Interview: David Borrie of Pirate Studios on Pirate Prodigy, and breaking the music industry

From an initial 2,000 entries, to a short-list of 30, then 10, the end of last month saw four bands/artists crowned the winners of Pirate Prodigy – a competition set up by Pirate Studios, backed by the likes of John McClure and Kate Nash, as well as the teams behind Liam Gallagher and The Libertines, to help kick-start some careers.

It’s clear that the people behind Pirate Studios are incredibly passionate about the new generation of artists. “We were looking for an opportunity to give back to all of the thousands of musicians that have rehearsed with us across our various locations in the UK,” explains David Borrie (CEO), “and having done lots of pirate lives with lots of members of our community before we saw loads and loads of talent and we were just surprised it had never really been picked up or recognised.” Realising that there was a whole host of bands across the country that could probably do with some help, Pirate Prodigy was born. It’s clear from the off that David wants to do more – “unfortunately we could only pick four this time but the plan is, if this works, we’ve got a template for it and hopefully then we can start firing this out to more bands” – but even small scale it proves their huge appreciation for budding talent.

And it certainly wasn’t an easy task, with a mammoth 2,000 entries to be sifted through. “We were all a little taken aback with the number of entries – certainly the guys on the talent team who diligently worked their way through all of the entries,” says Borrie. “It was overwhelming to be honest with you, but it gave us a really good insight into just how many talented bands there are playing in all these different locations.”

The result of so many applications is an eclectic mix of winners: The Seamonsters, a Sheffield based 6-piece teenage girl band; Red Rum Club, taking the UK by storm with their unique mariachi-inspired indie-rock; Burgeoning songsmith; Alex Ohm, from the small historic village of Gornal Wood; and Yves, a Swindon 3 piece, who have grown a UK fan base with their grafting DIY approach. And the diversity goes far beyond just the winners.

“When we whittled it down to the 30 bands there was still a huge, huge diversity there,” says David. “Everything from kind of metal down to electronic and grime, rock and indie, then obviously this kind of Mexican-inspired mariachi style Red Rum Club. It’s been awesome actually. It’s certainly opened our eyes to a lot of different music that’s going on at the moment.”

And with all the winners bringing something different to the table, and all at different stages in their careers, it makes the venture even more exciting for the team at Pirate Studios.

Back to the initial 2,000, though – why does David think so many people jumped on the opportunity for their support? Does it say something about the wider climate of the music industry? He answers such a loaded question with admirable ease:

“There are so many answers I could give to it but I’ll whittle it down to what I personally believe is at the heart of it, which is that musicians are struggling to make money from music at the moment. It’s expensive for them to create their content so when they have a single, album, EP, or video, it all costs a lot of money, especially if it’s done to the standard they want it to be done at so their fans can enjoy it. Then the problem is once their content is created, it’s very difficult for them to get that content to pay back, so it’s effectively like a bottomless pit of money that keeps going out of these artists’ accounts for them to pay for their labour of love for us to all enjoy but for them not to get paid for.”

The problem is, these bottomless pits of money don’t exist. And while musicians’ work is a labour of love, it is also, ideally, their job too. They can’t do it for free. “There needs to be a change,” says David. “ I know people will point at the fact that people can earn revenue from Spotify and the likes at the moment, which is true; depending on the distribution deal you’ve got there is money to be made there but I think more needs to be done. People point to live music and say people can still make money from gigs, but with lots of venues closing down that avenue’s being closed down as well. I don’t think it’s hampered anyone’s will to create music but I think it’s hampered their ability to make money from it.”

This endless cycle – the inability to play a gig unless you have the time or money, but the lack money unless you have a job which means less time to play the gig; the chance to make music from streaming sites, but only if you have the money to record in the first place – is terrifying for new artists. It’s an impossible loop, “and eventually the world just ends up with fewer musicians,” David muses.

Looking at these issues in the industry, the Pirate Prodigy winners are worthy ones. The Seamonsters are young, breaking into the industry alongside exams, Red Rum Club are care workers alongside music, Alex Ohm, a primary school teacher, and one of Yves is an accountant by day.

“It’s crazy,” David says, “but it’s what you have to do these days, if you want the funds to create the music you have to have income coming in from elsewhere because people can’t rely on their music to keep them.” Pirate Studios are on the way to changing that though: “We’re trying to look at the bigger picture here and look at ways and means of putting more money back in the artists pocket.”

And what of the names they have behind the scheme – John McClure and Kate Nash, among others. Why were they chosen?

“I think we wanted people who were active in actually helping musicians. John McClure has done an awful lot in his local area in Sheffield to bring through artists: he’s got artists like Blackwaters who’ve actually moved to Sheffield from Kent just to be supervised by him and mentored by him. He plays a big part in helping younger musicians in that scene that he believes in.”

Nash, David acknowledges, is an important female take. “With Kate, she’s a strong, independent female voice that we thought was really, really important because, especially in the climate we have today, everyone is looking to push female music. And Kate has been such a pioneer for that throughout her career we thought she’d be a great advocate for that in the programme. And some good advice for the females that we have on board.”

It’s true: being a young musician trying to break into the music industry is one thing, being female is another, but with the Pirate Studios team behind them, as well as John and Kate, the winners are sure to have the solid advice they need. “Both can speak with experience about what it’s really like to get to that level in music, and how it is that they’ve got there, and the work, time and effort – and often money – that goes into that. It’s great to be able to have it from both sides.”

Pirate Studios aren’t slowing down on their mission to make life infinitely easier for new artists trying to break the industry. “We’re going to try and provide [musicians] a way to create quality content at an affordable price. There are lots and lots of things happening with technology in the world that are enabling people to share what they’re doing with the world, and we’re looking to expand what we offer into that kind of realm.”

And what of the four Prodigy winners? Where does David hope they’ll be in a year’s time?

“I probably have to take that on a case by case basis, just because each is at completely different stages in their career, but rather than give one long answer for each, what I’ll share with you is – my aim for all of them is to put them in a position, or put them on the way to, achieve their dream which is make all of their money from music and pursue a full career in music without having to work the jobs on the side and do the various other bits. They can concentrate on making their music and sharing it with their fans.”

The passion behind not just Pirate Prodigy, but the studios in general and in everything David is trying to do is enough to fill even the biggest cynics with hope for the future of the music industry, and we’re sure they can make a difference.

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Melissa Svensen

Melissa Svensen

Melissa, 22. Editor. Student, music journalist, probably talking about Blur or Bowie