Having played with his band, Colenso Parade, for nine years since, he worked his way through the Northern Irish music industry before securing a spot at BBC Radio 1.
As a specialist in new and alternative music, he has since given first radio plays to the likes of Royal Blood, London Grammar, Jorja Smith, Lewis Capaldi, Billie Eilish and Years & Years.
Not content with breaking new bands on-air, he has also started his own record label, Hometown Records, releasing Rat Boy, Rejjie Snow, TOUTS, Yonaka and Rhodes.
Now, in his first book, The Slacker Guide to the Music Industry, Phil shares his industry expertise garnered from years working both behind the scenes and on-air.
With contributions from Biffy Clyro, Run the Jewels, Charli XCX and George Ezra, as well as Help Musicians UK and some of the leading business brains in the industry, it offers a robust road map to success.
Here, we pick Phil’s brains about what he learned when putting the book together and glean his top tips for musicians at all stages of their careers…
What gave you the idea for the book in the first place?
I played in bands and have been around music since I was 14. When you’re starting out you don’t even know how to record a demo, never mind get anyone to hear it or put on a gig.
I was in the band for about nine years and over that time we made so many mistakes and relied on so much second-hand information that wasn’t very good. There’s not really anything out there for artists just starting out. People spend way too much time trying to figure out the ins and outs of the music industry. If I can write that down for you, maybe you can spend more time working on tracks?
You spoke to Biffy Clyro, Run the Jewels, Charli XCX, and George Ezra – all very different artists. Did they have similar experiences to share?
Everybody has a similar enough experience. At the very beginning everyone has the same experience because not many people are well-versed in how to record a track or even how to finish writing one. So everybody has to go through the same teething pains.
There is a shared story between them all. Anyone who’s making music at the minute will know. It’s one of those mad rollercoasters – one minute you absolutely love it, you completely believe in it and you think your track is the best thing ever and that you should be up there alongside your peers. Then, two days later, you feel absolutely worthless. That’s just the experience of being creative.
Where do most musicians go wrong when they’re starting out?
When you’re starting out and you finish a song, you’re smiling and you just want to get it out there. You’ve been working away on your laptop and it’s a Road to Damascus moment – the sky has opened up and the sun is beaming down on top of you. You think it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever written and the tendency is to rush it out without actually give that song the justice it needs.
If you want to release a piece of music you have to get everything else right first – you have to get your social media down, and do all the behind-the-scenes stuff. You see people firing music out on Soundcloud and wondering why it’s not working – it’s because they haven’t thought about what to do with it but stick it online.
If you post a track online you’re battling with 50 billion other tracks so you’ve got to be clever in how you put it out. The competition is stiff and it’s not getting any less.
What are the trickiest areas of the music business to navigate?
The trickiest bit for 99 percent of artists is money. It is possible to make lo-fi bedroom demos if you’re a lo-fi indie musician, but if you’re in a band or a group, even just paying for rehearsal rooms or travel to a gig becomes problematic. There’s a big difference between a DJ getting paid £50 and a five-piece rock band getting paid £50 for a show.
There’s a chapter in the book about funding, and there is money out there for artists. Most people at certain stages in their career are eligible for it. For example, Help Musicians UK, who helped fund the book, have information on their website about where you can get money from.
What have you learned from compiling the book?
On the industry side, I learned loads about publishing, how it works and how important it is for the finances. From speaking to artists, I learned how resilient they are, and how much self-belief they have. That’s MCs, pop stars, indie bands, singer-songwriters – they all have so much self-belief and yet they are able to question that self-belief too. That seems to be the thing that really sets people apart from those who don’t make it. They won’t take no.
You’ve got a whole chapter on publishing – what are your words of wisdom on that?
In the book, Mike Smith from Warner/Chappell talks about it from the major publisher perspective, signing big acts and songwriters. But you don’t have to be a big songwriter to sign your publishing. There are lots of places out there for you. For example, I spoke to Simon Pursehouse from Sentric Music – they take on publishing for pretty music anybody.
If your music is getting played anywhere, in a coffee shop or if you’re playing a gig, and you’re not signed up to PRS for Music, PPL and someone like Sentric Music, you’re missing out on money that’s owed to you. There’s a staggering amount of people who are owed a lot of money and who don’t know anything about it. That’s the difference between you being able to record another EP or demo.
Who gave you the best nugget of wisdom?
Frank Turner said that you could feed a whole band and crew if you went into a pizza buffet with a hat on. Then you go into the toilets and swap jackets and the hat with another person – do that over and over again until everyone is fed on one person’s buffet cost. The tip from HINDS was don’t choose a joke name!
The Slacker Guide to the Music Industry is published on 16 May. Phil will launch the book at The Great Escape, Brighton, tomorrow (Thursday 9 May) at a panel session hosted by Help Musicians UK. Joining Phil will be two artists at different stages of their careers; Laurie Vincent - guitarist and one half of Slaves, and AWATE - an emerging Eritrean rapper from Camden known for his sharp lyrics and one of the first recipients of the MOBO Help Musicians Fund.
The book will be available to buy after the session. Preorders available at www.philtaggartslacker.com