Right now, Island Records UK president Louis Bloom is a man on a mission. After a string of big breakthroughs with the likes of Dermot Kennedy, ArrDee, Lola Young, Yard Act, Easy Life, The Lathums, M Huncho and more, he is determined to write an exciting new chapter in the storied history of the Universal company. Here, Music Week joins the executive to talk about his life-long love affair with the label, the art of A&R and the state of QPR's half-time food…
WORDS: GEORGE GARNER PHOTOS: CARSTEN WINDHORST
No man is an island, so said the 17th century poet John Donne. You can’t help but wonder, however, whether he would have still maintained that belief had he ever occupied the same time and space as Louis Bloom…
“It’s been four years as president, but last year actually marked my 20th at Island,” Bloom grins, reflecting on his remarkably long stint at the Universal label founded by Chris Blackwell in 1959. “In terms of what we do, Chris set the gold standard, I mean look at that wall...”
Reclining on a sofa in his office at Universal’s London HQ, Bloom gestures towards a series of gorgeous black and white photographs of iconic Island artists that hang behind his desk. U2. Nick Drake. Grace Jones. Bob Marley. Roxy Music. PJ Harvey. Cat Stevens. Amy Winehouse. They all watch over him every day.
“Those photos remind me and the team of what we’ve got to do and what we’ve got to aspire to,” he says. “I recently met Chris Blackwell for the first time when he was over for his book [The Islander: My Life In Music And Beyond] and I told him that. He was really touched. Everything has changed so much in the industry, but his philosophy of finding iconic artists that have incredible identity, who are uncompromising, who are at the edge of culture and doing it on their own terms, that’s still the cornerstone of everything we do. It’s about taking risks on artists that are unique, even if they don’t fit into exactly what’s going on in the current market. My favourite artists could actually exist at any point in the last 50 years.”
Yet for all his deep reverence for Island’s illustrious past, it soon becomes apparent that Louis Bloom is hyper-focused on the present and the future. Indeed, along with MD Nicola Spokes (“It’s honestly like she’s always been with us, she’s totally no bullshit, but also incredibly nurturing,” hails Bloom. “I trust her implicitly, she’s got great intuition”), his co-heads of A&R Daniel Lloyd Jones and Annie Christensen, and SVP Steve Pitron, the Island team are firing on all cylinders right now.
“We’ve found a rhythm,” Blooms beams. “The team and the roster are in fantastic shape, I think we have the foundation for huge success.”
This may actually be underselling it somewhat. Since Bloom succeeded the highly-respected Darcus Beese as president in 2018 (after eight years as head of A&R), Island’s been busy breaking acts not just in one genre, but many.
In the rap world, they’ve recently scored a No.2 with ArrDee’s debut Pier Pressure, a Top 5 with M Huncho’s Chasing Euphoria and a Top 10 with Unknown T’s Adolescence. The latter even wrote a song called… Louis Bloom. ‘I got three-double-0 on a deal no speedin’, he raps. ‘Phone Louis Bloom for a meeting’. “Immortality!” jokes Bloom in response. “It’s made me really cool with my kids!”
When it comes to Afrobeats, meanwhile, Island/YBNL Nation/Empire were behind Fireboy DML’s massive Ed Sheeran-assisted single Peru, the platinum track (912,829 sales and rising, according to Official Charts Company data) in turn giving the genre its biggest UK hit yet. Moreover, it was 2022’s biggest-selling song until it was usurped by Harry Styles’ As It Was just before the half-year point.
Elsewhere, in the pop/songwriter worlds, Island boasts Dermot Kennedy, whose 2019 debut Without Fear hit No.1 and is on sales of 276,337. Then there’s Sigrid recently reaching No.2 with How To Let Go and Lola Young securing a BRIT Rising Star nomination at the start of the year. “Lola’s new, yet-to-be released music is truly sensational,” hails Bloom. “She’s such a true artist and so gifted.”
