From Grassroots to Center Stage: Nurturing the Future of Black Music in the Changing Landscape of the Live Circuit

There can be no doubt that festivals play a crucial part in the nurturing of grassroots music, but we perhaps need to delve into the genres that are benefitting most from our sector and see if and how we can assist across the board. We asked Ray Paul, Creative Director at The Playmaker Group, for his insight into how festivals are helping find the next generation of headliners for the black music live circuit.

“Over the last thirty-five years, I have been fortunate enough to ride the crest of various waves within the black music live circuit in its many guises. These range from the international boom of the nineties, particularly in dancehall reggae and hip hop, to the seemingly slim pickings in the indie and Britpop era of the early noughties, not forgetting the self-engineered industry within an industry pioneered by the Garage scene and its promoters right through to where we are now.

“With the likes of Parklife, Wireless, City Splash and other well-known and established black music brands having the ability to attract soft ticket crowds coupled with the big “stars” who can regularly pack out arenas or stadiums, there has always been a nagging doubt about the grassroots opportunities afforded to certain genres. Yes, you may have a couple of hits under your belt as an artist, but it’s a completely different kettle of fish when you are standing in front of 50,000 fans wearing their “entertain us” faces whilst staring right at you. Where do these artists, particularly in RnB, Grime and Drill, get to cut their teeth?

“There is no doubt that the festival market has opened up nationally and internationally for black music acts, and it has been refreshing to see the likes of J Hus and DBE headlining festivals in their own backyard. Still, the importance of nurturing and growing the next generation learning their trade cannot be understated.

“The discipline and skill needed to succeed in high-profile performances can often come from building and banking your live hours “on stage”. I’ve often looked at the role of pub/club performances for young indie and rock bands or singer-songwriters with admiration – watching them “doing the circuit” and building up that training for when their moment comes. I often feel this is missing within the black music world for several reasons.

“These include having venues that can be accessible and a viable option for young talent – quite often, there isn’t a clear pathway for artists even to know how to put on their small-scale nights and the invaluable experience that these bring. Other challenges include finance (or lack of it) and the nature of being catapulted from zero to 100 within a short time frame.

“This is often the case for young black British artists – one moment, you are with your team making a quick track; the next thing, it blows up, and there is an expectation that you know how to “command” a stage. The heyday of UK Garage and Grime saw multiple events at a small scale around the country, and this gave pioneers such as So Solid and The Heartless Crew the chance to play in front of a crowd and perfect their craft. Fast forward, and the same chances came by the way of Kano, Ghetts and Giggs, and that stagecraft is now visible for all of their fans to enjoy.

“I have worked with a wide range of UK acts in festival environments, and the development of their techniques needs addressing. Fortunately for us as a company, those individuals have good teams behind them who recognise this and have made provisions to build them to have a more successful 2024 and beyond, but much also needs to be done by promoters.

“I have to salute the likes of DJ Ace, a twenty-year veteran of BBC Radio and an RnB music supporter. Recently, we were fortunate enough to produce his showcase “Everything RnB”, which has taken grassroots artists on the road, playing at 150-200 cap venues in four cities and teaching them what it takes to have a successful live career. We are aware of the sterling and diligent work done by BBC Introducing to give small stage opportunities at major festivals to British artists, including Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds and even as far afield as SXSW, and long may it continue.

“The deeper you delve into other genres, the more difficult it becomes. If you are a non-mainstream Afrobeats or Dancehall artist, your options are limited as to where you can go. There is no doubt that black music, and especially black British music, is no longer the marginalised entity it once was (I’m old enough to remember the incredible work done by David Rodigan and the Capital Radio team in bringing Reggae Sunsplash into the UK in the 1980s, and being stunned that this was being done here…right here…in this country…for the music we love!). The popularity of the music has now meant that it is a staple part of British culture across the board.

“I remember initiating and curating the first 1Xtra Live event for the BBC under the premise of it being a “cross-genre celebration of black music which hopefully will one day rival One Big Weekend”, which was on Radio 1. Senior colleagues told me they couldn’t see it working because “if the public wanted it, someone would have done it already”. Another memorable comment from a planning meeting for the show came from a colleague who said, “I’m not sure Mavado will work – my daughter has never heard of him.” My response was she never will if we don’t give him a chance to play!

“Seeing Skepta bringing the Big Smoke festival to life and curating it in such a way that not only gives his peers and people he rates a chance to get that experience but also opens up the musical palette of people who attend the festival excites me. Here is someone endorsing a wide range of acts at a high level and widening the artists’ audience bases.

“Things at the top end of the mountain look great – as we move further into 2024, we are starting to see some incredible lineups with black music at the absolute heart of it – and long may it continue. I’d just like to ensure that the stakeholders don’t neglect their duties in ensuring the movement has fuel for years to come and to keep feeding its roots to produce the stars of tomorrow, the day after, the year after and beyond.”

Ray Paul is a highly acclaimed creative figure in the UK broadcasting industry, particularly known for advocating black music in all its forms. He is also the founder of The Playmaker Group, an innovative consultancy that brings together various aspects of the music and entertainment industry, including Content Production, Event Management, Tour Management, and Creative Consultancy.