'We're quite gobsmacked': Virgin EMI's Ted Cockle on the Lewis Capaldi phenomenon

'We're quite gobsmacked': Virgin EMI's Ted Cockle on the Lewis Capaldi phenomenon

It seems that UK breakthroughs are on the rise in 2019.

In the latest issue of Music Week, leading executives are bullish about the prospects for debut album artists including Tom Walker, Dave, Sam Fender, Mahalia, Maisie Peters and Lewis Capaldi. It follows a disappointing debut LP performance in 2018, when Anne-Marie was the only domestic newcomer in the year’s Top 100 sellers.

As Capaldi heads for a fourth consecutive week at No.1 (with 424,721 OCC sales up to last week), Virgin EMI president Ted Cockle takes us inside the long-term strategy and looks ahead to the all-important album release...

How’s Lewis Capaldi secured this No.1 chart triumph?

“I struggle to recall a situation where I’m more proud of the sweat and planning that has gone into [an artist campaign]. As we try to remind ourselves what’s gone on, 2017 was really a busy year for Lewis Capaldi. We all had some belief but what the [Virgin EMI team] started to do was to ensure that his home market was aware of him. In December ’17, he won Breakthrough Artist at the SSE Scottish Music Awards. He’s had two covers of the Sunday Mail in Scotland. He opened the V&A in Dundee last year.

“Everyone got to know him before we actually pushed it. There’s very little media oxygen for artists in this lane currently - they’re not the artists frontline media want to talk about. He isn’t traditionally beautiful, he isn’t contemporary in his musical palette, he isn’t hip-hop, he isn’t from a part of town where he’s tough and he’s a gangster. [But] his songs are great and he’s funny as fuck – and ultimately they have been his selling points.” 

How did the music connect with people?

“In May of 2017, the first song that we started with was Bruises, which we’ll be coming back to as we go into the album. In February of last year, we released Rush featuring Jessie Reyez. There isn’t a single venue size that we’ve skipped. He’s done Rag‘N’Bone Man tours in Europe. A really great thing was that Niall Horan said he loved him when he was on tour with him last year. He was with Sam Smith [playing UK and European arena] last year, he’s been with Bastille. It’s a year since he cut through on the BBC Sound Of 2018 poll. When we go over just the enormity of what he’s done to get his roots down, we’re having that now come to fruition.”

Is that slow trajectory to a debut album now the norm?

“It’s certainly heading that way. But as we reflect on the enormity of what’s been done, we’re quite gobsmacked. There’s no revisionist history at all on this, we just think he’s bloody good. I’ve worked with enough projects where sometimes the song explodes and we quickly follow up on that. But we have spent this amount of time [on Capaldi], we did it because we think he’s great and it’s worth putting that time in. We have not taken a chance on missing anything out. The BBC and Radio 1 have been incredible with us. They went out on a limb a little bit there with Chris Price’s Brit List, he gave us the confidence when we were ready. They went for a new act [Capaldi] on a Live Lounge for us in November last year.

“The Brit List gave us the confidence across a number of songs, from Tough last May through to Grace at the back end of last year and now into Someone You Loved. Listening to Scott Mills and Chris Stark [on Radio 1], they were the people that recognised that he was actually genuinely amusing to have around. We’ve ended up with a character that’s somewhere between Adele and Joe Cocker, whilst entertaining us by being like a full series of The Inbetweeners in one Instagram Story every day.”

So you did the groundwork – but how did you hold off Rag‘N’Bone Man and Calvin Harris from No.1?

“It’s the combination of all of those things. By the time we went out with the song, everybody was ready to support the song. So it came out of the block pretty fast. When we were Top 10 on iTunes after about three plays at radio, we ascertained that it was an incredibly reactive record. The video [featuring relative Peter Capaldi] gave us another major rocket on this. There’s a vertical video that he’s about to do too. 

“It’s hard to get people’s attention, but all of the absolute craziness and lunacy of his mind just means that every day there’s something there. The Scottish media hopefully feel he’s been their man for a long time, the BBC and Radio 1 came out on a limb to show us their support. He’s just sold out two 6,000-capacitiy shows in Edinburgh [Summer Sessions], he did 30,000 tickets in three minutes on the main tour last month. As we assess the situation, his songs are wonderful, he’s funny as fuck, he’s got a manager [Ryan Walter, MD of Interlude Artists] who’s just a thinker, a planner and a doer. We have a Scottish community of staff that are just super proud of him and wanted to ensure that everything was covered off. So we now head into an album at the end of May that we have some very good and high hopes for.” 

What’s all that streaming data telling you? 

“It’s been very clear from the last 18 months that people have searched for Lewis. We can often benefit from good work where you get a song that is very well looked after on the streaming platforms. Thankfully, from the start people searched for Lewis and played multiple songs. There’s lots of [acts] where they play the one song and then move on. But there’s something in the listening experience for Lewis where people listen to four or five songs when they go onto their streaming services.”

There are other tracks in the singles chart too...

“Grace was our single before Christmas and that continues to perform incredibly well. Bruises is our next song that we’re going to go with. The public has switched onto Lewis as an artist rather than just a song. The album pre-order is doing better than we thought it would, and everything about the streaming behavior suggests it will perform very well because people are interested in hearing more.”

To read the Music Week report on 2019 breakthrough artists, subscribers can click here. To subscribe and never miss a big industry story click here.

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