The Hot Seat: Rob Stringer

Published in The Music Network

 

Rob Stringer is an Englishman in New York. But he’s no tourist. A 26-year company veteran, Stringer pulls the levers for Columbia Records in the U.S., whose roster includes the likes of AC/DC, Adele, Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. Under the leadership of Stringer and Columbia chairman/COO Steve Barnett, the label ended 2011 with a current-album market share of 10%, highest among all labels, and the second-largest share of total sales of albums and track-equivalent albums with 8.7%, according to Billboard Magazine. Those numbers are pushed ahead by the phenomenal U.S. success of Adele, one of Stringer’s signings. The exec crossed the Atlantic in 2006 to take up the role as president of Sony Music Label Group, a reward for his successful stint as Chairman and CEO of the music major’s U.K company. “Artists love Rob, employees love him—he’s a real music man,” former IFPI Chairman/CEO John Kennedy said at the time. In recent months, Stringer himself has been a top-20 hitmaker; he came in at No. 19 on Billboard’s Power 100 list and at the same position in The Guardian’s Music Power 100.

What’s the reason for your latest visit to Australia?
I haven’t been here for three-and-a-half years. Denis Handlin obviously travels the world to see us, so I had to return the favour. Denis has been such a close friend of mine for 26 years. The Australian company is an amazing affiliate and Denis runs it in a very competitive way and doesn’t miss opportunities. They tend to get things earlier than virtually every territory in the world, and certainly alongside the U.K. It’s such a vibrant market for our repertoire. I’m absolutely staggered by the knowledge and passion here.

What are your thoughts on the Australian music scene?
We have The Temper Trap in the US, through a joint-venture with Glassnote. We love the new record, and it’s an important one for us. We did 150,000 units and 600,000 downloads last time. They’re potentially very nicely poised to break in America. It’s been really difficult for Australia to export music. It’s a hell of a commitment mentally and physically to do that. It has nothing to do with quality. It’s the opportunity to get out and play and build the right persona, so when you make that step up and go to America and the U.K., people understand what it is that you’re doing. It’s going to be easier for dance culture than for rock bands now, because that language is universal. On the pop side, I met these kids DNA who are really good songwriters. I told them they had to be in Los Angeles at some point, regularly. The standard of pop writing is unbelievable in L.A. If you’re coming from Australia to find the top songs there, you’re probably not going to because there’s a pool of 20 superstar artists who get the first call. Obviously you’ve got a hit record with Gotye. We were a bit late on that one and we learned a lesson. It really stimulated me to think about the process. I’m pretty aggressive and competitive in terms of dealing with my competitors in America. I’m interested in how we get in closer contact with those opportunities. It’s obvious, why wouldn’t we use our Australian A&R staff, because they’re on it. On this trip I’ve been impressed with the new signings Reece Mastin, Holland and Mr Little Jeans.

Why has Australia become such an important touring circuit for your acts?

First of all, the bands like coming here. MGMT and Foster the People came down really early. We sent the Gossip and Passion Pit early. They’ve had a great reaction here and it helped build their confidence. But also, those records working here gave me the impetus to think they could work on a larger scale in the U.S. and Europe. You can get a really good read here earlier than certain other markets, whether something is going to work. The musical taste here is innovative. It’s almost a hybrid of the U.S. and U.K.

Sony Music Australia tested the market with a live division. Is that type of vertical integration part of Sony’s US plans?

No. Well, we might vertically integrate with a live component, but we won’t do it on our own. In America, you’re dealing with very big enterprises in Live Nation and AEG. We’d forge partnerships, and come up with ideas. We’re not going to suddenly develop a division that does live work. The business is so well developed and mature in America, I don’t think we’re going to compete with Live Nation in the live business.

TV is now a huge part of the Sony Music machine Stateside.

Yes. I worked closely with Simon Cowell when I was in the U.K. and that gave me a fantastic learning process on TV platforming. When I went to America, I understood Glee thanks to Syco and Simon’s programming. We took some of the download processes we learned from X-Factor in the U.K. and applied them to Glee. Glee is a ring-fenced phenomenon. I don’t think that will happen again. (Creator) Ryan Murphy tapped into a zeitgeist and came up with something that was contemporary yet nostalgic. When we did that deal none of us perceived what it would turn out to be. It’s now at 42 million downloads and 13 million albums. Ryan is obsessive about pop culture, and so is Simon Cowell. When you’re around those people you tend to have better ideas, because it’s a mutual process.

