Shani Gonzales: The Music Week Interview

Shani Gonzales: The Music Week Interview

Shani Gonzales took charge of Warner Chappell Music's London office in October 2020, at a turbulent time for the music industry and the world. And, amid lockdowns and remote working, her first 12 months have been action packed. Here, the former BMG exec reveals how, with personality and a progressive approach, she plans to revitalise not only her company, but publishing as we know it...

WORDS: Ben Homewood PHOTOS: Michael Leckie

The sound of the iPhone’s default ringtone is unmistakeable, even at 3,500 miles distance. Shani Gonzales picks up her mobile from the table in front of her and apologises. 

“I’m so sorry, that’s Guy Moot,” she says, muting the sound.

Of all the people to call Warner Chappell Music’s UK MD during an interview with Music Week to mark her first anniversary in the job, it had to be the company’s CEO and co-chair. Perhaps his ears were burning. Moments earlier, Gonzales was laughing as she dropped his favourite one-liner about the company, using it to explain how she’s changed things since taking over the British side of the business after succeeding Mike Smith, who departed in April 2020. Moot (see box p37) arrived alongside COO and co-chair Carianne Marshall in 2019, and is very pleased with the start Gonzales – who is continuing in her existing position as head of international A&R alongside the new role – has made.

“Guy is gonna kill me because I tease him mercilessly, but he has this saying,” says Gonzales, who’s speaking from a hotel room in her native New York, on a business trip that marks her first visit home in almost a year. 

“He says, ‘A lot of people want to buy the garden, but we want to grow the garden and maintain it,’” she says. “I teased him about it and now I find myself repeating it, because in England everyone loves a garden and, also, he’s kinda right!”

Former Epic Records, Def Jam and BMG exec Gonzales jokingly confesses that she’s never been one for company mantras (“I hate myself! You find yourself saying corporate speak that you laughed at”) but Moot’s green-fingered analogy feels apt after a landmark year for Warner Chappell in the UK. Celeste and Dave, two of their biggest hitters, have been at the peak of their powers during Gonzales’ tenure, while a diverse array of new signings include writer/producers Henry Counsell and CeeBeaats and emerging chart stars The Snuts and Central Cee. In April, The Snuts hit No.1 with their debut album W.L. (33,926 sales, OCC), while rapper Central Cee peaked at No.2 with the self-released Wild West (73,993 sales). Home to Stormzy as well as Dave – whose chart-topping We’re All Alone In This Together (124,763 sales) had the biggest week one of 2021 so far and is already a phenomenon – Warner Chappell has a track record with independent UK MCs, and Gonzales is particularly excited about Central Cee. Her previous role at BMG as co-head of A&R, US & UK means that she has seen the boom in British rap up close, and now she’s in a position to spark its next phase.

“The kid has it, he just has that thing,” says the executive, who grew up in Queens gorging on stories of rappers in the office at Vibe magazine, where her cousin worked, and fantasised about being part of it all. 

“Central Cee is an example of the one thing that becomes almost addictive in this business, when you get to be a part of a journey so early and see all the firsts happen,” she says. “He’s another person coming through to change the face and the sound of UK rap. That was one of my first signings, I was really pleased.”

Gonzales has worked with an array of talent including Justin Bieber, Travis Scott, DJ Khaled and WondaGurl during her career, which included an initial spell at Warner Chappell in 2004. Her pride in the company is obvious, and now she’s running its UK operation, you get the sense she’s in for the long haul, particularly since her introduction to the role took in Covid, Brexit and the small matter of all her worldly belongings being stuck at Liverpool docks for a few weeks while she attempted to move into her new home in London.

Firstly via Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and more recently in her house (“It’s become the de facto office!”), Gonzales has made her mark at Warner Chappell and reignited her team.

“We have changed a lot, actually,” she says. “People equate personnel changes with extreme changes, but I don’t think that was needed for us at this moment. We’ve changed the way we think and look at things, our risk perspective. I came in wanting to do riskier things, encouraging people not to listen to everything I say, but to challenge me and tell me, ‘I hate that’ or, ‘I love that’, and to think about our signings in the same way. One of the most important ways that we’ve changed is understanding that we don’t have the same KPIs as our competitors, we are here to develop the superstars of tomorrow.”

How, then, did she set about galvanising a staff that comprises highly regarded execs including head of A&R Amber Davis and VP, sync & creative services Ayla Owen?

“I said, ‘We’re gonna be the shit, now how do we do that?’” she answers. “It’s about how do we do it while being creative and making sure we have an environment of respect and honesty. Where you can say, ‘That sucks, let’s not do that,’ or, ‘That’s amazing, let’s do more of that.’”

Gonzales is wicked company, and her business brain is constantly whirring. What emerges over the course of an epic Zoom call is a refreshing view on publishing, its place in the music business and the most innovative ways to pursue success. The UK industry has a new star...

