Atlantic co-president Ed Howard has told Music Week that Charli XCX’s lockdown album How I’m Feeling Now has “thrown up lots of creative ideas” that could have a lasting impact on the music business as it emerges from the coronavirus pandemic.
We caught up with Howard as part of this week’s Charli XCX cover story, and he said the major and parent business Warner have thrown their weight behind the album, which was recorded and released in just five weeks.
Howard took over alongside Briony Turner in December last year, after the controversial departure of former president Ben Cook. Speaking to us from home, Howard praised his staff for their efforts during lockdown and welcomed new recruits Liz Goodwin and Rich Castillo. Austin Daboh is set to arrive from Apple Music in the coming weeks.
“It’s definitely been an unusual start to things and it’s been amazing frankly and I’ve loved the challenge,” he said. “We’ve tooled up again. I’m super-happy with the people we’ve hired and with the people who are staying and committing long-term. They’re all really geed up by the people who are joining. Right now there’s some hard work we’re seeing the reward for and hopefully that’ll reflect in signings and results in due course.”
Read on for a brand new Q&A with Atlantic’s co-president, as he digs deep into Charli XCX’s place in pop and the moving boundaries of album campaigns…
What kind of opportunity did Charli’s new album offer Atlantic?
“There are fewer commercial constraints because the expectation is mostly on the creative, so it’s an opportunity to try loads of things we’ve never done before, with an artist we really trust and have a great relationship with and to see where it leads. The press conferences Charli did via Zoom, the multiple artworks for each release and the fan involvement gave it a really multi-layered approach. Lots of things will change when we go back to whatever a new normal is for the industry. This particular project has thrown up a lot of interesting creative ideas, being very collaborative and windowing the process to the wider world. The fact the music and visuals were created at a distance, the democratisation Charli brought is really interesting. It takes away any sort of excuse about creating [without] massive studios or huge budgets, it shows you that the finest artists come to the fore at this time. Seeing some of the responses from musicians has been very inspiring and I’m very proud Charli is at the forefront of that.”
How involved have you been personally?
“I’ve been trying to support from something of a distance – but I’ve noticed she was trying to balance having to do all these things, the conferences and interaction with umpteen DSPs, publications, interviews and then also actually making the record. It’s a very brave thing to do and it’s been a real challenge for her at times. The label had been talking about fan-generated video content during lockdown, and then Charli took that to a really nice execution with the Forever video.”
The finest artists come to the fore at this time
What was it like promoting an unfinished record?
“I trusted in Charli that it was going to come together and be incredibly compelling. Our job is to make sure the exposure and consumption is the greatest it can be and in the right way. We brought some good ideas to the table in terms of presentation and marketing, some branding support and we’ve chipped in and supported where required rather than leading. It’s been lovely to watch Charli flex her full creative muscles from start to finish.”
Does Charli’s approach blur the boundaries of traditional album releases?
“Mine and Charli’s conversations around the time of her first mixtape Number 1 Angel were that we both were a bit frustrated around the frequency of how much she creates. It’s incredibly quick and rapid, there was always a stream of great music and we were both quite frustrated, mostly her, about the way we were working a single for a long time and having a radio conversations and that process taking three or four months, meanwhile she’s moved on and written five tracks and we’re siting on our hands with nothing to do with them. We were talking about borrowing from other genres in a much more free way, particularly urban music and how mixtapes are such an important part of that culture. With the advent of streaming, everything was moving anyway. That was the first moment she felt she was drawing culture around her and being able to express herself in a really free and full way and not being restricted by the standard single cycle that traditionally prefaced an album campaign. She’s benefitting massively from this acceptance of a looser way of releasing music and that being a way to draw fans to you. Commercially it’s beneficial too, the more music you put out, the more it drives the other music. Even before this we were talking about the next two projects being one more traditional and one more experimental, but we weren’t sure which way round. It felt like the perfect opportunity to grab that and run with it to the fullest possible extent.”
How important is commercial success?
“There were some tricky periods where I think she felt a bit stifled, you have massive commercial success and then there’s a pattern you’re expected to fall into when you put out records, how many you put out, how long it takes to work them, things you have to do to work them… Frankly, to Charli that was probably pretty boring and I can understand why. Now the concern in my head is drawing as much attention to the wonderful things she’s doing, rather than compromising or trying to change it. She’s very capable of making moments of music in pop culture than can be as big as anything she’s achieved historically and has been involved in recently. There were some singles on the last album that were commercially successful, certainly in the UK, I just think it’s got to be on her terms now, which means created and promoted in a certain way. Unless you are absolutely huge as an artist, that’s the way everyone should be working, because you need that sense of self-identity, of what you’re doing being different to everything else for people to buy into it. If you’re chasing anything at any point, you may get away with it a couple of times, but then it’s going to fall flat. What you really need to do is remain true to yourself at all times to give yourself a chance to create massive commercial success. So what she’s doing is perfect for the times and perfect for her. It’s simply a question of people joining in at the right moments in the world she’s creating and I back her doing that.”
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