Defected Records is marking 20 years of dance anthems from the likes of Roger Sanchez, Bob Sinclar and CamelPhat & Elderbrook. Here, former A&M exec and DJ Simon Dunmore looks back at the hit-making history of the label he launched ...
It’s not a place you want to take your pants off…”
It’s absolutely freezing in the studio Harry Styles and his band are rehearsing in, and Molly Hawkins, his creative director, is handing out advice about using the bathroom. “It’s across the hall, but keep your coat on!” she says.
We’re in a scraggy corner of King’s Cross in North London and, together with various members of Harry Styles’ team, Hawkins is tapping away at her MacBook, their makeshift office set up on a trestle table in an airy room above the studio. The noise reverberating through the floor is about to thrill the world: Styles and his players are running through Fine Line, his 12-track second solo album due on December 13 via Columbia. Music Week is invited behind the curtain with release day looming, and anticipation prickles the air.
Minutes before our arrival, Styles dropped the trailer for the video for Adore You, a peacocking pop-rock number that nestles near the beginning of the record and follows the meandering patterns of intro track Lights Up (138,842,763 Spotify streams) and the plumper, poppier Watermelon Sugar (41,173,626) as the record’s third single. Far beyond our icy surroundings, it’s causing pandemonium. Social media and YouTube are melting (the trailer reaches two million views in less than two days). The video, fans were told, is set on the frown-shaped island of Eroda in the Irish Sea. Ahead of the trailer, the internet flooded with adverts for the place. There’s an Eroda website with testimonials, too (“My pet monkey got a haircut at Eroda’s Adoré Salon and Spa and we were very pleased with our service!” said @summersfeelin).
Turns out, Team Styles fabricated the whole thing, and the island takes its name from the backwards spelling of ‘Adore’. It’s the biggest twist of the campaign so far, and it went deeper than a mere ruse. Columbia printed flyers for Eroda that fans spotted in New York. Reddit threads pored over the evidence, speculating as to its meaning. The Adore You video (actually filmed in St Abbs, Berwickshire) contains references to other tracks on the album, and paints its protagonist as a troubled, lonely boy who favours a single gold earring. Sound familiar?
Sony Music Group CEO Rob Stringer is so pleased with how it came out he can barely contain his glee. Talking to Music Week from New York alongside a similarly excited Jeffrey Azoff, Styles’ manager, he says it’s a signal of just how elaborate and lavish this campaign is.
“I’m sitting here and it’s pissing with fucking rain and I’m really excited seeing this launch, it’s happening so beautifully,” he says.
“An enormous amount of time has gone in behind the scenes. We didn’t set a deadline, if it wasn’t going to be right in the way Harry wanted it, it wasn’t going to come out. I’ve worked on thousands of records, and when we got it right, we just knew. Harry had so many ideas and we knew we had the tools to go and do some really cool stuff. Now, it feels effortless, which is always the best type of campaign. Pop can be very formulaic, and this record isn’t formulaic. It just isn’t. There is nothing formulaic about him whatsoever.”
The Adore You video supports this idea. It tells the psychedelic story of a boy, Styles, and his relationship with a fish. It’s quite a trip, really. So too is Fine Line, which Music Week listens to in a tiny room lit by a scented candle before joining Styles in the studio.
The 25-year-old took a few songs into early sessions with previous collaborator and close friend Tom Hull (one-time indie balladeer Kid Harpoon, now a big time songwriter for Haim, Florence + The Machine and more) and things blossomed quickly. Fine Line became a cosy affair, recorded across California and the UK but primarily in Rick Rubin’s storied Shangri-La in Malibu, where Styles and his collaborators tripped on mushrooms, and Real World in Bath, where the weather was colder and things were more serious. Tyler Johnson, who contributed to production on Harry Styles, produced the album, with Hull. A close-knit writing team revolved around Styles, Hull, Johnson and fellow debut album mainstay Mitch Rowland, with contributions from Jeff Bhasker (another album one collaborator), Greg Kurstin, Sammy Witte, Amy Allen and Isley Juber. What they made is the product of long days and late nights. Styles values that bonding.
