Soul trader Brian Hurst talks about promoting music across the globe - from Leek
At a crossroads in life, Brian Hurst left the fruit and veg trade behind, concentrating instead on serving up only the "crispest of biscuits" to music fans across the globe – from Leek. John Woodhouse meets a man at the forefront of a movement that's stereo, not stereotypical
BRIAN Hurst is not a man to let life pass him by. He loves music, but not in a headphones on/Parker Knoll recliner kind of way. His mission is to take it to the masses. A fizzball of energy, spinning like a 78, he's putting together a global monument to soul and jazz.
"As Kevin Costner would say," notes Brian, "'Build it and they will come'."
The American reference is apt. Brian's not unknown across the Atlantic. In Atlanta, for example, he fashioned a name for himself as one of the country's top-ranking soul and jazz DJs. Remarkable, in the digital age, what you can achieve from a house in North Staffordshire.
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Now, however, the whole world's his stage. Four years ago Brian launched soulandjazz.com, bringing to life the back-catalogue of record labels big and small from across the decades. In a world of increasingly bland radio playlists, he's become the go-to source of life-affirming musical pleasure for listeners in 164 countries ranging from Australia to Japan.
But it's not been an easy ride. It takes nerves of steel to put all you own on the line in pursuit of an ideal that could, with a single unfortunate nudge, send life's stylus careering across the vinyl and into oblivion.
Music is surely, after all, the industry which most lends itself to the description 'fickle'. Just ask Nipper, HMV's phonograph-loving mascot now looking desperately for a new owner.
"I've put my family's wellbeing on the line by doing this," says the 48-year-old father-of-two. "Nobody's paid me for years. I've done it all out of my own pocket – I've made myself broke! I've spent six figures over the past three years quite comfortably.
"But, truthfully, I think it will work. It has to. There is no plan B."
The figures suggest he has a chance. Thousands visit his website every day, many more are downloading its recently developed It's Showtime! app.
Vindication for a man who, made redundant from the fruit and veg business at 45, could have lacked the vitamin C for one last tilt at immersing himself in the sounds he'd always loved.
"I'm not averse to taking risks," explains Brian, "because life's too short."
The son of a jazz drummer, Brian grew up in a house which "always had some great music playing in it".
"In amongst it," he recalls, "were those golden soul moments that you didn't realise at the time would have a lasting effect. It gets into your subconscious and then one day you wake up and you realise you really love music."
But Brian was never content simply to listen. Aged 11, he became a DJ.
"I remember DJ-ing at my primary school for the fourth year leavers," he laughs. "By the time I got to 16 I was a proper busy DJ. I earned more money than my teachers! I was out three or four nights a week. I was doing clubs – not that they knew I was 16 of course."
Every penny would go on vinyl. Long-suffering girlfriends would be dragged round record shops. "I'd just get lost in there. I'd save my money and just spend it on vinyl."
He still has many of them – records, not girlfriends. "I've got thousands upon thousands of albums," he says, "and even more CDs."
His musical knowledge was much mined by radio, with Brian DJ-ing on stations in his native London. "I've been around it a long time," he says of his soul and jazz addiction, "but it's only in the last four years that I've really stepped up to make it my life."
Brian came to North Staffordshire a decade ago after his old company sought a representative in the Midlands. He's stayed ever since, living in Leek with wife Bozena and their sons Louis, eight, and James, six.
The pair have been married 10 years. "My wife's a great mum," says Brian, "and I love her to bits. I'm the luckiest man. We're a great unit. We all sit down to dinner together – it's a bit of an old-fashioned set-up in some respects. She completely supports me, loves the music, and understands exactly what we need to do. We do it together, and it's great."
Together, they're gearing up for the next big step. While the aforementioned Nipper was so-called because he would bite the backs of visitors' legs, Brian's long been a man of unrestrained largesse to those who've entered his music portal. This month, for the first time, he's started charging for a subscription to soulandjazz.com – although even then segments of the operation remain free.
"I'm going to be like the antichrist!" says Brian. "There's going to be an endless stream of bile and hatred! But I'm saying 'hold on, I've given you four years, 900 shows, for nothing!'
"The modern psyche," he bemoans, "is not to pay. One person buys a track, 50 people share it. It doesn't take a genius to work out it's ultimately going to fall apart. If people aren't going to pay it's going to die." (the very most anyone will have to pay for the soulandjazz experience is £2 a week – less than a pint).
Brian believes his idea will work because, in broadcasting terms, "there's no combination of soul and jazz in the world". Not only that, but great swathes of people have been left disaffected by repeatedly hearing the same old tunes.
