The career trajectory of Naughty Boy – aka Shahid Khan – has been one of the most impressive, and heartening, in the British music industry of the past decade.
Back in the mid-noughties, Khan was working for Domino’s Pizza in his hometown of Watford, having dropped out of a Business degree at London Guildhall University.
Determined to make something of his musical talent, he realized he needed a cash injection.
Hordes of applications later, he scored two breaks: first, he was approved for a £5,000 grant from the Prince’s Trust to assist the creation of his own business.
And second – in a plot twist which will surely have Hollywood come knocking one day – he won £44,000 on daytime British game-show Deal Or No Deal.
With this startup capital, Naughty Boy got to work, building a makeshift recording studio in his parents’ garden shed and laying down early professional-quality demos.
From there, he signed to Sony/ATV not only as a writer/producer but also as a businessman – with a JV for his publishing company, Naughty Words – while beginning a collaborative relationship with the up-and-coming star who would help make his name, Emeli Sandé.
In more recent times, Naughty Boy has released his debut album as an artist through Universal’s Virgin EMI – 2013’s Hotel Cabana – and, earlier this year, inked a new deal for both himself and Naughty Words with the independent publisher everyone’s talking about, Downtown.
Yesterday (July 4), Khan imparted some of the lessons he learned along this unlikely journey in front of a crowd of music publishers at the AGM of the UK’s Music Publishers Association (MPA) in London.
It was a discussion where he paid clear respect to both his former publisher and Naughty Words’ new home – while gently pointing out some of the less sparkling elements of the modern music business.
The focus was the rise of Naughty Words, of which Khan said: “I’m not a publisher in the conventional sense.
“The reason I became a publisher was I thought: what is it going to take for me to find myself – as in, someone who doesn’t think they’re good enough, who won’t pick up the phone, who doesn’t have a manager… someone who just needs to be discovered?”
He explained that one of his first signings at Naughty Words was writing/production duo Craze and Hoax (aka Hugo Chegwin and Harry Craze), who he then put together with Sandé.
“I’m not a publisher in the conventional sense.”
Out of that session – conducted in Chegwin’s bedroom while he was on the dole – the trio wrote the bones of Next To Me, which would become Sandé’s biggest hit and a standout on her 2m-selling debut LP, Our Version Of Events.
“I didn’t realize I was ‘signing’ people because I was enjoying the music,” said Khan, quizzed on stage by Channel 4’s Jasmine Dotiwala (pictured).
“When I was bringing these early deals to Sony, I don’t think they understood what it was or why I was signing it; but because it was like a little £5k or £10k thing, I didn’t understand, that was easy [money]. And my returns from that were good.”
Other major hits concocted by Khan and Sandé for her debut LP included Heaven (UK No.2) and Clown (No.4) – successes which gave Khan more belief in himself as a publisher to sign his next major writer, multi-Grammy Award-winner Sam Smith.
“Sam had many offers,” explained Khan. “This was my first encounter with someone who’s not just my girlfriend… he’s everyone’s girlfriend.”
Khan wrote a hit song with Smith, 2013’s La La La (UK No.1, US No.19) before signing the soon-to-be superstar’s publishing to Naughty Words/Stellar Songs.
“I respected [Sam] and I cared about him,” said Khan when asked what might have given him the edge over other interested parties.
“When we wrote La La La, Sam was working in a bar cleaning toilets. I didn’t realize he had this whole host of material ready – all those songs like Stay with Me, most of the [first] album, was already written.
“It’s a misconception that artists get success and then they suddenly come out with magic. Sam spent his whole life writing that first album.
“When we wrote La La La, Sam [Smith] was working in a bar cleaning toilets.”
“He’d done his rounds a bit, met people [in the industry]. But it was about when people say: ‘This isn’t just okay… this is f*cking amazing.'”
Such decisiveness, suggested Khan, is all-too-rare in today’s music biz- something he especially noticed in his early days of working with Sandé.
He explained: “We had this song Heaven, which everyone was umming and ahhing about: ‘She’s supposed to be more like this.’ I’m talking about a combination of publishers.
“That’s when it goes wrong; when publishers [disagree] with labels and it becomes: ‘Who’s responsible for this?’
“When something goes wrong, no-one wants to be responsible for it; when it goes right, everyone wants to say: ‘I did this bit. I connected that phone call.’ That’s when I don’t like getting involved.
“Emeli was a big learning curve that, as much as everyone has abilities, including me, no-one actually knows what they’re doing. Or, you don’t know what you’re doing… until it happens.”
Khan certainly wasn’t down on his overall experience with Sony/ATV Music Publishing, however.
He reserved praise for the likes of recently-promoted UK boss Guy Moot as well as the company’s ex-joint Head of A&R in London, Janice Brock.
Brock, said Khan, played a crucial role in his involvement in 2015 single Runnin’ (Lose It All), which featured a showstopping vocal from none other than Beyonce.
