Each Friday, The MBW Review gives our take on some of the biggest news stories of the previous seven days. This week, we have our final say on the biggest new release for years: Adele‘s 25. The MBW Review is supported by Believe Digital.
There is a wave of depressing, defensive group-think infesting the music industry in the wake of Adele’s brain-frying success this week.
‘You can’t learn anything from it; she’s a complete outlier; she’s just not cut from the same cloth as other artists.’
Eh? (… lo, it’s me.)
As for the rest of you: sorry, but when did we all become quite so turgidly unambitious?
Instead of being emboldened and inspired by an album’s ability to send a boggling chunk of the world purchase-loopy, why are we manufacturing alibis for its success?
Is a blockbuster LP’s global impact now so daunting to some music execs that when it is blindingly in evidence, it is actively discriminated against – even dismissed?
To pilfer a phrase that the record-demolishing Tottenham siren would have happily spat in her fags’n’filth years… what utter b*llocks.
Adele is not super-human. Super-talented, maybe. Super-driven, no doubt.
But flesh and blood, like every artist on every roster that ever existed.
Like all the artists signed to labels this week, and all the artists who will be signed in future.
A&R people: if you’re mentally capping the commercial potential of your roster leagues beneath Adele – convincing yourself she somehow commands otherworldly powers that your signings couldn’t possibly hope to attain – you are failing your artists.
25 is a perfect moment for this industry to reset its appetite for triumph.
Let’s stop explaining away Adele as an aberration or a miracle.
Whatever happened to ‘why not’?
Instead of parroting why Adele’s galactic triumph is a perplexing aberration, it’s surely wiser to study her ascent and see what we can learn. There’s plenty.
The most apparent factor is, I’m afraid, a shameless cliche.
But, hey, so is ‘I’m sorry for breaking your heart’ – proving it really is all in the delivery.
Consider Adele, Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith – the standout trio of the UK industry’s stupendous transatlantic clout over the past two years.
They were all, by hook or by crook, given a generous period of development, alongside a sensible financial burden, in their early years.
They wore both extremely well.
London’s 12 Bar Club must have had elastic walls a decade ago, judging by the number of music biz execs who say they squeezed in to see Adele there in 2006.
The jazzy, finger-picking redhead hunched over a steel-string below is a world away from the globe-straddling, stylish superstar now mowing her way through the history books.
That is real artist development.
The sort that doesn’t tend to happen when an act’s team is wiling a tidal wave of cash to descend months after they’ve inked a contract.
A memorable figure from the city’s so-called ‘Thamesbeat’ movement alongside Jamie T, Jack Penaté and others, Adele was discovered by scout Nick Huggett and signed to Richard Russell’s XL, for what the label boss has since called a “very sensible deal”.
Lodge those words. They’re essential.
Now, let’s look at Ed Sheeran’s story. Rejected by a handful of labels for not fitting any static genre mould; a ginger, middle class loner who’d earned the respect of underground grime stars. Confusing.
As a result, Sheeran was inadvertently given space to ply his trade away from the limelight.
Being challenged on his unconventional popstar looks, being told his face didn’t fit, probably only strengthened his resolve to be distinct – and gave him an understanding of the template-chained A&R conservatism dulling the artists who would soon be his competition.
Act one? Not making the right record, but working out who Sheeran was, and who he wanted to be.
Sam Smith’s ascent was faster than both Sheeran and Adele, but was no less carefully composed or intricately plotted.
It’s interesting that Smith was signed by the UK’s Capitol Records – something of a bespoke operation within Universal UK, and one largely free from the pressures of the gigantic rosters of sister companies Polydor, Virgin EMI or Island.
To this day, if a frontline major label signs what it believes is a ‘career’ act, across the advance, recordings, video costs etc., they will have spent £300k-£500k before the campaign’s even got motoring.
What a humongous amount of pressure on everyone, especially in an industry still wheezing and still winded from the stomach-punch of piracy.
Great artists, by nature, tend to be a combustible whirlwind of ego, sensitivity and expression. They also have a refined antennae for human hope, and human failing.
If you think they don’t realise that, deep down, a big money deal is stressing everyone out – that a label’s patience is being manufactured in the face of gulp-inducing risk – you’re kidding yourself.
Here’s where long-termist, fiscally cautious A&R comes into its own: it allows an artist to discover the keystones of their adult identity – and, more crucially, of the identity they are willing to show their fans.
