MBW is proud to once again team up with the Did Ya Know? podcast. This time DYK? co-founder Adrian Sykes talks to Amber Davis, Head of A&R at Warner Chappell Music UK, about her career to date, her inspirations and her future ambitions…
Who knew jiffy bags could be so inspiring, franking machines so alluring? They were certainly part of the post-based package that first convinced Amber Davis that the music industry was for her.
Of course, across the decades, the mail room has famously (perhaps mythically) been the starting place for many an exec’s career – it was the bottom rung on the ladder to success for David Geffen and Simon Cowell, amongst others. No wonder Davis couldn’t resist.
She says: “I did work experience at EMI when I was about 14, and it was the best week of my life – I didn’t realise that stuffing envelopes and doing mail-outs could be so much fun. I was sending out Jamelia CDs, there was a big Beverly Knight campaign, I loved it.
“I think it was just the sort of passion and care I saw there. You know, people were scooting around the office, playing loud music. Just seeing how everything happened really fascinated me.
“I’d always loved music when I was younger, I remember getting my Now cassettes, going through the track-listing and picking out the songs I really loved, but I didn’t realise you could have a career and get paid for working in music.”
After completing her A-levels, Davis was offered an entry-level A&R position and the next big step – opening post rather than sending it – seemed tantalisingly close. Until it wasn’t.
She remembers: “I didn’t have a huge desire to go to university, if I’m honest.
“Also, the more work experience I did in music, the more I realised that having a degree wasn’t essential to make it in this business.
“But when I was offered the job, my mother quickly told me that I wasn’t allowed to take it. She wanted her degree and that photo on the mantelpiece. ‘I don’t care what you study where you go, but you’re not going to do this, what do you call it, Amber, scouting? What?!’ That just wasn’t an option.
“So I went to Westminster University and did the business degree there, which was great, because Keith Harris was a lecturer.”
On completing her degree, Davis got a job in the marketing department at BMG. “I naively thought I’d be designing album covers, but it was more to do with raising purchase orders” – even less rock n roll than mailouts.
Thankfully, she was very quickly offered a job as an assistant at EMI Music Publishing. So she switched lanes, joining a company she would stay with for a decade and a sector she is still at the heart of, as Head of A&R at Warner Chappell UK, more than 18 years later…
Can you talk a bit about joining EMI and what that meant to you?
It meant everything. There were so many different people there who were just amazing and really helpful when I was making the transition from an assistant to a junior song plugger – Guy Moot, Fran Malyan, Sarah Lockhart…
It was such an exciting time. Guy had just signed Amy Winehouse and So Solid Crew. These were the people coming in and out of the office back then.
Tim [Blacksmith] and Danny [D] would come in and they would always be so friendly. Back then, when you’re just starting out, you’re like, oh my goodness, these amazing people have got time for me.
I remember thinking there’s no way I can make the jump from assistant to song plugger. Next thing you know, it happened and you’re working with these amazing frontline writers who have written these incredible songs. You’ve been looking at their splits and filing their papers away, and then suddenly you’re actually able to work with them.
Let’s talk about the role of the song plugger and what that means…
That particular role has definitely evolved and become harder over time. But back then, when I was in that role, I guess 15 years ago, there were groups like S Club 7, Spice Girls, 5ive, and you could actually pitch songs [to their label A&Rs]; you’d send them a little CD, and it would say, ‘Songs for…’ whichever artist, you know, ‘Songs for Kylie Minogue’.
You would send your five songs from the songwriters you’ve got that you think would be great. They would actually get played and listened to and people would [accept] songs.
Now, that role is harder in the sense
that so much talent out there already has their vision of who they want to work with.
Then, you could just put people together in some amazing rooms, and what would come out of them were hits that could then become huge off the back of you setting up two people working together.
Also, in publishing, the nice thing is, as a song plugger or an A&R, your job is also to make sure you know the labels, so that you can get your writers across their projects. It means the role isn’t insular.
What were some of those huge hits that you helped put together?
There was the producer Two Inch Punch, Tinie Tempah, Girls Aloud, they all had some really great times when I was there.
I was quite into the funky house scene there as well, things like T2, Heartbroken, different one-off singles, like Do You Mind by Kyla and Paleface, which ended up getting sampled by Drake on One Dance [see Music Business UK’s interview with Carl Samuel on page 28 for more on that topic].
Were there any influential figures at that stage of your career and what advice did they offer you?
Guy Moot has been there from the get-go. He was always extremely positive about the business.
He made you see that it really was doable. It wasn’t necessarily about the degree, it wasn’t about your age or your experience; if you’ve got an ear for something, you can do it.
He gave me a chance and promoted me from an assistant to an A&R role; that was very much him taking a chance on my gut and instinct.
As a woman of colour making your way in the business, how much, when you look back, do you think the business reflected you?
Definitely now, it’s so much more representational, which is great. But you know, back then, Jackie Davidson and Jade Richardson were amazing, but there weren’t as many women of colour as there are now.
What was your next step up from song plugger?
I became an A&R manager, I was signing more things, and I had a dalliance in the producer management world as well.
So what made you decide on producer management as a calling for you?
I think as a publisher, you can be so involved in a producer’s career, you’re almost running their diary at points, so much so that it sometimes seems like you’re managing them as well; that sort of comes hand in hand.
Which parts of the business do you think have changed most significantly during your time?
I feel that artists are just doing it on their own nowadays, you know, they can put music up themselves, they can become a success overnight on TikTok; they’re no longer looking to anybody to help make them a star.
They have the tools at their own disposal to be able to break themselves, which is great, but also scary.
Does that make your job easier or more difficult?
I think it makes it more difficult, actually, because I think people are more looking to you like, What can you do to help me if I can put it out there myself? But I still think there is very much a place for what we all do, I think it only adds value to what somebody is doing on their own.
