Every month Byta’s founder, Marc Brown, sits down for an in-depth one-to-one Zoom conversation with someone who provides deep music industry insights and tips.
#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation is designed to deliver the knowledge to enable tomorrow’s artists and industry leaders to better manoeuvre their way through the music ecosystem.
This episode’s guest was Junior Foster, the former Head Of Global Artist Relations at Deezer. He is now the Head Of Global Artist Relations at Napster. Junior works directly with artists, labels and managers to lead and organize artist marketing campaigns across all major and independent labels. What are the best practices when working with digital streaming platforms? How do artists and their teams incorporate streaming into a music marketing plan? What about playlists, how effective can they be? This conversation goes deep into the art and passion required to make it and make great music.Sign up to Byta for free
Part II of III
In part II (below), Junior talks about music discovery and keeping his “good ears” to the ground for the next big thing. Live is incredibly important at informing how the music connects with audiences, so there are many many shows to be seen. Junior gives a few examples of Deezer’s artist discovery process and their approach to their own creative projects.
It should be noted that Junior went over and above by being a part of this edition of #HowWeListen Live: In Conversation. He was speaking to Marc from the hospital where his son, Oscar, had just been born days earlier, mid-COVID crisis.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Marc Brown: One thing that I remember from when I did radio was that a lot of the time, people think, “Oh, people just got to radio stations and say – play this,” or that it’s one-way traffic. What I like about what you are saying is the idea of a conversation. Ultimately that is the key to success. I’m guessing you are certainly not sitting around waiting for someone to email you about a new artist or band or record. Tell me about some of the ways you find music… because the whole idea of our series #HowWeListen is that everybody’s different, so you could do your job a certain way, but maybe someone else on your team does it a different way. What do you like to do to find new music when it is not just coming to you across your desk?
Junior Foster: I am a lover of music, and I know a lot of people say that, but it’s the truth for me. Sometimes it’s quite difficult to balance because now I’ve got a second child here and I am happily married, but I go to a lot of gigs. I think I regularly averaged on a typical week, pre-pandemic, about three gigs a week. I’m in and out all the time. When I say I’m at gigs, I will go for the support act as well, just to keep an eye out. I like to see what’s going on.
Festivals are always a great place for me. I’m so happy that live music is back again because we need that. The industry needs that, and musicians need that too. And then other ways I find music are the team that I have around me, my friends and the associates that I have around. It is constant.
There is never a point when I’m not listening to something, someone has just sent me something, or I am asking about an artist I’m hearing rumblings about. For me, that is me being out, people pinging things to me all the time. Like I could quite comfortably walk past my cousin and be like, “What are you listening to, mate?” (my cousin is what I could call a youngin’), and ask, “What’s going on in your world?” If he tells me about this new sound that’s happening and tells me to have a listen, I’ll listen to it. I’m constantly sucking up sounds at a gig or at a festival. I’m around a lot. That’s the only way you can pick up music, be outdoors and have your ears open and allow yourself to leave the door open and let the music in.
Marc: Let’s just assume you’re out, and so, for those three gigs, do you know all the artists playing on them already? Is it that common? Or are there a couple of the supports that you’ve never heard of?
Junior: Ya, it could be that way, definitely. My team covers different disciplines, so you know everyone looks after a different account. That could be artists on major labels or my small team that looks after indies. They’re always talking about, “Oh, we’ve got this new artist coming along that’s being released on one of the smaller indie labels,” and I’ll be like, “Ya, I’ll come!” and I’ll just turn up, I’ll come and say hello to the representative, and we’ll go and listen and see what’s going on. See who their manager is. Are they signed, or are they not? If they’re not signed, we could have a conversation, and we’ll do the chat. It doesn’t have to be necessarily someone I’ve heard of, because at the end of the day, if you only go to listen to people you’ve heard of, then your library will be relatively boring.
Marc: Say you go to a gig and someone from your team says, “Look, we’ve got this artist, I’ve sort of heard of them,” and you go, “Ya sure I’ll go check it out”, and it blows your mind. They’re amazing live, and you don’t understand why you don’t know about them. Does it happen a lot that you and your team find something and think, “Wow, why aren’t we on this more?” I know everything is data-driven, but there’s still lots of emotion in music, right? How often does the team think, “You know what? People aren’t telling us that this is a massive priority. However, we think it is because of what we know about music”?
Junior: At Deezer, that happens a lot of the time. For argument’s sake, there was an artist that, at the time, nobody really knew about. He wasn’t signed in the UK, he was signed out of Germany, and nobody knew who he was. We loved him, loved him, loved him. Playlisted him, I pushed and pushed and pushed. Nobody else was really tracking this artist for a long time. As none of the other DSPs, but we worked him. Fast forward and it eventually clicked for him. It picked up, and everybody started playlisting him. Fast forward again, and that artist is Lewis Capaldi, and he then went global very quickly.
