'I don't feel there's a formula': Damian Christian - The Music Week Interview

'I don't feel there's a formula': Damian Christian - The Music Week Interview

Have you heard the one about the promotions exec and the Radio 1 DJ who flew all the way to New York to see a band, got “overly refreshed” and ended up telling the group they’d played a great set before the gig had even happened?

How about the one about the plugger who tried to order a taxi to Amsterdam from Copenhagen after a riotous Aqua launch junket?

Or the one about the West London boy who took on Marilyn Manson in a drinking contest and won, before putting the star in a headlock, prompting the God Of Fuck to demand his security “get this maniac away from me”?

If you haven’t, you really should spend an hour or two in the company of Damian Christian. They just don’t make executives like the Atlantic UK head of promotions and Warner Music UK SVP of promotional strategy any more. Whether working his magic on playlists or TV bookings or delivering swaggering, competition-baiting speeches at the Music Week Awards – where he and his Atlantic colleagues have triumphed in the Promotions Team section in 10 of the last 11 years – he is a living, breathing, bantering throwback to the ’90s, when execs were every bit as quote-worthy and rock‘n’roll as their artists.

But beneath what Christian dubs his “bravado” lies a consummate professional who has remained at the very top of his game for over 30 years. After stints at RCA and MCA, he arrived at Atlantic (then East West) 20 years ago and has become one of the label’s most influential executives. That influence seems likely to grow after the shock departure of label president Ben Cook, after Cook admitted wearing an offensive Run DMC costume at a party.

We initially meet before the scandal, but Christian subsequently comments: “I had a good working relationship with Ben and we enjoyed some great moments in a very successful period in Atlantic’s history. We are now all 100% focused and excited for the next chapter.”

And you should never doubt Christian’s focus. Despite his “lairy” reputation, he’s renowned for his forensic, long game approach to plugging, taking over a year to work Portugal The Man’s Feel It Still to No.1 on the airplay chart and successfully taking the likes of Ed Sheeran and Stormzy across radio’s usually strict genre and demographic barriers.

“Damian or Big D as I call him is undeniably a music industry legend,” says Stormzy. “The GOAT of his field and the top fucking boy, big facts. I’ll vouch for that any day of the week.”

“Damian is our guy,” Ed Sheeran tells Music Week. “I love him and can’t imagine, nor would ever want, anyone else in that position.”

“I’ve known Damian for over 15 years from when I first joined Atlantic in 2003 and he used to regularly torment the new kids,” quips Sheeran’s manager, Grumpy Old Management founder Stuart Camp. “But he has always been hands down the best promo guy there is, quite literally willing to fight for his acts. His success rate at Atlantic speaks volumes, as does the dedicated team he has had around for that time too. They’re second to none – forgiving last year’s Music Week Awards blip! – under his leadership and long may it continue.”

And while Christian might be a Marmite figure to some – especially a few of his rival pluggers – his colleagues at Warner are well aware of his worth.

“Damian’s passion for music and what he does goes right to his core and he never stops pushing himself to be the best,” says Ed Howard, MD of Sheeran’s label Asylum. “He’s a consummate plugger who, over the last 20 years, has seized every opportunity for his artists and for Atlantic. Needless to say he, and the team he has built, have been crucial to all that we have achieved at Asylum since inception. He’s very much loved and respected by colleagues, managers and artists and his drive for excellence and enjoyment of his job uplifts those around him. He’s truly one of a kind and we feel very fortunate to have him play such a pivotal role in the Atlantic family.”

Some might assume the changing media landscape might not suit a self-confessed “old school” exec like Christian. But while he admits being a late adopter of most technology (he only got a Blackberry having turned up to one of his son’s cancelled football games because he didn’t get the email), he now has key relationships at streaming services as well as at every radio station in the land.

And he is nothing if not adaptable. After all, he started his music biz career as “gopher” to then-Radio 1 DJ Gary Davis, having answered an Evening Standard ad looking for a tour manager.

“You had to be 24, with experience and a clean driving licence,” Christian reminisces. “I was 19, had no experience and nine points on my licence!”

Nonetheless, Christian “blagged” the job and, as with most things, went all-in, becoming Davis’ right-hand man, in charge of everything from mowing the lawn to doing security in “moody” nightclubs, dealing with “herberts” and “situations”. Whenever he popped back into his local in Chiswick, drinkers would great him with Davis’ trademark jingle: “Wooh, Damian Christian”.

“I loved it,” Christian laughs, sat on his balcony at Atlantic in autumn sunshine. “I had a company car, I was the first person with a phone, but it was really hard work.”

