Balamii is the brainchild of James Browning and has, over the space of a year, grown from him schlepping round clubs recording DJs on his laptop to a fully blown internet radio station with its own studio and ever growing roster of DJs. Rooted in the heart of the burgeoning Peckham music scene, community is at the heart of everything they do. With Balamii recently making the transition to live broadcasting, we felt like this would be a perfect time to link up with the founder and get the story so far.
So, tell me about setting up Balamii. You started off trapsing round clubs and recording people live, right?
Yeah, it started off November of last year and it was a lot more basic than it is today. At first it was just me and my laptop going to places like Corsica Studios, Dance Tunnel, Bussey and anywhere over East and South London really, recording people on a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday night. It was anyone who I thought that I would like to put out and I built bridges like that. It eventually snowballed and the amount of people that we were recording just became too much as we had to be out and about all the time. It’s just not possible to do that, you just end up fucking knackered. It built up to a level that we decided to get the studio because it was a lot easier to have people come to you, rather then go to them. Then also it becomes more of a proper thing in peoples minds and just allows you to get more done in that way, rather than recording out all the time.
So we’re sat here in the Balamii Studio in a little shopping arcade in Peckham, directly opposite YAM Records. You’ve got a proper little community feel here now as you’ve got people looking round the shop and you’ve got DJs coming and playing here; everyone knows each other. How important is that for you, the community spirit that you’ve built?
Massively. It’s the whole thing really. The way that it started, how it would be about meeting and recording people out and about, then they all came into the studio and after they’d done their shows they’d introduce me to their friends and bring other people in and in turn they’d introduce me to their friends, and it’s just built from there. After someone has come in three or four times, everyone’s mates. People come down, chill out and drink beers, The guys from YAM were introduced to me by the guys who run Peckham Springs, so everyone knows everyone here.
Can you tell me a bit about the process of the building of the studio? I know a lot of love went into this and you basically just started off with a pair of loned decks right?
So it was January of this year, 2015, that Theo and Tom of YAM said that we should use this space here to do Balamii, or that Balamii should be used in here. Balamii get a record shop next door and in turn YAM gets a radio station next door. So in January me, Theo, Tom and another guy called Frank went down the timber yard down the road and built the stuff you can see here.
When he says, ‘this stuff here’, we should say that he’s got some nice MDF worktop for the turntables, and everything has got a very nice homebuilt vibe, but it’s very nicely done.
We sanded down the walls, painted them, knocked out the different shop front that was here and got new signage done etc. Equipment wise, the first two decks were from Miles (from Ears Have Eyes records), that Zone (DJ Mixer) is my best friend’s older brothers, we had some CDJ 1000’s for the first couple of months but we had to upgrade because too many people were only coming in with USB’s. Gumtree has been the source of everything else in here.
I guess with people coming in and helping out, chipping in, lending you bits of kit and what not, it all adds to that sense of everyone owning a little part of it, even though in the grand scheme of things it’s your baby.
Yeah, exactly. I wouldn’t ever want it to be just one guys’ thing, as it’s not like that. It’s the collective feel that makes it nice and everyone that comes in essentially adds their own bit to it.
On a similar train, just looking up the wall there are loads of local artists, who people have probably never heard of, who are all getting their chance to do something on Balamii, but you’ve also got the bigger names like Marcellus Pittman who’s come through recently, people like Throwing Shade etc. How important is that balance between unknown and bigger artists to you guys?
My aim at the moment is to try and do one or two big headliners a week and then that is surrounded by all the locals that are coming through at the moment. I really like that works, so that when you’re going through the website or through our Soundcloud, you’ll eventually end up with five or six mixes from local guys, then one from Andres, and then another five and a mix from Pittman or whoever it may be. I think that’s a good way of doing it as it’s nice to have the lesser-known locals amongst them.
So you started off delivering the mixes via your own app but have branched out and are now doing live radio. Can you talk my through why you went down the app road initially?
If I’d known then, what I know now, I would not have gone down that road. My thought was that, eventually, people are going to be using their phones more than anything else to be listening to music. When I’m travelling around, I listen to music on my phone all the time, and I’m often out and about more than I’m at home. So trying to engage people on their phones was the first thing. I thought it would be a good approach if we had an app that could deliver the mixes we were recording at the time, whilst we were out and about recording them before we had a studio, but it never actually materialised that way. It was a good stepping stone for it to get further, but I started to get a better idea of how we’d want the website to work and at first, there wasn’t too much emphasis on doing the live element as I felt that 95% of our listenership would come from us putting stuff out on demand. The bulk of all listening is done that way, but we knew there was a need for a live feed, and since that has come online I guess you can call yourself a legitimate radio station from that point. Since then though, everything has changed, especially in peoples minds. We’re not actually doing anything different to before, apart from the fact that we’ve got a live stream going , but it just feels like it makes it a more, well-rounded entity. I don’t know how many people tune into NTS at any one time, but I can imagine that their Soundcloud did a ridiculous amount of numbers when it was there.
