"Music is coming from everywhere": Sony Music CEO Rob Stringer on the digital transformation of the biz

It’s been a long journey for Rob Stringer to get to Croydon.

Not so much literally, although Stringer – one of the most powerful players in the global recorded music business and one of the UK music industry’s most successful executive exports – has returned to Blighty all the way from New York for this trip.

He’s here for a number of reasons. To catch up with friends and family, of course. To check in on his Sony UK team, currently going great guns under UK chairman/CEO Jason Iley (“He’s building a really good story there – I’m thrilled. Thrilled!") and check in with Music Week, sure.

To give a boost to the away gate for his beloved Luton Town’s tricky fixture at Wycombe Wanderers, no doubt.

But he’s also trekked from flash Manhattan to sleepy Selhurst, home of the BRIT School, to check in with the future of the music industry and give a little back to the business that made him.

After all, Stringer’s own story should provide ample inspiration for the hundreds of artist and executive prospects at the school.

There were no music business courses in his day, of course, but Stringer is the music biz equivalent of the one club man, graduating to the CEO job at Sony in April after starting as a graduate trainee and moving through the ranks, including stints running Epic UK, Sony Music UK and Columbia US.

It’s the sort of linear, ever-upward journey made by very few executives, and even fewer with Stringer’s reputation for putting artists first.

So, as part of the celebrations that will see him crowned this year’s Music Industry Trusts Award winner – the ceremony for which raises money for the BRIT Trust, which funds the school, and Nordoff Robbins – he’s on a grand tour of the institution.

He chats animatedly (very British glottal stops still intact) with principal Stuart Worden, smiles indulgently at Queen covers bands, banters good-naturedly with dance classes and studio lessons and is visibly moved by a Nordoff Robbins music therapy session.

He’s not the first executive to do this but you suspect he must be one of the most whole-hearted about it.

So when he sits down for a Q&A session with the students, he tells them they can ask him anything, and actually means it. He admits he would never have seen Ed Sheeran’s potential to become a global superstar.

He claims to have attended 29 Glastonbury Festivals in a row. And when one of the kids cheekily asks why he dropped ‘90s country/indie rockers The Rockingbirds from his label, he not only quickly susses that the student’s Dad was in the band but, tellingly, displays a forensic knowledge of said Dad’s subsequent career.

Music, see, has always been more about people than money to Rob Stringer. That’s why, even as the highly-successful boss of Columbia US, you’d often see him back in the UK, attending Manic Street Preachers gigs or Music Week Women In Music Awards 2016, to help honour Businesswoman Of The Year Nicola Tuer.

And, while graduating to the top job, succeeding the legendary Doug Morris (now chairman), might now limit some of those trips, he’s determined it won’t curb his enthusiasm (and, as if to prove it, right after we chat, he’s heading off to see the Bob Dylan musical).

Stringer’s no stranger to industry awards – he picked up Music Week’s The Strat in 2014, when David Bowie sent a tribute declaring him “a star” (“If I just had that and retired tomorrow, it would be enough,” he smiles).

But he still finds the prospect of joining the MITs pantheon of greats “ridiculous”.

“What have I got that’s remotely in the context of Annie Lennox or Roger Daltrey?” he ponders, as we adjourn to the principal’s office for Music Week’s in-depth interview.

“I’m not in the same league as those people. Not to be deliberately humble, but [Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell and people like that – I’m not that. It’s harder to find those people now to be able to interact with.

“But those are the people that, as I get older, are more relevant to me now,” he continues. “Because I realise how pure and uncompromising they were. As I get older that’s kicked in more. Like, literally, try and do better work.”

And Stringer, despite Sony’s current buoyant position, has plenty of work to do. Time, then, for him to sit down with Music Week and discuss his career highs and lows, his grand vision for Sony Music and why the music business mustn’t go back to the bad old days…

How’s the new job? Is it very different to running Columbia?

“A bit. I mean, I have to change as well. I could say, ‘Oh, it’s all good, it’s just the same’ – but I haven’t got to be the same. One of the issues I’ve got is, I still have Columbia as well, which was a full-time job anyway!

The good news is, because I’ve done it for 10 years and we’ve all grown up together running it, there’s a collective self-motivation so it’s not like it all falls apart. But I do want to do the [new] job and that is obviously a full-time job too.

And it is going to be very different. Some of the stuff I’m going to do is philosophical. Some of it you make up as you go along, because we don’t own distribution anymore, so we have to get on with people we never had to get on with before.

It used to be retail, but now we have to get on with people who are far more dramatically financed than we are and we’re not in charge, we’re not in control.

Personally I’m very comfortable with that. It’s a good thing, because we have to offer something transparent and pure.

