Verge: Can you describe your role here? What kind of things do you do day-to-day?
Preye Crooks: I’m an A&R scout at Columbia Records, which is part of Sony, and my day-to-day is simple and complicated at the same time. The essence of it is to find the best new music in the country or in the world, really. How you do that is pretty much up to you. At the beginning, when I started, it was very much blog-focused; I spent a lot of time online searching through SoundCloud. As time has gone on, your freedom increases. I’ve spent a lot of time at meetings with managers, publishers, lawyers who are really good at finding artists, and yeah, at the end of the week I have to present a few songs to my president, and hopefully the best ones, you know, we look at and try to sign. That’s the essence of the day-to-day.
V: So what kind of things do you look for when you’re picking an artist to present?
P: The way I look at it, again, is really complicated. I think a lot of the time it’s a gamble, and music is so subjective. I think that I try and look at it as a jigsaw puzzle, and you know, the puzzle when it all comes together is Adele, or Ed Sheeran, and it’s just about identifying all those different pieces and seeing whether you or the label or the artist themself are able to gel those pieces together, whether they have enough pieces, and what those pieces are. So I suppose that’s voice, star quality, image, lyrical ability, ambition, drive – there’s loads, but I think when you see it, you see it. When you don’t, you don’t. Those are the least guidelines, but it’s different for every A&R, of course.
V: So when you pick people to present at meetings, how does the actual signing process work? Does that go to someone else then?
P: Oh, absolutely. I wish I could just sign artists straight away, but obviously I’m new. I’ve been here for a year and a half now, so what usually happens as a scout is you play your music to the president or to a senior member of the team, and they then have the decision to sign that artist, and then they will A&R that artist. By A&R, they will help the writing process, help get the songs together, help make the album, and hopefully I, as a scout, will be a part of that process and slowly learn, so in a few years’ time it will be me making those calls. That’s the dream.
V: I’m assuming you started this job because you love music.
V: Has it changed the way you listen to music now, doing this job and looking for what will be successful or popular?
P: Yeah, I think so. I mean I love – I love music, as you can imagine, so I’ve got my headphones in more often than not. I think I spend a lot of my time now listening to unsigned music or new artists. I’m so obsessed with finding new music. I mean, I was having a conversation with my mate last week and I hadn’t listened to the whole Drake album, and I hadn’t heard the new Katy Perry song, and it dawned on me that you spend all your time now looking for new stuff and fresh stuff, as opposed to the stuff that’s #1. But don’t get me wrong. I love Justin Bieber, and I love all that too, so a bit of both.
V: So when you’re picking people to present, to you have to differentiate between what you like personally and what you think will be successful, or do you think those go together in a way?
P: I think the best ones go together. I think if you think they’re successful and you like them, it’s great. Sometimes you might not like the artist, but you can appreciate that they’ll be very successful. But I think, as I said, music is so subjective, in my opinion, the best way to tell your president or your senior members that something is good is to be passionate about it, and I think if you walk in and say “I don’t like this, but I think my friends do” – or if you walk in, slam your fists on the table, and say “This is amazing! I adore it! I know exactly how to make this work!” – I think you have much more of a chance. So you need to be really passionate about the project as well.
V: With technology, things are changing in the music industry. Sometimes people get around signing with big labels. Do you have anything to say about that? How do you think it’s changing?
P: Oh, it’s changing. As I said, I’ve been here a year and a half, and it’s changed since I started, so I can only imagine how much it’s changed for people who have been here for two, three, four years or more. Spotify and Apple Music are a massive, massive new segment of the industry, which is enabling artists not to have to sign. You look at Stormzy, Ray BLK, Jorja Smith, Chance the Rapper – they didn’t need to sign! Which is great, and good for them! I’m a strong believer that not every artist should be signing, and there’s opportunities for people not to sign, but at the same time, I think that if labels were obsolete, they would already not exist. I think that if labels were rubbish, I would’ve been able to name another 50 more unsigned artists that were doing amazingly well, as opposed to just the big four, as it were. So I think that labels are still really important. I still think that, easy as it is for artists now to have their music on Spotify, I think they still have a use. So yeah, hopefully I’ll still have a job, to be honest! But yes, it’s good, and it’s important for there to be lots of different methods for artists to break themselves.