How do you think being a woman, and a woman of colour, has played out in the industry? Has it ever felt like you’ve been put at a disadvantage?
It’s hard, because I do feel that as a woman in the music industry, and a woman of colour in the music industry, it has been men that have promoted me.
So, I can’t say that I feel like I’ve not had the opportunities or the career changes that I’ve wanted. I feel like I’ve been quite fortunate in that respect. But yeah, there are definitely times when you feel quite alone as a woman in the music industry.
Can you talk a bit more about that feeling of being alone?
You’re never properly alone, there’s always somebody you can call on, but I think sometimes it can be quite overwhelming, especially when you don’t know necessarily if you are doing things right or wrong.
I found that I was sometimes quite quick to forget that I was maybe the only female in the room, and the only female of colour in the room.
Sometimes you’re not consciously aware of it the whole time, but yeah, I think just sometimes you wonder if you’re doing well enough, or maybe your insecurities can get on top of you.
When you are aware of being perhaps the only female of colour in a meeting, do you think that may temper the responses you give? Do you second guess yourself? Or maybe hold back because of that?
Yeah, subconsciously, I think I most probably do. But, as I say, I’ve been in the industry for so long now, and I think where the industry is at now versus then, it’s just completely different spaces.
I guess it was also harder back then because I was more junior when there was such a lack of diversity in the room.
How do you think the business has changed with regard to opportunities for career advancement for people of colour?
It’s amazing. I think John Platt’s incredible. He’s a chairman, he’s black and he’s brilliant. My Managing Director is a woman of colour, Shani Gonzalez; [seeing] a young woman of colour running a company in the UK, that’s amazing, and really inspiring.
Darcus [Beese], Ryan Press, Glyn [Aikins, co-founder of Since ‘93], yourself, there are so many people now that you can feel inspired and motivated by. What the twins [Alec and Alex Boateng] are doing at 0207 Def Jam, that’s amazing, that’s a huge change.
There seems to have been a faster rate of change in the last two years, a greater awareness of diversity and inclusion, money being pumped into various programmes, what has that looked like to you and what would you like it to be?
I’d like it to be a way of life, a consistent thing that isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to something, a permanent fixture.
I think it’s great that so many changes are happening, but it needs to be just how things are, not a response.
Do you think that’s a possibility?
It feels like things are getting better, so yes, I do feel hopeful. I don’t think people can run away from it anymore, you know. Change was needed and I feel it’s slowly beginning to happen.
Is there a coalition of women that you turn to, role models and that you interact with in the business?
Absolutely. Jo Charrington is amazing. Grace Ladoja is fantastic, what she’s doing with Skepta, Radha [Medar] with Mabel, Sukhraj Johal [General Manager, Warner Records], Lucy Francis [17Days] Char Grant [0207 Def Jam], Komali [Scott-Jones, Parlophone], Fay Hoyte [EMI], Briony [Turner, Atlantic] there are just so many amazing females out there who are absolutely killing it. It’s really inspiring.
And not just killing it, but also trying to make a change, you know. Nadia Khan, Lethal Bizzle’s manager, what she’s doing, Jackie Davidson, what she’s doing, Sheniece [Charway] at YouTube, the knock-on effect is fantastic. It’s just a breath of fresh air at the moment, for all the exciting women out there, of all ages and races. It feels like an exciting time.
Do you consider yourself to be a role model in the business?
I don’t. I just try and get on with what I’m doing [laughs]. I mean, I guess now I’ve been doing it for so long, maybe I’d like to hope that I can be motivating for someone trying to get into the business, and show that it is possible to get where I am now from doing work experience as a teenager.
Tell us about your current role at Warner Chappell, Head of A&R, what does that involve?
I’m really enjoying it. I’ve been here nearly eight years, but I’ve been Head of A&R for two-and-a-bit years. The role entails making sure that the department’s running well, that we’re signing the right things, hopefully signing some hits and making sure that everyone else, all the other A&R managers are getting things signed that they want, helping them get the deals over the line.
Can you tell us about some of the signings that you and the team have made?
We’ve just signed The Snuts (pictured, inset), which we’re really excited about, they’ve recently had a number one album. We’ve just signed Toddla T. We’ve been signing some really exciting stuff. Plus we’ve got Dave, J Hus, Stormzy, Steel Banglez and Swifta Beater, it’s an exciting scene. We’ve signed MNEK, we’ve got some brilliant writers over here.
What does the future hold for Warner Chappell?
It’s really exciting. I think with Shani running it, her global knowledge and being from the US, I think how much we can really help artists internationally, as well as within the UK, is great. And everyone on the team is amazing; they’re all exceptional within their fields.
Time for some quick-fire questions: what are you remaining ambitions?
To have more hits.
Do you have any regrets?
Yes, there are certain signings I really regret not doing, or pushing harder for.
Who has provided you with inspiration?
My family – my mother and my sister.
What’s been the proudest moment in your career?
Winning my first Ivor Novello.
And what was that for?
Tinie Tempah, Pass Out .
Big tune. If you were talking to the young Amber Davis about to take her steps in the business, what would you say to her?
Keep trying, because it’s worth it; it will pay off. I think there are times when the long hours make you wonder if it’s worth it. It is, so just keep at it and remember, anybody you meet, you just never know how your paths might cross again.
This interview is taken from a brilliant podcast series, Did Ya Know?, which tells the often unheard stories of key figures in the British music industry, focusing initially on pioneering executives of colour. The team behind the pod includes Stellar Songs co-founder Danny D and Decisive Management co-founder Adrian Sykes. Music Business Worldwide is proud to be partners and supporters of Did Ya Know? You can listen to it wherever you find your favourite podcasts.Music Business Worldwide