Emerging Artists: How to create momentum
As an artist manager working with some of the most successful artists in the electronic music world such as The Prodigy and DJ Fresh, Nick Halkes understands what drives success at the highest level. As one of the men behind XL Recordings before he launched Positiva with EMI, Nick signed multiple era-defining smashes and had great album success also so understands the industry from a label perspective too.
Whilst amongst his other current duties he puts the finishing touches to the new series of his excellent Trailblazers-electronic pioneers podcast we asked Nick to take some time out to write for us about his early days and tell us how he secured his initial breaks in the industry. It’s a fascinating account- read on, learn and enjoy!
I’ve had some interesting experiences, whether through managing artists, running record labels, DJing or any of the myriad of other ways that it’s possible to be involved in the business of music.
I also learned a few things as I edged my way into the industry, doing a whole bunch of stuff for free and for fun that would create momentum and give me a taste of what would follow. When I do guest talks at universities or colleges these days it’s often the case that I’ll be asked if I had just one piece of advice to give to someone working on building a career in music what would it be. The answer is simple.
Create your own momentum
A common misconception amongst young artists is that when they get a manager or sign to a label that everything will change. That from that moment someone else will be powering their acceleration. Whilst building a great team is a wise strategy for any artist, great artists continue to create their own momentum all the way thru their journey.
They demonstrate hunger, initiative and ambition before their team is in place and keep pushing forwards once it is. Those who go on to success in more behind the scenes roles typically show similar characteristics.
In my case, the first time that a hobby started to feel like something more would have been when my schoolmate Andy Smith and I started doing mobile DJ type stuff as teenagers. I say ‘type stuff’ as despite the fact that we were playing records at kids’ parties it would have been a stretch to call us a proper mobile disco.
In those days our audio set up was the vertical stack home hi-fi from my living room and the horizontal equivalent from his. Whilst each hi-fi had a pair of speakers of course, there was no mixer and thus the tunes we played got mixed in an unusual manner-with one budding DJ fading down on his hi-fi as the other member of the duo faded up on his.
The combination of 7-inch singles and tracks recorded onto cassettes from spins on the Top 40 radio show got us through somehow though and eventually, we graduated to the exalted position of actually having two ‘proper’ decks and a mixer. Whilst we’d have played at these church hall and living room events for free we learned that people would actually pay us – their kids enjoyed the parties, whilst we had a good time too.
Amazingly Andy and I DJ together still many decades on and have taken our roving club night Reach Up Disco Wonderland to Lisbon, Berlin, Ibiza, Bestival, Blue Dot and a bunch more amazing festivals over the last few years. We also have a residency at The Bussey Building in London which we love. Do stuff that excites and energises you and get good at it. See what follows.
My next step in music industry engagement was getting involved in hospital radio. With a captive audience of listeners at Bristol Royal Infirmary, I’d read the news each Tuesday evening before eventually getting offered the chance to deputize for a music show presenter who was on holiday.
Seizing the opportunity I brought in a bag full of my favourite rap and club records and started laying down the freshest beats at my disposal. It was a schoolboy error however as I’d not really thought about my audience-many of whom were of advanced years and I got unceremoniously yanked off the air.
To be fair I was actually still a schoolboy at that point though so maybe such an error wasn’t totally inexcusable. When they eventually let me back in front of a microphone again I started doing some gig reviews and called up the PR departments at a few record labels who showed me some support by mailing me a few promos and sticking me on the odd guest list. Free records and concert tickets! Once again I’d learned that rewards could follow if I applied myself and showed a little bit of initiative.
The most pivotal music-related moment of my teenage years came as a uni student once I had obtained a short term American work visa. The Work America programme still operates for full-time students under 30 years of age and I was able to find a job working in the evenings as a cinema usher based in New York.
I’ll go into a bit more detail with this bit as it was important to me. I was pretty sceptical about my chances of getting offered a more interesting daytime job or internship by sending my CV through the post so started to wonder if interviewing a record label or radio boss might be a foot through the door. I called up the city’s leading black music radio station WBLS and asked to be put through to the MD.
