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Janelle Borg    July 24, 2020

Catching up with Maria Galea and Nikki Camilleri – Malta’s very own international music industry high-flyers

Many individuals dream of working in the international music industry and rubbing shoulders with their favourite artists. Through hard work and sheer determination, Maria Galea and Nikki Camilleri are showing everyone how this is done by turning this dream into a reality.

Nikki is a creative industries professional who has worked in the music industry since her move to the UK in 2014. She has racked up an impressive accolade of work across major festivals and some of the top global music companies. Her most recent job saw her climb the ranks in the A&R world, signing international artists to distribution and record deals. She is now delving back into the startup world, with some exciting creative projects in the works.

A journalist by profession, Maria also works in marketing as a Campaign Assistant for a London-based digital marketing company specialising in raising artists’ profile, while juggling an Assistant Publisher role at LDN Magazine. She graduated with a First Class Hons in Music Journalism (BA) from BIMM London/University of West London.

I caught up with these two boss ladies to discuss the future of the music industry post-COVID, and how they managed to set foot in such a competitive industry.

Trackage Scheme: How long have you been involved in the music industry? 

Maria Galea: I would say I fully started integrating into the music industry here in the UK back in 2015, when I started a Vocal Diploma course at BIMM London, followed by a Music Journalism degree in 2016. Throughout my student years, I was heavily involved in internships, work experiences and trying to grasp any opportunity that came my way. I’ve been fully working for over a year now. I’m based in London. I had to move from Malta to the UK in order to pursue my career. I’ve always wanted to work in the music industry, and I knew that going to a music college and relocating was the only way.

Nikki Camilleri: I’d say I’ve officially been in the music industry for six years – in line with my moving to London. I was always involved in the arts in Malta and led an e-commerce/events startup in JAYE program at school which helped local painters, musicians and photographer and did quite well locally, we won a few awards as a team and travelled to showcase in London.

I love this question, because its an opportunity to be honest about how I actually got where I am. No, it wasn’t a case of ‘I moved to London and was suddenly in the music industry’ as movies tend to show. So here we go, I’ll try to summarise as much as possible. I was really torn between working in film or music after sixth form, and it was kind of up to fate that I ended up in music. I wasn’t accepted for the film course I applied to (unsurprising considering I didn’t have a good enough camera to put a decent portfolio together with, not that it stopped me from applying haha). I managed to get into a music business course at a specialist school in central London pretty much a month before it began. It was a super practical course with lots of time for outside work. The second I arrived, I started a part-time job to pay rent, and doing internships and volunteering at any music events or companies that would have me (I worked ever second I could). I managed to rack up some great experience across Glastonbury Festival, Modest! Management, The Great Escape Festival, IMG artists, coordinating busking events for the Mayor of London etc.

This helped me get full-time jobs at places like Warner Music and Believe Group ( a large artist services company). I always think it’s worth mentioning when people ask me how I managed to do this, that I had saved up for years to be able to self-fund my move and have a bit of runway to find a job. I was a really ambitious child and decided at age 10 that I would move to London. I worked the second I could and saved any money I could get my hands on in Malta. By the time I moved, I had maybe just enough for 2.5/3months of food and rent before I would go broke. My first job in London was working the till at Sainsbury’s. I luckily managed to get a slightly more inspiring part-time job at an interiors startup a few months later, which I kept for 2 years until I got my first full-time music job.

I always loved art. I apparently picked a paintbrush at my Quccija. I remember being obsessed with creating experiences even as a child, and I still love combining mediums to create a feeling, an emotional state which you can transmit to others. It’s a very specific passion with quite broad ways of indulging it, which allows for cross-medium collaboration and even work across industries. I get bored very easily, so that suits me just fine.

Arts industries such as music and film are often kept quite separate apart from syncing records in soundtracks, but we’re seeing more and more artists combine visuals as a core part of their musical creations be it through a visual album or an immersive live event. I think there’s a lot of scopes to combine art forms and even traditionally non-creative industries more.

TS: If you had to pinpoint the ‘highlights’ of your career so far, what would they be?

MG: Well, I’m lucky to have started compiling a list of highlights so early on! When I was in my first year, I was sent to Liverpool to cover a music festival – that was pretty cool! I’ve interviewed and met some of my favourite artists over the years, too. Sometimes I find myself pinching myself during an event or when working on a project. At my current job, I’m involved in some great campaigns… but probably being invited to the BRIT Awards earlier this year and to an after-party hosted by a chart-topping artist was probably a top highlight. I do enjoy being surrounded by talent – not just artists – but the people behind the scenes. Those are moments where I feel like I’m truly part of the industry, and I love it!

NC: Ah, this is always a really hard question because I still consider myself to be at the start of my career. One moment I look back on most fondly is the actual move to London. I think this was massive for my career and a really big personal goal. When it comes to my work, I’ve been able to meet and/or work with some extraordinary people. I’m not really one for name dropping, but I’ll give you one, one of my favourite encounters was with Noel Gallagher. I think being promoted quite rapidly, reaching a Global Head role, helping to start a new department, travelling internationally for work are all highlights across the years so far.

TS: How has your job been affected by Covid-19? Did you have to look for other sources of income in order to survive?

