FAITH & REBELLION
LOVE LEE TALKS TO BENNY SCARRS
My first Loveblog of 2015 is an interview with Island Records A&R Manager Mr Benny Scarrs. Our conversation takes me through a timeline of his career starting with his teenage years, becoming interested in music because it was ‘against the rules’, working his way up through the industry and following his gut. I got a very real sense of his journey, almost as if I was a fly on the wall. I was pretty much on the edge of my seat throughout the entire interview!
A word of warning though: If you want to hear that creating a space for yourself in the music industry is smooth sailing, then this blog is not for you. However, if you want to understand the ‘nitty gritty’ of the music industry, this will make for an interesting, un-sugar coated read.
Love: “Name three music influences during your teenage years.”
Benny: “Definitely a lot of Garage music during my teenage years. It was as I got into year 7 in 1995. It was a massive part of youth culture at that time. Everyone in my school was completely obsessed with Garage and it felt like it was the first time that we were allowed to really own music for ourselves if you know what I mean. So I would say the early Garage records.
A lot of UK Hip Hop: I used to listen to Task Force, Bury Crew, Jehst, Braintax, Skinny Man and all these kind of artists.
I was also completely obsessed with the East Coast, New York Hip Hop scene, like a lot of the Rawkus Records stuff; I was massively into Nas, Mobb Deep, Slick Rick, Big L, those kind of artists…”
Love: “Hmm, the lyrical architects…”
Benny: “Yeah I loved the lyrical, the primo productions, the real storytellers and the lyricists. After that it was a transition into Grime really.”
Love: “When did you know that you wanted to be in the music industry?”
Benny: “I always liked music and always sort of involved with music. At school, you know, you do school raves, stuff like that and I would always be front and centre of it, just organising, promoting, DJ-ing or finding DJ’s. I was just into it. I think it starts because, actually, it just seems like it’s what the ‘cool people’ do even though it didn’t offer any qualifications. Then I started hanging out at pirate radio stations.”
“It had that sense of feeling like you were on the cutting edge of something, a bit dangerous, rebellious and something that was totally ungoverned by any responsible adult. I just loved it.”
The thought of it as a career wasn’t until I started going down to my cousin’s studio down in Deptford. He was producing, and I mean properly producing: he had a studio and was right next door to a producer called Sticky who had obviously done all the Miss Dynamite stuff. Seeing that was probably the first time I thought: ‘Wow, OK. These people are actually making a living out of creating music out of a studio.’ I couldn’t understand how they’d learnt to do this. It’s one thing playing an instrument, but going in the studio and crafting a sound, creating a record, recording, writing a song: all of these things just seemed like the most amazing things in the world to me. I didn’t think that I would actually be able to see, first hand, somebody doing that kind of stuff. So I was fascinated by that and again, I don’t think I necessarily put two and two together and thought that I was going to have a career in music, but I definitely took a lot of time to just go to Deptford on the train and just spend time around it. Again, it was just an extension of the pirate radio thing but it felt a little bit more official and I was actually seeing somebody that has made money, got a big studio, has a car and bought a house from music. That was probably round 2003. I was about eighteen.
From there, I started actively looking for more things in and around the city for doing music. I did my GCSE’s and did quite well. I didn’t study music. Then I did my A levels, which I didn’t do well at all in. I applied for university to study Leisure and Tourism and I think I got into London Met and Brighton University, but I just thought: ‘why am I going to do this?’ I just picked any course because everyone was applying for university. I thought: ‘I’ve got really whack grades in my A levels, what do I actually like doing?’ I think it was at that point that I thought, maybe, I should just go back to college and study music.
So that’s what I did. I went to a music college in Hoxton called Point Blank. I had been making beats by then. One of my mum’s friends had given me a copy of Reason when I was 16 and I had watched my cousins. One of my best friends had a show that I would always go to. I was just a spectator of all of these things and I decided that I wanted to get involved.”
“I absolutely loved it at college. I used to go in on all my days off and use the studio, use the equipment, practice, ask questions. I was very driven. I know that I used to make such whack music back then but I wanted it so much.”
“Then I started looking for other things I could simultaneously get involved in whilst I was at college. I found an event called The Jump Off, which was a battle night. I had been to a few other nights before. There was one called Lyric Pad, which was in Camden; Deal Real, a record store in Carnaby Street was another one.
