Radio host and broadcaster, Jack Saunders, co-signs three emerging artists to watch in 2021 and speaks on the story behind his success, dismantling toxic masculinity in the music industry, and how artists can use social media to their advantage.
Starting from humble beginnings and working his way to the top, a young Jack Saunders found his sea legs on the airwaves of his Nottingham university student radio station. Climbing his way up the ladder to become one of the biggest faces in UK radio, Jack hosted spots on Radio X and Kerrang radio, before taking the new music helm at BBC Radio 1, running his hugely popular ‘Future Artists’ show. But that’s not all he has in his arsenal – the former model also presents for MTV UK and has hosted at none other than Britain’s most iconic festival – Glastonbury.
Armed with an instantly familiar and friendly demeanour, bright pink, spiky hair and a Gen Z’s knowledge of social media trends, Jack Saunders is on a mission to use his platform for good. Whether that’s going on a treasure hunt for new artist gold, or taking toxic masculinity in the music industry head-on, after spending a few mere minutes with Jack, it’s easy to see why he’s become such a mainstay on the airwaves.
It’s this lust for constant discovery that has positioned Jack as a tastemaker for the hottest new music, always in the know about the artists soon to blow up. Here, Jack Saunders talks with Notion about his never-ending capacity for newness, shares his tips for burgeoning artists, and co-signs three incredible musicians to watch in 2021.
You dreamed of being a radio DJ and broadcaster from a young age, saying you were “one of those strange kids that knew what they wanted to do straight-off”. But what made you fall in love with the idea in the first place?
I think it was the fact that you could have fun and get paid for it. I couldn’t really believe that the breakfast shows that I’d listened on the way into school or the special shows that I’d listen to when I got back and I was doing my homework – I just didn’t realise, it kind of blew my mind a little bit that you could get paid just to have a laugh on the radio and do it with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of other people listening alongside you. It seemed like a really special and unique thing to do. I don’t think I’ve ever been the kind of person that’s particularly followed the trend – I’ve always wanted to do something different and have my own identity and be who I want to be. It stuck from a pretty early age and I sought out to get it.
Your career has roots in rock music – a field that has traditionally been very male-focused, with a lot of notions about how men should look and behave. You’re keen to challenge these tropes, and actively work to dismantle the toxicity in the genre. Can you remember the moment you decided to be a part of the change – and what spurred you on?
It was a friend of mine that was talking about it at a party ages ago. The pressure and the momentum of people talking about this need to change was just starting to pick up. I remember saying that as blokes, we don’t experience this at all, so what have you experienced? It was unimaginable to me that this would happen. Groping, constant pressure, being spoken to when she didn’t want to be spoken to, even darker near misses that almost happened. It was so shocking because for me and my friends, that’s obviously not something that we’d ever imagine doing – we have the utmost respect for women, whether it’s at a gig or in the workplace. So from there on out, I was like, this just flat out isn’t right, and the only way [to fix it] is to talk about it and to make sure that people know this is not ok. It’s a conversation that happens regularly across the show [Jack’s BBC Radio 1’s ‘Future Artists’ show] in terms of women are absolutely on a level playing field in all respects. We actively make sure that there is as close to a 50/50 split [of artists played] as humanly possible every single night on the show. All we can do is keep the pressure on and keep going and keep making the noise.
Presenting BBC Radio 1’s popular ‘Future Artists’ show, I imagine you always need to have your finger on the pulse. How do you keep up with the constantly changing landscape of digital media?
Well, to me, I think about it in a bit more of a linear way. I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I wasn’t up to scratch on it. One of my big passions and reasons that I do what I do is because I love connecting with young people and engaging in the new ideas and creativity that they are bringing forward every single day. You just have to go on to an app like TikTok to find the new memes, ideas and trends. I enjoy it, whether it be TikTok or Twitch, or whatever the brand new thing is that’s going to come through next. It never really becomes a chore. I can understand how it would feel like that to other people, but to me, I love engaging with and meeting new people and hearing about new ideas and taking that away. Hopefully, it’s having an influence on me as well. I think it’s important to always know where the next thing’s coming from and what people are excited about.
As well as a means of discovery, you also use social media as a content creator, to build your own platform. How do you balance the two? Does the need to be involved on social feel constant?