MG: Luckily, it’s been business as usual at my job, so I haven’t had to look for anything else. A lot of what we do is digitally-focused, so we’ve actually been busier than ever. Our artists have adapted to this ‘new normal’. We’ve all figured it out together. Probably the biggest difference was having to push so many releases back and artists choosing to pause on posting on social media for some time due to the political climate. Personally, it’s been hard seeing so many gigs get cancelled or postponed. Heartbreaking, really.

NC: I’m currently a founder, working on setting up some of my projects. I was fortunate enough to get some funding to leave my full-time job at the start of the year and focus for some time on my work full time. I was lucky enough not to have my income directly affected by lockdown because my work can run digitally. Indirectly, I think we are all facing less business as a result of people spending less – something which is likely to go on for a little while yet.

The creative industries have had one of the biggest hits, but a support fund has literally just been announced so this will hopefully recover in line with other markets.

TS: Some countries seem to be opening up and even allowing performances to re-start. Can you give me your thoughts in regards to why this will or won’t necessarily work?

MG: It’s tough to say. Over the past few months, so many different and conflicting things have been said. The truth is that no one really knows for sure. From surveys that I’ve read from months ago to now, people’s opinions on their post-lockdown plans have changed.

I think a Government’s priority needs to make sure to balance re-opening the economy while preventing a second peak. I shudder at the thought of gigs being given the green light, then having to be shut down again due to a second wave. I do, however, think that authorities will be quick to react if numbers start to skyrocket again. At the end of the day, it’s now more important than ever than we ALL take precautions – wear masks, keep our distance. It’s impossible to stay put and not travel to other countries for much longer. This will not go away for a good while, so we all have to adapt to living our lives slightly differently and more cautiously; even if it means that no pub, restaurant, theatre or gig venue will operate in full capacity until 2021.

TS: In the light of current hot topics such as Black Lives Matter and the ever-increasing emphasis on gender equality in the music industry, what measures can be implemented by the industry to ensure better representation?

MG: This is an interesting one. My dissertation project actually focused on women’s representation in the music industry. I’m not sure whether it’s because I joined the industry at the time when gender inequality became a hot topic or just the way it’s happened, but I’ve actually met and worked with a LOT of women. I love it!

I think that conversation should be an ongoing one, however, as the disparity is still there, and so is the gender pay gap at many corporations. The BLM movement has definitely rocked some ships within the music industry. I think the first step is for any company to have a good look around their office and roster and admit where they are wrong.

Saying you’re in support of equality when you’re being accused of racism is unhealthy and does not promise immediate change. I think one way that better representation can happen is if the industry invests in new talent and education. Look beyond the hiring job but at the applications sent in for the same job role. Are they diverse? If not, why? Is it lack of motivation, experience or opportunity? If everyone, no matter their home or financial background, is given an equal opportunity from the start, then it’s a fair fight for everyone. No one should be given a head start.

NC: I think transparency and tackling the topics head-on is the way to go! The reality is that the vast majority of companies are not diverse; being non-diverse is the norm and companies seem to shy away from the topic out of shame, embarrassment or maybe even a lack of care but what that does is perpetuate the problem and allow it to go on.

As the BLM movement has gained prominence, more companies are raising their hands, admitting a lack of diversity and publicly committing to do better – which a lot of businesses find really hard to do. Admitting that there is an in-house problem is step 1 and is something to be admired not frowned upon. However, we can’t stop there: there are several frameworks people can follow for diversity integration from gender blind hiring to training staff in these topics, particularly management.

TS: In your opinion, what more can be done by the Maltese Government and other organisations, to foster a mentality that music and the arts CAN indeed be a viable profession?

MG: Unfortunately, such an issue is prevalent everywhere. The difference with Malta is that there isn’t a sufficient music industry to back this up. Again, not that it’s any easier abroad. I think with Covid-19 and the lack of Government support the arts have had, has highlighted how we’re not taken seriously. Over the past few years, I have seen a lot more opportunity for local support in Malta. That definitely needs to go on.

I would love to see more promotion around ‘buy our album’ or more ‘tour’ opportunities… anything to push money into the music. There are SO many artists making a living from music without being a chart-topper in other countries, but in Malta, even the most successful musicians need a full-time job alongside it.

It’s really tough to make people understand that music is a viable career when it’s non-existent in their country. So perhaps the first step is to create enough opportunities for a sustainable industry. The Government could start putting more money into local artists to fund a project as well as increasing the live performance opportunities. The rest is the people’s mentality, and that is the toughest piece to the puzzle. Unless a Maltese musician has a full-time career in music abroad… but even then people would think ‘wow making Malta proud’ instead of asking the all-important question: ‘why aren’t we contributing to their career like other countries are?’

NC: For something to be a profession, you need to make a decent living from it, right? The issue is that Malta has a small population meaning it can only support a certain amount of artists and art jobs financially before they need to move to or break overseas markets which many struggle to do. We don’t have the industry infrastructure that the top art cities around the world have, and we don’t have a training standard which can compete internationally or a training standard in some specialities at all. For example, in my case, there were no music business courses in Malta, so I had no choice but to study overseas.

There would have to be a market and individuals who are willing to pay for all of these things. I believe it starts with the market and with higher standards of training. If this is achieved, a small but internationally viable industry could begin to build. There are already people who are doing this off their own initiative, I hope they don’t mind me shouting them out but for example, Wicked and Loud who have invested in a London studio. It’s a smart move to collaborate, build and learn from a successful art market.

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