When I talked about being into the UK rap scene, this is where you could see these guys perform live and direct.
2004: Benny starts promoting for The Jump Off
The Jump Off seemed like a more established event. They seemed like a bigger, more encompassing event where they did more than just rap battles. I went down on my own one night and just stayed till the end. I wanted to try and find out who ran it so that I could get involved. That was it really. I met this guy called Ara and his brother Harry. They honestly gave me my first opportunity to get involved with the music industry. I began by handing out flyers and that’s how it started.
Love: “Cool, you’ve got to start somewhere and that was your initial foot in the door of the music industry. What happened after you began working at The Jump Off?”
Benny: “There was a period of time that I was juggling a few jobs so I was working at The Jump Off and worked my way up to Talent Coordinator which was about finding rappers, dancers and other acts to come and perform on the night. I would go to different events and shows to scout other people, building relationships and networking. I was DJ-ing, I was working at The Dairy in Brixton as a runner, which was a studio. I was also teaching kids, doing music workshops in various settings. That was just to earn a bit of money. It was the only money that I was earning; just cash in hand stuff that I would do on the weekends and on some evenings just to sort of keep things ticking over. I did those three or four things for maybe two years.
Love: “So when did things start to come together?”
A camera man that I knew then suggested that I try and get into a label because I had a good ear for music, was out there finding talent and some of the artists that had gone through The Jump Off had gone off and got deals. Professor Green had signed to The Beats, Mr Hudson had got a deal with Mercury, there were a few people doing a few things, making some noise and stuff like that so I started investigating it and decided that I would love to work for a record label but I hadn’t met anyone who worked at a label. I thought that record labels were like RCA, Def Jam and Arista, the labels that you read on the back of CD’s and that.
I started sending my CV off to labels but didn’t get any response. I tried to find people’s emails online but, again, got no response. There were no internship programs advertised on any record label websites, if you could even find a record label website. This wasn’t in like 1993, this was in 2005, but still, it feels like such a long time ago in terms of the fact that companies have such high profiles on the internet now and its very easy to find Universal or whoever. It wasn’t like that at all before.
He then met someone who worked for Mercury, he put me in touch with them, I sent my CV in and they replied saying that there may be a work experience position at Island Records going, but I would have to interview for it. They said they would put my CV forward and if Island Records liked it, they would contact me. I then got a call saying that I would get interviewed.
Love: “It sounds so straight forward when you put it like that but it isn’t. Especially, like you said, when it was far more difficult to get in contact with labels. How did you prepare for the interview?”
“I remember going to Gap because I felt like I needed to buy some neutral looking clothes. I couldn’t go in with a hoodie. I thought about it so much, did so much research on Island Records and I drafted literally all the questions that I thought they might ask me so that I was overly prepared. I even went down the day before and looked at the building so that I knew even how long it would take me to get there and I felt like it was such a massive opportunity. I knew, in fact, I knew in my gut that I needed to get this position even though it was only a one month unpaid work experience placement, I just knew that this is what I needed to do.”
2006: Benny interns for Island Records
“I went from thinking ‘ yeah maybe’ to thinking ‘there is nothing else in the world that I need to do right now other than get this position and get into a building like that.”
“That was it. I did the interview. They hardly asked me anything! A lady called Sarah Boorman, who still works here, interviewed me for the job. She went through my CV, asked me a few random things and I left and went back to The Jump Off office that day. Before I had even got back to their office, I got a call from Island Records asking if I can start that Wednesday. That was Monday September 11th 2006.”
Love: “That must have been an amazing feeling! How long have you been in your current role?”
Benny: “Yeah. It was a big deal. They extended it from one month to four months unpaid. Then they offered me a marketing assistant position. That was how it all started.
I’ve been A&R Manager since 2008.”
Love: “It is definitely something that you need to be sure of and decide that you’re just going to go for it and dedicate yourself to it.”
Benny: “It’s one of those situations where, again, I see loads of people come in here and you can tell straight away those who are going to stick it out, will fit in, their personalities are going to work, their dedication, their drive is going to work. A lot of this, I guess is about social intelligence more than a deep education. It’s about getting the vibe of what it is to be in this type of job. You look around and see people talking, coming up with ideas or just having a chat about nothing in particular because, actually, that’s where some of the best ideas come from. I genuinely spend my whole days having conversations with people and just going back and forth. It never particularly starts as a really full discussion about a specific topic, but great ideas come out of those places. I think there’s a misconception that you need to actively think about working really hard but you don’t really need to think about that. You just need to be out and about.”
