There’s a sense of new beginnings at Decca.
Ahead of the storied UK label’s 90th anniversary next year, the Universal-owned firm has shaken up its A&R structure – bringing in BBC Introducing’s Rachel Homberg as Head of A&R, as well as Sam Mumford as A&R Manager.
As part of this reorganisation, Tom Lewis has been promoted to Vice President of Decca, overseeing all artist signing and development activities at the label, under President Rebecca Allen.
The MBW A&R Award-winning Lewis was an instrumental figure in pulling together one of the most successful UK artist album projects in recent years – Ball & Boe’s double-platinum Together, and its platinum-selling follow up, Together Again.
Decca, of course, is well known in the British industry as the master of exactly this kind of wide-appeal, crossover release. Yet, as Lewis explains in our interview, today’s Decca is far broader than this description. And, commercially speaking, it’s getting increasingly comfortable going toe-to-toe with its pop-leaning peers.
Take, for example, the fact that Decca was one of just two major labels to hit No.1 with a UK-signed album in the first 40 weeks of 2018 (Rod Stewart’s Blood Red Shoes). It followed up this achievement in early November with yet another No.1: Andrea Bocelli’s Si, licensed from Italy’s Sugar Music.
There have been more left- eld surprises too, whether it be the signing of YouTube sensation Jacob Collier, its work with dramatic singer/songwriter Aurora (signed to Glassnote in the US), or other successful releases from the likes of Max Richter, Sheku Kanneh- Mason and actor/jazzer Jeff Goldblum.
Tom Lewis’s journey towards this home of diverse sounds began in the north of England – with a classical music-obsessed mum, and a natural early air for musicality…
How, in the grand scheme of things, did you end up in music?
Like a lot of people in this industry, I started life surrounded by music. I grew up in Lancashire, and I’ve got very clear memories of driving to the swimming pool, talking constantly about the music that was on in the car. I quickly started learning piano and trumpet – I was crap at the piano but relatively good at the trumpet – and I played in loads of school bands.
I didn’t have parents who were listening to Dylan, the Stones and the Beatles. My dad was obsessed with Gilbert and Sullivan, while my mum loved classical music – she hosted classical concerts in Liverpool and was a really enthusiastic advocate for music. I was sent away to school and the first records I bought were Status Quo, AC/DC, Queen – great fodder for pre-teenage boys.
When I was about 13 or 14, suddenly I was surrounded by older blokes, these surrogate older brothers with amazing record collections who’d arrived in my life. I was exposed to loads of different music.
“I started learning guitar and getting into acts like The Smiths, Talking Heads, Talk Talk and, because I was a trumpeter, I also started learning a lot about jazz – at which point Miles Davis became a very important hero.”
I started learning guitar and getting into acts like The Smiths, Talking Heads, Talk Talk and, because I was a trumpeter, I also started learning a lot about jazz – at which point Miles Davis (pictured inset) became a very important hero.
I can remember my dad giving me Kind of Blue on cassette, which he bought in Liverpool. at was a bit of a pivotal moment. And, there was a teacher at school, Chris Etherington – nicknamed ‘Pubes’ on account of his fabulous beard! – who ran the jazz band. His enthusiasm for jazz was totally infectious.
I then started getting into jazz-rock fusion – the trumpet plus the guitar, basically – and can still remember buying Bitches Brew in HMV Liverpool, listening to it, and not understanding a note of it. I thought, I just don’t get this.
What I found is that, instead of dismissing it, I wanted to understand why it was considered great. That attitude has informed my approach to music ever since. I ‘cracked’ Bitches Brew after a couple of years, and it has become one of my favourite records of all time.
Tell us about your school years.
I was at boarding school in the Midlands – John Peel had been in our house years before. For some reason ours was the only house where they postponed evening prep so we could watch Top Of The Pops, and that became a really important weekly ritual.
When you walked around that house you’d hear different music everywhere; you’d go into different rooms and learn about Echo and the Bunnymen, or the Beastie Boys, or The Godfathers, or Pink Floyd (pictured inset), or David Bowie – all these things people there were playing.
I spent a long time playing music at school and then was accepted by the University of North Texas (UNT), in Denton, to study jazz. I didn’t quite realise it at the time, but UNT is up there with Berklee as one of the places in America to go and study jazz.
