The Hot Seat: Richard Sanders

Published in The Music Network


From selling merch to running the international empire of Sony Music, Richard Sanders knows better than most that it’s truly a long way to the top. The Sony Music President of International began his career selling T-shirts on the road for Aerosmith and Ted Nugent. On one of those early tours, Sanders got a close look at Nugent’s U.S. support act, a rising force by the name of AC/DC. Fast forward to 2010, Sanders and AC/DC have taken their own paths and met again somewhere near the summit. The American executive was in town recently to pay homage to AC/DC and to the touring rockers’ label home Albert Music, which this year celebrates its 125th anniversary. “My career has come full circle,” notes Sanders. “I sold shirts at AC/DC’s shows, one of the bands I managed opened for them on a summer tour, and now I’ve come to see them as the head of Sony International playing in front of 70,000 in their honorary hometown.” Before he got to the top, Sanders had stints working in tour accounting and road management. When he got off the road, he took flight with his own management firm (Loud and Proud Management) and music publishing company (Shohola Music) before entering the major label business with Arista in 1991. Sanders joined forces with Richard Branson in 1996 to establish V2 Records, where he would run the independent label group’s U.S. operations. In 2001, Sanders joined RCA Records as Executive Vice President and General Manager.

As a guy who has done it all in this business, does the hybrid music man of the future need the full skills set? Or just a good ear, sound business knowledge and handy digital skills?

My position has always been that we’re here to provide a safety net for the artist. To eliminate all the ego and bullshit in the centre, and connect the artist to an audience. That’s what the role of the label needs to be. My background helps in talking to artists. When a band goes on tour and we put them on a rigorous promotion schedule, I know what it takes for them to do it. I always look at what’s right for the artist. If it works for them, ultimately it will work for us.

The Australian company has enjoyed some success with the Bandit digital music service. Are there plans to roll it out elsewhere?

Yes. The next stop is to go into Latin America. We’re fully supportive of it. We’ve talked about an Asian solution. The linguistic issues and the size of the markets make it more challenging there. It’s not to compete with iTunes. It’s an opportunity to create partnerships with brands and us, with artists and us, and to create partnerships with fans and us.

What about the U.S. and U.K.?

The U.S. is more challenging because there are so many services in place already. I’d rather go into areas that are less competitive right now.

What other businesses opportunities are ripe?

TV is a major platform for us, and one that gives us a great competitive advantage. The great Idol TV franchise is a real label benefit, and we’re now coming up with X Factor, Got Talent and Glee, which is starting to roll out around the world. We also have a TV production partnership with Nickelodeon. We’ve just concluded our Syco deal with Simon Cowell, who we see as providing a huge platform for us in TV.

How does Australia fit in with strategy for X Factor?

We’re coming back. We’ve just had a great meeting in London where we brought together all the broadcasters, FremantleMedia as the production arm and Sony Music. The feeling is now that we will up the ante with respect to investment to make the show even better. We’re on track for 2011.

There’s a buzz on Guvera launching in the U.S. and Australia at the end of March. Does Sony support the ad-funded model?

We’re open to every model right now. Ad-supported music hasn’t proven that it’s self-sustaining yet. But we continue to license, and look for partners, and look to see the different twist they provide. People talk about the CD being dead. In the U.S., it’s now a 60% physical, 40% digital model and by next year it will be closer to 50-50. Most of the rest of the world is 80-20. CD is a great format, but there’s no denying that digital is here and we have to satisfy all consumers.

What are your thoughts on the artistry in Australia?

Australia has been a great place to develop talent for the international stage. But there hasn’t been enough that has come out of it lately. Kate Miller-Heidke and Karnivool are both being embraced by our U.S. and international companies. And from our competitors, the Veronicas and Wolfmother have stood out. Australia is absolutely one of the “providers” for us. English-language repertoire represents almost 80% of our profitability on a worldwide basis. We need for the Australian market to be really fertile and help us create global stars.

Has the Australian Sony company been hitting the targets?

Denis Handlin has been in the business for 40 years, and he is still our most innovative CEO. I’ve sent many of our top executives down here to see how, in a medium-sized market, you can take opportunity and make that blossom into reality. There’s a frontier attitude, and it’s coming from one of our most experienced CEOs, who at this point you’d think might be jaded but the opposite is the case. Anything that we look to do as a group, whether it’s the touring side, the TV side or the digital side, this is the ‘beta-company’.

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