Much has been made about the stagnant UK charts and dearth of British breakthrough acts in 2016. And rightfully so, by this time last year, James Bay, Years and Years and Jess Glynne were success stories from the British isles. Debut albums released in 2014 from Sam Smith and George Ezra were still topping the charts, and Ed Sheeran was doing so with his second, as were third albums from Florence and the Machine and Mumford & Sons. This year we’ve had first albums from Jack Garratt and Blossoms do fairly well plus Zayn, but he’s been launched from the US.
Everything is cyclical, and this year is without a doubt a time when albums from US acts have overshadowed everything else worldwide. But what about The 1975? They hit #1 in the US and UK with their second album and French act Christine & the Queens has truly broken with her debut thanks to a high-profile TV performance and Glastonbury slot. Entrepreneurial grime artist Skepta won the Mercury Music Prize for his fourth record, and Ed Harcourt, who has been independently managed and signed by Sean Adams for four years, got a deal with Polydor to release his excellent seventh album Furnaces to much admiration. Also: Adele. I don’t think it’s a fluke all those artists have independent roots.
This isn’t about to turn into a major label bashing argument. It looks glamorous from the outside but it’s really hard to work at a major. The pressure is always high thanks to the constant presence of cash counters at the top, and those in charge are doggedly competitive with rivals. Being creative is a risk, and requires a lot of time. Scouts have weekly meetings to come up with the goods.
A&Ring at a major label is the equivalent of requiring a very fragile flower to grow into its full potential overnight. And if it doesn’t, you go into work expecting to be fired. It’s a lot easier to sign something that past evidence has proved popular than it is to spend someone else’s money on something that’s different and may or may not be interesting to the wider public. Because then you’ll probably get to keep your job and make sure you and your kids are warm, fed and clothed.
The business isn’t swimming in money like it was pre-digital revolution when the likes of Culture Club, Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Oasis, the Beatles and Spice Girls were making history. So the focus has shifted from creativity and innovation to clawing back as much profit as possible by appealing to the mass market. The mass market loves radio-friendly pop tunes from Justin Bieber, Adele and Drake. Says veteran manager Simon Napier-Bell: “One of the big changes you’ve seen in last 10 years is that record companies are run more and more by straight-laced people like accountants and lawyers who are thinking profit, not creative, so pop music gets a little bit more boring and less off the wall. Previous bosses were music fans who just happened to make their way to the top of the company.”
Independent labels (and managers), however, don’t have parent companies that expect them to grow profits year on year. There’s usually one guy (and it’s always been a guy) that genuinely loves music and has worked out a way of making enough money to keep him, his small team and artists afloat, thanks to private financing or luck. The 1975 are a prime example. Their manager Jamie Oborne has worked with them for nearly ten years, and signed them to his own label four years ago when every major turned them down (the music was apparently “confusing”). A licensing deal with Polydor was eventually signed prior to the release of their debut in 2013, which also hit #1.
Can you imagine Universal, Sony or Warner waiting as long as Oborne did for a debut album? They want it within a year or two. And The 1975 needed those six+ years of getting better at gigging and writing before they were ready to launch. As a result of financial support and more, that launch was absolutely incredible when it arrived. Let’s say the band didn’t have Oborne’s backing and that no-one else, including the majors, were interested. How would they have funded their lives? And had enough time, energy and space to learn to be great and creative if they’d had full-time jobs simultaneously? Charmingly, when Oborne offered his services as manager, they asked, “How much does it cost because we don’t have any money.” In the words of A$AP Ferg, you need capital to last in the game.
There’s talk about the lack of small venues being a reason for a decline in homegrown acts. I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s that the only musicians who can afford the time it takes to learn to be amazing and find out what they want to say over a long period of time – the real deal always write – are the rare few who have funding from somewhere, and, ideally, belief and patience from someone. That formula is not easy to find. There are the major label A&Rs who only want you when you’re ready, the indie execs who’ll sign you if you inspire them but may not be able to provide enough funding for you to quit working, and those rare finds like Oborne and Adams who’ve dedicated their lives to making something they believe in successful. Artists like Skepta exist with or without the industry.
Those who are lucky enough to get backing from a well-financed indie label face more obstacles when it comes to exposure. They then have to compete with major artists who have even bigger-moneyed marketing campaigns, worldwide infrastructure and relationships with radio stations, TV bookers and budget for pluggers. They’re hit again at streaming services where the three majors own their own playlist brands and there’s routine reports of major label dominance on Spotify’s own curated lists. On its All New All Now list playlist this week, for example, seven out of 30 entries are indie. That’s 23%. It’s not because the majors are making better quality music.
So what’s the answer to Britain’s ‘music problem’? We can tell the major label A&Rs to have more patience and take more risks, and I think they’d say they’d love to do that. But that’s only going to happen if the culture of their company gets a complete revamp. Firstly, the diversity problem must be addressed immediately. That can only happen if you literally throw out all the staff and start again with a new recruitment procedure that isn’t influenced by unconscious bias and unpaid internships. Many different perspectives from all walks of life would bring music to the public that they didn’t even know they liked that isn’t ‘boring’ pop or dance. Case in point: Christine & the Queens first broke in France, and her French label head then used his UK operation to do the same in Britain.
Strict targets are never going to be conducive to the creative process, and a nurturing approach to signees needs to be adopted and adhered to at all times. One or two acts per A&R at any one time is enough. The indie community must then be given equal opportunities for radio play, streaming playlisting, TV appearances, sync deals and other kinds of promo. In a perfect world, the indies and majors work together to share data and expertise. It’s a tall order, isn’t it. And it’s the major label shareholders who can make it happen. I’m just not sure how much they care.