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An Exclusive Q&A With Columbia Chairman Rob Stringer

Columbia chief Rob Stringer has shown a unique ability to mingle the very cool with the very hot. While burnishing his label’s stellar, artist-driven reputation and showing impeccable A&R taste and acumen, he has also cultivated a string of big records—following the behemoth that was Adele’s 21 with Daft Punk’s zeitgeist hit, J Cole’s retail and radio giant, The Neighbourhood’s crossover smash and now One Direction’s new #1, Midnight Memories. Columbia’s frontline marketshare is 7.0%; overall plus TEA is the same.

How did you go about making Columbia such a cool place to be for artists?
Well, I’d hate to be cool and not successful. I have plenty of Pop records on my roster, and over the years I’ve been very happy to sell millions of records by Susan Boyle and Il Divo and soundtracks. I think there will always be a place for taste in the commercial arena; the public are susceptible to mass entertainment, and to something that’s fresh and interesting.

A perfect example of the two not being mutually exclusive is Adele.

That is an example of getting it right the first way. You could not have mass-marketed her straight away and expected to sell the same number of records if you hadn’t done it the way we did it—by building her properly. It was a patient build over two or three years. She turned out to be a very successful mainstream artist, but we weren’t just going to chuck it out there. I’m very wary of doing that with any artist. Adele raised the bar, and it told you something we were all wondering: If you find something special, can it really be that big again? Adele answered that.

It seems as though a foundation for that was built at the company.

Yes. I think that foundation is inherent in the fabric of my label, and I’m proud of that. It goes way back: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and many other artists over the years at Columbia were built like that. Having been here for 28 years, I understand that fabric extremely well. I happen to believe that’s still the way to do it. Not that I’m some anti-mass-market purist. I’ll take a Susan Boyle any day I can fucking get one!

Do I think we are a destination for sophisticated, tasteful, cool stuff? Absolutely. Of all the majors, we have a very good reputation in that area. I would never rest on my laurels, thinking that we’re the only people like that. But at the end of the day, artists come out of the experience feeling very good about being here. I’m very proud of that fact.

Partly, because they feel connected to that great legacy of artists, and they feel that they are part of this culture that you have obviously dedicated some of your energy to perpetuating.

Honestly, because of my experience and because I understand the framework, I have been able to be consistent on that fact. By the way, there are some things I’m not great at.

First of all, I think Columbia can sell most genres of music. I don’t think that the work we’ve done on J. Cole is any different in artistic integrity to the work we’ve done on Adele. We’ve allowed Cole to breathe, to tell his story in the way he wants it to be told. I feel the same about Jack White, and about The Neighbourhood, our current breaking band.
 

“I can hustle with the best of them. I can roll my sleeves up and argue against any other label to try and get an artist.”


We hear you still go to clubs, that you’re are passionate about that aspect of A&R. What gets you excited when you go to see a band?

When I first moved here along with Steve [Barnett], we would explain to people what we wanted to be because we weren’t that. When I go and see things I want people to understand the service that they are going to get, and I think that reputation precedes us now. We’ve done an awful lot of work over the last half-decade to build that story, so that it feels like it’s a given that people will get that attention and care. The fact is the calls come in the same as they go out now, and that’s a good place to be. People are interested in exploring opportunities. And that’s very important, because it’s very competitive out there. And I can hustle with the best of them. I can roll my sleeves up and argue against any other label to try and get an artist.

There are more labels than there were this time last year, but I think we’re being considered now. I’m not sure we were five years ago. I think we were a heritage label five years ago; I don’t think we are now.

You’re very particular about the artists you bring into the company. What are your key criteria in determining whether an act is right for Columbia?

Oh, all the cliché stuff: star quality. The Neighbourhood is the best example I can give. I believe that record is going to be very big. “Sweater Weather” sounded like a seminal record to me, a song that could mean something. Secondly, we saw the band and they looked like rock stars, even though they were 18. The playing was loose and live, and they looked like a proper band the same way as when I first saw the Clash, or when I first saw Oasis. They had that aura, but they also had those songs. It’s always going to be a combination of those two facts.

MGMT

is a prime example. Two out of three of their demos sounded like hits, and they had that glint in their eye. Adele absolutely had both: “Hometown Glory” and huge charisma. Listen, you can always have hit songs, and you can always have a good act, but the combo is important. And I think that we spot the combos more often than not. Daft Punk have both. We were very fortunate—only two labels got to hear the early mixes of the album. They have huge charisma, except in a different way.

Who of the other labels gives you the biggest run for your money when you’re going after artists?

They are all pretty good in different ways. I wouldn’t underestimate any of them, and I don’t lie awake worrying about them. I want to be super-competitive. But if we’re going to be a healthy industry, there is space for everyone. If it can raise the bar, even better. It’s dangerous when the deals get silly and everyone’s overbidding each other just for the sake of it; I’ve been in that situation in the U.K. many times, and I think that would be a mistake in the industry.

Say a little about your head of A&R, Ashley Newton.