All of that is without mentioning the success Island has had with something many other labels have failed with: bands. In recent memory, Island has taken The Lathums to No.1, and Yard Act, Easy Life and Sports Team to No.2. One of Island’s biggest gifts, Bloom says, is their ability to locate talent outside of typical music hotspots. “With ArrDee and Brighton, it was outside of the usual scene,” he reflects. “The Lathums are from Wigan, Easy Life are Leicester and Yard Act are Leeds. There’s unique storytelling in those regions.”
That’s to say nothing of Island’s star-studded international roster (Drake, Ariana Grande, The Weeknd, Post Malone), work with acclaimed acts like Miraa May, plus recent signings like Dylan, Nia Archives, new group FLO and Sam Tompkins. “Sam’s a moment away from being very big and has, of all people, Justin Bieber as his mentor,” says Bloom.
Island is clearly a broad church – which makes perfect sense when you factor in its president’s taste.
Bloom was born into music. His father Graham Gouldman is the co-lead singer and bassist of 10cc, a member of Wax, plus a songwriter behind hits for The Hollies, The Yardbirds and more – Bloom took his surname from his step-dad after his parents divorced. In the aftermath of that separation, Bloom and his dad would bond over two things: “Music and curries,” Bloom grins. His father not only guided him through The Beatles’ discography (“They’re the ultimate band, that’s why I’m obsessed with groups,” he smiles) but also on the business of releasing songs.
“I went through the music with him, I helped him pick singles,” Bloom says. “Even at that early age, he would always ask me my views on mixes. I became obsessed.”
Bloom can become near breathless praising his favourite artists, everyone from Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Diana Ross, Paul Simon, Carole King and The Supremes to REM, Blur, Al Green, Joni Mitchell, The Prodigy, Amy Winehouse, The Chemical Brothers, Tricky, The Smiths, Massive Attack and Portishead. Oh, and Dr Dre, Beastie Boys, Jay-Z, Jimi Hendrix, Wu-Tang Clan and Michael Jackson. And Prince. And Kate Bush. And Stevie Wonder. You get the point.
He may now be a president, but there is something endearingly fan-ish about the way Bloom recalls dancing at The Haçienda, moshing to Rage Against The Machine, and the very first time he heard Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit at a school disco. If you want the true measure of Louis Bloom – The Superfan, just factor in this: he was such a huge Lenny Kravitz devotee, when he was 14 he put on a coach trip for 30 kids at his Manchester school to see the star in Birmingham. “That was my first taste of being a music entrepreneur, and I made a loss!” he quips.
It was while studying law at The University Of Birmingham that he decided to make the jump into the industry with a work experience stint at – you’ll never guess! – Island Records. Soaking in the atmosphere at St. Peter’s Square studios, he would marvel at the fact that PJ Harvey and Marianne Faithfull were there making records. “It just blew my mind,” he recalls. “It was like, ‘Wow, this is the job for me!’”
Sadly, it wasn’t. At least not for a while. Island didn’t take him on (“I didn’t make a good impression, obviously!”) but later RCA would. In 1999, Mike McCormack – now Universal Music Publishing Group UK MD – hired Bloom as a talent scout where he would soon be working alongside Simon Cowell, Richard Griffiths and Harry McGee.
It was while at RCA that Bloom crossed paths with future Universal Music UK CEO and chairman David Joseph, who would later recommend him to Paul Adam, in turn leading to an opportunity at Island. Bloom’s first role at the label was as junior A&R manager.
“David Joseph’s been the one constant in my career,” says Bloom. “Out of all the executives that I’ve learned from, he’s been my constant and someone I’ve always looked up to. I always learn every time I speak to him. He’s so supportive, and what I love is that he wants you to be the best version of yourself. He doesn’t want to change who you are.”
