Our regular Job Focus feature takes a peek at jobs across the whole of the music industry. This time, we speak to James Heather, Head of Communications at the legendary label, Ninja Tune. We find out how his passion for music led him to working at the independent record label started by Coldcut.
Hi, please introduce yourself!
"Hello, I'm James Heather and I'm Head of Communications at Ninja Tune."
How would you explain how you got to this part of your career at Ninja Tune?
"I've always had a connection to different styles of music. As a child, my Grandad taught me how to compose on the piano, something I do to this day. One of the things that interested me about music was the human stories behind why it might have been made. At the age of 20, I moved to London from Southampton to complete a joint degree in media & cultural studies & criminology. In my spare time I found work experience at Mojo, NME and then made contact with the PR’s of my favourite labels, which included Ninja Tune. By now I had decided I wanted to be in the 'engine room,' at a record label and was realising that there were many jobs in the industry, in addition to being a performer.
"I managed to get in with Ninja Tune for work experience, helped by the fact I had interviewed their artist Roots Manuva as a journalist on my student newspaper the previous year. Whilst finishing education I worked as the 'merch guy' for the labels artist The Cinematic Orchestra, who I loved, on their 2003 European Tour. When I graduated I took a full-time Press Assistant role at Ninja Tune and became part of the promotions team."
What would be your advice for anyone that wants to follow a similar path or passion?
"Don't be a dick! Beyond that you need to have a mixture of knowledge, self motivation and a thick skin. Follow your passion is obvious but also essential. I was always making mixtapes for friends, family and girls I fancied. Music was everything to me, which once at Ninja Tune has turned into a career. I learnt from the responses journalists gave me and read their writings until I had a good idea of how to filter the right music to the right people to be most efficient. Personally, I've learnt how to do my job, on the job. My peers at Ninja Tune have been great at guiding and pushing me. I think it's more important to understand the world and have awareness and empathy when representing artists than to have a set of straight A's. "
What project or moment are you most proud of?
"Anniversaries are always lovely moments at Ninja Tune when the teams and artists come together to celebrate special moments. I'm pleased with being involved with three artist nominations for the Mercury Music Prize and to have won twice. Being around the vision of Young Fathers and Kate Tempest has been incredible in the last few years."
"I was part of the Ninja Tune 20th anniversary party team at Ewer St Car Park, in London. We managed to get almost all our artists together, spread across 3 railway arches of the warehouse for a truly one off event. We never could have predicted the biblical storms that started to leak into the venue. It’s a night firmly in Ninja legend. I've also loved being involved in our founders Coldcut's Solid Steel Radio Show and also try to continue their good work in areas of activism to engage with people working to do good. We're involved in more projects than ever in these areas. Ninja Tune also work alongside Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder and Actress’ Werkdiscs and to be working with these artists is inspiring. I’m also lucky to have worked with Bonobo since his early career at Ninja, and have witnessed him become one of the most important artists in electronic music, worldwide."
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome career wise or on a particular project?
"A constant challenge is working with maximum effort and creativity to get our art heard amongst the noise. The industry transition from analogue consumption to building relationships with fans across channels has meant adapting our ways. Its important to champion artist integrity on the right channels, therefore, knowledge of where and how to push their art couldn't be more important today. Often artists are selective about who they'll work with due to time and other things, and rightfully so, it's my responsibility to ensure and streamline the mass of options. Communications and PR is a key link between artist and fans. A real challenge is to remain healthy and in turn focused. Work is busy at the best of times that it requires late nights, weekend working and dealing with rock’n’roll personalities!"
How has the business you’re in changed over your time in the job and how have you stayed up to speed with those changes?
"Ninja Tune has grown a lot since I joined, it’s now three times the size. The entire industry has shifted its relationship with how music is consumed. I started in this business before the opportunities of things like Social Media that we have today, it was before You Tube came around and before digital music started to get monetised efficiently. It was before magazines had much of a digital presence. This has allowed me grow the specialisms of our team.
"PR always has to evolve, editorial is important of course but there is more to think of too and it’s all intertwined. We are a communications team that engages with the best medium and opportunities to maximise global reach, whilst personally I still do UK press on acts, as I always have, as that's core for a UK founded indie. I feel you have to be open minded in this business. Change comes fast but experience is what keeps you grounded. The traditional ways of promoting artists has changed and I like how this industry is open to younger people coming through."
What are the tools you couldn't do your job without - or wouldn't want to!
"Definitely my calendar – It's synced to all my devices! Back in the day I used to try and keep everything in my brain until one day it felt like it was going to explode! Managing time is key and technology has enabled me to do my job more effectively. Though I think I take it too far as sometimes I get a reminder to scratch my nose! Also, I tweet! Technology can enable of course but I like to think being human will always win."