SoundOn presents MOBO UnSung Class of 2023: 'An opportunity like gold dust'

In what proved to be a landmark moment for iconic St. Albans grassroots music venue The Pioneer Club, the second SoundOn Session delivered a stellar array of live performances from some of the MOBO UnSung Class of 2023, topped off by a show-stopping set by top UK artist Wes Nelson.

Held on November 16, Nelson’s SoundOn Session set brought the curtain down on a night that showcased some of the finest and most exciting new talent rising to the top of the UK music scene. Following the inaugural SoundOn Session one month prior, which also shone a spotlight on the MOBO UnSung Class of 2023, the second installment provided another raft of artists spanning a variety of styles and genres.

For the uninitiated, SoundOn Sessions represents an innovative new partnership between Headliner Spaces and SoundOnTikTok’s all in one global distribution and marketing platform – aimed at championing the artists shaping the future of music by offering them the chance to perform at one of the UK’s premier grassroots venues in the form of The Pioneer Club.

Kicking things off was Gabriel Sanches, whose dominant stage presence and inimitable powerhouse of a voice combined elements of soul and rock to stunning effect.

Speaking to Headliner before his set, he hails the importance of initiatives like SoundOn Sessions as well as the support SoundOn has offered him in his career so far.

“Opportunities like this are the way an artist can develop at the start of their career,” he says. “In the ‘80s you would have these incredible singers who are 20 years old and have had 10,000 hours of experience doing singing at church or having lessons, and it’s the same thing with performances. Without venues and opportunities like this, artists can’t get their 10,000 hours. Without that you won’t have the experience to be where you should be.

“And being supported by SoundOn is crazy for me because the people who know me personally know that I am the most anti-social, anti-content creation person. I’ve always been like, ‘no I’m just doing music and nothing else’. Then I started talking to the guys at TikTok and SoundOn and understanding that this isn’t some forced thing that you have to do to get to where you want to be, it’s an opportunity to engage with your fans and express yourself. Just being in those rooms and having that shift in mindset has helped me to look at the process completely differently.”

Next up is West-London-based DEJA, whose bold and vibrant blend of Afro-pop influences make for what is undoubtedly one of the night’s most electrifying sets. Having started singing when she was 13, she has been making music ever since. And speaking to Headliner before her set, she says that SoundOn’s distribution model makes a huge difference for unsigned artists.

With SoundOn you get independence. It feels great to be able to trial music. Wes Nelson

“I’ve found that the main difference between releasing music through SoundOn and everybody else is the amount of information you get from SoundOn,” she says. “They make it really simple to understand. And the other difference is that you are releasing through TikTok so you are already there; you are arriving at the biggest part of the industry.

"It’s shown me that TikTok is a driving force behind not just music but the world right now. So, it’s been eye opening in that respect, and it’s super helpful.”

She continues: “I work so hard and to be supported and recognised by SoundOn feels really validating. If it wasn’t for opportunities like this there would be no artists. We need to practice, we need to feel what it’s like to perform, and this venue is a great place to gain that experience as it’s not too big, and it’s not too small. Opportunities like this are everything for artists.”

Shifting pace from the playful pop, singer-songwriter Josh Barry takes the stage complete with a full band and a voice as breath-taking in its beauty as it was in its power. Drawing influences from ‘70s soul and R&B through to contemporary rock and pop, his performance feels timeless in every respect.

“Nights like this with SoundOn getting involved are incredible,” he says. “It’s amazing to play alongside all these other great artists, so it’s a beautiful environment, and the industry being here is a huge opportunity. Really exciting.”

If it wasn’t for opportunities like SoundOn Sessions there would be no artists. DEJA

He also pays tribute to the support he’s received from SoundOn as a distribution platform.

SoundOn has been a huge support for me, just getting to meet the team and getting some great insights into how to make social media work for you,” he continues. “I’m not a big social media person, so they’ve helped me really get to grips with that world.

SoundOn and TikTok are really tapped into what’s going on and they are the gatekeepers to what’s happening out there. They have a wealth of knowledge that they have allowed me to learn from. I’m still learning but they have given me so many great insights and tips already. They also really helped me to get in front of a lot more people and helped me make my content more engaging to my audience.”

Following Barry is Ace Clvrk, whose genre-defying sound captures the crowd’s imagination from the moment he sets foot on the stage. Infusing alternative R&B, soul, and indie rock into something entirely his own, Clvrk’s performance is enchanting and intriguing in equal measure.

Talking to Headliner on the night, he too highlights the importance of events such as these for artistic development.

“These types of opportunities are massive for people at this stage of my career,” he explains. “I’m not going to be able to come and headline a venue like the Pioneer Club on my own, so to have the experience of performing here is invaluable. It’s really important to perform these kinds of shows as part of the journey.”

He also points to the freedom that the SoundOn platform offers to artists.

“They’ve helped massively with things like tips and tricks on how to use TikTok,” he elaborates. “If you are an artist today who doesn’t have an understanding of how to use social media, particularly TikTok, then you’re probably going to struggle to build a fanbase. The support they have given me with my release has been really good, and just helping to understand TikTok and how it works is huge. It’s a massive part of any artist’s repertoire now. You have to focus on it and being able to understand that has really helped.”

Opportunities like this are the way an artist can develop at the start of their career. Gabriel Sanches

The penultimate act of the evening is Young Athena. Bringing a highly charged stage presence, her quick-fire rap style gives a distinct edge to her unique brand of soul-infused pop and R&B. Brimming with confidence throughout, her natural stagecraft marks her as an artist to keep a very close eye on in 2024.