You made the dash to the US in 2006. What did you learn from that experience?

That it’s a very different market to anywhere else. That the learning curve was steeper than I thought. But I understand it now. I couldn’t have gone there 10 years ago, when the skill sets were in radio and distribution. I got the job because there was a fragmentation of that era. So there was a window for me. But that process is gruelling. It’s a big market, a big jackpot. It’s a very competitive market in so many ways. In America you make big mistakes, but you’ve got to learn from them. Everything is magnified. I’ve been incredibly humble and wanted to learn. I haven’t taken anything for granted. My ego is diminished dramatically being in America, and that’s a good thing. It’s a brutal market if you start taking things for granted. There’s a lot of people competing for the same slots. The U.K. is an amazingly creative place, but it’s pastoral compared to America.

So where does that place Australia?

Probably in the middle. This is an incredibly competitive market, particularly in broadcasting.

Your brother has enjoyed a remarkable career. Was it nature or nurture that saw you make your push up the ranks?

It was both. He was a mentor to me and a role model. That learning experience was almost subliminal for me. There’s no showbiz in the generation above us. My father was in the RAF, my mother was a school teacher. I wanted to be involved in music ever since I was a little kid. That was what I was going to do. His background in entertainment didn’t make me overawed by talent, because I saw how we dealt with that. We’re brothers, we’re extremely close. I’m used to the conversations about what it all means about working for the same company. Both of us deal with that very well. It doesn’t affect us.

Let’s talk about the new regime with Doug Morris at the top. What’s it like working with him?

He’s great. He’s been there, seen it, done it. He absolutely wants to establish creativity, and he’s expansive. So it was perfect for me to have someone like him to report to because he encourages getting things done in a creative way. I’m thrilled he’s there.

What signings are you most proud of?

The first band I signed as an A&R person was the Manic Street Preachers, and they’re a seminal act now. Working with Adele in America has been unbelievable. If I stopped tomorrow, it would be Manic Street Preachers is 1991 and Adele in 2007. When we picked up Adele in America, it was a very expensive deal and there were no guarantees. But she’s one of the greatest artists I’ve ever worked with. She’s incredibly special.

Are there plans for a third Adele album?

There will be. But that’s up to her. We certainly won’t have a record this year, or next year. She can take as long as she wants.

And a new MGMT?

They’re in the studio. It’s due for September. They’re in good spirits. We feel very good about that.

What new acts are you pumped on?

Rita Ora is a huge priority for us. She’s a RocNation signing with tonnes of style and sassiness and she’s had a No. 1 in the U.K. with DJ Fresh, Hot Right Now. Jay-Z took it to Z100 in New York, which he doesn’t do often. Miss Mister, from a label Neon Gold, is like an electro Florence meets a trippy Dido. We have international rights for Odd Future. We have a young kid, T. Mills, who’s a pop-rapper with a good buzz. Last year we broke Foster and J Cole. Between those two will do in America 2 or 3 million records and 8 or 9 million downloads.

 

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The Hot Seat: Zane Lowe, Radio 1 DJ and artist

Published in The Music Network
Musicians love him, music fans trust him. In Britain’s fast-moving music scene, Zane Lowe is rightly regarded as one of its chief tastemakers. The New Zealander has carved out a formidable career in his adopted hometown of London: first as a presenter with MTV and now as a regular DJ on BBC Radio 1 where he hosts his own self-titled show four nights a week. An early champion of the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Bloc Party, Kasabian and Kaiser Chiefs, Zane is a music-obsessive who lives a separate – but connected – life as a club DJ and sometime recording artist. TMN caught up with the DJ when he toured Australia with the Future Music Festival.

How do you keep connected with music? In many different ways. There’s no real method to it. Like everyone else, you pick your favourite places to go, and you share information with blogs and people within the industry. One of the privileges of working for a radio station or a magazine is that you’re an outlet, so people choose to bring new music to you. Some of it comes to you, sometimes it’s as simple as a link to a Soundcloud. If there was a book that could be written about doing it, then it would lose a certain amount of that magic. It’s a treasure hunt.

You’re an elite Kiwi working in the entertainment business abroad. Did it help or hinder having the accent? Neither. I was told it would hinder, but it never proved to be a problem. There was a hurdle initially when I worked at MTV in the UK; there was talk that they weren’t really keen on anybody who wasn’t British on that channel.

