Art or science? Atlantic's award-winning promotions boss Damian Christian on creating hit records

Art or science? Atlantic's award-winning promotions boss Damian Christian on creating hit records

Atlantic Records celebrated a third consecutive win in the Promotions Team category at the Music Week Awards 2023 (alongside a victory in the A&R category).

The Warner Music UK label came out on top in the Radiomonitor airplay market shares in 2022 thanks to big records from Ed Sheeran, Lizzo and Gayle, among others. Ed Sheeran has just been crowned PPL’s Most Played Artist once again. 

“I honestly think it's because we have got the best team,” said Damian Christian, managing director and president of promotions for Atlantic Records UK, of their Music Week Awards victory. “We’ve got some great acts as well, and that really does help, but there's more to it than that. I think people still like the way that we do [promotions], which is a testament really [to the team], it feels a particularly special one.”

Damian Christian and the Warner Music UK label – headed by co-presidents Ed Howard and Briony Turner – have dominated the Promotions Team category.

“This is three on the spin,” said Christian. “We've done it nine on the spin before, and overall it’s about 18 awards. I’ve honestly forgotten, but it's a lot! You never get sick of it, I love it.”

In recent years, the industry has had to adapt from a paid model to consumption. Radio airplay can be complementary to streaming, although the two often diverge in terms of popular tracks in each medium.

One startling statistic by Alan Jones in his charts analysis column recently showed how streaming has expanded the market, but also made it harder for tracks to cut through all the competition. The UK No.1 single now accounts for around 0.2% of the market, compared to 8.5% of the market in the peak physical era of 1978-79. 

In his Music Week Awards acceptance speech, Christian teased the “geeks” now working at labels who are analysing data in an effort to create hit records. 

“The geeks are trying to take over, aren’t they?” he joked in our post-awards interview. “On a serious note, the playing field has changed, there are so many other factors to break a record. The traditional ones of A&R, promo and press people are a bit more personality-driven, and the other guys are a bit more digital, but we all have to do it together. It used to be all about us, but now we have to spread the love.”

While Christian believes in the power of radio, it’s now just one element in building a hit.

“It's definitely changing because – if they're honest – everyone's trying to work out how to have a hit record, it’s so hard to work it out,” he said. “And it's a bit of everything. It's a bit of audience [data insights], it's a bit of streaming, it's radio. We're all trying to work it out, no one's actually completely worked it out if they’re all being honest with themselves.”

TikTok records are great… But radio helps develop artists, and that’s what we’re here to do

Damian Christian

The radio hit driving a campaign has become less conspicuous in the streaming era, although artists such as Pink have proved to have enduring appeal on airplay for tracks that may not have even breached the OCC Top 20. For Christian, support from radio and tastemakers on air is key to an artist’s long-term prospects.

“For breaking a new record and artist development, it’s more about radio,” he said. “Radio stations become part of the journey, you just have to be a bit more patient.

TikTok records are great, of course, they can be hits. But radio helps develop artists, and that’s what we’re here to do. If we can't develop artists, we won't be here in a couple of years’ time.”

With limited TV opportunities, Atlantic has to choose wisely where and when to deploy its artists on screen. 

Anne-Marie did The One Show and the record [Unhealthy] started bouncing,” said Christian. “But you can't tell, was it the radio, was it the TV? So you have to roll the dice. There are the traditional shows – Jonathan Ross, Graham Norton, The One Show, Sunday Brunch – so there's still plenty out there. You just have to just make sure you try and pick the right ones for the right song.” 

Atlantic has current airplay hits with Ed Sheeran’s Eyes Closed and Anne-Marie’s Shania Twain collaboration, Unhealthy, which is also climbing the singles chart following her One Show appearance. And there are more big airplay tunes. 

“We’re about to have some big hits, for sure,” said Christian. “We've got some more Central C [for Warner Music’s ADA], Fred Again.. is absolutely massive. There’s more Tion Wayne music, more Ed Sheeran music, Joel Corry’s coming back. So we’ve got plenty.”

Christian also reflected on the career of radio plugging, which he first began in 1987 (as a junior RCA plugger) and has led to him helping to create many hits over the years (as well as winning all those Music Week Awards).

“TV and radio, obviously, it's a big part of what I do,” said Christian. “I’m the MD of the label as well. But the promo thing… I joined [RCA] in 1987, and somebody said to me, this plugging lark will only last a year or two. Over the years, it's been up and down. In lockdown, our currency was really up. So you never know what’s round the corner.”

Christian also used his Music Week Awards acceptance speech to confirm he would return to chair the BRITs in 2024. The ceremony, which he steered this year, took place on a Saturday night during prime time ITV for the first time.

Subscribers can read our Damian Christian interview as part of our Atlantic Records special from earlier this year.

Click here to read our interview with label co-presidents Ed Howard and Briony Turner.


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