Is it not there anymore?
Oh, I didn’t realise that… So that actually kind of leads into something that I wanted to talk about and that’s the ambiguity and the way that your outlook has changed. It seems ridiculous as we’ve lived with digital music for years now, but it seems like the music industry haven’t quite worked out how they want to deliver digital music. The way that you’ve done it has actually been quite different to other people, so can you tell me your thinking behind how you wanted to deliver the music?
So the first thoughts behind the premise of Balamii were that, wouldn’t it be great if you could run a radio station and then people could buy what they hear as they hear it. A bit like Radio 1’s playlist, but that’s been developed a bit more since I first started thinking about the idea. I think curation, now, is one of the main elements that everyone is looking for and actually have been for a time. So the app that we’ve built was formulated to do just that, so that if you hear something you like you can see what it is and buy it. 100% of our stuff is track listed and is available to buy if an iTunes link is there. We haven’t quite got round to doing Juno yet, because we haven’t had the time yet.
Or unless you get idiots like me that come down with all this random vinyl that you can’t buy online…
Yeah, but even then all of the programs are track listed. So if we can’t provide a buying link, people will still know what it is so that they can go and source it from the provider of their choice. That whole idea was actually born out of watching Boiler Room sets and the only way that you’d be able to find out the names of tracks would be if some guy had commented beneath it, what it was. It was the same with Soundcloud as well, they don’t have a decent track list function – it would just be a static list of songs and it wouldn’t even tell you the time that the certain tracks came in.
I guess with a lot of this stuff, part of the premise that people put forward is that we’re giving a platform and putting music out there, but then not actually making it easy to access that music that’s out there.
Music is best when it’s shared and , while I can understand when big DJs don’t want their bread & butter to be known, as if everyone starts playing the same tunes then the top guys won’t get booked, but for me it doesn't work like that.
I guess the opposite answer to that would be that if someone else plays your tune, then you’ve got to find a better one.
Yeah it’s just that I had this need to know every tune that I heard when listening to mixes. Shazam doesn’t pick everything up all of the time. Don’t get me wrong, it has got better over the last year or so, and Boiler Room have also started putting up listings as well, and I think NTS list all of their stuff too, Mixcloud have a pretty good automated system, but again that only picks up 50 – 60% at the best of time. Where as with Balamii, no matter what it is you’re listening too, you know it’s all going to be track listed, unless it is some really obscure white label that nobody will ever know.
I guess when you mention Mixcloud, and it not picking up your track lists 100% of the time and it links up to buy them, I wanted to pick up on that one word you mentioned earlier, which was curation. How important was the curation side of things for you?
Short term, you can use Mixcloud and outside elements to integrate them into your website and it’ll run pretty well. But at the end of the day, any man or woman in any bedroom can upload their own stuff and have their own channel. But I think to have your own player and platform, that all looks the same and works the same, it think that’s really nice to have it that way. You don’t have to rely on Soundcloud or Mixcloud to be there, you can always still have your own thing. So at the moment, we’re using those platforms to channel and build our audience, as they have such a wide reach. Through that, people can come to the Balamii website and see it how it’s supposed to be seen. I think that the website looks great and it’s nice to be getting people onto it. Did that make sense?
Yeah, it does.
It’s weird though, as I was thinking about this the other day. You could actually use Mixcloud to do what Balamii does, but you’d be using someone else’s platform isn't great aesthetically. I mean, it’s got better. The adverts aren’t all over it like they used to be.
I think the key difference is that on Mixcloud, like you say, you’ve got every Tom, Dick, Harry or Sheila putting their stuff up. To me, that seems like the major problem with the music world and the digital world, because everyone has access. But whilst that’s great, you need the filter.
And how do you filter it? You go to the people with their own platform.
And that seems like that’s what you provide.
Yeah. Plus, I don’t think that we would have had the people that we’ve had down, come down if we’d just said that we’ve got a Soundcloud or Mixcloud account. I think from the early days when we’d asked people if they wanted to come down and do this, told them to check out our website, blah blah blah, that looks a lot stronger than saying, ‘check out our Mixcloud page.’ That immediately sets a difference and especially if it looks good and you’re delivering what you’re supposed to be, well. People are a lot more forthcoming with something like that and I honestly don’t think we’d be where we are now, had we only had a Mixcloud page.
So, I come and play quite regularly down here and you’ve got quite a big team of volunteer studio managers who are always here. How important is the team that you have and the helpers as well? For some time it was just you, right?
Yeah, for a very long time it was just me but now there are 14 on and off volunteers with about 6 or 7 of them regulars. They come in and do the track lists and running of programs and then that allows me to get on with uploading the stuff that we’ve recorded and get more people on. When the volunteers are here doing their bit and bobs it allows me to look ahead and sort out the next couple of weeks worth of programming and see which artists are going to be in town and try to book them in and then take it forward that way. Without those guys there would be too much to do and everyone is just doing it for the love as we can’t afford to pay at the moment, apart from taking them out for a few beers every now and again.
