“She sat where you’re sitting and she played two songs, directly to us, and she would not break eye contact.”
Oh great, now what?
It suddenly seems weird to keep looking directly at Island Records UK president Darcus Beese. But it would seem weirder (and ruder), surely, to suddenly start staring out of the window of Universal Music UK’s Kensington office.
Maybe a really long blink?
Thankfully, we are both able to look away at the same time, as Annie Christensen, Island’s senior A&R manager, continues the story. The moment has passed.
Not that Beese was aware of any ‘moment’. He didn’t care where anyone was looking – as long as everyone is listening.
Because he was talking about Sigrid, the young singer/songwriter from Norway that his label signed earlier this year and about whom they are very, very excited.
Specifically, Beese and Christensen are telling the soup-to-nuts story of how they won the race for her signature up against staunch competition, and the first chapter (they hope) in the story of what happens next.
It’s an interesting insight into the current A&R landscape and how Island and Universal Music works within it and against it.
It starts, however, pretty much as you’d expect…
How did you first discover Sigrid?
Annie Christensen: It was actually a fairly traditional way of discovering music: her manager sent me a link [in August 2016] – to a lot of songs, I mean a lot of songs, about 40.
There were some gems in there, two of which have made it onto an EP that we’ve now rolled out track-by-track.
One of those was Don’t Kill My Vibe, which was the first track we put out [which now has over 12m streams on Spotify].
What did you think when you first heard it?
AC: The voice struck me and the lyrics struck me.
I had a chat to her manager about the sentiment of the song. I thought it was really interesting that it isn’t about a romantic relationship, it’s about a recording session that she did that made her feel… less than [great]. She came out of that session, went into another session and wrote Don’t Kill My Vibe. That spoke to me.
I then sat down with Darcus, we listened to it together, and pretty much before the track finished, Darcus said, We’re going to Bergen [where Sigrid lives]. Within days we were there – meeting her and her managers.
Darcus Beese: There are some acts you sign when it’s just a one-listen song.
I think that when Annie first played [Don’t Kill My Vibe] to me, luckily enough, Sigrid was in [London], and yeah, the reaction was, ‘Let’s go to Bergen.’ Initially, we didn’t have to – we had a meeting in London the very next day. She was obviously doing the rounds!
[Sigrid] came in and played two songs acoustically, Don’t Kill My Vibe and Dynamite. It was a magical moment, because you got a sense that this girl knew what it was to impart a song. And she sang so beautifully.
“this was one of those moments where I knew, if we’d had this reaction, then other [labels] would have the same reaction.”
Darcus Beese, Island Records UK
At the end we said, ‘Right, we’re coming to Bergen, we’re coming tomorrow.’ The managers said, ‘No, you can’t come out, we don’t want to do a deal yet; there’s a gig in two weeks time, why don’t you come out for that?’
I was like, F*ck that, no way. We kind of forced the issue, because we were so passionate about it.
Sometimes you back off – okay, we’ll wait. But this was one of those moments where I knew, if we’d had this reaction, then other [labels] would have the same reaction… and that was the case.
You sensed other labels in the game for her signature?
DB: Oh yeah. But we’ve rarely lost a deal that we’re really passionate about, certainly not when we’re as passionate as we were about this.
It was still very competitive, but there are certain acts you decide you have to have and Sigrid was one of them.
“Island came into the game with a lot of passion for Sigrid, and that was exactly what we where looking for.”
Per Mygland, Made Management
AC: It would have been very easy for us to respectfully wait for the gig, but we didn’t… we very disrespectfully flew to Bergen! [laughs].
[Sigrid’s management couldn’t have found it all that disrespectful. Per Mygland and Geir Luedy of Made Management look after Sigrid’s career in tandem with Rich Schaefer, of LoyalT Management. Mygland tells MBW: “Island came into the game with a lot of passion for Sigrid, and that was exactly what we where looking for. Sigrid felt the connection, and as managers we felt strongly that these guys were willing to go the extra mile for our artist. It just felt right, and three months into the campaign, we have no doubt that we made the right choice.”]
Thankfully for you, I guess a few labels must have taken management’s request to ease off at face value…
DB: Yeah, they did… and then they quickly realised Annie was ahead of the game.
People then tried hard to kill us in the deal, but by then, the relationship that Annie had fostered with Sigrid, and in turn with management, was too strong.
How important is that first time ‘in the room’, eye-to-eye?
DB: I think with the benefit of hindsight, you know when you’re in the room with potential greatness.
Sometimes you wish it on artists, you want it to be true: ‘I think they do have greatness, I do, I’m sure of it…’
“That performance she did, just sitting on the sofa with a tiny Casio keyboard, was more emotive than 90% of full live shows I’ve seen.”
Annie Christensen, Island Records UK
But when you look back on the acts that you’ve been super successful with, when you remember that first time in the room, you go, Shit, yeah, it was there from the start.
AC: That performance she did, just sitting on the sofa with a tiny Casio keyboard, was more emotive than 90% of full live shows I’ve seen. She was beyond engaging and it kind of took us aback a bit.
How common is a moment like that – or a ‘one-listen song’? A once-a-year thing? A once-a-decade thing?
DB: I wish it was a once-a-week-thing. It’s rare, let’s just say that.
Difficult question, but Did the power of that first performance remind you of Amy in any way?
DB: The first time we met Amy she played There Is No Greater Love. It’s wrong to compare them as artists, but I know exactly what you’re saying and there is a parallel in terms of the feeling in the room, yes.
What was the next step towards getting the deal over the line?
