BPI Chair YolanDa Brown and PRS President Michelle Escoffery speak at The Great Escape

We caught up with YolanDa Brown and Michelle Escoffery at their keynote session at The Great Escape festival to find out more about their journey into the industry. 

YolanDa Brown is a musician, broadcaster, Chair of BPI and Chair of Youth Music. Michelle Escoffery is an Ivor Novello award-winning songwriter, producer and was recently re-elected President of the PRS Members’ Council.

QUESTION: YolanDa, you’d been performing as a musician at the same time as studying but how did you decide you wanted to really try and pursue a career in music?

YOLANDA: The shift came when I realised I was touring more than I was a university and I realised I couldn’t do both any more. But let’s be real, it’s not easy to make money from a career in music. I was an independent artist, I hadn’t come up through a conservatoire, no one was going to book me because they didn’t know what kind of music I made. So I began an independent journey, I thought I’m going to do things myself, I’m going to book venues for myself. I had to take that passion and make a living and make money, so I thought if I’ve got to eat beans then well I’m going to eat beans because I believe in this.

Michelle, as someone who is passionate about making music when did you think actually this could be a career?

MICHELLE: I was born into a musical family, I’d always been involved in music and it was kind of a given. I wasn’t that sure but it was something that was expected. I was the youngest of 4 sisters, my dad taught us all how to sing and my mum made our clothes. We went on the road and I was semi professional at nine and professional at 16. I’d actually got offered a place to study art after leaving school and then we got signed to Atlantic records when I was 16 and that’s when it dawned on me that was not going to happen.

I spent six years in this girl group then I was headhunted to be a songwriter and got to spend time learning writing, learning the craft. So it came quite late for me but I knew I liked telling stories and making other people’s stories come to life. And that’s when it ignited for me.

You knew artists who made a living but was there a kind of mystery about how to do that?

YOLANDA: Yes. It was about making a living but also finding money in order to record an album. I needed to make money to pay bills for recording sessions, studio, musicians. Nobody knew me so I had to book a concert and a venue myself. There’s social media now but I’d go to these similar venues with my hoodie up and give out flyers to my gigs. So it was really putting in the graft and selling tickets to pay the bills and there’s a little bit left so that I can record some music.

It’d be great if you could just get in a studio and record but actually what you’re describing there is being entrepreneurial?

YOLANDA: Absolutely. Getting a record deal was just not something I could fathom at that time. However each time I’m onstage and I’m communicating with an audience, then I’m feeling joy. That’s what I really wanted to do. I couldn’t see how to fit into the industry so we started to do our own thing.

Michelle, you’d got to the point where songwriting was going to be key part of your career but was there still a mystery in how do I make money from that? How did you do it?

MICHELLE: Eating beans! Having just one travel-card to go into town and do meetings once a week. Really planning it all out. And I guess perseverance.  I’d already written for other people while being in the group and people had already started to know my name as a songwriter so I was very fortunate that I get a publishing deal. But it is still a mystery because you have to build a network of people you can work with and people that can play your music to the right ears otherwise it doesn’t ever get heard by the right people. So there were lots of steps and you educate yourself by talking to other people. Before the deal there were a few lean years but I really believed that I could write a good song so I kept going even though I’m in debt.

One thing about writing songs for other artists is you rely on other people in your network to take that work out there?

MICHELLE: And music is very subjective. Some of the biggest songs I’ve had, I cant stand but they’re a hit. So something you write today might happen in 5 years time and you can’t figure out why. You have to listen to people who’ve been doing it for a while and you have to give the work away and detach yourself.

What advice do you think teachers and educators should be passing on to people who have decided I want a career in music.

YOLANDA: I think it is help the creator to find their identity. Often in lessons or work shops, you leave with a lot of information but you can’t find yourself within it and you have to believe a lot. You have to know what it is you are trying to say. You’ve got to stand for something. What do you say on social media or when you’re interviewed?

MICHELLE:  And it is not one size fits all. If a student has created their own way to do something and it is working, I say show me how you did it. I can share my knowledge but that might not work for you so you can try other ways. I’m a believer in learning through doing.

You mentioned that you wear multiple hats, I wanted to ask you about some of your other projects. Michelle, how did your work at PRS come about?

MICHELLE: I ran away from it for a few years and thought why would I do that as a creative? Then I had a meeting with them and we spoke about music, the rights of music, how music is being exploited and I got hooked in.

So on the members council, I’d question things from a creative point of view. People said that was a bridge between membership and management when they encouraged me to go for the president role. It’s being that conduit between listening to the membership and understanding what composers publishers, writers want and taking it back to PRS.

YolanDa, the recent role you took on was the role at the BPI – tell us how that came about.

YOLANDA: I was on tour with Billy Ocean and they emailed me and asked me to interview. Having been an independent artist I know that the artist’s voice isn’t always heard around the table. The industry didn’t necessarily see me as the type to fill that chair but it is really remarkable to see how it is working. I’m loving being able to speak with the members, the labels the indy labels and the amazing team that work tirelessly to make sure that the voice is heard. As Michelle said, the artist, the voice of the practitioners should be round the table helping with future strategy and should be listened to.

So you’re writers and artists but you’re also running your own businesses and so you’re all joined by your passion for music but you’re all entrepreneurial.

YOLANDA: The great thing about the industry today is artists that have been signed are already businesses. They’ve already got millions of followers, some have hits , hard drives full of musics.

MICHELLE: That’s also how we evolve. you have to engage with independents, artist entrepreneurs. songwriter entrepreneurs. They learn things we will never know because were not in the trenches like that. That’s how we stay fresh and keep learning. I’m always blown away by these young artists and the things that they do.You’ve got to keep learning and evolving.