Industry Insider: Imran Ahmed

January 13, 2021

In London, he discovered, signed, and built artists at the NME, the BBC and with XL Recordings. He’s since moved to Los Angeles and launched a new kind of music company, In Real Life.

There’s a lot to be gleaned from following Imran Ahmed’s career path through some of the British music industry’s most storied brands. The founder and sole owner of In Real Life, a Los Angeles-based artist services company he founded with backing from AWAL, Ahmed has worn many hats in his two decades in the business. He’s been a writer and editor at UK music weekly, the New Musical Express (NME); a music programmer and presenter on BBC radio; a promoter of London club night, FROG; and the voice behind influential music blog, Abeano — all this before spending a dozen years doing A&R at XL Recordings, where he signed Vampire Weekend, Jai Paul, and Jungle. A son of Pakistani immigrants who grew up in the predominantly white East England county of Essex, his career trajectory was aided by neither silver spoons nor Oxbridge connections, Ahmed is that all-too rare figure in the music business: a Brown, self-made citizen of the culture world with the pop acumen to upend establishment norms, and succeed on his own terms.

Now, that success—born of “an experience in otherness,” powered by entrepreneurial spirit, industrious hustle, and creativity centered on a life-long love of music discovery—is focused to serve a new kind of music company. In Real Life is part label (Liv.e’s masterful Couldn't Wait To Tell You… is one of its releases), part management shop (working with Philadelphia electronic soul producer/singer, Body Meat), and part music publisher (administering the tracks of ascendant house music superstar, Peggy Gou). Yet to hear Ahmed describe it, In Real Life’s multi-dimensional business practices are only a gateway to its “convictions,” and a rethink of what the music business looks and acts like. Which is why chatting with him is as much a recital of past glories, as a philosophical discussion about the future.

One of a generation of kids practicing Michael Jackson’s dance moves in his bedroom and taping songs off the radio (“two fingers over the record button, waiting for Salt N’ Pepa”), Ahmed’s love of music came early. His father bought a cassette player that came with a free cassette single, Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” that would presage his A&R career: “That [tape] was quite formative, because I ended up signing Vampire Weekend, 20 years later.”

As a teenager, he started selling mixtapes to kids on the playground, made from the latest CD singles (“I sold the tapes for a couple of pounds each — I figured out that I could make a living from music”). By the time Oasis showed up in the mid-90s, he was all in on music: “Britpop provided a scene to tap into, a world that I could exist in, and that, pivoted pretty fast to wanting to be a music journalist and be a part of it all.” He went to the University of Liverpool, and in the early Aughts found himself in London, a freelance music writer at The Guardian and The Face and eventually, at his dream job, as an editor at the NME.

As with many children of immigrants, the entrepreneurial spirit instilled in Ahmed by his parents — a father who went from driving taxis to installing satellite dishes, and a mother who cleaned homes, both encouraging him to “do something you love for a living because we never had the chance to”— kept his ambitions lit. The projects began overlapping naturally. “Something that I learned in the music game as I was in it longer, was that having an outlet for creativity is really important, it helps keep you pretty level-headed,” Ahmed says. “So, I wrote a lot for NME, but I also wanted to be the editor one day and have shows on BBC Radio One.” [In 2004 he participated as a pundit on a music poll for the famed British broadcaster, and continued as a presenter there.] “I think I have never been afraid to try lots of things.” One such thing was turning NME’s monthly industry-only music showcase, into the weekly party FROG, one of the quintessential London indie-dance nights of the Aughts, a party that helped showcase not just bands like Vampire Weekend and Bloc Party but a pre-EDM Calvin Harris as well.

In 2005, Ahmed also started Abeano, a blog that allowed him to continue spotlighting new music, and that caught the eye of Richard Russell, XL’s chairman. “‘I want you to come and work for me, you can do whatever you want,’ which was very liberating,” says Ahmed, recalling Russell’s generous invitation. “That appealed to my entrepreneurial spirit. And I continued to do some radio stuff, and some writing while at XL. But a little into it, I made the decision that I wanted to throw my lot in entirely with the label.”

Of the many lessons Ahmed learned at the storied label, one particular insight continues to push him along: his pursuit of new sounds and artists. When asked about his strategy for finding new talent, he unfurls a familiar list of Internet radio stations (he has a regular show on NTS), playlists, and the friends he trusts to let him know about a great song they’ve heard. “The truly great artists won’t really have an audience immediately — they’re slightly out of left field. People take a minute to understand and get their heads around new things or things shaped differently to anything that has gone before. And I think that's one of the ways in which an independent label can be really great; they can provide a platform and infrastructure and the family in order to nurture that person, while everyone else in the world figures them out.”

That response includes three intertwined ideas as to why Ahmed moved to Los Angeles in 2019 to launch In Real Life. The first two reflect the natures of music company infrastructure: one business, one social. In a contemporary, interdisciplinary world where managers work at labels, labels run publishing arms, and publishers employ people who are discovering and managing new artists, launching an artist service company allows him greater flexibility figuring out his relationship with those few artists he wants to work with. “There’s only a certain number of people who reach a threshold of freshness, talent and spirit that I want to work with. Being able to work with artists solely on the label side was limiting to me. In Real Life was established so I could actually work with them on other facets of their business like publishing or management if they have other plans for how they want to release music.”

The social infrastructure that Ahmed wants to reimagine has everything to do with race. “I really wanted to have my own company because there aren’t enough people of color running music companies,” he says. “I find it shocking how monocultural, straight, white, and male those companies are, especially when the rosters are often very diverse. I want artists to feel like not every music company that wants to work with you looks and thinks the same. I knew what it was like to be the only non-white voice in the room when you were rolling out a record, with an artist of color; and I wanted to be able to, perhaps, more accurately reflect their wishes and finding ways of promoting their music outside of industry convention and white industry gatekeepers.” There is no doubt that when Ahmed refers to the familial potential of an independent label, he is talking about the kind of safe space some artists may not have previously experienced.

So what kind of artists will In Real Life present? Much like Ahmed, the artists of In Real Life must be focused and be ready for the long haul. “We want compelling characters, people who really got something to say, who character-wise perhaps have a forcefulness and a drive and a unique talent. They will have absolute conviction about their art and about what they want to put out into the world, how you put it out into the world, how it should look and feel, and the things you want and don't want to do. Conviction and honesty are characteristics, I think people pick up on, in this day and age. People want their artists to be uncompromising. I think that realness and rawness cuts through in a way now that maybe in the past it didn't.”

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