Dayo Olatunji grew out of school uniforms and into their roles as leaders of the new skool. Both have been writing and recording with Chipmunk and show no signs of slowing down. Labrinth is another star in ascendance who was a founder member our UD Vocal Collective project.
I also like the creativity of young artists, putting on interesting creative shows, working with music industry colleagues and giving young people access to this very competitive industry.
What motivates you?
Learning new skills and taking on new challenges and projects. Right now, it’s our goal to grow our earned income to 50% of our turnover, which means we need to change our business model completely.
At Urban Development, we believe that:
– Many talented artists will not achieve public profile or support to develop sustainable careers without our intervention.
– There are barriers to access to public funding for black artists that we can help demolish.
– Poverty of aspiration, prevalent in poorer communities, stunts achievement. Appropriate training (for instance, projects outside formal education structures, delivered by music industry professionals and positive role models) can help grow aspiration and achievement.
Do you have any essential survival tactics?
Surrounding myself with bright people who understand the vision and work hard, trying to get to the gym (it’s good for the head), and also my son – he makes me switch off from work.
Urban Development celebrated its tenth birthday last year. What are some of the organisation’s proudest moments?
The Re:Definition show at Theatre Royal Stratford East as part of the CREATE10 festival, delivering the MOBO Tour, and getting our new recording and rehearsal studios up and running.
Which female artists are Urban Development most proud to have worked with and supported?
Mpho, Shola Ama, RoxXxan and Shezar.
What advice would you give to other young women hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Work hard and deliver what you say you’re going to do, build a network of influential people and supporters, and take well thought through, calculated risks.
Catch Urban Development ladies RoxXxan, Mpho and Lovelle Hill performing at this year’s Re:Definition show at Hackney Empire on July 7 as part of the CREATE11 festival. For tickets and more info on this event, which will feature a collective of musicians, emcees, vocalists, actors and dancers, head over to www.barbican.org.uk or www.urbandevelopment.co.uk