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.