Speaking to his assistant I delivered my lines…
Hi, I’m a journalist from the UK and I’m writing an article on New York radio…I’m wondering if Mr Kirkland might be available for a brief interview?
His assistant said she’d be back in touch after she had discussed with him and I thought that was probably the end of that…. until the phone in the apartment rang ten minutes later.
Yes, Mr Kirkland will be happy to be interviewed. Can you come in at 10 am tomorrow?
Yes, I could….but of course only after the somewhat panicky collation of a set of questions that I hadn’t really been expecting to be asking! I started scanning the radio dial immediately and tried to figure out what I should be seeking to find out.
Fortunately, the interview went well despite the fact that I was totally blagging it – and as it wrapped up Mr Kirkland kindly introduced me to Francine Cruz from the programming department. She graciously gave me a tour of the station, explaining who did what.
As we walked into the programming office and plotted down surrounded by racks of vinyl, overflowing desks, and unopened packages I realised that I was at the heart of the station – the place where the music lived and where all the scheduling took place. I was asked if I was free to help out for a few hours there and then and readily agreed.
My initial task, filing piles of vinyl back where they belonged into the shelves that filled all available wall space. Secondly, I was asked to fire a few phone calls out to local record stores and ask what their best selling records of the day were. The results were used to compile a chart that ranked New York’s hottest records of the moment.
Before I knew it the day was almost done and I was thanking the programming team for letting me hang out and help out – it was really kind of them I thought. Francine asked what I had planned the next day.
Nothing ‘til I start at the cinema in the eveningI replied.
That’s good’ she said. ‘Can you be here for 10 am?
Errrrr sure, if you’d like me to beI replied.
Well…you’re our new intern….if you want to be!Francine smiled broadly and once I’d got over the initial shock so did I.
I’d blagged my way in to do an interview and had been offered an internship before I left the building. Amazing! I headed to the subway buzzing with excitement.
I had only been working at WBLS a couple of weeks before what I considered to be something equivalent to a winning lottery ticket was placed in my hand. The Epic Records radio plugger of the time was a cool black dude in his mid-50s at a guess who was always snazzily dressed.
Sharp suit, nice tie, and handkerchief always protruding from his top pocket. I had made a point of trying to build a rapport with anyone from the labels who passed by the station but in such limited time, I hadn’t got to know any of them particularly well.
On the day in question, the friendly plugger waltzed into the programming department and made an announcement.
Big moment coming up…the new Michael Jackson record is almost upon us ladies and gentlemen and I would like you to hear it.
Primarily addressing the full-time members of staff in the room he produced a handful of invitations with a flourish.
“We got a nice boat. We got some nice food and we got a great record. So who wants to come?”
With positive noises emanating from my co-workers the plugger looked in my direction and I very nervously raised my hand a bit like a school kid might and also raised my eyebrows hopefully.
“Yeah you should come too kid; you’ll enjoy it”he said smiling as he handed me an invite.
An invite. To the world premiere playback party of Bad by Michael Jackson. On a yacht. Cruising around Manhattan. Holy shit. This wasn’t easy to take in and I tucked the invite into my bag as quickly as I could in case anyone decided to take it off me.
The event rolled around soon enough and thus I found myself sipping champagne and eating caviar as the luxury yacht made its way around Manhattan island. The city looked amazing on this beautiful summer’s evening. As someone who had previously only experienced free champagne at family weddings, that alone was a pretty big deal.
I asked my WBLS colleagues if they knew any of the other guests present. Replying in the affirmative, the editor of Billboard, the boss of Kiss FM and 2 CEOs of the major record store chains were pointed out. Blimey. I was hearing the record at the same time as some serious heavy hitters. Wowzer!
I thought about the chain of events that had enabled me to be on that boat at that moment. Applying for the work permit, blagging my way into WBLS with the interview strategy and then getting offered the internship.
