The Big Interview: Island Records' Darcus Beese

The Big Interview: Island Records' Darcus Beese

The inaugural MUSEXPO Europe European Executive Of The Year is sitting in his office and contemplating his award.

“I thought we were out of Europe,” he grins mischievously. “Maybe it should be the Brexit Executive Of The Year?”

Whatever the ins and outs of Britain’s European status, however, there’s no doubt that Darcus Beese, Island Records president and one of the great A&R people of his or any other generation, deserves his new status. In fact, never mind being out of Europe, over the last 12 months or so, Island’s performance has been little short of out of this world.

There was Drake’s phenomenal, near-record-breaking 15-week stint at No.1 with One Dance, of course, the first true mega-hit of the streaming era. But there were also No.1 singles or albums for acts as diverse as Will Young, PJ Harvey, Catfish And The Bottlemen, Mike Posner and Ariana Grande.

Not to mention a haul of 10 BRIT Awards nominations and, in the Amy Winehouse documentary, Amy, a stake in everything from a Grammy to an Oscar.

None of that success has come as a surprise to his boss, Universal Music UK chairman/CEO David Joseph, who appointed Beese as co-president of Island with Ted Cockle (now similarly smashing it as president of Virgin EMI) in 2008, and upped him to sole ownership of the top job in 2013.

“Darcus is as passionate today about his artists and team as the day we first met,” says Joseph. “He embodies the maverick spirit which has always set Island apart as a label and it’s stood him in good stead throughout a truly exceptional year.”

Beese goes way back with Island, of course, famously starting at the label as a promotions department assistant/teaboy, a quarter of a century ago, under legendary original owner Chris Blackwell.

He’s been here ever since, bar a brief period at Big Life, staying throughout many changes of ownership, but few changes in Island’s maverick direction. And, by the numbers, 2015 was actually Island’s most successful year ever.

However, despite knowing the place inside out, and Island’s current success, Beese is very much not a man on cruise control. He enthuses infectiously about Island’s new signings – whether they be dancehall king Sean Paul or brand new artists such as Petite Meller, JP Cooper, Joe Fox and Elli Ingram.

He was even in the office on the recent August Bank Holiday, trying to sign someone, before heading off to Notting Hill Carnival for The Heatwave Meets Island Records sound system.

And it’s that combination of business savvy and love of music that is surely the beating heart and soul of Island’s success – and that well-deserved MUSEXPO award.

You’ll get more insight into Island’s way of working at the gala dinner to honour him at Music Week and A&R Worldwide’s MUSEXPO Europe event next week (for details see the end of this piece). But, as an appetiser, Music Week sat down with Beese in Island’s West London HQ.

He declines to comment on the current album exclusives hot potato, but he’s got plenty to say about diversity, streaming and the changing face of A&R…

How does it feel to be the European Executive Of The Year?

You’re proud when people call your name like that, but it always weirds you out. You don’t do this job to get an award, but to get it is amazing.

I sometimes feel fraudulent because whether it’s the artists, the management, the product manager, the promotions person, the commercial person, an online person... Everybody is part and parcel of the success of an act and label. Behind every successful A&R man there’s a whole fucking record company!

What do you put Island’s recent success down to?

You have purple patches. Anyone who’s worked in the music industry for a long time knows that it ebbs and flows and you have the super highs and the super lows and I don’t think there’s anything in between! You always know who’s in the studio and who’s returning but saying what you’ve got and delivering what you’ve got are two different things.

So to say what we had was exciting, to actually deliver it was another level. That comes from years of building your roster and having acts that end up adding to the culture – and that’s what you’re always on a mission to do.

Whether it bears out is in the lap of the gods, so delivering all of that, everybody here deserves a pat on their back. It’s no easy feat, it doesn’t happen by accident, it happens because people have been working for years, building towards something.

Is it difficult to take the long-term view in the modern music business?

I’d say most people try to think long term. No one thinks about coming in with a smash and a grab, even people who pick up dance records still have to think long-term. But saying it and doing it are two different things.

It’s not about what we say at Island, it’s about what we do - have a look at the roster because that bears out.

Do you still get excited about things like No.1s?

I get excited about that first spark, that shows you people are interested in what you and the act are doing.

Do I get excited by chart positions any more?

No. I don’t know how significant the chart is when it comes to No.1s, because my kids would not have a clue what was No.1 and wouldn’t care. They care about, Do they have the record?

We shouldn’t get so caught up on whether a track is No.1 or No.5. There are records at the moment that are not charting in the higher echelons that are maybe not being deemed successful, but they are [successful], because of streaming and the long tail that these records have.

A record that might never hit the Top 20 has still done a serious volume of records. That’s where I’m trying to recalibrate my mind in terms of what I think success is.

There were no such doubts about Drake’s One Dance. Did you know it was going to be a monster?

No, and that’s the beauty of the world we’re living in at the moment. Records that you thought would never have been sitting on the chart for 15 weeks, nearly knocking off the biggest all-time record ever... Those things can happen now and that’s exciting.

Songs that you wouldn’t think are nailed on radio records could go and do that kind of damage. I love how the landscape’s been democratised.

Streaming has levelled the playing field so now you can be thinking that records could maybe be big hits that you wouldn’t have thought before.

Before, you would take radio as a consideration in the first instance, rather than the power of the people and streaming giving you pointers that this is what people love and radio having to follow. It’s exciting times.

One Dance attracted a lot of attention for its streaming stats, given it would not have been No.1 for as long based on sales alone. Some people claimed it was somehow less worthy a No.1 because of that - what do you say to them?

It’s the way things work now. That’s people hating on the fact that it’s Drake and a hip-hop record because, historically, that would never happen.

What people have got to understand now is, the world has changed and there’s nothing you can do about it.

