I looked at all the losses I’d taken in life and stopped worrying about all this shit

By Dylan Robinson

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London-based rapper and entrepreneur ARTAN had a well-deserved breakthrough year off the back of the global single ‘She’s A 10 But…’ and its imperious stamp across your pages and suggested song playlists. As he reflects on how it happened, we speak about the industry he has gotten to know all too well, how he’s navigated it and what is next for an artist who is enjoying the fruits of his labour as much as he is sharing bangers with those who took the journey with him.

Talk to us about 2023 for ARTAN; obviously, ‘3.5 and a Dream’ dropped off the back of ‘She’s A 10 But…’ What’s changed, and what does it mean to you?

It was definitely my most successful year in music. I’ve been doing music now for seven years, and I’ve kind of evolved from grime to hip hop, slow and melodic music, then into more lo-fi alternative rap. So ‘3.5 and a Dream’ was the first project I’ve ever released of alt-rap, like this more lo-fi, relaxed, smooth sound. I used to make a lot of in-your-feels sad music, and I still make that, but I’ve grown and progressed so much as a person, and I think this has carried through into my music. I wanted the title ‘3.5 and a Dream’ for over a year cause back in the day, that was all I had, like there’s a photo on my Instagram from back in the day going five-ways on an eighth with the mandem, like just thinking of not being here, so yeah to release this tape and it be the best performing tape I’ve ever done is a real milestone for me. Since then, I’ve done shows in Copenhagen, Amsterdam and other European cities, which is literally what I dreamt of, and it’s only the start, which is amazing.

Why do you think this project was so well received?

When I make more of my deeper music, it might become like a fan favourite and be your favourite song, but it doesn’t spread like that. Meanwhile, the current music I’m making is happier, cheekier, and more vibey and is the kind of music I would play on a night out, and that spreads a lot faster. Naturally, harder, harder-hitting music, like more upbeat, spreads faster cause it doesn’t take as much to buy into it. Especially if you’re out with the mandem and you’re on the aux like you aren’t gunna play so much in-your-feels music, like Adele, even though that might be your favourite tune, cause it doesn’t suit the vibe; it suits the vibe when you’re at home, like ‘wow this really touched me’. I’m also getting better at making catchy songs that I would listen to when I’m out and that’s always been something I’ve wanted to do. The more I do it, the better I get at it. I wanna make songs that I would tump in the car with the mandem like it’s fun, and I’m glad that’s part of my sound now.

Would you say this is truer to yourself as a person, and how have you managed to achieve that?

Definitely, personal development comes into it. I’ve always said the music I made at the time reflects me as a person, and before the last year, I’d been quite down and had a lot of things in my life affecting me. I was struggling financially, doing multiple 9-5 jobs, hoping each month that music would pop off, like putting all my money into music, borrowing from people, scraping rent, etc. I am talented at other things, but cause I wanted to focus on this (music) and make this one thing happen, the rest will have to fall apart, and then you think, have I been wasting all this time in my life? That’s why I say about the reaper chasing me cause it just felt like time was on my back and it was a cycle I would go through regularly. I tried to make a bunch of changes to my life and focus more on my side hustles, other hobbies and my progression aside from music. I looked at all the losses I’d taken in life and stopped worrying about all this shit, and started focusing on everything. That’s when music started to work for me. You have to have that mentality that it’s all or nothing, but in the same breath, you have to integrate other areas of your life into music to relieve the pressure cause that’s when it actually works.

How do you view the London rap scene at this time, and has it changed at all since you started putting music out?

First of all, I think the UK rap scene is in an amazing place- I think it’s in the best place it’s ever been. We’ve got people like Central Cee, who was on the same level as me before he dropped ‘Day in the Life’, and so many other artists who are performing on a global scale, like we thought Europe or America was the thing, but we’re taking over the globe. People also look to the UK for inspiration; we’re in an amazing space. How has it changed? Things come in cycles, but I would say the Grime era was the most influential cause. That’s when a real scene was created, then that sort of got adapted into drill, and now that’s sort of changing too. It’s partly cause people grow up and want to listen to a wider range of music; imagine as a kid you’re really into heavy dubstep, then one day to wanna listen to something a bit more chill so you put on some liquid dnb, that’s kinda how peoples taste change and grow. That’ll happen to the scene now, too. You’re seeing more people going into the alt-rap or lo-fi space cause they want a different vibe. I do think, though, that UK artists need to be appreciated more in other English-speaking countries abroad; we have so much talent here but just not enough consumer base.

