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 Sí (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.
Janelle Monáe Leads The Revolution In Stirring ‘Turntables’ Video
YouTube “We are in the middle of a revolution right? What’s a revolution without a song and a song without a revolution.” That’s the question the Grammy-winning artist Janelle Monáe posed to Entertainment Weekly when describing her latest single, “Turntables.” The song was released on and flips between cleverly rapped lines about “liberation, elevation, education” and a harmonic…
“We are in the middle of a revolution right? What’s a revolution without a song and a song without a revolution.”
That’s the question the Grammy-winning artist Janelle Monáe posed to Entertainment Weekly when describing her latest single, “Turntables.” The song was released on and flips between cleverly rapped lines about “liberation, elevation, education” and a harmonic refrain with clear gospel influences. It’s Monáe’s take on a contemporary protest song, a call for a political sea change, in the vein of, say, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” or Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
Courtesy of Atlantic RecordsAnd on Tuesday (September), Monáe released a moving music video — or, as she calls it, an emotion picture — that solidified that message. The visual opens and closes with the singer walking along the beach in a beige trench coat and military cap. At times, she can be seen singing into a retro microphone before an American flag; in others, she moves through staged breakfast scenes, with a family reading through newspaper headlines as they mouth her lyrics. The visual flashes through archival and contemporary footage depicting inspirational figures past and present: Where one scene shows the model and activist Jillian Mercado at a photo shoot, another depicts a conversation with lifelong activist Angela Davis.
What rings true without is a hopeful cry for change and for equality, and a recognition of those who have been leading that fight for decades. Monáe wrote “Turntables” for the new Amazon Studios documentary, All In: The Fight for Democracy, that shines a light on voter suppression, particularly through the lens of Stacey Abrams’s failed bid for the Georgia governorship. “Right now, I am focused on turning the election in our favor,” Monáe told Entertainment Weekly, “and I hope this song can inspire those who are on the ground doing the work.”
Joe Keery’s Reinvention, Mxmtoon’s Carly Rae Jepsen Collab, And More Songs We Love
Getty Images/April Blum The search for the ever-elusive “bop” is difficult. Playlists and streaming-service recommendations can only do so much. They often leave a lingering question: Are these songs really good, or are they just new? Enter Bop Shop, a hand-picked selection of songs from the MTV News team. This weekly collection doesn’t discriminate by…
Getty Images/April Blum
The search for the ever-elusive “bop” is difficult. Playlists and streaming-service recommendations can only do so much. They often leave a lingering question: Are these songs really good, or are they just new?
Enter Bop Shop, a hand-picked selection of songs from the MTV News team. This weekly collection doesn’t discriminate by genre and can include anything — it’s a snapshot of what’s on our minds and what sounds good. We’ll keep it fresh with the latest music, but expect a few oldies (but goodies) every once in a while, too. Get ready: The Bop Shop is now open for business.
St. Vincent ft. Yoshiki: “New York”
St. Vincent, the intuitive musical goddess that she is, must have sensed our collective need for another quarantine ballad. Enter “New York [Feat. Yoshiki],” a classical arrangement of the standout single from 2017’s Masseduction. An added string section courtesy of Yoshiki, a Japanese multi-instrumentalist, beautifully complements the song’s original piano instrumentals. What more can I say? “New York isn’t New York / Without you, love” just hits different in the middle of a pandemic. —Sam Manzella
Djo: “Keep Your Head Up”
Last year, Joe Keery (of Stranger Things fame) released a glossy solo album under the moniker Djo. It was titled Twenty Twenty, and its sparkling arrangements ended up being quite far removed from the overall vibe of 2020 the year, but who could fault him for his optimism? Keery has also long been a contributing member of Chicago psych band Post Animal, but Djo is simply Joe — and latest “Keep Your Head Up” feels like several Joes ripping open a vortex in the funk-time continuum. This is a groove, peppered with buzzy synths and icy falsetto and an honest-to-god sax part. It’s akin to Todd Terje doing Tame Impala, a lightheaded cocktail rush that feels both clubby and bedroom ambitious. Positively galactic. —Patrick Hosken
