Ex-Indie Entrepreneur Tackling Two Major Challenges

Ask Cameron Strang, Chairman/CEO of both Warner Bros. Records and Warner/Chappell Music, what keeps him up at night and he laughs and gives a very literal answer: his three children, age five and under. But they aren’t the only thing. Since taking over as head of the label in December 2012—he was already running Warner/Chappell, which bought his Southside Independent Music Publishing company in 2010—Strang has witnessed a number of veteran acts, including Tom Petty and The Black Keys, achieve new chart highs, as well as overseeing the development of such nascent artists as Jason Derulo and Echosmith. But there’s always more to be done, he says: “I’m thinking, ‘How are we going to get this next Jason Derulo single to #1, how are we going to break Kaya Stewart, how am I going to attract some great executive to come to Warner Bros.?’ I’m always thinking about what I have to do the next day, the next week and the next month.” Strang, who also founded New West Records, talked to HITS in his window-lined office at Warner Bros.’ Burbank headquarters about some of the changes he’s made during his tenure, why he appreciates the label’s growing marketshare but has other metrics in mind, and what’s coming up.

You come from an indie background, including running your own publishing company and label. How did that prepare you to helm Warner Bros. and Warner/Chappell?
It’s really the only way to get a ground-up education about how our business works. On the record side, I was the only employee of New West for three years, and then there were two, three, four, all the way up to 20-something. I’ve done promotion, publicity, mixed records, produced records, done the artwork and all of that stuff, so I think it gives me a real appreciation for what needs to be done and how much needs to be coordinated. It gives me insight into how it takes the whole company to move together and work together to be successful at a different level. The same with publishing. There’s no greater motivator to figure out how a song makes money around the world than to give somebody a big chunk of your own money as an advance, and they give you some songs back.

You’re the only executive who runs both a major label and a major publishing company. What’s your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge is there’s only 24 hours in the day. That’s the bad news. The good news is we have great teams. We work hard to be organized and to ration my time. I’m really highly, highly focused on Warner Bros. Records at this point and have been for a while, so I rely on Jon [Platt] and some of the folks at Warner/Chappell to carry that load in a big way too.

Jon joined Warner/Chappell in 2012, and you promoted him to President North America in December 2013. What has he brought to the publishing company?
He has a way with people and leading people, and he’s just brought so much of that to Warner/Chappell. I was looking today; in Nashville we have 27 songs on the chart this week. At Pop, I think we had nine of the Top 10. That’s just an example of the results. He’s inspired people in all those places and he can do it just with his presence, his laugh, his music, his knowledge, his relationships; he uses them all.

Around the same time, in December 2013, you brought Dan McCarroll over from Capitol to be President of Warner Bros. Records, in part because of his strong A&R focus. Where are you A&R-wise in terms of where you want to be?
I think where we are in terms of really rebuilding Warner Bros. Records and turning it around is, we’re now in strengthening mode. I think we have everything we need to be successful. We’re just looking for the best people in every department and to keep getting better and better. In strengthening mode, we should be able to keep passing our competitors, which is what we really want to do.

Do songs always come first for you because of your publishing background? You signed acts like Bruno Mars to Southside long before we were hearing about them as artists.
Songs don’t necessarily always come first, but they always come. Whether you’re an artist, a songwriter or a producer, if the songs are there, you’re in it. For me, that was really my entree into this world. When I started the publishing company, a little lightbulb went off that if we had the great songs and the great producers and the great songwriters, we had access to the whole business. That’s really what happened. We’d take songwriters and producers and music, and I could walk into the president or the chairman’s office of almost every major record label, because they were looking for those songs.

When people look at Warner Bros., they think quality artists that have really long careers, but there aren’t a lot of pop acts other than Jason Derulo or Adam Lambert. Do you feel that’s an area you need to develop?
I think if you look at our roster today, the roster we’re building is not that much different from the historic roster in the sense that Warner has always had those acts, those timeless acts, and we still have them. Everybody from The Black Keys to Tom Petty to Red Hot Chili Peppers to Muse. It’s not an exhaustive list, but historically they also had Madonna and Prince. Today, we have Jason Derulo and Adam Lambert and more things coming which are more pop-leaning, but I don’t think we’re ever going to be similar to some of our competitors, where we’re all pop and we don’t have the other.

Is R&B also an area where you guys want to develop further?
Yeah. Just specifically, we have an artist in partnership with Drake’s label OVO called PartyNextDoor. He just finished a world tour where he’s playing to thousands of people all over Europe. He’s never had a record out there, just all through the Internet. The tickets for the U.S. tour sold out in about 10 minutes. We’ll hopefully have the album ready for the fall and the single sometime this summer.

