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Sean Adams: 'Ed Harcourt should be a national treasure'

Rhian Jones
Sean Adams

If they’re lucky, a journalist has the power to influence; to convert readers into lovers of their favourite music and enhance the fanbase of artists who deserve more adulation. But if the record label that an act is signed to stuff up their career anyway, the caring scribe may as well not bother.

Sean Adams, who founded acclaimed music site Drowned In Sound 13 years ago, has been around long enough to witness the commercial weight of promising artists crumble to dust. Now he’s taking an admirably DIY approach to boosting the career of an act he adores: putting out the new LP from revered UK singer/songwriter Ed Harcourt.

It’s not Adams’ first label venture – he set up DiS Recordings a decade ago, but it has long since been dormant. Here, he explains to Music Week what he wants to achieve with CCCLX and why he’s been attracted back into releasing recorded music…

What sparked the decision to set up the label?

I'd been longing to get back in the saddle for a while. It's a decade since DiS Recordings released its first single, but nearly five years since I've released anything, after a turbulent time of launching theQuietus, ThrashHits and some other sites for BSKYB. Within a year the whole thing collapsed.

After making everyone redundant, I considered flogging Drowned in Sound (we had 32million page views last year, so it's not exactly in poor health or anything - but it's now 15 years since I started "blogging" or whatever they called it before that toilet-ish term appeared) and going on to do something else. Time after time, I found myself coming back to wanting to work with artists.

I somehow scored a regular column for The Sunday Times about music and technology, which meant I was looking at things from a fresh perspective. Weirdly, this didn't dampen my desire to work in music...hearing records on bedroom labels like Tri-Angle and RVNG Intl, seeing some of the incredible products acts were making as merch (Rammstein dildo's, anyone?), it got me thinking about the possibilities.

One of the things I found myself writing about was the "new hope" that is fan-funding, but it gave me a really heavy heart. I've never felt that musicians should be anything more than artists. They shouldn't need to be business people who "leverage" and "exploit" and all those other by-words for "monetizing".

Money and artistry are odd bedfellows at the best of times. There's something sacred about that abyss between musicians and music fans. It seemed wrong, as if some of the magic and innocence of music is disappearing, so instead of grumbling about it, I tried setting up a fan-funded record label-meets-music-club, but it seemed that the recession had made people less brave to invest in something uh-inducing like that. Surely if you could have put £50 into Motown, and knowing if you didn't, some of those records wouldn't exist, you'd do it, wouldn't you? Then I interviewed Johnny Jewel from Chromatics last year, who runs the Italians Do It Better label, and spent some time judging the AIM Awards, and I felt incredibly inspired. So, in short, I've wanted to run a label since I can remember... run into enough dead-ends, eventually you'll bash a hole in a wall...

Why Ed Harcourt’s album for the first release?

I've been a fan of Ed's since his debut album, and we met a few times when I was releasing Martha Wainwright's records. He came to play the DiS stage at Summer Sundae last summer, and asked if I could recommend any labels or managers he should meet. I slept on it, invited him out to see Perfume Genius with me, and I agreed over dinner to help him release his new record (it was already done, recorded in just six hours in Studio 2 at Abbey Road), as well as manage him as an artist (as Jess & Heather at Canyon look after him as a co-writer).

It made so much sense, especially as we share a love of Nine Inch Nails, Ralph Steadman, Tom Waits and Max Richter; and agree that 'Wichita Lineman' is the greatest song ever written! Plus I've always felt like he should have some sort of "national treasure" status, so I now can't moan about anyone else not making that a reality. It's a big task, but then you hear a song of his like 'Until Tomorrow Then' and it doesn't seem like a ridiculous challenge.

Do you think your kind of set-up is a trend that’s going to catch on in terms of releasing music – labels set up to release specific albums/artists only?

If you look at the history of almost every label, they usually started because a label wanted to put out one record, and then they do another, and then another, and then time passes and they're Mute, Creation or 4AD. Of course you need a chicken to lay an egg, but you don't start a battery farm just to make an omelette.

There's nothing common about this business. The things which have become a "standard" "most favoured nations" way that things work is part of the reason things are such a mess. What was "right" in the eighties for artists and labels, doesn't make sense now, and it seemed to take a while for people to realise that.

Adapting to the needs of the artist, and the realities of the marketplace world should be what we do in an industry that marries art with commerce, finding our creative solutions to complex problems. I guess seeing what Drowned in Sound's investor Ian Grenfell did with Simply Red's artist-management-label set-up, made what I decided to do with Ed seem obvious in my head. That's also kind of where the cheek-poke of a name came from - CCCLX being 360 in roman numerals, which in themselves have a filmic and digital quality to them.

Do major labels have a future?

Major labels will always have a future, they're too big to fail... I'm not sure we'll see them on the same scale again. Being flexible and dynamic enough to tailor what a label is or isn't, will save a lot of the majors. I think Trent Reznor's about-turn about majors says a lot about the climate of going it alone, and the resources you need to do things, and it all seems to work well if you're a priority. It has always seemed odd to me that PRs talk about artists being a label "priority" as it makes you wonder why they signed some other artists and don't treat their careers similarly?! After all, there's enough music in the world already. But I digress...

Do you think the role of the major label will have dramatically changed in ten years? If so, how? What will their new roles be?

I guess it depends if Apple or Google or some Russian oligarch buy all the labels or not. If they remain, then I can see them being more of a Westfield-like umbrella for companies like Fuelled by Ramen. I guess the Beggars Group model is a little more like how they will be structured, but whether they're still signing Gaga's and Adele's, is another matter.

Then again, if you asked me a decade ago I would have said that now labels would be releasing 'best of' type collections of tracks acts have released, rather than media and touring still working around an album-centered model.

I love the idea of major labels becoming more like football agents, but I think that's a bit of stretch to happen within 10 years with 'legacy issues' such as existing artist contracts. I once did an In The City panel beneath the panel Rip It Up and Start Again with Tony Wilson which touched on so many different things a label could be, were it not for the attachments we had for the past.

It's incredible to think how quick companies appear now, but how difficult it is to grow without being subsumed into one conglomerate or another. Imagining how different Facebook would be today if they signed a deal with Yahoo is something every business offered a deal should probably consider. Realistically, I think the labels of the future will be a mixture of a publisher and a management company - although if artists learn how to book hotels and fill in meta-data forms, perhaps the latter will become an obsolete legacy issue...

Harcourt’s is the first album to be released on CCCLX, have you signed any other artists? Do you have any more releases already lined up?

I've been taking it slow. I've nudged a few acts I love about licensing records, and had some tentative talks with some artists about helping in a management capacity. I'm certainly open to the right project, on whichever side of the fence. However, I still have a website to run four days a week, and an endless supply of mass emailed press releases to skim and delete, so I'm not rushing to bite off too much too soon - I learnt that lesson the first time around.

What’s the future for the label?

It's all exciting, and as an utterly miserable and cynical bastard, that seems like an odd thing to say and actually mean. Back Into the Woods is out on Feb 25, and the first single Hey Little Bruiser a month later, a tour and all that campaign trail stuff. There's something happening on April 1 too. And I guess I should probably get something else on the release schedule, if only to make the most of my distribution deal with those kind souls at PIAS... then again, I'm quite up for managing Tom Waits or Bruce Springsteen, feel free to tweet me if you're reading this chaps.

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Tags: Sean Adams, Drowned In Sound, CCCLX, Ed Harcourt, Interview

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