Signing her first management and publishing deal with Big Life at just 15-years-old, Zuzu found herself thrust into the music industry at an incredibly young age.
A subsequent publishing deal with BMG Chrysalis eventually led to a recording contract with Virgin EMI -the Mersyside artist was on her way to charting a course that many dream of.
The UMG label released Zuzu’s debut EP Made On Earth By Humans in 2018 and her follow-up EP, How It Feels, in 2020.
Then the pandemic happened: “The world fell apart, as did the Virgin deal, and here we are.”
The dream of being a major label artist turned out to be a very difficult reality for Zuzu, who is willing to talk openly about the pressures she felt as part of that world.
“It’s nobody’s fault,” she’s keen to underline, “It’s just the world we’re in.”
Zuzu is far happier now, as an independent artist in charge of her own destiny. With her debut album set for release on November 12, she has the help of a smaller team but without the weight of expectation that the major side of the music business can bring.
“People see signing a major record deal as a golden ticket,” she says. “But record labels sign people all the time that never make it big. Doing it yourself is different.”
What was your first experience of the music industry?
I responded to an ad that a manager put out looking for an Avril Lavigne type artist and I thought, ‘That’s me!’. I was 14, I was very naïve at that point. I sent him my songs and he liked them.
That manager put me in touch with Big Life and I signed my first management and publishing deal with them at 15. I was really young. I feel like I’m 100 years old already.
At that point, what did you have in terms of songs? Were you gigging?
Before then, I was just writing songs in my bedroom. When I signed, I did a few years of songwriting and going into studios. They wanted me to be a sort of pop punk thing, which I was partly into but, really, I was into Arctic Monkeys and Taylor Swift. I’m not really a punky person. I love to listen to it, I just don’t make it.
I was with Big Life until I was 19, so for about five years. But, at that point, I wanted to step out and do my own thing. I started off doing some songwriting sessions, got a bit of a band together and did a few little shows here and there. Never touring or anything serious, just playing to empty rooms.
I ended up with these new managers and BMG Chrysalis for publishing. I dabbled with a few record labels and did a few singles. Then I got really sick. I have Cyclical Vomiting Syndrome, which has actually chilled out over the last few years, but it’s not fun.
I took a bit of time off and was working as a Christmas elf in Liverpool and my publisher at the time wanted to have a meeting in London. He said he was leaving Chrysalis but going to work for Virgin who wanted to give me a record deal. That was fucking sick.
So Virgin EMI put out your debut EP…
Yeah, we did 12 songs, two EPs, and then the coronavirus pandemic hit. We were on tour when it happened. The world fell apart, as did the Virgin deal. And here we are.
Take us through your current set-up?
I’m working with Absolute Label Services and Townsend Music. They let you do what the fuck you want, which is the kind of deal I can get behind. My manager is John Dawkins at Various. They’re great, I love Various.
It’s cool because I am independent and I do a lot of stuff myself that I didn’t do before, and it’s all on my terms. I get to choose how it goes down – but I still have a lot of help. Kate [Hendry – Senior Label Manager, Absolute] is an angel, and Paul [Barton – Acquisitions Manager, Townsend] and everyone else at Townsend have been so helpful. I feel like I’m in a really good spot. It feels like a really fair partnership. I’ve always felt like someone else was in control. This is the first time I’ve felt like people are trying to make the record I think I should be making. That’s a great feeling.
Now that you’re in control, how do you approach your career?
It’s hard. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get down with this subject. It’s a weird world we live in. Enough never feels like enough. My 14-year-old self would have been stoked to be in the situation I’m in now but, now I’m here, I’m always like, ‘What’s next?’ I think a lot of people in the modern world have to fight that.
But, as cheesy as it sounds, during Covid, I’ve learned to trust my gut and do what feels right. That’s all I really can do, because the rest isn’t worth the drama. Following my instincts has always led me to the right place in the end. I still take advice when I feel it’s good advice but I used to listen to people to a fault – that’s different now.
Do you think independent artists, maybe with a manager in tow, can have just as big an impact as a major-signed artist these days?
I think they can. People see signing a major record deal as a golden ticket. Record labels sign people all the time that never make it big. Doing it yourself is different. For example, Gerry Cinnamon is independent. I’ve never met a more independent person. He doesn’t need anyone and he’s killing it. He’s just as successful as anyone on a major label. The odds are the same. If you’re signed to a major, it doesn’t guarantee you’re going to have a super successful rise. If you do it independently, I think you have to be really authentic and work your arse off but it can be done. I don’t know if it’s easier or harder because the experience of being an artist on a major label can be mentally crippling. And is it worth it? That’s the real question. I don’t know.
The thing is, I don’t feel any animosity about what happened at Virgin. I was fucking grateful for the experience and still am. I learned so much about how the music industry works, I met people that gave me great advice and I really value their friendship. This isn’t a bash on Virgin, it’s just the way the music industry works. I’m commenting on that rather than them. But it is a different experience now.
It’s actually a bit scarier this time around, just because I don’t have loads of people or a huge budget. It’s all come from my brain, which is a nerve-wracking thing. The support you get from a major label is really good but I don’t know if, for me, it’s ultimately worth the anxiety it caused in the end. I never felt like I was going to be enough.
I’m not a big artist. Hopefully one day I will be, but it doesn’t happen overnight. It just doesn’t. You have to work and I don’t think majors always give artists the time it takes. I’m not going to shy away from the fact that it was upsetting and I had the feeling that I’d failed. At the time, it hurt. Society does that to you in a way. It makes you feel like you’ve failed if you haven’t pleased everyone at the label or had a billion streams, and I don’t want to be part of that system anymore. I think it’s fucked and it has a damaging affect on artists. It feels like we live in a world where enough is never enough. Fuck capitalism, I guess.
I suppose with social media it feels like everyone else in the world is successful. Everyone’s chasing numbers, chasing likes, chasing retweets. Do you feel that’s what’s driving the music industry as well?
For sure. I don’t think there’s anyone in particular to blame for it, it’s just where we are. Streaming platforms are amazing, I’ve discovered so much new music through Spotify and Apple.
I think label services are filling a gap because it means there’s a team of people out there willing to help you get your record out to the masses without all the hype and expectation. There’s no pressure for me to sell a certain amount or get so many streams. Everything’s a bonus and that’s more me. I’ve started to enjoy music for what it is again. I’ve learned to appreciate every single person that listens to my music. I am in contact with so many of them and I’m fucking grateful. They’re the ones that make it possible.
Do you think there’s almost two music industries now – the billion-dollar business and the rest?
I don’t know if it’s as separate as two industries but there’s definitely two ways to exist. There are different routes now.
What’s your ambition looking, say, 10 years into the future?
I’m trying to be grateful for everything that happens but we supported The Courteeners last night and they had a theatre full of people screaming their songs back to them. If I can be doing that in 10 years’ time… I would love to be a successful artist in my own right and working on music projects that I love.
What advice would you give your 14-year-old self at the start of this journey?
Just hang in there. That’s all. Persistence is everything. I think the main reason why people don’t make it in the music industry is because they quit. But, if you work hard, it will come to you in some way.