Frankie Stew and Harvey Gunn have had their fair share of meetings with big label bosses. But they’ve always left feeling a little underwhelmed.
Instead, for more than a decade now, the rap and production duo, alongside manager Bobby Brown, have put in the work (and capital) themselves, growing organically and sustainably, bolstering their business with outside expertise when needed.
It’s a decision that has paid off. Now their numbers make them an ever more enticing proposition for traditional labels – but, at the same time, they’re more comfortable than ever controlling their own destiny.
In February last year, Stew and Gunn inked a deal with Absolute Label Services ahead of their 2020 album Breathing Exercises. At the time of the announcement, they had more than 300,000 monthly listeners and 20,000 followers on Spotify. In 2021, following the release of their latest album, Handle With Care, those figures have more or less doubled to just over 580,000 and 46,000 respectively.
Add to that a consistent live business, set to resume in September, and a strong D2C element that the pair made the most of during lockdown, and Frankie Stew and Harvey Gunn are a textbook example of how to do DIY well.
We Zoomed into their studio in Brighton, UK, to talk about lockdown, streaming and the benefits of staying indie.
At the start of last year, you wouldn’t have expected to be launching an album in a pandemic. How’s that been for you?
Frankie Stew: It’s been pretty crazy to be honest. Thankfully, we’ve still been able to get into the studio just us two, so I don’t feel like we’ve had it as bad as other people. I’m grateful that we’ve still had a spot to work.
Harvey Gunn: It’s definitely changed the creative process a bit. We usually do a lot of sessions in person, which obviously isn’t possible in lockdown, but we’ve still been able to collaborate remotely. It isn’t my favourite but it’s worked fine for this project.
Once things are back to normal do you think you’ll do any remote working at all or is it something you’ll be glad to see the back of entirely?
HG: Unless we had to I wouldn’t, personally. It’s all about the process for me and I love the feeling of getting together with people and making something collectively. Especially when it’s someone you haven’t worked with before, you never know how you’re going to click or how it’s going to work out, so it’s exciting.
You’ve had a pretty successful and consistent live career for a number of years now. Obviously, that ended overnight. How did you adapt?
FS: I don’t think anyone could have foreseen what was going to happen with the live industry but you’ve just got to play the cards you’re dealt. We had no choice but to suck it up, ride it out and hope that everything would come back. Hopefully, at the end of this year, unless something goes wrong, we’ll be back touring.
HG: It was a big adjustment. We’d toured twice a year historically, so it’s three tours that we’ve missed out on. But we’re studio and streaming artists as well – probably more so. We were lucky compared to some artists who rely heavily on the live aspect. There are some artists that are touring artists.
FS: We just tried to connect with our fans in different ways. We were able to get into the studio and be a bit more active on social media by documenting that and trying new techniques, engaging with everyone who follows us.
You’ve got some big numbers of streaming for an independent outfit. Was there a particular breakthrough on streaming or has it been a gradual build?
FS: We’ve been doing it for quite a while now and we see a bit of progress every time we release music. It’s been growing and growing and is in a really good place now after years of building it up.
HG: It’s always been about consistency in terms of the art we can give to fans. We’ve always had that ethos of trying to give them as much as we can. And, yeah, we’re in a great position now as independent artists – we haven’t had to sell any of it.
Obviously, there’s an amazing team of people around us that we work with. We’re trying to build the kind of team that a major label would have but by financing it ourselves.
What kind of infrastructure did you have before you partnered with Absolute Label Services?
HG: It was just the three of us – me, Frankie and our manager Bobby – doing the creative and then trying to juggle everything else. It was a lot of trial and error, to be honest.
FS: Absolute has taken a lot of the weight and pressure off our shoulders, which has been really nice. It’s allowed me and Harv to concentrate more on creating the music instead of the logistics.
HG: We’ve always known that we wanted to hold on to our masters. That was always the plan. We had a few meetings with big labels and were never impressed with what they had to say, to be honest. So, we wanted to do it ourselves and it was a case of levelling up with partnerships that we thought would add value.
There seem to be more and more artists, usually alongside a manager, that feel they can do it themselves. Do you think traditional label deals are becoming less sought after to an extent?
FS: I think it’s a very different time to what it was 20 or even 10 years ago. Nobody’s really taking risks anymore. It’s almost like you have to do all the hard work and get into the position yourself. Only when you’ve proven you’re successful and you make a certain amount of money will a major label want to be involved. But then, from the artist’s point of view, what would be the sense [in signing that contract] when they’re already [successful]? I’m not going to work 10 years to get myself into this position and then say to someone, ‘Do you want half of it in return for some money?’
HG: It’s not something that interests me. I mean, look, it’s easy for us to say when we’ve been doing it for 10 years. By the time we had any label interest we’d already built up a fanbase that we knew was in a position to grow and it would never make financial sense for us to take a large advance. If you’re just starting out with a vision but not many fans and you need to market yourself, then it could be an appealing way to fund your album…
FS: And it could be a good decision too. Everyone’s career is shaped differently. But we’ve already done it. We’re already here, in a sense.
HG: There’s never been an easier time to connect with people yourself. You can have real ownership of your audience, platform, and art. If you’re willing to put the effort in, it’s never been more possible.
But it’s an ever-changing landscape. I’m sure it will be completely different in five years’ time. Right now, I think you want flexibility. You don’t want to be rigid in your trajectory. Especially in the early days, keep ownership and keep adapting quarter by quarter.
