Seymour Stein: "Music replaced every other thing that was important to me"

After more than four decades at Warner Music Group, Seymour Stein has decided to move on and plans to return to his "indie roots". The legendary exec launched the Sire label 50 years ago and signed artists including Ramones, Madonna, The Cure, ...

The Aftershow: Steven Van Zandt

Between playing with Bruce Spingsteen in the E Street Band, his solo career, running his own label and radio show, political activism, starring in The Sopranos and much more besides, Steven ‘Little Steven’ Van Zandt has had an incredible career. Ahead of his UK solo dates this week, he tell us what he’s learned along the way...  I’m probably the greatest advisor ever… “Not because I’m so smart, but because I’m so stupid! When I give somebody advice it’s from real experience of having done the wrong thing. Everybody begged me not to leave The E Street Band. I worked for 15 years to try and make a living playing rock’n’roll, we finally get our first pay cheque and I leave! [Laughs] That could be analysed on a couch for 20 years. Basically, I got obsessed with politics. It was a critical moment in my life and I did not take the advice I was offered.” Greatness is so absent from our consciousness…“I’m not even sure our society at this point would recognise it if they actually experienced it. That’s how bad it’s got. Being discovered may not be enough anymore. I was lucky enough to grow up in a renaissance – the only time in history when the greatest art being made was also the most commercial. Greatness was what you aspired to – you didn’t wake up every day saying, ‘How can I make money?’ you woke up saying, ‘How can I achieve greatness!’ Which would in fact make money! [Laughs] Greatness was the concern, effort and ambition. I don’t believe anyone’s born great, I don’t believe success is inevitable for those that have talent. I believe greatness is something that has to be earned – it takes hard, focused, consistent work.” Rock’n’roll is all about… “The live experience, but that part of the infrastructure is just gone. The local clubs are gone, or are charging bands to play. People don’t want to go out anymore, TV is just too damned good. I know, I’m guilty – I confess! I was there in the first revolution with The Sopranos and I was there at the second revolution with the first show on Netflix [Lilyhammer]. As wonderful as that is for the TV side of me, it’s definitely hurting the live attendance of clubs.” My proudest moment so far is… “The whole South Africa thing with Artists United Against Apartheid. I was obsessed with international liberation politics for 10 years and that was our crowning achievement. There’s very, very few absolute successes in that world – it’s usually an inch here, an inch there, one step forward, two back. That was a real clear cut victory. We actually brought down a government. I’m not gonna do that every day! [Laughs] It was quite a proud achievement.” I started Wicked Cool Records because… “The groups I was playing on my radio show, a lot of which were from Europe, had no American distribution. The entire internet distribution thing hadn’t happened, so I started the record label to just give distribution. Of course, I lost a fortune because I started the record company exactly as the record business ended. Like, exactly the same day. All the physical product we were making was a complete loss. Now, we do digital and when the bands tour and want physical product, they buy it themselves and that works out quite well. Bands do still have great success selling physical product at shows.”

All together, Now: How Now That's What I Call Music became the world's biggest compilation series