But somehow, with help from some friends, they skirted around that issue and since then it hasn’t really been a problem. Like anything, if you’re enthusiastic about what you do, and that comes across and people can identify with that, all that stuff is overlooked. Plus it’s a small world. There are no borders anymore.

What’s the secret to your success? Just simplicity. If you consider what I do to be at some level of success, it’s because I simplified the journey to very small components. Music has always been the primary professional and creative focus for me. There’s never been anything else. In front of that now, which is a motivating factor to want to succeed, is my family. But that’s it. It’s work and nurture. If you can simplify the things that inspire you, down to a small amount, you can give more of yourself to them.

What sort of feedback do you get on Radio 1? During the show we receive text messages at the studio and now with Facebook and Twitter we’re fully connected worldwide. It’s mostly positive. People tend to get online to tell you something constructive, or they share that enthusiasm for a record or whatever. You still get the odd person going online to be a bit rude, but that’s been going on forever. That’s just juvenile and silly. You laugh at it.

We often hear from industry types that radio is on the way out, it’s being replaced by the Internet. Any truth in that? Nah. Nothing is replacing anything. They said that about vinyl and vinyl still exists. They said video killed the radio star, then they said CDs would kill vinyl, and that downloads would kill CDs. You can cease to manufacture CDs, but people will still own them and they’ll still listen to them. The Internet has a very important function in that it has opened up the world of people with opinions, and the people who make music, and people who want to read about it or listen to it. The Internet has made that world smaller and enabled those things to be connected easier, which is great. It’s a free market, essentially. What it’s also done is reinforce the importance of filters, trustworthy sources of information.

Your group Breaks Co-Op had something of a hit with The Otherside. Bob Lefsetz belatedly gave it the thumbs- up. Does that make you keen to go headlong into making music? Yes and yes. The Breaks Co-Op project – the band – took a break. But the music making has always carried on. That album reached its course. And at that point, you have to let the album go on its own journey, which it has done. And most recently, it met Bob, and Bob liked it and told people about it. That’s the album which is on that journey now. We’ve let it go and it’s for people to discover it now. I’ve been working in the studio, getting to that point of learning my trade again so I can make something solid under my own name, or whatever band name. Which I will do. Something will come out in the next three months, independently- released, that will give people an insight into where I’m at in terms of my DJ set. The Breaks-Co-op project is underway again, but I can’t give too much away – because it’s in a wonderful, awesome developmental process without any time restraints. The guys are writing music again, and sharing music again, and that’s how the last album got made, and it took a long time to do. It was worth the wait for us. Hopefully, that’s what will happen again.


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The Hot Seat: Dan Pelson, Executive VP, Sony Music Entertainment

Published in The Music Network

 

The reports of the CD format’s death are greatly exaggerated. In decline, yes. But Dan Pelson would argue it’s not on the way out. An Internet and media entrepreneur with a mind for data analysis, Pelson oversees Sony’s global “Direct to Consumer” operations, which include the Popmarket sales platform. At Popmarket, CDs are very much the life of its business.

Formerly Senior VP of Global Consumer Marketing at Warner Music Group, Pelson served with a handful of Internet start-ups including Bolt, and he founded the music-focused social network uPlayMe. Pelson graduated from Colgate University with a BA in political science and economics, and started his career at Sun Microsystems.

What is Popmarket and why is it relevant to the Australian market?
It’s a “deal-of-the-day” online music store that offers products from the world’s most iconic artists in extraordinary, premium packaging at fantastic prices. Many of these products had very limited production runs or are available at such special prices that we can only enable fans to purchase certain offers within a 24-hour period, and even then, we often sell out of the available inventory. We also provide collectible music bundles that are specially curated for the Popmarket audience. We’ve seen great traction in the Australian market over the past year.

In an increasingly digital world, a business which focuses on physical product seems counter-intuitive? Why go with a CD-focused business model?

In a digital world, it’s not unusual that there’s a growing fan base that is seeking something more tangible, something that they can literally feel. We’re offering fans access to the kinds of products that in many cases will become permanent objects in their homes. We also find that our customers use Popmarket repeatedly as a source for gifts.

Is Popmarket really just “preaching to the converted” or is it realistically grabbing young, new music fans?

We do believe that Popmarket will continue to grab new music fans. There’s clearly a huge and growing need for the utility that digital downloads bring to young fans, but the passion for artists and their music runs just as deep for teens as it does for older consumers. We’re tapping into that passion.

So who is Popmarket’s audience?

