Honoring Capitol’s past with classic artists like Elton John, and staking out its future with new acts like Arcade Fire
Jan. 8 marked the one-year anniversary of Steve Barnett settling into his office at the Capitol Tower and establishing the Capitol Records Group that would include Capitol, Virgin, Blue Note and IRS in Nashville and Harvest in the United Kingdom. The anniversary arrived just as Katy Perry’s "PRISM" hit the 1 million sold mark.
“What I really wanted to do was transform the culture of the company,” Barnett says. “I wanted people to be proud to work here, to embrace iconic artists. I wanted to pay proper respect to the company, but I didn’t want to be burdened by it.”
Barnett, who helped oversee the rise of Adele, Beyoncé, John Mayer and others at Columbia Records, has the Capitol labels positioned as artist development imprints. Capitol’s power lies in its unique structure—multiple-genre labels with an independent distributor (Caroline) attached that offers a global reach, all of it separate from the other Universal Music Group operations. “There’s no point in us being exactly the same as them,” he says of the rest of UMG, “and that’s how we’re going to put our stake in the ground—with a sense of aspiration and commitment.”
Barnett sees the music world free of cookie-cutter plans and gatekeepers and believes different routes need to be taken territory by territory to achieve success. As he details plans for 2014—new signings like Sam Smith and Banks out of the United Kingdom, Don Was working with Van Morrison on a duets album, Beck’s next record and a continued push for 2013 releases from Bastille and Arcade Fire—Burnett also includes the names of producers the company is associated with: T Bone Burnett, RedOne, Tricky and The-Dream.
“They want to work in an environment with creative freedom and good relationships with the rest of the company,” he says.
In his year in the tower, which has included Elton John performing songs from The Diving Board in a studio and Arcade Fire playing on the roof, he has come to feel the music community is hoping Capitol will succeed. All of the offices have been refurbished and work has begun on the tower’s legendary studios. He knows he has an advantage over other labels when he brings in a potential signing as well.
“Everybody knows the company had suffered from a lack of investment, bad leadership and bad decisions,” he says. “It’s been a long time since there was a major-label startup in L.A., and we all have a tremendous responsibility to succeed.”