Earlier this week, Rob Stringer was installed as the new CEO of Sony Music Entertainment, stepping up from his role as CEO of Columbia Records. And here at Music Week, we always knew he was destined for great things.
In 2014, Stringer was the deserving recipient of Music Week’s coveted Strat Award for his long-standing work and contribution to the industry.
So, to find out a bit more about Sony Music Entertainment’s new CEO, you can read our 2014 interview with Stringer in full, in which he looks back over an extraordinary career…
Nature or nurture: the eternal psychological conundrum, and one that can be interestingly applied to Columbia president Rob Stringer in regard to his obsession with music.
He remembers being “ridiculously passionate” about it pretty much forever, so there’s definitely something inherent, something in the soul, if you dare go that deep, but there’s also no doubt that his fervour was fired and fuelled by his environment during those crucial formative years.
Stringer, you see, was lucky enough to be born and raised in… Aylesbury.
(In the movie of this feature, there will now be a smash cut from the glamour of Sony Music’s Manhattan HQ to a slow tracking shot of the Buckinghamshire market town’s sleepy High Street, whilst the soundtrack is disrupted by the sound of
a needle being yanked off, say, Happy by Pharrell, and jerkily replaced with a crackly version of something by Vaughn Williams.)
Aylesbury had two key ingredients: a nightclub called Friars and an independent shop called Earth Records. Stringer admits that between them they gave him a “university-level education in music”.
It’s certainly true that the quality of bands that played the venue outstripped what would normally be expected in a town with a population (at the time) of about 30,000.
Stringer fondly recalls: “Every week, from the late ‘60s onwards, big artists would gig there. David Bowie played there a lot, Genesis played there a lot, there was a lot of that early ‘70s prog rock thing, and then when I was 14, 15, The Ramones played there, Talking Heads played there, Blondie played there, The Jam, The Clash, David Bowie played keyboards there when Iggy Pop came…
“You were supposed to be 16 to get in, but I went from when I was 14, which was 1976, and then I worked there from 79-82, before I went to college... Actually, the first show I tried to see, I didn’t get in, that was The Stranglers and The Vibrators. But then a few weeks later - I probably wore a hooded sweatshirt or something - I got to see Eddie and the Hot Rods.
“And then I just kept going, more or less every week. I saw The Jam four times, I saw The Clash, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers did their first UK headline show there, supported by The Boomtown Rats, Blondie were supported by XTC, The Ramones were supported by Talking Heads, U2 I saw five times there.
“Being in that environment, in that town, everyone’s elder brother had seen Bowie and Mott the Hoople, and then we got all the punk bands, we were amazingly lucky.
“Once I was 16, I was going to shows in London all the time as well. But at 14, with all these bands on your doorstep, at the very peak of their powers, how can you not be inspired?”
It was the start of Stringer’s voracious and ongoing absorption in not just music, but of related or semi-detached cultural nuggets. (At this point his mind would undoubtedly flicker to the fact that Nuggets is the title of the legendary 1972 garage rock compilation curated by original Patti Smith group guitarist Lenny Kaye. It’s what he does.)
Stringer is big on reference points. He doesn’t just know what single was released and when, he remembers the picture sleeve. He didn’t just see that band on that tour, he can tell you (probably show you if you give him enough time in his attic) what T-shirts were sold in the foyer – or what classic Pennie Smith pic was used with the NME review.
There’s no doubt it helps with his job, it helps him connect with artists, and with fans, it helps him put records and ideas in context and it must have proved invaluable during his A&R years… but above all, you know for a fact he’d do it anyway – whether running Columbia Records in New York or fixing cars in Aylesbury.
That particular career option became less likely when Stringer went to Goldsmiths in London to study sociology. After three years he took a sabbatical and became the renowned University’s social sec, putting life on hold and bands on stage.
“The next natural step I guess would have been to become a booking agent, but I saw an ad in the London student newspaper which said, ‘Wanted: graduate trainees with experience in entertainment’. And that was me, that was my Willy Wonka Golden Ticket. It was like a ray of light coming off the page and shining on me. It’s not meant to sound arrogant, but I knew I’d get the job, it felt like the ad was actually for me, so in my mind I was just going along to let them know, I’m here.
