Friday, 12 September 2008

Knowing your Elbow from your arse – a small lesson in artist development

Heartfelt congratulations to Elbow on taking the Mercury prize last week. I predicted it (i really did, ask my wife or hairdresser!) and was rooting for them (my very first choice would have been Merz, but he wasn’t nominated so never mind).

I say heartfelt ‘cos i really mean it. I love Elbow. Absolutely adore them. And i’m delighted to see a band reach a new career high (and maybe, just maybe, a breakthrough into the mainstream for a while) after 18 years on the slow burner.

I have a history with this band. I bought their first album Asleep In The Back when it came out in 2001, on the back of good reviews. It didn’t work for me so, i passed it on to a friend and forgot about Elbow. What brought me back to them four years on, was a strong recommendation from Eamonn Forde (friend, music writer & general man of impeccable music tastes) to try Leaders Of The Free World. I duly did, and liked it a lot – enough to buy tickets to see the band play at The Astoria. And that was that - hooked for life. From the moment the singer ambled on to the stage with nothing less than a Styrofoam cup (tea, coffee?) in hand, you could tell something was different about them. They played an absolute stormer that night. I remember saying to my friend afterward that they really should be playing stadiums along with Coldplay (if it wasn’t for the way they looked perhaps, as well as having a more complex, edgier repertoire). After that it was back to the second album Cast Of Thousands – very good (with the track “Switching Off” literally one of the most breathtaking pop ballads i’ve ever heard).

It was after that show, shortly after the release of “Leaders”, i was curious as to Elbow’s commercial curve and pulled their album sales from the UK Chart. Not a good picture at all. Steadily downward from album one in fact, despite a clear artistic improvement and consistently high critical response (see the chart courtesy of the UK Chart Co. and
The band were in that classic space so many bands have been before – getting better and better but selling less and less – in the hole basically. And when in the hole, it’s hard for band, manager or label (if the label still cares) to see a way out. Any cold hard (and blind) analysis by a label accountant would suggest one solution: DROP. Beyond such a myopic view, one can only look forward and hope something breaks for a band in that position. Whether it be getting a song in an ad or TV show, an endorsement from a DJ – whatever – but something.

That something for Elbow seems to me to be their new label. And here is where the business of the labels is so much maligned and under-appreciated – artist development. I know from speaking with the people involved that Fiction worked hard to get Elbow out of its deal with V2 and on to Fiction, for almost a year. Ironically in the end, Universal, which owns Fiction, bought V2 wholly and so could have signed the band by default. That deal does now mean of course that Universal now has Elbow’s catalogue, which suddenly looks like a very shrewd move.

So what happened differently for Elbow under Fiction?

It wasn’t the music. The band worked on the Seldom Seen Kid album (2 years in the making) entirely on their own – both recording and producing. However, from the moment the band signed with Fiction, what they now had was the unwavering support of that label’s founder Jim Chancellor, who believed in the band fully and dedicated the label efforts to getting Elbow’s music to the wider audience it deserved.

The other major difference for Elbow this time around was marketing power (maybe promotional clout is more accurate). Seeing giant posters all over London and full page newspaper ads for the Seldom Seen Kid was a surprise if a delightful one.

The band has worked hard as well. Elbow effectively toured the album continuously with a UK tour on release and appearances on the festival circuit throughout the summer (including one very special night during Massive Attack’s Meltdown, an unusual one off show at Delamere Forest and most significantly, a show-stealing sundown set at Glastonbury). Another round of shows starts with 3 nights at The Roundhouse next month.

But the critical thing is how varied and sustained the campaign around the album has been. In Jim Chancellor’s words the campaign was designed not just to promote the album but to “grow the record over six to 12 months”. A campaign of well chosen media placements (anyone interested in the inspiring music behind the BBC Olympics coverage would have discovered the song “One Day Like This” an SSK highlight) has culminated in the shot-in-the-arm Mercury nomination – with the band doing the rest.

All of which adds up to two insights of value to the business and those who observe and commentate upon it. First, the band would not have achieved this on its own. No way. We sadly don’t live in a world where good music rises miraculously to the top on its own merits - it needs the work.

Second, artist development drives how the business works. Belief in the best artist projects is often – as in this case - contrary to hard metrics or measures. However, a belief-driven campaign for an album like this one also works at its best when there exists a creative and cultural context (the alternative being blind belief which is plain foolhardy).

In Elbow’s case the context was all there: a very good and improving songwriting band; a brilliant (but grounded) frontman - a true auteur indeed; a very good song catalogue; a loyal if small, core following and a consistently brilliant live repertoire.

Most of all, perhaps, a band making sophisticated, emotive music with a very strong potential to connect. A band craving a wider audience if ever there was one. In the opening track on The Seldom Seen Kid, the wonderful “Starlings”, Guy Garvey sings the line:

“I guess this means i’m asking you to back a horse that’s good for glue, if nothing else”.

In backing Elbow it suddenly looks like this horse will be good for much more than glue. Glance back at the chart to see the effect post 1 week on from the Mercury's, with unit sales of 20k taking SSK to sales of 153k - now easily the bands best-selling record and back in the album charts at number 7 this week (from 61 last week). On the way to Platinum? Just maybe.

Footnote: If Guy Garvey writes a more entertaining line than “Charging around with a juggernaut brow”* I might have to change the title of this blog.

*The line is from the track “The Bones of You” from The seldom Seen Kid and is a song about looking five years back from a stressed life “cramming commitments like cats in a sack” to a more carefree time when one could oversleep to the point only when the head of your sleeping partner starts to deaden the feeling in your arm. As poetry in song it’s simply divine – there is no better lyricist in pop right now than Garvey.

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