Mumford & Sons: The Billboard Cover Story
On Dec. 1, the day that the nominations were announced for the 2011 Grammy Awards, Glassnote Records founder Daniel Glass sat in a New York screening room with his family watching the new Sofia Coppola film, "Somewhere."
Phoenix, the alt-rock band that Glass transformed during the past year into an arena-filling act, composed the score for "Somewhere"-and seeing the movie brought Glass full circle on the group's accomplishments. Twelve months earlier, he was anticipating Phoenix receiving a Grammy nomination. (It did, and went on to win the award for best alternative music album for "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.")
This year, Glass is bestowing his kingmaker skills on another up-and-coming band-this time around, he sat in the screening room waiting for word on a Grammy nod for British folk rock four-piece Mumford & Sons.
"After the movie, we went home and were watching the nominations on TV," recalls Glass, a trim man in his early 50s with a taste for posh jeans and expensive sweaters. "First they showed footage of the band, then they said 'best new artist' and we just started screaming." The band received two nominations, including one for best rock song ("Little Lion Man"). Glass spent the rest of the night on the phone.
The following day was a blur, and not just because the Mumfords (as Glass and company fondly refer to them) sent champagne to the office; the label head was bombarded with congratulations from industry friends and cohorts. In an era when grass-roots artist development seems as rare as seven-figure first-week album sales, Glass had taken a collection of beardy, roots music-worshipping, photo-and-journalist-averse kids and turned them into that rarest of commodities-a critically adored, commercially successful rock band whose singles compete with Rihanna's for chart space.
"People were saying this was a vote for authenticity," Glass says. "It's really been a great few days, especially considering the last taste of this chapter was the Terminal 5 shows [in New York], which were so spectacular."
The two sold-out concerts capped the Mumfords' second American tour this year, a five-week stint that saw them jump from the small theaters they were playing a few months ago to 3,000-plus-capacity spaces. Ten months after its release, the band's debut, "Sigh No More," was certified gold by the RIAA. It's now up to 588,000 units sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan, reaching as high as No. 16 on the Billboard 200. "Little Lion Man" topped Billboard's Alternative chart and peaked at No. 2 on the Triple A tally.
But those are just the numbers. All one really needs to know about the Mumford phenomenon can be seen on the faces of the fans crammed shoulder to shoulder at shows, mouths open, singing along to every word of every song. Or, as Glass puts it, "like Christmas and Thanksgiving all in one. It just gets warmer. It just gets bigger."
Glass first saw Mumford & Sons perform at the tiny Mercury Lounge in New York in March 2009. They shared the bill with atmospheric Australian rock act the Temper Trap, which was already signed to Glassnote.
The Glass/Mumford romance involved a long, slow-burn courtship. It's not as if dozens of American labels were clamoring to sign four British bluegrass nerds, so Glass had the time required to get to know them.
"The song that got me was 'White Blank Page,' " he says. The track captures the spare, confessional lyrics ("Can you lie next to her and give her your heart as well as your body") underscored by anthemic crescendos of messy alt-country singalong noise that has become Mumford & Sons' signature.
The band -- vocalist Marcus Mumford, 23; bassist Ted Dwane, 25; keyboardist Ben Lovett, 22; and banjoist Winston Marshall, 21 -- met each other in the mid-2000s through the British folk scene, which is fueled by various country nights held at London pubs. They formed as a staunch democracy, with Mumford writing most of the lyrics and lending his name to the project, but the members share songwriting credit and switch instruments onstage.
"The live show is what we love," Dwane says, "the idea of people coming to enjoy the night, having a bit of a drink and a dance."
Under the guidance of manager Adam Tudhope of U.K.-based firm Everybody's Management, the band recorded "Sigh No More" and released it on the group's own label, Gentleman of the Road; the act happily playing "in pubs to bearded men," Lovett says. "We call those the glory days," Dwane half-jokes.
"Sigh No More" came out in the United Kingdom in October 2009 and during the year that followed, Mumford & Sons fever swept England. When the band eventually dipped its toe in the American market by licensing "Sigh No More" to a U.S. label, Glassnote was a natural choice.
"Daniel approaches it from the right direction, like our manager and our lawyer -- they're straight-up normal people who don't really care about the money side of things as long as they can just keep doing what they're doing," Lovett says.
It's not that Glass doesn't care about money. It's that he's convinced that sincerity and authenticity sell.
"I'm looking for something that's from the heart, that's real," Glass says. "You analyze the top 10 and nine out of 10 are going to be dance or hip-hop records -- whether it's Jason Derülo or Kanye West, they're all fantastic records, well-produced, amazing stuff. But we believe our records are as good, if not better.
"Indie labels fail for two reasons: They have a lack of funding or they have a chip on their shoulder; they lack a strategic know-how about what to do with their taste," Glass says. "What do you do with the ball once you get it? How do you get down the field and into the end zone? I love the end zone. It's my favorite."
Glass was born and raised in Brooklyn and began his career as a DJ when he was a pre-med student at Brooklyn College. He used what he'd learned spinning at clubs in the city as a young executive at SAM Records, a small but respected dance label.
"A great DJ knows that if the dancefloor empties out, then he screwed up-and you'd better change the record real quick," says Michael Mena, a friend who would later work with Glass at SBK. "Daniel knows what a hit sounds like no matter the genre."
