One of the hardest things Darcus Beese ever had to do was sit through Amy, the 2015 documentary about the life and death of singer Amy Winehouse. As Winehouse’s boss at Island Records, Beese had been friend and and mentor to the young singer. When she drank herself to death at age 27, he was devastated.
“It was a story that had to be told,” he says. “The audience saw a side of Amy people on the inside saw. Watching the final cut was very raw, very emotional. But I’m glad the story has been shared.”
Beese, a keynote speaker at the inaugural Music Cork record industry seminar in May, recognised Winehouse’s talent the first time he saw her perform. He didn’t necessarily think she would become a superstar. Was the world really interested in a jazz singer with beehive hair from Camden?
“As much as you believe something is amazing you’ve got to convince more than the people in your immediate surroundings,” says Beese, seated at his desk at Island’s Kensington, London HQ. “You have to, with the help of your team, convince the rest of the world. To think that I knew full-well a girl from Camden singing jazz was going to sell 15 or 20 million records… that’s all b***ocks.”
Beese has been at Island over 20 years, working up from teaboy to label president. In the 1990s, he shepherded into the spotlight artists such as Taio Cruz and Sugababes and was instrumental in signing Winehouse.
Since assuming leadership of the label, part of the Universal Music empire, he has welcomed to Island chart-toppers Mumford and Sons, Florence and the Machine and Hozier. What he’s learned is that there is no such thing as a sure bet in pop. Every success is a surprise.
“Take Mumford,” he says. “My lot said, ‘This band are incredible’. I went to see them… and thought they were good. It wasn’t like they were world beaters. I remember their manager coming up to see me, going ‘This band is going to be the biggest in the world’. When I don’t see something, all I can do is believe in my squad’s passion and back it 100%.”
Island, now part of the Universal Music group, had its origins in the maverick vision of Chris Blackwell. A wealthy white Jamaican (his family was heir to the Cross and Blackwell fortune), Blackwell made it his life’s mission to bring reggae to the masses. He founded Island in 1958 at age 22 and in the 1970s made a star of Bob Marley and the Wailers.
Blackwell sold his stake in the company in 1989, stepping down in 1997. By then, Island had reconfigured itself, with a roster that included U2, The Cranberries and PJ Harvey. Today it is multi-faceted with a vengeance, boasting names such as The Weeknd and Drake, as well as the likes of Bombay Bicycle Club.
“I romantically like to think Island has a legacy that resonates. However, I’m all too aware that I can be romantic about that,”” says Beese, a chipper Fulham native born to West Indian parents. His father, Darcus Howe, died recently, and was a well-known figure in the civil liberties movement in the UK.
The worst thing Island could do is rely on its legacy. As with every record company it must constantly reinvent itself and prove to artists that it can be entrusted with their careers.
“It’s very much about the people who work at the label — ultimately that is what the artists are drawn to. I think of the label as light to the moth — we tend to draw a particular artist towards us and when we get it right we often do so spectacularly.”
Last year, streaming sites such as Spotify and Apple Music overtook record and digital download sales in the US. In Island’s case, the success of Drake chart-topper ‘One Dance’ was facilitated almost entirely by streaming, with the track notching up one billion plays on Spotify alone. Is it finally time to declare physical sales dead?
“It’s a game changer,” says Beese. “Streaming is becoming a mainstay of how a lot of people come to music. However, physical is still very much in the hearts and minds of the public. That has been proved over the last few months with Ed [Sheeran] and Rag’n’Bone Man. Streaming is beautiful. So is physical.”
The stereotype is that record labels wield a dictatorial influence over their acts. In fact, part of the skill of running an organisation such as Island is knowing when to step out of an artist’s way, says Beese. He gives as an example Mumford and Sons controversially ditching their trade-mark banjos and
adopting a moody rock sound on their most recent album. Far from objecting, Island was supportive of this potentially risky reinvention.
“You have to back someone’s vision no matter what you think about it. In certain instances it calls for an opinion. In certain instances you have to let them at it. Mumford did change their sound.
"From a long term perspective it will do them the world of good. You can’t keep hitting people over the head with the same formula. You’ve got to brave enough to challenge yourself.”
He has also learned there is no “one size fits all” formula for dealing with acts. Drake gave Island of its biggest hits with ‘One Dance’. However, the Canadian rapper knows what he is about and it is Beese’s job to be a facilitator rather than an adviser. In contrast, he stayed in close touch with Amy Winehouse ahead of the recording of her career-defining 2006 LP, Back To Black.
“You need an artist to have an upward trajectory,” he says. “Any career will have its peaks and troughs. Early on, you want a steady rise. The hardest thing is following their first successful album — historically that’s just a fact. It was good for Amy that her first record, Frank, did what it did. It was a greater hit critically than commercially. That gave her a place to grow — what resulted in the three years between albums was her development as an artist.”
In those years in which she was masterminding her next move he stayed in touch — yet was mindful that Winehouse needed the space to develop at her own pace.
“Between albums you’re not living in the artist’s pocket and neither are they living in yours. You want to maintain contact — you’re friends. I wanted to make sure Amy kept her ‘gym chops’ as it were. But Amy was one of those talents who was a master of her own destiny. She was very much the driving force behind what she was doing.”
Beese is looking forward to visiting Cork and has a long association with Ireland. In the 1990s, Beese tried to sign The Mary Janes, an early vehicle for songwriter Mic Christopher (the Heyday singer who would die tragically aged 32).
More recently he was instrumental in bringing Hozier to the label, after seeing the singer’s Cork-made video.
“I woke to an email the first thing in the morning saying ‘You’ve got to hear this’. There was a link to Hozier’s video. In my job there are certain things that only require one listen and suddenly you know. With Hozier, it was like getting hit by a bolt of lightning.”