Monday 16 September 2019

'Being a DIY artist doesn't mean doing everything yourself' - DJ Phil Taggart on his insider's guide to music industry

Northern Irish DJ Phil Taggart has written an insider's guide to the music industry to help young bands starting out. He tells Lee Henry about his own musical ambitions and why now is the best time in a decade to try and make it big

'I lived the dream and the nightmare': before joining BBC Radio 1, Taggart was a member of Belfast-based four-piece Colenso Parade. Photo by Michael Leckie
'I lived the dream and the nightmare': before joining BBC Radio 1, Taggart was a member of Belfast-based four-piece Colenso Parade. Photo by Michael Leckie

Lee Henry

There are, on average, 24,000 new songs uploaded to Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer and the other major music streaming services every day. It's a figure that aspiring artists may not want to hear but can't ignore.

"You're not just fighting for an audience with your mates' band from 10 miles down the road," says BBC Radio 1 DJ Phil Taggart. "You're climbing the mountain with Drake, Beyoncé, The Beatles, Rachmaninoff. Only the fittest survive."

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His new book, Phil Taggart's Slacker Guide to the Music Industry, which he spent two years researching and co-writing with BBC Radio Ulster presenter and close friend Steven Rainey, was conceived as a sort of career blueprint for those, Taggart writes, who are "keen to make something of their art but don't have the foggiest idea where to start".

As a former member of Belfast-based four-piece Colenso Parade, Taggart was one of them.

"I lived the dream and the nightmare simultaneously," says the Omagh-born bassist turned broadcaster. "We wanted to be bigger than U2, bigger than Kings of Leon. You have that sense of blind confidence when you're just starting out. But everything that could go wrong for us did go wrong. Awful managers. Promises of a record deal that never materialised. Breaking through to the next level is the hardest thing for any artist. But at least we tried."

Colenso Parade disbanded amicably in 2011, having played their final show, a Cool FM festival gig in Newcastle, Co Down, just days before Taggart was offered his "dream job" as a presenter on BBC Radio 1. Today, he fronts Sunday night's Chillest Show and Tuesday night's Hype Chart, both dedicated to new music, and takes "great pride" in programming his own playlists.

"You don't get that kind of autonomy on many stations," Taggart reveals. "We've got John Peel and Dave Fanning to thank for that. They had good relationships with their artists and were able to break many acts. Other station owners took notice and gave their staff the freedom to do the same. I play grime, hip hop, ambient, long players and it feels natural. I enjoy playing records more than I enjoyed making music. I'm in a privileged position."

Taggart also runs his own independent record label, Hometown Records, which recently signed hyped Derry band Touts to its roster of artists. His knowledge of the industry, and understanding of the challenges and pitfalls that modern musicians face, makes the Slacker Guide a valuable resource. Taggart has empathy with the young "heads" who send him demos in the hopes of getting noticed. That, he believes, is where most artists fail.

"The purist in me says that is should always be about the music but that's just not the case. Having a gimmick, or at least having something to say for yourself, doesn't hurt."

Taggart cites American rockers Kiss as a primary example. "The make-up. The outfits. The pyrotechnics. I'm not a fan of their music but they've sold millions of albums because they stood out from the crowd and fair play to them for that."

In the 1980s and 90s, artists vied for attention on newspaper stands and MTV. Today, a musician's social media game can make or break their chances of success. "But audiences want to see personality," Taggart contends. "Insight into the industry, all the bells and whistles. It's partly the reason why Scottish singer-songwriter Lewis Capaldi is huge at the minute."

A video of the 22-year-old enjoying the view from a New York hotel room naked went viral in March after Capaldi posted it to his Instagram stories. "It didn't do his royalty figures any harm," Taggart laughs. "I'd say a good quarter of his fanbase first noticed Lewis because he's funny as hell with his content. That kind of engagement goes a long way in the music business." With the Slacker Guide, Taggart hopes to empower emerging artists to make better decisions than he did. The book features chapters on forming a band, building a fanbase, choosing management, securing distribution and even self-care. It directs readers towards supportive organisations like PRS for Music, which assists musicians in licensing and monetising their music, and the charity Help Musicians UK, which part funded the book.

Industry insiders like Lyndon Stephens, owner of Northern Irish record label Quiet Arch, chip in with expert advice on positioning, packaging and pitching, while pithy chapter introductions set the scene in a tone that BBC Radio 1 listeners will be familiar with. "Is it possible to polish a turd?" Taggart asks at one point. No prizes for guessing the conclusion.

Featured contributors, meanwhile, include Dublin-born colleague DJ Annie Mac, solo artists George Ezra and Derry's Soak, and Taggart's favourite hip hop duo, Run the Jewels.

"I walked into their dressing room at Brixton Academy 20 minutes before showtime, with El-P limbering up and Killer Mike stretching his calf muscles, and it could have been such a buzzkill. But that interview gave me goosebumps. They had so many inspirational anecdotes and are passionate about artists powering up."

Run the Jewels, Taggart explains, are considered leaders of the DIY movement of artists who eschew constrictive major label deals in favour of full creative autonomy. "But DIY doesn't mean doing everything yourself," Taggart adds. "You have to be pretty talented to be your own manager, lawyer, accountant. It can mean recording a low-fi EP on your MacBook and self-releasing material through a distribution company, like [English rapper] Skepta."

No industry, Taggart argues, however changeable and competitive, succeeds without new blood. It's imperative, therefore, that young people continue to have access to musical equipment and be given the space and time to experiment and learn. Government can, of course, help there; Taggart writes about the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Musical Instruments for Bands Funding stream, which anyone can apply for.

Before releasing the book, Taggart rewrote sections to reflect recent changes in the industry. "Some of the websites we mentioned, for example, don't exist or aren't relevant anymore." He is aware that the Slacker Guide may never see a second print run. His Slacker Podcast, however, which is based around conversations with established artists who play early demos as a starting point to talk about their career trajectories, should enjoy greater longevity.

"I had Johnny Marr on recently," says Taggart. "He played a never-before-heard demo of The Smiths' 'Jeane', and Pete Doherty last week. I first interviewed Pete in 2015 at Gleneagles [Scotland]when the Libertines reformed and I got nothing out of him.

"He dodged every question and sang at me for 10 minutes. This time, he couldn't have been more accommodating. He played an early version of 'Can't Stand Me Now' that was completely different and challenged Liam Gallagher to a charity boxing match."

Taggart believes that earning a living as a musician in 2019 is a "hard slog"; Doherty might agree. Yet he remains optimistic and is eager to end on a positive note.

"It's the best time in more than a decade to be trying," Taggart concludes. "The streaming rate isn't very good at the minute but that should change and there are more opportunities to build revenue through playlists, merchandise and radio.

"The playing field is arguably more level than at any point in history."

'Phil Taggart's Slacker Guide to the Music Industry' is available now from

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