I’ve been down here and you're here and there’s been a studio assistant and a couple of beers get drunk and next thing you know you're getting a cab home at one in the morning with a banging headache!
Did we do that?!
Yeah! Its happened a few times! Coming down as a DJ, I see it as a social time as well as a chance to come in and put my name out there.
That’s the way it should be. There have been a couple of people that have wanted to do shows here and the first question that they’ve asked me is, "how many people will listen to the show if I do it?" That’s the wrong way to approach it. I definitely think it should be the vibe of, let’s just have a good time and play some tunes and whatever else happens after that is just a bonus. To approach it wanting to know the benefits of it, kind of just seems to zap the fun out of it and what this is supposed to be. A lot of people have said to me afterwards how they love coming here because there’s no stress and everyone’s chilled out and it’s just a far more relaxing way of doing everything.
This might seem a bit premature, as you’ve put so much work in and done so much development so far, but I guess there has always got to be one eye on the future. So I’ve got a two part question here; how do you see people’s access to digital music developing and also, how do you see Balamii developing over the course of time?
So, access to digital music, I guess what’s going to happen with Soundcloud over the next few months is going to be the really interesting one. I’m not sure how what they’re doing is playing out at the moment…
Is this the paid subscription thing?
Yeah, and Soundcloud really is the go to place to source new peoples tracks and stuff like that. You can’t really follow people on YouTube and it has never been designed for that kind of functionality. Mixcloud seem to be taking the reigns now I think, but I really don’t know how the whole Soundcloud thing will pan out.
As an artist I’m quite interested in how it’ll work out, as I pay them and that allows me to put my music up there, and in turn people can access my music and I’ve spent a long time providing content to their website. You now hear that they’re going to start charging people and it just becomes a bit of a grey area I guess…
I really don’t know, as I think we’ve probably got there in terms of how the Internet can be utilised to enable digital music consumption, and perhaps with services offering information about what songs people are hearing at any particular time. But I guess you’ll see a lot more stuff surrounding piracy and anti-piracy. People are going to start getting shit hot at uploading stuff onto YouTube that shouldn’t be there…
A slight aside from that, I think YouTube are essentially pirates because you’re actually sat there listening to music that has been illegally uploaded and then YouTube are charging people to put adverts in it. It just seems crazy!
I don’t really know how the streaming thing is figuring out for people either as I haven’t heard much on how much people are being paid from streaming royalties now. I think it’s something that has just become accepted now, even though I don’t think it should be. Getting paid like $10 for 10,000 plays is fucking shit as if you got the same amount of plays on a radio station, around 4% of people would buy it if they had the chance, so 4% of 10,000 is 400 people meaning you’re going to earn a lot more than $10 if they all actually go out and buy it. So I don’t really think that streaming is the one, especially when people have 26 million+ songs to be able to stream. That’s great and all, but how to you even go about mining stuff from that? I think that’s why Spotify have really had to begin to push their playlists.
So that it all comes back down to curation.
So they get Barack Obama to do one…
Yeah. Vice do one, along with various other media outlets. It’s kind of similar to how Beats Radio do it. They’ll get Pharrell to do a show and he’ll put his name to something that he curates, so rather than it just being a random selection, you’re buying into someone’s taste. So essentially how you engage people, is through calebrity endorsement. So if someone likes Pharrell, they’ll then go on and listen to his radio show blah blah blah.
I’ve not used Spotify for a long time, but I always remember that situation where you’re at someone house for an after party and you go to type something in and then you freeze as you’re presented with pretty much every single piece of music recorded ever.
It’s important to get it right and be the filter of shit. Obviously you’re not going to appeal to everyone. Music is so subjective that if you want to appeal to everyone you might as well start playing X Factor tunes. There’s absolutely no point. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do and have it be about the social and fun aspect first and then whatever else comes after that is a bonus.
So what about the future of Balamii then?
For the time being, keep everything going as it is at the moment. I’m not really sure if we’re going to try and branch out in video or to do talk shows but it's something we're thinking about. So we’re just going to be keeping it ticking over at it is for now as it seems to be going well and it’s thudding away nicely. I’d like to start doing more festivals and more events, maybe have a stage somewhere, as I think that would be a nice way of doing things, but I don’t know right now. Hopefully these things will present themselves in the future and so long as we keep the tempo and content that we have at the moment, then I think those things will present themselves in the future.
So finally, what have you got coming up that people should be listening out for?
Well we had Max Graef in today and then coming up we’ve got Brian Not Brian, Severino from Horse Meat Disco, Last Magpie, Inverted Audio are coming down, Crack Stevens and then hopefully next week we’ll have Riz La Teef and Novelist down again. Then the week after that loads of locals are going to be in, Hesseltime, Throwing Shades in the middle of November and hopefully Roy Davis Jr, but we’re not 100% on that yet so we’ll have to see.