Fine Line is lush, epic, grand, intensifying the ’70s West Coast textures explored on his debut, which has sold 244,568 copies (OCC) since opening at No.1 in May 2017. On a diet of Paul McCartney, John & Yoko and his beloved Fleetwood Mac, this time, Styles relaxed into the process, pouring himself into the album. And, because he’s preposterously famous and counts legends such as Stevie Nicks (who was one of the first people to hear Fine Line in an all-night listening session at his London home) as friends, he can do things like find the lady who built the dulcimer Joni Mitchell used on Blue and commission her to make him one. You can hear it on Canyon Moon.
Sun-splashed, sultry tracks like Golden and Watermelon Sugar (the most overt of several evocative references to fruit) are euphoric, but elsewhere, on acoustic rocker Cherry, the stricken, piano-led Falling and To Be So Lonely, Styles is wounded by a break-up and wracked by doubt (“What if I’m someone I don’t want around?”). Sex is all over the album, Styles reclines naked within the inlay and fans are already reading into the fruit metaphors (he just smiles when we raise it later). But, sexy or sad, after years of million-selling mania in One Direction, this is the clearest and truest expression of his personality yet. His arena tour taught us his hips pop like Mick Jagger’s and that he values inclusivity, but this campaign will reveal a vulnerable extrovert with a fantastical imagination. Now, we have a rock star, part of the pantheon of British musos seduced by California, on our hands. When Styles makes eye contact and runs a hand through his hair, it’s tempting to write 4,000 words about that split second. He’s that kind of rock star.
The noise beneath our feet fades and it’s almost time to hear all about a record that Rob Stringer says, “Will push boundaries”.
As if by magic, a door opens and Harry Styles lopes through it. We blink once, and the team and their laptops are gone. The light in the room seems to intensify. Styles’ nails are painted with yellow smiley faces. Dressed in a white vest, a silk pyjama top with the word ‘Sexy’ spelled out on the left breast, roomy brown slacks and white Vans, he extends a hand to say, “Hello…”
The first thing to know about Fine Line is that it shows the extremes of Harry Styles.
Adjusting his position on a black leather couch, he fiddles with the hairclip stopping his fringe from flopping and says, “Making this record, the times where I was really happy were the happiest of my life, but the times where I was a little lower were the saddest times.”
Styles lost his stepdad in 2017 and has had therapy; he now places more importance on maintaining strong relationships than ever. He spent time alone in Tokyo, reading Haruki Murakami and bar hopping, in the wake of his debut campaign.
“It caused me to go through a lot of self-reflection,” he says. “Having been through one [solo] album and one tour, it made me look at everything and be like, ‘OK, what do I want to do?’ and ‘Who am I if I don’t do this?’ You know, and also just questions that you ask when you’re not 18 anymore.”
Styles delayed touring his first album thanks to his role in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, but when he did hit the road, he did so in spectacular fashion, selling out arenas around the world on the strength of a 10-song debut, plus the odd classic from his One Direction days, of course.
Styles has found “freedom” since the band stopped touring in 2016, six years after Simon Cowell grouped him together with Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson on The X Factor. Debut single What Makes You Beautiful now has an earth-shattering 1,342,127 sales and its explosion would take Styles into another realm. Fame doesn’t seem to cover it. His days working in W Mandeville Bakery in Holmes Chapel, Cheshire, where he grew up with his mum, sister and stepdad were soon long gone, replaced by years of mega-touring, with Modest Management at the helm. One Direction even used to record songs in purpose-built travelling studios. With the addition of forensic interest in his private life, Styles was swept up in a whirlwind. But he’s emerging the other side; exploring parts of himself he wasn’t able to on his first album.
“Because I was coming out of the band, there was a lot of subconscious decisions around making it and the writing of it,” he says. “When I listen back to it now I still love it, but there are a lot of places where I feel like I was trying so hard not to get it wrong, I almost felt like I was making my second record rather than my first.”
It might have been slow and sad, but lead single Sign Of The Times (883,494 sales) was also bold and resplendent, hardly the sound of an artist held back in some way. The benefit of hindsight eventually led to emancipation for album two.