All do not share this positive take on the UK scene but just show ARTAN’s outlook.

Although the hip-hop scene and Boombap labels and spaces have definitely subsided, new versions of rap music are taking shape- we just need the right places and people to facilitate its growth and exposure. Artists with formal management and label backing will always find it easier to breach foreign borders; Australian and New Zealand audiences, in particular, are starting to pick up on some of the gems the UK has to offer.

Is it on the artists to get themselves received abroad?

It is always on the artist to take accountability and get themselves into other countries and do collabs with other European artists or wherever they may be, but at the same time, I know first-hand how hard that is to do. I think labels, or like collections, should try and bridge the gap, say, from here to the French market or the German market, but it is down to the artist like no one is going to do that for you. There’s definitely more that could be done on both sides. Take the YouTube space, not to name names, but that is kind of dying off now, and I think there should be some new platforms to facilitate these new sounds cause, at the moment, there are none. Colours, for example, was a good space, but a label has bought it, so it’s harder to get on there now- there needs to be new spaces for these new styles of music.

Who should or can facilitate that, and what are the pitfalls of these spaces?

This is the conversation now. As an artist, I should just be talking about music, but now it’s marketing. You can’t even upload a YouTube video or a TikTok anymore. You have to post in a certain way consistently. Don’t get me wrong, some artists do really well in these spaces, and there’s a lot of thought that goes on behind it, but we are in quite a confusing place as artists where there’s so much pressure on being marketable, doing the right content and consistent content, that it takes away from what the music is which is annoying to me. Even for me, for example, Song A I thought was a really good song, but Song B was just easier to market on Tiktok so that as an artist makes you want to make music like that when really you should just make the best music you can and everything will follow. Sometimes, that doesn’t happen, and if Song B was the catalyst for more views and you can channel that into something, then great, but you shouldn’t need to think like that. As artists, we should just make music, figure out our branding and let everything else take its course.

I help other artists with branding and bits; everyone has the same issue. Some people just know how to video edit well, then they rap a bit, and the next thing you know, they’re doing these cool TikTok, and they can produce this amazing content in a 1-minute piece- it sets them apart from the rest. That’s just the game and you can’t hate on it, everything evolves; the hood-rappers back in the day didn’t want to do music videos, they’d do mix-tapes then catch on too late for music videos and be doing them when Tiktok’s the thing.

It is certainly the game and a double-edged one at that. On the one hand, making music for an audience can devalue the music or artist’s direction, but on the other, it can also provide an artist with a massive audience boost. There is a fine line between using the tools at your disposal and selling out. The TikTok argument will divide rappers indefinitely and also shows a difference in generations; whereas new rappers will use everything to increase their exposure, older rappers see these new tools as damaging to the scene they have helped create. Onto your stuff, our latest single ‘Ammy or Anxiety’ is primarily vocalising, is this something you enjoy and can we expect to see more?

Yeah I’ve always been melodic, like 90% of my songs have a melodic element whether it’s me singing the hook or something. ‘Ammy or Anxiety’ was something I released for my old Artan fans, just to remind them I’m still here and can still release this kind of music when I please- cause ultimately, I release music for myself. I wanted to reinstate that. I’m a melodic person, and it’s down to the right time and place for that to happen, and it will happen again in the future. For now, I’m in my rap bag, and I love it.

What musical influences have played a part in this change?

Historically it was a lot of Ghetts and Devlin, like Chip, but my music now it’s less about showing off your flow or how fast you can rap, for me anyway, I don’t listen to rap to be like ‘oh my god that was a double entendre’. The most important thing is the vibe, how it makes me feel, and the second is, does it sound clean? Do I think I would’ve changed this, or are there too many gaps? Does it sound clean when I’m sparking a spliff? Can I chill out and not over-deep it? As of recently, I’d say Central Cee is an influence for me… Blanco, Sainté I listen to.

