Interview with RICHARD RUSSELL, head of XL Recordings and A&R for Radiohead, M.I.A, White Stripes, Adele, Dizzee Rascal - Sep 15, 2008
“Since artists can create a reputation for themselves so easily, for [them] to just send a demo in unsolicited to a record company seems a little bit unimaginative.”
Top 10 on HitQuarters' A&R Chart, Richard Russell is one of the founders of XL Recordings, initially a dance/rave label, and nowadays one of the most successful and influential independents worldwide.
Russell's vision of artists dictating their uniqueness to culture instead of vice versa had made him one of the trend setters of our era, earlier on with The Prodigy (No.1 US), later on with The White Stripes (Top 10 US and four Grammys), and throughout 2008 with Radiohead (No.1 US), M.I.A (Top 10 US), Raconteurs (Top 10 US), Vampire Weekend (Top 20 US) and Adele (No.1 UK).
Russell talks to HitQuarters about his first encounter with The Prodigy, about the higher flexibility of independents, and about how easy can it be for artists to grab attention.
How did you become one of the most influential people in London's cultural scene?
I’ve been a passionate and obsessive music fan since I was a kid. You find that with most people who dedicate themselves to music because there is something there you have from a very early age. I was obsessed with The Beatles when I was a little kid. I was obsessed with hip-hop when I was a young teenager.
I started working in the warehouse of Island Records when I was 14. My friend’s dad was the general manager of Island at that time. I was working there from Monday to Friday and in a record shop on Saturday and Sunday. I was learning to DJ and to produce in a primitive way at home. Later on I became a pirate radio DJ, a club DJ and a producer of rave and hip-hop records.
There has never really been a time I can remember when I wasn’t involved in music in an intense way.
What has been significant in developing your skills and your career?
Being able to learn from some of the best people. Because when you have an independent you’re able to have really good communication with other independents. Tony Wilson was someone who I got to know and found to be very inspirational. I can also mention Daniel Miller from Mute, Seymour Stein from Sire as well, and Martin Mills who is my partner at Beggars Banquet.
I see myself as a student of the music. And I’m always trying to learn more about music and learn more about what we do. I took a studio engineering course a couple of years ago just to learn more technical skills.
If you want to learn there’s always a lot of things to learn and there’s always people you can talk to. And if you want to listen to people there’s always stuff you can learn. You’ve got to keep growing and evolving in a business like this.
Why are you so media shy?
We are here to work with artists and to discover, nurture, develop and make music with artists, and not to promote artists ourselves. It has taken quite a long time for XL to have a really prominent reputation because we never really pushed that. We have concentrated on our artists and now the label has a good reputation because of the artists.
So what’s been your vision for XL?
Originality. Music that was original and that was of really high quality. No boundaries, no restrictions. The most creative music and musicians we could possibly work with.
It’s also about people who have a cultural vision going beyond music and having to do with visuals. People who potentially have a vision socially, who have something to say. People who could put something out there into the world, which maybe can even change things and can affect culture.
Right now we’re having a massive hit in the US with M.I.A. ’s ‘Paper Planes’. We sold a million singles in the US over the last few weeks. And it’s just about to explode worldwide. I’ve been working with M.I.A. in a very close way for five years now. And it has taken to this point for things to really start happening. I think she’s an artist who affects culture and affects how other people make music. That’s a big part of my vision for the label. We work with people or trying to find people who’ve got the potential to do that.
What’s the reason for M.I.A.’s success right now?
It’s a reward for being consistently original, for working hard and doing things completely her way. And I think if you’re going to do that you can’t expect things to connect immediately. You’ve got to bend culture around to suit you. And I think she has done that.
Other people’s records have already been sounding like her for the last two or three years, and finally she nailed the song that has connected, and she made it the same way she made the songs on her first album.
XL had been the most prominent label on the rave scene, but you wanted to start signing different types of music. Why was that?
To be in one type of music was just restrictive. It is very hard to develop long term if you’re known for only doing one type of music. No one likes to be pigeonholed or stereotyped as one thing. It was very important that we were able to broaden.
Everyone listens to all different types of music. I don’t think that any music lover only listens to one type of music. So as someone who has a label you’re listening to all types of music too, and you want to be involved in it.
Why and how has XL become more committed to creativity?
