The Tipping Point 01:
Cat Park, Channel U & Grime’s Future

i-D Magazine feature written by Chantelle Fiddy in 2006.

In the first of a new series led by veteran music journalist and artist manager Chantelle Fiddy, TRENCH resurrects the stories of yesteryear—via those behind the scenes—mapping the landscape of UK music past. First up: a conversation with Cat Park, founder of Ten Letter PR and former manager of Channel U (R.I.P).

Following its inception in 2003, Channel U (renamed Channel AKA in 2009) was the first music station dedicated to emerging, homegrown artists in the UK. Walking hand-in-hand with burgeoning grime, hip-hop and R&B talent, the channel provided a much-needed platform for a new wave of artists, video directors, presenters, producers and choreographers. Putting faces to voices in a pre-digital landscape, Channel U was also known for its CD compilations, award shows, ringtones and big stage parties (think concerts). Despite being dogged with controversy from the offset, namely Ofcom fines and a level of distrust among some artists, by 2006 Channel U and its breakout stars of the time, Ace & Vis, were gracing the pages of style magazines like i-D; historically speaking, no mean feat.

While the birth of YouTube rendered a new dawn for music stations, the then-named Channel AKA survived in its niche space until its recent closure. The end of this era is a stark reminder that nothing stays the same—life, music, tech, consumption—and that the only thing inevitable is change. But in order to get a grip on the present and future, we need to look to the past. Cat Park, former manager of Channel U, joins Chantelle Fiddy in conversation, revisiting the rationale of the early 2000s.

How does Cat Park’s story with Channel U begin?

I met Darren Platt, the owner, on a night out in London. When I came in, it was like the second generation; Riki Bleau had been managing it beforehand, but loads of the original team had just left.

Back then, there was a lot of aspiration to be a ‘video girl’, but you moved from modelling to looking after Channel U to running your own PR firm.

Let me take it further back for context. My mum was a headteacher and I always did well academically, so I didn’t really need to think about it when it came to tests and stuff; it came quite naturally. Mum wanted me to go to uni but I got my A Levels—five in total, including Law—and at 18 thought: “Fuck it! I’m going to buy a house.” I got a job at H&M and did it. I’ve got a pretty elaborate past and I’m quite ballsy so I’ve always just gone for what I wanted and challenged myself.

How was it even possible to buy a house at 18?

It was £32,000 and a 100% mortgage! It wasn’t a normal thing to do but I just did it. Call it destiny. A year later, Carlisle flooded and it really made me reconsider materialistic things and my relationship to them, seeing people lose everything. I remember speaking to an older friend, who’s 70 now, I told him I was sick of retail and he offered me a job as a plasterer! I ended up plastering for six months, then thought: “Fuck it! I’m going to London.” I packed a bag, got a job at Miss Selfridge so I could pay the rent, and did some modelling too.

By the time you got there, in mid-2006, Channel U had already been fined £18,000+ by Ofcom for breaches. Sounds like there was a lot going on.

It was a nightmare. We were watched like a hawk! When I joined, I was meant to answer the phones and that’s it. After the first day, I remember saying to my friend: “I’ll manage that place in six months.” It was absolute chaos but my organisational and managerial side stepped in and took over. There’d been dodgy dealings with payola, people paying underhand to get their videos on the channel, and I just wanted to bring more professionalism to it, really.

There was also a lot of controversy around artists having to sign a waiver to get their videos on the channel too, right?

Yes. With PPL/VPL, you have to have a license. Now if we look at a channel like MTV Base, they’re dealing with massive artists with publishers, labels, managers—everyone’s making money from it, collecting royalties. At the other end of the scale, if we’re paying out this massive amount of money for licenses but none of the artists are registered to PPL, what’s the point? You can’t collect if you’re not registered. But then it became ‘Channel U/AKA are taking our money’.

The late Darren Platt with Giggs.

It seems like so many things, even YouTube channels, started with the best of intentions, but when it comes to royalties it’s still a grey area. And the books don’t always balance.

Not being funny but, when I look back at it now, we were only talking about a £20 submission fee. If you’re using something like FastTrax to deliver to multiple channels, it can cost a fortune—hundreds of pounds—with no guarantee of it even getting on a channel. And that £20 didn’t cover what we were doing either; because of Ofcom, we had to employ someone to check every video and were frequently making edits ourselves. But that £20 caused some of the biggest arguments of my life!

Do you ever remember the channel making money?

They made no money at all! Its biggest asset was its brand name. The sister station, Fizz, which became Starz, that was the channel that made the money. I remember it was often Fizz paying my wages because Channel U had nothing in the bank. But it didn’t matter to Darren. He was into punk back in the day and he always loved the underdog. He saw something within grime and what it stood for that made him keep going with it, even through the hardest times. We were getting screamed at, threatened, working 15-hour days.

I can only speak for myself, but around 2007, it was one of the reasons I struggled to continue.