“I felt like I needed to make this big commercial success album, and there was one night during recording where a couple of us stayed up really late and I was talking about it and saying I didn’t feel like we were getting songs that I really loved,” he recalls.
That night, they wrote Cherry, the album’s rawest moment. It ends with a recording of his ex murmuring in French.
“I just tried to be hone…” he says, hesitating and half swallowing the word ‘honest’. “We started just by writing a bunch of songs, rather than saying, ‘Oohh we’re making an album,” straight away.”
Styles learned the he could also lean on the reception his debut – which has a million global sales and was Sony’s biggest Q2 seller in 2017 – for encouragement. Even so, he still downplays its commercial appeal.
“The fact that the last one wasn’t necessarily a radio record, but I could tour it and people came to the shows and enjoyed them, made me feel I had some sort of freedom to make what I wanted to, and I wanted to make some fun songs,” he says.
“Coming off the road, there was a definite feeling of, ‘OK, now I know what it feels like to play a show on my own, what do I want the songs to be like if I’m going to tour again?’ And so I definitely went into it with a freedom, that I didn’t have, or didn’t allow myself to have, last time.”
Styles says he wanted to embrace “Whatever made me feel good” while making Fine Line. “I was a little subconsciously afraid of making fun music having come out of the band,” he explains. “I tried to get rid of that a little bit.”
Touring around the world, with carefully curated supports such as a pre-Grammy Kacey Musgraves and Mabel, opened Styles’ eyes to the idea that he could flourish under his own name.
“When I was touring with One Direction, fans came to the show but it was for something bigger…” he says, flopping a wrist in front of him, studying his ringed fingers and pausing.
“The band felt bigger than us, so it felt like they came to see that thing so you know, it never quite felt like, ‘Oh all these people are here for me’, because they’re not, they’re there to see the band.
“There’s something in touring and people coming out to see the album that felt like, ‘Oh, that’s what they want from me, to make the music that I want to make and play the show I’d like to play.’”
Styles’ guitar sported End Gun Violence and Black Lives Matter stickers and crowds were often filled with rainbow flags, which he would sometimes hang over his shoulders. He sold T-shirts that said ‘Treat people with kindness’. He soon started noticing people wearing them while out driving. There’s a joyous, brass-filled gospel singalong by that name on Fine Line. You could imagine it in a musical. He calls it “a mantra”.
“The atmosphere in the rooms felt really nice and it gave me a feeling that people just wanted me to be myself and be authentic with them. People would say they’d never really seen an environment like that at a show,” he says.
And what of the mantra?
“I wanted the song to do what the mantra, if you will, did on the tour,” he answers. “It’s universal and important, but it’s a small change that makes a big difference. Just being a lot nicer to each other rather than, “Don’t do this, don’t do that, ‘Not this, yes that,’” It’s just, ‘Treat people with kindness…’”
Styles says the title in a whisper. It was the last track to be written for Fine Line, and he was only certain of it when the backing singers were grooving in the booth during recording.
“When I wrote it I wasn’t sure if I really liked it or really hated it,” he says. “Then I realised that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
David Bowie, Styles says, helped him come to this realisation. “I’d seen this clip of him talking about how you usually end up doing your best work when you feel like you can’t quite touch the bottom, and I realised that the fact that it made me feel a little uncomfortable didn’t mean it was a bad song. Then people just seemed to really like it.”
When the singers came in, it dawned on him: “Oh this is fun!”
The memory makes him laugh. “Then I started imagining it at the show and thought, “That’s going to be so fun…”
Jeffrey Azoff has had more fun than most at Harry Styles shows. “I watch every night I’m with him and am still blown away,” says the manager, who’s been with Styles since he split with Modest in 2016. “He’s delivered in a special way.”
We talk to Azoff and Stringer together, and they spar enjoyably, the manager knows bringing up the label boss’s beloved Luton Town, fresh from a 7-0 defeat, will draw a rise.
“Oh Luton, it’s too depressing.” Stringer says. “As exciting as Harry is, unfortunately that’s as gloomy as Luton are. I’m dropping off [the line] now Jeff, fuck you!”
