'We're trying to always be one step ahead': Tom March & Ben Mortimer on taking Polydor back to the top

Ben Mortimer and Tom March

How do you become Record Company Of The Year? Well, if anyone knows, it's surely Polydor Records co-presidents Tom March and Ben Mortimer.

Universal Music UK chairman/CEO David Joseph – himself a former boss at the label – appointed the pair to run Polydor in 2016 and, just three years in, the label ran out winners in the most hotly-contested category at the 2019 Music Week Awards.

They won the prize after big gains in market share and a string of hits across multiple genres and sectors, while bringing in a fresh team to drive some ground-breaking campaigns.

In this week’s print edition of Music Week, key members of that team reveal the secrets of their success. Meanwhile March (pictured right) and Mortimer (left) star on the cover in an interview that’s got the whole biz talking. Here, they share their four-point plan for rebooting the legendary label… Read on and maybe next year it could be you on the MWAs stage.

Polydor’s recent successes have been driven by an astounding range of artists: from Mabel and Jax Jones to Take That and The 1975 (released via a JV with Dirty Hit); and from Billie Eilish and Lana Del Rey to A Star Is Born and La La Land. According to the co-presidents, that was very much a deliberate approach.

“That was definitely something Tom and I spoke about from the get go,” said Mortimer. “The first label I ever worked at was Virgin Records and, in their heyday of the mid-‘90s, they were working the Spice Girls and the Chemical Brothers. That stuck with me. A great major label has to be broad in what it does.”

“We’ve been very lucky to work very closely with John Janick at [Polydor’s US partner label] Interscope. We’ve worked with some incredible artists there. Some people might just focus purely on domestic [artists] but we want to do all of it. I love working with Lady Gaga, Eminem and the Jonas Brothers as much as I love building up the next Celeste. You want a label to have the skillset to do all of it.”

 A great major label has to be broad in what it does

Ben Mortimer, Polydor

When Music Week broke the news of March and Mortimer’s appointment in 2016, the duo pledged to “take risks, make mistakes and break artists”. They’ve been true to their word…

“We definitely took risks,” said Mortimer. “In terms of the way we structured the label, we were the first people to have a streaming department…”

“Everyone else was repurposing their retail teams to do streaming and we were straight in and went, ‘We’re actually going to put a squad on this straight away’. I think we were the first label in the world to bring in an influencer department or to have content managers. We’re trying to always be one step ahead.”

“Even down to some of the deals we were doing… We rolled pretty big on a few things,” added Mortimer. “Now, everyone’s betting so big on stuff but we were there doing it first and it paid off for us. It was quite ballsy and our business affairs and finance departments were looking at us like, ‘Are you fucking serious?’ But you could tell with the long tail and the way it was going, you’re going to make this back at some point so you might as well have a go…”

March and Mortimer’s appointment may have coincided with the slump in traditional album sales, but that hasn’t stopped Polydor mixing up their approach to the long-player. The likes of Mabel and Jax Jones have both benefitted from a policy that has seen EPs and mixtapes develop and grow until the time is right for a full album release.

“Those campaigns have been very different,” said March. “If you look at the Mabel campaign through four-and-a-half years from her being signed to putting out songs, EPs, doing a mixtape, adding songs to that mixtape, doing 90,000 of that mixtape, putting out more singles then picking the right time to take her around the world and then releasing a Top 3 album… It’s been a unique album-building process to get her to this audience. With Jax, we released his album Snacks when we had three tracks and kept adding to it. We had a silver album before it was [fully] released! He’s got hits all over the world and we’ve built his album in a unique way.”

It's been a unique album-building process with Mabel

Tom March, Polydor

March and Mortimer are very different characters and admit they don’t always see eye-to-eye on everything. But they said those sparks can lead to more successful campaigns.

“It’s good to disagree,” said Mortimer. “Otherwise it means you’re probably not passionate about it. But the disagreements are about smaller details. We’re pulling in the same direction on the general feel of how we want things to be.”

“You’re not always going to get things exactly how you want it when you work as a duo and you’ve got to learn to adapt to that,” March, er, agreed. “It’s easy to think that, if you’d make all the decisions yourself, you’d always be right. But the reality is you probably wouldn’t and I’d probably piss a load more people off!”

* To read the full Polydor cover story, featuring exclusive interviews with Tom March, Ben Mortimer and the Polydor team, see this week’s print edition of Music Week, available now, or click here and here. To subscribe to Music Week and never miss a vital music biz story, click here.

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