Do More Than Tick A Box...

The longer I spend on this earth, the more apparent it becomes that no one really knows what they’re doing. Maybe it's because we're all just tiny particles of matter floating around the sun, putting on uniforms and giving ourselves titles in order to feel some sense of purpose or identity. Or maybe it's just me.

The titles and uniforms we put on can change but, ultimately, they’re just there to make us feel better… as is season two of Narcos, which is why I’m writing this at 7am on a Sunday morning.

The thing is, most people think a title is enough to certify what they actually do. I mean, in many ways, it does. Once you hold a certain position in society, it’s assumed you’ve earned it. But something’s not right. How many teachers actually expand our minds through knowledge? How many police offers actually serve and protect? How many journalists really speak truth to power? We live in a world full of people that tick all of the boxes to keep themselves employed, but rarely succeed in realising the full potential of their job description.

The most obvious example of this can be seen in the police force. Rather than working backward from the idea of how to best serve and protect, stringent quotas and targets are put in place to ensure the right stats can be recorded to maintain senior job positions and score the right political points. Before long, it dawns on you that most jobs aren't about ensuring the company's values are being directly met, and you slowly get broken down to ticking your box, covering your back and waiting for your payslip.

It’s the simple nature of corporate hierarchy, I suppose. Tiers of management have to be accountable to keep themselves employed, therefore something has to be put in place to gauge the amount of work being put in to hold each relevant department responsible. Lovely, we get it. But is this all we’re on earth for? When the job’s done and you come to the realisation that you’ve dedicated decades of your life to satisfying a boss one step above you on the hamster wheel of life, won’t you feel cheated?

In whatever you choose to do in life, think of the full impact you are able to make. If you work in a shop, there are ways you can make that experience better for the customer. If you're making music, dare to show your vulnerabilities and trust that people will connect with your true emotions.

We’re all going to be dead soon, so don’t live your life in a coma because from age 0 to 16 you were conditioned to accept everything is, and always has to be, done a certain way. The greatest innovators of the last century haven't always been the geniuses they were made out to be, they were often just the ones least willing to subscribe to the accepted way of doing things.

There are no set rules to achieving things that have never been done.

The best ideas come from the young; unconditioned, untainted, young people offer society its best opportunity for objective criticisms on how we’re doing things. But, in the world of corporate hierarchy, the interns are the least likely to be listened to — even when they’re the closest to what’s happening on the ground. The whole thing is backwards. Don’t get me wrong, experience and wisdom are so important in business, but decisions shouldn’t just be informed by six seats around a boardroom table. Especially when, let’s be honest, the experiences of the people in these positions are all likely to be fairly similar. In my opinion, if you want to find the solution to any large-scale problem in your business, your frontline staff will provide more insight than your senior management. The ability for that communication just has to be present.

It’s on us to change things. I’m a firm believer in the idea that real change 1. doesn’t come overnight and 2. must be executed from the inside. The more at odds we find ourselves with this industry, the more likely we are to contemplate throwing the towel in and becoming washed and bitter. This is not an option. If you're already inside, do your job and tick the boxes (essentially, that’s all you’ve been employed for) but consider how you could also be working to achieve the less measurable aspects of your job role. If you’re blessed to be in a position of power or influence, think of the wider responsibilities you have. Being “for the culture” sounds great, but what decisions are you actively building into your everyday life to make real contributions?

Let's do better.

Prioritise Your Truth

These blog entries are becoming more and more frequent and I have no idea why. The last thing I'm thinking about is shouting an extra 1,000 words in to the abyss every week, but somehow here we are again. And always Sundays, too, what's with that? I think it's just that mad Sunday evening contemplation cloud that will have you questioning your own existence while mentally preparing yourself for the week.

I was up until 8am this morning reading through the depths of my email inbox, hoping to find something that would trigger some kind of creative/spiritual epiphany. 

Among the hordes of payday loan confirmations and desperate pleas to editors from years past, I stumbled across an old email thread (from around 2011) that read like so:

Hi Ash,

To confirm, your interview will take place at 11:45am tomorrow and you will call me. My mobile no is [x].

I have also enclosed the press release below for your information.

Please can you also send me an email confirming you will not ask personal questions or questions about [x].

To which I responded:

Hi,

Yes, I can confirm that I will not be asking any personal questions or questions relating to [x].

Looking forward to it!

