Warner Music UK’s new boss Tony Harlow is making the move back home.
Almost three years to the day that he was appointed president of WEA, based in New York, the industry veteran is now heading up the UK arm of the major. He was appointed by CEO, recorded music, Max Lousada, who relinquished his own UK role in favour of Harlow (a recognition that that the company needs its own leader based in London).
Perhaps the ultimate safe pair of hands, Harlow has held senior roles at Warner Music, Universal, EMI and V2. Like plenty of industry execs, he started out in music retail in the Beggars Banquet chain.
In one interview, Harlow recalled formative years at punk venue The Nashville Room in West Kensington. Madness and 2 Tone were a particular influence around the turn of the 1980s.
“We all got the short haircuts, Mr Byrite tonic trousers and a pair of Dr Martens,” he said.
Harlow went on to work with the band at V2, the indie launched by Richard Branson.
Lousada describes Harlow as an “entrepreneurial leader”, who has a “progressive and ambitious vision for where the business needs to go next”.
“He’ll be a great mentor to the next generation of creatives and executives, building an environment where original talent is nurtured and challenged,” added Lousada.
Geoff Taylor, chief executive BPI & BRIT Awards, said: “Congratulations to Tony on taking the helm at Warner Music UK at such a time of opportunity for the company and the UK business. The BPI will continue to work closely with Tony and the Warner team, as it does all its members across recorded music, to ensure that there is a healthy ecosystem that rewards artists and the labels that invest in their talent.”
He’ll be a great mentor to the next generation of creatives and executives
The move follows a jet-setting career that’s taken in long stints in Australia, as well as the US.
Harlow started his major label career at EMI 30 years ago. Within five years, he had become marketing director for EMI UK. By the late ’90s, he’d been promoted to marketing director for EMI Australia, working with acts including The Avalanches.
In 1998, he was MD of EMI’s recording business overseeing a staff of 125. At that time, there had been a steady stream of UK execs heading down under, including Rupert Perry (EMI), Paul Russell (CBS/Sony) and Tim Read and Mike Allen (PolyGram).
“Tony changed the culture at EMI,” said one anonymous insider at the time. Harlow’s background in pop marketing was seen as a key strength.
He ended up as EMI's senior global marketing vice president in the early noughties.
In 2002, he was poached by V2 to become worldwide CEO, leading a group of six general managers.
The label launched artists including Stereophonics and signed Mercury Rev, Paul Weller and Tom Jones. The Holland Park HQ famously had its own bar.
“We were interested in certain established artists who we felt were still making great music,” said Harlow. “If I was to put it in a nutshell, we had this idea that if all or acts, old and new, were in our bar together, they would have a mutual conversation and respect. V2 was a well-funded indie without an identity. In my tenure there, we tried to develop that identity.”
"When I was at V2 we bonded over our mutual appreciation of Killing Joke," recallled Polly Birkbeck, former head of press at the company and now owner of Complete Control PR.
Harlow suggested that artists saws Branson as an “inspiration and a continued supporter”, even after Virgin Group sold its stake in V2 to Morgan Stanley in 2006. The label was ultimately acquired by Universal in 2007.
Harlow oversaw the sale and integration with UMG. He went on to join the major as VP of international marketing in 2008, reporting to Max Hole.
"We're very lucky to have someone who is such a good music person as Tony for this job," Hole told Billboard at the time. "To be good at this job, you really have to have run a company, because then you know what it's like at the coalface, and the guys you are dealing with take you more seriously because they know you have done what they are doing day in, day out. He's very all-round experienced, and he's internationally well travelled. He's a very good appointment for us."
After a few years including a brief spell at Bravado, Harlow made the move back to Australia in 2010 as MD of Warner Music. It was in that role that he helped Ed Sheeran – a key UK signing by Lousada - to become a huge artist in the region.
In one interview, Harlow recalled Sheeran’s first Australian gig – an outdoor performance that ended with everyone getting soaked in a downpour.
“It was a risk, but we believed,” said Harlow in a 2017 interview. “I felt he had enough larrikin sense of humour about him to appeal here, and win people over. That’s important – something Robbie Williams had too, which was another great act I’d had luck with here.”
By the time of Divide, Sheeran was playing a Sydney Opera House show for competition winners – and there was a shout out for Harlow, who admitted the occasion made him a “bit teary”. The album campaign saw Sheeran play huge shows in Australia and New Zealand.
That understanding of artists has served Harlow well over three decades – he’s recently credited with helping Dua Lipa break down under. But he’s been just as sure-footed navigating business and finance across the international music industry.
“This is obviously a job that’s very close to my heart, and I couldn’t be leaving it in better hands,” said Lousada.