Creative integrity is the backbone of the true artist. A product of diversity’s celebration, the artist’s offbeat heart makes rhythm out of the otherwise dreary pulse of society. XL Recordings is an independent record label which fully comprehends the cultural value of the musical artist. This awareness is partly what makes XL’s artists so enduring; it is what sets them apart from the featherless chickens with chemically enlarged breasts spawned for efficiency by much of the modern food industry and major labels alike. As major music corporations struggle with enormous profit loss, XL Recordings has never been stronger – evidence that when creative artists combine with creative businessmen/music-lovers and market themselves in a world no longer entirely ruled by powerful gatekeepers, creative integrity can pay off.
XL Recordings is no stranger to the online frontier which has liberated us from much of the necessity for gatekeepers. The last remaining co-founder, Richard Russell, emphasizes the importance of keeping an open mind towards new technologies. “Today,” he says, “it’s so easy to establish a reputation and build an audience.” In the beginning of XL, however, the internet was not nearly as powerful a tool as it is today. XL Recordings began in the UK in 1989 with the emerging paths of Tim Palmer and Nick Halkes, and soon joined Richard Russell. They had connections to CityBeat Recordings, and XL was intended to be their ‘minor-league team,’ digging through the sandbox to discover and nurture the less-accessible, yet still valuable artist. Originality would soon be rewarded. Like most of today’s healthy indies, XL Recordings is rooted in a strong passion for music – starting with rave music.
Russell strolled into the music industry as a producer of rave and UK hip-hop records, as well as a club and pirate radio DJ. Palmer ran London’s Groove Records store. In 1989, when flamboyant hair metal cheese was turning sour in the stomachs of Americans and Europeans, electronic music was on the rise, and underground music scenes were boiling. XL found its first home in the Acid House scene, incorporating the rebellion and DIY attitude of punk and early hip-hop. According to XL, “the scene was about home recording, white label record releases, pirate radio and illegal raves.” This DIY knowhow and street-savvy upbringing has kept them signing classic artists and cutting successful profits for over twenty years.
XL Recordings were first put on the map as a contender in the global music market when they released the music of Liam Howlet, aka “The Prodigy.” He immediately caused a buzz, and by 1997, his “The Fat of the Land” LP charted number one in 26 countries. On the UK charts, it was preceded by Radiohead’s “OK Computer”; a decade later, Radiohead would choose none other than XL Recordings to release the physical version of “In Rainbows,” which soared to the number one spot worldwide, despite being made available for free online. Other culture-bending artists from the XL roster have included British hip-hop master Dizzee Rascall, fresh female rapper MIA (who Time magazine included in its 2009 list of the world’s 100 most influential people), as well as the epic post-rock group Sigur Ros, The White Stripes, indie-rockers Vampire Weekend, freak-folker Devendra Banhart, and modern singer-songwriter Adele.
They’ve obviously kept from sinking into the “British dance label” pigeonhole, and with good reason. Like many indie labels, XL Recordings penetrated the market by filling a void in the industry. But from there they spread into new stylistic territory, allowing them to expand. As Russell puts it, “no one likes to be stereotyped as one thing.” Their trendsetting A&R department is as diverse as their artists, involving a broad range of age and expertise; these intuitive ears have made XL’s refreshingly varied roster possible. Rather than limiting opportunity on the basis of genre, XL chooses their artists on the grounds of quality, originality, and a sense of longevity. They also search for something which goes beyond the music entirely: cultural vision. Russell seeks “people who potentially have a vision socially, who have something to say. [Artists] which maybe can even change things and can affect culture.” The combining factor for XL artists is not their specific tastes, but the strength of their tastes. Perhaps this all-encompassing attitude is a novel strategy in this diverse world united by internet. It has surely worked for XL Recordings.
You’d think that without the self-induced stylistic limitations obeyed by most independent record labels, XL Recordings would be signing more artists than a California doctor signs medicinal marijuana prescriptions. This is not the case. Another quality that sets XL apart from many of their fellow indies is their sheer exclusivity. They try to avoid taking on more than a single new project a year, and they only release a handful of albums annually. In the old industrialist debate of quality vs. quantity, quality thankfully emerges victorious for XL Recordings. With fewer products to juggle, the label has more to offer for each artist: more money, more time, stronger marketing strategies, and of course the pride of being on an elite creative label. XL is also able to put more care into the contracts set forth for their musicians. Different deals are molded for different artists – Richard Russell describes it as a “tailor-made suit.” He explains that a low-key group like The XX should rightfully have different approaches and expectations than a go-getting poppy singer like Adele. On top of all of that, XL’s extraordinarily high success rate with the few artists to which they’re dedicated means the company is leaner and more agile when it comes to adapting to new technologies and business practices.
The only disadvantage to being an artist on a successful record label that competes with major label artists and provides them with an abundance of money and care, is that they must be prepared to give up some of their artistic control…Actually, they can keep that too. XL Recordings recognizes that no one knows how to market artists better than the artists themselves. Many of the groups produce and release their own material. In fact, their London office contains a humble studio which is rented to bands on the label for free, ensuring that artists are constantly stopping by, and strengthening the communal relationship that the label is deservingly proud of. The company also avoids stepping on artists’ toes when it comes to their visual image. Both the XL artists and employees are encouraged to use their creativity in multiple realms, and this merging of minds continuously breathes life into the XL Recordings offices.
XL Recordings thrives by signing original acts with longevity and respecting their art enough to allow them to create freely without the uninspiring interference from men in suits with dollar signs in their eyes. This line drawn between art and business is culturally significant, of which they are fully aware. Major labels could learn from this independent label with the power to penetrate the major market; their excitement for true originality, their eagerness toward diversity, their embracement of technology, and their desire to impact culture with pure, untainted creativity are all key to their success. But, as XL Recordings owner Russell warns, when you do things with creative integrity you must be patient. “You’ve got to bend culture around you.” And that’s exactly what they are in the process of doing.
interview with the head of A&R