It must have been a strange start to a new job, with everything the past 12 months has thrown up?

“It was very strange to move to London and then two days later be told that we were in lockdown. It felt like I was chasing lockdowns, as the UK [restrictions] got worse, I was going there. But it’s been nothing short of adventurous, I’ve learned that I am resilient and agile. The job is crazy and hectic and bizarre and every day is like, ‘Oh my God, what just happened?’ But you get really comfortable with it and you kind of go, ‘OK.’ It’s hilarious thinking back to the person I was a year ago, it feels like so long ago.” 

In what ways has doing business changed this year, from a practical perspective?

“With Zoom or Microsoft Teams, none of that replaces human interaction, however, it arguably became a faster way to get to know people, because I’m seeing kids climb on people, pets coming in or I’m like, ‘Oh, did you buy a new plant?’ But the hard part is with the creative community. I’m a studio rat. I love being in the studio hanging out with artists, writers and producers and I’ve always found success in those rooms. That’s how I’ve always got things to move. Creative people are naturally more… weird, and I mean that as a positive. They’re just different, they’re harder to get to know in a lot of ways, so doing it on Zoom was really challenging. There’s a misconception that creative people are flexible, but you always have to sternly convince them to do things. And one of the things we were pleading and crying, quite frankly, about was making sure that we were connecting people to work via Zoom. But now, you can start a song in the studio and then go back to [video calls] to finish it. And since restrictions eased up, I’ve been able to host some amazing dinners and meetings at my house, and in some ways that’s better than the office. I’ve even learned how to make a decent cup of tea, English-approved tea.”

How does hosting meetings at home compare?

“We did a couple of signings, one was Henry Counsell. We had a really great dinner with Celeste. I’m walking into her career at a weird time compared to the rest of my team. Amber Davis got to grow with Celeste, she signed her early. I’m getting to know somebody who’s in the midst of their success, so doing it at the house was a fast-track way, without pretences. We weren’t in a restaurant like, ‘What are you gonna order?’ We were just sitting down hanging and by the end of that I was like, ‘You’re awesome.’”

What are the biggest contrasts between the business in the US and in the UK?

“It’s the music business, so it’s competitive and there’s no time for sleep, no rest for the weary. It’s about the people who can sneak around and figure out the short cuts of how you can do business best in these weird times, that resonates everywhere. But the kind of deals and what artists and writers are expecting is different here. I’ve never been a person to fit into a box, so maybe it’s been more [about] adapting to what writers want.”

So, how have you adapted?

“Here, writers require global interaction, there’s much more expectation not just for the UK but, ‘What are you gonna do for me outside of the UK? I really love  this artist in France, this person in Colombia.’ It’s much more of a global view of music. I don’t want to shit on Americans, but the US is so big, it doesn’t force you to look anywhere else. So, most of the artists there have a very limited view of the world outside the US, so they’re not asking, ‘Can you get me with such and such in France?’ They’re like, ‘Can you get me with Selena Gomez or Billie Eilish?’ Here, they want to work with artists in Spain as much as the US. That’s a really interesting view, because it forces us to think a bit differently. We think with the lens of the world perhaps much more than some of our other offices. That’s not to say they don’t think that way, it’s just not the demands of the roster, as it is here.”

Despite Covid, how are you settling into the UK industry?

“It’s a much more intentional and thought-out way to do business here. It’s smaller, so information is much more tangible and that forces companies to be a bit more transparent. Your word must be your bond, because a manager could have three other people on your roster or another artist or producer that you want to sign. Things are much more connected, much smaller, it’s more like a fraternity you don’t want to get kicked out of because you have a shitty reputation. I started this role with a bit of a cheat sheet. I was spending a load of time in London and I got in early with some good people and they got really successful! [Laughs]. I got to be close with [0207 Def Jam’s] Alec and Alex Boateng, Char Grant is somebody I worked with at my previous company, I’ve known [Dave’s managers] Jack Foster and Benny Scarrs for a while and Joe Kentish. President Joe is just Joe to me, just Joseph! So I came in with a load of support, people who were committed to helping me, it’s fun when you get to work with your friends.”

Is the approach to publishing different in Britain? 

“Publishing in the UK is a lot more passive than it is in the US. There are times when I want to tone my American-ness down because I want to make sure I’m respectful of the culture and the climate that I’m in, but there are other times where I’m like, ‘Fuck that, we’re gonna tone the American up.’ I’m not passive, and the way that I’ve had success in publishing has not been to be like, ‘Here’s a cheque, let us know when you need another one.’ I’m always telling people, ‘Don’t think you’re getting a cheque from us without loads of opinion and people who want to be your partners and me calling your phone and going, ‘What are you doing? We should do this?’ We want to build a relationship, partner up with you and be impactful. We are not entitled to any success that we didn’t earn. We want to be a formidable partner and make an impact. There are a lot of run-off effects from that, we’ve got closer with the A&R community at the record labels, they are seeing what we’re doing and are inviting us into their planning meetings and coming to us for opinions and for songs, because our writers and artists respect the things that we’re doing and are spreading the word.”