Love: “What would you say has been your most memorable hurdle?”
Benny: “Do you know what? There have been so many hurdles and loads of things that I could pick out. Obviously, that’s how life goes. There’s always challenge after challenge. When you’re young, you kind of think that if you get over that one hurdle, then it will be plain sailing but it doesn’t really go like that. There are always obstacles even if you are a millionaire doing your dream job, there are still going to be obstacles. It’s all relative.
I would say the most poignant thing for me that I always think back to and remind myself of is just being so broke, having no money and doing all the things that you have to do to pay your rent just so that you can have an opportunity to work in music. I was signing on, getting housing benefits and running all over the place trying to do all the unpaid work that I was doing. Also, making the sign on date every week and just juggling it all. It was hard. I think that was a big challenge for me at the time. I talk about that because I see a lot of young people now who want to be in music. Everyone always wants to be comfortable and wants to have enough money to go on holiday and buy this and buy that. I get all that but you know what? The sacrifice part of it, not when you’re going through it, but when it actually pays off, is probably the most satisfying and rewarding feeling ever. I have to remind myself of that because it’s easy to forget and to think: ‘Aah, I want to do this, but, I’m not going to put myself through that because of x, y and z.’ It was really Ara and Harry that taught me a lot about that: being super focused on your work. I don’t want to say that I don’t have a life and to put yourself through hell, but it just depends on how much you want it. If you decide that you want it that much then you just have to make those kind of choices and decisions.”
“I would say that was one of the biggest hurdles because you are literally walking down a dark tunnel and you have no idea when someone is going to turn around and say to you: ‘Here’s a job and here’s some money. That’s the hardest thing ever.”
Love: “I guess it’s about knowing yourself, knowing what you are capable of and taking action on only the things that you can control. Once you’ve done that, you get to the next level, and the next level after that. Slowly but surely you’re placing the pieces of the puzzle together. What do you think the secret is?”
Benny: “Yeah I think it’s about an absolutely unwavering amount of faith because, as the definition of faith is, you don’t ever know if you’re going to reach your destination, but you start the journey anyway. That’s important. Most people that we look up to, aspire to and who are incredibly successful in whatever it is that they do, and I don’t mean financially I just mean whatever it is they have been trying to do, have probably done that, 99 times out of 100, on faith. Their path has not been laid out for them, they haven’t been able to see the finish line, but they just believe that this is what they are here to do. That’s it. I think that so many people defeat themselves by not really taking those steps. They do it half-heartedly, half step on it and then wonder why it doesn’t work out. If they look in the mirror they know it’s because they didn’t put their all into it. It’s the hardest thing, but also the most amazing thing.”
Love: What has been your biggest learning curve?”
Benny: “It’s funny because I’ve probably learned a lot more from the hard times and the failures post having that early success than I did even going through all that great stuff, you come off the back of that. I’ve had some success in other things as well but, amongst all of that, there are some acts that I have had that have not worked and some things that have been difficult. When things don’t work, as a team, everyone can point fingers at each other and shift the blame. When you put your pride and ego to the side and just look at yourself and ask yourself what you have learnt out of all of this, you start to realise how psychological the job is and how much it is about how you communicate with people. No one teaches you how to communicate. That’s not a lesson on the school curriculum. It’s probably something that comes from your social environment or home environment as a child. You grow and develop that. I looked at myself so much in terms of how you, not in a manipulative way, but how you get people to do what you want them to do. To listen and be able to have great discussions, great differences but ultimately you’re all focused on the same end goal. So you don’t necessarily fall out or take things personally, you always bring it back to the fact that you’re all trying to achieve something here. That was a massive learning curve for me because I am a proud person and I wouldn’t say I am naturally that patient. I think: ‘why don’t we just do this?’ and then not everyone else gets it. Not everyone is going to react the same way to your frustration. Sometimes, you can shout at someone and then can understand what you’re saying and they can turn it around. Sometimes, it can send people completely the other way. It becomes about understanding people, listening and using your perception. So many things that you just never think about when you enter into the music industry and as long as I know what a hit record is then it’s cool. No. That’s one part of it. There are so many other parts to it. You know what? You’ve got to be so brutally honest with people. I would never say I’ve not been honest, but it’s just how quickly you decide to be honest and tell it how it is. When you’re talking about somebodies art, you can offend people really easily. It’s never nice and it’s not in us, as humans, to want to offend someone.”