That’s our role. Our purpose is to help people be creative. That’s one of the most important things about the label. And it doesn’t just apply to artists, it applies to staff as well, it applies to the whole team.
The A&R side operates in a very team-oriented way. We’ve got excellent people in this company where there’s a broad range of ages, different experiences and types of expertise.
We don’t do A&R here in the same way that any other label does it. We work as a team and the artists come in and will work with me and with other people in the company as well.
How did you originally hook up with The Prodigy’s Liam Howlett and sign him?
He sent us a demo through the post; the real old-fashioned way of getting a record deal - a cassette through the post. The way we used to do deals with artists in those days, we’d give them £500 and they’d give us a DAT tape.
The first Prodigy EP, ‘What Evil Lurks’, was basically what he sent through the post. We paid him a few hundred pounds, we put it out, it did okay, but with the second single he became a big hit.
Liam is very educational. We’re of the same age and we had a lot of the same kinds of musical taste and influences. And he had an incredibly uncompromising vision for how to do things. He did it his way. They never appeared on television, but they became very successful doing it their way because the music and the vision were strong enough.
Not every artist needs to be as uncompromising as they are. For a lot of artists it’s appropriate to perform on TV. But it’s very important that artists know who they are, and I like working with artists helping and developing that identity and awareness.
What do the deals at XL look like nowadays?
Massively broad and varying for us. The deals we do with the artists we work with, the records we make with them, the marketing, are completely different for every artist and different every time. It’s like a tailor-made suit. It’s just made for that individual. We don’t have something that we’re trying to apply to everyone.
As a 100% independent, can XL afford to take greater chances on artists?
We don’t put that many records out. We put release six to ten albums a year. And we invest very heavily in the ones that we do. We spend as much if not more than the majors do. We just don’t deal with that many records.
We have a very solid catalogue base now after 20 years of doing this. Records from the past that continue to sell. We’re quite lean as a company, because we kept things at a certain level, and that’s effective.
How do you choose your projects?
Listening to the music and the people who are involved in it. A gut feeling. And just looking for that spark of originality. I’m also looking for artists we think are going to be good for us to work with, but also that we are going to be good for them. Some artists might be really good but XL will not be a good home for them.
What needs to be ready in order for you to start working with them?
It’s different every time. I love working with artists that know what they’re doing, that possess a strong vision, and who are prepared to work hard.
I like working with artists that, hadn’t I worked with, would be okay anyway. I’m not trying to find people and think, ‘alright, because of XL they’re going to be successful.’ That’s not how we see it at all. I like working with artists that even if they didn’t work with XL would still have the potential. And by working together we should maybe help them be the very best they can be.
How should up-and-coming artists prepare themselves before they come to you?
Today there’s so much you can do so easily as an artist. It’s so easy to get yourself known. It’s so easy to develop a reputation and build up an audience. I have no idea why any artist would not be able to do that.
Do you have time to listen to anything that’s coming your way?
Obviously, one is busy doing a job like this. Occasionally you pick something up and hear it, but it’s very random. Especially since artists can create a reputation for themselves so easily, for an artist to just send a demo in unsolicited to a record company seems a little bit unimaginative.
What does it need to profess in order to grab your interest?
Originality. In these days as an artist you can create your world very easily. You can create your visual image. You can really say, ‘This is who I am.’ I look for people who really think about that kind of thing and put that out there in a way where you can see there’s some thought and imagination gone into it.
Being an artist is like the most difficult thing to do. And there are so many people doing it, and doing it well. If you want to compete in that world you really must be imaginative and hardworking. And that applies from day one.
Where do you find new artists with a strong musical and visual identity?
There’s a great team of people here all working on the creative music side in the company. There are people in this company going out every night. And there’s obviously such a wide world online. The answer to this question is everything and everywhere.
Is the label's ethos still “We know it when we see it”?
I suppose so. But sometimes you don’t know until quite a lot later on. You start working with people on the basis of potential, and sometimes their potential takes time to unfold. We don’t get involved in things that we don’t believe in. You’re always looking for that kind of passionate connection to something.
Is that right that you discovered Jack Peñate on Myspace?
Yes, as well as Adele. It was a moment in time when Myspace was really vibrant. Obviously, there’s still a lot of great stuff there, but at that moment it really seemed exciting. Perhaps it’s because it was brand new then.
What artists are you currently working with?
