When Dom and Rushat packed their bags and moved from London to Coventry in 2019 they were expecting to attend uni, not university. But once the kitchen party fervour wore off and the same few clubs had been on steady rotation for a bit too long, they soon realised fun nights out in the midlands were far and few between – unless your idea of a good time is listening to a house remixes of 2015 chart hits in a room full of sweaty freshers. This absence of what they were so accustomed to in London (a decent motive) led to the creation of their now booming live events company – Szn Settings.
Speaking to me at the student accommodation block where they first met three years ago, the pair take me on a literal trip down memory lane as we walk through their campus. They point out a stairwell where they used to smoke and talk about their dreams and goals for the future of Szn Settings, a humbling reminder of how far they’ve come in such a short space of time.
Growing up in a family of musicians and creatives meant Dom was always musically inclined – in term one of university his next door flatmate moved out because of the constant noise coming from the massive speakers in his room. He met Rushat at a flat party early on and they bonded over their shared love of hip hop and rap music, very quickly deciding to make something tangible of it.
Dom: ‘It was December 2019 when we started talking about hosting these live events, and we made the IG page in early Jan – that was our first event. I remember putting up the tickets like two months in advance thinking they were gonna sell out so quickly, and then nobody was buying them. We got this act – who we need not name – who used us a bit, the DJs were just decent, we didn’t sell enough tickets. To be honest when you start anything for the first time, you learn as you go on – our first event was definitely a learning curve’
And then COVID hit. Whilst the rest of the world was thrown off kilter and businesses crumbled, the pair used it to their advantage by hosting a socially distanced rooftop event at a time when the population was cooped up indoors and starved of social interaction. The event gave them the exposure they needed, and the ensuing lockdown gave them time to re-evaluate and work on their strategies.
Rushat: ‘The reflection helped us understand where to go next. The next one had Feux headlining – we focussed a lot more promo and had reps to promote the event, which gave us maximum exposure. I was back home in London when we released tickets and I remember being so excited cos it was the first time we saw ticket sales had shot up massively as soon as they were released’
Szn Settings quick success is partly owed to its niche market. Fitting into an untouched space in the Midlands meant they had no competitors; they were and still are the only live music event in the area that focuses exclusively on Hip Hop and rap music. In a space catering largely for techno, house, and pop fans, the demand for something like Szn Settings has seen the brand grow a large and loyal following.
A day after this interview they hosted their biggest ever sold out event, headlined by Sainte with supporting acts Strandz, and Capital J who are managed by Dom. The mood was infectious, lyrics bouncing off the dimly lit walls as the crowd’s energy increased with every performance until reaching a crescendo for Sainte’s closing set. To have such a large and established artist performing in such an intimate setting felt like a rare occurrence. In an industry where extravagance is the currency of popularity, the casual authenticity of Szn Settings’ events give off the feel of a very well planned house party – except your favourite rappers happen to be performing and jumping into the crowds. It’s easy to see why their popularity is growing with each event they put on.
Speaking to a regular attendee, she tells me this is her third time coming to a Szn Settings event. ‘It’s almost like a private show – my friends are going to be seeing Sainte at Wireless from metres away in a sweaty mob, but this is my second time seeing him at Szn Settings in a room where he’s walking around and vibing with the crowd while he performs. The vibes are unmatched’. ‘Vibes’ pretty much encapsulates the whole atmosphere of the night, and even for someone who’s not a massive fan of melodic rap I was taken aback by the collective exuberance of the room and the natural effervescence that seemed to be radiating from both the stage and crowd.
Dom: ‘I’d say Szn Settings is a different kind of experience to anything else you’d get around here. We started of to diversify the nights out in Warwick and cater for the London audience who are up here for uni, but it’s now become something much bigger – our audience has grown so much’
Rushat: ‘At our last event which was headlined by Artyn, a group of people drove down from Sheffield and slept in their car just to attend – that was kind of a pinch me moment. It’s crazy to see people showing so much love to our events that they’d do something like that’
Showcasing new talent is a big part of the agenda. Giving upcoming artists a platform to perform alongside more established rappers and expand their fanbase was one of the catalytic factors that remains integral to the Szn Settings brand, as well as spreading a homegrown sound that is dear to both Dom and Rushat.
Dom: ‘A lot of my friends in London are part of the music scene and I missed going to live shows; not all the artists and DJs we showcase are from London, but it was definitely a movement that started in London with the whole UK chill rap scene, so our influences are definitely from what we see and experience back home. The most rewarding thing since setting up Szn Settings has been seeing people have fun. I know it sounds a bit cringe but its very rewarding to be putting on a show that people actually want to go to – you’re filling a gap in the market that didn’t exist, and watching people enjoy an artform that you love’
Rushat: ‘Also the fact that people come sober and still let us know afterwards that they had a great time – you don’t need to be off your head to enjoy the night, which is rare in an area dominated by uni students and young people’
Finding sponsorships – their last Sainte show was sponsored by 8 Track Rum, who focus on combining with live music events – was a recent development that has bolstered the brand’s profile and is testament to the hard work they’ve put into starting a business with zero guidance whilst juggling degrees at a coveted Russell Group university.
The first year was, admittedly, ‘a sheg’ – entirely self funded and stumbling through a messy industry where nothing seemed to be working in their favour, there were times when it got difficult.
Rushat: ‘We really persevered through the first couple of shows. In business, you have to put your ego aside if you want to make it work’
Dom: ‘Going around to a bunch of 18 year olds, handing out flyers, trying to big up an event to them and getting ignored, some people not even looking you in the eye – you just have to take it on the chin. And then there’s people talking badly about what you’re doing. It’s important to look past all that and not lose sight of your vision. Perseverance is so important, I can’t stress that enough’
After a few setbacks, they reached out for advice and worked on professionalising the brand, teaching themselves about the legal side and learning along the way until they found what worked for them. Dom wrote their first contract himself, a three page document guided entirely by Youtube videos and vibes. But as well as the professional side of things, their social network was a key part of their success.
Rushat: ‘We’re lucky to have an amazing network of people supporting us, a lot of whom just attended our early events and spoke to us afterwards about wanting to be involved’
Dom: ‘Shoutout Marcos, Hera, Tomi, Kai… we have a lot of good people around us who work tirelessly to make Szn Setting what it is. The people you keep around you is integral to your business’
With Dom already beginning his career in artist management and music production, and bright prospects in the corporate world for Rushat, the pair still intend to sustain their musical brainchild and have plans to expand outwards.
Their first event in London, headlined by a massive secret act, will be taking place at Peckham Levels in early September. Despite being belligerent to the Andrew Tate-esque rise and grind agenda and a firm believer in the soft life, I can’t help but appreciate how Dom and Rushat have managed to combine the two so effortlessly with what they’ve achieved. To be 18 and thrown into a competitive academic environment 90 miles from home is a daunting feat in itself, but to also grow a successful music business off your own back against nauseating odds – including a literal worldwide plague – is more than commendable. In such a short space of time, Szn Settings has solidified itself in the live events industry and is now synonymous with easy enjoyment – I look forward to seeing what they do next.
Produced and written by Nada El-Hammoud @sayyynada | Assisted by Hera Hamiti – @herahamiti | Photos by Tomi Sanusi – @tsshotss and Kai Faulkner – @kai.yf | Special thanks to Dom Matthews and Rushat Chandra – @Sznsettings