Ashley has an extremely strong telepathy with me and understands the way I’m thinking before I explain it. He has exceptional taste, and is extremely experienced.

 

People think getting Joel Klaiman was a coup. Tell us about the role he plays.

We wanted someone aggressive and confident in the marketplace to make these things happen, and we’re very happy that Joel is doing that. We give him the ball to run with it. I think he’s one of the next generation of very aggressive, focused executives, and I wanted a bit of that. When Steve left, he wasn’t directly replaceable, so we went for different options. From that point of view, Joel fit the criteria.

Clearly there are certain attributes that all need to be satisfied for the label to be functioning at its optimum level, and Joel helps you achieve that balance.

Being a Brit, I could never possibly hope to understand promo. You’re probably going to come across plenty of British A&R guys in this country, but not many British promo people. I’m an extremely experienced marketing guy as well as an A&R guy. I can put my aesthetic on something, but in a weird sort of way it still needs to be adapted.

Do you want to say a bit more about the other people on the team?

We’ve got a head of promotion, Lee Leipsner, whom I really believe in. I think he’s a maverick and very special. And the A&R department is getting more well-rounded as we go along. We just hired Shawn Holiday to come and work for us to give us more of an edge in the Urban/R&B world, and we’re very pleased he’s on board.

Mark Williams

is obviously a very sophisticated and intelligent A&R guy; he has a huge amount of experience and knowledge. And we’ve got a lot of good young kids. We just re-signed Isaac Green, and I think he’s one of the best "alternative" Pop A&R guys in the business. I think we’re a pretty well-balanced team.

We’ve got a lot of marketing clout. We’ve got a lot of experience in Scott Greer, Doneen Lombardi and Greg Linn, on some of the more heritage stuff, and Lee Stimmel, who’s doing licensing and branding. And Benny Tarantini, our SVP of  Publicity, booked HAIM on Saturday Night Live, which was a massive coup. So we’re pretty heavy-hitting in that respect, and we need to be. It’s a big roster, and it’s incredibly diverse. From Tony Bennett to Calvin Harris is a long way. But I feel that we’ve got the right weight in terms of personnel to deal with the complexity of the roster.

How involved and at what level is Doug in your decision-making?

He’s a very, expansive smart guy. It’s made a big difference for me being here, because he allowed me the confidence to do things. It’s not a good environment to be in when you feel like you’re an island. Especially when you’re running a label the size of Columbia. I went through the process of the Sony-BMG merger, and to be honest, those were not wonderful times. I come from the artistic side. To feel like an island, operating separately to some of the other core values of the company, is a strange place to be. Well, that isn’t the case with Doug. He’s nothing but encouraging and positive. I can look up to him, and his wisdom is valuable.

I’m 51 years old now, and I kind of like the idea of having someone with that wisdom. It’s refreshing for me. I can ask him for a steer, and he gives it to me automatically. Sometimes he can be very subtle, and sometimes he can be very direct. Apart from that wisdom, he is tremendous fun to be with. My day gets better from seeing him, and that’s the biggest compliment I can pay him.

He cuts through stuff very, very quickly. If I gave him seven issues, he can pick the most important in seconds. That’s a very valuable trait, because sometimes you get stuck in the middle of it. He understands the style of what I like and need to do, so I’m very comfortable with him around.


Columbia head Rob Stringer is joined by Sony sultan Doug Morris and an array of label artists for a jolly photo op at this year’s UJA luncheon. Seen before donning the Daft Punk helmets from their goodie bags are (back row, l-r) Neil Diamond, John Legend, Michael Angelakos of Passion Pit, Este, Alana and Danielle Haim, Andrew Vanwyngarden of MGMT, John Mayer and Morris; and (front row, l-r) Ben Goldwasser of MGMT, The Civil Wars’ Joy Williams, Adele and Glee’s Darren Criss.

What deals you made this year are you most excited about—including the signing of artists, label deals, partnerships, JVs and other agreements? How do you see them paying off down the line?

We’ve been very aggressive in signing new artists. For instance, we just signed this hot artist from Ireland—an acoustic singer/songwriter, Hozier. The single, “Take Me to Church,” has been #1 in Ireland for weeks. It’s going to be a very important record.

What things coming up in 2014 are you most excited about?

At the beginning of next year we’ve got Broken Bells and Bruce Springsteen. Then we’ve got Lea Michele from Glee coming, and we’ve got Foster the People up next. Then we’ve got Pharrell and Solange, and obviously, at some point Beyonce will put a record out, and when she does it will be monumental. So we’re in really, really good shape.

And now you’ve got another blockbuster record with One Direction.

It’s a really good record, and they are growing up beautifully. They feel like a real crossover band now, and they’re getting radio in places it’s never been before. By the way, Simon Cowell is one of the best A&R people I’ve ever worked with. In his field he is the best, the same way as when Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin did Def Jam. I feel really good about One Direction, and in the next few months I have one or two others up my sleeve who will, hopefully, be similar in stature. And I’ll still be here to talk to you in a year’s time.

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