How old were you when you went there?
It was 1991, and I was 18. I started on the jazz fundamentals programme. I was probably the best trumpeter in my school, but the truth is that I turned out to be the worst trumpeter in Texas!
The other [musicians] there were playing for seven hours a day, and if I’d done an hour, I thought I’d done really well. So I soon realised I was never going to be good enough to cut it. Which meant that I immersed myself in listening again.
It was a really exciting time to be in America, the early ‘90s – I can still remember when Nirvana were first on the airwaves, and Pearl Jam coming through. I was getting completely thrown in with an equally excited peer group.
The hallmark of all of this experience of music is that, today, I can be as enthusiastic about a piece of classical music, as I can a piece of esoteric jazz, a piece of super super commercial pop or some intense dance music.
Let’s park that point in your life for a minute. Do you think your musicality plays a role in your approach as an A&R?
I use it every day and I love the fact that I can. It makes for easier communication with producers and mix engineers; I had it yesterday, in fact, when I was like, ‘Verse one, bar two, beat four… you’re late. It’s not syncopated!’
[That background] helps with reference points as well. I’ll be as quick to pull in a piece of Handel as a reference for an Aurora track as I would a piece of dance music. So that broad musical understanding helps inform conversations with the artists and the people around them. It hopefully lends me credibility in those conversations.
When you were in Texas, playing for one hour a day, watching people playing for seven hours a day, did it teach you some kind of deference for artists and the discipline needed to ‘make it’?
If someone absolutely mystifies me or wows me with their music, that’s partly to do with musicality, but actually more often it’s about their level of artistic clarity. at can be absolutely mesmerising.
But I always want to be partners in that A&R equation, and that requires a delicate balance. In A&R, you need to be able to have an open and honest conversation with artists; if you’re too meek or deferential, you’re not best serving them.
“In A&R, you need to be able to have an open and honest conversation with artists.”
I fully understand that [artists] are capable of doing things I could never think or dream of being able to do – I would never want to impose my limited imagination on someone with a greater imagination. But I also have a responsibility to respond in a way that, I hope, will make what they’re creating even better.
The analogy I often use is that every publishing house has an editor; well-executed [A&R] is there to say, ‘I’m not sure you need that sentence,’ or, ‘You haven’t said that as clearly as I know you’re capable of doing.’
How do you forge that trusted relationship with an artist in order to be able to have those difficult conversations?
That’s something which has taken me a long time to work out. The absolute worst position to adopt is one of superiority, because that just breeds defensiveness. In fact, you want a relationship where you have your arms around each other, and you’re forging ahead together.
“I like to think I’m quite honest with our artists, but I never critique for the sake of critiquing – I tend to trust what they’re doing.”
You have to explain [to the artist] the position you’re coming from – which is sometimes about artistry, and sometimes it’s about contextualising something commercially.
I like to think I’m quite honest with our artists, but I never critique for the sake of critiquing – I tend to trust what they’re doing, because they’re the ones creating the language we’ve already bought into by signing them. I want us to amplify that language, not stymie it or dial it down.
Sometimes, this job is standing back and waiting. Patience is a very important thing. In the end, it’s the artist whose work we’re out there representing. If they know ultimately we’re not going to stop them doing what they want to do, they’re more open to the idea of working together.
Back to Texas: what happened next?
I left Texas after a year, as planned, but I can’t say I did brilliantly in my exams. I wasn’t good enough as a trumpeter, full stop. I went back to Bristol University to study psychology in the early ‘90s. And, out of luck rather than design, I arrived in Bristol at the best possible time.
The first Friday I was there, I went to the Thekla for a club night called Steppin’ Out, which was a night built around Blue Note and rare groove, and I immediately knew I was in the right place.
I would visit Revolver Records on almost a daily basis, and buy bagfuls of music. My best friend Justin – who later introduced me to my wife – and I built our collections together. He brought Bob Dylan and Tim Buckley into the equation and I brought Miles Davis and Leonard Cohen. And then there was Radiohead!
I was in three bands during that period, playing jazz and funk, and it was great, but when I left university I thought, Right, time to get a proper job. So I went into recruitment.
That is a long way from A&R…
I’ve got a very clear memory of being on the Number 19 bus on the way back to South London where I lived at the time, thinking, If this is what my life is now going to be from now on, this is grim – I’ve got to follow the dream, I’ve got to get into music.
