“Anything is possible”: from rugby to running his own record label

“Anything is possible”: from rugby to running his own record label

Old Elizabethan Mike Ajayi’s signing and promotion of platinum-selling indie rock band alt-J was the key which unlocked a highly successful career in the music industry.

Mike (OE 1998–2005) now runs his own label imprint, AMF (All My Friends) Records, which is part of the global Universal Music Group led by Mike’s fellow OE, Sir Lucian Grainge (1971–1978).

The big break for Mike came in 2011 when he firstly joined independent label Infectious Music to work under the pupillage of industry legend Korda Marshall and signed alt-J, then a four-piece band from Leeds University.

Yet when he reflects on his life at QE, he says that it was rugby, not music, that was his main passion in terms of extra-curricular School activities. “I was never the most gifted musically at school as I’d usually be found on the rugby pitch when I had a spare moment.” He played the game competitively throughout the age groups and was in the First XV from Year 11, as well as representing the School at county level and playing for Saracens.

“Rugby was definitely a calming influence for me and helped me get rid of some of that surplus energy that would sometimes spill in to the classroom. I wouldn’t say I was by any means the naughtiest, but I definitely knew how to push my luck at times. I give a lot of credit to former master Mr [Tim] Bennett, who was a great mentor and guide for myself and a lot of the boys during my time at QE. He was both my head of year and rugby coach, and he definitely instilled the belief in me that anything was possible.

“I think, looking back, that’s probably what sticks with me most about my time at QE – it wasn’t just what we learnt in the classroom, but also the way the School and teachers enabled us to be confident, free-thinking, independent young men. Something I feel has served me well through to today.”

Although he didn’t excel at performing music at School, he did, however, find time to listen to it. “My love for music came mainly from School friends growing up; we’d listen to British bands such as Blur, Arctic Monkeys, The Streets and Bloc Party. At that time, TV channels like MTV Base and Channel U were quite prominent, so we listened to a lot US hip hop and R&B. Rappers and musicians like Eminem, Dr Dre, Missy Elliot, Talib Kweli or Maxwell definitely sound-tracked our youth, especially on those Saturday away games.”

It was when he went to the University of East Anglia that he began to find his own taste in music, discovering much more eclectic genres and going along to many live shows. “I eventually got in to writing reviews for a then up-and-coming music blog, Subba-Cultcha, which would involve often jumping on the National Express bus to review shows in London.”

In addition to this nascent career as a music journalist, Mike also had the opportunity to try his hand at live promotions: with the help of friends, he put on a local student club night in Norwich called Connected. “It was predominantly an old-school Garage and R&B night, and despite having a very limited budget, we were able to attract a host of UK urban acts, such as Wiley, Kano and Lethal B to name but a few. Although, it was a small venue, I found it great for discovering new urban music and meeting people in the industry. It also helped put a few extra pennies in my pocket whilst I navigated my way through university.”

It was around this time that Mike started to take the idea of working in music seriously: “I didn’t know where I saw myself fitting, but I just knew I wanted to be part of it.”

His first definite steps into a music industry career came in around 2009, when he took up an internship at Sony Music Entertainment. “I would be lying if there wasn’t a part of me that thought getting into the industry would instantly mean wild parties, and although that was the case on the odd occasion, it was actually probably the hardest period for me. I initially started out in their catalogue and compilations division in a role that involved me compiling all the required artist and legal information for music compilations.

“I did this for about two months before moving over to the newly reformed Jive records UK, home to English hip-hop artist Chipmunk and L.A. band Funeral Party. I guess that’s where I made my first transitions to becoming an A&R. [Artists and repertoire (A&R) is the division of a record responsible for talent-scouting and the artistic development of recording artists and songwriters.] At the time, my primary role was just being out and about scouting emerging talent and reporting back in to my boss. In order to do this, however, I had to take up various jobs ranging from working as a clerk in an eye hospital to weekend bar work, as the label only covered my expenses. My evenings would be spent travelling up and down the UK, sometimes attending three shows in a single night – and I’d still be expected to be in the office for 9:30am the next day. Although it was tiring and often quite lonely, I loved it!”

All those unpaid hours did eventually bring their reward, as Mike’s career began to take off rapidly when he joined Infectious and started working with Korda Marshall. “During my time there, I was really able to drill down on what is was to be an A&R. Beyond the talent-scouting element, I learnt about the processes that went in to making a record, as well the business side of the industry and actually signing talent. I had a good level of success, signing bands such as Superfood and Drenge, whilst also getting to work quite closely with Korda on ‘a&r-ing’ albums for The Temper Trap, These New Puritans, The Acid and Local Natives.

“Undoubtedly, my biggest achievement and involvement as an A&R came about when I signed alt-J in November 2011. We would go on to release their debut album An Awesome Wave, which went platinum in the UK (300,000+ album sales) and sold over 1 million copies worldwide. In addition to the sales, the album won the prestigious 2012 British Barclaycard Mercury Prize, and in 2013 it was named Album of the Year at the Ivor Novello Awards. The band’s sophomore album, This Is All Yours, led to continued success, reaching number 1 in the UK charts and cementing them as one of the biggest British bands, who sold out multiple O2 Arena shows and Madison Square Garden.”

Success breeds success, and, in 2015, Mike’s glittering period with Infectious and alt-J, brought him the opportunity, along with a fellow Infectious colleague, to start his own label imprint under Virgin EMI (part of Universal). Virgin EMI is home to artists including Emelie Sande, Taylor Swift, Jay-Z, Kanye West, James Bay and Bastille.

“Through this deal, my label, AMF Records, is tasked with the role of focusing on the long-term development of emerging British artists. One of the first signings was the BBC Sound of 2016 longlisted and critically acclaimed artist, Loyle Carner, whose debut, Yesterday’s Gone, has been lauded as one of 2017’s breakthrough albums in the UK and abroad.” Now in its third year, the label boasts a host of new acts, such as Connie Constance, Marika Hackman and Jelani Blackman, all set for releases this year.

Mike, who is London-based, adds: “The plan going forward is to further cement AMF Records as a home for nurturing and developing acts, which could hopefully lead to me following in the footsteps of Lucian Grainge…

“I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to pursue a career in music and in no way has it perturbed my love for it, either. On a personal level, my focus has shifted to ‘giving back’ as I’ve tried to take a more active role in the industry.”

He plans to become involved in supporting events with current pupils at QE. And in the autumn, he will be working with the well-known academy, ELAM (East London Arts & Music), as part of its mentorship programme for aged 16 to 19.

“As well as that, I’ve also spoken on panels in the UK and US – and soon Australia, too – in the hope that I can provide greater insight into how younger generations can navigate their way through non-typical career paths.”