Kelli-Leigh is a Grammy nominated singer, songwriter, artist and label owner from South London born and bred. In her keynote speech on day two of the MU Members’ Conference 2022, she talked about her personal career journey and what led her to realise just how important it is to trust your gut instinct and stand up against the things that don’t feel right.
The following feature comes from the keynote speech given by Kelli-Leigh on day two of the MU Members’ Conference 2022. If you’re interested in shaping MU policy moving forward, find out more about how to get involved with the MU Delegate Conference 2023.
Respecting the journey we go through
Kelli-Leigh spoke about the “baptism of fire,” she underwent whilst starting out in the music industry, from open mics and function band work, through to becoming a session musician and singing on sample clearance:
“Sometimes I feel like there's a lack of respect to the journey that we as musicians go through, especially when you come from a working class background. A lot of the times we are just wanting to pay our bills, but be in the dream of what we love to do, while excelling and going forward.”
She also discussed how she broke into the world of Backing Vocalists, singing for Adele’s 21 tour across America, the Grammys, the Brits, the Oscars and the Royal Albert Hall. She explained that it was not just a big career moment, but a moment that opened her eyes to the business side of the music industry:
“It started me on a journey of understanding more of the business side of the music industry, how labels work, how management works, and also some of the lack of representation for singers in the music industry.”
Backing Vocalists were being left to the side
In particular she noticed how poor representation could often be for vocalists in session work:
“Lots of band members were looked after, but the singers were very much left off to the side to just sort of work out what their harmonies and their blend would be…And that was quite interesting for me to realise actually, where is the representation here for singers or someone to look up to or a vocal MD?
“Some of those are now starting to happen now. If I quickly sidestep there's an organisation called the Vocal Code who now look out for vocals and vocalists in session work and look at the blend, so if anyone's interested in that’s a side step there.”
We’re utilised for our voices without receiving the credit
Kelli-Leigh discussed some of the factors that continued to get between her, and her developing career as an artist:
“I was always an artist and songwriter myself. But as a working class girl, I wasn't able to prioritise my songwriting and myself as an artist because I was very worried about when the next cheque was coming or my next invoice was going in to pay my rent.”
She explained how it wasn’t until a car crash in 2013 forced her to “completely stop doing what [she] was doing,” that she found herself off tour and back doing the session musician recording work that would lead to her voice getting truly out there.
As Kelli-Leigh’s career built, she began to notice that despite her huge exposure, doors were still being closed in her face:
“That year, 2014, my voice was absolutely everywhere and I was still recovering from my injury and I felt deeply proud and excited…The DJs and producers that I've sung for we're going on to do incredible things, massive gig fees, radio slots, all this kind of stuff, and my name wasn’t being mentioned anywhere.
“And I started to wonder what this actually meant; what it what did it mean for me as an artist? What will it mean for me as a singer? What did it mean for my career? And I spent a lot of that time nervous and fearful because you don't want to rock the boat.
“I started to find myself in the world of pop and dance music which is very heavily dominated by straight white men. And we're very utilised, women and particularly women of colour, which is a term I personally hate…but as we using descriptive terms that seems to be the one right now. We're utilised for our voices to throw back to the Whitney's and the Aretha's, all that kind of stuff.
“But none of us were receiving the credit for the work that we've done. And mainly, just having your name somewhere, it's the opportunity to open more doors. And whilst my voice was everywhere, doors for myself were being shut in my face.”
It’s imperative to understand the business side of the music industry
Kelli-Leigh’s realisation spurred her on to address the inequalities she was noticing:
“I started to push back and I started to say, if you want to use my voice, then you're going to need to credit me and I'm going to need to be paid properly. And I started on my journey of understanding the music business, because the music business is very separate to the creative.
“I think it's really imperative that all artists understand the business side of the music industry because that's what makes the wheels turn and unfortunately in the business aspect, a lot of people are not looking at the creative and the feelings. It's the dotted line and the paycheck, and so we should be on top of that at all times.
“The next couple of years. I started songwriting for pop and dance records and doing more features when we have my name on record.”