People only see the end of a journey. When I talk about conversations, we worked with Lewis a year and a half before anybody picked him up. A year and a half out, we’d already heard a lot of music, and nobody was really interested. People were saying, “Oh, he looks a bit, you know, unusual. He’s a very unusual guy”. Those types of ballads weren’t the in-wave thing at the time. However, we were working with him because we loved his work and him. We worked with him for a good year and a half, and then he broke through. He deserved everything that came to him. He put in a lot of work for it.
That’s what I’m talking about when I say “feeling”. When I talk about data, data is about when we get this artist onto the platform when they’re already there. But before that, if they’re relatively new or exist in a different medium… then I might look at the data over there, but I trust my ears. My ears are very good…
Marc: Those good old ears you’ve got!
Junior: Those good old ears. My team is very diverse, so they’re not all clones of me. They can come and say, “You know what? There’s this different genre that you don’t overly listen to but listen to this. What do you think?” And I think, OK, let’s go and see what we can do! I like to go and see an artist live. Instead of looking at the artist and their performance, I can look left and right and look at the crowd. What are the crowd doing? Are the crowd loving it? Are the crowd interacting? Are they singing along to the song? I soak it all up because it is all meaningful; it’s emotion. Music is emotion and art at the end of the day. You need that.
Marc: We have a question. In the case of Lewis Capaldi, “…were you all hired by the German label to push him?”
But that was not the case. It’s that you all just liked him, right?
Junior: We aren’t hired by anybody. I just want to narrow that one down early. Nobody hires us; we don’t report back to anybody in that way. For argument’s sake, anybody could play me something, and I’ll go, “What’s that?” and then I’m going to have a conversation. A label can come and say, “We need you to do this”, but that’s not how a conversation goes. I want to know what’s going on. So, if it works and it works for us, and we’ve got a good lead time, enough time to work it, we’ll get involved.
We don’t necessarily have to work something because somebody feels this is the biggest thing from their side of the fence. “This artist is massive. You have to do x, y, and z!” Well, no, we will do what makes sense for our users. If your artist is engaging us and we can build a relationship, then we’ll do more.
I just want to clarify that we don’t get hired by anybody. We work on things that we like. We know what our audience likes and what is in line with what Deezer is trying to do. Which is to be the champion of local heroes, which is our ethos. Deezer’s ethos is about championing local heroes.
Marc: I think it’s also interesting how you’ve highlighted the fact that you all picked something like Lewis. You picked something that you all thought was right for your users and your listener. Whereas it’s not like, “Oh, all the other DSPs are on this”, or somebody in radio was into it. It’s that you were supporting him this whole way because it meant something to all of you and your listeners. This is irrespective of what’s happening elsewhere. Typically people think, “Oh well, I’m sure all the DSPs play that”, or “All the same radio stations play that”. It’s not like that. It’s much more nuanced, is it not?
Junior: Well ya, don’t get me wrong, you know there are certain artists, established artists that you know what they’re about, and you know they’re going to do very well because they make brilliant music. With those artists, you kind of already knows what you’re going to get.
With Deezer and Lewis, I’m talking about those new artists, the artists that haven’t found their way yet, who haven’t settled into their craft yet. They know what they’re doing. They’re edgy, but they’re still trying to find themselves, but are making this incredible music. This is what Deezer does in all of our markets. Editorial teams and our Artist Relations teams have their ears to the ground. They understand that an artist might not be a fully polished artist who is confident on stage, with an amazing team and the best managers. They can, however, see this artist has passion and soul, and they’ve got good music.
At the end of the day, if you’ve got good music, it will find its way through the noise. Which is what Deezer is. Deezer will be ears to the ground in all of our markets. “Hey Junior, I’ve heard this great artist from Scotland”, and I say, “Ok, who’s that?” and here is another artist, it’s Gerry Cinnamon, who realistically you probably wouldn’t really know. But when you go see him, he’s massive, like massive… he’s playing to lots of people who are singing back all his songs. It’s all about feelings. It’s about how good your music is. If your music is great, it will find its way through, and people will support it. That is what Deezer does. We work with established artists, but we also want to work with those artists that are just trying to find their way.
Marc: I didn’t know who Gerry Cinnamon was when you told me about him. Then I watched some of the videos on YouTube, and it’s one dude and forty-thousand people. I was super impressed.
I was also impressed with how you articulated this local hero idea and what’s important to Deezer, and this ethos you all have.