At Island, Bloom would quickly make his mark, signing everyone from Busted and McFly to Hozier, plus “the first big album” he did by himself: The Feeling’s 2006 smash Twelve Stops & Home [906,074 – OCC]. Over the years he would rise to head of A&R, his finely-tuned ears bringing in Dermot Kennedy, Catfish & The Bottlemen, Ben Howard and Mumford & Sons. On the latter, Bloom promises that Marcus Mumford’s upcoming solo release on Island will be “breathtakingly” good.
“I’ve never heard his voice like this before,” he reveals. “It’s a deeply personal album and a bold statement.”
For the record, there is a Louis Bloom outside of Island Records – a Sam Harris podcast obsessive and a family man. A father to two sons who love Ted Lasso, Bloom now takes them to see their local team, QPR.
“I think what we like best is the half-time chicken pie, it’s way better than the football,” he quips. “I’m a Man United fan by heart, but the football’s not much better there either!”
But chicken pie or no chicken pie, there is always Island. The music industry may have changed a lot since his work experience stint at the label, but many things still hold true.
“At Island, I learned immediately about culture, I learned about context, and the importance of those two things,” he reflects. “Artists have to emerge from something that’s authentic. That’s the nuance of this job: nothing comes out of a vacuum. I’ve always found that the path of resistance that some artists get is the making of them. It forces you into culture, context building and fan building. That’s still very much true to what we do today.”
Without further ado, then, it’s time to dive into precisely what Island is up to in 2022…
Let’s cut to the chase: does Island get the respect it deserves as an A&R powerhouse in the UK?
“No. I’ve done the stats here. ArrDee is the biggest breakthrough artist of the last 12 months. That’s not just in rap – it’s the biggest breakthrough. We’ve got one of the best-selling singles with Fireboy DML. With Yard Act – and this is an opinion – I think they’re the most exciting band to have emerged this year in terms of being the most articulate and witty, and in terms of live performance. So this is across genres. I look at Dermot Kennedy, who’s about to come out with a second album, and that’s one of the biggest breakthroughs from a UK-signed artist on his debut record. He’s doing 10,000-cap shows in Germany, and Red Rocks in the US. We did three Ally Pallys at the end of last year, and we’re going to do two O2s next year. In Ireland, he’s a fucking phenomenon: 27 weeks at No.1 [in the albums chart] is up there with Ed Sheeran and Adele. This guy is poised for being a huge global breakthrough. Then look at what we’re doing across genre: there’s Lola Young, plus Easy Life and Sports Team are coming back with new records, Nia Archives is bringing a diverse and inclusive crowd to jungle, and then there’s what can we do with FLO! I’m obsessed with them.”
You can easily imagine bands such as Easy Life, Sports Team and Yard Act signing to an independent label, yet they’ve come to Island. Are you a different major label to your competitors in that respect?
“I feel comfortable saying we’re leading in the alternative genre, as a major label. It’s a passion of mine that may go back to Britpop. I always think of Island as an indie in its spirit, but we’re part of this incredible organisation, which is Universal. It doesn’t have to specifically be a band. Nia Archives is an alternative artist, Easy Life wouldn’t see themselves as a band, they’d see themselves as a collective – it’s just all these acts are doing it on their own terms, and they are building fanbases.”
You’re also making chart successes of bands when they don’t necessarily have the TikTok virality many see as essential now…
“It takes time, it takes patience. I think we’re going back to a time when it took two or three albums to break. And that’s how it was in the ’70s and ’80s. It takes a moment. It’s about wanting to win, but winning in the right way. For me, that’s why the live ticket is so important, because it means people are looking up from their phone for a moment, and they’re going, ‘Oh shit, I need to get out of the house, I need to buy a ticket, get on a train and queue up.’ I’ll take one of those fans over loads of clicks. A click is easy. It’s finding those fans who are invested. I always look at the database for these artists. That’s where I look at success, it’s not something that’s in the charts. The artist’s database is their pension. That’s the measure of success for us because then they are invested in wanting to buy a bit of merch, it’s about the experience and lifestyle. I want artists to be their own playlists, rather than sitting on a playlist someone else has made. I want people to go, ‘I’m gonna listen to Easy Life today,’ or Sports Team or The Lathums. We’re coming out of this period of lockdown and into a summer of escapism – people are going from the virtual to the physical world, looking up from their phones and wanting to find their tribe. We’ve been building a roster for that audience. You don’t have to be generic to have hits, [Polydor’s] Glass Animals are a good example of that. And [Netflix’s] Squid Game is another example where you can be massive, but you don’t have to compromise. That’s the Island thing: having scale without having to compromise.”