Is it rare for labels and publishers to work so closely?

“It seems to me that it is. For us within the Warner ecosystem, I’m always talking to Tony Harlow and he’s been very supportive. But it’s not a difference for me, I’ve always picked up the phone and been like, ‘What are you doing, what can we help with?’ It seems to me that it is different to have a publisher that is so integrated in record labels, and beyond Warner too. We have incredible partners with Celeste at Polydor, with Stormzy and Alec and Alex at 0207 Def Jam. To me, that is the only way to do publishing. If we’re not doing it that way, what the hell are we doing? I would like to think, don’t tell anyone, but I’m much too cool to just register songs! I’m not doing this to just register songs, I’m doing this to be a part and to hang out with the cool kids. And I don’t know that publishers always got to feel like the cool kids, but we are.”

Will you be making new hires? Or are you happy with what you’ve got?

“Yes to both. We’ve hired a couple of new people and we’ve made hires with a new perspective of what we want. We made an addition to the A&R team, Anthony Iban, who’s a different kind of A&R person, someone who looks at A&R differently, he’s always around youth culture. It’s like having an additional resource for the rest of the A&Rs. I think we definitely have the best A&R team, hands down. I will go to battle with any other publisher in this country! Put us in a mud wrestling match and I swear to God my A&R team will [win], they’re amazing.”

How do you feel about the competition?

“What competition? Who? They’re still around? I’m joking! [Laughs]. Competition is healthy. I don’t know a lot of our competitors perhaps as much as I would if we were all out at industry events and talking at shows. Clearly we’re not all across the room throwing rocks at each other, you get to know people. I only know everyone by their reputations and people have amazing reputations and I respect them, but I love that even more, because it’s that respect that makes you want to blow them out of the water. I don’t want to say that we’re blowing everyone out of the water, but I think the creative community feels the energy that we have and feels how different it is.”

What are you looking for in new signings?

“Diversity. We signed [jazz composer and producer] Emma-Jean Thackray, she’s amazing. It wasn’t an easy signing and didn’t necessarily make sense on paper, but she was brilliant. She is just as much a part of youth culture as Central Cee. That speaks to the new Warner Chappell, it was done by me and Ayla [Owen] who loves her just as much and was pressing me. I went to see her with our global head of film and TV, Rich Robinson, and it was the most amazing show. I left there with £200 worth of merch! I use her as an example because she’s maybe not the most typical thing that people would know about, but I love that we signed her before the album and watched people become fans and could say, ‘Yeah, we’ve been a part of this, we left our mark, we came through with some syncs.’ It’s the same thing with Celeste. They’re two different artists, but the same fingerprint of different departments working together to tell the story from A&R, to film and TV, to creative services.” 

And on the songwriting side? 

“I got to be a part of re-signing MNEK. He’s on top of the world. He’s showing us how to be a songwriter, you don’t just write a couple of songs, you have a voice, you have a formidable presence. You sometimes feature on a record and you become a big proponent in your community for diversity and sexual orientation. That’s what I’m interested in, people like that. He’s not like [meekly] ‘I’m a songwriter,’ he’s like, ‘I’m a fucking songwriter.’ Do you know what I mean? That’s probably the best way to explain what we’re looking for. To me, publishing is a roster of interesting voices and people who you partner with to tell their story.” 

With Dave and Gotcha, who produced Body, you’re involved with the two biggest UK rap stories of 2021. That must feel pretty good...

“I love the disruption of the rap community here, I love the arrogance of it. It’s a community of people who are, I don’t want to say that they’re saying, ‘fuck America,’ but you’re getting to see all of these other countries having their own movements because they stopped waiting for America to let them in on theirs. I have so much respect for that. What I love about Dave is that he is a very important person for the entire UK rap scene, because he’s showing how many ways you can push it forward. The rap scene is so segmented, people are very committed to the genre they want to play in. But then you have someone like Dave who knocks down all of those barriers and goes, ‘I’m Dave and I’m an artist.’ So it becomes bigger than just rap. Anybody who’s gonna become a pop star is bigger than just genre. And Dave is cementing himself in that way also, without being a sell-out. He’s telling stories for [people] beyond the audience he started with and that’s incredible. While he is one of the most important UK rap artists, this album is showing that he’s moving far beyond that. He’s a musician and a producer in his own right, he’s an excellent songwriter that’s telling amazing stories and capturing new fans daily by just doing what he’s good at. That kind of success propels the whole scene forward. I’ve never seen so much US press around a UK rap album as I’ve seen about We’re All Alone In This Together, which is the sickest name for an album I’ve heard in a long time.”