Our customers are definitely “super-fans”, but not necessarily of “another generation.” The range of products offered definitely provides a musical wonderland for the over-30 set, but there are plenty of younger consumers who are seeking special packaging, vinyl, and other hard-to-find offers for current artists. I believe there’s an untapped market that wants a premium, high-touch experience. Today’s retail environments are typically about mass, cold efficiency. But we feel we’re making the process of buying music fun and exciting once again.

According to ARIA’s latest trade figures, CD albums accounted for about 60% of the entire Australian record market in 2011. Looking ahead, say 10 years, what size chunk of the market do you think CD albums will hold?
CDs remain the dominant format for music, but clearly the world has changed and continues to evolve. While it’s hard to predict the market share that formats will hold in 10 years – or 5 years – the only certainty is that things will continue to change. Popmarket addresses the physical market, which we believe will survive. The definition of “physical” will evolve as well, and fans, labels, and artists themselves will help define what they want the physical music experience to be over time.


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The Hot Seat: Brett Robinson, Future Music

Just days out from Christmas 2011, Future Music Festival dropped a big hint on some international festivities in the pipeline. Asia, the medium of Twitter informed us, was in Future’s plans. Those plans have since moved on, and Future Music Festival is in the final stages of preparing its inaugural fest in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, on March 17. TMN caught up with Future’s Brett Robinson, who has been instrumental in bringing the show to Asia.

Yourself and Laneway have expanded into Asia, in what is really a tough time for festivals here in Australia. How do you view the Asian market? We’re obviously very excited about moving into Asia. There’s been great demand for our festival from numerous producers in different cities. We also see some decent stats on Asians attending the festival via Ticketmaster. There is a genuine following for Future Music in Asia.

Why Malaysia, which has a largely Muslim population which obviously don’t drink? We’ve been looking for the right location that is seated in the heart of South East Asia. There’s never been a festival which has been established there like we are in Australia, or had the vision to establish in that way. And I know the line-up we have this year for Future in Australia will work very well in Malaysia. It’s partly that, and partly because we’ve been approached by a number of people in Asia in the last few years to extend that into a date in Asia. And thirdly,

Tourism Malaysia has been kind enough to give us a government grant to help us establish the festival there. It happens to fall in the weekend before the Formula One Grand Prix in Malaysia, and obviously we have links to the Australia F1 as we do Sidetracked in Melbourne. Tourism Malaysia has looked at linking the GP with ourselves and make it a landmark for a week-long period in KL to attract regional tourism. The idea is to promote the festival regionally – the Philippines, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore, India and that SE Asian region — and make it a destination, where people can visit both Future and the GP.

How many years are you locked-in? It’s a long-term venture. We are there with them for five years. We’re going to start it carefully and build the festival organically, like we’ve done in Australia. We’ve not going to dive-in with the biggest line-up we’ve ever had. We’re going to go-in with a lot of our headliners, and a selection of artists from the other stages. It’s about selecting the right venue, the right period and obviously trying to put on a great event that can build from year to year. We’re starting from ground- up like we did a couple of years ago in Australia.

What shape will the lineup take? There’ll be a number of Australian bands and DJs, and local Malaysian acts and regional Asian acts. We’ve targeted two or three regional artists from all of those countries. We’re representing all of those regional countries. (This year’s line-up includes The Chemical Brothers, Tinie Tempah, Pendulum and Sneaky Sound System).

What are the big challenges to putting this on? Trying to manage the logistics and go in and discuss our production standards in the way we present our show, and try to replicate that in Malaysia. We don’t want to just fall into a situation where we’re doing it exactly the way they do it. We want to take across a lot of stuff we’ve learned; stuff that has made festivals successful (here) and try to replicate that in another market.

What’s will be the capacity of the KL show? 30,000

Are there any other markets Future is looking to expand into? No, this is an Asian exclusive and we see it as a stand-alone festival in Asia.

You’ve started a “book now, pay later” system here in Australia. Are there other measures which festival promoters need to look at to insulate against these tough times? Times aren’t so tough for us. We deliver the best events we can and don’t spare any expense and I guess the punters are supporting us because of it. Some others are not so fortunate.

So how is Future performing? As I mentioned, it’s a tough time for festivals here, especially dance fests. We are tracking along at the same rate as last year. 2010 was our biggest year to date and we expect to perform in the same way. The vibe and anticipation for Future Music Festival feels just like it did last year.

www.futuremusicfestival.asia

 

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