In 2016, theatre sensations/besuited behemoths Michael Ball and Alfie Boe joined forces on record for the first time. The result, Together, became the year’s best-selling release. Back in October, ahead of the arrival of its follow-up, Together Again, the duo – alongside Decca president Rebecca Allen – told Music Week why we haven't seen anything yet. The album went in straight at No.1 after a close battle with The Stereophonics, and to date has sold 250,136 copies, according to Official Charts Company data. You can revisit our cover feature in full below:
It is so quiet inside a plush hospitality room in London’s Sanderson Hotel, you can practically hear a pin drop. Music Week and photographer Paul Harries are enjoying the ambience, waiting for our shoot and interviews to begin, when our subjects appear.
Farewell, ambience. Michael Ball and Alfie Boe don’t so much enter the room as they do explode into it, audible cackles of laughter from the outside hall preceding their arrival. Following in their wake is Decca president Rebecca Allen – a smile plastered on her face as she observes the pair.
The levels of banter on display today verge on the extraordinary – this is a team not just riding high on success, but friendship, too. At one point, as the stylishly-dressed trio pose for pictures, Ball halts proceedings.
“Wait,” he says seriously to Allen. “Have you paid for this meet and greet!?”
The three of them burst out laughing.
They have every reason to be giddy. Music Week has gathered them today to talk about Ball & Boe’s new album Together Again. It’s kind of a big deal. The last time the pair made a record it was The Biggest Selling Release Of 2016. Currently standing on 607,190 sales according to Official Charts Company data, it beat Little Mix and The Rolling Stones to the Christmas No. 1.
Yet it’s not just who they beat, it’s how they beat them. Broken down, Together has sold a staggering 587,779 physical copies – bucking industry trends with its permanent downloads standing at a relatively low 17,490 and streaming figures on a not-at-all blockbusting tally of 1,921. Suffice to say, no one expected their debut to be the best-selling release of 2016, but no one is going to make that mistake this time.
Arriving at the start of Q4, Ball & Boe’s latest, imaginatively titled offering, Together Again, sees them bringing West End and Broadway classics to life, featuring the likes of a West Side Story medley, Bring Me Sunshine and New York, New York. Before Music Week can even ask about all of the above, they attempt something of a tag-team Jedi mindtrick.
“You’re not going to ask us how we both met…” says Boe.
“No, he’s not!” says Ball, nodding.
“And you’re not going to ask us how we came up with the idea for making this album...” continues Boe.
“Because you can find that anywhere!” adds Ball.
This is how Ball & Boe often talk – quite literally finishing each other’s sentences, with a whiff of stand-up comedy about them. Indeed, it’s part of their appeal.
“People call them the Morecambe and Wise of the music business, because there’s a comedic element to them as well as the music,” smiles Allen.
For those unfamiliar, it took a disastrous performance of Kismet at the English National Opera to bring these two titans of theatre together.
“That’s why we became friends, because it was so crap,” laughs Ball.
From this unlikely start came a chart-smashing combination. While Decca – and Ball & Boe, for that matter – didn’t necessarily think that would happen, that’s not to say they didn’t see enormous potential.
“They’re both managed by two powerhouses, Peter Rudge [Boe, Vector Management] and Phil Bowdery [Ball, Live Nation],” says Allen.
“It was their idea to bring the two guys together. At the time when they said, ‘Look, we want to put Michael together with Alfie,’ from a label point of view, from a repertoire point of view, we got it.
We could definitely see their audiences together, but it wasn’t until we took them out to New York to record that we were like, ‘This is absolute gold dust!’”
And so it proved. When it came to the sizeable task of following it up, the duo recorded Together Again in around just five days, an answer prised out of them after Ball initially insisted it was done and dusted in “about 20 minutes”.
The duo have done their part. But what about the plan for following its success on the label side?
“We’re feeling very excited but we’re not taking anything for granted,” Allen tells Music Week. “Can you create magic the second time round? It’s not an easy thing to do. We’re very excited, the music is incredible, the boys are in very good spirits, the tours coming through are fantastic but I’m not leaving anything to chance. We’re working harder than we’ve ever worked.”