Genre-wise, Island is very diverse in its offering, but is there anything that unites the broad church that is your roster?
“It’s important to me that we have the most exciting roster, and that means leaders in genres. I think there’s a thread between all artists in that they have a vision coming from a slightly left of centre place, but they’re doing it on their own terms. And I want to be in every genre, I want to be in rap and hip-hop. I think what the team have done with ArrDee is sensational, and that wouldn’t have happened without the drive and the vision of ArrDee and his manager Carl [Samuel]. What Unknown T represents is incredible. I want to be at the cutting edge of youth culture, and to do that it’s all in the collaboration between genres. That’s what’s truly exciting. Deep collaboration is really important. It’s why someone like Dermot Kennedy, who’s an authentic singer-songwriter, is so secure in himself that he can work outside of his genre with Meduza, one of our dance artists. That became a 1.5 billion streaming record [2020’s No.5 hit Paradise – 810,056, OCC]. But that was a concerted effort. You’ve got to have those artists on your roster, and you have to have opportunities because everything is so fragmented. I’m interested in those artists that appeal to an indie kid and someone who listens to rap, rock and pop.”
What’s also interesting is that Island’s roster all operate in distinctly different genres, yet the same team are able to break them all. What do you chalk that up to?
“Because the team are the best in the business. It’s as simple as that.”
A lot of presidents would, understandably, say that about their own team. What makes you believe you’re right?
“We’ve got a great balance – we’ve got incredible key execs here with experience and then you load that with the new energy and people at the edge of culture, who are driven and who are beyond passionate about music. That’s when we employ people, when there’s that energy about them. So you’ve got that interplay between experience and youthful energy, it’s intoxicating. You need a team that can do everything because everyone’s got blind spots. I’ve got blind spots. I love it when one of the team goes, ‘No, you’ve got it wrong!’ I want to learn, I want to be relevant – I have no time for that ‘executive ego’. It’s about the greater good and shared knowledge across genres to do what’s best for the artists. The phrase that I like to use is that, ‘We’ve got to look through the eyes of the artist.’ We work everything towards that. That’s why I think the team is so strong at the moment. I adore them.”
When it comes to A&R, there’s always the question of whether to sign based more with your heart or with data. Have you signed anyone recently that was just a case of gut feeling?
“It’s all gut feeling. I promise you. The competition is so fierce I don’t think you have time to look at stats. Aside from that, for me the most important thing is that this is not about transactions. This is about a relationship. This is about waking up every day knowing I’m going to work with an artist for the next five to ten years minimum. It’s about careers. I think there’s a very big difference between moments and careers. Both are valid, but I want to be in both businesses – I want to be in the singles business, and the albums business. Data is very, very important and you’d be a fool not to take that into account. But what I’m saying is that if you don’t have an emotional connection, or an understanding of what you can do for an artist, or a shared vision, then there’s no point. Let another label do it.”
So if the data is good but the gut feeling isn’t there…
“It’s not getting signed. I don’t know many that haven’t been standing starts from anything that we’ve signed. ArrDee was pretty much a standing start, though Mixtape Madness, who as always were ahead of the curve, definitely drew our attention to him with their freestyle release. Yard Act had a couple of songs out, but they were embryonic. And they were both signed during Covid when there was no going to even meet them. Easy Life had a single on Chess Club, but that was it. These acts that we sign go from having nothing going on to suddenly becoming instant priorities. With FLO, I saw their video and I was like, ‘Right! Let’s put all our energy behind that!’ But there were no stats, they had nothing released. It’s about following your heart and following your gut. I’ve had a lot of experiences when I went head over heart and it hasn’t worked. We look at data, it really is important, because it’s never just one song you need to track – you need to track everything, you need to work to see where the spikes are that you need to push on. It’s after the signing that data becomes more important.”
