The UK grime scene is far from an overnight success, having originally emerged early this century. It’s a similar story for Urban Development, the British company that’s nurturing some of its potential future stars.
The firm was founded 16 years ago, and now combines a charitable, education and outreach arm (Urban Development Music Foundation) with a commercial arm that combines label, publishing and recording functions (Urban Development Music).
“That original vision, which was a lot to do with social mobility, and working-class and disadvantaged people in tricky areas of London, hasn’t really changed,” founder and director Pamela McCormick tells Music Ally.
“But the urban music scene has changed, and the company itself has gone from a tiny, tiny project – my first grant was £4,000 from London Arts – to something where our [annual] turnover is now £700,000 and growing.”
Urban Development’s main focus are 14-25 year-old BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people in the UK, with funding/backing from entities including the Brit Trust; Universal Music; PRS Foundation; Arts Council England and Youth Music.
Urban Development Music has been making waves recently, with one of its artists, Devlin, scoring a top 20 album in the UK earlier this year.
McCormick describes a strategy of creating a “social enterprise ecosystem” which is a commercial business with industry partnerships, but which also aims to recycle its profits back into the work of its sister foundation.
“We’ve been working really hard. We have to be functioning in the charity sector, and attracting public subsidy, but at the top end we have also got to be able to operate with music-industry partners,” she says.
“How do we create a pipeline from the 14 year-olds we work with on the educational side, through to the top-20 artists at the top of the pyramid? We do the grassroots work early-doors, identify high-potential young people, and create the partnerships to create that funnel all the way through.”
Urban Development has a model to follow here: McCormick says she wants to mirror the talent structure and youth development that exists in the classical music world, to create those “sustained pathways” for talented young people. Although not all of them will end up as professional musicians.
“Some of them will carry on towards becoming creative artists, some will translate that into a journey into being a [music-industry] professional, and for others it will be a love of music forever, and they’ll go on and do other things,” says McCormick.
“Our job is to educate young people with good career advice, and help them understand the industry. They know they’ve got choices: how to reach it, which relationships they need to develop, and which courses they need to do.”
“The vision is to create an infrastructure like the classical music sector: to create an ensemble of rappers, singers and producers equivalent to the National Youth Choir, or the National Brass Band of Great Britain.”
What Urban Development is doing fits in to a wider trend within the British music industry – and elsewhere in the world – of acknowledging failings around diversity, but also the opportunities in tackling those failings.
The topic was raised during the closing panel of the FastForward industry conference in February 2017, when Kobalt’s Silvia Montello spelled out the risks.
“The industry from the outside still looks a little bit too white and a little bit too middle-class,” she said.
“The way that things have tended to go in the past, especially with unpaid internships, the only people you will attract with unpaid internships are the people who can afford to work for free… people who live with their parents or people who have a trust fund.”
The fact that Urban Development is hoping to nurture a new generation of industry executives as well as musicians is one encouraging sign.
McCormick is enthusiastic about the UK’s apprenticeship levy: a new tax on businesses with salary bills of more than £3m per year, which will go towards funding more apprenticeships in the UK.
“We want to make sure we are finding different young people. The industry has a bit of responsibility, I think, as has the music education scene, to not just accept the usual suspects that rise to the top,” says McCormick.
“The success of the partnerships we’ve built shows how the big beasts of the industry want to engage with young people.”
Urban Development has also been talking to major music companies about how it can train young people for job opportunities within those firms, giving them the best chance of performing well at interview – whether for an apprenticeship or a full job.
McCormick is honest about some of the challenges for Urban Development’s charitable and education arm, against a backdrop of continued ‘austerity’ measures, and nervousness about the economic future of the UK.
“There is a general environment of cuts: funding for schools isn’t rising in line with inflation, and school heads are having to make really tough choices about appointing teachers,” she says.
McCormick cites England’s ‘English Baccalaureate’ (EBacc) initiative as a particular concern: where schools are measured by the performance of their pupils in “core academic subjects” when they take their GCSEs.
“Music and arts subjects aren’t included in the EBacc subjects, so there is a worry that music education may end up being de-prioritised in schools,” says McCormick. “You have to think about where you will fund young people: what’s going on with music education funding is very significant,” she says.
More positive is the continued commercial and critical success of grime stars like Skepta and Stormzy, and the discussion around it of how they have forged an independent path to that success.
“They exist as role models to young artists, who understand that it’s not necessarily about a major [label] deal. A major deal when it’s right for you is fabulous, but it’s not always the best fit,” says McCormick.
She thinks that many grime stars have showed that it’s possible to take a bigger slice of the pie, retain creative autonomy and build a sustainable career while staying independent.
Devlin is one example of that, with that top-20 chart placing for his ‘The Devil In’ album, which was released through a partnership between Urban Development Music, publisher Bucks Music Group and distributor Believe Digital.
“What it represents for us is a case study: something that has helped to demonstrate a commitment on our behalf to be part of the industry, and to operate at a higher level with major publishers and distributors,” says McCormick.
“It demonstrated we could function at that level, using the collective experience of the team to manage a campaign and work with those key partners.”
She also praises successful grime artists for their willingness to support emerging talent and the communities around them.
“Grime artists are stepping up as leaders – as thought-leaders – as successful business people and as creative artists. And because of that ethos, they want to make sure they help the younger artists,” she says.
Urban Development is hoping to capitalise on that to inspire the young people it works with around the UK, with plans for a national talent search to identify the next crop of musicians, and ultimately a residential summer school.
McCormick also hopes her company will continue to do its bit to shout about urban music’s cultural value, particularly when talking to the music and funding establishments.
“There shouldn’t be a hierarchy of ‘high art’ versus ‘urban pop music’. It’s just different. It comes from a different source,” she says.
“We’re trying to work towards popular urban culture being regarded and resourced in a similar way to the older, western classical forms of music.”