“In 1985 I started as a graduate trainee at CBS, but they had no idea what that meant and neither did I. Basically, they took me round every department for a couple of months and then shoved me at marketing where I fell under the wing of a guy called Nick Rowe, who was a great marketing exec and who sort of made me his apprentice.”
The real breakthrough came, however, when Tim Bowen arrived in the London office from New York and got him to switch to A&R. “That was so important, and I knew it was key for me, because your route through the process becomes different. The marketing skills are there, and they’re to do with a mixture of creativity and common sense.
“But A&R is schizophrenic, and for me to have a bit of schizophrenia in my make up at that time was good. In marketing you can maybe end up a bit too rigid, especially once you’ve been doing it a while. A&R is not that, it’s lonely, it’s subjective and it’s far from rigid.
“It’s a very difficult job that comes with a lot of pressure. You’re very visible, because you’re the person that did that, you’re the person who shouted about that and championed that, so if that fails, you’re the first to get the finger pointed at you.
“I’m glad I went through that and I’m glad that I took that background and that experience into running a label.”
His biggest signing during that time was the Manic Street Preachers, “but I also worked with all the acts already on the label. So I worked with Paul Young, Alison Moyet, Deacon Blue and Bros, which was great training, because making records is a completely different skill set, a whole other side of A&R.
“It’s great being a scout and standing at the bar saying, Yeah, they’re pretty good, but actually making records is… exhausting. And far from easy. So I had a great crash course with those artists, whilst also being out most nights looking for new acts.”
In 1992, Sony Music’s then boss, Paul Burger, gave Stringer the job of running the company’s slightly smaller label, Epic. “I was 29 at the time. Paul was great because he trusted me. I made mistakes, of course, because we all do, but he trusted me and let me get on with it.
“We [Epic] had a much smaller US roster than Columbia, which is, I think, one of the reasons they moved me there; there was less politics. I mean the US stars were very, very good, and some of them were huge, but there were less of them in total, and that gave me more room to breathe and build a young British roster, because we weren’t in great shape in that respect at the time.”
He’s keen to stress, though, that it’s a balance, not a battle. “We treated the US artists with the utmost respect, of course we did, we’d signed great bands like Rage Against The Machine and Pearl Jam, Michael Jackson was still incredible and then Celine Dion broke through.
“I love Celine, by the way, I think she’s one of the greatest vocalists of all time and I’m still really close with her – I’m not just some indie kid!
“So it was a question of getting the right mix, because a healthy UK roster is good for the company. For me, the best record always wins. If you have a UK record that’s B-minus and a US record that’s A-plus, you don’t go for the B-minus.
“I’ve said that to many people over the years, and it’s especially true in the UK where everything is new, new, new, and the next thing is always the greatest thing ever.
“I have to remind people, Yeah, it’s new, and new can be exciting, but listen to the record, it’s only quite good. But this, this over here which you’re in danger of dismissing, this is really good.
“Ironically, I’m now doing it from the point of view of having American artists and coming over here and saying, I love the fact that you’re spending money on that, but this is better. And if you ask 10 objective people, they’ll tell you this is better.
“I totally get the British impulse to help the new thing come through, I love that, we all want that, but you don’t want to become blinkered by it.”
He took the Manics with him to Epic, which gave an instant boost to the Brit side of the scales, then he worked with Ian Broudie who was producing some Alison Moyet tracks, and together they plotted a new Lightning Seeds album, which became the highly successful Jollification.
“And then we kept going and we had a real cross-section: Finlay Quaye would sell records, B*Witched would sell records, we built a strong relationship with Sade, who was huge globally, Macy Gray came through from the States – and we managed to get George Michael back.”
Michael had, of course, very publically fallen out with Sony after Listen Without Prejudice. The healing process began when Stringer’s Epic put out the massively successful hits collection, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael. “That was fucking huge – like two million double albums, and that opened the door really.