It wasn't until Glass landed at Chrysalis Records in 1983 that he really established himself in the industry. "My fondest memories are of my formative years at Chrysalis," Glass says. "I thought the business was always going to be the way it was there."
During his six years at the label, Glass nurtured acts as diverse as Pat Benatar and Huey Lewis & the News. And he discovered the model for label structure he would later emulate at Glassnote: a lean staff of committed professionals who actually like each other, shepherding the careers of a modest, impeccably selected roster.
Glass was a promotions guy and not involved with scouting talent, but it was at Chrysalis that he formed the A&R philosophy that's powered the rest of his career.
"I'd had some success promoting Spandau Ballet and my bosses, Chris Wright and Terry Ellis, took me out for sake at a Japanese restaurant," Glass remembers. "I'm from Brooklyn -- I didn't know what sake is. This was a big moment for me. So I turn to them and I asked the question. I said, 'How do you know? I mean, Debbie Harry! Pat Benatar! How did you know? Pat Benatar was singing show tunes at a comedy club. How did you put her on the parallel bar in that outfit [on the album cover for 1980's "Crimes of Passion"] and have her sing rock'n'roll?' And they basically said, 'When you walk in the room, if you don't feel Madison Square Garden, walk out.' "
Glass was prepared to work at Chrysalis for the rest of his career, but in 1989, he found out the label was being sold to EMI. It was one of the worst days of his life, Glass says, but he quickly bounced back, joining the newly launched SBK Records as head of promotion. He was eventually promoted to general manager of that label, before being promoted again to head of sales and promotion at EMI Record Group North America when SBK merged with EMI Records and Chrysalis.
At SBK Glass honed his skill sets, bringing in acts like D'Angelo, Blur, Jon Secada and, most famously and profitably, Vanilla Ice, and then ensuring they were heard on the radio.
"When he played me Vanilla Ice for the first time I hated it," says Mena, who worked as director of alternative radio at SBK. "I thought it was wretched, but he said, 'Whatever you think, this is what a hit sounds like,' and he was right. He knows a pop song. I mean, I'll be damned if I still don't hear [1990 hit] 'Hold On' by [SBK act] Wilson Phillips when I'm walking through T.J. Maxx."
In 2007 Glass founded Glassnote Entertainment Group and secured a distribution deal with RED. Since then, "family" has become a big word for Glass. Both he and Mumford & Sons use it to describe the label's relationship with its bands, and Glass also regularly applies it to his executive team.
The Glassnote offices, located across from Bloomingdale's on Manhattan's Upper East Side, feel a little like a den with desks. The walls are decorated with the Glassnote equivalent of fridge-door photos and drawings: Phoenix's "Saturday Night Live" set list, signed by host Seth Rogen; magazine covers graced by Glassnote artists; and a "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix"-themed promotional snowboard from the band's recent arena tour.
At the offices, everyone is gathered around an elegant rectangular glass table in the middle of the room, sipping Cafe Bustelo out of Greenware cups and gabbing. Glass passes around a bowl of citrus fruit his mother-in-law shipped up north and asks marketing and branding director Marisa Fair if the T-shirts for the weekend's God's Love We Deliver charity run are ready yet.
"It's only four miles. That's nothing," avid marathoner Glass scoffs, and his team groans good-naturedly. In this office you go jogging with your boss at 9 a.m. on a freezing fall morning. And you appear to like it.
The Glassnote team will need its stamina: 2011 promises to be a demanding year. Phoenix heads back into the studio this winter and expects to release a follow-up to "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" in the fall. Glassnote is particularly excited about the forthcoming new album from Southern electro-rock group Royal Bangs, which was signed on the recommendation of Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, one of Glass' industry friends.
And then there's Mumford & Sons. They're taking a few weeks off before beginning work on their sophomore set in earnest. (They've already road-tested a few new songs.) But they'll be back in the States in February for the Grammys ceremony and hope to have a new album out sometime next year. Additionally in 2011, Glass wants to focus on building Glassnote's publishing arm. "To grow the publishing and find another two or three great cornerstone artists that complement what we do here, that's our modest goal," he says.
Glass has been in the music biz for more than 30 years, and yet he doesn't even curse. When he wants to use the word "asshole" to describe the kind of people he doesn't want his bands bringing into the Glassnote family, he spells it out, then changes his mind and chooses another word: jerk. Which leads one to wonder: Where's the swaggering sense of cool? Where's the rock'n'roll image? Where's the edge?
According to 10th Street Entertainment founder Allen Kovac, it's in the selection of artists and the inner grit Glass has been displaying ever since he was vouching for Blur and Vanilla Ice in the same meetings in the early '90s.
"Daniel is not trying to fill formats. He's just looking for greatness," Kovac says. "Mumford is great, Phoenix is great, but I don't think either one of those projects was safe or easy. You look at artists like Neon Trees or Crash Kings, they're both on major labels, but look at the SoundScan on them. And here you have this guy who in six months takes something that was left of center, didn't sound like anything else and it's going gold. He's got the killer instinct. It's not all 'Kumbaya.' "
Glass agrees. "I wanted to start this utopian little rock company, that's true," he says. "But the word that doesn't get mentioned [to describe us] is 'ambition.' We're very intense. We have passed on artists who run out of here scared when they hear about the focus and demands because we are very focused and very demanding. We're not for everybody."
He pauses and leans back in his chair. "I'm not curating for museum sake," he says. "I don't want to be the coolest. I want to be the best."