Photography: Rob May

“If the labels today aren’t going to be the architects of artist development, then who is?”

Talent manager Steve Rennie posed this question in a 2014 blog he wrote for Billboard, where he described how the process of artist development had changed during his 30-year tenure in the music industry. As well as working at Epic Records, Rennie managed Primal Scream, Incubus and The The, and has been praised for his knowledge on the workings of an industry that has undergone massive upheaval since the digital revolution. “There was a concept in the record business for years called artist development. The idea was actually pretty simple. The label would sign an artist that they loved or whose future they believed in. Typically, those artists were at the beginning of their creative potential but still had not totally dialled in their thing.”

“In those glory days, the artist development process could be analogous to a budding romance,” he continued, describing how the traditional courting of new talent by big labels was the norm, in an era when physical sales of CDs dominated, meaning that labels held all the aces. “In today’s music business, there are no such luxuries: no candles, no wine, no romantic dinners, just a simple yes or no. It’s not about love. It’s about results.”

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Since the 2000s, when streaming and digital sales became the primary way of consuming music, the whole infrastructure of the industry has changed. Record labels – for a long time the custodians of who and what gets released – have had less resource to spend on developing musicians. They no longer have the time and money to waste on breaking large numbers of artists and allowing them to make mistakes – they need results, fast. This means that artists need to be further down the road with their image, style and fanbase than they previously had to – plus, there are fewer places to fight for on trimmed-down label rosters.

And it’s not just labels who are still adapting to these changes: the media is still catching up with the new possibilities of the web, where artists and labels can go direct to customers themselves. Finding out just where TV, radio and written media fits into this new structure has been a struggle, but the upheaval has thrown up one positive for budding artists: the power has shifted back to them.

This thought process has been central to the development of the MERSEYRAIL SOUND STATION artist development programme. Over the past five years, ourselves at Bido Lito! have been working with Merseyrail to profile the amazing musicians that call Merseyside home. For 2018, we wanted to take that further, and really help some of these fabulous artists to develop their craft and learn more about the music industry that they could – and should – be shaping.

In August, we took on a cohort of 13 musicians that represent some of the brightest talent in the region, and put them through a five-week programme geared towards their own personal development. Across a series of sessions, the artists – Astles, Beija Flo, Bill Nickson, Breezy iDeygoké, Charity Shop Pop, Eyesore & The Jinx, François, Hannah & The Wick Effect, KingFast, Niki Kand, Remy Jude, Sara Wolff and Yank Scally – were given the chance to meet with industry professionals, successful musicians and each other to talk face-to-face about the realities of being in the music industry, and to gain insight on how they could hone their own processes to get the best out of their talent.

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Stealing Sheep’s Becky Hawley is keenly aware of the importance of having a network of friends and artists around you, having blossomed from a fertile scene of creatives of all different stripes based at The Kazimier. In the Artist Masterclass she gave to the artists, she preached this idea of collaborating, and sharing talents, as a way of growing together as a community. “It’s interesting because of the connections that are made,” said Becky after the tall at the Philharmonic Music Room. “Just hearing one-on-one about the different artists in the room and their different backgrounds, it’s already really inspiring for me. I feel like I want to put on a show, and I feel like I want to meet all of these people again and work with them – and they want to work with each other. This is how stuff starts.”

Being an artist is more than just about writing great music and putting on a jaw-dropping show – although, that does help. The ability to navigate the practical side of being a musician is also key, and these things can often slip by the wayside when time and resources are tight. Representatives from the Musicians’ Union and publishing organisation Sentric were also on hand to promote the idea of getting the basics in order, to support the artistic side. The MU’s regional officer for the north west, Barry Dallman, talked about the value of having both the creative and the logistics side of your career in good health. “Projects like this can connect grassroots musicians with the industry that’s local to them, and give them great advice and tools to help them develop their career and take their music to the next level.”

The cohort were also put through their paces in the studio, with experienced musician and tutor Jez Wing leading a songwriting course at Sort Rehearsal Rooms. Working with the artists to develop their arrangements, melodies, lyrics and hooks, the session was designed to get the artists to think differently about their own processes, and invited them to learn from each other’s techniques and styles. Studio manager of The Cabin at Sort, Alec Brits, also gave the musicians a crash course in working in a studio environment; he also praised the idea behind the sessions, and sees the wider impact of artist development courses that encourage musicians to think and work together across genre boundaries. “Projects like this are invaluable to a city like Liverpool, or any place where there’s a thriving cultural scene. If these sorts of things become the norm, it will raise the overall quality, making a stronger community of musicians who all work together.”

This is a sentiment that is echoed by Lynden Campbell, Head of Synchronisation at Domino Publishing. Lynden was part of a team of industry professionals who took part in an Industry MOT session at the British Music Experience, where the 13 artists were put through their paces on their press assets, and approaching the media and festivals. “Projects like MSS are so important today because, despite the fact that we are so well connected digitally, it’s still important that people come together and talk openly.”

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Having seen the group of musicians tackle each session with gusto, learn from each other and take on board the advice on offer, and see them buzzing after performing as a whole group at Liverpool Central station as part of BBC Music Day, it was difficult not to feel buoyed by the enthusiasm that the whole process generated. And, as Becky Hawley said, this is where stuff starts. There’s no telling where those 13 artists might go next. Becky’s final comments sum it up neatly: “The music industry is there to be made by you. And it’s up to the creative people to invent it.”

Applications for the second semester of the Merseyrail Sound Station development programme are open now. Fill out this short application form to apply. Head to merseyrailsoundstation.com to view all the video content from the semester one sessions.

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“Sound Station has helped me to understand the difference of being a musician as a creative hobby and a creative professional. The programme has helped me realise a guideline to follow as part of my musical career.” Breezy iDeygoké
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“Merseyrail Sound Station kidnapped me with my permission and has fed me knowledge about really good things like self-promotion. I had a really good time meeting professional music wizards and am grateful for the advice my brain has received.” Beija Flo
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“The programme has massively helped us, by introducing us to people with the skill set to help us develop and make the next step, as well as introducing us to a host of talented artists we otherwise may not have encountered.” Eyesore & The Jinx
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“The fact that I’ve grown in confidence has been the most important thing, and then just general help and support that will stand me in good stead. Also, meeting the various people and having links with other artists and other influential people in the area.” Charity Shop Pop

Two of the artists from semesters one and two will be selected to perform a showcase event with a national touring artist in 2018, and will get the chance to perform shows around the country.

Apply now for the second semester of the Merseyrail Sound Station artist development programme by filling out this short form. The deadline for applications is 30th November. The programme is open to all Merseyside musicians.

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