“Remember, I wasn’t part of the hierarchy when George left, and I still think to this day that Sony won nothing in that episode. Okay, we won the court case, but so what? We lost an amazing artist.
“But yeah, the bridges were re-built and I really wanted him back. Thankfully neither of us had anything to say about the past. He just wanted his records to be worked properly, and we did that.”
After the success of Ladies and Gentlemen, Michael signed with Sony for his next original set, Patience, a number one album in 2004. By then Stringer was running Sony Music in the UK – which turned out to be a tough gig at a tough time.
He describes it as “at least five times as big a step up” as when he took over at Epic and candidly admits he initially underestimated the task.
“Running a label was in my comfort zone, so I, perhaps foolishly, thought running a company would be an extension of that, but it was very, very different and very, very difficult.
“I had to take myself away from the day-to-day business of signing and nurturing artists and instead have a wider view, an overall view.
“I didn’t handle that as well as I’d have liked, because I didn’t expect it and I just didn’t think about it enough. I ended up spreading myself too thin and it was much harder than I thought it would be, that’s the honest truth. But that’s a good thing in a career: why should it always be easy? It won’t, that’s for certain. And I learned as much in that period as I did in any other.”
Pressed on specific regrets, he says, “I should have been more patient and understanding with people.”
What he doesn’t do is blame bad timing, but there’s no doubt his tenure coincided with an easing in the flow of massive records from superstar artists in the US. Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson weren’t selling what they had done in the previous decade – “and as everyone knows, when the US label’s cold, you’re cold”.
He continues: “So all the international spend was cut, because they were putting all the money into trying to reconstruct the American labels.
“I was managing a larger ship and the repertoire from America wasn’t there anymore, there was a hole in the ship. Ten years before, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion had sold 350 million records. That’s a big hole!
“That was the most difficult… second most difficult time of my career. We were competing with our main rivals on a third of their A&R budgets. That’s not sour grapes, it’s just how it was. “And Lucian [Grainge] was at Universal, very aggressive and doing a phenomenal job. So when we merged [with BMG] it was the right thing to do. We’d lost our way and we’d lost our confidence.”
Sony BMG was created in 2004 – and an already difficult job got a lot harder, a lot bigger and a whole lot more political.
“It was a culture shock. They were two very different corporations. I’m not blaming either side, no one was at fault, but it was like the Slough office and the Swindon office, it was that level of cliché. I was put in charge of restructuring and it was very difficult.
“There was still music I loved in that time, like The Coral and The Zutons, who were great and sold a tonne of records, that was all great fun. So there were glimpses of sunlight, but generally it was a pretty dark time.
“My skillset is to take a group of people and a group of artists and point them in the same direction. In those circumstances, that was tough.
“I don’t look on those times too fondly because it also took me away from the music, which is what motivates me on a daily basis, on an hourly basis. Instead I was dealing with economics and politics and personnel on a level that was particularly unusual.
“What was most unusual and, I now realise, most difficult, was that it was a 50/50, and acquisitions don’t work when they’re 50/50.
“Someone has to buy someone and say, Right, this is how it’s going to be. Instead it was like a ceasefire, a perpetual and really tense ceasefire which, ironically, generated a whole load of casualties! It was an uncomfortable partnership that went on for three years [until Sony bought out BMG from Bertelsmann] but I actually don’t look back on it as three difficult years, I look back on the music we could have signed and the artists we could have worked with, those are my regrets.
“But, at the time, you’re not confident and you’re not stable – and stability’s the most important thing to artists. They want to work with people for the long term, they don’t want their A&R person or their marketing person to change every 12 months.”
Stringer’s honest assessment comes from the frontline, of course, but as well those “glimmers of sunlight” from The Zutons and The Coral, it’s also worth pointing out that amidst the muck and bullets, there were platinum albums from UK artists such as Kasabian, Editors, Leona Lewis, Mark Ronson and The View.
Two years after the merger, with Stringer a bit bruised, a bit wiser and probably more than a bit weary, it was Tim Bowen, again, who suggested a pivotal career change.
“He was number two in New York by then, and he said I should come and run an American label [Columbia].