I think it’s really important, first off, to make sure your mind and your mindset are in the right place. I don’t compare myself to people – I used to but I don’t anymore because that was the thing that was holding me back. As soon as I stopped comparing myself to other people and trying to be like them, that’s when things started to happen for me. I don’t really feel pressure now with social media, I just enjoy seeing how well people are doing. I enjoy hyping people up and commenting on stuff and liking stuff. I do it with moderation as well because it can take hold of you. But I think I see it for its benefits more than its negatives. I can kind of see the signs when the negatives start to creep in and for me, that’s a stop, reset, go again type of thing. I have friends who are artists who have to be constantly active on [social]. Especially now when they can’t be playing shows or going out and doing the normal promo stuff. They’re being asked to do virtual gigs be on Instagram Live and it is sucking the soul out of some people, but there are some people out there who are so besotted with it because they know how important it is. So yeah, as you said, I definitely see both sides of it, but I think the important thing is to detach yourself a little bit, focus on you, don’t compare yourself to other people – however tempting it might be – and you will be better because of it, have an enjoyable experience and see the positive sides of social media.
TikTok, Twitch, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube… they’ve all become so integral to artist discovery but also to lasting success. Do you have any tips for artists looking to both breakthrough and maintain their presence?
My biggest tip would be – yes be active on as many platforms as you can, but if you’re going to be active over there, do it well. Fucking nail it because there’s no point downloading TikTok and then just regurgitating your music video on there for 25 seconds. It doesn’t work. Understand what you are engaging in and how to really maximise the platform you’re using. No one wants to see the music video on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik, Tok, and Snapchat… Each one does something different. Use those features to your advantage to bring your audience into a different world. For me, it works really well – the stream of consciousness out of my mind onto Twitter, the real highlights of my life on Instagram and then Stories is really nice for a personal behind the scenes type of thing. TikTok is an opportunity to get really creative and show a funny side to me. So you have all these opportunities to show your different strengths – use them. Don’t just regurgitate – be really intelligent and clever about how you use them.
What would you say is more important for artists now – a social media following or a record deal?
I’d kind of reword it slightly and say an engaged social media following is really important. A social media following is kind of rule number one at the moment. Nice to have the money from the label, but that inevitably comes when they see you popping off on TikTok or Instagram or wherever. But at the same time, if you can do this all yourself to a certain level, you’re going to have all the power to dictate when that kind of thing [a record deal] comes around. You’ll know your worth. You can do whatever you want because the label wants the energy.
The past year has seen live music put on pause, meaning you’ve had to shift your popular ‘Hopscotch’ event online. It must be weird not being able to connect with people in person, but your show must have provided that lifeline to stay in touch with your audience?
Yeah, pretty much. It was super, super gutting not being able to do any hopscotches last year. Because I’d built up such amazing momentum with it. We’d had Blossoms, The Vaccines, Circa Waves, Frank Carter And The Rattlesnakes, Miles Kane… these huge bands and artists that would sell out Brixton Academy, maybe Alexandra Palace easily. That’s like 10,000, 15,000 people – that’s crazy! But I was putting them on in a 150 cap room secretly! We built up amazing momentum and it was disappointing not to be able to follow that through as we have a lot of plans to take it from Seabright to a brand new venue. That plan is still in place, and hopefully, happening this year. And you know what, at the end of the day, it’s given me a little bit more time to work out exactly how to do it as well. So arguably, the show that you’re going to get in September is going to be infinitely better than anything you would have got last year anyway.
Co-Signed by Jack Saunders:
“Holly is, for me, the most exciting songwriter out there at the moment. Her lyricism is so quaint and precise and intelligent. But it also feels quite lonely as well. It feels like the voice in your head when you’re on your own and running through that thing that happened earlier and overthinking it. It’s the way that she’s able to tap into those very personal human emotions that we all feel, open that up and help us realise that you’re not the only one. It’s amazing what Holly can do with her words. She’s a special artist and one that I have no doubts having just signed to Polydor Records that she’s gonna be a very big star of the future for sure”.
“I’ve picked 347aidan is one of my ones to watch for 2021. 347aiden is a brand new teenage artist out of America, who has really made his name out on TikTok, and that’s the truth of it. But that does not define his ability. I know, there’s probably a few of you probably going, ‘TikTok? Come on, Jack, get real’. No, no, there’s some serious talent out there. And you should pay some very serious attention to it. 347aidan is definitely one of those talents. He’s just released a track with Kenny Beats, for example, who produced the last IDOLS album, collaborated with Vince Staples and slowthai amongst many others. Kenny has seen this potential within 347aiden, just like I have. He is working very closely with him going into the future as well.
347aidan understands how to make pop music for his generation, and how to communicate with them through that. I have no doubts that this is just the start of a very big, very fruitful career for 347aidan”.