Making Waves with ... BEATBULLYZ - Mar 28, 2011
“It’s all about hooking people into the brand. [Fans] need to feel a reason to be part of what you’re trying to create.“
For the latest edition of Making Waves, our series focusing on how artists are making things happen for themselves, we speak to genre-defying UK hip-hop/pop/street soul band Beatbullyz who have cultivated a formidable pop brand that is growing ever stronger.
The band’s producer, singer and keyboardist Bully talks to HitQuarters about building up a fanatical hometown following, winning support slots for JLS, Jason Derülo and N-Dubz tours, securing syncs with Sky Sports and ESPN, and how they are hooking people into the Beatbullyz brand.
How did you first get involved in music?
I grew up in a very musical family and so music was always around. There was always a piano in the house and my mum was a primary school music teacher. I played violin - that was my first instrument - and then later I started playing piano and guitar.
But I was really fanatical about becoming a DJ. When I first started off, before I got my decks, I had a really old record player and I’d mix using my hands to speed the record up to mix the tracks together.
I began by using really basic music programs to write music on a computer. Unlike multi-track settings in a studio this was sort of single-track. I would be cutting samples, mixing and pasting them into one long crazy track. I then started playing out and producing my own stuff. I was really into drum and bass and dance.
How did Beatbullyz first come together?
When I was about 18 I started my own drum and bass outfit called Nebulae, which was a female vocalist, male rapper and drummer. I was never a singer - I was too scared. The first time I recorded something, I played it to a few close friends who didn’t know it was me singing, and they were like, “Woah … who’s that?!” I was like, “… it’s me.” I was waiting for the backlash of ‘Oh, it’s rubbish,’ but they said it was good, and that gave me a little more confidence to keep writing.
After Nebulae split up a long-term friend of mine, Bozo - now the rapper of Beatbullyz - would always come to me while I was doing this drum and bass band. Then the opportunity came to write a couple of songs together. I kept the drummer from Nebulae and together we formed Beatbullyz.
At the start it was just me, Bozo, and Disco, the drummer. We started playing around our hometown, and did our first gig to seven people, which was probably absolutely horrendous. But with the contacts we’d made from the previous band I think we sold 500 tickets for our second show. After that we went out to Austria, did some festivals, and it’s just been one crazy rollercoaster from there.
From a seven-person first show, to quickly selling 500 tickets and now going big national tour ... what is it you’ve done to cultivate the local following, and then help it grow onto a national scale?
The local thing is really, really important. Everyone knew I was musical, so I think at first people wanted to come out and see what the new thing was. But you have to keep them coming, and it’s a difficult thing.
In Swindon, which is quite a small town, it was quite an indie band-based music scene. No one was doing what we were - mixing, rapping and singing. So instead of playing on the music nights we started putting on our own nights. You could play our music on a club night, where they’re playing dance or hip-hop; we were quite versatile, and we did anything and everything that we could just to keep putting it out there.
What was the big break you had in terms of giving your band national exposure and how did that come about?
The big break for us came because we’d built up such a big following in Swindon - we were selling out 700-capacity venues. Radio One, the national radio station in the UK, have a section called BBC Introducing, which basically searches for up-and-coming talents and undiscovered music. Every year they do a big event (Big Weekend) with worldwide artists, and they have a BBC Introducing stage.
The Big Weekend event actually came to our hometown (in May 2009). Swindon has its own local BBC radio show and because of the work we’d done, and the following we had in Swindon, they put two bands forward to potentially play at this big event. Different unsigned bands from all corners of the UK eventually got whittled down to 16 acts, and we were picked. That is really when everything changed, because we got our first plays on Radio One.
In the UK the music industry is based in London, and no one had heard of us in the core music industry before Radio One’s Big Weekend. When we opened in our hometown, it was the fullest that the stage was for the whole two-day event. It led to us meeting the right management and things just built from there.
You’ve got to keep pushing and doing everything you can, and also be prepared for when that opportunity arrives so you can just grab it with both hands. If you’re underprepared, you may lose that opportunity.
How did meeting the ‘right management’ affect your career from that point?
It changed everything. The main music industry is fairly small in the UK and all the labels know each other, but you’ve got to be invited into the community. To have management that are already in the industry saying, ‘You’re good enough to do this, we want to go with you, and we’ve got the space to do it,’ gives you a boost and, as a musician, is what you’re searching for.
