Grammy Awards bring gold to revitalized Capitol Records

Sam Smith holds the four awards he collected Feb. 8 at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.
(Frederic J. Brown / AFP/Getty Images)

As I noted in a recent profile of the Capitol Music Group and its president and chief executive, Steve Barnett, Capitol Records has been on a roll in the two years since it became part of the Universal Music Group following UMG’s purchase of Capitol’s parent company, EMI Music.

And Sunday night’s Grammy Awards ceremony put a gold crown on Capitol’s rise from the No. 5 label in terms of market share at the end of 2012 to No. 2 at the close of 2014, with all four of the top general awards -- record, album, song and new artist --going to Capitol artists Sam Smith and Beck.

In all, Capitol Music Group artists took home 12 Grammys -- 13 if you include engineers who worked on winning recordings and were recognized for their role in the wins.


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Beyond those high-profile wins, it also was a big night for singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, who collected three Grammys related to her lauded recent album “The River & the Thread” on Blue Note Records, which also falls under the CMG umbrella. Cash won honors for Americana album, American roots performance and American roots song for the track “A Feather’s Not a Bird.”

When I spoke to Smith recently about what persuaded him to sign with Capitol, he cited the passion for his music he sensed from Barnett and from Capitol UK chief Nick Raphael when he auditioned some of the album’s songs for them.

“There was such a warmth, a passion, a respect for what I did and the type of stuff I sing,” Smith, 22, said while he was in L.A. for his two headlining shows at the Inglewood Forum. “He [Barnett] just understood. We didn’t have to speak about it. He understood what I wanted to achieve, that I wanted to be an iconic and timeless artist.”

And what made him think these simply weren’t record executives telling a young artist what he wanted to hear? Smith responded with a comment that revealed more of the disarming honesty and vulnerability that are central to his music.

“Maybe I was naive -- but it turns out I wasn’t naive -- there was something in their eyes, when you know they’re being genuine and honest saying all these amazing things,” he said. “I entrusted them with what is effectively my diary. ... I’d like to think my album’s so personal -- I’m such a personal writer -- that it would be very cruel to be lying to someone about something like that.”

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For Barnett, the rejuvenation of Capitol has been something of a personal crusade, one he shares with fellow Englishman Lucian Grainge, the chairman and chief executive of UMG who offered him the post at Capitol. Both said they grew up as fans of the EMI and Capitol Records brands and the artists who helped shape its identity in the rock era: the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Band and others.

“I think it’s important for L.A. that Capitol Records didn’t just disappear like A&M and some of the other great L.A. labels,” Barnett said.

“Everybody knows this building,” he said of the iconic Capitol Tower in Hollywood. “You say you work at Capitol and they know where it is. You can say Interscope, and most people don’t have a clue. ... Overall I think we can feel good about where we are.”

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