It was awful and I don’t think people can comprehend what it was like. No professionalism—it was frontline. Sometimes you had to knock stuff back because of lyrics or violent visuals, and videos were raw. Everything about it was a learning curve. I had some really shit days and the most common insult I endured from men was being called a slag, because of how I look, and I hated that the most. And there weren’t many women about back then either, literally a handful fully in the scene. But to offset the perception of me, I’d just go even harder with my work. I’d reply to every email in my inbox—it’s my thing that I still do now. I’d have arguments with artists and then spend hours breaking down Ofcom regulations, what you need to have in your video… It was about sharing the education that I’d learnt on my feet. It felt like a responsibility to help them progress themselves.

But those relationships you nurtured are what allowed you to move forth and start Ten Letter PR, I’m guessing?

Yes, totally. The YouTube generation maybe can’t appreciate the impact of being able to see these videos for the first time on TV. Channel U could break an act single-handedly back then. MTV wasn’t showing these videos and there were no online platforms. The channel gave artists an identity because, otherwise, you were only really hearing them on pirate radio. For the first time you could see them and it helped build an infrastructure for the scene.

The music ‘industry’ at large weren’t really interested either.

No, they weren’t reppin’ it. No one gave a shit! This is what gets me now; I’ve still got so many connections based on the fact we all had to fight so hard. No one had set roles. Back then, you did what you had to, to try and make shit happen—mucking in to make the best of what we had, everyone learning on their feet. On reflection, I was essentially label managing 360 Records as well as Channel U. I’d even write video treatments! It gave me the broadest knowledge from putting a record out to how artists, managers, PRs all work. Realistically, Channel U was the laughing stock of the industry. The resistance—in the same way we’re seeing it with drill now—it was coming from the media and the wider music industry. But there was massive frustration and no one was making money.

When did you leave Channel U?

I left in 2012 when Darren decided to sell the channel. I knew I could go into the rat race again, but where Channel U had been my baby, I had to step back and work out what I loved about it and how I could use that going forward. The thing I loved the most, it turned out, was seeing the progression, from unknown to superstar, selling out shows. And I wanted to continue to be a part of that transition, so I set up Ten Letter PR.

Darren passed away suddenly two years ago, but beforehand, had you talked about the legacy?

He’d frequently check in. Once, he said that I’d never run my own company and that I’m too scared of change. Because of that—I’m a typical Taurus—it was a red rag to a bull. That ‘change’ bit has stayed with me. Even now with people saying we need a new Channel U, it’s just like… NO. WE. DON’T. Times have changed! Let it go. It’s done what it needed to do. Darren knew the legacy and what makes me sad is that, until he died, he didn’t really get the thanks or credit he was owed or due. There was such an outpouring for him and the channel when he died, and that was touching. He didn’t really like attention, but he wanted people to be grateful.

You’re the true godmother of grime.

[Laughs] Even with Ten Letter, we’re predominantly representing the grime scene and we’re in another transition, as we discussed. Stripping it back to the real sound of grime, people have switched off, but we’ve been here before. Again, it’s a weird one; everything’s so reliant on streaming numbers, so unless you’re hitting major figures—in the millions—by getting added to the right playlists, it feels fruitless. But it’s not where the best talent is. By the time you’re getting those numbers, you’re discovered.

There’s no Channel U, no regular club nights, no shops, no dedicated stations… It’s all online now.

With all those things, you weren’t looking at numbers either—we were taking it in and enjoying it. Now everyone’s watching the numbers or consuming music via playlists or big channels, so how do you get discovered? The power has shifted again. We only had a small pool to pick from back then and Channel U, RWD Magazine, they put it all in one place. But now, how many people release a tune in the UK every week? It’s amazing that it’s open to all, but what’s the greater cost? Because there is so much, it becomes easier to go and hit up a playlist or channel like GRM Daily or Link Up TV. They become the filter. For new talent, it’s depressing.

Any good memories that stand out?

My dog, Pickle, used to come to the office with me; Darren used to bring his dog in too. I remember Big Narstie turning up at the office once and running out the door screaming [laughs]. He wouldn’t stop till we’d moved the dogs... I’d never heard anything like it! I also remember being pregnant, sitting down with Tinie and Dumi, everyone taking time for each other. N-Dubz would hang out for hours too; they’d come straight from the edit down to the Channel to get their video up, there and then.

Are there any key relationships from the Channel U days that you still have a connection with?

Lord Of The Mics is a special one for me: Jammer and I have a love-hate relationship, but we’re like family, and Ratty’s my son’s godfather. I brought them into 360 Records and, after that, I carried on doing stuff with LOTM. Sam BBK has always been amazing, DJ Target, Charlie Sloth…

What might the next 15 years look like?

Who knows! We’ve been through cassettes, CDs, mini discs, DVDs, and now it’s digital. I remember an artist telling me how lucky I was to be able to earn a living off music and that always stayed with me. Throughout the last 12 years in the grime scene, I’ve been able to survive solely off music. I don’t think many artists even have a career that long, so I do consider myself really lucky to be where I am.

Posted on June 19, 2018