He’s interviewed Prince Charles and David Cameron for his YouTube channel, has been invited to create content for Michelle Obama, and helped to launch the career of Ed Sheeran. SBTV founder Jamal Edwards MBE sat down with journalist Rick Edwards at Vanity Fair and Intelligence Squared’s Digital Summit to discuss exactly what it takes to build your own media empire.
For Jamal, it all started when he was given a video camera for his fifteenth birthday. With no filmmaking training or experience, he set about recording music and artists from the grime scene, and began uploading them to YouTube simply so his wider circle of friends could watch them. The likes soon flooded in, and SBTV was born; although it was still some time before he started to make any money from the channel and his mum let him quit his job at Topman. “It’s mad,” he says, “it’s a 360. I’ve now got a range of hats at Topman.”
Jamal’s workload has long since grown beyond homemade music videos; SBTV now generates revenue from live music coverage and merchandise, and the channel is currently moving more into branded content. But the underlying message in everything he does is self-belief: “A person overcoming their problems, or a person trying to inspire self-belief… that can be applied to music, fashion, comedy, sport, business.”
Daring to be different
So what’s the key to engaging content? Jamal has a shortlist of factors he looks out for. “Being entertaining, funny, scary, not covered by the mainstream media, nostalgic, or something else.” In the case of SBTV, it was both entertaining and something you weren’t likely to find on a mainstream TV channel or radio station. Back in 2006, that filled a definite gap in the market.
When he was starting out, Jamal admits he kept his eyes too much on major networks and platforms like MTV, to the detriment of his own product. Now he’s learned that imitation gets you nowhere, and his focus is on keeping his ear to the ground and surrounding himself with people who share his passion. “Chase your dreams, not the competition,” he says.
Championing the unknown
Of course, it would be impossible to talk about online music without mentioning the two services which have caused the most recent fuss; Jay-Z’s Tidal and Apple’s new Music platform. Can a little fish take on these sharks? According to Jamal, absolutely. It’s not necessarily about being a big or a small company; “it’s always the talent that you attach to it. So I’m always trying to find talent before they hit Tidal or Apple.” That means trawling the web looking for undiscovered artists, and even taking that search offline, reaching out to buskers, “leaving no rock unturned.”
You could say that believing in the unknown is an integral part of Jamal’s business model. It’s also hugely important to SBTV’s fans.
“If you find an artist that has about 5,000 views, you’re much more excited to show it to your friends and say ‘I shared this first’, than someone who has millions of views,” he says. “It’s sort of a badge against the whole social community… and that’s the same for the Google Chrome advert.” He’s referring to the second most viewed ad on of 2011, which told the story of SBTV and resulted in the website crashing from a subsequent influx of searches. “When people started watching that, they felt like they contributed to the success of SBTV,” he says.
And that, quite possibly, is where SBTV has platforms like Tidal against the ropes; its fans and artists alike feel connected to the channel’s journey, because its success is their success. Say what you will about Jay-Z, the man’s no underdog.