Dave’s known for his insular creative process, where does Warner Chappell come into that?

“Dave is incredibly smart, he knows what he wants to do and he charges forward with that. Benny and Jack are great at keeping us in the loop and they come to us when they need something and we do whatever it is that they want. It’s a great example of there being many ways to be a partner, we’re not here to insert ourselves with somebody who’s going, ‘Could you go away please?’ Dave is a mastermind genius, his process is incredibly private to him and that’s how he gets to where he needs to be. I’m not gonna sit here and be like, ‘We helped him make that album,’ but he’s been signed to us for five years. When you’re with an artist from that level and you’re part of their journey, the tasks change. Sometimes it could be about making sure you’re giving management all the resources they need. Or, when Dave goes to LA, making sure that he can get in with any producer or anybody he wants to work with. It’s evolved over the years, but Dave has a very specific process and we let him get to the goods without being disruptive.”

Where is rap going next in the UK, then?

“I think about the ’80s and ’90s, Def Jam and all the architects and legends that came before us. I feel really lucky because I’m in the UK when that same exact moment in the US that I wish I’d lived through is happening here. The kind of economy that’s being built around it, the superstars that are being built on the artist side and the executive side... I say that with all due respect, but I got to come here and be a part of the early days. This is an incredible moment to be around UK rap.”

Is Stormzy working on new music?

“Are you trying to get me in trouble? [Laughs]. I don’t know what I’m allowed to say, but I do know that he’s working. He’s Stormzy, so he’s always reinventing the wheel and is gonna come out bigger and better.” 

Does him leaving Atlantic for 0207 Def Jam affect things on the publishing side at all?

“What? He left?! [Laughs]. No, we’re his publisher. We’re
Warner Chappell, then there’s Warner Records, Atlantic and Parlophone and I think that, as Warner Chappell, we’re proud to be a part of that family, but we operate differently, separately from the rest of the group. They have artists [we don’t have], they have Ed Sheeran, we don’t have Ed Sheeran! We’re separate companies and we certainly can’t hold our artists hostage. We’re still a free business and we respect the boundaries that we have to have but, ultimately, we all come back to working together anyway. I’m sure they’ll have an artist that wants to work with Stormzy or he’ll want to work with someone… So no, it doesn’t [affect anything]. But I do like to call Joe Kentish every now and again and say, ‘Dua Lipa, really? Really Joe?!’ [Laughs]. But it [Lipa’s publisher] is not up to him, I get that. I like to have a tantrum now and then to keep him on his toes, you know?”

Do you see enough new talent coming through?

“There is a fertile ground. We don’t love all of it, as we shouldn’t, so we’re definitely not the people who feel like we have to sign everything. We definitely want to make sure we have enough room to do the second part, the development, making sure you are in the stratosphere with some of the other superstars. I do think there’s a lot coming through, this Covid period has been pretty interesting with some of the stuff coming through on TikTok and Instagram and so on.”

This year has also seen lots of focus on the DCMS streaming debate. What do you make of the findings?

“I think that unfortunately those conversations have not been geared to the audience that they truly affect. And I don’t know that most of the writing community really understands what is happening. I don’t know that it’s simple or transparent enough. I’m glad those conversations are happening, but it’s hard to keep up with, even for some label executives. So for the people who are creative and in the studio, they’re constantly coming to us to find out how this impacts them and it takes me quite a bit of effort to really explain it. Those things are findings and not really actions yet, so we now need to wait and see what the actions are. I’m nervous because the government is dealing with the Delta variant and all these other things. This is important to me and to
us in the business, but how will they elevate it? Will they?
I hope so.”

Finally, with Black Lives Matter uppermost in the industry’s mind, how much has changed this year?

“I don’t think it’s a different environment yet, it’s very early days. One of the things I find interesting is how quickly people have embraced having difficult conversations and asking questions that perhaps have never happened since I’ve been in the business. It has forced people to know that we have a responsibility, whether you’re Black, white, gay, straight, whoever you are, we have a responsibility to have a diverse landscape. It’s 2021, right? What are we even talking about? And the fact we are talking about it shows just how behind we’ve been. For me, as a Black woman, I don’t know that I’ve ever had a choice, I’ve always had to think this way because of who I am. But what happened in June 2020 kicked the whole thing over. It’s no longer, ‘Oh, how do I say this?’ it’s, ‘Yo, check this out, we’re doing really badly here and we need to fix this.’ That part has been the change, but it will take years to make sure that the effort turns into tangible results. Warner and our competitors are committed and the real report card will be in a few years, that’s the real test.”

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