STARRY NIGHT

The tiny British record label that signed Adele and Radiohead works more like an art gallery

XL Recordings barely releases six albums a year. Yet the modest output of the small, London-based independent record label—which has snagged artists like Adele, Vampire Weekend, Radiohead, The xx, M.I.A., and Sigur Rós—is also its biggest strength.

Owned by music veteran Richard Russell, XL rejects the industry norm of seeking out artists with superstar potential and then aiming to churn out a series of viral hits. (Adele, who signed with the label when she was 18 and went on to become an incredibly successful pop sensation, is the odd exception to this.) Instead, XL tries to find artists who, above all, have “uncompromising vision.” Russell described his philosophy in a New Yorker profile (paywall) this week, explaining why he prefers to take a backseat to artists’ ideas:

[I am] not talking about dysfunctionality. I’m talking about someone who is intensely functional. When you have that vision, you’re unlikely to waste time, because you’re ruling everything out before it’s even a discussion.

With that unique attitude, Russell has built up a particular reputation and respect amongst artists. In 2008, Thom Yorke of Radiohead decided to release his first solo album through XL because he found it a “very mellow” label with “no corporate ethic.” M.I.A. has said she loves that what matters is “the urgency of creating a new sound and what that made you feel, not craftsmanship.” Frank Ocean, who snubbed his former label Def Jam for not giving him enough creative control, took his CD and vinyl releases of Blonde to XL; Def Jam had reportedly dismissed Ocean’s artistic vision and preferred to promote pop stars like Justin Bieber.

As noted by the New Yorker’s Matthew Trammell, XL operates not so much like a record label as an art gallery—curating genuine talent that already exists, and investing in long-term value.

It’s a complete 180 from the philosophy of most record labels, which seek specifically to produce chart-dominating hits, or from the mechanical operations of something like the global K-pop industry. In music, as with many other industries, there are many ways to game the system to maximize profit, but Russell’s XL label proves there is also inimitable value—and perhaps a more satisfying payoff—to staying thoughtful, slow, and small.


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