TOBE ONWUKA: ‘IT’S EASY TO LOOK AT LABELS WITH ROSE-TINTED GLASSES. THAT’S NOT THE REALITY.’
Chance the Rapper isn’t the only independent artist smashing through the mainstream music scene on his own terms.
London rapper Stormzy is currently fighting for a UK No.1 with his self-released debut album, Gang Signs and Prayer.
He performed with Ed Sheeran at the BRIT Awards last week, where he was nominated for British Breakthrough Act, and has won high-profile admiration from fellow Londoner Adele.
“NO OTHER ARTIST HAS TAKEN THE TRADITIONAL MUSIC BUSINESS MODEL OF HOW TO MAKE, MARKET, CREATE, BREAK, TOUR AND MONETISE A NEW MUSICAL ARTIST AND FLIPPED IT ON ITS HEAD IN THE WAY STORMZY HAS IN THE LAST 24 MONTHS.”
MISTAJAM, BBC RADIO 1/1XTRA
Last year, when the Association of Independent Music crowned Stormzy with its Innovator honour, BBC Radio 1 / 1Xtra’s MistaJam said: “No other artist has taken the traditional music business model of how to make, market, create, break, tour and monetise a new musical artist and flipped it on its head in the way Stormzy has in the last 24 months.
“He’s not only set the bar, he’s redefined it.”
Sat by Stomzy’s side throughout this rise has been 25-year-old manager and friend, Tobe Onwuka (pictured to the right of Stormzy above).
The duo have expertly navigated the British music industry without decades of experience and large resource. They’ve been offered record deals with all three major labels, and boldly turned them down.
Last year, they signed a distribution deal with Warner’s ADA, while Warner/Chappell (via A&R Amber Davis) handles publishing.
But as Onwuka explains in MBW’s exclusive interview below, it’s Stormzy and team that make all the creative decisions.
That team includes talent bookers Craig D’Souza and Francesco Caccamo at Primary Talent, lawyer Kieran Jay at Lee and Thompson, PR Rachel Campbell and tour manager Trevor A Williams.
BBC Radio 1Xtra presenter and Atlantic UK A&R Director, Alec Boateng (aka. Twin B), has also been an integral part of the process; he introduced Stormzy to Fraser T Smith (Adele, Britney Spears, Sam Smith) who executive produced Gang Signs and Prayer.
“Everybody in the team does way more than what their role is,” says Onwuka. “It’s a small team but very strong in this one vision and I’ve got support whenever I need it. I can literally pick up the phone to anyone and we’ll get stuff done.”
All music is released on their own label #Merky Records, which both Stormzy and Onwuka have plans to develop other talent through in future.
Here, we chat to Onwuka to discover the realities of navigating the music industry independently in 2017, and why they chose that route.
YOU QUIT YOUR JOB AT A CAR DEALERSHIP TO MANAGE STORMZY. WHERE DID YOU LEARN YOUR MUSIC INDUSTRY SAVVY?
For me, it’s all about gut instinct and what I feel is right. I’m never going to put Stormzy in a situation I wouldn’t feel comfortable with myself.
“[MANAGEMENT] IS ALL ABOUT GUT INSTINCT AND WHAT I FEEL IS RIGHT. I’M NEVER GOING TO PUT STORMZY IN A SITUATION I WOULDN’T FEEL COMFORTABLE WITH MYSELF.”
I do a lot of research and if there’s a skill I’m lacking I’ll be relentless in trying to figure it out. I have had people come in over time who have really helped, but it’s more about doing the right things at the right time.
WHO ARE THOSE PEOPLE?
One of the main ones has been Twin B (pictured). He’s an amazing guy. Any time I’ve needed advice or someone to lean on when things seem a bit unsure I can count on his advice and support coming from a sincere place.
He has no agenda, he just wants us to do well and he’s a genuinely good person.
Another person that has been very supportive has been my mother.