FS: There are fewer and fewer artists that are taking a big lump sum and more are going down the independent/DIY route. That shows the way the industry is going.
HG: It is graft though. It’s hard work.
FS: It’s so much more than making the music. It’s running a business. I know we say we do it ourselves and it’s independent, but we’re essentially business partners that have hired people to help us grow the business. It’s not me and Harv doing everything at home. It’s not physically possible for us to do that and still make music. But we do have an understanding of all of it.
HG: That’s what it’s all about: growing the fanbase and understanding the game yourself and then, as soon as you’re in a position to do so, hiring people that are better at doing it than you are. We make music and we work well together as directors of the business, but letting go of that desire to auteur the whole project, which I think is in an artist’s nature, [is important]. There’s always people who are better at things than you are, and it’s such a good investment to pay people to do certain roles for you.
What’s your take on streaming, the digital ecosystem and how it’s working for artists?
FS: It’s a hard one. The amount you get paid isn’t fair, to be totally honest, but it is what it is. If you stream enough then you still have a chance to make a living out of it. Whether it’s fair or not isn’t in our control.
HG: It’s a really interesting situation where you have businesses focussed on providing value to their shareholders but you also have so many people who are relying on getting paid equitably and fairly for their music, which has been commoditised.
There’s a lot of talk now – more voices, and a unionisation of artists demanding more because these businesses make a lot of money. Obviously, they bear the risk but I think artists could be given more. It’s really difficult to pressure a private company into reducing their profit share, essentially, but I think it’s important for the future of the music industry.
FS: It’s simply not feasible to make a living from music if you’re putting everything on Spotify unless you’re getting millions and millions of streams. There are so many amazing musicians that aren’t getting millions of streams who can’t make a living from [music] because of the amount that Spotify pays out. If that changed slightly in terms of percentage, it would change the amount [artists] get paid dramatically.
HG: There’s a broader conversation about what big corporations owe to society and the rules they have to play by in terms of society, rather than just financial regulations. But then, who’s going to draw those lines and decide what’s fair? That’s why it’s great that artists, managers and organisations are getting together to try and unionise voices.
The other side of the argument is that there are more artists than ever before making something from music – if not a vast amount of money. Prior to streaming, the majority of artists on these platforms wouldn’t have even had an outlet. What do you make of that position?
FS: I love everything about the theory of streaming but, when we’re talking about artists getting paid, I’m the last person to say it’s fair. As a platform for people to release their music on, it’s brilliant.
What other areas work well for you alongside streaming and live?
FS: Merchandise and vinyl have been really good for us. Especially during lockdown. The rise of things like streaming has also made people want physical product again.
HG: Yeah, it feels like it’s booming. We’ve only been doing vinyl since Breathing Exercises. It’s been amazing. We do it through Hoxton Vinyl, who I can’t recommend enough. They press and fulfil it all, so it’s pretty hands off for me and Frankie. It’s great to give fans something physical that they can keep. We like to get creative – different runs, various presses, different colours… We like to have fun with it.
FS: We’re having a vinyl signing day actually, I don’t know if you can see in the back…
HG: We’ve got to sign a thousand pre-orders in the next few days. It’s going to take quite a while.
It’s an e-commerce platform that we have ownership of. We solely take on the financial burden of it, so it’s ours and nobody else’s. No licensing or anything, which is nice.
FS: It’s another thing that wouldn’t be ours if we were on a major label.
You’ve been doing more with social media to promote the latest album…
FS: James [Cattermole] at Absolute has been helping us to strategise creatively on social media. Previously it was just me and Harv swapping ideas between ourselves. During lockdown, we’ve just been trying to connect with our fans more. Anything that’s more organic rather than a robotic copy and paste gets a better reaction.
HG: It’s just about being genuine, I suppose. It’s fun to have some creative ideas for a campaign but at the same time we want to be real with the fans and connect with them on a human level with our personalities. We’ve known each other a long time, we’re good friends, so we want to try and get our relationship across and try to form a relationship with the fans. You can think outside the box as much as you want but at the same time you’ve got to be real.
What advice would you give to an independent artist who is also running the business side themselves? Maybe their numbers are getting pretty good, and they’re looking at taking that next step…
HG: I’d say try to keep commitments short term and don’t give too much responsibility to one person or one company. It’s good to split it up. Think about what you want to gain and how much money it’s worth. If you need cash, try and keep [any advance] as low as possible and work out how long it’s going to take to recoup it. Is it actually achievable? And diversify your income: split it into as many streams as possible and don’t take an advance on all of them. If you really need some money for a campaign, if you need £15,000 from your streaming as an advance, do that and put a tour in place, or something that you can live off, until you get that cash flow back. Try to have some foresight and be smart with the numbers.
FS: Think about why you’re signing [a contract with someone]. Are you doing it just so that people will think you’ve made it, or so that you can tell yourself you’ve made it? Or are you doing it because [that person or company] is going to bring something to the table that will benefit your career? When you grow up as a musician, people are always asking, ‘Are you signed? Have you made it on radio?’ That’s how people used to decide whether you were successful or not, and I don’t think that’s the case anymore.
HG: It’s interesting. Now people ask, ‘Are you signed?’ and if you say no they usually say, ‘Congrats!’
FS: I remember being at parties back in the day and friends’ parents would ask, ‘Are you signed yet? Are you going to be on TV and radio?’ No! I never will be, but I can still have a good career, believe it or not.