I will never forget the day my friend queued up “Latch,” that inescapable Disclosure tune from a couple years back. I couldn’t believe the voice on this Sam Smith character.
Sam Smith is of course an international superstar now. I’ll never forget that first blush, though. He was the best vocalist I’d heard since Whitney, and I watched his YouTube videos non-stop. I’d become very cynical about pop music; too many Regina Spector-voiced electro bands, too much country-pop crossover.
Sam Smith rescued me that day. No hyperbole. Turns out “I’m Not the Only One.”
Capitol Records held its annual conference last Wednesday at the legendary ArcLight Theater. The biggest takeaway from the event: Sam Smith is the label’s shining star. He was featured in montages. There was room-shaking applause whenever his name was mentioned.
The day started early. Brand new Late Late Show host James Corden warmed everyone up with a bit featuring some gentle ribbing. Something to the effect of “This is why we all started working in the music industry. Nothing more rock and roll than a 9:30am conference in a theater.”
One thing that really wasn’t rock and roll was Capitol’s rollout of the Beastie Boy’s most lauded album, “Paul’s Boutique”. Former BBC DJ Zane Lowe hosted a talk with the group—preceded by a montage honoring deceased member Adam Yauch—about their move to L.A. in the late 80s and the album’s lukewarm reception.
Guitarist and MC Ad-Rock pulled no punches during the often-hilarious interview. “When the record came out, it was crickets,” he said. “Like I went to Tower Records and they didn’t even have it.”
He said the label did little to promote the album after fans didn’t jibe with the first single, and that Capitol’s president famously told the band “You’ll get em next time…We’re really focused on the Donny Osmond record right now.”
“Paul’s Boutique” eventually went platinum and is recognized as one of the most forward thinking albums in history. The talk crystalized what folks at the conference know at their core: it’s nearly impossible to know what the public is going to like.
There are weights and measures, of course. Social media has done a reliable job of separating the hots from the nots, but there are huge genre and generational limitations. The metrics really only apply to younger acts in a couple of lanes—saccharine pop, hip-hop and electronic.
20 year-old electro-pop sensation Halsey has Capitol high on its own supply. She’s generating massive Twitter impressions, and the label couldn’t stop gushing. “The kids love Halsey,” mused one higher up.
Young South-African born actor-singer Troye Sivan built his career in large part on YouTube. He flexed serious muscle during an affable interview, Instagramming a photo of himself from the stage. Folks literally ooh’ed and ahh’d as an armada of likes and comments poured in.
It was impressive. Very impressive, even. Over on the country side of things, though, the label’s footing is far less certain.
Mike Dungan, head of UMG Nashville, a Capitol subsidiary, gave a caustic presentation on the label’s bigger artists. He said the year had been difficult overall, including a controversy surrounding Little Big Town’s hit song “Girl Crush”, which featured lyrics some thought referenced same-sex kissing (they didn’t).
Dungan pointed out that country only accounts for four percent of total streams. Young people are far more likely to stream music. Older, album-buying customers will literally die off.
There’s still Sam Smith! And Katy Perry! And Taylor Swift! Those exclamation points aren’t sarcastic; these three artists are keeping Capitol afloat, and good for everyone involved. The industry changes so fast, and having anchors like these allows the label to push acts with less-obvious appeal but genuine talent.
They also make fairly-hip innovation possible. Blue Note Records President Don Was delivered what was both the most optimistic and the most detail-oriented speech on the state of his label.
Quick primer: Blue Note is a legendary jazz label that put out all of your parent’s favorite records.
Quick primer #2: Jazz records don’t sell. At all. Only really bad ones do respectable numbers.
Was pointed to huge successes the label has had releasing speakers, headphones and sneakers, moves he says equate to hundreds of thousands of equivalent-album sales. No other label under the Capitol umbrella has as much built-in cool, and everything about this kind of cross branding works.
Those speakers look cool as hell. I want some. Real bad.
Blue Note is the future of music business. Tons of smart people have written about how most of the money for musicians has shifted away from albums to licensing. One Toyota campaign can pay for an entire studio, or tour, or a fine pair of studded leather pants.
Labels will very soon operate on the same model, as will newspapers and any other market that’s been seriously upended by the Internet. Many already are. Branding and other revenue streams not directly related to producing art or journalism will subsidize quality content.
Honestly, I’m super late on that revelation, and it’s been written about before, but Capitol’s meeting really brought this into laser focus.
A gala celebration for nearly 1,000 guests at the Capitol Tower took place later that evening. The Third Annual Capitol Congress was presented by Citi, who also supported the festivities by bringing attendees an exclusive photo exhibition of seminal music moments in Capitol’s nearly 75-year history. Other partners included DTS Inc., which provided sound equipment for Congress attendees, and Boulevard Brewery, which provided beverages for all guests.[slideshow]
The full list of artists, speakers and presenters during Capitol Music Group’s Third Annual Capitol Congress were (in order of appearance): Actor and host of The Late Late Show with James Corden, James Corden; UniversalMusic Group (UMG) Chairman & CEO Lucian Grainge; Capitol Music Group (CMG) Chairman & CEO Steve Barnett;Capitol Records Senior Vice President of A&R Mike Flynn; CMG Senior Vice President of Marketing Mitra Darab; artist Tori Kelly; Motown Records President Ethiopia Habtemariam; Quality Control Music CEO Pierre “Pee” Thomas and COO Kevin “Coach K” Lee; CMG Chief Operating Officer, Michelle Jubelirer; Universal MusicPublishing Group Chairman & CEO Jody Gerson; Harvest Records General Managers Piero Giramonti and Jacqueline Saturn; Capitol Christian Music Group CEO Bill Hearn; President of Capitol Records UK Nick Raphael; Virgin Records General Manager Ashley Burns; artists Bastille; CMG Executive Vice President Scott Greer, artists Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz (Beastie Boys); Apple Music‘s Beats 1 host Zane Lowe; Chairman & CEO of UMG Nashville Mike Dungan; seventeenfifty’s Senior Vice President Kate Denton; Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti; CMG Executive Vice President Greg Thompson; CMG Chief Financial Officer Geoff Harris; UMG Executive Vice President of U.S. Recorded Music Michele Anthony; UMG Senior Vice President of Global Streaming Jay Frank; I.R.S. Nashville President John Grady; Lefsetz Letter publisher and writer Bob Lefsetz; Astralwerks General Manager Glenn Mendlinger; iHeartMedia Chairman & CEO Bob Pittman; iHeartMedia Senior Vice President, Programming, John Ivey; Caroline President Dominic Pandiscia; Caroline General Manager Mike Harris; Blue Note Records President Don Was; artists Disclosure (Howard Lawrence and Guy Lawrence); KCRW’s Jason Bentley; artist Troye Sivan; Mashable Senior Music Reporter Brian Hernandez; artist Don Henley.