We sat down with Parlophone Records’ A&R, Komali Scott-Jones for a chat about her journey in the music industry thus far.
“I’ve been really lucky in the way I’ve been brought up. My dad was always like “You can do anything you want to do,” Komali Scott-Jones tells me when I meet her in a taco shop in Oslo during by:Larm (A festival and conference showcasing some of the best, new Scandinavian music) earlier in the year. It’s cold outside but it hasn’t started snowing yet.
“From a young age, being told when you go to uni, not if. You’re get conditioned to believe in yourself and to achieve whatever you want to achieve, that was really important to me. I went to school with loads of rich kids and they had something to fall back on but that wasn’t the case for me.”
From around the age of five, Komali was always in a studio or at a music video shoot. Her parents used to manage artists together so music has always been a huge part of the family life. But it took her a little while to figure out that it was a road she wanted to walk down as well. “You take it for granted because you’re a kid and you’re being dragged along everywhere but I just loved it,” she says. “I was always the one my friends would ask for new music – I was the music person.”
Komali never wanted to be an artist herself though. “I don’t like being in the center of attention. And I can’t sing that well,” she laughs and continues: “You probably also have to be a bit crazier than I am to be an artist.”
She didn’t get into the music industry straight away. She studied art and English and went for a job in the fashion industry but it wasn’t the right creative outlet for her. She got an internship in TV promotions at Virgin EMI and that became a stepping stone into her current role as an A&R at iconic Parlophone Records. She hasn’t let go of fashion completely though. She is the co-founder of clothing brand King’s Ransom London, which has supported artists from the UK music scene for the past five years.
“I’m really passionate about working with new talent and I’ve got an eye for it. Not just music, I’ve done it in fashion, photography, models – via King’s Ransom. I’ve got a good eye for who’s right to put in a room and I guess that’s the same with A&R – if I bring an artist to the label, I have got to know who in the team is right for the artist, who’s going to understand them and connect with them. It’s a skill in itself.”
Both sides of the coin.
So what exactly is A&R? It’s short for ‘Artist and Repertoire’ which might not clarify a lot but it’s about managing the music, not the artist. Obviously, you cannot separate the two completely, so there’s a lot of overlap between A&R and management.
“It’s a lot about connecting the dots and knowing who to bring in to help your artists. Sometimes the artists might not be seeing eye to eye with their managers and they’d rather talk to me,” she explains. “It’s like having loads of boyfriends stressing you out all the time,” she adds, laughing.
When Komali said yes to the A&R role at Parlophone, she was the only woman in the department. It was never a big issue for her, she always felt supported by her colleagues. There are now two other women working with her but A&R is still a very male-dominated field.
“There are just some things that women, in general, can maneuver through better. Like having certain difficult conversations with an artist,” Komali explains. “There needs to be a balance in the team. If it were only women, that wouldn’t be ideal either. You need to have the flip side to the coin in both respects.”
Along with festivals like The Great Escape, Reeperbahn, Eurosonic, and many more, by:Larm is part of Keychange – a pioneering European initiative empowering women to transform the future of the music industry and encouraging festivals to achieve a 50:50 balance by 2022. I asked Komali for her thoughts on initiatives like this.
“It’s important to go the extra mile to make sure we’re getting opportunities that we deserve to have”
“I think that it’s super important to push us (women), we’ve got work to do, we’ve been suppressed for so long. It’s important to go the extra mile to make sure we’re getting opportunities that we deserve to have,” she says. “But obviously, I believe that it has to be the best person for the job. In any case – gender, race, sexuality. Of course, you want to have a diverse group of people but if you’re better than me, you should have the job regardless of whether you fit the diversity agenda. But saying that, I think the issue is with the people who are in charge of who is best for the job. If it’s only old, white men at the top, they’ll see themselves in the younger versions of them and prioritize them. That’s where the skew happens.”
