Thursday 19 November 2020 2:24 pm

From drill music to Baby Shark: The record label plumbing profits from subculture hits

There is, on the face of it, very little to connect Baby Shark with Headie One. The first is an infuriatingly catchy children’s song that is now the most-watched Youtube video in history. The other is a drill rapper from Tottenham who was jailed in January for carrying a knife before releasing a chart-topping debut album last month.

Despite their differences, though, Baby Shark and Headie One have one thing in common: they are both signed to Relentless, the record label that has prided itself on spotting the hottest new music trends, taking them mainstream, and cashing in on the success.

“Most people thought it was uncool to work with kids’ music, but we don’t really worry about things like that. What’s cooler than success?” says Shabs Jobanputra, co-founder and managing director of Relentless. 

While drill music and children’s nursery rhymes may seem miles apart, the record label boss insists they share a common quality that is fundamental to his label’s approach. “We’re just looking at things that are creatively exciting, a bit unique and are authentic in what they do — clearly both Headie and Baby Shark, in their own very different ways, work together in that sense.”

It’s a strategy that has served Jobanputra well over a career that spans more than two decades. The label boss arrived in the UK as a refugee after his parents fled Idi Amin’s murderous regime in Uganda. Jobanputra says the experience fuelled his entrepreneurial drive (“I think when you come from nothing you feel like you can’t fail, because there’s nothing to go back to”) and spurred him to start his own PR agency and the Outcaste record label, before setting up Relentless in 1999.

The new company burst onto the scene with Artful Dodger’s Re-Rewind, a track that brought garage to mainstream British audiences for the first time. This was followed up with Daniel Beddingfield’s Gotta Get Thru This and 21 Seconds by So Solid Crew. Jobanputra says his label “stumbled” on garage and kept moving from there. Over the years, Relentless has signed breakthrough artists including Jay Sean, Roll Deep and KT Tunstall. Now in a joint venture with Sony, which helps fund the label in exchange for a share of the profits, Relentless is a profitable business, on track for sales of £10m this financial year.

Read more: Musical shares: Why Merck Mercuriadis believes the old ones are always the best

Shabs Jobapuntra co-founded Relentless Records in 1999

Cutting through

Relentless is approaching its 21st anniversary — a milestone chosen to echo its early success with So Solid Crew — during which time it has witnessed the music industry change almost beyond recognition. Record labels successfully rowed back from the brink of collapse in the early 2000s, when their business model was upended by rampant piracy. In recent years they have been revived by the rise of streaming services such as Spotify, and are now adapting to an era dominated by video apps such as Tiktok. “People’s relationship with music and artists has changed,” Jobanputra says. “It’s quick, it’s ephemeral, it’s sharp… and we’ve had to adapt with it.”

In many senses, the challenges faced by music companies are no different to the problems of the wider media sector, which has been rocked by ever greater fragmentation. In a saturated environment where consumers are flooded with choice, how does one song or artist cut through? 

Even Netflix has acknowledged this problem, stating that it is competing with people reading books just as much as it is with TV rivals. “We’ve got so many demands on people in terms of entertainment, and music is just one of them,” Jobanputra agrees. 

As a result, the Relentless chief says, it takes almost twice as long to find an act and “explode” them into the mainstream. But with the scale offered by social media and streaming, the rewards are even greater for those artists that do succeed. “It’s harder to get through, but when you get through it’s great,” he says.

The long tail

Another consequence of sea changes in the music industry has been the surging value of master recording rights. After the scourge of piracy drove copyright value through the floor, music catalogues have since recovered and can now fetch premium prices. Again, Jobanputra puts this down to the impact of streaming. While artists previously pulled in the majority of their revenue in the first few years after a release, they now have a much longer tail. 

This is in part due to playlists, which give songs a longer shelf life. “In streaming, once it’s on your playlist that’s a brilliant moment for everyone, because you generally don’t take tracks off your saved playlists,” Jobanputra says. 

The wide range of other outlets — from films and TV to gaming and social media — also gives greater opportunity for labels to keep making money from their songs. “It’s no longer a boom and bust game, it’s more of a value game,” he adds.

This is not only of benefit to record labels, either, and savvy investors are already cashing in on the rising value of music. London-listed Hipgnosis, founded by music industry greats Merck Mercuriadis and Nile Rogers, has surged to a market value of £1bn after buying up the rights to thousands of song catalogues. Round Hill Music, a new US competitor, this month listed on the London Stock Exchange with the same ambition of squeezing revenue from its portfolio of classic tracks.

Read more: Screenshot: Will the UK’s live music industry ever recover?

Music’s new reality

But while labels may be riding the lucrative wave of recording rights, they are also battling the devastation caused by the pandemic. Industry body UK Music this week warned the crisis will wipe £3bn off the value of Britain’s music sector, with thousands of job losses expected. 

It is undoubtedly live music that has been hardest hit, as lockdown measures brought concerts, gigs and festivals grinding to a halt. But recorded music has also suffered, with the closure of bars, pubs and nightclubs hitting live performance income. Jobapuntra says the pandemic has created a “new reality” in which labels have been forced to adapt to new habits in how — and when — people listen to music.

As co-owner of Notting Hill Arts Club, the record label chief has been exposed to the impact of the pandemic on all fronts. Despite this, he remains upbeat about the prospects for the UK’s once-thriving music scene once the crisis ends.

“[Live music’s] power had waned a bit. I think when it comes back it’ll be a real, fresh, exciting thing. You won’t have to just sit and watch Tiktok all day, you can actually see the person you think is amazing live,” he says. “It’s visceral, powerful and evocative, and it’s something we’re all looking forward to.”