V: Given how you’ve seen the industry changing, where do think it’s going to go in the future? Or where do you hope to see it go?
P: If I knew, I would jump ship to that exactly where that thing is! I think it’s a wicked time because it’s changing so much, you know. People are finding music through Instagram, through Youtube, through Spotify, through Apple music, through the traditional way of gigs, blogs – and it’s great. I don’t think anyone really knows what’s happening, where is the best place to find new music, how labels are going to deal with the ease of artists now to break themselves, but I don’t think that matters. I just think that, at the end of the day, the industry and A&R is just about finding the best new artists and adapting and changing. Because they’re there – it doesn’t matter whether they’re putting their music on Soundcloud or on Instagram; I think it’s my job to still go find them and work with them. So, in answer to your question, I don’t know how it’s going to change, but really, I don’t care. I’m just going to keep learning, keep adapting, and just keep looking and finding.
V: Now I want to ask you about the Strawberries & Creem festival. You founded that a few years ago now.
P: Three years ago, now.
V: How did that come about?
P: I always wanted to work at Sony, specifically Columbia. I always just loved what I saw online. But I was doing politics at Cambridge, which had nothing to do with music, so I started running club nights at university, just for like 200 or 300 people every Sunday. I say that I did it for Sony, but I also did it because, you know, you meet more people, you meet some girls – it was all good and I enjoyed it. At the end of my first year, we put on a garden party, which was pretty much a glorified birthday party, for 800 people, it turned out to be. I thought we’d sell maybe 400 or 500 tickets, but it went really well. We booked two or three artists, made no money, and then in the second year, we managed to book Skepta for £7,000 before he had his little explosion at the BRITs and Kanye, so his fee went up to £30,000+, and we managed to sell a heap more tickets – 2,500 – and as soon as we hit that number, we thought it was worth giving this a go. So last year we did 5,000, with Nelly and Kano as the headliners, and this year over 10,000, so it’s just growing really organically.
V: So you’re still involved with that today in addition to your current job?
P: Absolutely! That’s my baby!
V: What does it take to start and run a festival?
P: Oh, you gotta love it! You’ve gotta love it because I think that there’s not much money at the beginning. It’s a lot of work for very little money, and to do it – it’s stressful. I was talking to someone the other day, and he was saying that it was quite difficult to throw a house party, nevermind a festival, which I think is a fair point. Unless you really, really want to do it, and you’re passionate about music, you have a really good group of friends around you or a team, because you’re with them all the time. It’s hard, but that’s the trick. There’s nothing more than that. There’s no unbelievable intelligence required. I just think there’s a real passion for what you want to do and ambition for it to go over.
V: What are the most difficult parts of your job?
P: The hardest parts of the job, I would say, are a) it doesn’t end. This is absolutely not a nine to five job. I think, if you want to be good, you’ve got to be prepared to be at gigs every night. You’ve got to be prepared to be in studios until three in the morning. That’s tiring, but I think it’s what you sign up for. And then, as you said, a difficult part right now is persuading a lot of artists that this is a home of people who have their best interests at heart. I think there’s a lot of stigma attached to labels. As we said earlier, there’s a lot more opportunities for artists to break themselves. So I think it’s difficult to persuade sometimes, but at the same time, I think if you’re passionate about the artist, you’ve explained what the label can offer, how the label can help both nationally and internationally, I think you can get around those hurdles. It’s tough, but I’m learning.
V: What do you think about the fact that big artists like Chance the Rapper are telling people not to sign? Is it a pain?
P: I feel like the company should say it’s a pain, but if I’m being totally honest, absolutely not. I think it’s great that artists are able to break themselves these days. I think there’s a hundred people on this High Street who do A&R, who I think ten years ago had a lot more power than they do now, and I think that’s, quite frankly, quite a good thing because I don’t think the hundred people on this High Street do know everything about the music industry. I think they’re still really important, and that’s why so many artists still are signing – they are really helpful and really knowledgeable, but I think that’s it’s great to see Jorja Smiths and Ray BLKs doing their things without A&Rs and proving that these guys aren’t always right. I think they should do. When I really like an artist, I think they should come here, though! *laughs* But yeah, it’s great.
