‘Adele’ factor changes everything
XL Recording has bucked trends and thrived because it has become a label where artists feel at home
Earlier this month, XL Recordings released its accounts for 2014. Like many labels, XL is seeing a fall in profits and turnover as people abandon CDs and downloads for streaming services with a year-on-year drop of £11.2 million in turnover and a £5.3 million fall in profits.
There is, however, a very large “but” to this set of financials. A week or two earlier, the label announced that one of its artists would be releasing a new album at the end of November and that piece of news changes everything.
The fact Adele’s last album 21 has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide to date (making £40 million in profit for the label in the process) bodes well for 25’ s commercial success. Even in terms of new-school metrics, she’s big business: the video for her comeback single Hello was watched one million times an hour over the first few days of its release.
History does not record how well the label’s debut release,
We Want Funk by 2 In Rhythm, performed in 1989, but you can be sure it didn’t do as well. Back then, Richard Russell’s label began life as a dance music imprint releasing tracks by artists such as SL2, The Prodigy, Jonny L, Awesome 3 and others.
The belief then was that a focus on originality and artistic freedom would lead to fresh, exciting music.
XL has thrived because it has become a label where artists feel at home. Radiohead, Gil Scott-Heron, Vampire Weekend, Bobby Womack, the White Stripes, The xx, MIA, Sigur Rós and many more successful musicians have been associated with XL and its subsidiaries over the years.
Having such acts means XL proves attractive to the next generation of groundbreakers, as the presence of Jai Paul, Shamir, Lapsley (who you can see at this year’s Other Voices) and Jungle on the roster shows.
XL remains a firmly grounded operation. Other labels with Adele-sized success might be tempted to splash the cash with fancy offices, for example, but XL’s set-up in a west London mews is fairly unprepossessing. The label did turn a pokey garage next to the office into a studio but it’s a largely frill-free affair. Instead, the Adele profits were spent on artist development. Unlike many labels, XL does not go mad signing rakes of new acts every year, preferring to concentrate on getting the best out of a small coterie of arrivals.
There have been some mis-steps – Azealia Banks’ time with the label did not end well – but for the most part, XL is a great example of how a new school label should work. Russell and co would argue they’re only doing what any label should, but it’s amazing how rare this artist-led approach is in the record business. Because of this, you certainly wouldn’t bet against the label repeating the Adele success with another act.