Everything was so lucky yet without a bit of initiative and drive I knew the luck wouldn’t have happened. The luck followed the push. If this crazy set of events was possible then just maybe some equally crazy stuff might also happen in the future I pondered. I knew that I shouldn’t really be there on that boat but I was, and if that was possible just maybe getting a job at a record label, signing a hit record or all sorts of other stuff just might be too.
On my return to the UK and on commencing my third year at uni I started repping the Easy Street record label. I’d met the guys during my time in NYC and suggested to them that if they sent me thru promos upfront of release perhaps I might be able to procure them some licencing business.
It was still the pre-mobile phone era and thus most of the calls I placed to a and r people were made from the shared phone in my uni halls of residence. I started to get return calls but alas as a student it was pretty hit n miss whether I’d be around to receive them and it wasn’t uncommon for me to return from lectures to see a note pinned on my door informing me that Pete Tong called or similar.
Once I’d overcome these logistical challenges I did a bunch of meetings, hawking around the forthcoming releases. Whilst label bosses were interested in the Easy Street music they were also interested in how come a young uni student was representing them. I explained that I’d met the guys when I was interning at WBLS.
In each case, the UK label people would then ask how I managed to get that gig and I explained the story that I recently explained to you. Those meetings kinda became informal interviews and when I left uni several of the label people I met put me in the frame for jobs. Whilst I didn’t get any of them I was on their radar and I think they had seen something in me that they thought may be useful in some way.
I spent the summer after I left Uni working in Ibiza. Stories of its magical clubbing qualities were permeating courtesy of DJs such as Danny Rampling and Paul Oakenfold and I figured that it was something I needed to check out for myself. I got a gig DJing in a beach bar which wrapped up at midnight each night and would head out on my moped to explore the island’s nightlife after that.
It was the summer of 1988 and at that point, Amnesia was a completely open-air club. I walked in for the first time and fell in love with it. Sitting next to two Greek girls, one of whom was wearing a hand-painted smiley t-shirt, I witnessed a steady stream of people coming up to ask her where she’d purchased it.
Each time she explained that she’d made it herself. A little lightbulb lit up in my head and when I later chatted to Ulysses, the guy that ran the boutique in the club I explained how the smiley symbol was taking off in London and how I thought there might be a market to sell some t-shirts in Ibiza. The next day he kindly took me to a manufacturing place and confident in the quality, placed an order for my first batch to see how they would sell.
Fortunately, my hunch proved correct and they sold out for him within a couple of days. I’d had an idea, given it a go and was seeing some results. I spent much of the remainder of the summer turning up at Amnesia, dropping in more shirts, collecting any money due and dancing under the stars.
My first proper job in the music industry was working for a company with the curiously understated name Secret Promotions. In this case, I’d got to meet the managing director DJ Simon Goffe at his club residency and offered to help him lug his records to his car at the end of the night.
He used to play at a club called Gossips where a young Tim Westwood once used to work behind the bar. Anyway, my route towards that first full-time job offer had been a journey where without even realizing it I’d built my own momentum over the years.
From church hall gigs and hospital radio scrapes to hanging out at Marley Marls home studio and going to Paradise Garage during my New York stay (I know I didn’t even have time to get into detail about these here, so maybe another time!) it all added up.
I’d realised by accident rather than design that you can’t make your own luck but you can increase your chances of getting lucky by putting yourself in interesting environments-or perhaps in this more online orientated era-adding yourself to the equation where people are discussing, planning or doing interesting and engaging things.
Everything that I’ve explained lead towards that first full-time role in the music industry for me and equally lead towards the top 10 pop hit that I had as an artist, launching XL, Positiva and Incentive with all the hits there and everything else that has followed across the decades since.
I was doing good stuff and creating my own momentum.
A big thank you to Nick Halkes for his words, insights and contribution to the Music Industry.
Nick is active on social media you can follow him here: Facebook and @nickhalkes on Instagram and Twitter