'We're encouraged to think big': Decca's Rebecca Allen & Dickon Stainer talk 90 years of success

Decca 90

Not many record labels get to enjoy a 90th birthday. But legendary UK imprint Decca Records clocks up its ninth decade in business this year – and, to celebrate, they’re on the cover of this week’s special edition of Music Week.

Inside, artists such as Michael Ball, Imelda May, JS Ondara and Jess Gillam explain what makes the label great. And UK president Rebecca Allen and Universal Global Classics & Jazz president/CEO Dickon Stainer talk us through the life and times of the oldest UK label still in frontline service.

The company is still red hot as well: scoring huge hits last year with the likes of Andrea Bocelli and Rod Stewart, as well as scoring one of the year’s biggest UK debut albums from Royal Wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason.

Decca has a wealth of activity planned around the anniversary, including a Pavarotti feature film documentary, 90 different reissues, a book, a V&A exhibition and two Radio 2 documentaries.

Whether we’ll see labels like Decca again is a matter of some debate. But what’s the secret to its success? And how will it keep it going in the streaming age? Music Week quizzed Allen and Stainer to find out…

Why has Decca been so successful over 90 years?

Rebecca Allen: “We look back at the history and that’s given us the confidence to keep the diverse nature of our labels going. If you look at Decca now, we’re still a diverse label with a diverse roster and that’s what makes us so special.”

Dickon Stainer: “There’s always been a willingness to take risks inside the label, which was passed down through the generations and which we were encouraged to do. We were encouraged not to just walk onto a playing field where lots of other people were playing, but to be imaginative. We weren’t restricted. If we said, ‘We’ve found a folk-rock band in Denver called The Lumineers’, they said, ‘See if you can sign that’. So we did.”

Is it difficult to find chart success when you usually sign acts from niche genres?

DS: “We’ve always been encouraged to look after the niche genres, but we’re also encouraged to think big and transcend the genre. That’s how things like The Three Tenors’ success came about, because we were always taught, ‘Think big and aim at the so-called massive passive’. Try and imagine it could be discovered by everybody. We had a particularly brilliant boss, [former UCJ MD] Bill Holland. He was this guy with a great imagination who believed in risk-taking. So when he saw an opportunity for something he would say to us, ‘I hope you’re really going after this’. We’d put the figure in front of him and he’d say ‘Double it’. He had the attitude that, if you’re thinking small, it’s not going to work, you’re not doing justice to the opportunity.”

RA: “It’s something that I definitely carry on now that I’m president. How does one differentiate oneself from another company? How do you tell the story of an artist? We work really hard to have an identity here and to be perceived as different. Bill always said, ‘Don’t be at the back of the Post Office queue, make sure you’re at the front’.”

Decca is traditionally a UK-centric, physical product-oriented business. What do you have to do to adapt to the streaming age?

RA: “We have a dual strategy going on; we want to protect our physical business while pivoting into a more streaming-focused company. The easiest thing to do now would be to chase the analytics and algorithms and sign music that’s being streamed. But that’s not what we were put on the planet to do. That’s not what we’re here for.”

DS: “It is a challenge, operating in areas of music like jazz and classical and world music at the same time as seeing the enormous boom in streaming in urban and hip-hop, areas that we’re definitely not going to be in. But we have faith that it’s going to come to us, because the media continue to want our artists on the biggest platforms around the world. When there’s a huge event like a Royal Wedding, they’re not going to be giving Drake a ring, even though he’s a brilliant artist.”

What do you need to do to make sure Decca is around for another 90 years?

RA: “Keep signing brilliant talent, working and partnering with them and producing brilliant music. Keep telling stories that nobody else can tell.”

DS: “Be closer and closer to the artist community. Things go in cycles. The composer right now is much more important because of streaming than the composer was five, 10 years ago. The writer of original material’s value is increasing significantly. You don’t necessarily need yet another version of The Four Seasons, but something that’s new and accessible to a broad audience. Streaming has opened up music to many different listeners that before just wouldn’t have heard it. Therefore we need to be close to a lot of different talent that perhaps we weren’t before. Harnessing streaming and what it means. Being completely international. It’s a world without borders now. You have to be as open to something coming out of Japan or Korea as something that comes out of Wigan. You’ve got to have a global mindset. Although Wigan is a great place…”

* To read the full, exclusive Decca Record story, including the only interviews with Allen, Stainer, Michael Ball, Imelda May, JS Ondara and Jess Gillam, see this week’s print edition of Music Week, available now, or click here. To subscribe and never miss a vital music biz story, click here.

(Photo: Paul Harries)

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