Thanks,

Ash

At the time I clearly hadn’t thought much about it.

"Looking forward to it!"  - Who even am I?

I'm aware that this is hardly the find of the century; a PR requesting that you don't ask questions about sensitive topics. Just promote the single and be gone, we get it. But I find myself so unwilling to bow down to this stuff today that it slightly scares me to see how willing I was to compromise early on.

Why was I so complicit? 

What was I trying to achieve? 

Ultimately the interview turned out to be dead, but everyone went home happy; apart from the person who wrote it and the people who would eventually read it of course. But who cares about them anyway. 

Today, when it comes to creating anything, I have a very simple ethos: honesty is king. The greatest work comes from a willingness to reach in to the depths of your soul and risk the possibility of being vulnerable to criticism. If you’re a writer in the midst of working on a feature right now, ask yourself this: where was the idea born? Did it start from an email from a PR asking you to promote their act, or was it because you felt a genuine need to express an opinion? There is nothing wrong with building strong relationships with your industry peers and working with like-minded people but, from where I'm sitting, we're losing sight of the real task at hand. External forces are influencing the coverage of the music too much and writers are becoming too afraid to lose their guest list spots or ruffle a few feathers to do their jobs properly. When it’s all said and done, who is serving the reader with the truth? 

All too often, writers are getting caught in the trap of saying things to fill space. When they’re then criticised for said statement, they either aren’t able to see what’s wrong, or unable to explain why they said it in the first place. We see it time and time again. People are out here just saying stuff for the sake of it. This is true for artists as much as it is writers; never underestimate the power of your words. Every sentence you write should come from a place of absolute honesty. The problem is, very few people share this opinion. 

Now, as with everything, the truth is subjective. It’s not always going to ring true to everyone but as long as you’re speaking your own truth, you should always be safe in the knowledge that you’re doing the right thing. If criticised, you can then enter in to an informed debate on a subject you've thought deeply on.

There is naturally a commercial expectation to be met. If you want to pay your bills from this stuff, this is something we're all accountable to. But do the quality levels really need to be anywhere near as low as they appear to be? Let's be real, out of all of the independent media companies providing an editorial service in the UK, what was the last meaningful piece you read that wasn't just filler with an iTunes link at the bottom?

In my experience, it’s a much longer road, but there is a way to achieve the same growth in numbers while keeping the integrity of your output intact - and all the while minimising the exploitation of free labour that’s becoming an all too frequent occurrence. Think about it, how can an industry sustain itself when it’s propped up on such weak foundations? Unpaid workers are an inevitability when there is such a huge demand to get in to any industry, but the onus is on the platforms to not take advantage of the people's blind willingness and work with them to add value to both themselves and their craft. 

The digital space is so reactionary, for everyone involved. The thirst for page views creates an endless need for labour to meet the demand and create the content. Subsequently, the default business model is built around groups of unpaid writers creating as much content as humanly possible - and PR’s, that are often moonlighting as writers themselves (some of which are amazing btw, no shade), filling in the blanks where needed. This dilutes the value of the written word down to nil.

Yes, we’re all under resourced. Yes, we’re all trying our best to get that new Chip diss on our platform quicker than our competitors (the struggle is realllll *Durty Goodz voice*) But, beyond this, what else are we trying to do here? There is so much talent being wasted. Aside from the hordes of students looking for guest list and a few selfies with artists before they graduate and disappear, for the few genuine souls left behind that are willing to dedicate their lives to documenting this music, is pressuring them to do a one-listen review of an album sent in from a PR you owe a favour to really stimulating them enough to be the best they can be?

As traditional media crumbles, and our own homegrown platforms attempt to define themselves amongst this new landscape, it’s only right we start to build a genuinely informed ethic around what we’re doing creatively. We’re not big media. Many of our most gifted writers aren’t coming from institutions any more; they’re self-taught. However, with that, comes a lack of infrastructure around the collective values we all abide by.

Is there a standard we're all aiming for? Or are we just running around trying to be quicker than our competitors, no matter the cost? By this logic we've reduced ourselves down to the same level as the people that spend every waking hour of the day writing "FIRST!" under YouTube comments.

This is who we've become. 

Just give us the music pls

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It's Valentine's Day and you're reading this. Congratulations. 

I wrote this on a bus home from the Natural History Museum (that's right, free entry until 5.15pm - get your date game up) and my decision to put my head in my lap and write this may or may not have affected the outcome of this day. Fingers crossed.

