Razor is a London-based grime artist who performs regularly in London and Brighton. This interview highlights some of the issues for musicians still at a relatively early stage in their career, particularly around artist pay, and about discrimination against certain genres. It is based on a telephone interview with Emma Webster on 15th November 2017.
The interview forms part of the UK Live Music Census project, the results of which were published last Friday 16th February. To read the full report and executive summary go to the project website and keep an eye out for further blog posts from Live Music Exchange about the findings.
Grime is a genre that came about from a lot of other underground dance cultures in the UK, like garage, dancehall, bassline and even hip hop to a certain extent, but I describe myself predominantly as a grime MC. I first started gigging six or seven years ago, playing open mic nights and showcases in pubs and bars in London. I would say that Form 696 has actively shut down events that I’ve wanted to go to or perform at and has discouraged people from working in the industry or the scene that I was in. They’ve moved to work in deep house, in pop, in rock&roll, because those genres aren’t being discriminated against; they can make more money there. Form 696 has just been scrapped, according to Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, but there’s a lot of legislation and red tape to be able to put on any sort of music that is based around that culture. It would be easier to say that you’re putting on a garage night and get a licence for that, but as soon as you put the word ‘grime’ or ‘bashment’ or any of those genres on your event descriptions, the venues wouldn’t want to take the event forward because they would predict that they’d have trouble. The headline is that they are going to scrap Form 696 but in my experience it’s very very rare that authority takes away a restriction like that and doesn’t have anything to replace it. Form 696 was primarily concerned with ‘urban music’, so are they just going to remove 696 and come back with another form that you have to have to put on live music but one that only discriminates against certain genres of music?! So I’m reserving celebration on that one.
I think that the reason that local authorities are targeting this kind of music is on multiple levels. There’s almost an urban myth around this music in the sense of these events or this sort of music encourages violence and criminal behaviour. But in my extensive experience, working in nightclubs and bars, working in events and promoting and performing at events, I’ve seen unruly behaviour and unwanted activity at everything from jazz recitals to serious drum&bass raves. I think it is the wider media representation of these genres. The lyrical content of rap is interpreted in very different ways to, say, ballads, and there is an apprehension and judgement about it. I studied broadcast journalism at university so I see quite a clear link between characters from that environment, that culture, that scene—including musicians—and the way that they’re portrayed in media narratives as part of shaping societal perceptions. In terms of the police, it’s something they have to do day in, day out, and they’ve got less resources, less money being applied to it, so they have to find an easier way to carry out the job that they do. And if they’ve got twenty nights in a local area and they’ve got trouble in ten of them and out of that ten, seven of them were from a particular musical classification or genre or from a certain culture, then I can understand why they would think it would be efficient, but I think that’s based on a misconception and one which causes the discrepancy to be there.
We need to disregard this NIMBY attitude. Everyone agrees that we need nightlife; everyone agrees that it’s beneficial for communities to have lively nightlife that supports the local community and reinvests money back in to the local community. I lived in Hastings for a period and the local council were always trying to direct footfall into the old area of town. We tried to say to them that the real economic influences at that time were the students, who were bringing new money into town and that they’re the new spenders. But the people who lived in the old town didn’t want the students there because they were making too much noise, they were too rowdy, it was the wrong sort of music. So it’s about supporting grassroots stuff. Putting on Adele and Stormzy, big shows like that, they will always have funding because they generate revenue, but it’s local kids having somewhere that they can invest their time and their talent, that’s the sort of thing that government can do to support the scene. Whether that’s through legislation to support the youth clubs, that gives kids new skills, whether that’s through legislation that allows venues to be open on different nights of the week, or whether that’s legislation that prohibits discrimination against certain demographics of music. Form 696 hasn’t had much of an impact in places like Kingston and Twickenham, for example, but in places like Hackney and Brixton it’ll have a massive impact because there is a large Black community.
I’m based in London and play in Brighton a lot, but I’ve played quite a lot in Bristol, Southampton a couple of times, Oxford once or twice, Reading once, so I’m slowly venturing out and playing further afield. I live in London so I can volunteer myself if I see that a promoter is putting on a night and it says ‘Support acts to be announced’ and I can offer myself as an opening act and offer myself for a discounted price and no travel costs. That’s how I got so many gigs in Brighton because I’m an MC from London and it was exciting getting someone down, but because of the support network I have here, I tend not to have travel costs included as part of my fee. They’re not dealing with someone who they’re literally paying to do a service because I’ll make an occasion out of it. I’ll come down and I’ll invite all of my friends who are around, I’ll make sure there’s extra people there. Finance is definitely a big factor in terms of whether you play more local shows or shows that are a bit further afield.
To be honest, if I wasn’t from London and had the local connections there, I don’t think I’d really bother with London at this stage in my career because the nightlife in London is geared towards a certain sort of experience, one that doesn’t really engage in the sort of music that I perform. Whereas the flipside of that is that these cities like Brighton, Southampton, and Bristol, they’ve got huge student populations compared to the size of the city. That’s not to say that London doesn’t have a huge student population but it’s dispersed over a much wider area, whereas all the students from the three universities in Southampton, say, all go to two or three main venues, so there’s a different energy, a different atmosphere and people are often looking for something different on their night out. Another thing is that in London, everything is more expensive.