“The support that SoundOn has offered to the MOBO UnSung Class of 2023 has been essential for up-and-coming artists,” she tells Headliner ahead of her performance. “These types of opportunities and support don’t come very often, so when you are able to work with the likes of SoundOn and TikTok it is just an absolute pleasure. The advice they have given us on how to promote and market yourself is like gold dust.”

Which brings us to Nelson’s headline set. Closing out an evening that had been positively brimming with talent and artistry, his set, which features blistering renditions of hits such as Nice To Meet Ya and See Nobody, draws a rapturous response from the packed crowd. A surprise guest appearance from regular collaborator Ayo Beatz – who also headlined the first SoundOn Session – provides one of the event’s big highlights.

In conversation with Headliner after his performance, Nelson celebrated both the SoundOn Sessions initiative, as well as the role SoundOn has played in his career since leaving a major label to pursue an independent path.

“My first performances were good, but they were nowhere near what I’m doing now, and there is no cheat code for that,” he says. “Your singles might do well but that doesn’t develop you as an artist and a performer. And I started to get success at first during Covid so I couldn’t perform. So, shows like this – even though we’ve done things like The O2 with N-Dubz – are no less challenging. In fact, they are probably even more so.

It’s amazing to play alongside all these great artists, and the industry being here is a huge opportunity. Josh Barry

“You have to lift the crowd, and there isn’t that massive buzz where you have an arena of thousands of people,” he continues. “You have to really engage with the audience, and doing shows like this allows you to do those big performances so much better, because you learn how to engage the crowd. I call it crowbarring. If the vibe isn’t there when you first come on you have to crowbar it in. Nights like this help you learn to do that.”

“My journey with SoundOn has been enlightening,” he says. “My debut single was See Nobody and I released that with Universal Music, which was great, and we went on to do Nice To Meet Ya and Drive, all big smashes. But at the same time, as a creator, you want to have full creative control and freedom when it comes to what music you want to put out and when you want to put it out. And I felt like I just didn’t quite have that.

“With SoundOn you get that independence. It feels great to be able to trial music. I feel like my introduction to music was almost the wrong way around. I went straight in at the top and never got to experiment or play around with different genres. It just had to be hit, hit, hit. But now I feel like I can play around with what works for me and better understand who I am as an artist. It just feels great to be able to put out the music as I want it. It’s perfect for me.” 

You can read Headliner's interview with Nelson in full here

In addition to the superb performances at the latest SoundOn Session, another crucial component of the evening’s success is due to The Pioneer Club’s sound system, which is made up of eight JBL SRX910 line arrays, four SRX928S ground-stacked subs and four JBL PRX908 floor monitors.

Two PRX915 DJ monitors also feature at the venue, along with a Soundcraft Ui24 mixer.

Meanwhile, two JBL PRX912s are positioned on the VIP balcony as delays.

JBL’s presence at The Pioneer Club also reaches into its bar and mini performance area – The Suet Yard. Reimagined from its initial iteration as a communal canteen area, it is now a social, DJ and performance space, complete with a bar powered by Signature Brew and a JBL-powered PA system that can accommodate everything from DJ sets and stripped back and acoustic sessions for up to 200 people.

The full PA system consists of a selection of speakers from JBL’s PRX Series, including PRX915XLF subwoofers, PRX908 and IRX108BT loudspeakers, as well as a Soundcraft Ui24R mixer.

Nelson's headline set also marked the first show at The Pioneer Club to utilize the venue's brand-new LED wall and floor, courtesy of Leyard.

The advice SoundOn and TikTok have given me is like gold dust. Young Athena

"By deploying our products at forward-thinking places such as the Pioneer Club, it gives a medium to promote the next generation of music acts; it’s also socially responsible and, as with other organizations, might help steer one or two people into a career in technology or music that they might not otherwise have had the opportunity to embrace,” says Leyard's Luke Marler-Hausen.

Furthermore, a comprehensive Martin Lighting rig works to spotlight the artists and sets the mood on stage and throughout the venue, which includes compact beam moving heads, bright single-lens LED moving heads, bright single-lens LED PAR cans, bright single-lens color LED PAR can light fixtures, ultra-bright quad LED blinder fixtures and a JEM ZR35 fog machine.

A number of key music industry executives were quick to pay tribute to The Pioneer Club and its role as a hub for creatives. UK drum and bass outfit Rudimental, who headlined a sold out fundraiser for the venue earlier this year, said: "Helping to preserve grassroots venues is something we are passionate about, and by headlining this fundraiser at The Pioneer Club we want to help raise awareness of the venue, the charity, and all that it is striving to achieve in terms of music education, entertainment, and providing a safe creative place for young people."

Dani Simmonett of UTA (United Talent Agency) also commented on the production values in place at The Pioneer.

"It's easy to forget you're in a relatively small venue given the importance that's clearly been given to the overall production. The sound is crisp and clear, and acoustics have obviously been given a lot of thought as there does not seem to be the issues here that many smaller rooms have. I've had the opportunity of seeing a variety of artists with different setups at The Pioneer Club since the new rig went in, and it's working extremely well across the board."

Nich Sethi, head of UK Artist Services, TikTok UK, concluded: "I was super impressed with the sound as well as the lighting and stage setup. You can tell it's been thoughtfully put together with an artist first approach that made the whole experience so enjoyable from an audience perspective."