This week Kanye blessed us with a new album. Wherever you fit on the Kanye tolerance scale, new music is always a good thing (don't @ me). If this guy decided to release an album made up entirely of the noises he makes while eating, best believe the sails of global creativity will be in some way elevated. But I digress...

While people are busy debating what box that hasn't been created yet to compartmentalise his latest work in to, the release of 'The Life of Pablo' highlighted something more frustrating about the state of this beloved industry.

Exhibit B: Rihanna's new album. 

Here's a list of things I've thought about this project over the last week or two:

'Is Rihanna's album actually out?"

'...She sold a milli?!'

'Oh, she didn't.'

'Did she or not?'

'Wait, Kanye's album's coming out.'

This is the sum total of my knowledge.

More importantly, I don't know the answer to any of those questions definitively. Still. Just thinking about going to listen to Rihanna's album right now is making me anxious. Even though I'm sure it's streaming somewhere on TIDAL, I'm practically paying a mortgage in over-run 'free' trials for online services and I'm scared about adding to that list. Now, maybe I'm just being overzealous, but here's what I'm getting at: the exclusivity wars happening between streaming services right now are taking the magic away from my favourite album releases.

As much as a good body of work will hopefully always manage to pierce through and stand the test of time, regardless of its initial hype period (or lack thereof) - see first week sales for: Reasonable Doubt (43k), Illmatic (59k), and the list goes on - that initial moment of intimacy between the listener and the artist can't be underestimated. It's like LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT (another Valentine's pun there, just for you).

In years past, that moment came from you intently staring at a CD/tape case and flicking through the liner notes before listening. But now, in 2016, our first encounter through the digital shop window is just as important. It's just a shame that the store owners have now proceeded to triple lock the doors and/or have gotten a sudden urge to get tints. Never a smart move.

If we think back to the release of 'Watch The Throne' in 2011; this was the first album I remember to be released exclusively digitally with no physicals made available on release day, and therefore bypassing the risk of a leak due to the distributor not having to ship any physicals pre-release. This is the perfect example of safe-guarding that intimacy.

It was midnight and, for the first time in a long time, we were all patiently waiting to download this project. No leaks. No whispers on social media. Nothing. Just you and this piece of work that these two artists (and their small army of producers and songwriters, admittedly) have spent that last year or so spilling their hearts over. Upon its release, the process was simple: give us £9.99 and it's yours. True, it was exclusive to iTunes, but it was right there at our fingertips. Forget waiting on that Pirate Bay rip, we wanted it as soon as the clock struck 12am - the moral dilemma of whether or not to illegally download it was dramatically outweighed by the demand to just hear it. Paying for it now came secondary. 

This is a successful model. Make it readily (and easily) available, minimise the risk of a leak, and the value of the work is maintained. In my opinion, people weren't (and aren't) not buying music just because they can, they're doing it because you're not giving them a good enough reason to buy it. You could unearth Beethoven's finest (and previously unheard) symphony tomorrow, but if you made the artwork in MS Paint and release it exclusively through TIDAL, chances are it's not going to receive the reception it deserves.

So, where does this all leave us? How do artists, labels and these platforms move forward and learn how to excite us again? It's simple, really: incentivise me. Make your release a moment with a clear point of purchase. Make it seamless. We're creatures of impulse more than we are prudent with our money, so make the process of buying in to your work so mind-numbingly simple that your audience won't think twice about paying a small fee for something they want. 

From a wider perspective, even as an independent artist or manager, ask yourself the question: what outcome do you want from your album roll-out? Do you want it to get that look from being represented on a certain platform, or can you provide your audience with a better alternative via a simple download/straight-to-consumer approach through your personal site?

After all, people will risk giving their computer a terminal illness via a torrent - why can't we find a better solution for everyone? If anything, the fact music lovers are going to these lengths speaks volumes about what cards are currently on the table.

Whoever you are, if you're making me sign up, start a trial and download desktop software to hear an album, you're re-building unnecessary walls between the music and the person it was intended for in the first place.

In short, we don't care if it's released on Apple or TIDAL. Just give it to us.

Pls and thank you.

Death to Instant Gratification

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I've been thinking (it's 2am and I'm just writing directly what's coming out of my head. This could actually be a dream, or I could be having some kind of episode. Bear with me).

