Jim Carroll

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Arrested development: the art of turning acts into artists

Beggars’ boss Martin Mills’ comments on the role of major labels in artist development deserve to be heard

Emeli Sande: what major label artistic development looks like

Mon, Jun 10, 2013, 10:22


Martin Mills issued a strong broadside last week against the major labels and artistic development. As the man at the top of the tree at the Beggars’ group of labels, which currently houses acts like Adele, The XX and Radiohead, and as someone has helped to keep various indie labels in business for many years, Mills is someone who knows about the slow-burn art of artistic development – and he doesn’t think the majors are in that game anymore.

“The majors are very good at aggressively marketing pop artists. They quote Mumford, Sande, Sheeran and Jessie J as not being short-termist – but they’re all mainstream pop, commercial artists. This is not to criticise the majors; they do what they do – but they also don’t do what they don’t do. They wait for an independent to break something and then they tend to move in and take it over. That’s the nature of the game.

As Helienne Lindvall points out in her piece in the Guardian featuring Mills’ comments, this comes on the back of the launch of the UK Arts Council’s Music Momentum fund, providing £500,000 of investment for those creating and performing contemporary popular music.

“Speaking on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme, the head of the government-funded organisation, Alan Davey, accused UK major labels of “short-termism”, saying they “want talent to be delivered to them ready made and they’re not prepared to take a risk over a long period of time investing in talent”.

Naturally, the majors didn’t agree and harumphed with elan. The dude from the BPI, Geoff Taylor, said Davey was “ill-informed”, while Universal Music big cheese David Joseph wrote a letter to The Times, as you do, saying Davey was “breathtakingly simplistic and ignorant”.

Enter Mills, someone you could never describe as simplistic or ignorant or ill-informed. On the one hand, his swipe at the majors is painted with truth. For all the Mumford and Sandes which are currently trumpted by the majors as signs of positive A&R, there are hundreds – nay, thousands – of acts who never make the same grade.

This doesn’t mean that they’ve failed or not happened or not made it, but they’re not at that multi-million selling level and are therefore not deemed worthy of mention because they haven’t hit their targets. Because of economies of scale, the majors need their acts to go large and thus it’s only the acts who go large who are worthy of mention.

Yet don’t take this to mean that all indies are a safe harbour for artistic development. As anyone who has dealt with indie labels know, they can be just as ruthless and as commercially-minded in their dealings as any major label business affairs’ department. There are also many in major labels who understand what artist development is all about and have given many acts the time, patience, mentoring and largesse required to find their feet and an audience. One of Mills’ current acts is Radiohead, an act who benefited hugely from the EMI A&R department’s talents. It’s not all black and white.

But Mills makes one point which is impossible to argue with and that’s the cookie-cutter approach to how the majors have always operated at an A&R level. Lindvall says Mills “criticised the labels for “giving the public what they think the public want, rather than exploring and getting the public to find things that they didn’t know they want”.

The major reckoning goes that just because Mumford & Sons are a hit, the public want more Mumford & Sons. You’ll find that new acts who sound even slightly like the Mumfords will have develeoped a full-blown case of the Mumfords by the time their debut album comes along because this is what the labels think the public want. Recent experiences at the Great Escape brought this home in spades. As we know, there is a swathe of the public who’re happy to go along with that, but there is a much larger number who want something else entirely.

Mills also argues for more cutting-edge music because tomorrow’s mainstream comes from today’s margins: “today’s left-field is tomorrow’s centre-field”. It’s a very good point and one which has been proven time and time again through the ages.

The margins are where artists are free to experiment and shapeshift. That’s where the artistic development is at its rawest and most pure because there’s no commercial pressures from people seeking to recoup their investment and the acts are free to do as they please. Often, there’s also very little music industry engagement or it’s of a very benign kind. That’s really where monies and assistance from something like the Music Momentum fund should be going because that, ultimately, is where it will do the most good.