Though quotas might not always be the right answer, they’re an important first step in opening doors for female acts that might get overlooked otherwise. They’re paving the way for e.g. more balanced festival line ups which will then, hopefully, happen organically at some point. Until that happens, it’s also up to women themselves to grab the opportunities they are presented with.
“Don’t say no to things because you’re not sure you’re being asked for the ‘right’ reasons. If you haven’t had your break yet, then it doesn’t matter, take it for what it is and make it your own and be successful from it,” Komali says and explains how that happened to her:
“If you’re just sat there to look pretty, that’s a problem, but they can’t stop you once you’re in the room…”
“For me, getting into A&R was largely helped by the fact that black music is exploding in the UK. It’s charting and making loads of money and it’s the most exciting movement since Britpop. All of a sudden, the labels realized that they don’t look like those artists, they don’t know where they are from, it’s not their culture. They don’t have anyone on their teams who can connect with them. They needed to hire people who could. There’s been a huge influx of both men and women of color who’s been overlooked before because we weren’t the ‘in’ thing – but now we are. Even though you don’t want to feel like you’re a token, that’s an opportunity and you have to take that by the horns. If you’re just sat there to look pretty, that’s a problem, but they can’t stop you once you’re in the room… ”
Know what you want.
In short, you have to be brave enough to grab the opportunities that present themselves to you. And to throw yourself in the deep end every once in a while.
“Try it. The worst thing that can happen, is that it goes wrong. Or it doesn’t happen. And then you move on. We’re much more resilient than we think,” Komali says. “When I was offered this job, I didn’t know how to do it – like with all my other jobs. You realize that no one knows how to do anything in these industries. You get thrown in and you learn, watch, listen. You are going to fuck up along the way and that’s also fine. And you might be the best that ever did that job. You have to take the risk.”
That goes whether you’re an artist or behind the scenes. And you have to know what you want. Or at least have some sort of an idea of the direction, especially if you’re an artist.
“You have to know what you want to be. If you speak to a lot of artists, they might not want to sign to a label because they’re scared they’ll change them or tell them who to be. But honestly, that can only happen if you get signed to a label and you don’t know who you are,” Komali says. “Obviously, it’s also about choosing the right label in the first place. But you have to be strong in your ideas so there’s something to build on.”
One of the artists Komali works with, and who has taken her breath away, is 21-year-old Hamzaa, a soulful singer-songwriter from London.
“I remember seeing her at St. Pancrass Old Church in Kings Cross which is this really small church, really beautiful. She started singing and I don’t want to say goosebumps, that’s really cliché, but I had this shiver inside – I can feel that feeling right now just thinking about it. I genuinely felt like she was going to change my life. Listening to her songs, what she’s saying, what she’s singing. I felt overcome by how it made me feel. And if an artist, or anyone in any way, has that effect on you, that’s what you want. That’s the kind of person that will touch people around the world. It’s an intangible thing. I don’t really know what it is about her but she’s definitely got it.”
Komali describes Hamzaa as a big personality with a lot to say. “She’s funny and opinionated and doesn’t fit into that stereotypical perfect pop-star box. There’s been such a narrow view of what that looks and sounds like. For me, the fact that Hamzaa stands out from the crowd in so many ways is very important in a world where there’s so much pressure on appearances and conformity. She’s confident and bold, with a gorgeous figure and the voice to match. I think that sends an important message to young women everywhere.” Komali says.
“Hamzaa is all about being herself. Not to say that she doesn’t have her own insecurities, we all do, but she’s not running to change everything about herself which is refreshing. There’s so much strength in that and that’s a message for an artist that I would love to help put into the world. For younger girls to know that we don’t all have to look like Gigi Hadid or Kim Kardashian. I think we’re in an exciting era where artists’ expression of personality and authenticity is king. I’d like to see more artists being unapologetically themselves as I think it’s what fans connect with the most. The ultimate goal is to marry that with some amazing music and become a game-changing artist.”