I did two years in recruitment but then, in my early 20s, I got three months work experience at BMG, within the Conifer [classical] label. Alison Wenham [now WIN CEO] ran it, and she and they were all lovely to me.
I was working in a pub in Highbury Corner, the Hen & Chickens, at night, and doing work experience at BMG during the day, and for the first time I felt completely in control of my own future; I was totally broke, of course, but
totally liberated too.
Off the back of that, I got a job in marketing at EMI Classics, working for a really nice guy called Barry McCann. is was all new to me – I don’t come from a music industry dynasty or anything, my father is an accountant and there are lots of other accountants in the family, so I had no frame of reference.
I did six years [at EMI], starting in domestic marketing and international marketing and towards the end of that period, I actually started working on Blue Note artists, which was a real privilege.
I was there when Norah Jones came through – I can’t pretend to have any real involvement, but I was there. She was a University of North Texas [alumni] too, so I had something to talk to her about!
I got a call from Dickon [Stainer], who was then General Manager of UCJ [Universal Classics & Jazz], and he was looking for someone to come and run the jazz division.
So in 2003, I joined as label manager, working alongside Becky [Allen], Mark [Wilkinson] and the legendary Bill Holland. A few days before I arrived, Dickon had signed Jamie Cullum.
‘The million-pound jazz deal’ as I remember it was referred to in the papers at the time…
Exactly – ‘the David Beckham of jazz’ was another good one [laughs]. Working with Jamie was an incredible experience for me – my entire focus for a while and a very intense learning curve. These other amazing artists began coming through [UCJ] too, like Diana Krall and George Benson; the whole thing was a total privilege.
I did jazz and then moved into what they called ‘commercial marketing’, looking after classics and jazz together, including artists like Andrea Bocelli and Russell Watson, as well as Jamie Cullum.
Within UCJ, we didn’t have an A&R department, and Dickon asked me to start one. We were good at telling stories and being able to engage with the media and the public in a different way to our pop counterparts – so the objective was to try and sign artists which would t in to that [skill set]. The Puppini Sisters, All Angels, The Fron Choir and the Pipes & Drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards all came through that.
The Pipes & Drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards?
That’s actually a favourite project of mine. They had a No.1 in the 1970s with Amazing Grace and my dad loved it – we had a cassette of it in our house which I can vividly remember.
So when I went in and said, why don’t we do another record with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, it was like, why not? It became a personal project. Plus we got bagpipes high up in the charts, which was pretty fun.
Other artists who came through during that time included Imelda May (pictured inset), an incredibly important artist for me, as well as Melody Gardot.
And then UCJ and Decca merged. Dickon initially took the reins of that, and more recently Becky [Allen] was made Decca President and is doing an amazing job. It’s meant we’ve been able to properly focus on Decca, which is such an amazing brand.
If you’d said to the 16-year-old me that one day you’re going to work at Decca Records and you’re going to be responsible for signing artists, curating the roster and going around the world to do so, I would have been totally thrilled.
What is Decca today? You go from Jeff Goldblum to Aurora to classical and crossover music. What’s your identity?
We know what feels right within the DNA of this company. The real aim, strategically, is to try and operate in spaces where other people aren’t – to find music in places other people aren’t looking. at means we can keep surprising people, taking music from the niches into the mainstream.
Don’t think we have low commercial aspirations for our artists because of that – we want to take our artists and spread them around the world; for them to become the biggest and best manifestation of themselves that they can be.
Sometimes there are physical retail-led artists who appeal to an older audience where people would say, ‘Yep that’s Decca.’
But equally we’re involved with artists who are really pushing boundaries, like Max Richter, Aurora, Olafur Arnalds or Sheku, who are telling stories in a different way, taking us beyond repertoire that appeals to the same mainstream, blockbuster audience.
If your back catalogue includes Leonard Bernstein or Alice Coltrane, as ours does via our work with Verve, it keeps you open to some real esoteric repertoire. We can be broader and more adventurous than some people might think.
Aurora, for example, walked in here and she was so captivating, so compelling, a visionary, we knew we had to work with her. And then you look at Jacob Collier; he was billed as this jazz wunderkind, he was fiercely independent, with Quincy Jones as a manager. Jacob’s done a global one man tour which integrates tech and music in the most mesmerising way.
