Interview with DUMI OBUROTA, manager for Tinie Tempah and MD at Disturbing London - Mar 7, 2011
“We did a presentation for the label letting them know how we built it up and what direction we wanted to take it creatively. That's when they wanted to sign us”
When British rapper Tinie Tempah (UK No.1) scooped two awards at last month’s Brit Awards it crowned an extraordinary 12 months that saw the 22-year-old hit UK #1 with his debut single and follow it up with five hit singles and a platinum-selling album. One of the most inspiring aspects of his dramatic break into the mainstream is that Tinie is a totally home-grown self-made star, who built his career from the ground up in collaboration with manager and cousin Dumi Oburota, this week’s interviewee.
The MD of label Disturbing London talks to HitQuarters about signing a major label deal on their own terms, funding a record company with student loans and wheeler-dealing, and about their vision of creating a quality brand and product that can compete with the majors.
Tinie Tempah has recently picked up two Brit awards - what does that mean to you?
It's recognition from the industry, but for me it just means that I have to keep on grinding. Tinie is not the first artist to win two Brits. This is really one year for us in the industry, this is only the start; some people are in the game for over two decades. You cannot rest on your laurels. I want to show people that we can do this for many years.
How did you first get started in the music industry?
As a kid I used to sing but I didn't really think I was the best and so decided to go behind the scenes. I then started managing a friend - we were just mucking around. After that I met my little cousin Tinie - he was interested in music and was good so I decided to set up a record label, recorded some music with him and decided to put it out ourselves.
What were the first steps when you started working with him?
T had a great Myspace following - this was in 2005 and he had like one million followers. I thought, ‘That's incredible! If you have that many followers, let's press up 10,000 records.’ So I did that but I didn't have a distributer. Luckily I found one and we started selling them to shops and I put my name on the Myspace to get bookings around England.
How did you find the distributor?
I had a legal advisor and he introduced me to a manufacturer that could press up the CDs and through the manufacturer I met the distributor.
What was it that generated all the attention at the beginning of Tinie's career?
That was through an underground hit he had with the song ‘Wifey’. That track got played on TV and radio and created a lot of heat and Myspace hits at the beginning. The word was being spread on the internet and radio.
But there was no actual release?
Not officially, no - it was just an underground thing with a low-budget video. We continued networking and plugging the songs. I was going into radio stations trying to get interviews and to get DJs to play the music. Then I convinced Tinie to start up a blog to control his fan base. With the blog he got around 9,000 hits a day and from there we got a lot of bookings around the UK.
When you got involved was the music already there?
In 2008 I started to take it a bit more seriously and moved into an office space and built a studio in there. That's when Tinie started to record a proper album - a commercial album -that we could release independently. I sourced beats from DJs and underground producers in the UK and we recorded about 12 songs.
After [Tinie performed at] the Wireless Festival I got a call from a record label. At that point I had been doing it for three years - putting out records independently, recording music, releasing videos, networking and all of that. So when the label came about I wasn't really into signing Tinie directly to the label and so said, “You know what, why don't we just license the record to you, rather than you guys coming in and messing up all the hard work we’ve put in?” That was the initial reaction.
Did you always work with a plan and a vision?
Yeah, always. I wanted to release quality music as an independent label, and make a good product that can compete with the major labels. We were an independent label that tried to do major label things.
We were making quality videos like ‘Tears’ and ‘Hood Economics’; these videos were top at the time. We’d spent about £10,000 and because I was networking with the production company, we got a video with the production value of at least £30,000. It looked like Tinie was signed already. The vision was always to package it well, make a product that people can buy into, and one that was as polished as possible.
How did you finance the videos and the setting up of the record label in the beginning?
Lots of it was our savings - my business partner and me were buying and selling cars - and student loans.
As you invested a lot of money in the videos early on, you must have been convinced that videos were an essential factor in building up the heat?
Yeah, it made a difference to a certain degree. There was one video channel who played the video and we got on MTV one time. It made a difference in how people saw him. If you have a good video, people will look at it and be, ‘Wow, look at that!’ and it helped the word-of-mouth thing, but not as much as we thought. I would say it definitely had an impact on the brand of Tinie Tempah.
I read that in the very beginning you went to MIDEM ...
I went there to network and wanted to see if I could get any support or somebody to license records for another country. I sat in one of the seminars and in that they spoke about social networking and controlling your fan base that's when I gave Tinie the advice to set up a blog.
It was good to see on an international level that you can meet people hear their stories and see that there's still a business, because sometimes you can think that there's no business left in the music business. And when you go there you can see people are still surviving; there are different revenue streams, and there is not only one way you can do things.
How was the blog used to cultivate his fanbase?
We set up a blog called ‘Milk and 2Sugars’. He recorded his progress and what he was doing like, for example, recording in the studio etc. He would review things like trainers and things he’s into; just basically bringing in his character, letting people know what he loves. Sometimes it's not all just about music, it's about people liking you as a brand and as a character.
I heard that Live Nation and BBC 1Xtra jumped on board quite early, how did that happen?
Through the underground following and the DJs playing the music, BBC 1Xtra supported us when they had events.