The original demo of Runnin’ was co-written by Arrow Benjamin and British songsmith Carla Marie [Williams] – to which Khan, and then Queen B, added some extra magic.
“I wouldn’t have heard Runnin’, the original version, had Janice Brock not played me the demo,” said Khan.
“Marty taught me how to be a bit of a gangsta of a publisher, and he did it without even trying.”
“Arrow Benjamin wasn’t on anyone’s radar, but because I had the relationship with Janice, I trusted when she said [you should listen to this]. Janice wouldn’t play me everything, but when she did, I’d be like, This is sick.
“When I heard that I was like, I need to meet this guy.”
Added Khan: “One thing I learned from Runnin’ was that Beyonce heard a song, called me up one day and wanted to be a part of it… Beyonce does not need to feature on Naughty Boy’s song. But because the song is king, she’s willing to become part of something and she sounds incredible on it.
“That gave me a lot of confidence, not so much in terms of working with big artists, but [to] just keep making songs.”
Khan was also full of praise for global Sony/ATV chief Martin Bandier (pictured), who he said taught him “many valuable lessons” about dealing with Naughty Words’ roster, which now tops 20 songwriters.
“I have utmost respect for Marty Bandier,” he said. “Marty taught me how to be a bit of a gangsta of a publisher, and he did it without even trying.”
Khan’s own future works, and his future signings to Naughty Words, will go through his new deal with New York-born Downtown – who’ve had a very busy year so far.
In April, the fast-expanding publisher acquired more than 170 copyrights from smash songwriter Ryan Tedder.
Amongst other moves in the past 12 months, it’s expanded into Japan (via a partnership with Avex) and signed a partnership with Big Yellow Dog – Meghan Trainor’s Nashville-based publisher, as well as acquiring Nikki Sixx’s complete Mötley Crüe publishing catalogue and signing a multi-territory deal with Niall Horan.
Khan explained that, by removing himself from the Sony/ATV system, he should be able to gain fresh perspective on the career of the Naughty Words writers who remain signed there.
“Signing with Downtown wasn’t something I decided easily… But I felt it was best thing.”
He hopes this will enable him to discuss their progress with executives like Moot “as if [the writers] are growing up and we’re both taking care of them – rather than as if I’m one of the kids as well”.
He added: “I’m very proud of the existing Naughty Words roster with Sony/ATV, and I’m also I’m incredibly proud that, going forward, I’m continuing the Naughty Words brand with Downtown – with Roberto [Neri, UK MD] and with Justin [Kalifowitz, founder and CEO, pictured].
“Signing with Downtown wasn’t something I decided easily. It took me over a year to even contemplate doing it.
“But I felt it was best thing, not just for myself but everyone I’m working with; for the sake of the existing writers, and the three or four new writers I’m about to sign with Downtown.”
As for Naughty Boy’s other remaining career ambitions, there’s the small matter of his second album as an artist, which is expected to be released on Virgin/EMI in the not-too-distant future.
Khan said that he’s happy to ignore any outside industry expectations that he should work in a particular style, or location, to get it finished.
“I was spoiled by the first person I wrote with [Emeli Sandé] because she’s an amazing singer, and she can write lyrics and she doesn’t take a lot of time doing it,” he said of the collaborative process.
“Once you start working in LA, you realize that it’s like a machine. There are certain topliners who [in essence] are the artist – and the artist who you think is the artist isn’t doing anything.
“Once you start working in LA, you realize that it’s like a machine… I don’t want to be a conveyor belt for songs.”
“I’m learning [these things]. The reason I’ve stayed in London is that I don’t want to take that approach; I don’t want to be a machine or a conveyor belt for songs.”
On that note, he praised the grime scene for the current “rebelliousness” expressed by British music, especially in light of the recent commercial success achieved by the likes of Skepta and Stormzy.
“Grime is making me feel alive,” said Khan. “I’m loving that streaming has come up at the same time as other genres of music that weren’t necessarily financially good for… Kensington High Street.”
Khan also spoke of his evolution as a publisher and his own A&R nous – citing the moment when he passed Zayn Malik the song which would become the ex-One Direction man’s biggest hit (and a UK and US No.1), Pillowtalk.
The original version of track, explained Khan, was written by Naughty Words signings (and twin brothers) Anthony and Michael Hannides.
“Pillowtalk was sitting on their hard-drive for two years,” he said. “Sony wasn’t necessarily arms wide open like: ‘Shah, let’s do this.’ It was more, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’
“Every songwriter you sign wants to be treated like they’re the only one [that matters] – and they deserve to be.”
“That’s the bit I love as a publisher. ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yes, I am.'”
He added: “I’ve realized that writers and producers are the most sensitive people in the world. Every one [you sign] wants to be treated like they’re the only one [that matters] – and they deserve to be.
“It’s not good enough just putting them as part of a wolf pack and expect them to have to fight for [their success] – you have to fight for them too.”Music Business Worldwide