Smash Bros Records: new label looking for performers with x-factor to put Lancashire on the music map
Like all good origin stories, the tale of James Bates really kicks into gear at Flamingoland.
“I was brought up going to Flamingoland,” says James with a smile. “I always had the mindset that I was going to study computing at college and that’s what my dad wanted for me, but when I saw an audition for the show-team at Flamingoland pop up, I went for it.”
“I had no training and my dad was dead set against it, but I ended up getting it as a 17-year-old, and it all stemmed from there.”
‘It all’ encompasses quite the career - a professional journey as eclectic as they come, incorporating everything from panto and Jersey Boys to hip-hop and starting record labels based in Blackpool. And it’s that final venture that has James, who co-founded Smash Bros Records with business partner Ryan Wallace last year, more excited than anything else.
Looking to help give local North West musicians a leg-up in the wild world of music, Smash Bros was started off the back of James and Ryan’s extensive performance backgrounds as well as their undimmed passion for promoting newfound talent regardless of genre. Simply put, they want to put Blackpool and Lancashire on the music map.
But first, back to Flamingoland.
“Straight away, I was in the production show,” says the 26-year-old James - also known by his stage name James Alexander - of his early days in the entertainment industry. “I was thrown in at the deep end, but I’d always had that need to perform. From an early age, probably about five, I had it in me - my dad even built me a stage in my bedroom.
“I don’t know where that love of showbiz came from or what about it specifically appealed to me, but from the age of about 10, I was writing my own music,” he adds. “I think you either have that interest or you don’t and, if you do have it, it’s with you for life. But actually getting involved in the entertainment industry was a massive eye-opener.
“It was all brand-new - I’d pace up and down before the show started and throw up in a bin because I was that nervous to go on stage,” James says. “But, as soon as I was out there, I was fine and, thankfully, the choreographer Liz, God love her, took me under her wing and helped me progress, told me to take a lot of deep breaths, and bite my lip if I needed to.
“I owe her a lot because she put me on the path to where I am now and, once I’d had a taste of that world, a fire was lit inside me. It’s an addiction, more a part of you than just a job. And it fuelled me to go on to bigger and better things - panto every year, production shows with the likes of QDOS and other big companies, touring with Jersey Boys, and solo cabaret.”
The birth of Smash Bros
And now Smash Bros, too. The entire venture is built on foundations forged by James and Ryan in the furnace of showbiz. Not only has James been a professional performer for over a decade, travelling the length and breadth of the country and taking the stage at myriad festivals, theatres, clubs, and raves, but Ryan also boasts quite the CV, too.
Known as ‘The Opera Guy’, Ryan was born in Fife in Scotland, training at the prestigious Dance School of Scotland in Glasgow where he studied on the musical theatre course before attending The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. After that, he went on to study opera, before taking a break from classical singing in favour of a move into the world of cabaret.
He moved to Blackpool in 2012, becoming one of the most sought-after singers in the North West entertainment industry due to his versatility in everything from opera and pop to country. He began collaborating with James, who went from musical theatre to bursting onto the hip-hop scene in 2014, landing countless online streams and performing to thousands.
Now they’re collaborating in a whole new way, seeking to harness a vibrant scene and facilitate local acts looking to take things global. Basically, they want to start something special, which is very much in keeping with their lofty mantra of ‘inspire, innovate, and create.’
“The record label is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and the main motivation behind it is to help others break into the industry,” says James. “There’s so much undiscovered talent in Blackpool and the North West and there’s never been a record label here, so it’s a great place for this to happen.
“The more we thought about it, the more it made sense to turn this ambition into reality,” he adds. “We knew we could make it work because we have the expertise, the connections, and the understanding of the commercial music market. It’s incredibly time-consuming and there’s no doubt that it’s going to take a lot of hard work, but we’re ready for the challenge.
“Over the past few weeks at open mic nights, the talent on show has been incredible,” adds James, who has already started scoping out potential new signings. “It just cements the fact that we made the right decision to start this whole thing and, while it’s been a whirlwind, when you see potential and talent, it makes it all the more fulfilling.
“It gives us solace because we know all the elements to make it work are here.”
As a result, they’re optimistic ahead of their next and biggest talent-spotting event, a showcase evening set to be held at the Layton Institute on March 24, with the tantalising possibility of dream-come-true recording contracts and a foothold in the music market on the table for some lucky performers. But what exactly are they looking for?
“It’s a very hard question to answer,” says James, smiling. “We’re looking for the x-factor - it sounds cheesy, but we’re looking for somebody who blows us away as soon as they open their mouth. It’s all about that exceptional talent. You see that instantly in people; I’ve heard thousands of singers and I have a good ear, so as soon as you hear it, you know.
“You can’t really explain it, but it’s so exciting when you do find it,” he continues. And we’ve found what we hope will be our very first signing: a young 18-year-old who’s absolutely fantastic. Incredible. We’re very excited and our mission is to get the talent up to the standard where they can progress their career with our help.
“That’s what the future is about: being a stepping-stone label,” James continues. “We’re not a massive organisation compared to the likes of EMI or Polydor, but we can be a step to the likes of them, so we need to build that audience and profile as best we can. That, of course, takes time and money, so it’s imperative we find the right talent to justify everything.
“But it’s all about the bigger goal of propelling talented people as far as we can in the hope that they can then go on to bigger and better things and we’re loving being involved in that because the response from local performers and venues has been fantastic,” James says. “Everybody’s as excited as we are because of how special this could be.
“Who knows where it could go.”
Tickets for the Layton Institute showcase event on March 24 are available at Eventbrite.