I first met S.K.I.T.Z. Beatz when he was barely 17 years old. By this time he was already an accomplished urban music producer that had worked with many of the biggest names in the UK Grime scene.
When I met him, Skitz was facing another challenge. He was competing against 12 other candidates for a single job as a Music Executive at a record label I was in the process of setting up. This was a label with a difference. Established as a social enterprise, it was managed by a national charity and backed by a sizable chunk of Big Lottery funding.
Run by young people, for young people, the primary objective wasn’t to make masses of money. The aim was to nurture talent and provide real world experience of the music industry for young people at risk of drifting into drugs or crime, or those who were already involved but wanted a way out.
When we set about recruiting a small staff team to help run the label, a tiny ad in the NME for a part time Music Executive generated a massive response. We received over 250 applications. Shortlisting these down to two or three candidates based on written applications alone proved impossible. So, inspired by The Apprentice, we invited the top 12 along to our grimy office in Newham and set them a series of tests. Among the candidates was a young Skitz Beatz.
One of the challenges focused on negotiation skills. We sent the candidates out in pairs with instructions to return in an hour with the most valuable or interesting items they could retrieve from local stores. The only rules were they couldn’t pay for anything and they couldn’t steal them either.
When the teams returned, most of the items they brought back were of low value: a free cup of coffee, a sandwich, some fruit and stationary. Skitz returned with a three foot ornate antique statue that he’d talked a local furniture shop owner into letting him borrow. Needless to say, he got the job.
Learning the Hard Way
For all its good intentions, the record label never quite lived up to expectations. Although the young people involved learned valuable skills about the music industry, in many ways our approach was too old school and similar to that of the big labels.
Having received a grant to establish the enterprise, the idea was to create a sustainable business that could survive when the seed funding ran out. But when we tried to negotiate contracts with young artists that would secure future revenues, unsurprisingly many were reluctant to sign. Having a six foot three, foul mouthed, ex-football hooligan conduct the negotiations probably didn’t help, but that’s a story for another time.
After an eventful 15 months of live shows, studio recordings and a few releases, my career began taking me in a different direction, so I made the difficult decision to move on. A year or so after I left, I heard that the label had been wound up. The music industry had changed. It was a hard lesson to learn.
‘Survival of the viralist’
The talented Mr Beatz went on to work with the likes of Chipmunk, Wiley and Tinchy Stryder. In 2010 he composed music for Nike’s ‘Grid’ advertising campaign, he also became a music composer and supervisor on Eastenders: E20 – a spinoff from the main show aimed at teenagers.
Not long ago, Skitz contacted me to let me know that he was producing an album for a young artist named Sara Silveira. I took the opportunity to ask him for his views on how the music industry has changed.
The Q&A was conducted via email (old school, I know). An edited transcript is reproduced below:
1. Is Sara signed to a major label? If not, why not?
At this current time Sara isn’t signed to a major, this is largely due to the fact there are a plethora of lucrative ventures an independent artist can potentially exploit, if they know where to find them of course. Gone are the days of a songwriter needing to be labeled ‘major’ to get major work.
2. How difficult is it these days for new artists to break through? How are you handling promotion?
As with any business, preparation and knowhow are essential. Also having some good people on your side whether on radio, television or online. The term ‘survival of the viralist’ sums up our promotional approach.
3. How important are social media channels these days and which ones? You were an early adopter on MySpace, does it still have any role to play?
MySpace is a relic of the past known to many as the ‘MySpace days’. Social networks are evolving so fast that even Twitter isn’t safe. These channels are evidently disposable. Nobody would have predicted that all of their MySpace surfing time would culminate in untold wasted hours. Tom who?
4. Who are the influencers that can make or break people these days? Is it still the A&R people at the labels, or are others now more important?
The public can make or break things. There is so much choice. This new technology savvy generation of kids cares far more for playground hysteria: YouTube views and Facebook ‘Like’ pages with a free 4 track EP rather than a billboard on the motorway.
5. Do you see a role for brands and advertisers in promoting new artists? What are the challenges here?
The cross pollination of brands and artists is a formula that I will continue to utilise as long as there are companies willing to pay to place their product in association with an artist.
6. Who are the people that you think have played the brand game well, and who has flopped?
I have to admire the way Dizzee Rascal has played the branding game. He successfully managed to stay in the public eye without the necessity to release music – or make a Celebrity Big Brother appearance.
Somebody I fear played the brand game wrong has to be Craig David. If he was my act, I would of ridden that ‘Bo Selecta’ wave all the way to the bank by laughing about it and not sulking about a little bit of comedy.
Young Guru’s Changing the Game
Although not as well known to the general public as Jay-Z, his producer Young Guru is an equally savvy operator. The video embedded below is worth watching, as he echoes Skitz’s comments and goes further, describing how some artists get enslaved by music labels, but how a new generation of acts like Jay-Z are turning the tables.
Years ago, getting signed was the only game in town, as the major labels held the keys to fame and fortune. For contestants on the X-Factor, little has changed. But Hip-Hop moguls and young guru’s are rewriting the rules, creating more direct relationships with fans and brands.
As digital technology continues to disrupt traditional business models, the ‘survival of the viralist’ will inevitably lead to more evolution in the music industry. It’s not yet clear who the winners will be, but whatever happens, watch out for Skitz Beatz.