Jamal Edwards: taking SBTV from the estate to the world

Back in 2013, we interviewed Jamal Edwards, the late founder of music and media platform SBTV, who discussed the early days of his business and his mission to break down barriers for creative talent.

From time to time, you come across someone who leaves a lasting impact. Jamal Edwards, music expert and founder of SBTV, who sadly passed away on 20 February, was one such person. 

From a YouTube channel Jamal started in 2006 as a teenager – using a camera he got as a Christmas gift from his parents – SBTV grew into a multi-dimensional media brand that was known for putting emerging artists, such as Ed Sheeran, Dave and Jessie J, on the map. It also gave Jamal a platform to work on the social, philanthropic and charitable causes he was passionate about, meaning his legacy will live on well beyond the world of music.

Below is an edited extract of an interview we did with Jamal back in 2013, for our third issue of the magazine.

Let's kick things off by hearing how SBTV started?

A. ‘Everyone on the estate [housing development] was always talking to each other and messing about. I just thought: why not start filming my friends and putting it online? Unlike now, when everyone is posting things on YouTube, back in the day, people were like: “Oh my God, I’m on YouTube!” There was a really big buzz around my area. After that, I just started uploading more and more.’

What were the challenges when you started out?

A. ‘Getting bigger artists on SBTV was hard in the beginning. I'd go [to] labels and PRs and they weren't really positive about their artists getting on a YouTube channel. A breakthrough was when I was able to say: “Look, this person has done it – why can't your artist do it?”

‘Trying to juggle everything while I was in college was another obstacle. But there were things that worked for me. I was young and on the pulse of YouTube, with a new idea that nobody was doing that got a lot of people excited.’

What did you have to learn in those early days breaking new ground as a media channel?

A. ‘At first, I just used to think, “What am I doing wrong?” and “How can I improve?” But things like MTV and similar around at the time were really big organizations for me to get the ins and outs of. I looked at who they were contacting [and] what they were filming on, but it wasn't that useful to look to them to make my videos better. So, I just stepped back a little bit and started doing what I knew really well. I knew the grime and rap scene like the back of my hand, so I just thought: alright, let me just build this up. I got up to 10 million views, and then I got [singer] Sean Kingston and people like that. I could see that SBTV could get bigger and bigger.

‘I definitely want to get all kinds of people and showcase them. The other day I came across Michael Acton Smith from [children's gaming brand] Moshi Monsters and asked him if I could interview him for my channel. He's not connected to rap or grime, but [he's] still a really talented person in his area.’

Is it strategic or in your nature to discover people and bring them together?

A. ‘I just like the fact I can put both ends of the spectrum on the same platform. That's what gets me hyped. When I get round to doing my new site, I want people to be able to come on there for everything really. Talent is talent – that's the whole message from me.’

Does that democratization of equal platforms give way to similar creator breakthroughs?

A. ‘I'm not scared, but I know you've got to step up to the next level. That's why I did my first investment recently. I'm getting a [managing director for] business development and taking it to that next level because, although SBTV is at a very good level right now, I want to do more on the creative side and I'm currently doing too much of the business stuff. I should be trying to find the next artist. I'm trying to find the next MC and the next singer. I want to find the next entrepreneur with a cool idea, all that sort of stuff. I think there's an abundance of those types of people out there.

‘I started SBTV just filming and now I hardly do filming. Instead, it's things that bog me down. I always said, if I lose my passion, I'm going to go and do something else. That's what I think will keep me at the front and – I'm not going to lie – at the moment, I've been doing a lot of the business stuff, which I don't want to do. I want to learn about the business stuff, but the balance that I'm doing now – it's like 75% business and 25% me going out and finding people. I want it to be at least the other way around, so it's important that I don't lose track of that.

‘There's this quote I like: “Open your arms to change, but don't let go of your values.” When I moved SBTV on from grime and rap and got Ed Sheeran out, it was quite a big leap for me. I was sitting in the kitchen going: I don't know if these grime heads are going to like me! [I] ended up just thinking: nah, trust, let's do it. I was opening my arms to change, but my core value was still to showcase talent regardless of what you do. Now, I want to try to find acoustic acts, fashion designers or game designers.’

What do you feel are the barriers to creative talent being unlocked?

A. ‘It's quite hard to [be able to] afford to make a music video or buy studio time, especially if you're making something like grime and rap. When I did the front cover of Intelligent Life [a lifestyle and culture magazine, now called 1843], it opened me up to a whole new world. I had these people emailing me, asking me about grime and rap and that's obviously taking the culture to another level. A family emailed me saying they want to get involved in the music scene – they said they've got loads of money and want to invest it somewhere, which was mad. It's still an undiscovered culture.’

This article was first published in Courier issue 3 in 2013. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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