Through my distributor we met a booking agent from Live Nation. Tinie was not known at the time but he had over a million Myspace views and so they thought he must be doing something right. They also really liked the song ‘Tears’ and thought the project has massive potential so have been supporting him from the start. They booked him for the O2 Wireless Festival two years consecutively.
What was the idea behind starting up your own label?
Obviously we wanted to have a platform to put out our music and there wasn't any Def Jam or Roc-A-Fella label equivalent in England. I wanted to create a major independent label with quality artists - cool music that young Britain and the rest of the world will enjoy. I felt like the major labels had lost the passion for music.
How is your label set up?
I’ve got two assistants and a sound engineer working for me. We have an office and a studio in east London, a clothing line called Disturbing London Apparel and Disturbing Sounds Publishing.
Are you looking for new artists for your label?
Yes, definitely! We just signed another rapper called G-FrSH - he just got signed to Parlophone.
What actually are you looking for?
I want something groundbreaking. I'm developing a few acts at the moment.
Are you interested in people sending you stuff?
Yeah, definitely, always! I'm always listening to new stuff trying to find the new thing.
How did the connection with Parlophone happen?
One of their A&Rs was at the Wireless shows because one of their acts was performing there (MPHO). At that time we were on about 9,000 hits (profile views) a day. Their artist was going on stage after Tinie, but before Tinie got on stage there were already 3,000 kids waiting in front of the tent because he’d blogged that he was going to be performing. When he finished performing everyone just left, and so the A&R guy was like, ‘Who is he?!’ He got on the phone and gave me a call.
How were the first meetings with Parlophone?
I went to see Nathan [Thompson], the A&R, and I played him some music and he was blown away. He brought down his boss Miles [Leonard] (HQ interview) to the studio. We had been recording a lot of content from when we were travelling around the UK and so we played him a video of the performances and the reaction of the kids. Then we did a presentation for the label and that's when they wanted to sign us.
What did the presentation for the label include?
It was basically letting them know what we’d been doing the past three years, how we built it up and what direction we wanted to take it creatively, and that we needed them to facilitate it. I was trying to show them where it could go if they would understand it. We handed them a printout with all the impressions and a timeline where we saw things going. The whole label was behind us from that point. And now, here we are today half a million sold ...
Do you remember exactly what was on the printout?
Statistics of all the profile views, what his demographic was, forecasts … things like that.
How did you convince them to give you a label deal and not just an artist deal?
They could see that we’d developed Tinie; I’d recorded 12 tracks, we had the studio, we had the office. We were self-sufficient and by that point we’d networked with a lot of DJs as well. So we had a bit of a set-up and so it was like, “You know what, we know what we are doing here, we are already playing major festivals like Wireless and have an album recorded.” So they signed an album and obviously we recorded more songs and ended up using none of the tracks.
So at the moment, how do the responsibilities divide up between Parlophone and yourself?
They do all the marketing and they have the machine to push the record, do the press and things like that. We bring the music. It's a partnership. They facilitate and make it happen.
Is the Parlophone A&R deciding which songs are going to be used?
No, we’ve got a lot of creative control. They know the angle we are coming from. But that doesn't mean we don't take advice from them. If they hear something and don't like it then we listen to them because they have a lot of experience in that world. They learn from us, we learn from them.
How do you decide on a single?
The energy, the vibe. Obviously it has to be catchy. You know when you hear it - it's all in the gut.
Would you say there was a noticeably big difference once Parlophone stepped in?
The work ethic or creative part hasn't changed but in terms of the people that we can reach with their massive infrastructure it makes a big difference to where you can put your record with a small label. Instead of five people in the office working a record they have 150 people working a record. And on an international level it's a different ballgame, too.
If you had to start all over again what would you do different, and what would you advise an artist to do?
I would do the same. I would keep it fresh and natural - do things that you love and that you're passionate about. Everything that I try to get involved in I try to be a fan of and if I'm a fan of it I put my passion into it and hopefully I will get to point where the artist is successful.
I want to break down doors. I don't want to conform to any rules like when people say, ‘This is the way things need to be.’ I don't think that's it - you can always change your own game and your destiny.
What is the main income in the moment?
Touring, the brand Tinie Tempah and obviously record sales. Merchandise clothing collaborations ... your artist has to be a brand.
So how do you turn an artist into a brand?
You just have to have brand awareness; it's how you carry yourself, how you look, what you talk about and what you stand for. It's a lifestyle that you represent. It's about culture.
Did you analyse this from a marketing point of view in the beginning?
No, it's not manufactured, it's about what your natural attributes are.
When you look at UK and US popular music scenes, what do you see as the main differences?
I don't really see any difference. We talk about the same things, it's the same struggle, the same stories. The world is becoming smaller through the internet.
What was your greatest moment so far?
It has to be the Brits, and getting to #1, getting platinum on the first record. There has been a lot of great moments, it couldn't be better!
What's the plan for the near future?
To take Disturbing London to the world.
interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Legendary songwriter Billy Mann on how he would break into the music industry today
Read On ...
* Parlophone president Miles Leonard on signing Tinie Tempah
* Head of XL Richard Russell on Dizzee's vision
* Producer Fraser T Smith on helping Tinchy Stryder cross the grime/mainstream divide
* A&R Louis Bloom on being respected in your scene before crossing over
* Skewby is another rapper building his own career with his manager