Hannah Place caught up with Elroy ‘Spoonface’ Powell, author of How To Think Beyond A Chart Position.
‘Elroy ‘Spoonface’ Powell recounts from personal experience his own journey of elation and despair while finding fame within the music industry… Covering five key areas, including mental health and wellbeing along with finances, it’s a revealing insight into an industry which many of us today still view with rose-coloured spectacles. More than that though, it’s a guide on how to survive it.’
Tell me a bit about your experience in the music industry and what lead you to write the book.
I’ve had a great time in the music industry. I’m a music publisher and run a social enterprise, Diverse Music Solutions (DMS), where we use publishing licensing to fund community projects.
Having a variety of different roles within the music industry has got me to where I am today. I started when I was about sixteen doing talent shows at Hackney Empire, where I took my first few songs to the stage and then got involved in a lot of MCing.
When I was about to turn 21, I got an opportunity with Black Legend, a house band from Italy, which led to the number one record You See The Trouble With Me.
How did your experience with Black Legend influence your career?
We appeared on Top of the Pops and were headed for the number one spot, so that meant a lot of touring around Europe and taking private jets to places to play shows. That was my introduction to the industry.
From there it was about dealing with the ups and downs of the industry, dealing with everyone expecting me to be “Barry White” for the rest of my life and me having other ideas.
I grew up in Tottenham listening to lots of drum & bass and music from the 80s – my dad was heavily into reggae sound system culture. It was hard, especially at that age, to convince a massive record label that I wanted to do something different. Now I look back and recognise that it was really about business and they wanted to create the obvious next big thing.
For a long period of time I faced closed doors. I was unable to do what I really wanted until I decided to let go of this whole pursuit of the charts. Then things turned around. I started doing remixes with Kelis, and people like Hospital Records, doing a lot of drum & bass and stuff like Ill Logic & Raf and Deekline and Wizard. Then I started performing throughout Europe.
What enabled you to break away from what was expected of you within your career at such a young age?
My parents were from Jamaica and I grew up in Tottenham in a working class family. We didn’t have a lot so we appreciated everything we had. One of the things that I never did was beg for anything or try to chase or impress people.
When I saw that I had made every effort that I could in a particular area and it wasn’t received in the way that I wanted it to be, I thought, ‘Well, I don’t need to chase anyone or pretend to be anything that I’m not, so what is it that I genuinely want to do?’
It was tough because a lot of the stuff that I was doing was really left field. Hard drum & bass with a reggae sound going on was so different to commercial house and Barry White.
This is going back to 2000… So I couldn’t do drum & bass and expect to get into the charts. Even though drum & bass songs were doing well in their own area, and UK garage was on the rise, it was a very different place to now. People were less open minded to fusing genres. I was like, ‘Whatever. I grew up listening to reggae, jungle, and drum & bass – I want to fuse it and it feels right to, so let’s do it.’
Were your peers doing similar things, fusing styles?
There were some people open to doing things outside of their area. I ended up hitting up the afrobeat broken beat scene. That was even more expressive and diverse. A fusion of jazz, afrobeat and funk.
What was it that gave you the confidence to go out and say: ‘you know what, this is me, this is my thing and I’m going to stick to it?’
There were a number of factors. I had family obligations and had to make sure that I was paying bills. As well as health considerations. It becomes so stressful when people expect something from you, period, let alone when you’ve been a number one artist. People think, ‘Oh, you’re just a one hit wonder. You can’t do it again,’ without really understanding the industry and how it works.
If you don’t have the support on the radio, or with MTV for video, if you don’t have all of these other things behind the scenes, you can’t generate enough audience interest to get them to buy your music and it hit the charts. You have to just shoulder and take all of that.
That was also a part of why I decided that I was just going to do it my way. That led me to thinking about balance and wellness: how can I make it last long term?
One in five people suffer from anxiety or depression and there are organisations that are there to help, but people are afraid to step out and say, ‘I need help.’ As an artist you’re always trying to present the best impression of yourself. You want to attract people to you.
It’s about letting people know that it’s OK to talk about things, to go and get help and regularly look inwards and assess where you are inside as well as what you’re doing externally for your music.
Encouraging people to live well seems to be a message that people want to hear.
A lot of people now have been coming out and talking about mental health issues.
Looking at Kanye with his outbursts you think, ‘Man, that shouldn’t be happening.’ There should be some sort of duty of care, platforms shouldn’t be pushing people to the forefront without some form of warning of what pressures might be ahead.
With industry pressures and the worry that if you achieve success it might not last, it could be easy for artists to start thinking: ‘I need to keep selling myself and getting myself out there and “no publicity is bad publicity”, so if it’s a big scandal, and that’s the way I hit the headlines then so be it.’ How do you manage that as an artist? Is there a better way to view the whole situation?
One of the key areas I talk about is ‘your big idea.’ It’s about having a strong direction and focus on what it is that you want from the industry and why you’re making music in the first place. What difference are you making to the lives of the people around you and your own life? When you have that as a foundation everything else can plug into it.
Your big idea will evolve. It’s okay to regularly assess and allow that to happen organically.
I also talk about your belief in yourself and how important it is to have positive influences around you. Don’t feel bad about getting rid of people even if they’re your family members. Say: ‘look, I love you but I need to create a space away from you because this is harmful.’
It’s great that you’re trying to get a message of care out there to others in the music industry. Do you think there are enough people voicing that message at the moment to get it across?
It would be nice to hear more. I like to look at the more holistic side of things, wellness from the inside out, and how changing ourselves can have an impact on the world.
There is a focus on the younger generation, but there are people in their 30s, 50s, and more, who have been making music for a while, are disenfranchised and feel uncomfortable reaching out for help on how to develop their career because they’re a lot older.
In my book I also talk about building emotional intelligence and maturity, skills, network, and relationships. With that you can create experiences which feed into your songwriting, feed into your belief in yourself and help you to evolve your big idea about where you want to go and why you want to get there.
It’s also about balancing making money with feeding into your community, creating this kind of cycle of giving that means that everyone grows and you have something to fall back on.
Sometimes people get some success and only think about themselves. They forget about how they got there. Building that team and figuring out how we can help each other and make it sustainable without burning out – that’s what’s important.