UD 2023’s ‘Knowledge Exchange’ With Ray BLK & Jacqueline Springer 🌹

Words: Kat Friar
Photography: Saadiq T & Kat Friar

UD’s Industry Takeover 2023, which took place at their state-of-the-art Talent House HQ in East London, set out to give young people access to that all-important insider knowledge and opportunities to network. A week stacked higher than the ceilings UD is trying to break—full of interactive workshops, informative masterclasses, conscious talks and inquisitive panels—allowed artists, producers and aspiring music industry professionals alike to get the lowdown they needed, face-to-face. There was also a slew of live music events that allowed artists to showcase their talents, while the line-up of music industry vets was impressive and covered all areas like a trusty triple A pass.

TRENCH hosted a Knowledge Exchange between Jacqueline Springer, Curator Africa and Diaspora: Performance at the V&A: London, and singer, songwriter, actress, entrepreneur and UD’s first ambassador, Ray BLK. With TRENCH all about platforming the voices of today, Ray BLK was the perfect pick. Jacqueline Springer was arguably the best host of the week, a master of intelligence and delivery—at times highly comedic, too.

Ray BLK starts by getting into her humble beginnings, mentioning that, “from about the age of 6, music became cathartic.” She speaks on growing up in a single-parent household, feeling distant from her siblings and finding solace in music. With that came the transparency of wanting to be “stinking rich” in order to change her and her family’s life. Jacqueline then adds, “I would just like everybody to consider that those social presses based on your social class, based on your family’s construction, they actually dilute the purity of the songwriting process because it means that you are actually seeking to solve external problems via your art.”

Jacqueline throws some statistics in: according to the BPI (British Phonographic Industry), in 2022, the UK recorded music industry generated £1.32 billion for the national economy; in 2021, it was 590.8 million. Combine the recording industry as well as the live industry—which includes festivals—in 2022, it was 3.1 billion; in 2021, it was 4 billion. She touches on the fact that there’s an infrastructure in place generating billions of pounds and yet a lot of artists—like Ray BLK, for example—are multihyphenates “because making music is not financially stable”.

Ray responds: “Artists have always been in deals that are essentially a bit like modern slavery, where you’ll get 15, 20% of the royalties, they’ll get the rest of it. And most of that you’re not really gonna see anyway because they’ve got to deduct the budget of whatever they’ve spent to actually create the music [and] to market the music. And then, in the streaming era, like you get 0.001 per stream… So you have to be doing outrageous numbers that a very small pool of artists actually do. And so, that financial income, once it gets to the artist, that’s barely anything, so you have to think about ways to diversify yourself. Which is why a lot of artists try and do as many live shows as possible because that is where you do see money.”

Ray BLK touches on her forthcoming acting role in the upcoming BBC and Netflix series, Champion, penned by legendary British-Jamaican author Candice Carty-Williams. She plays a character called Honey, whose brother in the show is also an up-and-coming artist. When Honey’s friend wants to manage her brother, their relationship is torn apart. The themes in the show are things that Ray has seen on her journey in the industry—disloyalty, crabs in a bucket, bad mental health, greed. “To see young Black people making music just having wild experiences, but also a beautiful Black family as well—this is a show that I would’ve loved if I was 15 and I’m so happy to be a part of it now,” Ray BLK said of Champion. “But I think, as exciting as it is, there’s some really heavy themes that I’m glad are being tackled and I think the comment that it’ll make on the music industry should permeate through.”

Ray BLK then takes some questions from the crowd…

As a multi hyphenate, how do you manage your time?

I make a long to-do list. Right now, my to-do list is at 70, so I’ll take that to-do list and then I break it down. So, first of all, I’ll choose priorities that must be done immediately and then I break those down. Like, what are the things I need to do to start ticking off those things? And when I separate the to-do list, I’ve just focused on the mandatory things right now and I don’t look at number 3 to 69, or whatever that’s left. I try to be quite strict with myself now when it comes to my phone, because it’s so easy to get distracted. So I’ll put my phone on airplane mode and no one can get to me, and I just focus on what’s at hand. I’d say that’s the best way to prioritise your time.