“I was shocked. It had never occurred to me. I was 42 and I was the chairman of a UK company and I thought that’s as far as you go.
“You then get retired out – because in the UK they do that to you much earlier. Plus, I have a brother [Howard, chairman and CEO of Sony Corporation at the time] who was phenomenally successful in the States and, much as we’re extremely close, I always said I’d never work in the same town as him, let alone the same office!
“But, I thought about it, and what it did was give me the chance to reinvent myself, and you don’t often get given that chance. The only trouble was, I walked into a firestorm.”
Whilst the Sony BMG merger had been difficult in the UK, in the US it had been… well, it hadn’t really happened. “They were literally still separate companies over there. I mean the deal had been done, but nothing else had happened. People were still on different sides, and there’s no training for those circumstances.
“Again, I made fundamental mistakes. I’ve corrected them since, but they were as big as any I’ve ever made. It was hard; those first two years, they were the hardest of my career.”
They were made more difficult by a level of sniping that surprised Stringer. No one’s saying the UK industry is a love-in, but for those first couple of years in the States…
“People wanted me buried for the mistakes I made, and because I was an outsider. There’s not many Brits succeed in the US music business. It’s a tough environment and the knives are as sharp as you think they’re going to be.
“There were commentators and blogs saying, They’ve got to get rid of that guy. It got pretty unpleasant at times, and I was so grateful for the support of my wife and family at that time.
“Also, you’ve got to remember, the stakes are sooo high. In America, it’s a jackpot industry. The money in that infrastructure is way different to the UK. If you get something right in America, it’s a much bigger prize, but only when you move here and become part of it do you feel that – and I mean that, you do physically feel it.
“So, I was on the frontline in that respect, plus, because of who my brother was… Here [in the UK] it wasn’t an issue; I’d put 20 years in, I’d stood on my own two feet, but over there it became an issue. I’d never dealt with the nepotism question before, but after all that time and all that work, suddenly it’s there.”
Internally or externally? “Both. But fair enough. They don’t know me, I guess I’ve got to prove myself. Okay, fine, I’ll do that.”
And so he did, he has, and he continues to. It is ironic, given F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote about American lives having no second act, that Stringer’s American life has been almost all second act.
It began almost straight away, even amidst the chaos of a troubled merger and the slings and arrows of outraged commentators. “Despite all that, I always knew I had rolled my sleeves up and done good work, planting seeds, musically, which turned out to be very important. I knew I’d done that right and I had a partner there, Steve Barnett [now head of Capitol Records], who understood the vision.
“I also got a lot of support from Rick Rubin and Jay Z [Stringer had hired Rubin as an exec, and one of his first Columbia deals brought Jay Z’s Roc Nation to the label]. They pressed home to me what I already knew: that you can get the business side right while also staying true to the art, it is possible. To hear that from people I admired was very helpful at that time.
“One of the first acts we signed was MGMT. I had the ears for that, because it kind of went back to the New York, new wave scene of the ‘70s.
These were bands with complex and interesting reference points, and I got them, I loved them.
“I think that record, Oracular Spectacular, sold three million or something, but I also think it’s one of the most influential records of the last 10 years, I think they influenced hundreds of bands. What an extraordinary first record.
“Then a 19-year-old British girl arrived and… wow. Steve and I had heard the record and we knew she was on XL, but we also knew she wanted to be on a major in the US, and, like everyone else we were blown away by her voice and by that record.
“She [Adele (you knew that, right?)] could probably explain it better than me, but she wanted to be on our label because it was the label of Bob Dylan and Barbara Streisand, our heritage worked for us.
“It’s interesting because when I got there, the heritage was everything. And I said, Well that’s great: Streisand, Dylan, Springsteen are amazing. But the label really works and becomes more interesting when you add new things into the mix.
“I see my role as the curator of a modern art museum – a curator, you don’t own it. You have all these masterpieces, but you want to put some brand new art in there, you want to make it multi-dimensional.”