Much has been written of Adele’s media-averse public persona. I dare say the transformation in her own stage character – from lewd, be-fringed loudmouth to refined, grounded idol – didn’t happen without a fair amount of soul searching away from the limelight.
Further evidence: I’m told that a key moment in Adele’s career came in 2010, after she had finished recording an entire version of her seminal 21 with super-producer Rick Rubin.
Adele knew that Rubin had brought out the best in her, and was respectful of the privilege of working with the Def Jam mastermind.
But she also knew she didn’t love all of Rubin’s recordings; her friend Paul Epworth had made some versions of tracks she preferred, which she felt were much more ‘Adele’.
What to do?
Well, Adele stood up for herself. She binned a load of material created with a producer who, arguably at the time, was a little out of her league.
This self-belief extended to the fact that, when asked by a power-wielding US record exec why she wasn’t fond of Rubin’s genteel, cultivated creations, she replied: “It’s supposed to be 21, not 41.”
That’s the Adele the world now adores.
Streisand appeal with a razor-sharp edge. To be admired, but not to be fucked with.
Evidently, Adele was becoming her own, best ‘A&R man’. But I doubt she’d have ever got there in the first place… without a brilliant A&R man.
Richard Russell, then. XL co-founder and an executive so media shy, he makes Adele Adkins look like Katie Hopkins.
Here’s an intriguing connection between that trio of UK standouts mentioned earlier – Adele, Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith.
The careers of all three were nurtured by A&R people with musicality – real musicality – etched onto their CV.
XL’s Richard Russell is a successful producer in his own right; Asylum/Atlantic’s Ben Cook spent years chopping and sharpening European dance beasts in ProTools at Ministry of Sound; Capitol’s Nick Raphael was a successful DJ before leaping into the label bearpit.
(Raphael’s Capitol cohort Jo Charrington, a one-time manager, deserves an equal chunk of credit for Sam Smith’s development.)
What relevance does an A&R person who knows their way around a keyboard or mixing desk have? Possibly not a lot – history shows you don’t have to be an instrumentalist to help an artist be the best they can be.
By perhaps, looking at Russell, Cook and Raphael, their musical chops were a useful source of confidence.
Apparently, the great A&R titan Muff Winwood used to tell his charges something to the effect of: “Don’t sign hits, sign artists.”
If as an A&R person you’re assured in your ability to find a hit, draw out a hit, help sculpt a hit, turn a hit on a sixpence, it possibly therefore follows that you’ll be less fraught about how that hit’s going to be born.
You’ll therefore be free to concentrate on charisma, character, intrigue.
A voice, a cackle, a finger-snap that can beguile the world.
Adele doesn’t appear to need very much of Richard Russell’s input these days.
In the only black mark on 25’s promotional run, the star had an ugly media fallout with Russell’s good friend, Damon Albarn.
The Blur man contributed to a session for 25 in which, we understand, Adele tried her hand at making the kind of record XL is better known for; cue an awkward clash of challenging dissonance with soaring torch songs.
Albarn wasn’t invited back, his contributions rejected. Speaking to a tabloid, he sneered that Adele had instead chosen “middle of the road” tracks for 25.
Adele snapped back: “It was one of those ‘don’t meet your idol’ moments.”
25 has sold 3 million copies in America within a week. Albarn’s best-performing album in the US, Gorillaz’ excellent Demon Days, has just about topped 2m to date.
Evidently, once again, Adele was her own, best ‘A&R man’.
There is plenty more to mine from Adele’s artist development story for the modern music business.
By virtue of its sheer magnitude, her journey to 25 should become a parable for every A&R, and every artist, who ever dreamed of achieving something huge.
Earlier this week, 25 was selling a copy in the US every six seconds. It’s busted all the records going in the US and the UK.
In doing so, I hope it can re-calibrate what an entire industry believes it is capable of.
On the day of 25’s release, MBW suggested that the music business ‘cherish the frenzy’.
I sincerely hope you did. I certainly have.
But I also hope some of you out there took a long look at your artists or writers, felt your frustration simmer a little over their unrecognised talent, and whispered to yourself: “Why not?”
The MBW Review is supported by Believe Digital, a leading independent digital distributor and services provider for artists & labels worldwide. Believe empowers artists and labels to maximize the value of their music with a full suite of services. Championing innovation and transparency throughout its ten-year history, Believe prides itself on providing tailor-made services for each label and artist. Visit believedigital.com for more details.
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