Is a level of maturity needed to succeed in the rap scene?

No maturity is needed. To be honest with you, the less mature you are, the better. We are in a world of social media, and the whackier you are on social media, the more attention you will get, whether it’s good or bad; ultimately, you could channel it into something. 6ix9ine, for example, people were saying he was going to fall off, but he just switched his audience and made Latino music and is absolutely killing it. The younger you are and the more immature you are you kind of have an advantage cause you break more boundaries and you don’t care so much about the industry and what people think.

How important is being independent to you?

The whole independent vs signed argument is a really crap argument that everyone talks about like you don’t own your masters and that. A lot of people don’t understand how expensive it is to be independent; being independent and being successful is a flex, and being independent and not earning mad amounts isn’t really. For some people, getting signed is the best thing that ever happens to them; for others, they’ll make one track, it won’t do well, and they’ll get shelved. It’s all down to your contract, your team and what suits you. I am independent now, and I used to preach that, but bro, it was cause no labels were offering me a deal. It’s all situational, like 100% of nothing is nothing, and I don’t think people should be too concerned about selling masters or whatever- you don’t know what they want to do with that capita, so yeah.

Is starting a label ever something you’d want to do?

Yeah, I plan to do some more side hustle once I get my career to a really good place that I’m happy with. I wouldn’t necessarily say a label, but maybe a fund where I put some money in to create a distributing company with marketing and stuff there. I wouldn’t really want money from it, but if I saw someone with talent, be like, here’s a budget for your project, and hopefully that gets them in a position where they can be seen more. I’d do it as a passion project.

How does the music industry work as a business, and how could it improve?

It is one of the worst businesses I’ve encountered regarding return on investment. Plus, everyone is trying to get the next leg up, so you’ve got to be very wary of that. In terms of artists and how they get paid, talking about myself, streaming money is atrocious; a million streams gets you four grand and to get a million streams is a fucking massive achievement, so chances are your music video costs you two grand, maybe the beat was five hundred. The graphics and stuff, so after a million streams, you’ve earned a grand, maybe, and you don’t say a million streams lightly. Spotify has created a bit of a monopoly as the market leader, and they could afford to pay their artists better, which would make more artists want to put music on there and ultimately make them more money.

What’s coming up in 2024 for ARTAN?

I got my London headline show on the 9th of March, which I’m super excited about, and an Amsterdam show, too, but I would say the most exciting thing is the new music. So I’ve got a song ‘NPC’ which may be out by the time this comes out, which is a brazey tune, you know I’m in my rap-bag, in my good vibes. Then I’ve got another big-boy tune which is coming out at the end of April; these are like loudspeaker songs like ‘These Are Gunna Fly’. We’ll play them at the London show and see what the reaction is, but yeah, this year should be really good. I’ve got a lot of stuff, both upbeat and more down stuff, to drop, so yeah, my old fans and my new fans are going appreciate that.

What would you say to an artist who is thinking of giving up pursuing music?

This is my screensaver and I’d stand by that. I’d say if you feel like that about a project or vision, you just have to give it one last try, and one last try and one last try, and in the end, if you’re smart about it, eventually something will happen. Before I dropped ‘She’s A 10 But…’ I hadn’t dropped a song in like ten months, and I was depressed. I didn’t know what anyone liked. Is it my marketing, is it my branding? What is it? Then we dropped ‘She’s A 10 But…’ and it’s the most well-received and global song I’ve ever done. I can honestly say I’m glad I’m here, and I stuck it out.

It’s the classic Never Giving Up meme where a guy is walking away from a mountain of diamonds because he stopped mining just before them… well ARTAN didn’t stop mining. Independent or signed, global or up and coming, if you want to progress, you have to persevere, and despite a massively successful year, ARTAN looks set to top it as the desire to expand never wanes… he’s in his fucking space. And he’s revelling in it.

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