For well over a decade now, the name Austin Daboh has rung loudly across the music industry as someone you need to know if you plan on making some moves. As an artist manager, A&R scout or PR agent, he's probably the person you should be keeping happy the most—and speaking from a writer's point of view, the space Austin has occupied throughout the years has been a help in forming some of my own editorial decisions.
At least half of the UK veteran's career was previously spent working for the BBC, at their black music station 1Xtra, where he held sole responsibility of whose songs you heard through the airwaves every hour, minute, and second of the day. As of last September however, Daboh signed up with Spotify to head up their day-to-day operations in London as Senior Editor, overseeing their black music playlists—one of which is the country's most-subscribed for hip-hop and R&B, Who We Be, and my own personal favourite, Grime Shutdown—and essentially being the main point of contact/face of the brand (no big deal, right? No pressure).
On Thursday 30th November, at London's Alexandra Palace, Austin Daboh will turn his hand to event promoting when the Who We Be playlist goes live for the very first time with some of the biggest names in hip-hop and grime hitting the 10,000-capacity venue—including Giggs, Cardi B, Dizzee Rascal and more. It's set to be a hugely memorable event—possibly the event of the year. But before you grab your ticket, get to know the man connecting major dots behind the scenes.
How important is having a diverse team working beside and under you at Spotify?
The Spotify team contains different races, religions, sexualities and genders and I think that's reflected in the strength and breadth of our playlist portfolio. Our mission is to provide creators and users with the best musical experience possible, and that comes from reflecting diversity of global and human culture.
What music genres and specific artists stirred up the passion that led you to work within the music industry?
Even as a kid, my love of music stretched across genres: I loved Oasis' "Wonderwall" as much as I loved General Levy's "Incredible". I was in school in the early 2000s just as garage was peaking and grime was forming, so to see artists that looked and spoke like me was mind-blowing to me. I'd have to say Heartless Crew, So Solid, Pay As U Go and N.A.S.T.Y Crew were the main ones that gassed me into thinking I could turn my love into a career. R.I.P Major Ace as well.
What would be your advice for people looking to get into the music industry? Your path seems to have happened without any hiccups.
Don't let anyone fool you: hiccups and mistakes happen all the time! I always tell young interns that. And you can look at any hugely successful company, they all have customer service departments because mistakes happen daily. So the lesson is to learn from your mistakes and try and be a great communicator; you'll be surprised how quickly you can turn a negative into a positive just by picking up the phone.
How do you go about curating important music playlists, such as Who We Be? What's the process like?
Who We Be is a collection of the biggest grime, hip-hop and Afro-bashment records, so to be included you'll need to have proven 'beyond reasonable doubt' that your song slaps! We're constantly on the hunt for new music, whether that's meeting up with the industry, going out to nightclubs or trawling the internet for hidden gems. However, our secret weapon is a team of geniuses who have built detection tools that allow us to pick up on records our users are feeling that we may have previously missed. I wish I could go into detail, but I can't [laughs]. Ultimately, we sit there with all this music, take in all the evidence we see from statistical data—such as how many users are saving a track into their library, through to our own personal anecdotes, like: being in a nightclub and seeing a crowd go mad over a song—then weigh it up in our heads and make a decision.
For artists reading this, what should they do and not do when trying to get into one of the playlists?
With a huge amount of music always being released—unfortunately, there isn't a rule-book that gives a definitive guide on how to get into a playlist. Sometimes, you might have everything going in your favour and still miss out on a particular playlist because there just wasn't enough space on that given week. But if I was giving someone a very brief tip-list on how to increase their chances, it would say: make good music, build up a strong fanbase, always collect and collate evidence of your fanbase, be smart in how you approach curators, and if the answer's still no—repeat all those steps until you break through.
You're putting on an event for Who We Be later this month, featuring some of the biggest names in music today. How has your younger raving years influenced your current musical movements?
When I think back to nightclubs like Destiny in Watford, or Stratford Rex, my main memory is how closely the DJs and MCs followed the crowd. They gave us a real stage show and the audience was always number one. With our Who We Be live event, we're trying to bring that vibe back. We specifically chose the line-up based on who we felt could give the best stage show and artists like Giggs, Dizzee Rascal and J Hus are proven performers.
As a team, we're constantly thinking about ways to bring our playlists to life outside the app. Urban music has always been popular live and this year feels like a tipping point with MC culture being the leading genre for young concert fans. Working closely with Spotify's business team, we put together a proposal that was presented to the global management team. They were instantly supportive and understood the vision of what we're trying to achieve. As our flagship urban playlist, Who We Be was the perfect brand to run with but it was vital that we had the blessing of the artist community and live music industry, so we spoke to dozens of stakeholders and promoters before partnering with concert promoter SJM, who are delivering the event for us.
Giggs is set to perform at the show as well and, like myself, you've seen his artistry grow rapidly over the years. What does the rapper mean to the UK music industry right now?
Giggs is really flying the flag for UK music internationally. He's the torchbearer of UK rap in places like the US, and Drake coming out with him at Reading Festival is a testament to this. At home, when his new album launched, it averaged one million streams on Spotify a day with little or no traditional marketing, which tells you how much of an impact he's having on the music industry here. His performance at Who We Be will be something to remember.
Which scene needs to come back ASAP?
Funky house! Shouts to Funk Butcher.
Agreed! So, what's the future of UK music looking like for you?
Very bright. It's not just the rappers prospering—the success of artists like Rag'n'Bone Man and JP Cooper show the strength in what Brits are bringing to the table.