The laughs take a second to die down, but the double act behind Harry Styles are eager to return to the campaign they believe will blow every other modern pop release out of the water.
“The three of us decided to keep it all very, very tight and get a load of things done behind closed doors, to stockpile as many ideas [as we could],” says Stringer. “We made it over a longer period of time than the last one, it was this really exciting thing that we knew would be different to coming off the back of One Direction into the first solo record. We knew we had more space, that’s what was exciting. We did it without as much pressure as there was off the back of 1D. It was more languid, which was great.”
Stringer worked with Styles in the One Direction days and remembers them better than anyone, but this is a new dawn.
“When he was in One Direction he was 16 years old, now we’re nearly a decade on,” he says. “You’re dealing with a person who’s grown up in a beautiful way and we’re trying to help him reflect that. It’s our job to help him make those leaps.”
Azoff chimes in to praise Styles’ bravery, and he’s got a word for it that fits the fairytale vibe around the new album. “He’s a unicorn. The music people expect from him, and I hate to use that word because I know him so well and I expect him to be nothing but brave, but I can’t tell you how many people say to me, ‘Oh, I didn’t expect it to sound that way.’”
Azoff believes the business needs his client. “For [the] music [industry], it couldn’t be more important to have someone with the platform Harry has who’s willing to take risks and put music out that would be considered untraditional, I can’t applaud him enough for putting music out that people didn’t see coming,” he says.
With a riotous Saturday Night Live takeover, Later… With Jools Holland and The Graham Norton Show already in the can, Styles will host The Late Late Show with his friend James Corden in LA this week, when he’s in town for a gig at the Forum. The team are deliberately choosing select promo slots, leveraging each one for maximum impact, all part of their plan to realise their ideas.
“We had a whole gamut of stuff to go with when we finally launched this project and it makes me smile thinking about it,” Stringer continues. “Even the bickering was great! Harry is incredibly focused and strong-minded, it’s always fun to deal with an artist on those levels, it’s much better. You don’t want to work with artists who have one idea, you want to work with artists who have a lot of things they want to get done.”
Azoff isn’t about to suggest the team “don’t pay attention to charts and positioning”, but he stresses they “don’t spend too much time worrying about it”. The goal here is global visibility and impact, which will surely increase when ‘Harry Styles Love On Tour’ (see box, page 20) begins in April in the UK, taking in international arena dates before ending in Colombia in October.
They made sure their artillery was full to bursting, assembling not just video one, but video two as well, plus artwork, imagery and more. Stringer pushed back at Azoff and Styles (which the manager thanks him for, also praising Columbia’s ideas) when they wanted to push the button, holding off until everything was just so.
“Everything came together because we hit that point,” Stringer says. “The momentum we’ve got now, we’ve done this in weeks [since Lights Up dropped]. It doesn’t feel rushed, it’s very natural.”
Back in the studio, Harry Styles rocks in his chair, exaggerating his reaction when we mention Stringer and Azoff.
“Don’t ask me about Rob and Jeff!” he says, with the flash of a grin. From Simon Cowell, Harry Magee and Richard Griffiths, to Stevie Nicks and his new mate Alessandro Michele, creative director at Gucci, for whom Styles has become both campaign star and muse, he has had plenty of elders to learn from. Stringer and Azoff are the only two he’ll mention by name today, and he diplomatically avoids being drawn on who’s taught him the most these past 10 years.
“I’ve always looked at people who’ve been in the industry a long time and tried to learn as much as possible, soak it up, hear all the stories,” he says. “People ask for advice and I by no means feel like I’m in a place to give it because I feel like I still don’t know anything, but ultimately the thing to remember is that music is so subjective.”
Styles’ theory on industry expertise is straight down the line.
“Obviously there are charts and stuff, but ultimately everyone who works in music is a fan, someone else who thinks they know how it works,” he reasons. “Songs either connect or they don’t, so even if someone is good at picking songs, they don’t really know, it just connects or it doesn’t. People who are really good at the business side are smart, obviously, but it’s almost like they’re the lucky ones.”
We prod him again about his team. Is the bickering really fun?