AC: We went out, we met out with the managers, we met up with Sigrid, we broke bread and just got on. We didn’t stop talking from the moment we got there. I stayed, had dinner, drinks, played shuffleboard, we just bonded.
DB: They loved Annie. Everybody talks about the label they work for and can be quite egotistical about it – but really it’s about the people and the teams that work inside that label.
“Island’s an amazing label, of course it is, but before that, primarily, it was about Sigrid and Annie joining at the hip.”
Island’s an amazing label, of course it is, but before that, primarily, it was about Sigrid and Annie joining at the hip.
People want to feel comfortable, they want someone they can confide in, someone they’ve got things in common with.
AC: Then, when we got back, we spent a couple of weeks on tenterhooks: 10 phone calls a day, ‘Hello, we still love you!’
I guess you have to find that balance between being keen and…
AC: Not being a stalker, exactly.
DB: Oh I stalk, don’t worry about that.
Really, though – is ‘the relationship thing’ actaully as important as ‘the big number at the bottom of the contract’ thing?
DB: Well, the fact is, some deals are done under speed dating conditions, everyone appraised very quickly, not much depth, and I don’t know if that’s the ideal situation in which to get married.
More often than not, those deals end in bad places. The great thing about this process was it gave us time to have dialogue, get to know each other. It wasn’t about whacking down huge amounts. It was about ideas, strategy…
AC: And passion.
DB: Absolutely, passion, yes. From there, the deal took care of itself.
At those latter stages of a deal, can you almost feel the breath of a rival on the back of your neck?
AC: We were acutely aware of the competition.
DB: We were, because the competition made it quite clear that… they were the competition.
“the competition made it quite clear that… they were the competition.”
Every label has a different USP, a different way of bringing acts to market, and over a decade, with a bit of up and down, we’ve consistently brought exciting acts through.
What happens is people want to be part of the gang, people want to roll with you, they want your logo on their records. Sometimes you have to let that play out: what you stand for as a label.
And what is ‘the Island pitch’? I don’t imagine there’s a PowerPoint, is there?
DB: No, and sometimes that kills us, because other labels are brilliant at ‘PowerPoint’, and that’s not our skillset.
We’re about what our roster looks like at that moment, where we see the label in three or five years and connecting with that individual artist.
“Artists want that security – knowing that you’re going to be there and look after them for the foreseeable future.”
AC: I’ve worked with Darcus and Louis [Bloom, Island’s head of A&R] for 13 years and I could name probably 10 other people at the label who have been here for 10 years-plus. Artists want that security, and that’s a huge part of establishing trust; knowing that you’re going to be there and look after them for the foreseeable future.
The Sigrid deal was done about a month after that fateful meeting in Bergen. What has happened since then?
AC: It was quite a unique situation, because she had nothing in the way of music out in the world. So we had a good two or three months of consolidating, music-wise, also creating an aesthetic, with her. Sigrid was absolutely front and centre of all decisions in terms of artwork, videos, photos etc – which I think is why it feels so coherent.
It’s so unusual to have that luxury, because so often, a song’s out there and you’re chasing a game that’s already underway. Here we had a situation where we could really plan and make sure everything was how we all wanted it to be.
“so often, a song’s out there and you’re chasing a game that’s already underway. Here we had a situation where we could really plan and make sure everything was how we all wanted it to be.”
DB: And then when you talk about rolling out artists, you always go, Let’s put out an EP and select a lead track. But with Sigrid it was really hard because every song sounds like a smash. So, for all the right reasons, there was no set-up song to be had. We led with the track that we thought get people talking straight off the bat [Don’t Kill My Vibe, released in February]
AC: And which would emulate our response.
DB: Yeah, and that was the case, it did feel very explosive in streaming, but in this new landscape you’ve got to build out the artist proposition, you can’t just leave one song out there – people want to be fed more.
So it becomes about dropping more songs and the chatter becomes louder [Plot Twist, Dynamite and Fake Friends have all been released in the last six weeks] and hopefully when it comes to the sold-out show at the Hoxton Bar and Kitchen [in London on May 17], everybody will be singing along to all the songs that are on the EP. And I think that’s the real start of an artist beginning to flourish.
You put the one song out and you see a spark, but that’s what it is, a spark. You’ve got to fan it and make it a flame – and then you’ve got to make the flame an inferno.
How would you describe Sigrid live?
AC: Killer. Just killer.
DB: I remember [Polydor co-President] Ben Mortimer taking me to see Florence. He said, What do you think? I said, I don’t know, I just know she’s a f*cking star. And when you see Sigrid perform… yeah, she’s a star.
AC: She can take the effect she had on two people in this room and magnify that to three, four, five hundred – and beyond.
How do you balance your sense of excitement with keeping your feet on the ground?
DB: Well I don’t think we sign acts where we sit in a room and tell them, ‘We’re going to sell millions of records, we’re going to clean up.’
Because the type of acts we’ve sold millions with, we’ve kind of said, ‘Whoa, we did that?!’
“the first thing you have to be is excited about the music; excited for critical acclaim, not excited about potential sales.”
I think the first thing you have to be is excited about the music; excited for critical acclaim, not excited about potential sales. You want to try and turn it into a commercial upside, of course, but as long as you’re on the right trajectory, that’s the most important thing.
Have success with the first album, but leave something on the table for the second album. Because you can take it all off the table on the first one and there’s nothing left for the second one.
For me, the question isn’t about millions of sales – it’s about, are you going to be here for album three and album four? When you get there, you have a career. That’s the challenge.Music Business Worldwide