Without being like a hippy! So a lot of my job, apart from finding the best creative people, is to teach our organisation to do that. If I’ve succeeded then I’ll be doing that all the time in three or four years' time.”

Will you do things very differently to Doug Morris?

“The thing with Doug is, I don’t think we’re alike at all, but he’s taught me a lot. He can take something to a simple conclusion unlike any executive I’ve ever worked with. He can boil it down. You can present him nine points and he can narrow it down to the one point that matters.

Sometimes, especially in the creative roles, you can’t see the wood for the trees, because you’re in the trenches and you can’t see it. With the greatest respect to Doug, who can do it, he hasn’t been in the trenches for a while.

So he is a mentor and I’d like to be like that because, at the end of the day, you don’t have to be in the trenches.

You can be someone who looks at a scenario and understands it by just sheer experience and knowledge. He taught me a lot about that.”

You seem pretty happy in America…

“Yeah. When I first went there, it was pretty brutal. I made lots of mistakes because I was British and I didn’t understand the marketplace and I worked for a company that, we joke about it now, but [the Sony BMG merger] was like the Slough and Swindon branches on The Office.

It took five years, half a decade, to figure that out. It was the right thing to do because, once Sony bought BMG, we became a powerful company.

It was a good idea but the idea it was going to work quickly… (Laughs) It was tough and I went in in the epicentre of the storm.

It wasn’t personal, they just didn’t want me to win. No one had a problem with me and I didn’t have a problem with them, but a lot of people didn’t want me to win because of what I represented.”

But you did win…

“(Laughs) Yeah. I’ve won because, when this was going down, luckily I planted enough seeds. America’s a bit like the Wild West.

It’s like having a farm and someone saying to you, ‘We’re going to take your farm’ but, while they’re trying to take it and you’re arguing with them, you’re planting crops. It got to a point about four or five years in when, all of a sudden, those crops came up and people couldn’t take the farm anymore because it was too visible.

But the reason I went to America was because it was screwed up. I didn’t get the job because it was great, I got it because it wasn’t in good shape.

I had to get used to the cultural differences which were significant, but I couldn’t believe how entitled people were. I was going, ‘You do realise this is really not good? We can blame other things, but we’re collectively responsible for fixing this’.”

So how did you fix it?

“I literally took out the middle band of management because I couldn’t fix them. I brought in a lot of young people, we grew up the same and taught each other the way to do things properly.

They’re now in their early 30s, they don’t have a sense of entitlement and they behave well. They treat artists properly. Back then, it was a jackpot economy and the values of that economy were pretty gruesome.

Since I’ve gone there, I’ve tried not to succumb to that economy and, luckily, the business wasn’t allowing it anyway. Now it’s back, it’s going to be very challenging.

You’ve got to monitor all this stuff because it can fall the wrong side of the line again. We’ve got to be really careful not to do that.

The money’s back to some degree, the market looks like it’s on the up and what I don’t want to happen is for that to plough into the wrong direction because I’ve seen it when it’s gone wrong and I’ve got a feeling that, this time, it won’t recover if that happens.”

Aren’t people more sensible nowadays?

“They are. Except to say that, in the last 18 months the money’s gone up everywhere, because there’s more money in the business.

Some of the deals being done are back to the old level. I don’t have any self-righteous stuff about artists, whatever the transparency is is fine by me, in fact as transparent as possible because I would rather stand on a level playing field where I’m not having to justify something that’s archaic.

For various chapters of my career I’ve sat there and said, ‘This is why this is good’ but really you’re going, ‘This isn’t good’. I want [artists] to take me at face value the same way they want me to take them at face value.

We have got to be more transparent, but the digital world’s going to make that happen. We’re really going to have to justify what we do over the next half a decade and that’s going to require a lot of work by people like me and Lucian [Grainge, Universal Music Group chairman/CEO].”

What’s changed?

“When I started, we controlled people. We controlled the money because we paid the most. We controlled the environment and distribution. And now that’s gone.

We don’t pay the most money. We start the process, which is very important, but we’re not the biggest piece of the fiscal equation for a big artist. So we have to fight in that arena.”

Does it help that you’re renowned as being an artist-friendly executive?

“That’s an exaggeration. It’s a very nice tag – I mean, I wouldn’t want to be tagged as somebody [who’s] a great record company guy but the artists fucking hated him. And I don’t want to be perceived as the enemy.

But the power has shifted. I’m not sure I could have done this [job] 10, 15 years ago but now, you have to have people around like that, because the artists have as much power as we do. Look at what Taylor Swift did with Apple.

I will represent very big brand name artists who are absolutely not less powerful than us. You have to get on with those people, you can’t run a record label and not get on with the artists. I want to help them make the right choices.