“Yeah, we take the piss out of each other a lot,” he says, grinning again. “I really love working with Rob and the thing I’ve always really admired is that he’s just a music fan. It doesn’t feel like I’m talking to a businessman who’s found himself running a label. We don’t talk about metrics and numbers, we talk about music that we love, documentaries, albums.”
It’s easy to imagine that meetings between Styles, Stringer and Azoff would be lively (“Tell Harry the songs you like on the album, you’ll make his fucking day,” Stringer advises). Styles values having people around him who care as much as he does and says their understanding of the business is “priceless”.
For Harry Styles, it always comes back to the songs. Before we leave him to rehearsals, we return to Fine Line and the honesty that runs through it. With such a tight team behind it, Styles’ operation is to a certain extent an anomaly these days. Are his hits realer than all the rest, those with more writers?
“I mean, not necessarily, it depends what you’re trying to do. More writers can take away from how personal it is, but it depends how you write, because if you have five different people writing the lyrics then it’s probably not going to be the same, it’s not going to be an exact story, for example,” he says.
“There are songs that we have where there are four or five people, but that’s because we all work together and if somebody does something then they get credit for it, we don’t all sit there and go, ‘What do you think the lyrics should be?’ So it’s still personal. I’m biased because it’s my music and it’s probably a case-by-case basis, but if there’s a song where there are 12 writers on it, it would probably end up being massive but it probably wouldn’t end up being as personal as if it had been written by one person.”
Styles let his album grow of its own accord; he had the time after all. And that looks like being key to the success of what promises to be a seismic release. There’s time for one last question. How’s Harry Styles feeling right now, standing on the precipice?
“Pretty good, really excited. This is definitely the most excited I’ve been about something I’ve made,” he answers. “The making of this album was so much more joyous than the last one, so the music and everything around it feels a lot more joyous.”
Then, Harry Styles gets up to head downstairs, past the trestle table strewn with tea bags, crisps and sweet treats and into the rehearsal room. He slings his guitar over his shoulder, nods goodbye and the door swings shut.
This festive season will be the first in decades where the misery of my annual Christmas shopping trip to London’s Oxford Street will not be rescued by a visit to HMV.
The reborn retailer closed down its flagship store earlier this year. It is thriving elsewhere, of course, including opening a huge new HMV Vault store in Birmingham, while – luckily for the music fans in my family – there are plenty of independent options just off the Oxford Street main drag. But London’s premier shopping destination is now essentially free of physical music, bar a few vinyl albums on sale in Urban Outfitters.
That won’t matter to the hardcore music heads who will find their fix elsewhere, or the fans who get their tunes solely via streaming services. But in gifting season, it will – along with the squeeze on supermarket space and the continued retreat from High Street locations for music retailers everywhere – rob the industry of those spontaneous purchases from casual music fans that contribute hugely to the general health of the business. Not everyone will make the move to streaming, particularly as the £120 annual cost of most services would traditionally be at the top end of per-head music spending.
Generally, 2019 has seen plenty of invention on the physical side of the business, with Taylor Swift, BTS and Tool making sure those loyal to CD and vinyl get plenty of bang for their extra bucks. But the 2019 trend to drop huge albums ever closer to Christmas Day itself also means that it’s harder for the less committed to factor those releases into their stocking-filler plans.
Traditionally, music has played a central role in the great British Christmas, yet there will probably be fewer gifts of actual music exchanged this Yuletide season than in most of the post-vinyl years.
Q4 sales so far have been sluggish and, while hotly-anticipated releases from Stormzy and this week’s Music Week cover star Harry Styles should help change that, it’s notable how much the current top-sellers still rely on physical sales.
Of the Top 20 albums on Friday, only Michael Bublé’s hardy perennial Christmas had more ‘sales’ from streaming than from physical. Few of the others even came close. Eleven of the Top 20 albums moved fewer than 1000 streaming units last week. Eight moved less than 100!
That means there are still plenty of festive physical opportunities out there. Oxford Street shoppers might not be able to take them this year, but the biz should work as hard as possible to make sure everyone else can.
* To read Music Week's HMV cover story from earlier this year, click here. To subscribe to Music Week and never miss a vital music biz story, click here.