The instant gratification we're getting from social media is killing the growth of our most promising new artists. I hate to form an argument around social media, as it seems like it's the only answer to every post-millennial question but, in this instance, I'm certain it's valid. Feel free to disagree with me (as long as you do so in a lengthy written response, published weeks from now and don't interact with me on social media).

To me, the most important stage of any artist's career is that first experimental 5,000 hours. We now live in a time where you can go from writing your first 16 and downloading a cracked version of FL Studio in your bedroom, to the charts, in the space of a few months. By the time the hype has boiled over and the world awaits your follow-up single - or your newly-found label have rush-released an album to supply the demand of the single that's just popped off - the artist's lack of experience begins to show. The original moment can't be replicated and the artist is lost. Even worse, they don't know how to get back to that original spot that connected with people, but the pressure to deliver is increasing. 

We're living in exciting times. Every week now we're seeing a flood of talent come through the various channels in the scene. But, as soon as that glimpse of talent begins to show, the various industry gas merchants are quick to line up and proclaim our next saviour. "Artist X is next up!" has now become a weekly fixture on my timeline. Before you know it, the development stage is out of the window. In their minds, these artists have now made it. Once that watershed moment comes from a freestyle or viral video of some sort, that's it, the doors are open. But, as much as the talent we're seeing holds so much promise, we're doing them a disservice by hyping them up before they've even found themselves properly. Before they know it they're too busy trying to recreate the person the world thought they were, rather than carrying on the journey of exploration they were on prior to this moment. 

Here's an analogy: remember being at school and stealing bars from your favourite MC's? If you say no, you're lying. That's how everyone starts (and most of us finish tbf). Before you or any of your fledgling wannabe MC friends had any bars to your name, you'd remix a Skibba verse and chuck in something from your favourite So Solid MC - no harm done. To me, that's what half of these MC's are doing right now. The nostalgic beats and early 00's references are just covering up for the fact that they haven't got anything of their own to say yet. Which is completely fine, until we're claiming the next Boy In Da Corner is on its way.

I can't be the only person that's recognised that 80% of the new MC's that are hyped to be next up are mostly capitalising off a strong sense of nostalgia. I mean, we all crave it. There's no denying there's a market for it - it's comforting, right? We all miss the early days, so it's nice to hear those old beats revived. But when every track of a new artist's mixtape features more Dizzee references and re-hashed 00's beats than it does original content, it makes me seriously question the sanity of so many of the scene's self-proclaimed tastemakers. Again, I'm not discrediting the potential of some of these artists, but let's allow them to evolve.

The cycle is becoming predictable: little to no coverage of artist > big freestyle moment > the second coming of Jesus is announced > more freestyles on other channels > mainstream remix opportunities > erm, have another freestyle for good luck. But, WHERE IS THE MUSIC? Where are the albums? Where are the anthems? Because, for all of these prospects, I'm not hearing them.

It takes a strong character to gain an audience straight out of the gate and ignore any criticisms. It stunts growth. How are you going to think clearly and carry on your development with one thousand new opinions in your head? Ultimately, what we get is: an artist with great promise, but that may not quite have reached their potential yet, slowly becomes more confident due to their increasing popularity. I mean, where's the need to grow if you're already up there with the best of them? Everyone's praising your new Fire In The Booth and your mentions are going through the roof. The journey of trial and error is over now. And that's alright, that may keep you going. But there's going to come a moment where people want more, and when that time comes, what more have you got to offer? Where's your evolution?

This is the thing; audiences are fickle. Artists, you need to remember this: you're the dictator. This is your ship. It's your job to execute your vision and lock in to some form of truth - it doesn't matter if the audience doesn't latch on straight away. In fact, cherish this moment. The more you go ignored, the more likely you are to be championed by the supporters that eventually discover your music and can't believe it's not getting the attention it deserves.

There are a lot of artists out here not getting the respect they deserve. I'm aware. I see you all. It's frustrating, I know. But relish in it. Learn from it. Because there are 90% more eyes on your music than you know. The gas artists and trolls are always quick to do their jobs, but the majority of genuine music supporters are voyeurs. We enjoy the music, rarely comment and go about our days. That lack of engagement can be frustratingly difficult to analyse, but if you're making music that resonates honestly with just a few people around you, just know that you're on the right path. There is no rush. Follow your intuition. Trust it. Good music always prevails.