I’d been pursuing him for some time, because I think he’s an absolute, 100% genius. He makes you think, How on earth can you do that? We’ve got a partnership with [US-based UMG label] Ge en on him, and we’re so excited. He’s releasing four albums in the space of a year, from choral right through to soul/funk, with a host of incredible people involved.
Have you made mistakes in your signings? What have you learnt from them?
Where we come unstuck is whenever we’ve found ourselves at the back of a very long queue to sign things. We quickly realise that we’re not using our muscle memory to sign and work with those acts, we’re actually trying to learn from the muscle memory of our excellent pop counterparts. That’s not the Decca way.
How is Decca repertoire being treated by the leading streaming platforms?
Bringing some of our audience onto the streaming platforms is our first challenge – there’s a lot of our current audience that aren’t on the streaming services just yet. We’ve also got to make increasingly compelling cases to our streaming partners about our music – showing them that there is a huge appetite for the repertoire that we’re putting out there.
There are places in the streaming ecosystem, musically, that are fascinating, which we can go and explore. You can get yourself wrapped up in genre descriptions, but look at what’s broadly called the neoclassical space; [Decca imprint] Mercury KX is going after that space. Jacob feels very ‘streaming’, as does Aurora, and our back catalogue has some of the best records ever recorded.
“The real challenge is how we move our blockbuster artists into the streaming space, because that asks for different consumption behaviour.”
The real challenge is how we move our blockbuster artists into the streaming space, because that asks for different consumption behaviour. Andrea Bocelli has proven there’s a real appetite for people to stream his music. You can also look at Einaudi, who’s built a whole genre within streaming, or e Lumineers, who also do fantastically well.
All of that teaches us to think carefully about repertoire. Can we continue to record the same things that we perhaps have been recording the past, or do we need to be a bit more adventurous?
When every single version of every single song is out on streaming services already, does another version need to be made? Or is it better to and a brand new song which can draw people? at’s going to be an ongoing conversation as we move forward.
What is Rebecca Allen like as a boss?
I’ve known and worked with Becky for 15 years, ever since I started at this company – she was running the media team [at UCJ] when I was running jazz.
She’s incredibly smart, and incredibly passionate and enthusiastic. We always have a joke that our music tastes complement each other, which is really true. We’ve become really good friends and we work very closely together.
I love working with her and there are things I’ve learned from her, really recently, that have opened my eyes as to how one can operate. She’s incredibly supportive of her team, she cares deeply about us – and you can tell that.
Plus she has this extraordinary instinct, which helps her make strong decisions. If I’m honest, I’m naturally a bit of an over-thinker, so it’s really refreshing and fascinating to work with someone who has that approach.
Decca has sometimes over-performed in terms of UK market-share. Do you watch that closely, or is it just a nice boost when it happens?
I mean, we’re very proud of it. I remember the first time that I saw the [UK] market share figures and Decca was inside the Top 10 of all the labels. That was pretty amazing.
We are perhaps naturally self- deprecating here, but sometimes we shouldn’t be; it’s important to maintain our pride – especially when we think about our heritage and our 90th anniversary next year.
We absolutely have a determination to stay the No.1 classical and jazz label. In addition, we must also look after those genres which sit outside the mainstream pop business – we’ve recently become the No.1 country label in the UK, for example. If we do that, the overall market share will take care of itself.
Decca turns 90 next year – which is one heck of an anniversary. Are big celebrations planned?
Absolutely. It’s an incredible story. [Decca founder] Edward Lewis built Decca from virtually nothing to, at one point, the second biggest label in the world.
Think of the artists that have been signed through Decca – from e Stones to David Bowie, Cat Stevens, The Moody Blues, Procol Harum, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Luciano Pavarotti, Sir Georg Solti. Across the the board, it’s an incredible roll call of excellence.
“We want to be very successful, but we also want to be the most interesting record label in the world.”
That lineage gives us an enormous amount of confidence about how adventurous we can be here. We’re emboldened by it. It feels like we’re in pioneer territory right now because of the changes the industry’s going through. So we need to take risks, be brave, and remain con dent.
We want to be very successful, but we also want to be the most interesting record label in the world.
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