What made you make the decision to go from independent artist to signed artists? What were the pros and cons?

If I’m being really honest, the reason I chose to sign a record deal was because I wanted more money. As an independent artist, everything I was making, all the money I was making, I was having to spend. So, let’s say you’re booked for a show—£20,000 they give you for the show, right? Once you pay your band and everybody, rehearsal costs and the room that you’ve rehearsed in cost—£5,000, delete that, now take away your management commission, delete that. Now just start deleting and before you know it, you’re left with £2,000 or maybe £3,000. And then that’s just your rent and your whatever and then it’s finished. I wanted to be able to have something to look after myself and create a foundation for myself with, and I also wanted to have a bigger investment. I wanted more financial investment into my music because my distribution deal at the time—there’s smaller budgets, there’s more payout for you in terms of the splits, but you have less money to actually create the sort of art you want to or market your music in the way you might want to.

The pros and cons? We’ll be here all day! The pros of being an independent artist is first of all the split. So, let’s say the standard situation: you get 70% and the distributor takes 30%. Whereas it’s completely the opposite way round at a record label. Another pro of being an independent artist is there is no pressure for you to have a hit today, next year. There’s no pressure, and you get to make the decisions that you want to. Whereas, at a label, they’re gonna be like, “We’re gonna have to discuss the release date. We might have to push it.” And then at a record label, the pros is you can do that big video – well if they give you the money, ‘cause that’s another debate – but you do have more of a financial investment. You can have a wider team of people who consider things you may not have thought of. So I would say that is a benefit and you hope to anyways get a push to be seen on a larger scale, but the cons are just – there’s far too many.

With your first distributor, how did that situation come about?

When I signed my distribution deal, I think we were in a really different time and so people could just say, “I like your music. Do you know what? We’ll give you like £30,000.” To date stamp, 2016 is when I did that. Now everything is about metrics, and so a lot of the time, if you have music out there already, they’ll say, “What are the streaming numbers? Let’s divvy this up. If we divide it by how many songs your monthly streaming is—say, 500,000 streams—divide that, and that means if we release a project with you, we’re only gonna see £5. So we’ll give you five pounds.” That’s basically how it’s done now. But as a completely fresh artist, it would be you or your manager or your lawyer that would approach a distribution company and essentially try to sell you as you are about to be the next big thing. Don’t be scared to go for it and think you’ve gotta have this big machine behind you because, these days, you have to start something for yourself to show people why they should invest in you. In terms of how you would get a deal, it would be either your management or your lawyer. They’re the people that are supposed to fight for you and knock on doors, but labels definitely do approach—for the most part—and I think that’s the best way because I honestly think you should never try and sell yourself and be like, “I can do this, I can do that, blah, blah, blah.” I would say just trying to build up your own fanbase to have people come in and knock on your door is the best thing.

As a creative, I feel like you’re good to relate to this, but I’ve been going through a bit of a writer’s block. What advice would you give when going through this? Because, for me, music is my expression—it’s my everything—and not being able to have the lyrics flow out of me like they normally do, I find it quite hard mentally as well. What advice would you give to the situation?

I would tell you to detach yourself from the music and write about something completely different, because before I started working on this show, Champion, I actually was going through a writer’s block myself and I was like, “How am I gonna write this new music?” And if I’m being frank, at the time, I was kinda becoming reliant on smoking weed to get some creativity. I quit that now because it was actually blocking my creativity. So, if you rely on anything, honestly drop that because your pen is your pen. Write about someone else’s life, someone else’s story, a made-up scenario, a scenario that you read in a book or that you see on television. I just think then there’s no pressure because a lot of the writer’s block comes from pressure that we put on ourselves. “It’s gotta be sick! It’s gotta be good!” So, just let that go.

To read more insider stories from Industry Takeover 2023, visit UDMusic.org/blog.

Posted on May 05, 2023