With Together Again due on October 27 via Decca, another ITV special lined up, plus a November/December arena tour, it’s time to find out from Ball, Boe and Allen: how did they do it, and how are they going to top it? And, for that matter, what has this union done for the pair?
“It’s got me a new Range Rover,” says Ball, with Boe giggling beside him.
Right guys, the jokes are over. Onto business…
Let’s try that question again, shall we… What has the union done for both of you?
Michael Ball: “Honestly, it’s been the most exciting, unexpected joy on every level. First of all, making the album, not really knowing what we were going to be doing or what it was going to sound like, and then the process of finding the songs, getting into the studio, seeing how the blend was going to work, and so quickly finding our roles.”
Alfie Boe: “What surprised me most about our union is who we appeal to. It’s not just our core audience that we were appealing to before we got together, there’s a wide range of people now: young kids, musical theatre fans, even some Who fans [Boe appeared as part of Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia concert series].”
Together was an extraordinary success, one that also won Decca the Artist Marketing Campaign at the Music Week Awards. What did the industry underestimate about Ball & Boe?
Rebecca Allen: “First of all, they underestimated their audience. There is a really strong consumer base out there for artists who aren’t on Radio 1 or Capital, they’re not on streaming services, they have disposable income, they are highly intelligent people who like to go out to concerts. Decca know that audience so well and we tap into them. No one must ever underestimate that audience out there. It’s a very noisy market now, there’s so much music out there and I think people want something new and different – that’s what Ball & Boe was.
And also, ITV were fantastic. Right from the get-go ITV1 gave us a music special which just doesn’t happen much. We had these great television platforms that got them out there for people to see. So it’s not all about Radio 1, it’s not all about streaming, there are other ways you can reach a consumer.”
The convenience of an online purchase is very cold. Somebody making the effort to get the physical copy is really special
That said, are you hoping to crack streaming?
AB: “I’m not sure whether that’s becoming a thing of the past, and people are wanting to see the physical thing. Vinyl is having a huge surge, that’s what it’s all about.”
MB: “To find out on the day we finished the tour that we were No.1, that we were the biggest release that year and that we had gone double platinum, and 98% per cent of sales to be physical sales... People are wanting to actually own the thing and have it in their hand!”
AB: “The convenience of an online purchase is very cold. Somebody making the effort to go into a shop and get the physical copy is really special.”
What else did you learn from the first album?
MB: “Personally? I learnt that it’s better to share – having someone that’s been on the same journey, had the same fears, the same excitement.”
What were the fears?
AB: “I didn’t fear our ability because I knew we could pull it out of the bag and do a good job and produce a good product. I think, initially, it was, ‘Would it be accepted or embraced by the public?’”
MB: “The fear at the beginning was, can we devise a show that is going to work to show us both doing what we do best? And it would have been really miserable if we were doing it in half-filled halls. That would have been really, really dull.”
Do you guys feel accepted now?
MB: “I never have. Together Again is my 21st album. I’ve never been cool but I’ve always sold records, and that’s fine by me. You go on a journey, you’re not cool, then you hang around long enough and suddenly you’re cool.”
AB: “I never sold records but I’m really cool.”
MB: “You made me cool! I made you rich! [laughs]”
So the big question is: how the hell are you going to top what you achieved last time around?
RA: “We sold 600,000 albums to this audience, which is amazing. We went out into the regions, we went out into homes and sat down with this audience. We’ve done that twice since Together came out because for the second marketing campaign we wanted to ask them what it was that happened. Our marketing team went out to the regions and met this audience, it was absolutely fascinating. People are into hip-hop and dance music currently, but equally we know from the sales last year that people are into musical theatre and classical. My entire company obsesses about this audience and they have to keep knowing them and getting to know them more and know why they want to engage or purchase something. So this year we spent as much time as possible getting to know our audience.”
What did you learn?
RA: “People are still out there – they’re not just in London either, they’re out in the regions, and they’re not just streaming. That’s what I find so incredible about Ball & Boe, they are engaged massively by social media, by Facebook and Twitter predominantly. The consumption of knowledge comes through these social media platforms, yet they’re still buying physical. This is the beauty about it. So we’ve been doing a lot of real time marketing to these audiences, making them feel part of all the decisions. We’ve been engaging with these audiences right from the start of this year.”
What have you been doing in particular?