V: What’s your view on the US vs. UK rap debate?
P: I’m so UK. I’m so UK, it’s unbelievable. I think the US rap is good, but I think – I was born here, born in London, grew up here. This is what I’ve been listening to on my tiny Sony Ericsson from 13 years old, and I think it’s incredible that this whole thing is growing and growing collectively over so many artists. Yeah, you look at my Spotify playlist, you won’t see any Young Thug there. You’ll just see J Hus.
V: Do you see it evolving as a separate entity from US traditional hip hop? Is it more grime?
P: Yeah. I think, personally, and I’m sure I’m wrong, that the comparison between grime and hip hop is often lazy in the sense that it’s racial, if you know what I mean.
V: What would you say the main differences are?
P: Sonically, I think they’re totally different. The sound is different. Lyrically, they’re often talking about different things. And I think they’re for different audiences as well, though that might change as grime becomes more international. But I don’t see grime making music to be #1 at the moment, whereas – and with no disrespect to Americans because I love that music as well – but if you’re just making music to get 300 million plays on Spotify, you know what I mean? – but I think that’s changing with Stormzy, and I think it’s really interesting because I think that’s our first pop grime guy.
V: Do you see him as the leader of this new school?
P: Yeah. He’s the team captain. He’s not my favorite out of all of them, but he’s the team leader, and good on him. Because I think we need a flag-bearer, and I think he’s a brilliant one.
V: Do you get approached by mostly hip hop and soul artists? What do they need? What are you looking for, specifically?
P: If I’m honest, hip hop and soul in this country is hard. It really is. But I think: be English. There are so many hip hop and soul artists with American accents. I don’t understand it. If you put on an American accent, you have to take on those artists, and it’s very confusing because people here don’t understand it. Are you based there, or are you based here? I think there’s nothing wrong with doing hip hop and soul here. Recognize where you’re from, and also realize that that is a standout point. If you’re doing UK hip hop or UK soul with a UK accent, or talking about UK things, or saying English words – that’s cool. I like that. It’s a point of difference. So that’s usually my advice to those artists.
V: Do they need to come to you with a complete package?
V: Can someone come to you and just say “here’s my demo” and that’s it?
P: A demo’s fine. I’m not a good A&R yet, but I think good A&R should be able to recognize the potential from a demo. Obviously, just on a basic risk scale, the more finished the package is, the less risk an A&R takes, but I think that just because it’s not a finished package does not mean that you shouldn’t present it to an A&R. I think that’s their job to be able to recognize it.
V: For people who want to make their own music, what would you say they need to do to stand out to someone like yourself?
P: I know it’s so generic, but be different. And that’s so difficult because I’m sure that if I was trying to be an artist I would be copying J Hus right now. There’s no doubt. Whether I consciously or subconsciously knew that. I think there’s so many artists you meet, and they’re doing just that. They’ve got the same sound as the people who they love in the charts. They dress the same as the artists that they idolize. I think you’ve got to be truly, truly honest with yourself about what you are as an artist and then stick with it and go with it. I think that’s much more – you can grab hold of something like that rather than emulating somebody else. So, totally be yourself. Be fearless in the decisions you make artistically, sonically, and back yourself. I think you have to back yourself, otherwise no one else will.
V: One last question to wrap it up.
P: Of course.
V: You started out as a student, with the festival and all that, so do you have any advice for students who are currently looking to get into the music industry, either behind the scenes or as artists?
P: Yeah: start now. For both groups, I think. The music industry is not an industry, I think, where you go to school and go to uni and get your master’s – there’s none of that. If you want to get into it, just get going. I think that would be my advice to an 18 year old me. I wish I had started scouting and trolling through the blogs and finding the weird playlists on Spotify when I was 18 because when I came here, I wouldn’t have needed four months to understand what on Earth I was doing. Loads of people I speak to ask similar questions. I just say, “no one’s stopping you from starting.” And it means that when you do meet these presidents, and other A&R people, you can come to them with a new answer they’ve never heard before. You can say, ‘oh, I follow this blog” or “I was at this show two weeks ago,” and you put yourself ahead of the game. So, just get going. Get online. If you love it, it’s not work anyway, so do it.