Music News

UD chair and CEO on the future for grassroots talent and industry takeover festival

Headliner has spoken to UD founder and CEO Pamela McCormick and newly appointed chair Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE about the youth music organisation’s continued efforts to support young people from black and underrepresented groups in their pursuit of a career in music, as well as its upcoming Industry Takeover festival.

Being held for the first time in UD’s new state-of-the-art east London HQ, the Talent House, March 27-April 2, the Industry Takeover is co-curated by UD’s community of aspiring artists and creatives. This year’s edition sees the expansion of the event from a one-day seminar to a week-long festival, featuring workshops, conversations, and performance opportunities, all aimed at ‘equipping the next generation of music and professional talent with the tools they need to navigate and build alliances within the music business’. Tickets for all events are free.

With over 20 events planned, the week starts with an In Conversation with 0207 Def Jam founders, the twins Alex and Alec Boateng, chaired by BBC Correspondent, Chi Chi Izundu, whilst Jacqueline Springer, Curator Africa & Diaspora: Performance at the Victoria & Albert Museum, will interview Ray BLK, UD’s first ambassador. Completing the trio of ‘In Conversations’ is the UK’s first dedicated race correspondent, Nadine White from The Independent, and Athian Akec, member of the UK Youth Parliament and an active campaigner on knife crime, Brexit and climate change.

The focus on community development and Black music culture continues with Music Against Racism, who will stage their own takeover of the festival on March 31, collaborating with the Rio Ferdinand Foundation, UD and Warner Music UK in a series of workshops and discussions. There will be a panel with top A&R executives looking at how different generations of emerging and established artists can work together to create a more empowered landscape and stay relevant to enjoy sustainable careers in music.

Multi-platinum producer TSB (J Hus, Dave, Headie One) will deliver a Production Masterclass powered by The Flight Club; Music Entrepreneur of the Year at the Young Music Boss Awards, Finesse Foreva, will take part in a Q&A hosted by the MMF; and a series of interactive workshops will be provided by experts from PPL and PRS for Music as well as grime artist and founder of influential label Butterz, Elijah, and TikTok.

We sat down with McCormick and Imafidon to find out more about UD’s plans for the year ahead and the biggest challenges facing the grassroots sector today…

The model works. And we are in a stronger position now with Talent House. Pamela McCormick, founder and CEO, UD

Firstly, congratulations on your new role, Anne-Marie. How does it feel to be the new UD chair?

Anne-Marie: It feels fantastic, especially as I’ve been around for about 11 years! I’m a very proud East Londoner, so to be able to represent and be in this position I’m super excited and happy about.

For anyone who may not be familiar with UD, how did it come into being and what has been its journey up to the present day?

Pamela: The organisation started in the late ‘90s through my working with a collective of hip hop musicians and I previously worked with jazz musicians, and I felt that more needed to be done to support grassroots music. And because I’d worked with quite high profile people, I thought I could use my experience and expertise to support them. It started off as a night at the Jazz Café with turntablism and the best of London session musicians, and it grew into an education programme. The artists were designing the education programme they would have liked to have had themselves in the ‘70s. In the beginning it was very much community music, connecting directly with the hip hop community.

We were initially supported by some funders that made us think we were on to something and it grew from there. The journey of the organisation across that 25 year trajectory probably reflects how black music has developed also, starting from hip hop directly connecting an audience in community settings and London venues, through to garage, grime and pop music. And our partnerships have reflected that progression also.

We now work with the music industry as the industry is increasingly thinking about talent pipeline. I guess we have honed our mission where our aspiration is now to be a national youth music organisation. A centre of excellence for black music culture supporting young people experiencing racial inequality and socio-economic disadvantage to progress towards sustainable careers in music.

Anne-Marie, what is your history with UD?

Anne-Marie: I joined UD in 2012 as a trustee via a scheme that was matching young professionals with arts organisations. I was working in the city at that point, and for me it was bit of a matching process and I was learning about what trusteeship was, what governance looked like. I came in with this as my first trusteeship and first board experience and since then have seen all sorts of things happen to the organisation and in life.

