Rhythm Section is a successful record label, studio space and events host with founder Bradley Zero at the heart of it. This month’s Business of Music feature sees the dance music figure talk about how the business works and how he plans to teach others.
Bradley Zero is a man on a mission. The South London representing Rhythm Section founder, ‘intimate get down’ party thrower, NTS radio presenter and all-round infectious mass of energy has new aims to help level out the industry’s playing field by sharing and democratising the knowledge he’s gained. Aside from this, on his own journey, he’s keen to ‘get a seat at the table’, embarking on an MBA in business administration and management in a bid to strengthen his own standing in the field. We sat down, discussing recent developments of both the Rhythm Section office and studio and Bradley’s Patreon scheme as we dipped our toes into ‘demystifying’ key steps of setting up a label.
Attack Magazine: When and why did you start Rhythm Section?
Bradley Zero: The reason I did it was because I’d been doing the parties and radio for a while and collecting new music through that to the point where I had tonnes of unreleased stuff. It wasn’t like ‘oh I want to start to label, what can I release?’ It was a response to this natural flow of new music that was coming my way.
Was it just you at that point?
I was working with Mali [aka Z Lovecraft] who is my right-hand man on the events side of things. I started working with a young guy at the time called Morell Maison. He knew about publishing and contracts, the day-to-day running of a label and how to keep up with the financial side of things. He’d been doing this for Gilles [Peterson] at Brownswood [Studios].
So what size is the team now?
I have a team of four now, including me: Mali, Amelia and Emily. Everyone on the team looks after specific releases, so someone will be managing and overseeing each release that comes along. Amelia does social media, Emily is to an extent my assistant in terms of keeping the calendar and making sure meetings are lined up. Mali runs the studio and helps me with the bookings.
How’s it been during the pandemic?
In the office, we had a whiteboard with a checklist and if someone runs into a problem you just let it be known and you have a number of minds behind any given problem. When you’re working on your own you just don’t have that hive mind behind you. You have to replace that with technology as much as you can.
We got into an app called Asana. It’s a scheduling and interactive to-do list that operates with a team so you can assign tasks within a certain project to different people… We’ve been having a big zoom call every Monday. Anything from 2-4 hours going over everything. After we’ve had that big talk and shared ideas and got the important things knocked out while we’re together we just set forth and keep each other updated with these various apps.
What advice can you give to budding music entrepreneurs?
There’s an extremely uneven playing field because this knowledge is shared within largely homogenous groups and if you don’t know someone who has started a label and you don’t know who has a degree in business, or is a lawyer or works for a major publishing house then it’s really hard.
What I want to do is democratise this and share it out. Phase one of this plan is to launch a Patreon and that phase has already begun: we’ve been going about six weeks, we’ve got 40 patrons, we’ve done two group workshops with a bunch of one-on-one sessions.
Phase two is to do workshops to people who haven’t had the access and level the playing field, work with youth groups, work with schools and present it to a bunch of people doing A-level music and are probably making music with their friends and don’t know where to put it out and didn’t think it was even possible.
That’s a great idea. Because this industry is very much ‘who you know’ etc. and it shouldn’t be.
A lot of people think it’s all down to your personality. Having this ‘can do, dive in the deep end’ mentality can work – that’s worked for me – I like to throw myself into the deep end and figure it out, but not everyone has that confidence because they haven’t been brought up to believe that it’s their place or they have the knowledge or connections. Truth is, you don’t need that. You just need to know the steps and once you’re told the steps it’s demystified. It’s not secret information, it’s just demystifying this invisible ceiling.
On the other side, I also realise my own limitations. I have been running on this confident natural drive I was born with and that only gets you so far. When it comes to the board meetings and the executive decisions, to be a respected voice in the upper echelons in the industry you have to be able to speak that language and it doesn’t matter that you managed to do your own thing in your own way, you have to understand the language of the people who are actually gatekeeping the whole thing.
In the beginning starting up the Rhythm Section label, is there anything you now wish you’d done differently?
If I was to start again, maybe I would have more of a tactical approach and I would understand that it’s important to have these fundamental things in place. I would know how to register all the recordings and contracts and how to read the financials – all the boring stuff.
But what you can’t learn, buy and recreate is that excitement and that drive when you start something new. It’s not something I would try and replace with knowledge and, as much as what I’m saying is contradicting that, you can’t replace that passion and drive and the thing that keeps you up all night designing your logo or building your mailing list. The answer is essentially no, I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done because there was pure excitement and love there but if you combine that with a greater understanding then you’re just like ‘boom’.
Is merchandise a key part in bringing in revenue?
Massively. I’d say on Bandcamp it’s probably a 50/50 split between merch and vinyl. It’s something I’d like to expand but I don’t want the fashion side of things to overshadow the music. Part of me wants to grow that and get it into shops and work with our own manufacturers and seasonal drops but I think if you go too far on that you cheapen the music a bit.
You’d be surprised how much they sell but only because you’ve created an association with your label that people want to associate with. It’s brand building. It’s not okay to just have good music, having good music is the foundation but you have to package it in a way that people will take notice. Once you’ve built this platform, people will want to associate themselves with it. This wasn’t the plan, it’s just something I’ve realised.
What fixed costs do you have as a record label owner?
Mainly staff and office, we have a lease on the office, on the studio, and three part-time staff. A lot of things we outsource; we were doing the mailing at first but now we work with Record Science. They do all our posting. K7 do label services so they work with physical distribution and digital distribution and accounting. They will advance us money for releases in terms of manufacturing and recording and any press things.
What essential parts of business should people learn first before starting a label?
See what’s around you
It’s good to have inspiration and see where you want to be and see examples of labels you admire and be fuelled by that but you have to look at what you have to share and offer to the world. You can try and do something that doesn’t come from a true place but it’s going to be fraudulent at the end of the day and you’re not going to be able to throw your whole soul behind it.
Get an accountant
Get an accountant very early on because these things can and will come back to bite you and it’s not that hard to set up properly from the get-go – which will save you so much time and effort later. As much as you think you can save by not paying someone, they can save you money by telling you how you should be doing things as well.
Contracts seem heavy and they suck the joy out of a friendly collaboration but a contract is really just covering all eventualities so there’s no confusion. It’s not necessarily about falling out but genuinely sometimes there might be something left open to interpretation. Whether it’s with a friend or an artist who is perhaps suspicious of working with any label, it’s good to have it in writing. Always have a contract.
I’m not saying Spotify is the best thing and we should all support it but to me it’s like a Brexit situation. You can leave, have none of the benefits and not have a say on how it evolves from outside of it or you can accept it’s the best arrangement that there is at this moment, stay within it and push for change, fairness and more equitable policies for artists.
Find out more about Rhythm Section on their website.
Interview by Oliver Payne, a journalist based in the UK. Find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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