We’ve had a couple of managers before these guys, but they were all mouth and no action, and so we were a little dubious before we met our current management because we’d been bitten a few times before. We wanted to step back and judge how things went on, what they actually got us, and what their actions were.
And time after time, week after week, emails were appearing every day, stuff was going out, gigs were coming in, they got us an agent, we set up our own label from it … all these things could not have happened without the management we had. It’s about having people that get your music and have really good business heads. That allows you to get on with what you need to be doing, which is creating and performing.
What impact did getting a booking agent have?
When you’re in a band one of the hardest things to do is to get gigs. It is also one of the most time-consuming - before we would send out promos, demos, hundreds of CDs to the venues. At the moment, the agent looks after all the bookings and if anyone comes to us they still have to go through the agent. It’s an absolute blessing. It’s one of the biggest booking agents in the UK and I think they’re in America as well.
When you’ve got an agent it brings some weight to booking bigger shows. If we didn’t have an agent, we wouldn’t have gotten on any of the support slots that we’ve got on.
We are also then able to focus on talking to fans, through the medium of Facebook, Twitter … We’ve found that no matter what happens anywhere in the industry, the fans are the most important part. You need to keep your fans, you need to have respect for your fans, and you need to communicate with your fans. Whether you’ve got a major label or small label, whether you’ve got loads of backing, it doesn’t matter – the fans are the people that are going to keep you afloat and you need to keep them happy.
We try to answer everything ourselves, and give the personal touch. Everything on Facebook we do, and we like it like that. It matters a lot that they feel the artist they like gives a crap about them, because we do. We understand they are why we’ve been able to do what we do for a living, so you’ve got to make sure that relationship stays strong.
What are your thoughts on giving music away for free?
It depends on the artist’s outlook. We will give a track away for free because it means some people will have your music who would not have bought your music - that’s promotion in itself.
But I don’t think that matters anymore because once you release your album, someone could get it somewhere for free from an illegal download site. It’s all about hooking people into the brand. Obviously the music is the first and foremost thing that they’ve got to love, but beyond that they need to feel a reason to be part of what you’re trying to create. And that’s the most beautiful thing for us at the moment; it’s become one big positive movement that people can get involved in and feel good about being involved with.
How do you get people to hook into the Beatbullyz brand and then make money from that?
You need to have the reason for people to buy into it. Ours is being part of the Minotaur family (Beatbullyz official street team). There are ways to make money from that.
We’ve got something called PledgeMusic, which we’ve put out to fans. Through PledgeMusic, you can pay to come watch a sound check, you can pay to meet and greet at shows. You can pay to get some handwritten lyrics sent to you. If you go to our PledgeMusic page, you can see what things we’ve got to offer fans. We also do a thing every week with Ustream wher we’ve gone to people’s houses.
You shouldn’t feel bad about making money from it. When we did a gig in Glasgow, we met four girls who’d bought a chance to meet us at a restaurant. Ever since they’ve been on Facebook saying it was the best day of their life. They want it, you need to make some money from it, and so that’s one way you can cash in a brand - or a band.
What did you find was particularly popular with your fans through the PledgeMusic venture?
We found that the things that really went were the VIP sound checks. Since no one can really come to sound checks unless you’re part of the venue or part of the band it gives the fans that special something. We’d let them choose the tracks for the sound. We even had ‘em up on stage during sound check singing our track Bounce with us. It meant everything to them. It’s so easy for a band to do that and you’re bringing in more revenue, but you’re also giving your fans a more personal touch - stuff you’d never normally get.
People love the meet and greet stuff. It’s been a phenomenal response for us. We put more up - we ran out of all the sound checks, and we put more up there and they went.
You’ve recently supported JLS and N-Dubz on major national tours. What has been some of the direct benefits that you’ve seen since playing with these bigger name bands?
When you’re trying to go out and get new fans, the great thing about playing with a bigger name band is the association. You’re almost endorsed by the big bands, and the fans are much more welcoming to you.
We’ve never taken for granted the opportunities we’ve been given; it is what you make of that opportunity. We just didn’t stop working, and in fact our work ethic as a band has probably got stronger. A lot of the supporting acts would go home - JLS had two other supports and they would leave – but we’d announce on stage that we’d be at the merchandise stand, and then stay right to the end meeting fans, taking pictures and signing t-shirts, giving out stickers, photos …
And it means so much to the fans. That’s when you get the traffic on the internet; while we on the JLS tour, the Twitter was just going wild, we were getting posts every 30 seconds to a minute throughout the whole tour, and that’s crazy. You have to always remember the fans are the ones that are going to keep everything going for you as a band.