Otherwise, of course, an art gallery can quite quickly become a museum. “It’s also great for our established, legendary artists to have new talent coming in, talent like Adele. And for Adele, she came to see us, she saw the pictures of Bob and Bruce and Barbara and said, Yeah, this is good enough for me.”
Stringer didn’t just have to part with a few signed prints to clinch the deal, though: “We took a gamble, we paid a lot of money for that record .”
It turned out to be a very smart move. 19 sold a million – and three years later, 21 was released and has so far sold over 11 million in the US. And now, with the Music Week Strat Award in his hand and the applause of his peers in his ears, Stringer will explain exactly how he did it: “She’s just that good. That’s what it comes down to: she’s just that damn good.
“When I joined, Beyoncé was the only contemporary pop artist who could sell records globally. There were artists that could sell records in America, or there were the icons like Bob and Bruce, but the only global contemporary artist was Beyoncé. And Adele, of course, was a big Beyoncé fan.
“The first show she did, at Joe’s Pub in New York, she was great. We got VH1 on board from that show because, like I say, she was that good.
“With radio, there was no format for her, she didn’t fit any format, so on that first album, despite the fact we won Grammys and we got Saturday Night Live, we got no significant radio.
“The first person to blog about her in America was Kanye West. Artists like Kanye and Jay Z, they loved her from the start, because it was pure quality of voice, but she wasn’t going to get played on urban radio. Even with the second record, we sold 360,000 in the first week, but no radio – radio came later.”
He plays down the idea that a British boss at the head of a US label might have helped a distinctly British artist take the territory by storm, but does think that “it helped because when things got difficult, when she was still young, we were understanding and protective, because we knew where she came from – and I think that has stood us in good stead ever since.”
Between 19 and 21 came not, as mathematics would suggest, 20, but, as luck would have it, Glee. “I was probably still in trouble at that point ,” reflects Stringer. “But when you sell 60 million tracks and 14 million albums that no one saw coming, it gives you the platform to be able to tell people to back off a bit. [Glee] was an overnight sensation – I mean almost literally overnight: the show would air on a Tuesday and the next day there’d be six songs in the iTunes Top 10.”
Stringer credits his relationship with Simon Cowell for giving him some experience and momentum to take into his meetings with the Glee team. “When I first went to America we had success with Il Divo and Susan Boyle, and I used all the spin and strategy involved with these TV-generated artists when we went to Glee. I said we’d provide the same stealth and experience. I begged for it. I said, Trust me, we can do this, and I talked a lot about what I’d done through the television platform with Syco. The other labels were a bit baffled by it, but I knew it could work.”
And suddenly, Columbia was hot. “That always feels good, but I was old enough by then not to be arrogant about it. I’d been through tough times. Most importantly, it gives you money to invest in new artists, and it gives you confidence.
“So we put an AC/DC record out which sold seven million, and then Beyoncé’s [I Am...] Sasha Fierce was a huge, huge, global record. We had a new team, we’d put a lot of new people in, and they were growing up and growing together in this environment of success.
“That creates a feeling of teamwork and of everyone pulling in the same direction. It makes you brave and it gives you the courage to be innovative.”
Which is good, because around this point in the narrative, David Bowie’s business manager calls and says one of Stringer’s ultimate heroes has a finished record he wants to put out – but he doesn’t want to tell anyone.
“We go down to the studio and yeah, it’s done, it’s ready. Now listen, I love the mystique of what went on, so I’m not going to go into detail other than to say only a handful of people knew, and we talked constantly in the build-up to the reveal.
“And it’s all connected: because of how Glee worked on that instantaneous level with iTunes, we knew we could partner with them and they could carry this message globally, immediately and with style. You add Bowie’s aura and genius to that and it became a significant cultural moment.”
Where Are We Now, Bowie’s first single for nearly a decade, appeared, without warning, on iTunes, on January 8, 2013. The album, The Next Day, was streamed exclusively on Apple’s service the day before release a couple of months later and went on to top the UK charts.
Stringer says: “To work with him was a dream. If you’re my age and British, there’s no one like Bowie and there never will be again. I respected him before and respect him even more now, because working with him was exactly how I hoped it would be.”
Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories was a record “based on the same principles” as those behind the Bowie record. There was a lot of planning that went into making a big impact and owning a moment in time.
“They liked the idea of Columbia, because they had a major record and they wanted a major label, plus they had a relationship with Ashley [Newton, president of Columbia Records] from his time at Virgin. They loved Oracular Spectacular and they’d seen the scale of 21, so it all matched up.
“They actually came in and did a pitch on how they wanted the record marketed. They gave me a book called Rock n Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, which is full of billboards for The Beatles and Bowie and Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd, and they said they wanted a campaign that showed that quality music [can be rolled out] with a sense of scale. They wanted a campaign with that spirit, and I understood what they meant.
“I also knew I could be evangelical about that record because it is a record of such impeccable taste and quality. So we went around the world, to all the territories and we said, Right, we’re going to do this together. This is the plan, this is the toolkit, you’re doing this… and fortunately it worked. And it ends with French guys wearing helmets winning Grammys.”
Like Bowie, like Daft Punk, Beyoncé didn’t just want to put a record out. In fact, she wanted to go further: she wanted to launch her fifth, self-titled album, complete with a video for every track, on the same day, unannounced, exclusive to iTunes.
“She didn’t want to do things conventionally.
She was tired of being judged by the same old gatekeepers and of everyone having an opinion about what she should do, asking her about what and why. It was a much bigger gamble putting a whole album out like that, but she wanted to do it, it was her vision. And thankfully, because of some of the experiences we’ve had, we had the confidence to go with her, to say, Yeah, let’s do it.
“[Laughs] I should say, of course, that what gave me the most confidence was hearing the record. It’s a piece of work from an artist who is getting better and better. All credit to her: she produced a body of work that deserved to be backed and deserved to have the impact it did, and I’m glad we could be part of it.”
Also part of these golden years have been One Directon, another Syco creation, another UK success story in the States and a band that Stringer “loves working with as much as anyone”, adding: “It’s been amazing to see them develop and have such phenomenal success in the US.
“And I’m not remotely snobbish, I like working with One Direction as much as the coolest band in the world. And actually, they are cool. When they do something like Saturday Night Live, they’re as pop culture-savvy as anyone. And they’ve made great records, What Makes You Beautiful and Story of My Life are classic pop singles. My 10-year-old daughter tells me off all the time for singing Story of My Life when it comes on the radio.”
Most recently there has been the rise and rise of Pharrell. A guest on Blurred Lines and Get Lucky, he is now, with Happy and GIRL, becoming the global pop star he always looked like he could be.
“That’s joining the dots. Ashley [Newton] and I were always interested in working with him and we weren’t really sure whether to hire him as an exec or to tell him to make records!
“Then we heard Get Lucky, and we said, We’re going to make you a pop star, you’re going to have another crack at it. We’ll wait and be patient, but you’re going to be a global artist, because your time is coming again. It’s back to that confidence thing, we just knew this could happen.
“And now it’s like we’ve signed and launched a brand new star, it just happens to be one who’s been around for 15 years and involved in brilliant records for 15 years.”
Talk of this ‘hot streak’ prompts Stringer to start explaining his current challenge – which is basically to stop people talking about a ‘hot streak’.
“My job now is to build this into a legacy, build this into a label that is unstoppable, a foundation label that has the best of everything, a dynasty.
I’ve been through five hot streaks and five cold streaks. What I want now, whenever the moment comes, is to hand on a legacy that’s permanent.”
It seems like the perfect place to end. But of course it isn’t. Stringer wants to go back to talking about new music – and the band he’s just signed, Wet. He sent Music Week a picture, a link and an evangelical note the week before this interview.
He says: “I love that band, they’re as good as anything we’ve signed in the last five years, and I’ll make sure we do everything we can to get their music out there to as many people as possible. I am so excited by them and by the idea of helping them.
“I went to see them on a Sunday night at the Mercury Lounge and it was freezing cold, but I was as happy to be there as I was seeing The Ramones at Friars in 1976.”
It’s a long way from Aylesbury to New York, but the love of the song remains the same.