Mxmtoon ft. Carly Rae Jepsen: “OK On Your Own”
When Mxmtoon’s Maia said she recorded “OK On Your Own” for the girls and the gays, she wasn’t kidding. The mellow bedroom-pop bop soundtracks a journey of self-reflection after a breakup, complete with the soft ukulele instrumentals that put the 19-year-old singer-songwriter on the map. Is it revelatory? No, but with pop icon Carly Rae Jepsen lending her sugary-sweet vocals to the second verse, it doesn’t have to be. Now I’m just waiting for “Party for Two.” —Sam Manzella
Video Age: “Aerostar”
Pleasure Line, the third album from emerging indie pop quartet Video Age, delivers perfectly escapist ’80s new wave vibes for when you need to get outta 2020 for just a moment. “Aerostar” is its punchy center, a hip-twisting, shoulder-shuffling groove that delivers quirky robot dance commands (“Slide to the left, now! Shimmy to the right!”) over hoppin’ funk synths and a kickin’ drum machine. It all harkens to a simpler time, one where dance floors were actually a real thing. Oh, the ’80s! —Terron Moore
Ruel: “As Long As You Care”
About a year ago, Australian middle-part heartthrob Ruel told MTV News that for him, “songwriting is exaggerating to an extent.” On his latest, the technicolor, soulful “As Long As You Care,” his exaggeration is so seamless, you’d be forgiven for believing the 17-year-old is actually a time traveler. The neo-soul groove he rides propels everything upward, even as the sound cheekily looks backward. “As Long As You Care” has one amazing hook, coupled with sonic candy that makes his upcoming third EP, Bright Lights, Red Eyes (out October 23) one to watch. —Patrick Hosken
Alycia Bella ft. Boogie: “Cue the Sun”
Something magical happens two-and-a-half minutes into “Cue the Sun,” the exploratory new collab between striking R&B voice Alycia Bella and rapper Boogie. After piping in the aural equivalent of stage smoke via jazzy piano and gorgeous vocalizations — “It feel like being lost in the right direction” — Bella’s song enters a more sparkly realm for Boogie’s recitations. By the end, you’re lighter, like your mind’s been cleared of all the cobwebs. Cue the sun. —Patrick Hosken
Carly Rae Jepsen
Who Are You Most Excited to See Perform at the 2020 ACM Awards? Vote!
The 55th Academy of Country Music Awards will welcome back Taylor Swift and present a new collaboration from the evening’s host Keith Urban and P!nk on Wednesday, Sept. 16. But which one of the highly anticipated performances are you counting down the hours to? Nine-time ACM Award winner Swift, whose latest studio album Folklore has topped the Billboard 200 for six…
The 55th Academy of Country Music Awards will welcome back Taylor Swift and present a new collaboration from the evening’s host Keith Urban and P!nk on Wednesday, Sept. 16. But which one of the highly anticipated performances are you counting down the hours to?
Nine-time ACM Award winner Swift, whose latest studio album Folklore has topped the Billboard 200 for six weeks, will come back for the first time in seven years to perform the country-leaning fan-favorite track “Betty.” Meanwhile, 15-time ACM Award winner Urban and Pink will come together for the world television premiere of their brand new collaboration “One Too Many,” which is from the country star’s forthcoming album, The Speed of Now, Part 1.
Billboard broke the news Monday (Sept. 14) that all five nominees for entertainer of the year — Carrie Underwood, Luke Bryan, Eric Church, Luke Combs and Thomas Rhett — will take the stage to perform a medley of their greatest hits. Additionally, ACM’s freshly crowned new male and female artist of the year winners Riley Green and Tenille Townes, respectively, will also perform.
For the first time in the awards show’s history, the ACMs will be broadcast live from Nashville, with socially distanced performances from the Grand Ole Opry House, the historic Ryman Auditorium and The Bluebird Cafe.
The 55th ACM Awards will air live Wednesday, Sept. 16, at 8 p.m. ET (delayed for the West Coast) on CBS and CBS All Access. (The event is produced by dick clark productions, which shares a parent company with Billboard.)
So which of the performances can’t you wait to see? Vote below!