All we can do is continue to sign and make exciting music. Thank fuck for streaming, but there’s still a lot to figure out. Streaming gave Island Records 19 weeks at No.1, that’s something to be excited about.

We’ve just got to figure out how we do that with our UK repertoire.

Why has it suddenly become so hard to break new UK acts?

It’s about the song and maybe for a long time it hasn’t been about the song. What streaming has done has put the emphasis on the song, so the A&R has got to be better.

We’re now releasing in the global landscape, not just the UK landscape. Songs need to work whether you’re in Japan or here, off the bat.

You’ve come closer than anyone to breaking a properly new UK act this year, with Jack Garratt
That’s mad. It’s scary. It is what it is though. With Jack, it’s easy to look at him and the sales and go, Well, that’s not where people would or should expect it to be.

But there’s a breed of artists where it’s about the second album. And it should be about the second album. We live in a culture where we all want it right now but I’m glad that wasn’t the case with Amy, I’m glad that wasn’t the case with Catfish and I’m glad it wasn’t the case with PJ Harvey.

Jack will deliver that special second album and people should not throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to artist development.

You must be particularly pleased that Island’s current success has come with such a wide variety of artists?

It’s hard to imagine two artists as different as PJ Harvey and Ariana Grande…

I always said that Island is a broad church. Whether it’s American repertoire or domestic, you’ve got to be in the game.

Polly [Harvey] signed to Island when I started, we were a month apart and our birthdays are a month apart as well. To be here, putting out her latest record and it getting to No.1 was a feat for Island Records. As a label, you do have to reflect the majority of what’s going on in the marketplace.

I just wish I had a couple more dance records, that’s all. That’s what we’re fixing at the moment.

You had 10 BRITs nominations, and Amy won every award going. Do things like that matter?

Yeah, because as much as everybody comes to work for the right reasons, people do like to see their work rewarded.

Getting nominations is validation that you’ve had an effect on the year, whether from an individual artist point of view or a label point of view.

It’s industry validation and trust me, we’ll sit here and say, We don’t need validation… but it’s nice when you get it!

The Amy film was an amazing process because I’ve never been in the situation where I was there for the conversation of, Wouldn’t it be the right thing to do to make a film about Amy?

Then to see how the film corrected people’s perception of Amy was amazing. I remember seeing Lady Sings The Blues and the effect it had on me, going out and buying the Billie Holiday record.

It’s one thing to put out music and get validation for that but it’s another thing to be intertwined in a film about one of our artists and it have the effect that it did on her legacy.

It’s clearly a transitional period for the business. Do you spend much time worrying about YouTube, or Apple versus Spotify?

(Laughs) There’s other people that are paid enough money to worry about that! I worry about the acts that we’re signing.

With the market changing, it’s not one size fits all, how we’ve taken all these individual acts to market [is different]. Yeah, I do worry about those things, but I’m charged with making sure we’ve got the acts to put out.

You’ve been at Island for a long time. What’s changed, and what hasn’t?

The only thing that’s probably changed for me is vinyl to CD, CD to download, download to streaming... But what we’re in now is the biggest sea change that I’ve ever seen. I remember people going on about the CD and I remember when iTunes came online.

[But with] everything else, the infrastructure still stayed the same. People still went out and bought the album. Now we’re not owning the music, we’re just listening to it.

It’s the biggest change I’ve seen in the 25 years I’ve been around.

We were on holiday and my son was singing this song, pitch-perfect, note-for-note, word-for-word, sang it like the pop star that was singing it. I said, Who is that? And he said, I don’t know. I was like, Wow. Those are things that have changed.

Everything’s been a bit of an evolution but there’s some fucking revolution going on.

All the new acts should just rip up the rulebook. There are a lot of acts whose albums I’ll be putting out and some of them are going, Why do we put an album out?

We’re now all on Spotify at home. Not one of us types in the name of the song or the album title, you type in the name of the artist and then you scroll. So, if that’s what young people are doing, what learnings should we take from that?

If we just do two singles and then put the album out, you’re still living in the fucking past. There are people [out there] who haven’t even bought an album.

Once you get more established, it’s fine, but those initial conversations that you had last year should be totally different to the ones you’re having now.

Is it harder to stick to the Island philosophy in times like these?

It can only ever be about the type of artist you sign at Island. All record companies do what we do, but there’s something about working at Island and the type of acts that we allow ourselves to sign and want to be successful with.

There’s an unseen force here that enables people to have the freedom to do that.

Diversity is a hot topic for the music business at the moment.

As one of the UK’s leading BAME executives, do you see yourself as a role model for younger executives?

No. It’s for other people to give importance to what you do. I don’t think it’s for me to shine the light on the negatives of diversity, it’s to show that I’ve never had an issue with that.

People talk about diversity but I walk around this floor and we’ve got [a diverse workforce]. Maybe it’s Island Records.

The people that have to have conversations about diversity tend to be the people who have problems with diversity.

Obviously, there’s an issue in the wider workplace, because it’s been a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant workplace for years. But the dynamics are changing.

You’ve been at Island almost your entire working life. Could you ever see yourself working somewhere else?

No. I’ve had chances but I’m here ‘til 2020 and beyond. You cut me and I bleed Island. I wouldn’t work anywhere else.

* Darcus Beese will be honoured as European Executive Of The Year at MUSEXPO Europe’s gala closing dinner on the evening of Tuesday, September 20.

MUSEXPO Europe is brought to you by Music Week and A&R Worldwide. To book your dinner tickets go here. To register for the conference, which features dozens of top music industry executives from across Europe, go here.

Music Week Radar, 26th May 2016

JP Cooper – Tidal Wave. Filmed at Music Week Radar, Under the Bridge.

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