ArrDee’s appearance on Tion Wayne & Russ Millions’ Body Remix was a huge moment. What had you done before that to help his breakthrough?
“That’s the point. The A&R team put him on Body. We put him on Body, and then it’s the A&R, the collabs, the co-signs afterwards with Digga D, and then the sample of Flowers. Those are A&R-led initiatives, and then what we’re doing a lot is the time codes – finding those moments to go onto socials for shareable content. I’m really proud of the team for what they’ve done for ArrDee, but it’s important to state that ArrDee has led the way, too. It’s his vision, no one was telling him what lyric to write. His attitude is all over it. What do I look for in an artist? One that has vision, but that will also listen to ideas. The Body idea and some of the visual ideas came from here, but he was smart enough to listen.”
Not many people stay with one label for 20 years. What is the biggest pro of being with Island for that long instead of zig-zagging between places?
“I’ve just always been tied to Island – it’s an obsession for me. Everything’s changed [in the music business], but I still resonate with the core values of Island. I love the history of the label. That’s at the heart of it. And I think that attracts the best people to work with and therefore you get the best artists. Watching things grow is the most exciting thing, so why would you leave that journey? I want to go on the ride the whole way. I’m loyal to the artists and to Universal, and Universal has been loyal to me. I got a job here when I didn’t deserve a job. They gave me an opportunity. David Joseph’s always guided me and given me opportunities. I honestly think Universal is the best international system around. It’s like, ‘Why would you leave?’ There’s no reason to. It’s a cultural label with the best identity, and it’s always on the front foot, always leading. David, and what he’s done with neurodiversity and mental health, and the tone of this company, it’s all sensitively done.”
Does the weight of Island’s immense legacy ever weigh down on you – or, at least, did it when you first took over as president?
“When I became head of A&R, I was like, ‘How am I going to do this?’ But you’re encouraged here to take educated risks, you’re encouraged to do it on your own terms, and I never found that I’d be second guessed in any of that. You’ve got to give new meaning to the Palm Tree, and you’ve got to put your own imprint on it. That’s all about being a modern take on what is an iconic label, and that’s what I’m trying to do. It all comes back to finding the best artist of all time [laughs]. Wherever you are, I think there’s an expectation of that. I never really look back by the way, I’m always on to the new, like, ‘What’s next? What’s exciting?’ But when it all ends, I want to look back and see a legacy of artists that I’ve helped and be proud. And talk about legacy? U2 are still with us. Bob Marley is still in the charts. I want to be part of all that musical history and that journey.”
What – if anything – keeps you awake at night?
“I have enormous anxiety about finding those acts. That’s what keeps me awake at night, just making sure that we don’t miss the talent. And it hurts. It hurts like hell when I miss something – and no, I’m not going to go into detail! I guess when it stops hurting, then I know that this job is not for me to do anymore. So I try and turn that pain into a positive, but I’m really fucking competitive. I really want to win. I want the biggest and most influential artists of all time.”
So, finally, where does all of this leave Island in 2022?
“I’m just excited, and I think in the next five years hopefully we’re going to enter another golden era for Island. I think that’s where we’re heading. I just can’t stress how brilliant this team is. I learn from all of them. Mentorship works both ways for me – I’m mentored by them as much as hopefully they’re mentored by me. I really feel that passion about them. And I feel passionate about our artists. I’m just honestly buzzing. What we’re doing across genres is producing the next generation of festival headliners, which is, I think, important for the industry. I hope that people start to notice what we’re doing.”