XL Records/Richard Russell: Profile

Richard Smirke/ Billboard  06/17/11
The Ladbroke Grove, London, headquarters of the independent XL Recordings stands out. Its outer walls are covered in the ominous swirling black and white cover art of “The Eraser,” the solo debut of Radiohead singer Thom Yorke, which hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in August 2006. The otherwise nondescript building can’t fail to catch the eye.Inside a cluttered reception room, posters for releases from the White Stripes, M.I.A., Vampire Weekend, Radiohead, the Prodigy, Dizzee Rascal and Odd Future member Tyler, the Creator jam the wall space. A giant image of Adele stands directly opposite a rather rickety front door. A pile of unopened gold discs rest on a sofa, awaiting shipment to the company’s recently opened Los Angeles office. Corporate, staid and business-like XL is most definitely not.

The same could also be said about Richard Russell, a former DJ, DIY club promoter and electronic dance artist, who had a U.K. top 10 hit in 1992 as electronic dance duo Kicks Like a Mule. Russell has more than 9,000 Twitter followers (@richardXL), a British twist on a Notorious B.I.G. lyric (“It was all a dream/I used to read Smash Hits magazine”) as his tag and regularly posts everything from self-produced mixtapes to his reflections on the music biz. He co-founded XL in 1989.

“I don’t see myself as a businessman,” says Russell, 40. “I don’t think like that, and I never have.”

It’s a sunny June day, and he’s relaxing is his spacious but modestly decorated loft office, where handwritten release schedules and retro club fliers pepper the walls and a set of decks with two turntables stands by the door. At the far side of the room, an extensive collection of CDs and books fills every available inch of shelf space. “I think,” he says, completing a thought, “that’s what makes it work.”

XL was launched as an exclusively electronic and rave imprint by Russell, Tim Palmer and Nick Halkes. They were all active as promoters, DJs and bedroom producers in London’s then-thriving dance scene. XL was birthed as a subsidiary of British indie Beggars Banquet Records (now Beggars Group).

Working out of a cramped windowless basement in Beggars’ Wandsworth, London, offices, the three-man team quickly established XL as one of the core labels in the United Kingdom’s dance underground, dropping a steady stream of popular vinyl-only releases, such as “We Want Funk” by 2 in Rhythm and Flowmasters’ “Let It Take Control,” which the trio would often play during their own club sets.

“We were looking to put out music that your audience as a DJ would like. You could test it very easily. You couldn’t go wrong, really,” Russell says. U.K. electronic act the Prodigy gave XL its first taste of commercial success when the band’s hardcore rave single “Charly” broke the U.K. top five in 1991. Its debut album, “Experience,” released the following year, peaked at No. 12.

At around the same time, Russell and Hawkes were enjoying chart success of their own as Kicks Like a Mule, which scored a 1992 top 10 U.K. hit with an uptempo track called “The Bouncer” (Tribal Base). The duo was subsequently signed to Warner-owned London Records but was dropped before releasing an album-an experience Russell says helped shaped his ethos.

“I didn’t have hard feelings toward [London Records] for what happened,” says Russell, who continues to spend a lot of time working in the studio. “But it didn’t work. So I’ve seen it not working out for artists. The parameters of a small label, they work well for me.”

XL may be a “small label” in structure-staff in its London office number about 20, and XL’s 2011 release schedule boasts just seven albums-but its accomplishments are epic in scale. Adele’s second album, “21,” has hit No. 1 in 15 countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany, and has spent 10 nonconsecutive weeks atop the Billboard 200, selling 2.1 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It’s already tipped to win big at next year’s Grammy Awards and has sold more than 7.5 million units worldwide, according to XL.

The album’s first single, “Rolling in the Deep,” has moved 3.5 million downloads and spent six weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100-the longest-reigning chart-topper sung by a woman and to have appeared in the top 15 of a Billboard rock chart since Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” more than 29 years ago.

Adele’s 2008 studio debut, “19,” which has propped up “21” in nearly every major market, has meanwhile moved 3.5 million units worldwide to date, the label says. U.S. sales for “19” stand at 1.2 million, according to SoundScan. Even still: XL’s story isn’t all about Adele.

Vampire Weekend also scored a major worldwide smash with its 2010 album, “Contra,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and has moved 1 million units. “The Goblin,” by Tyler, the Creator, has made less of an impression saleswise but has still moved 120,000 units-a respectable figure for an underground hip-hop record from a controversial, non-mainstream artist. And XL’s biggest-selling album to date is the Prodigy’s 1997 studio set, “The Fat of the Land,” which has moved 9 million units worldwide, according to XL.

“I want everything XL does to be meaningful. For it to be like that, I have put a constant downward pressure on the amount of stuff that we do. That creates a lot of focus,” Russell says.

He assumed sole leadership of the label in 1994 when Palmer retired from the music business. (Halkes left XL a year earlier to set up EMI-owned dance imprint Positiva.) Russell’s subsequent diversification of the label’s roster to include rock, folk, hip-hop and soul artists, alongside electronic acts, boosted not just its profile but also its coffers-the White Stripes’ 2003 set, “Elephant,” has sold 825,000 copies in the United Kingdom, according to the Official Charts Co.

Other key non-electronic releases since the turn of the century include the 2000 Mercury Prize-winning “The Hour of Bewilderbeast” by Badly Drawn Boy (455,000 U.K. copies, according to the OCC) and Dizzee Rascal’s “Boy in Da Corner” (260,000; 400,000 worldwide, according to XL). Rascal’s album won the 2003 Mercury Prize and is credited with kick-starting the U.K. rap and grime and urban scene, which has since catapulted Tinie Tempah and Taio Cruz to superstar status.