Soon Kelli-Leigh found herself singing on a top-ten record, and this time it was released with her name on it. She recalls how exciting the moment was, but also how the opportunities it should have presented never seemed to arrive:
“I was like, okay, I've sung three top ten records now, and I was looking around at some of my peer group and the male artists I’d sung records for and some of the other females that had sung on dance records that had achieved less and been signed. They weren't women of colour.”
“Can we talk about black singers on dance music?”
With her career growing and growing, Kelli-Leigh set up her own label and began to release her own music. A single she released went into the Hot 30 UAE chart, and she was performing at festivals. But she could see how not having management still had its limitations:
“It dawned on me that, hold on, I've got something and I have got a fan base that is out there, but I had to back myself for it to be discovered. Unfortunately not much more happened with that single because I was an independent artist and I didn't have the backing to push it further. But it gave me the hope.”
And then during lockdown, an experience on twitter opened a new conversation:
“There's an amazing guy called Funk Butcher who did a tweet…after the death of George Floyd and the conversations that started to happen around BLM and Black and Brown people, he tweeted: “Can we talk about black singers on dance music?”
“I quote tweeted it and I just said, I sang three top 10 singles, two number ones, one was Grammy nominated, I'm here as an independent artist currently self managing and I don't know what to do and I don't understand why.
“That tweet ended up going viral, and I ended up having some amazing support from people. In fact, actually, that was when John reached out to me with the MU and we started speaking and we decided to work together. I'm now on the board of the Featured Artists Coalition (FAC).”
Putting singers in a position where they can protect themselves
Kelli-Leigh began using her own experiences to help other signers going through similar experiences, including working with the MU and the FAC to create a detailed guidance documents on working as a session musician or featured artist. She explained how this particular piece of work came about, and her hopes for what it could do:
“With the MU and the FAC, we did a joint free advice document which is online for anyone that might not have management…We worked together and with some much loved advice from my music lawyer, Jules O'Riordan or as otherwise known as Judge Jules who is an incredible man, we put this together from my experience.
“And so now singers should hopefully be in a situation if they're ever faced with this, they can protect themselves…on the back end, you can make sure you're listed as a lead featured artist for PPL so that those singers should hopefully be getting the royalties that they actually due.
“Because that is a difference in hopefully putting a down payment on trying to buy a house one day, especially when you come from a working class background.”
We aren’t faced with an equal platform, but hopefully that will change
Kelli-Leigh finished her keynote speech on a high note, talking about how essential speaking up and standing together is for changing the industry:
“And so I started to stand up for what I believe in and the more I was speaking, other singers were coming forward with the same stories and similar stories because it's been very scary to trouble the status quo and what has been systemic and for so long.
“It was male DJs which were always the status quo, never thinking about the vocalist that had sung or written those records. And so pushing back and actually believing in yourself, was what I had to do.
“I've now self-released 15 solo singles. Last year, I had a Christmas record out which did half a million streams in one month and my label had my first TV appearances. I've got a Christmas EP on the way this year to continue with my TV journey and my Christmas records [Kelli-Leigh’s EP “Unwrap my heart,” has been released since this speech was first given]. I've just released my latest pop dance single Hold On Tonight which has been supported by Radio One.
“So if there's any message I have for you guys in the room today it’s that we aren't faced with an equal platform. And hopefully that will change. But resilient self belief and standing up for what you believe in is what I can suggest. And unions like Musicians' Union are there to support that.
“If you feel like something's wrong, don't suffer in silence in the dark because you're probably right, because your gut instinct is always right about these things. And the more of us that speak up and stand together is how we can change the industry.”
Changing the industry together
There are lots of ways to support the union’s work to make the union and the music industry more inclusive, from building inclusion in your working practice to getting involved in the union:
The MU’s Delegate Conference will be held at the Park Regis Hotel in Birmingham on Tuesday 25 and Wednesday 26 July 2023, and is a place where you can get involved in shaping what we do for the next two years. Find out more about how you can attend as part of your Region’s delegation.