'It's evolution, not a crisis': Relentless MD Ben Coates talks A&R, breakthroughs and UK rap

'It's evolution, not a crisis': Relentless MD Ben Coates talks A&R, breakthroughs and UK rap

Relentless Records MD Ben Coates has told Music Week that the label’s selective signing process is paying dividends amidst a challenging time for A&R in the UK.

Run by president Shabs Jobanputra, the Sony-owned major is enjoying a successful start to 2023, with Strandz hitting the Top 10 with debut single Us Against The World. The track has been growing week-on-week since November, has 160,923 sales so far and hit a new peak of No.9 last week.

Bad Boy Chiller Crew, meanwhile, were shortlisted at the BRITs in February and hit No.2 with their debut album last year. Disrespectful has 48,991 sales to date, according to the Official Charts Company. The group’s biggest single in the UK is BMW, which came out last January and has 584,119 sales. They are yet to release new music in 2023 and have 1,440,612 monthly listeners on Spotify, where their biggest song is 450, with more than 57 million plays.

Meanwhile, Headie One is making a comeback. Relentless helped steer the rapper to a No.1 finish for his debut album Edna (108,030 sales) in 2020 as Music Week named him Breakthrough Artist Of The Year. With Edna's follow-up imminent, he hit No.9 with single Martin’s Sofa (117,086 sales) earlier this year.

Relentless, which runs an artist services division with The Orchard, has also signed Bimini (“Bimini embodies the spirit of club culture,” said Coates) and is working on new music with the likes of Tom Walker, Lewis Fitzgerald and Switch Disco, who are on the rise in the singles chart with Ella Henderson collaboration React.

The label recently hired one-time Relentless exec Lloyd Murray, who heads up the A&R department alongside Jamie Croz. Sabrina Kristiansen oversees marketing.

Here, Coates talks to Music Week about the ethos that defines the label’s work, breaks down the Strandz campaign and offers up his take on the A&R landscape.

We don't sign a lot which means we apply increased focus to the artists we do work with

Ben Coates

You have your latest UK rap success in the shape of Strandz. What sparked your interest in him and how have you been developing him so far?

“Strandz is a distinctive talent with laser focus and drive, all of which really appealed to us. He’s been carving out his own lane sonically for the last couple of years but it was evident that Us Against The World took things to the next level and felt like the natural entry point for us to join forces. The strategy has been about scaling Us Against The World, telling the story of Strandz and the song to a growing audience. This created the foundations for the song to have chart impact as we came into January and allowed us to amplify through more traditional areas. Strandz now has a highly engaged platform to start teasing new music, building the live plot, collaborating with other artists and to continue meticulously defining his brand.”

Us Against The World has just hit the Top 10, how have you been firing the track's growth? What does a UK rap single need these days to fly?

“Tracks that grow from culture need a compelling message or narrative that allow them to propagate organically. Us Against The World is a killer song with a very clear and relatable concept. It's been key to keep the consistency of the message through the content strategy. Valentine's Day was an obvious moment given the theme, as was the Digga D remix that was on the cards from the point the track was released last November. It was important for us to maintain focus on the original and to reach a mainstream audience before we dropped the remix. Credit to Strandz, his manager Jai Garcha and team Relentless for the consistent vision. A special mention to Lola, too.”

Headie One is also back - what are you expecting from his next record? There's a lot to live up to?

Headie has set his own bar very high and has every intention of surpassing it with his next record. He's never afraid to push boundaries creatively and it's clear from the impact of Martin's Sofa and 50s that he's at the top of his game. Headie has spent the last year putting the work in; growing his base around Europe, delivering some standout collaborations, plus key live moments. It’s now about building on that momentum.

Why is Relentless the place for UK rap to flourish? 

“Regardless of genre, we don't sign a lot which means we apply increased focus to the artists we do work with. The full team is engaged with a project before we make a signing. On the margins the extra time makes the difference.”

Bad Boy Chiller Crew is turning into a real UK success story. What have been the key drivers of their success and what's coming next for them? 

“Bad Boy Chiller Crew are a force of nature. People gravitate towards them because they are truly authentic and have a pure relationship with their audience. They’ve been building their following for the last few years, starting from the bassline scene in Bradford and West Yorkshire and growing from there. The success has been a result of talent, hard graft, and timing. There have been a series of connect-the-dots moments across the key areas; big, culturally relevant songs that snowballed into the mainstream, powerful live moments and viral content. This year is another busy one for them, there’s a May tour, a new album, more big festival moments and plenty more must watch antics.”

Attention is hard to get, but great music and art is still coming through

Ben Coates

What would you say to the idea that there's a deficit of mainstream UK breakthroughs at the moment? Is there an A&R crisis?

“It’s evolution, not a crisis. Our approach is defined by focusing on distinctive talent and getting into the details. The democratisation of music continues to create challenges for artists and the business but the principles of creating mainstream cut through still remain. Attention is hard to get, but great music and art is still coming through, we’re just having to adapt our methods and metrics.”

Lastly, what does your artist services offering add to the mix at Relentless? 

“It's a natural extension to our business that we've been cultivating for the last five years with projects brands like Pinkfong and Baby Shark. It allows us to work with artists and projects at varying stages, with different types of commitments and goals. In a competitive market, just because a project doesn’t fit the traditional major deal model, doesn’t mean there isn't great business to be done.”

PHOTO: Joe Magowan

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