Love: “What has been your proudest moment?”
Benny: “The proudest moment for me was actually when I was working with Tinchy and we had a record called ‘Take Me Back’ and I just really wanted to have a hit record. I had no idea of the process of the music industry goes or what would happen, radio playlists or any of that when we made this record. We were just out here on a hope and a prayer because we had already put out one song, which flopped and I knew I only had one chance left. So we put this record out.
Tinchy Stryder Ft Taio Cruz: ‘Take Me Back’ video
I remember just sitting there on that Sunday night when it went live on the i-tunes chart and just refreshing the i-Tunes chart page and watching it go up and up and up and up and thinking: ‘Ok, oh wow it’s top 100.’ Then top 80, 75, 50. I remember us ringing the managers and acting like little kids who just couldn’t contain their excitement and then it went to number 3. It was mad! That changed my life drastically and really quickly. There are obviously other milestones in your life like being in the studios in Deptford and having an epiphany, or getting that amazing opportunity at The Jump Off and working for two years and ending up with Island Records through getting a work experience position. You take a step up, you work and you build. But when something like THAT happens, everything in my life changed for me. It was very surreal because Tinchy, myself and his management were all of similar ages and it just felt mad.”
Love: “What three pieces of advice to someone wanting to get into an A&R position?”
Benny: “There are several things:
Be really socially smart with the way that you network because A&R is probably the most over-subscribed part of the music industry in terms of people trying to get into it. But when you check the players that are in it, they have all been involved for ages, there aren’t loads of new faces. Lots of people try. When I say ‘be smart in the way that you network’, people just want to work with people who they get along with and who they think are cool, ultimately. That’s what it comes down to.
- Of course, having good taste in music: that’s the difficult part because I don’t believe that you can learn that. You either have good taste because you’re telling me about the records that you’ve listened to for the last fifteen years and I get it and relate to it…or not! That actually happened to me. I met an A&R person a while ago and I just wasn’t for them. We just weren’t on the same wavelength. It didn’t mean that there wasn’t a career for me within this industry it just meant that it was never going to be over there working with him. I would have been barking up the wrong tree if I kept hounding the same person. So, you’ve got to work out who are the people, the labels, the managers, the lawyers, the promoters that you would get along with and have some common ground with and that you feel you slip into a bit of a network with and make them feel like: ‘this person is really cool, I get along with this person, they’ve got good taste and they seem smart, intelligent and can articulate themselves in the right way.’
“Everybody is selfish in this life whether you think you are or not. There’s nothing wrong with it. We all do things for a reason. If you want a job from someone, you’ve got to work out what they want.”
They would want to best scout who is going to be so on point and so efficient that they could just trust them with their life and know that when you speak to someone, you will do it in exactly the same way they would and win them over and make them feel like they can trust you. When I look at people that are way more senior to me and think that I want Jay Brown, who manages Rihanna and Jay Z to pick up my phone calls more and not just say hello when he sees me. Does that mean I need to keep trying to contact him or does it mean I need to go away and do some more work over here, build myself up and then come back.
- Don’t get frustrated when people don’t reply to your emails or when you have a meeting and they don’t get what they want out of it. There is this sense of being owed something. I do get it but the world is not really a fair place like that and the truth of the matter is that if you were out there doing what you needed to do and spending more of your time building up your experience and doing all the work for free and adding to your CV, you’d get to a position where you become undeniable and it’s not about trying to get an interview for a job, it’s about them needing to see you about a job, like being recommended by successful people in the industry and your name keeps popping up. It’s connecting the dots. That’s just how it is. It’s really easy if you get it, it’s really hard if you don’t. That sounds like the most stupid thing in the world to say, but that’s just how it is.”
“Nothing that is meant for you will pass you by, I truly believe that. You can’t see it, but that is why you have to have faith.”
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by: Love Lee | January 28, 2015 | News