We are doing all of this to the backdrop of London having the Olympics in 2012. There is also the transformation around Stratford and East London as a result of what we could call the legacy of the Olympics and the gentrification of the area. So, it’s been great to see how we’ve been able to provide these opportunities and services for an industry like this that has gone through its own transformation. A lot has gone on in the last 11 years. Talent House has been a really big thing to be involved with as a trustee, to see a big capital project like that, building this national centre of excellence. There is a lot I’ve got to see over the past 11 years. There is a lot of hard slog behind the scenes, and we’ve seen different artists making their way through UD programmes and ending up as recognised names in the industry. Now as chair it’s a new era. We have a new membership model for Talent House and I’m excited to see what we can do at a national level. I’m really excited to be at the helm!

Tell us about Talent House – what does it represent for UD and the merging music community?

Pamela: It was at least seven years ago we first had the idea. It was a £4.1 million development shared with our partners East London Dance and it takes a while to make that kind of money. The build itself was less than a year, and the actual building was finished in March and the studios installed in May.

The brief was to create something aspirational for young people. There are five recording studios, a live room with an acoustic baby grand, a media lab with 21 Macs, a music room that combines as a rehearsal space, events space and teaching space, and there is a members hub that we share with East London Dance. It was high-spec, top of the range kit, but the proposition is that this is a resource not typically available to young people and emerging professionals. We wanted to show that young people deserve investment, and once it’s built, the idea was to open the doors to young people and create that sense of ownership. If you speak to some of those young people they will say, ‘this is our space’.

Th next step is industry engagement. That’s the purpose for doing Industry Takeover there. We want to do more in getting the industry over and the hope is that over time they will rent space for songwriting camps and things like that, so we get that crossover of industry and young people crossing paths.

How do people access the facilities at Talent House?

Pamela: There are a few different strands. Firstly, there is our programme, which is free, and our pipeline programme includes school outreach, youth access, the Flames Collective which is a programme for people under 18 to write, perform and rehearse regularly together. We have a partnership with the University of East London, an incubator and accelerator programme which are more selection-based, so they are more curated with the intention that people move through the pipeline and are industry ready if you go all the way through.

We have expanded the programme in the building to include youth access activity. We are rolling out some new things like a summer school, a monthly open mic night, we’ve run quite a few free studio access sessions. And there is the membership programme, which is very accessible in terms of price point. It’s £10 per month to join on the first tier and the second tier is £25 per month, which comes with extra benefits. So, we are giving people co-working space, access to studios, access to mentors, showcases, seminars… it’s a highly subsidised programme.

What are some of the tangible benefits these services have provided?

Pamela: Each programme has its own outcomes, things like transferable social skills, musical output. We have a very well-developed framework to track people’s journeys and progression from one step to the next. That might mean, in the case of our Level 4 accredited qualifications, you can continue at university to finish a full degree. For artists, we are tracking over time whether people are being upstreamed into development deals. We have a partnership with Universal, where we give small pots of money to release singles and EPs with a view to 10-20% being upstreamed into a deal at Universe.

Talent development takes a long time and there are no quick fixes. The most notable alumni include people like Little Simz; Alex Boateng, we supported him to be referred to an urban music bursary the BBC was running; Rebecca Wren is now at Apple Music as a music editor. Those are a few people who show the model works, and we are in an even stronger position to do more things like that now that we have Talent House. We’re hoping to do even more of that employment progression moving forward.

Through the membership programme we will be able to do more around workforce. More recently we had been focused on artist development to demonstrate that the black music sector needs sustained development in the way that exists in schools for western classical music. But we will definitely be doing more schemes that support people to move into jobs with the major employers.

Anne-Marie: That was one of the things that drew me to UD at the beginning. There is so much we can say about supporting future artists, but this is about supporting the industry as a whole. There can often be so much of a focus on the artist that we forget all the others that are important in making that happen. This has been a core principle in UD’s work as long as I have been a part of it.