At the time Christian had a healthy suspicion for the “smarmy” pluggers who would court Davis, but eventually joined RCA’s promotions department. After initial bafflement at how often he was expected to go out for lunch (“My mates would phone and say ‘Bollocks, you’re not going for lunch again?’ and I’d be like, ‘I think that’s what I do now’”), he embraced the lifestyle, moving to MCA and then, in 1999, moving his department over en masse to East West (one of his team, Carrie Curtis, is still there with him today). Incredibly successful campaigns for everyone from David Gray and James Blunt to Anne-Marie and Jess Glynne followed and the rest is Music Week Awards history, with the team winning multiple gongs in that time, including nine in a row (Christian has so many in his office some are stacked up to be used as a paperweight).

After losing out to Jane Arthy and her Warner team in 2018, Atlantic regained its crown this year, a victory Christian celebrated with a classic speech – taking in being “on the Mozam” (Google it) and why “there’s a lot of cunts in the music industry” before telling his hecklers to “fuck off” and signing off with his catchphrase (half-inched from football hooligan drama The Firm), “We come in peace, we’ll leave you in pieces”. It will no doubt make an amusing footnote in the book Christian currently has several offers to write.

The Damian Christian we meet today, however, is not that guy. Instead, he is here to talk eruditely about 20 glorious years at Atlantic, the importance of his team (Curtis, Deirdre Moran, Holly Marshall, Will Puxley and Christian’s son, Charlie) and the fine art of plugging. And get a bit ‘lively’, natch…

When you arrived at Atlantic, did you think you’d still be here 20 years later?

“No. I mean, I’m a loyal character. I was at RCA for five years and MCA for seven. In the first few years here, I actually thought it might end quite quickly because we weren’t having much success at the time. Max [Lousada, now Warner Music Group CEO] and I always referred to it as walking the plank because we had nothing. Then all of a sudden something happened and we ended up getting on this roll.”

What changed?

“David Gray was enormous but it didn’t feel like we grew as a label then, it felt like we were David Gray Records. Then James Blunt came along. I never thought I would see record sales like it. The charts used to come in on Sunday and it would put a big smile on your face going into work on Monday, knowing that you’d got this absolute winner. Then, over the last 12 years, there’s been something very exciting or a real big seller every year. That’s a credit to the A&R guys for signing so well and the American label for giving us some massive records.”

And then along came Ed Sheeran...

“It’s been one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in. Just when you think you can’t top something, along comes this young ginger rapper from Suffolk. There’s nothing better than [breaking] a new domestic act. I remember he did three Barfly gigs back-to-back in one night, there was this huge line went down the road. At the time nobody [in the media] had come to see him really. So rather than plug the record, we got the footage of the queue of people and we sent that. At the end of the night there was police, ambulance, fire brigade, it was chaos but good chaos. It’s easy now but when we started with Ed, it actually did take some work. I’m not trying to big up our part, but there were certain areas and people that weren’t convinced that Ed was the next big thing. So seeing him go from the Barfly to the Wembleys or Madison Square Garden… Those are the things that you’ll remember when you finish doing the job, just seeing a little acorn growing into this monstrous thing. Having that connection with one of the biggest stars in the world, because you’re in that inner circle and they trust you, it’s a good feeling.”

When did you realise you were pretty good at this plugging game?

“(Laughs) What’s the time now? Nah, it took a while because it’s really all about the records and there were times when you doubted yourself. The chairman of RCA used to send round a league table of the record labels and we were always in the bottom three. It was like relegation. I used to fucking hate it, it used to really drive me mad, infuriate me, but we just didn’t have the records to get out of it. Then I went to MCA and we then started really doing well, we had 13 or 14 records on the Radio 1 playlist. So I made sure I sent that to a certain person and said, ‘You still doing your league table? Maybe it was the records rather than us!’ I got great pleasure from that.”

So what’s the secret of your promo success?

“I don’t really want to share it. I’m not going to get the magic book out! I don’t feel there’s a formula, we just do it how we do it. I couldn’t pull a scroll out and go, ‘Do this’ – and, if there was, I certainly wouldn’t be telling you!”

Winning the Music Week Award 10 years out of 11 can’t be just down to the records though, can it?

“People obviously like how we do it. We’re very truthful, we’re respectful, we know what we’re talking about, we have a mixture of experience and youth. I’m glad they still love what we’re doing. There’ll probably be a few years when we don’t win it. But every year we don’t, it’ll make me hungrier to come back and win it the following year.”

Meanwhile, your acceptance speeches have become fairly notorious…

“The speeches are not really planned, they’re off the cuff. I try and behave myself but sometimes I let myself go a little bit. Sometimes I’ve been very drunk and shouting the odds but most of it is bravado, it’s more for fun. I want people to give me some stick, because it makes it lively. This year I banged on a bit and I didn’t realise how well it went down. I had more people talking about the speech than congratulations on the award! My phone lit up like a Christmas tree, the following day, even people who are fairly straight were saying ‘Oh my God’. Someone sent me the Music Week transcripts and when I read it back, to be honest it made me laugh. Stormzy texted me within 30 seconds of winning it, saying ‘Big D, you’ve won your crown back’, so the ego gets a nice little stroke. It gets quite hungry the ego, it needs a snack every 15 minutes these days. A little nibble.”

