Interview: Unsigned Music Awards

The Unsigned Music Awards were launched in 2016 to shine a spotlight on the wealth of unsigned talent out there. 

Simon O
– Simon O’Kelly
Unsigned Music Awards

Through a partnership with Live Nation, UMA will kick off next year’s Great Escape Festival in England.

The partnership will also open a whole new world of touring for unsigned artists.

Pollstar spoke to one of UMA’s founders, Simon O’Kelly, about his company’s plans, one of which is to facilitate funding through a new investment scheme.

What made you launch the Unsigned Music Awards?

I was an unsigned musician touring Europe for years in a row with my band. We met lots of bands on the circuit, but ultimately everyone had to stop what they were doing at some point to find what people call “real jobs.” Life just got in the way.

And unless you were signed and went on to major things, there was nothing else for you. It all seemed like it began with the label, which I thought was kind of backwards considering all the hard work that the bands put in. It just didn’t make sense that there was no award show to recognize this wealth of talent. It turned out that the UMAs were the right thing at the right time, the entire industry seemed like it actually needed it a lot more than I had anticipated, not having been in the industry.

Because of that it grew much faster than I had imagined.

What do you think got the industry interested? After all, many people would argue that unsigned is everything that happens outside of the industry.

I think it’s the digital era that we live in. Labels used to be there to fund your project and then pay to market it. Since around, what, 2006, 2008, the world has changed, especially the industry. It’s put the power into the hands of the artist to be able to deal with audiences directly, without the need to give any rights to their music away.

We entered the market with the UMAs in 2015, and things were starting to turn quite significantly. We’ve seen companies like Kobalt starting to thrive and letting people sign short-term, artist-friendly licensing deals.

All of the opportunities within the industries are becoming much more artist-friendly, because the terms are now dictated by the artist. Instead of the unsigned artist being on the periphery of the industry, they were starting to break down those walls and get on the inside. There wasn’t anything that anyone could do about it.

It just happened because of Soundcloud and Spotify, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

All these platforms leveled the playing field significantly. What will happen ultimately is that [unsigned] artists will start to get in the charts more and more.

They will start to outsell [signed] artists more and more. At the moment, the main award shows are the Brits, Grammys, and AMAs. All kind of focus on the same label artists.

Granted, the 2017 Grammys saw an unsigned artist, Chance The Rapper, win three awards, which was amazing. But it’s never going to be dominated by unsigned artists, it will always be geared toward the majors.

And that’s just the way it is.

The award shows are a marketing machine, ultimately, for the music the majors want to sell. And that’s fine.

You also facilitate funding for artists? How do you do that?

It doesn’t become active until 2018, but we started a company with Stephen Pell, who was Calvin Harris’ business manager and worked for a number of other superstar DJs. He had the idea of a tax-incentivized artist investment scheme, and just needed an A&R platform and front end for this channel.

We launched something called the UMA Music Fund, which essentially sets an artist up as a self-signed artist with a limited company. We then channel investment through into that company, while we work on the business planning, the financial forecast. We take a seat on the board of that limited company and make sure that they have the strongest managers, booking agents, promoters, radio pluggers etc, so that all the pieces are built around them.

And then we place a significant investment that will facilitate two albums, with the option for a third. Let’s say, for example, we take 30 percent of their recorded rights and profit shares from two other limited companies they set up, which are for the ancillary rights and publishing rights. It’s all held and controlled by the artists, we just take a chunk and look to return that within three to four years, by making a profit and buying ourselves out – a management buyout essentially.

With the UMA Music Fund we’re looking for artists that have hit a ceiling and need funding to get through that barrier.

We’re working on a second option as well, with Jamie Hole and Ross Patel. Jamie was marketing director at Universal, and Ross is an artist manager who works a lot in live events.

We’re working on something that essentially sits in between the UMA Music Fund and a record deal. It’s much more hands on: instead of using third parties for a lot of facilitation we will actually do that ourselves and become much more involved with those artists.

That’s where we enter the artist development stages, and we will become an incubator ourselves.

Our ethos is always: we exist because of these artists, so they will always come first.

Have you already partnered with agents or promoters?

Yes, the two closest ones are Live Nation and John Giddings’

[Alex Francis] has just been on tour with  as a result and even on one of her singles. Through the partnership with Live Nation we’re becoming the opening ceremony of The Great Escape in 2018.

Everything will come from that core partnership with The Great Escape. We’re looking to grow the UMAs around the world through Live Nation, which then, of course, represents multiple opportunities for these artists.

We’ll obviously be sending artists their way for representation and gigs at the O2 Academies and stuff like that.