Written by Ellie Muir – as part of Youth Music Next Gen
As President of Straight Forward Music Group, Dani Stephenson has been working in the music industry for over 15 years, achieving a Brit Award, two Brit nominations and two Grammy nominations, and winning various other awards from ASCAP, BMI and PRS. He has worked with artists such as Anne-Marie, Drake, J Hus, Katy Perry, Kanye West, Nana Rogues and P Diddy.
Dani has worked against the odds to strive for success, demonstrating how consistent motivation can help outweigh your circumstances, whatever they are.
In an interview with Youth Music, Dani shares his personal journey and the insights he has gained from his experiences.
As the President of Straight Forward Music Group, what can you tell us about the company?
Straight Forward is a global 360 incubator that specialises in the areas of Artist Development, Talent Management, Music Distribution, Publishing, Technology Innovation, Recording Studios and voluntary educational charity initiatives. Our ethos is to go against the grain of tradition, to push boundaries and innovate. Rather than being a part of popular culture, we strive to create it - and make timeless music and moments people will remember.
The only way we can do that is by empowering the next generation of creatives and business executives to move the industries "straight forward", giving those we work with the infrastructure, knowledge and resources to grow and flourish.
What was your first insight into the music industry, and how did you start your career?
I started out as a producer-songwriter, hopping from studio to studio without really knowing what I was doing. I was just following my passion for music and doing everything I could to gain knowledge and experience. My first opportunity was an internship at AHBS Community Radio at Ashford hospital as an assistant producer for the daytime shows.
By a stroke of luck, I then did a two-month work experience placement at Asylum Special FX Studios in Tooting whilst they were building the set for the MUMMY film at Shepperton Studios, which was an amazing insight into the world of film.
After a couple of months of scouring newspaper ads and sending out many CVs, I managed to secure an internship at BBC World Service, assisting an audio producer for the African and Asian news broadcasts, which gave me a more in-depth understanding of radio from a broadcasters’ perspective.
My first insight into the music industry, before getting a full time gig, was a placement at Def Jam UK, where I worked alongside a marketing consultant during 50 Cent's and Mika's album campaigns. Although from afar, it provided me with great understanding of how a record label works - that was the beginning of my journey.
What were the most significant challenges you faced when you were first starting out?
On a personal level I was raised by a single mother on a council estate, so financially it was a struggle at the beginning. I had to work two part-time jobs to pay for my course at Canterbury College as well as being at home to babysit my little sister whilst my mother worked.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of funds and distance I had to travel, I dropped out of college 18 months down the line, four months before I was due to pass and six months before I was due to enrol on my degree. There was a lot of pressure from the rest of my family to "get a job" as their expectation was to find a trade. If it wasn't for my mother being my biggest fan and fully supporting me and my passion, I guess the outcome could have been a lot different.
From a creative and business perspective, there didn't seem to be much easily accessible information on how to write songs, produce records or follow the path of an A&R / record label executive, so I really had to do a lot of leg work, learn on my feet and network to build relationships. I guess you could say I was winging it!
Do you have any advice for young people interested in a music industry orientated career?
Yes, from my experience the routes of success stem from work ethic, you can be the most talented person in the room, but if you don't work hard at your craft then the chances are you won't reach your full potential. Be persistent: often in life great things can appear when you feel down and out.
Network and surround yourself consistently with people that are better than you, and learn from them. Gaining hands-on experience is crucial for your personal growth so keep learning. Lastly make sure you enjoy what you do, follow your passion.
For young people who face challenging circumstances, how do you think the work being done by Youth Music can benefit those interested in pursuing a career in music?
Youth Music offers a much-needed creative outlet, educational and supportive platform for the next generation of aspiring creatives across communities nationwide. I came from a similar background to a lot of the families being supported by Youth Music and understand that it goes a lot deeper than music, it also helps the parents and extended families by offering much needed respite, a haven of fun and a source of knowledge. It's organisations like this that elevate our communities nationwide for the better.
Who is your biggest inspiration?
From where you are now: is there anything you would tell your younger self when you were first starting out?
It’s the struggles in life that define you and make you stronger, so embrace them. The only limits you have are the ones you create for yourself, so keep dreaming and make them reality.
Dani’s personal journey inspired him to form the Straight Forward Giving Foundation, which aims to give back to the communities that might not have the support or infrastructure to help educate the next generation of budding creatives.
It has been a real pleasure having Dani share his inspirational experiences and wisdom, and if you can take anything away from this interview: determination is the foundation of success.