The label is able to operate on a global scale because it exists under the umbrella of a larger independent organization: London-based Beggars Group, which in addition to XL houses indie labels 4AD, Rough Trade and Matador. Alongside providing such vital back-end operations as accounts, legal, production, licensing, sales and distribution, Beggars’ international network of offices ensures that a company like XL can orchestrate a successful worldwide campaign.

“XL provides the A&R, product management, creation of video and artwork, and then Beggars provides the back end: all the vitally important mechanics of releasing records into the world,” says Ben Beardsworth, London-based managing director of XL Recordings, which is jointly owned by Russell and Beggars Group chairman Martin Mills.

“The join between the two companies is virtually seamless,” adds Beardsworth, who cites the early planning of globally focused campaigns between the two, which often commence long before the mastering and delivery stage of a record, as a key factor behind the company’s success. “It’s this degree of focus that has helped us to sell 5 million Adele albums outside of the U.S. in the first five months of [the new album’s] release,” he says. “But also that enables us to do significant worldwide business with our more underground acts.”

Beardsworth cites U.K. indie act the xx, which has sold more than 1 million units of its 2010 Mercury Prize-winning debut, “xx” (Young Turks/XL), as a prime example of a tightly planned, slow-burning campaign for an alternative act, which utilizes every element of the XL/Beggars international setup. Adele’s current globe-straddling success, meanwhile, exists on an entirely higher plain altogether.

Like the singer’s Grammy-nominated debut “19,” “21” was licensed to Columbia/Sony for U.S. release-a decision made at the artist’s bequest, according to XL, which handled the record for the rest of the world. The starting point for the campaign came two months ahead of release in November 2010 with a live TV performance on U.K. show “Later . . . With Jools Holland,” where the singer performed a standout rendition of album track “Someone Like You.” Roughly 500,000 people watched the performance, Beardsworth estimates, but he says that more than 20 times that number subsequently watched it online.

“That was the acorn that everything grew from,” he says. “And the person who [made] that performance happen, the choice of song and the timing of it, was Adele.”

In the United States, spots on “Late Show With David Letterman” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” followed, generating massive online buzz, says Kris Chen, New York-based VP of A&R at XL. He credits Columbia with doing a “fantastic job” of placing Adele on the right promotional platforms.

“With a small number of releases, every campaign is geared toward that artist, that record,” Russell says. “You’re creating a new mold every time, which takes time and thought, and if you’re doing it well, is an artistic endeavor in itself. If people are looking for clues as to how the label is able to consistently deliver good results . . . that’s the reason.”

In addition to maintaining a small number of releases, XL limits label signings to approximately one per year, with the most recent being the hotly tipped London-based electronic artist Jai Paul. “I’m disciplined in not getting involved in a lot of stuff,” Russell says. “I’m disciplined in saying ‘no’ to a lot of things, some of which I like. But . . . it’s important to not do too much.

“You see it with labels where when they do well, it’s the easiest thing in the world to say ‘yes’ to stuff. That’s not what we’re here to do,” Russell says. “XL spends as much as any major on the records it does and . . . sometimes spends more. But we’re not putting out that many records, so it’s easy to do that.

“These are the most basic economics imaginable. Logic is the boss. With every one of these records, it’s kind of obvious what we need to do, and if the artist has interesting ideas . . . you need to explore them. But you can’t buy the love and attention. You have to get that with the music, and then the ideas.”

According to Russell, the common characteristic that unites all XL artists is “a super-instinctive level of knowing exactly what it is that you’re meant to be doing. If there’s any definition of the type of artist I like working with, it’s an artist who will do well without us.”

XL’s A&R staff is robust and tuned in, but Russell dismisses the idea that they’re doing anything different from other indie labels-or majors-to discover artists. He maintains that XL is simply selective about the people it chooses to work with, and then gives them free rein to achieve their vision. If that sounds like a utopian setup, then it’s one that evidently appeals to musicians. The line to sign Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator was long-but XL won his signature. How?

“The right kind of artist for us to work with can detect that we’re the right label for them to work with,” Russell says. “Tyler is someone who has done it his way with no compromise or dilution: I like guys like that.” Nonetheless, some serious legwork was required to sign one of the world’s most buzzed-about rappers, with XL making repeated trips to Odd Future’s L.A. studio before bringing the group to London and setting up its first U.K. shows. The label landed a worldwide one-album deal for Tyler’s highly sought-after “Goblin.”

“We’re an artist-led label because we’re an artist-run label,” Russell says, claiming to regularly turn down projects with proven commercial appeal because they don’t align with XL’s interests or artistic motivations. “Record companies are not who I look to for inspiration for how this record company should be run. I look to artists for that inspiration.”

And he’s not looking to expand in the wake of Adele’s global success.

“I’d like to take it smaller,” Russell says with a smile. “I want to be involved in making good records and have as little baggage as possible around that. That’s the driving force behind XL and that’s not best-served by having some massive fucking business that you’ve got to think about all the time.

“I’m a big believer in the power of saying ‘no’ to things,” he adds. “The brutal truth is that record labels sign a lot of stuff because they’re frightened that they don’t really know what they’re doing and they’re frightened that if they don’t do it, someone else will, and do well with it.

“I’m happy for other people to do well with things. Because there are a very small number of things, which on the basis of mainly instinct, we think are right for us to do.”

Russell says there’s a thread that runs from the Prodigy’s Liam Howlett to Jack White to Gil Scott-Heron to Adele, which has to do with “originality and people having a desire to do things their own way really well. We’re geared toward being able to facilitate that.”

For all the talk of artistry and creativity, Russell falls back on one of the most hardcore music-biz legends for his own motivation. “One of my favorite quotes about how to deal with all this stuff,” he says, “comes from [Motown founder] Berry Gordy, who said, ‘I was only the boss in name. Logic was in charge.’ ”

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