Nialler9's How Music Works: Do the major labels still matter?
In his weekly column How Music Works, Niall Byrne talks to those who make a living in the Irish music business. This week: Mark Crossingham, MD of Universal Music Ireland
Mark Crossingham, managing director of Universal Music Ireland: “My absolute mission is to sign acts that have the potential to sell outside of Ireland." Photograph: Kathrin Baumbach
The eras of major labels with large offices on expensive streets raking in money from multiple music formats at a high-price mark-up and offering huge unrealistic advances to wide-eyed bands they could never pay off, are, thankfully, largely gone. As Mick Jagger said a few years ago, there was only a 25-year period from 1970 to 1997 where musicians actually made real money from recordings. Maybe things are just normalising.
There are now three majors in operation in Ireland: Sony Music, Warner Music and Universal Music. Until EMI was subsumed as part of global merger with Universal Music, its offices were on Ailesbury Road in Dublin 4 among the diplomats and embassies.
Working for a major label these days, is more of an ordinary kind of job. Still, it's one in which a staff member might be dealing with Taylor Swift in an arena one week and legal contracts the next. So what is it like to run a major label division?
Mark Crossingham may be Universal Music Ireland's managing director now but he started from the bottom. “I wrote hundreds of letters to record companies and got nowhere,” he says of his early days. He got his start, after answering a job application in a trade paper, as a sales representative for Warner Music in the UK, a then, very hands-on job.
“It involved driving an estate car of vinyl around the West End of London and calling on all the local record shops,” Crossingham remembers.
Crossingham moved his way up the music ladder and worked for Universal before he was asked by the CEO of Universal Music UK to run the Irish division of Universal Music.
“I bit his hand off,” says Crossingham of the opportunity. “I'm very lucky, but have put a lot of hours and hard work in over the years.”
Crossingham acknowledges that much has changed in that time but he says at its core, the job of the label is the same.
“It's all about great artists making great music. When I started vinyl was the only format. We've gone through, cassette, CD, downloads & now we have streaming.”
No more decadence and debauchery
Staff expectations in Universal Music do not adhere to the heady days of record-company decadence and debauchery recounted in autobiographies such as Walter Yetnikoff's Howling At The Moon. These days, a policy of industrious pragmatism is expected in the face of an ever-bulging media landscape.
“I expect all of my staff to work hard and do a fantastic job for our artists. For the sales guys, there's obviously far fewer physical retailers to deal with, but those that are still around are doing very well indeed. Both CD & vinyl sales were up in Ireland last year. The role of the promotions team has changed hugely with so many areas to cover now other than TV, radio & press. In fact we've re-named our Promotions Department 'Artist & Media Relations' to reflect the amount of time they spend covering online & social media.”
The benefit of a major
While the internet has heralded possibilities for bands to do it independently, it has also fractured the monolithic importance of physical retailers. Still, it remains true that the major labels still have the widest reach if chart success and worldwide fame are high on the agenda for the artist.
“You have a team of dedicated, experienced and professional people looking after an artists career on a global basis,” Crossingham says of Universal's operations.
Crossingham talks to his colleagues in the UK several times a day and he talks to other offices around the world “all the time”, and while there are global campaigns in place that all offices are working on, each can operate individually. For example, Universal Ireland recently increased its budget for signing artists locally, no doubt encouraged by the genuinely phenomenal global success of local artist Hozier.
What does a label look for in a band?
As well as the international artists that Universal Ireland deal with such as Mumford & Sons, Arcade Fire, Taylor Swift, Rihanna and Florence + The Machine, recent Irish signings have included The Riptide Movement, Le Galaxie, Walking On Cars and Delorentos. So before every band in Ireland gets in touch with him looking for a deal, what does Crossingham look for a band?
“Hits,” he says. “My absolute mission is to sign acts that have the potential to sell outside of Ireland. In the Universal system, that is totally possible if you have the right act. Lorde is signed to our company in New Zealand but has been hugely successful around the world.”
The internet has also democratised the music-listening experience and made the public more visible. Apps such as Shazam, social-media engagement, music blogs, YouTube channel views and Soundcloud plays can play a part in the signing of a band.
“If analytics can show you that people are engaging with an artist and their music, then that helps you make a more informed decision,” Crossingham explains. “Once an artist is signed, analytics can be hugely helpful in targeting your marketing and promotional efforts.”
The Hozier effect
Ireland has become hot property once again thanks to the Hozier effect, which makes holding on to an artist on the rise difficult for any label with a smaller budget, even a local major which won't be able to readily call on the same budget as the UK or US division.
“Hand on heart, if an Irish band or artist gets offered a Universal UK deal, then they should take it, the UK is a bigger market,” says Crossingham.
What about the artists? What should they look for in a label? Not, first and foremost a big advance, which Crossingham says are far less common these days.
“For artists, managers and record labels, the team as a whole is the most important thing now,” says Crossingham. “If everyone is comfortable with that, then the size of the advance is not always the deciding factor.”
Bands interested in the major route are savvier than they once were.
“Artists have always been good at 'the art', but more and more are making the effort to understand how the business works too.”
Some of that business includes the 360-deal, which gives the label income from touring, merchandise, endorsements, beyond the actual recordings. Such deals could be viewed as interfering and greedy, but Crossingham makes the case for their worth to both artist and label.
“We strongly believe that the investment we make in an artist's career will have a beneficial effect on not just their records but their career in general,” he says. “By asking for a passive share of an artists' other income streams, we can work as a partnership to the benefit of us both.”
The point is the business of selling music is no longer measured in record sales alone, partly because the volume of CD sales has tumbled since the 1990s. Meanwhile, digital downloads and streaming continue to rise to plug the gap.
Promotion in the 21st century
In terms of artist promotion, Crossingham says there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But having “a successful video online and a radio hit are still the most effective”.
Radio in Ireland still plays a big part, and Crossingham thinks the radio landscape is less conservative than the UK commercial equivalent.
“BBC Radio 1 can afford to be a bit more cutting-edge as it doesn't rely on advertising income,” he says. “I'd love to see an equivalent of BBC 6 Music be successful here. I think the guys at TXFM are doing a terrific job, and I really hope that it can grow in to see something as influential as 6 Music on a national scale in Ireland.”
As for the music itself, Crossingham is enthusiastic about Years & Years, Tove Lo and a new Australian artist called Jarryd James. Locally, he's excited about the new Le Galaxie album and a number of upcoming artist: Bleeding Heart Pigeons, Gypsies on the Autobahn and Fangclub. He's also looking forward to “the number of Riptide Movement albums that we're going to sell in Germany”.
Crossingham has come a long way since hocking vinyl from the back of an estate car. He says the demanding job means he doesn't see enough of his family, so what makes running a major label worth it?
“Working with great artists and music,” he says. “Hearing a new artist and then seeing them become successful over a period of time is a real buzz.”