Britain’s best-loved compilation series reaches the Now That’s What I Call Music 100 milestone this week. But can it survive in the streaming age? Music Week investigates… Sir Richard Branson is reminiscing. The Virgin Group Founder was at the helm of Virgin Records back in 1983, when then Virgin head of licensing and business affairs Stephen Navin and GM Jon “Webbo” Webster dreamed up the concept for a compilation series that – unlike other such records of the time – would offer the biggest hits of the day in a high-quality, high-value package. “At the time Virgin was dominating the charts with our singles,” says Sir Richard. “But I was fed up with third party labels like K-Tel ringing us up for our hits and making fortunes out of our hard work. So I went to see EMI and said, ‘Why don’t we both create our own label together, which would put out ours and others’ hits’.” Sir Richard and Virgin MD Simon Draper brokered the deal with then EMI managing director (and, later, BPI boss) Peter Jamieson. “The only thing was,” Sir Richard grins, “We didn’t have a title…” The unlikely moniker for what would go on to be the world’s most lucrative compilations brand famously came from a poster that Sir Richard bought in a Westbourne Grove junk shop. He’d been frequenting the store because of “a beautiful girl called Joan” who worked there, but “the owner made it clear that I had to buy something in order to spend time with her in the shop”. One of his purchases was a poster for Danish Bacon featuring the words “Now, that’s what I call music” on it, which hung above Draper’s desk and was thus in just the right place at just the right time. “We had our name and the rest is history,” smiles Sir Richard, Music Week’s Strat Award winner in 1991.  Joan Templeman went on to marry Branson and the Now franchise has enjoyed a similar fairytale narrative. Many of the compilations were released pre-1994, when the Official Charts Company took over the chart, but Now estimates it has sold 120 million albums over its 35-year lifespan and countless spin-offs. That’s probably more than any artist, and some entire record labels, over the same period. Since 1994, it’s been responsible for 61,758,210 album sales – 52,431,463 of them on CD. The average sale for the 55 numbered Now albums this millennium stands at 879,923 copies, with 1999’s Now! 44 the biggest all-time seller with 1.65m copies (although Now That’s What I Call Christmas is estimated to have sold 4.3m copies over multiple iterations). No wonder Entertainment Retailers Association CEO Kim Bayley describes the series as “massively important” to her members, as well as the fans. “When you look at the top-selling albums over the last few years, it’s always up there,” she says. “And particularly for physical music, the gifting environment and the impulse sector, Now is a great product. It’s obviously more challenged in the market we exist in now, but it still has a place. People know, if they buy a Now album, it’s not going to be full of a load of fillers that they don’t want to listen to, it is the top tracks of the last few months.” That blend has remained remarkably similar over 100 compilations and 35 years. Formats have come and gone and the iconic (if odd) early pig branding has fallen by the wayside (though it returns, rebooted, for the Now 100 campaign). Even the original value proposition – that Now should cost around the same as five singles – has been undermined by the digital music revolution. But the formula itself remains untroubled by the ravages of time, even if it is a bit more complicated nowadays. “We look at sales, streaming, YouTube, radio playlists…” says current Now director Jenny Fisher. “We look at everything, up to 50 different [data] points. Then we put together a list and take it from there.” There is one unbreakable rule (no swearing) but the series is famously genre-agnostic (although there was a heavy metal ‘get out clause’ in the early days). And while not everyone is always keen to participate – Madonna was a famous naysayer and, more recently, the likes of Rihanna and Adele have become difficult to license – the Now brand is built to withstand such resistance, just as it weathered the Britpop storms, when everyone wanted to hear albums rather than three-minute hits. “Every track is a hit record, so Now is a snapshot of the taste of the music-buying public at any given time – all killer, no filler,” says Nicola Tuer, COO of Sony Music UK which has run Now as a joint venture with Universal Music since 2013, when Universal was forced to sell a stake in the brand as part of its deal to buy EMI. “In the 35 years that Now has been going, it has built a level of respect and trust with its audience and is one of those rare albums that appeals to everybody – each individual has their own ‘first Now’ story. The concept of Now is fundamentally a variant of what playlists are today - it was an innovation when it launched and that must be credited as a factor for the brand’s endurance.” Indeed, first-mover advantage proved crucial as Now saw off copycat brands, including Hits. But there’s more to its endurance than that. “It’s always had real management support,” says Now co-MD Steve Pritchard. “Much as everyone wants to be involved with the latest artist release, they realised the financial value and marketing power of the Now brand. We never had problems getting our marketing budget.” “And spending two and a half million quid every year for 35 years doesn’t do any harm in building awareness,” notes fellow co-MD Peter Duckworth, drily. “It seems obvious to say it but every music sale is good for the retail sector and the wider business,” says Tuer. “Music is unlike any other entertainment – it soundtracks significant moments in all of our lives, from birthdays, to first kisses, weddings, even funerals, and nothing will replace its central role in our lives. Now compiles these nostalgic moments for us.” The challenge for the current custodians of the brand, of course, is to make sure Now isn’t just about then. The compilation survived the download era and is still proving remarkably resilient in the age of streaming. But, with compilation album sales down another 22% year-on-year in Q2, and streams of Now playlists counting chartwise for the original repertoire owner rather than the Now brand, the sales graphs are only pointing one way. And unlike on Yazz’s song that was track one on Now 13, it isn’t up. The brand has, of course, made efforts to future-proof itself. Its Now Top 40 playlist is consistently one of the most popular on Apple Music, and the brand accounts for hundreds of millions of streams every year, while its app is one of the few mid-tier streaming subscription services out there (Now does not disclose the number of subscribers although Duckworth says it’s “doing alright”). But it’s so associated with the core CD product that any move away from that will surely change the nature of Now. “Now will be the last CD standing,” predicts Duckworth. “Eventually there might only be five CDs available when you walk in [a supermarket] at Christmas and Now will, hopefully, be one of them. After that it will move to streaming and Now will survive, because it’s big enough to survive. It won’t make the margin it currently makes because it’s a different business model, it will be about maximising your streaming market share by being on Now playlists.” “There are lots of things that you can see the Now brand being attached to that will give it that stamp of approval and curation,” says Bayley. “It doesn’t matter whether you exist in a physical or digital world, you need some help with curation, so they can make that work for them.” “For as long as people consume music there will be a need for curation from trusted, quality brands,” agrees Tuer. “Now has a place in the hearts and minds of generations of pop music fans, with the growth of streaming there are even more consmers engaging with the brand over even more formats, be it physical, digital, streaming or apps. As Richard Branson said on the 30th anniversary – if it reaches Now 100, perhaps it will go on forever!” And Sir Richard himself? “Now is always current yet, at the same time, incredibly nostalgic, which is an unusual and very positive combination,” he says. “They represent a host of emotions and memories; as well as some great music, it’s those memories that people hold with such affection, whether they bought it on a CD or via streaming. It is the thoughtful curation that ensures every album evokes such memories and becomes a soundtrack of a time in our lives. “The Hits brand that launched to great initial success, so soon after Now, didn’t last long, so perhaps that pig, and the 1920s copywriter who came up with the slogan, deserves more credit than we’ll ever know,” he concludes. “The pig is held with great affection, many people still remember that poster – not least yours truly!”

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