"If you treat your audience with contempt," he says, "then they'll walk away. If you treat your audience as a community, you build loyalty – people will stay with you.
"We have to be the people who champion the music that radio isn't playing. They have removed all that passion and knowledge and left all this generic bland awful nonsense. They always go for the bleeding obvious. Ours is the music you'll never hear on the radio, but presented with passion and with knowledge. Music should flow so it's engaging. Then people stick with you and don't go channel surfing.
"The jazz stations that are out there," he adds, "don't serve the music very well at all, and it's a shame, because there are a lot of people who love jazz. And soul too is misunderstood. It can be disco, it can be funk, Stax, all sorts of things."
I t's this all-encompassing musical knowledge that made Brian such a hit in the States. He never just listened to jazz and soul, he became friends with artists and DJs too, links which took him right to the heart of the genre, in Atlanta. Brian would DJ there regularly, eventually offered his own radio show.
"I gave them record audience figures," he recalls. "They'd never known anything like it – I was the only white guy on an African/American station. But my music mix was perfect for Saturday evening six 'til nine America. I recorded it here, sent it over there.
"The preparation of the show was almost like a military operation," he adds. "There were 35 tracks and I'd prepare it so that, as it went out seemingly live, I'd work Twitter and Facebook from here. That's how I got an engaged audience. The figures went through the roof, because they'd got nothing like it."
Brian stepped back from the show in 2011. He still broadcasts on a Saturday night, except this time The Hurst Selection is heard not just in Atlanta, but globally. "It's relentless," says Brian. "If you can imagine the amount of production just to do one show."
No wonder he works "eight in the morning, til gone midnight". It pays off, though. The Hurst Selection is downloaded thousands of times over.
But Brian wants to make one thing clear about his plan.
"It isn't about me," he says. "It's not a vanity project – one or two people might think it is! – but it isn't. It's never been about me, ever. People get confused by that sometimes, but I do this because I have passion and desire. You must never confuse arrogance with people having a belief in something. And I firmly believe in what we're doing because it needs to be done otherwise, if we don't tell the story, if we don't care, who else is going to? And the music will die.
"Our role," he adds, "is that of a curator. We have the knowledge and the desire and we're grown up enough not to want to be in a niche.
"We just want to paint as complete a picture as possible. It's not just about the new. It's about bringing to life that back catalogue that cannot be heard anywhere. We're talking about jazz from the 30s, swing jazz, trad jazz, through to cutting edge contemporary jazz, soul music – to try to be true to the genre overall. We are a conduit, a burgeoning platform for music."
The next stage in the operation could be to bring well-known artists to Leek. "It isn't a difficult thing to do," says Brian. "Anybody who appears in the Midlands would welcome an add on date. I'd be very happy to work with it and make it come to life."
Unsurprisingly, considering his reach, most major record labels have already attached themselves to Brian's enterprise (listeners have the option to purchase the music directly from iTunes). But whoever comes on board, his independence won't be compromised.
"The moment you get paid to play," he says, "you're done. That's why American radio has had it, because it's all brown envelopes, backhanders.
"Some stations, in the same hour, they'll play the same track twice. People become brainwashed. In the end they just accept it. Well you know what, we don't accept it! When we do a live stream there'll never ever be a reason to play the same track twice on one day, ever. Because why would you? In fact, if you play 1,900 tracks in a week, why would you ever need to repeat yourselves? I don't understand.
"We have to do it," he says of keeping soul and jazz alive. "There has to be people who care that much about it.
"We've got all these people round the world who love what we do, and all the labels now are supporting our vision as well. I think the whole thing will come together now. It's such an exciting thing."
W hen it comes to Brian's own musical tastes, he's not one to adopt an unrealistic stance. "I can't say that everything we play I like," he says, "that's not possible." But if sea levels were drastically to rise and he was to be cast adrift on a Moorlands desert island, he knows which record he'd grab for – Earth Wind And Fire's I Am, "one of the greatest albums ever".
"Jazz-wise," he adds, "Sinatra was the best – everyone else is just playing after him. How do you follow Sinatra?"
It's a selection that emphasises an unusual mix – a combination of the modern and traditional. "I love it here," says the man who spends much of his waking life in the digital world. "We like the hills, we like the countryside. We feel very lucky that we're in this town where you can just walk to things. You don't even have to start the car up."
Add in a bit of soul and jazz and you can imagine his contentment level. "I listen to music all day and every day," he says.
Crisp biscuits. Sorted.
Go to www.soulandjazz.com for details of subscription and app details.