Decca Chief Rebecca Allen on Classical's Resilience, Embracing the Unexpected & Why the Genre Won't 'Die Out Because of Streaming'

Rebecca Allen
Alisa Connan

“Streaming is about storytelling, and unless we tell good stories about our artists and our music, that’s where [classical music] can get lost,” says Allen, photographed on March 11, 2019 at Decca Records Group in London. “The hard thing in classical is that there are often 100 versions of the same piece of music. So how do we make sure that our version is the best [and] the loudest version that cuts through the noise? That’s our challenge.”

The iconic label's first female president on rejuvenating 90 years of eclectic music history -- and what comes next.

When Rebecca Allen joined Universal Music Group (UMG) as a press assistant in 1999, she never dreamed that she would end up running one of its most prestigious labels.

"I've always lived in the moment and have never really looked beyond that," says Allen, 45, who became the first female president of Decca Records Group U.K. in May 2017. That trail-blazing status -- and the responsibility it brings -- is something she doesn't take lightly.

"When I became president, I started to think, ‘How can I help women manage their lives and careers so they have the same opportunities I had?' " says the married mother of two young children. "It's something I feel passionate about."

Allen's passion for music was ignited at an early age by her parents, both of them choir performers who passed on their deep love of classical music. She entered the business with a part-time internship in the press office of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra while she was still a student, which led to marketing jobs at the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Proms after graduation. At the turn of the millennium, she joined the U.K. arm of Universal Classics and Jazz, and rose steadily through the ranks, working as Decca's director of media, GM and managing director before being promoted to label president.

Since taking over, Allen has led Decca to new heights. In November, Andrea Bocelli's  (Decca/Sugar) became the Italian singer's first No. 1 album in both the United Kingdom and the United States. She also oversaw U.K. No. 1s by Rod Stewart (Blood Red Roses) and the pairing Michael Ball and Alfie Boe, and released the debut album by British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who performed at the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle last May.

"Becky is a label leader with a unique sensitivity to artistic and commercial needs," says Dickon Stainer, president/CEO of Universal Classics and Jazz. "She is the perfect figurehead for Decca at this landmark moment in its history."

Allen also signed legendary film composer Ennio Morricone to Decca's diverse roster, which also includes Jeff Goldblum, Aurora, The Lumineers, Imelda May, Nicola Benedetti and Ludovico Einaudi -- the last of whom is the most-streamed classical artist of all time (with over 2 billion streams). Meanwhile, Decca's illustrious catalog spans everything from The Rolling Stones to Bing Crosby to Luciano Pavarotti. This year, an extensive program of catalog reissues, special concerts, podcasts and a Pavarotti documentary directed by Ron Howard will be released to celebrate Decca's 90th anniversary.

"Somebody said to me the other day, ‘Does the history scare you?' And the answer is not at all," says Allen, who reconfigured her office setup to an open-plan space that she shares with Decca vp A&R and artist strategy Tom Lewis after Universal moved London offices last year. "It just gives me the confidence to be bold and brave in my decision making. Okay, Decca turned down The Beatles. But we signed The Rolling Stones. So being bold and taking chances is part of our history."

This year marks Decca's 90th anniversary. How does the label's heritage shape its future?

I don't think anyone knew quite how staggering our history was until we started researching it for this book [The Supreme Record Company: The Story of Decca Records 1929-2019]. I didn't realize that Decca had a presence in West Africa in the 1960s and '70s and had an incredible catalog and recording studio there. Also, Decca once had a U.S. Nashville label with Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and all these great artists. The reason we decided to celebrate the 90th anniversary is because Decca is in a rejuvenated place. We've had quite a few successes over the last two [or] three years, and I wanted to use this moment to tell our story outside of the U.K. and get different territories talking about Decca -- acknowledging that this label has been going for 90 years, but also not being frightened to say we've changed and evolved, that it feels fresh and different and we're hungry and ambitious.

What do you look for when you sign an artist?

We like to work with artists who surprise people. Analytics and data drive so many decisions now, and I feel like I'm the antithesis of that. I want to work with artists that have passion and vision and aid them in achieving that. It's artists who are left of center, nonconformist, slightly rebellious, and our job is to bring them to the mainstream. Everyone is chasing the next Dua Lipa or Ed Sheeran, and we're not doing that. But, equally, I'm open to lots of different music. The unexpected is what we want to do.

Decca is still predominantly known as a classical label. How important is that to the business?

If you were to cut the label open, classical music would flow out of us. It's the heart that pumps the blood around the business. There is no other classical [catalog] that's as strong as we are. So we focus a lot on classical, and we are very focused on jazz. They give us our identity, and I wouldn't ever want to move away from that. Around five or six years ago, we had a wobble as a company, signing things that didn't fit into the culture and ethos of Decca. Since then, we have spent a lot of time looking at our A&R and the artists we want to be associated with. Out of that has come incredible moments for us, whether it's Ball and Boe, Sheku, the Royal Wedding or Bocelli getting a U.S. No. 1 for the first time in his career. I don't believe any other label could do them as well as us.

How does your own classical music background shape and influence your approach to running a record label?

Music is something that has fulfilled me since my very early years and still fulfills me now. When I think about the artists we work with, I think of how many years it took me to get to go to a conservatory and how many hours I practiced. [Decca signed saxophonist] Jess Gillam gets up at 5:30 am so she can begin her day with six hours of practice. What people forget in the pop world is the craftsmanship of what we do here; the hours and hours of study and repetitive practice. It's that sort of artistry that really excites me. There's a reason why Pavarotti was the best. He didn't just appear on a TV show and all of a sudden he had a career. These people studied for years and years and still study. Sheku, for instance, will turn down big TV opportunities because he has an exam he needs to prepare for. They are the [type of] artists that I identify with because of the years that I spent doing it.

As Decca's first female president, how do you address the lack of women in senior executive positions?

Dickon always said, "If you're ambitious and have a desire to progress, you know what the job is. How you do it is of no interest to me." That's something that has really stuck with me. I have a lot of young women here with families, and I say to them, "We all know what we have to do in our roles, but I don't mind how you achieve those results." There's a great desire within this company to promote flexible working, not just for women and mums, but for men and dads too. I also don't believe that being sat behind a desk between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. is the best environment for creativity. It's really important that we encourage people to get out of the office and find their quiet thinking time to come up with the best ideas they possibly can. 

The CD is still the preferred format for classical music fans. How is Decca transitioning to streaming?

We still have a very physical business. It's [60 percent] physical, [30 percent streaming] and 10 percent downloads. The challenge for us is to retain the physical business while bringing our audience into this streaming world. Classical music has survived every format change over the last however many years. It's not going to die out because of streaming. We just have to make sure that we are there with the right music and right artists to greet them at the golden gates.

Last year, Decca recorded the Royal Wedding and released it digitally the same day. What was that like?

It was one of the best days ever. Dickon and I were sat in this white van next to the chapel with our cans on listening to the ceremony and hearing every cough and every word as it was happening right next door. I will never ever forget that. To be part of something so culturally significant and then to have to run back to the offices, choose one of the official royal photographer images to use as artwork, and get it all uploaded onto streaming services by 9 pm was unbelievable. Those days don't happen very often. Events like that are not about a commercial business proposition. They're about Decca being at the forefront of important cultural moments and documenting them.

This article originally appeared in the March 23 issue of Billboard.


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