RA: “If you look on Twitter right now there’s a track revealing game going on that the fans are all part of. Our digital campaign on the last album was very strong but this time it’s even stronger because now you’ve got the likes of Facebook wanting to engage with us on this platform because they can see the success of last year. So we’ve got much more digital innovation and fans are soaking it up.”
Out of curiosity, guys, how much attention do you pay to the business side of the music industry?
MB: “Loads. You can’t be around this long without learning a few things. You get expertise, you gain your own knowledge of how things should work.”
AB: “You have to be hands on. You have to be your own boss and put your ideas out there. And get a good team behind you to develop your ideas and make things happen.”
MB: “For me, I’ve never been social media savvy, Decca worked all that out – I think the evidence is there; what they did on the last album was fabulous.”
So is it basically the same plan as last time?
RA: “No, it’s not the same plan. We’ve got some big highlights, we’ve got an ITV1 special which will be fantastic also Radio 2 are massively engaged, and they’re going to be broadcasting a concert which is fantastic. On release day we’re going to be doing a record-breaking stunt. I can’t tell you all the details right now but we’re going to be doing something on the day of release which will be a Guinness Record. We’re being very ambitious in our planning at the moment.”
On the topic of the second ITV special, how involved are you guys in that process?
MB: “One hundred percent.”
AB: “We were changing things on the day of recording!”
MB: “We know what the music is, and that speaks for itself. We know we can go in and we can sing the songs and do them justice and do them right. But that isn’t a show. What we quickly discovered rehearsing is: it’s about us, it’s about our relationship, about how we love taking the piss out of one another but are also supportive. The script came from that.”
There is a really strong consumer base out there for artists who aren't on Radio 1 or Capital
Rebecca Allen, Decca
What about Decca’s role in it?
RA: “We’re partnered on it. The boys are very, very involved as much as the management, as much as we are. We have a fantastic working relationship with ITV so the show is going to be really exceptional.”
Considering all we’ve talked about, how do you think Together Again will fare against the rest of
the Q4 competition?
RA: “Success breeds even more competition. I have to say, I look at the releases coming this year and there’s so many more of them. There are many, many more albums in this space than there were last year. With that comes an enormous responsibility to make sure that we are successful. I think that our album is incredibly strong; we spent a lot of time working with their audience and engaging with them early on. I think our marketing feels very strong, we’ve got massive retail buy in. We’re definitely in the game, put it that way.”
Is it an album that’s going to live and die on its Q4 performance, or does the campaign have legs to keep on going throughout 2018?
RA: “The interesting thing about the Ball & Boe campaign last year is that we sold over 500,000 before Christmas, but then we sold another 100,000 this year, so there’s a Valentine’s Day push and a Mother’s Day push. Obviously, this doesn’t end at Q4 and I think we proved that this year with the campaign living on and selling another 100,000 albums. So no, we’re going to push on into next year.”
Have you noticed something of a Ball & Boe ripple effect in the industry since last year?
RA: “Every label, even within Universal, is now going for it this year. We’re seeing labels wanting to get into this adult contemporary space, so there’s lots of signings within that area, I know for example that Warner have Leading Ladies. And there’s Anton Du Beke signed to Polydor. People’s eyes are wide open to this again, put it that way. Which makes our job much tougher.”
There’s also the prospect of even more music from Ball & Boe, too, right?
RA: “Yes, we signed a triple album deal with them this year, Boe we’d already signed but we had to re-sign him, then we signed Michael for a solo album, and then we re-signed both as a duo. So we did a triple signing this year which was amazing. This year is about Ball & Boe Part Two: bigger, bolder and better. But next year we are going to focus on solo albums for them both. And that’s very important to them as much as it is to us. We’ve already got plans for that next year.”
How are you making progress with that, guys?
AB: “It’s really frustrating to hone in on an idea sometimes, because you have so many avenues you want to try and achieve, so many things you want to do. I make my decisions very late in the day, and then I say, ‘Alright, this is what we’re doing, let’s go and do it!’ I’m not a very good organiser.”
So you’ve not actually started making your solo records yet then?
AB: “Not really.”
MB: “Really? I’m all over it, I’ve started already, and I’m ready to put it out. It’s called Alone!”