Did you mind being heckled?

“No. If I was them I’d be getting frustrated too. I understand the frustration. Most of it is light-hearted, most of us pluggers get on very well. They always genuinely send a text through saying, ‘Nice one, well deserved’. I’m sure behind closed doors people are going, ‘What are they up to?’ but we’re not up to anything. That’s the great thing about it!”

Do you ever get in trouble for the things you say?

“No, not really. I think they knew I was joking. It’s tongue in cheek, it’s a laugh and it got a reaction. Max phoned me in the morning, and said, ‘I heard you did a lively speech’. But it was more about congratulations. I don’t need anyone to hold my hand, that’s not how I work. I did go through a stage of being a bit lively on Twitter. I even got a text from Ed once saying, ‘Damo, my God, what’s happened, who’s upset you?’ I’m not doing it for attention, I was probably over-refreshed and being a bit silly. One time a Radio 1 DJ texted me saying, ‘I’m just about to go on stage in front of a massive crowd and I’m scared but I’m reading your tweets and I’m absolutely pissing myself. You’re helping to relax me, whatever you’re going on about’. If I’d named someone and been mean, I’d feel terrible afterwards because I’m not that person. But people were pissing me off and I knew that people were following me, so they probably got the message that they were pissing me off and to stop!”

How close are you to the radio DJs, TV presenters and producers that you deal with?

“Most of it is a very good professional relationship. If you were asking one of them now, some of them would say, ‘God I love him’ and some would say, ‘He’s an absolute knob’. We need each other; they need to hear about the new music, we want them to play it so we sit down and talk.”

Does radio still matter in the streaming age?

“Some people would say it’s not as big, but for us at Atlantic we take it as seriously as ever. It’s everything for us. Streaming is really important but today you get the Radio 1 and Capital playlists and everybody will be waiting for that news at 5pm. It’s been like that for over 30 years. The whole record industry comes to a standstill. I can be a bit old school at times, but the artists still love airplay because you can hear it, you can feel it, so I still get a massive buzz out of hearing our records on the radio. It’s a drug, it’s addictive, the more you get, the more you want. Don’t tell my wife or my kids, but first thing every morning I open my eyes and the airplay is there. It’s the first thing I look at, even on holiday. I’m such a sad bastard.”

Is it important for your old school plugging style that there’s a human element to programming? Presumably you can’t influence an algorithm in quite the same way?

“Yeah. Sitting down in front of people, having regular dialogue and taking people to gigs if they’re not sure about an act and going, ‘Give it another go’… That’s important. But the streaming dudes do that as well. I don’t mind being called old school. I take it as a compliment. I am old school – with a new school element in there too.”

Is the music business still as rock‘n’roll as it used to be?

“I went through the ’90s and it was quite lively, I’m not going to lie about that. But the ’70s and early ’80s were completely out of control! It’s not like that anymore but I’m actually pleased about it. Everyone’s much healthier. I actually don’t drink for three, four, five months of the year. I’m not drinking now until December. But you want to see me in December! In the late ’80s and ’90s it definitely made the job easier if you did go out and socialise. These days, if you were teetotal and started doing this job, it would be no problem.”

What’s the most ridiculous night out you’ve ever had?

“One time, Black Grape were doing Top Of The Pops for their record with Joe Strummer [England’s Irie]. That was a very lively day. There was a party that evening and I remember being with Keith Allen. He was in a film called The Yob that I loved so we had a competition to see who could remember more lines – and I knew more than he did! We were doing that all through the night. There’s been too much fun. In the MCA days, it felt like I was in a film, it’s just there was no camera.”

Do you wish there were still more big characters in the music business?

“When I started, it was full of characters and there was a bit more nonsense going on and it definitely does feel more serious now. You can’t have everyone going nuts like you did back then, but you can have a bit of fun. We still have as much fun as possible, we laugh a lot in my department. And we genuinely get along with the people we deal with. We’re lucky enough to do what we do, they’re lucky enough to be doing what they’re doing, so when we all get together why would you not be having a good time? Some people take themselves too seriously for sure, I hear how other people do their stuff sometimes and it’s so stat-driven and serious. I try to do it in a slightly different way.”

Maybe you need someone like yourself to compete with?

“No, definitely not, that would be horrible. I’d hate him! I’d definitely rather they stayed the way they are. There’s not enough room for two of me… I’d probably really not like him at all!”

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