I just like people who do good work, it makes no difference whether it’s an executive or an artist. You have to bear in mind, I work with an organisation that’s mature and has been around a while.

Bob Dylan has seen six of me. I’m passing through! I get on really well with Barbra Streisand but she’s seen six of me, Bruce Springsteen has probably seen five. Adele will be a part of our company long after I’m gone. So I don’t ever want to be thinking that I’m in charge, because it doesn’t work like that.”

Brits are now running all three majors. Why is that?

“It can’t be coincidence, can it? If you’re brought up on the BBC you’re listening to everything, you’re exposed to different types of music.

As the digital distribution of Napster and Apple started and now Spotify and Amazon, all of a sudden you’ve got this music that’s everywhere.

British people listen to everything from when they first listen to music. The first time I read about how wonderful Stevie Wonder was, or Anita Baker or Bobby Womack, was in the NME. It taught me; you might like Joy Division but you should listen to Bobby too. That didn’t really exist in America.

But with streaming, people listen to everything. And that’s really exciting. I was always just as happy to have a Motown record as a punk rock record.”

Do you still pay particular attention to the UK?

“To some degree. The UK’s important but you know what’s amazing about the digital transformation? Everywhere is important now. Music is coming from everywhere.

The world has absolutely shrunk and the gateway through digital has made it easier. Before, the US and UK were passport control, they stopped you getting in. I had great records in England in the ‘90s that no one put out in America because they didn’t think it was suitable because it had a violin on it or something.

And the UK would be just as snotty about something coming from America. But it doesn’t matter now. With the data we’ve got now if someone likes it, we’re going to know."

Are you happy with the deals you’ve got from the streaming services?

“I don’t think it’s a question of being happy or unhappy, it’s the price of doing business. I have huge admiration for everything Spotify have done to build their business.

We have a complicated relationship with it now, because we have to make sure that we’re represented properly and they don’t bypass us. Will that happen?

I don’t think it will, but there’s a temptation there. If they’re valued at what they’re supposed to be valued at, they could become larger than all the labels put together.

That would be odd given that we own the content. It is my job to maintain the balance. I’m conscious of the fact distribution platforms say, ‘We don’t want to be in your business [as labels]’. Good, well, don’t then. You keep saying it but then don’t.”

YouTube have made some content-related moves…

“They have, but it’s the same message. YouTube is an incredible platform, you can’t argue, it’s global. I dare say we’ll get a deal done with YouTube done too, but there are different issues with them in terms of scale and distribution to Apple and Spotify.

We need to be informed on both sides as to what the direction is they’re taking. If people want to be record labels then that’s a different conversation we need to have.”

Are any British execs in line to succeed you at Columbia?

“No. There would've been at the beginning. It’s fairly common knowledge I offered it to one person before [Now Warner Music CEO, recorded music, Max Lousada, according to rumour - Ed] and maybe they used that to get somewhere else. That’s OK.”

They got themselves a nice job out of it…

“(Laughs) They did. Got themselves a tough job out of it.”

What are you looking for in a replacement there and for LA Reid [who left abruptly in May amidst allegations of harassment] at Epic?

“With Columbia, I want someone to do, not exactly what I’ve done, but to take it to a different place. That’s taken a minute but I’m in decent shape. And on Epic, it wasn’t something I wanted to happen or envisaged happening.

I had to do something about it and really reflect the appropriate conduct of the company. But Sylvia Rhone is there and she’s run labels before. I’m not actively searching for anybody else at the moment because Sylvia’s there.”

How important is diversity to you?

“It’s going to be one of the most important things I do. When you work for a company that’s been around for as long as my company has, you’ve got to shift things because people have been there a long time. And I intend to do that.

I need to get that balance right and I’m absolutely aware of it every day and I’m going to fix it. If you look at where America is at the moment, you’ve got to be proactive and be ahead of the curve of some of the things that are happening. It’s in my mind every single day.”

Do you aspire for Sony to be the No.1 record company?

“Well, we are No.1 in some countries. There’s never a complete story. There’s not a distributor that has complete global [dominance], and it’s the same with labels.

There are disadvantages to being No.1. We’re leaner and smaller, we’re not over-stretched. As I’ve told my senior executives, we can grow a bit and we still won’t be too big.

I want to get bigger for the right reasons, for the work we’ve done, as opposed to just being big for the sake of being a corporate company.”

So what position do you want Sony to be in by the time you leave?

“I want it to be futuristic, well-run and for people to be taught the right way. If people are taught the right way, we’ll always attract artists.

If I maintain the system it’s good, but the fact is, I’ve got to do more than that, I’ve got to make it better. If I can add to what we’ve built up, we’re going to be absolutely fine.”

This interview originally appeared in the October 30 issue of Music Week. To subscribe and never miss a vital music biz story, click here.

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