I’ve personally been quite lucky in some senses in that I’m rooted in quite a broad spectrum of musical interests, so I get booked a lot of the time to host garage or bassline or even hip hop events, whereas grime artists who are a bit more linear struggle with those sort of bookings. You have to crack a sort of level of the scene before you get booked on a regular basis with that. Grime is an underground music genre that’s popular with young people and students. There’s not a lot of money in it, so if you’re a big name in the scene, your booking fees are in four or five digits. There’s a massive discrepancy between that and the lads that are getting paid £20 or £30, and sometimes not even covering their transport to participate in events; they’re doing it for the exposure, for the experience. Nine times out of ten I would be expecting the promoter to cover costs and transport, refreshments and guestlist. In the kind of music that I perform, the promoter is the only person making money aside from the venue, which is making money off the hire fee and bar spend. If you’re going to make £5,000 off an event and I’m a £150 act then I would expect you to be willing to cover my transport on top of that.
Promoters aren’t bad guys but especially in the music scene and culture that I work in, they’re the villains. They have no problem with trying to book two of you who normally perform as a double act, and asking the one that they prefer if you can tell the other person that they don’t need them any more because they want to save half the money. One of my mates is a promoter and I’ve worked extensively with him. He’s given me some great opportunities and I’m very grateful for it but sometimes I have to tell him that he’s taking the mickey. He’s willing to pay me for the most menial tasks such as scanning tickets or checking coats in at the cloakroom, but as soon as it comes to him actually handing over money simply for me to perform, he becomes reluctant; he wants to talk down the fee to as little as possible. And that’s someone I’ve been friends with for a long time!
Why do I think musicians aren’t getting paid? The short answer to that is that someone else will do it for free. Even in my day job in social media management, people are really reluctant to pay for people’s skills because they see it as something that they can get an intern to do. That is an attitude that has almost taken over the music scene. It’s not like you get paid what you want when you’ve made it, you stop paying for the right to be here or not when you’ve made it. The long answer is that, especially with urban music—garage, grime, hip hop, dance—there’s a lot of money at the top of the industry but there’s not a lot of equality; it doesn’t trickle down. You might see a night that costs £10,000 to put on, and the venue makes £3,000 on that night, the promoter makes £3-4,000, the headliner makes £2,000, and then everybody else involved—including the bar staff and the bouncers and the other support acts—between them they don’t even make £1,000. It is not that there’s not money there in the industry but it is generally that the distribution of the money is not great. People are like, ‘It’s not fair!’ but I’m like, ‘Life’s not fair!’
In rap music there’s a rubbish tendency to pretend that everything’s going really well. But I don’t know any aspiring musicians who is making enough money, or is making a happy amount of money. I think that when you put in that legwork and you get yourself known for live performance, there’s an opportunity to make a bit more money from live and that’s the stage that a lot of producers are at, at the moment. Their booking fee has gone up to £700-800 or £300-400 so they can do two or three shows at the weekend and come away with a decent amount of money. If you’re relatively unknown and you don’t have an online or live following—you don’t have a name—then the amount of money you make from selling your music and the amount of money that you make from playing live are both going to be less than you’d ideally want. But when you’ve got a recorded tune that does well, it can be the difference between you essentially having to pay out of your own pocket to play out and you getting reimbursed quite well. But then generally there’s not a lot of money to be made from the actual selling of the music at this point in time in terms of the industry, from my perspective anyway. You obviously want your music to sell well because it’s your music; you’re putting it out there and you want it do well. And if you put it out and it does well then there’s the potential for more bookings, you get booked for a more reasonable fee, etc. That’s mainly how it works in terms of the relationship between how the recordings sell and distribution and your profile and how visible you are and stuff like that, and playing live.
When you record there’s a certain level of artistry, a certain level of craftsmanship that goes into that, and that’s part of the skill of being a recording artist. When you record it’s an opportunity to do something quite intimate, you can narrate a story or provide a perspective or share a bit of yourself. It can sound exactly the way you want it to. When it comes to performing live, you still want to convey the message or the performance or the experience that you would have conveyed in the recording, but when it comes to live it’s more about establishing the connection with the people that are there. It’s easy to perform when you’re a headliner. It doesn’t matter what genre it is; you could take anyone from Rita Ora to Stormzy to Adele. If you’re selling out the O2 arena or something like that, people have come to hear your songs so there’s an air of confidence and comfort there, as opposed to you being booked because you fell into the right gap in between being relevant and being local enough so people know what to expect from you.
The future of UK music is with urban-influenced music. It’s not that rock&roll is not going to be part of UK music’s future but we’re known for our rock&roll. We’ve got The Beatles, Oasis, Blur, amazing acts like that. What’ll it’ll be is that rather than we’ll see a prominence of grime or a prominence of rap or electronic music, what we’ll see is that our rappers will start to be regarded around the world the way our vocalists are, the way that Amy Winehouse is or Adele is, or Ed Sheeran is. He’s respected worldwide as someone who is at the front of his craft, not just in the UK, and I think that’s the future of UK music.