In January 2008 we put out Radiohead, Vampire Weekend and Adele. Those albums have all been very successful. We’re working those all year.We’ve been working the M.I.A album for more than a year and it’s now really starting to take off. The Raconteurs made a great follow-up album.
Jack White has obviously been an incredibly educational and inspirational artist for us to work with. We’ve been working with him for eight years now. He has delivered. He has been so prolific during that period. Six White Stripes albums and two Raconteurs albums. He always has great material coming.
Why did you originally decide to licence the first three albums of The White Stripes back in 2003?
When we did the deal with them they had two records on an independent in the US and they were just releasing their third one. So at the time we did the deal we released three records at the same time.
They’d done a fantastic job of carving out their own world, their own image, their own reputation. By the time they crossed over to success and by the time the mainstream media was interested in them they were already established worldwide. They’ve never been wholly reliant on the media. They built up their own fanbase and following.
I bought one of their albums in a Rough Trade shop. They weren’t a secret. Everyone knew about them, because they’d done such a great job of putting themselves out there.
Similar to The Prodigy, an artist like Dizzee Rascal (Top 10 UK) rose from the street, via pirate radio and raves, to critical acclaim and mainstream success. How do you explain his rise to the top?
Dizzee is an individual with this great vision and a really great awareness of who he is, who is capable of putting things out there in a really strong way - things that people never heard before.
How involved are you with repertoire and production?
I’m very involved. We have a studio at XL. I have a small studio in my house as well.It varies. Obviously, some artists we work with are completely self-contained and can deliver a finished record on their own. And with other artist the A&R is more intense and more hands-on.
Artists who succeed tend to be very good A&Rs themselves. Managers often play a much bigger role than A&Rs, bigger than what people realise, and a much bigger role than they get credit for. Within this company I like to involve a lot of people in A&R. It’s really a communal thing.
How do you settle disagreements in the studio?
Everyone’s perspective on things is different. As a label I like us to be good at listening to everyone. Listening to the artist, to their management, to the producer. That’s one of our strengths.
How big is your team?
There are fifteen people at my XL office in Ladbroke Grove. And that’s creative, A&R, visuals, artist development, video, artwork, site. And then over in the Beggars Banquet office in Wandsworth there is a much bigger staff of around 80 people, dealing with all the other functions. We have our staff worldwide as well.
Is it always your aim to break in the US?
Yes. The US is very strong now. This year has been amazing because we broke US artist Vampire Weekend worldwide. Simultaneously we create a different campaign in the US. It has been one of the big success stories of this year. In the past we used to do these deals where we weren’t always able to sign acts for the US as well, but now we’re very focused on worldwide deals.
In what way do you have to adapt to all the technological and industry changes over the years?
People have focused a lot on the changes of the last couple of years, but everything is always changing all the time. You have to look at it as normal life. Everything is always in flux. You have to be really open-minded to that and accepting of it. It has been hard for the big companies, because at a certain size change is harder to deal with, whereas for us it has been exciting.
This is our best ever phase now. We’ve never been more exciting. We’ve never had better artists. And we’ve never had more hits than now. The way the market is now seems to be working for us. But then again, I wouldn’t get arrogant about that. It’s just how things unfold. And the thing for the big companies is that there are a lot of challenges right now. This is not a business that was ever meant to be easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it.
In 2005 you appeared at the 'In The City' conference in Manchester alongside other British independent record label founders on a panel entitled I Wasn't Born To Follow’. How did that go?
We did a great thing there with Chris Blackwell, the late Tony Wilson and Alan McGee. Their labels were so fantastic, so inspirational to people. For XL it has been continuing a legacy of labels like that. It’s amazing.
That was an interesting thing to do. We all spent a lot of time talking to people who were there. And we talked to people who had their own labels. It was a great experience. I learn a lot from working with people who are 20 years old, and hopefully I’m in a position now where they learn stuff from me as well.
2009 will mark 20 years of achievement for XL.
How do you stay open and keep enjoying it as you grow older?
I’ve been finding it’s in fact getting easier as I get older. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t get easier. You have this guy running for President of the USA who’s 72 years old. I wouldn’t be doing that when I’m 72. The thing with music is that you never lose it. It’ll be terrible to lose it. You’re so lucky to have it. You have that passion for music. It’s like a gift. In 20 years time I’m going to be 57. I’ll be doing the same thing.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Interview with Iain Watt
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