You recorded and released your debut album independently on your own Big Weekend Records label - what were some of the challenges you encountered?
First of all you haven’t got a huge budget. And then it’s slightly scary because this is the point you’ve been working towards for years. Another thing is an artist is never completely happy with their work but you just have to try and make it the best you can.
For this album it was also really exciting because we had the final say; there was no major label A&R guys putting stops to what we wanted to do creatively and what tracks to put in or take out. We put the album together how we wanted it; we were in the driver’s seat for the whole album. I was the executive producer on the album as well, so I was really involved in the whole process. Obviously I didn’t actually mix or master it, but I had a say all the way up to the end on how it should sound or what I wasn’t happy about or what I was. When I listen to the album now, I’m very proud of it. For our debut, I think it was perfect.
But it does come with challenges. You’re fighting quite a hard battle to try and compete with the big weight of the major labels and the huge media campaigns they have for their artists because. We haven’t got that sort of money to push it that way. But in growing organically as an artist, I think it was brilliant.
Is a major label deal something you’d consider pursuing at some point?
It depends … do you need it? I don’t know.
If they came to us with a big business plan that will work then why not? But I’m not just about to give away all my rights: “We’ve got this far, now you make the decisions.” I don’t think any of us are ready to do that. We’re very careful of what we do because we’ve worked so hard to create what we’ve created.
You hear about horrendous deals and you hear about really good deals. What they do bring in is obviously a lot of weight in the industry, radio, etc. A band’s always trying to find new fans, and big labels have got more of a big structure that you can just tap into.
What about licensing? Like placements in TV shows, movies, advertising … what’s your outlook on that?
I think it’s great. It’s another way of getting your music to people. We’ve had our songs on TV shows. I think ‘Bounce’ is getting synced in America actually. For an artist, it’s revenue isn’t it? With the way the industry is at the moment, with all the illegal downloading, even all the majors are scratching trying to sell records, and so you need to bring in as many revenue streams as you can.
Where do you think the money is in this business at the moment?
If you’re touring then it’s definitely in merchandise. You can sell records but just not to the extent as you once could. But you can’t just rely on just one thing anymore.
Gone are the days where bands are just make studio albums and try to survive. You need to be doing it all: you need to be touring; you need to be selling records; your music needs to be synced; you need to be getting radio play … And that’s why all the majors now do 360 deals; they used to do just the record side of it, but now they want a piece of everything - they want a piece of the name, they want a piece of the merch, they want a piece of the publishing …
Different things work for different bands, and we’ve found our strength in gigging, so we make that our big goal, always to be playing live. That’s how we keep the buzz up about the band.
You’ve started work on your second album. How does the process work and will you be working with the same people as the first record or seeking new collaborations?
As I write the music, I’m actually doing it on my own at the moment, and then we test stuff out on the road. It is that embryonic stage, where we’re putting stuff in, taking stuff out. When we get to a point where we’re happy with the songs, then we’ll start looking for new collaborators.
I think it’s time to get some new production ideas for the band. What I don’t want to do on the next record is write the same sort of album. You have to try new things. I love this stage where you’re playing tracks for the first time and you’re nervous because you’ve got people that love the tracks that you’ve already writte, and you’re giving them something new. And it’s like, ‘Is it going to go down well?’ But on this tour it’s the first time we’ve played some of the new songs and the response has been phenomenal, almost a buzz in itself.
What can we expect from BeatBullyz in 2011?
2011 is already looking amazing, and we’re just putting our finishing touches to the next set of tracks. Expect a lot of tours. Basically, it’s all about the new music this year.
What do you consider success for you at the moment?
If you had told me three years ago that we’d be playing one of the biggest arenas is the UK, supporting JLS and doing the arena tours, I don’t think I would have believed it. That’s what you dream about. But when you get to that point, the level of success steps up a level.
I think you can measure success at every step you take. I feel that we’ve been very successful, but, in my ambition as a musician and with the band, I know we can take this a lot further. And after finishing our first headline tour, which was smaller venues of like 500 people, we want to be going to the next level, and eventually doing the arenas, and taking it to the world. You always need that drive. I don’t think any artist can ever be satisfied because every time you get to a point, you want to get further.
interviewed by Aaron Bethune
Next week: Island A&R Louis Bloom on the remarkable breakthrough of Mumford & Sons
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