I think many artists think, “Ok, well, if I press a button and my music goes out to all these DSPs, then the same thing happens everywhere,” and what you’ve highlighted for me is that no, these DSPs have different personalities. Let’s talk about the Deezer culture in that way.
Junior Foster: The Deezer culture is this about the local hero, and I mentioned it before. You push your music out, it gets playlisted, you exist, and your fan base goes onto Deezer, and they put your name in the search, and there’s your music. We run a lot of different things at Deezer, what we call “activations” or Deezer originals, which we can have artists be a part of. Do something slightly different and push it back out again to Deezer users.
This year, we released our second part of an activation called “Inversions 80s.” There was an original inversion, and then there was an Inversion 80s. We worked specifically only with indie artists. No conventional pop artists, only indie. For “Inversions 80s”, we asked them to recover a track from the 80s or the 80s decade and cover the song. We paid for the mix and the mastering, plus we contributed towards the recording studio costs. We filmed it, we’ve done interviews for it, we’ve done all the artwork. All the artists had to do was go and cover the track. We put that together and put it out as a complete playlist with loads of marketing.
For Inversions 80s, we had some outdoor publicity in the UK, in the Westfield Shopping Center, and we had a lot of digital marketing going on at a global level. These artists were able to amplify themselves to a level that they would never normally get at that stage in their careers for their own releases.
On Inversions 80s, we had a new artist coming through that then released an EP, Holly Humberstone. We had Benny Sings on there from the Netherlands. We had Laura Mvula, who has had a challenging career path for those of you who don’t know. We had some artists from France on there. We had the return of CSS from Brazil, who covered Buffalo Stance by Neneh Cherry… The first song they’d actually done in ten years.
All of these artists are operating in a genre of music that isn’t necessarily in-fad, and this is no disrespect to these artists. I’m just saying in terms of context. It’s not a Lana Del Rey, not an Adele, it’s not an Ed Sheeran, it’s not a Rosalia from the Latin part of the world. It’s not that sized artist! These artists are making a unique kind of music, and we encourage them to do some more of that, but we also open them up to different genres of music and new audiences…
Another Deezer originals thing that we’ve done… because the one thing you’ll find with Deezer is that we aren’t frightened of doing things that might come across as “Oh, that’s a bit strange”, we like to have fun. We did an ASMR campaign.
Marc: Can you explain what ASMR is?
Junior: In a nutshell, ASMR (Autonomous sensory meridian response) is about a user listening to a sequence of sounds that play with their perception and senses. It’s sensory music or sensory content. That could be from someone talking, and you can hear the moisture in their mouth. It could be someone scratching a chalkboard. Various different things, some of them send you to sleep, and some of them keep you awake. There are loads of different ways to interact with it. I challenge everyone to go and listen to it because it’s quite creepy in certain places but quite unique.
So what we wanted to do was go to artists and say to them, “We want you to record your biggest track in a whisper, whisper the whole song, don’t rhyme it, just whisper it start to finish. Give us those files, and we will work with some ASMR producers to layer the vocals together to make an ASMR project.” What that’s done is force the consumer to listen to a song in a completely different light.
So, for example, we had Alicia Keys, Sir Tom Jones, James Blunt, Young Blood, and what they’ve done is… OK, you know Tom Jones’ “What’s New Pussycat,” a very upbeat and simple song. But when Tom’s whispering it to you, when we’ve put loads of textures over it, it takes a very different route. We package that all up. With Alicia Keys, there’s a bit at the front where she almost starts laughing because she’s just having a ball doing “Falling.” We packaged it all up, and we put it out, and then we’ve done another half of that with real ASMR content curators, and they’ve made their own tracks. We put all of that together, and we put that out into the universe because why not? It worked really, really well, and the public loved it. And then we move on.
Again, we do many things like this. We did stuff with the classical artists for Beethoven last year. Beethoven recomposed and remixed, so one half was classical artists reinterpreting Beethoven’s works, and then on the other side, it was electronic artists reinterpreting Beethoven’s work. You know, on the classical side, you have Brian Eno on there, who’s done some exceptional work on a track. You had someone like Steve Aoki doing something completely different on the dance side.
The point is that we work with these more prominent artists and with smaller artists from the classical world or the dance world. We like to bring established and mid-tier artists… throw them together in a genre that does not generally get as much light as, let’s say, rap artists or your big pop stars. That’s what Deezer is, we will always do something slightly different, and at first, you’d be thinking, that’s a bit different, but then when you look at it, the artist has had a great time and has done something completely different. The consumers love it because we’re pushing boundaries. We’re trying to do different things that aren’t normal. That’s Deezer.
Want to read on? Head to Part III here!