We’ve always been close but after taking on this new role she’s been my main support system. She hasn’t studied music either but has a very good head on her!
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO NOT SIGN A LABEL DEAL?
We didn’t necessarily plan to be independent from the beginning. But after meeting all the labels and hearing what they had to offer we decided we could do it better ourselves.
It’s easy to look at labels with rose tinted glasses, from the outside it looks like this shiny building that can make you successful.
“NOTHING ANY OF THE LABELS [OFFERED US] WAS MIND BLOWING, THERE WAS NOTHING THAT WAS OUT OF OUR OWN REACH.”
In reality, you sit down with them and they tell you, ‘We’ve both got to figure this out, and we can offer you some money now and take more later.’ Nothing any of the labels said was mind blowing, there was nothing that was out of our own reach.
It might have taken longer, it might have been a more gruelling process, but we just knew that most of the stuff they were offering we could achieve ourselves without losing masters and revenue.
I don’t want to discourage anyone from going with a label because so many people have great success with labels, I just felt like it wasn’t right for us. We knew that regardless of obstacles in the beginning, we were willing to achieve anything we would have with a label.
AT WHAT POINT WERE YOU ABLE TO EARN A LIVING FROM WHAT YOU WERE DOING INDEPENDENTLY?
I had savings from work that kept us afloat for a while, and when we decided not to sign to a label, we got a booking agent.
My emails were already full of offers from people wanting to book Stormzy for clubs and smaller gigs so we got a booking agent to help us decide what offers to accept. Bookings started coming in and that was the first way we kept afloat.
WHY DID YOU CHOSE ADA FOR DISTRIBUTION?
We want to go global for this album and ADA got our ambition. They could see it getting to places that myself and Stormzy felt he could make it to.
AND WHY DID YOU CHOSE WARNER/CHAPPELL AS PUBLISHERS?
When meeting Amber [Davis], she was also as ambitious for Stormzy as we were. She’s been on hand to help with anything we needed; she’s not a publisher in the distance that just sends me a royalty report every few months!
WHO HELMS MARKETING?
I have to give it to Stormzy; his brain and creativeness are second to none. He gives us the bones of the plan and we go ahead and make it special and bring it into fruition.
THERE’S A LYRIC IN AN INTERLUDE FROM CRAZY TITCH ON
STORMZY’S ALBUM THAT APPEARS TO PREDICT THE DEATH OF RECORD LABELS. WHAT DO YOU THINK THE INDUSTRY WILL LOOK LIKE IN FUTURE?
There is such a big bulk of music that we consume through record labels that I can’t see them dying. But there is definitely a rise in more independence and entrepreneurship in music.
“CHANCE THE RAPPER IS KILLING IT, HE IS SUCH A INSPIRATION. IT’S AMAZING THAT SOMEONE THAT HAS BUILT THEIR OWN CAREER WITHOUT ANY INTERFERENCE AND HAS GOT TO THE STAGE OF WINNING GRAMMYS.”
Chance the Rapper is killing it, he is such a inspiration. What he and his team have been able to do is something that I really admire and we are definitely taking the same stance.
It’s amazing that someone that has built their own career without any interference and has got to the stage of winning Grammys.
With us being in such a digital age, music is something that you are able to do by yourself – or with a label.
It’s not easy doing it alone and for some people that don’t want to handle everything themselves, a label deal might be the better option. But I do feel like there will be a decline in how much control labels have.
IS THERE ANYTHING THAT’S SURPRISED YOU ABOUT THE MUSIC INDUSTRY AS YOU’VE GOT MORE INVOLVED?
It’s funny how other labels react when you start making waves and they see you as a threat. The competitive nature of it all was quite a shock, and how early on we were seen as major competition!
WHAT ARE YOU FUTURE AMBITIONS? DO YOU WANT TO
BREAK STORMZY IN THE US?
We want to break the world and America is part of that.
In terms of #Merky Records, that will grow. The label isn’t confined to any genre, the doors are open and we’re ambitious.