Are you planning to do more deals like you did with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ The Heist, where the album went through ADA and the Warner Bros. promotion department helped with radio?
When I came to Warner Bros., one of the mandates from the ownership is for all of us to work together. If ADA has something that we can work together and make larger than life, then that’s what we’re going to do. Or if Warner Music Nashville and I can work on something together, then that’s what we’re going to do. If we work closely with the U.K., then we’re just going to figure it out and do what’s right. Macklemore & Lewis, what a phenomenal story. We’re going to do the new record too. They worked so many years to get to where they were that maybe that’s some of my indie background too. I think it allowed us to really understand that and work with them in such a way that that’s what was accentuated rather than the way our business sometimes operates.

By the end of 2014 your TEA share had risen to 5.9%. What were the highs and the lows of 2014?
We have some established superstar artists who had their biggest chart successes ever. We had a number of new artists who had big, big hit songs and hit records. I would say the challenge for us last year—and what we’re still ironing out this year—is just as we strengthen the roster, having enough potentially big hit records consecutively that it doesn’t become a little lumpy, as they say. We were only a year and a half in since Dan’s arrival, so we didn’t really have enough records where we’d signed and developed and made the hits that we wanted. 

Kaya Stewart is obviously standing on a box.

Even though your marketshare is rising, your focus is on profitability, right?
The marketshare is not a metric that we use to gauge how we’re doing. It’s important for different reasons, but I think a lot of the marketshare numbers that get publicized, there’s a lot of different things that go into those numbers. We have a long-term view. Our ownership, Len Blavatnik and [Warner Music Group CEO] Steve Cooper, who’s my boss—they have a long-term view. Len plans to hold onto the company for a long time; he has no intention of selling it. He supports me and he supports us in really just building a great company for the long term. Of course, we have to deliver numbers and make money while we do it, and we do that. The marketshare will take care of itself, which it seems to be doing.

What’s coming up for you this summer?
Echosmith continues as a great development story. We had a big hit record with “Cool Kids” around the world. Their career is just growing leaps and bounds, so that’s a great story for us. We have fantastic new music from [EDM superstar] Kaskade, who closed Coachella, 60,000 people on the main stage. In the rock world, Muse came out on June 9. We have Atlas Genius, their sophomore record. We’ve got Blur and New Politics, Mac Miller and Andra Day. Along with PartyNextDoor, OVO is coming with Majid Jordan and a number of fantastic records, including ILoveMakonnen. Then all kinds of new artists that we’ve been developing. Kaya Stewart, who we think is going to have an amazing career.

You spoke of the Internet’s role in breaking PartyNextDoor. Do you see radio still as important as it once was?
I always say that the hits either start or finish on the radio, so it isn’t a hit if you haven’t heard it on the radio.

What are your thoughts on Tidal?
I’m a believer in quality of sound. I think it’s wonderful, and I believe one of the great things about what’s happening in music is that people have a choice, not only in terms of the music that they listen to but in how they listen to it and where they get it. That’s all good. I support 100% the concept of better-sounding music and avoiding the degradation of sound quality. I hope it works out.

Some of the other labels have come out against freemium services. Where do you stand on that issue?
I think that the terms that are thrown around and what they mean can cause a lot of confusion. I would just say that ultimately we want people to pay for music. There’s different ways to get there, but at the end of the day we believe that songwriters, the artists and the labels deserve to be paid for services.

Is there a specific technology that you are keeping an eye on?
Not really; we keep our eye on all of them. We started a great program with Stanford that’s all based around technology and music and the arts and their incredible university being at the forefront of technology. That’s something we’re really excited about, working with them and bringing graduates into our company.

Why did you do that?
To make sure that we’re at the forefront of things that are going on, to educate ourselves, to find new ways of doing business, to understand what’s happening. It’s really a terrific program.

Later this summer, the world switches to a global Friday album release date. What are your concerns?
Transition and change is always hard, at least for a period of time, so there will probably be some bumps, and we’ll have to sort through those. This is probably from my indie background too—I’ve said to people that some of this stuff is like the weather: It’s going to change; it’s going to cause problems. There’s going to be things that happen around it, but at the end of the day, our focus needs to be great artists, great artist development, great music, execution and marketing and promotion. Whether we do it on Tuesdays or Thursdays or Fridays, if that’s what the world tells us we have to do, then that’s what we’ll do.

What keeps you up at night?
It’s part of being an entrepreneur, and part of being a leader and a chairman, that there’s always something keeping you up at night. That’s the fun of it too. When you start a record company, there’s no reason for you to be successful—nobody thinks you’re going to be successful. So, for me, I’m used to having to figure things out and push and fight and scratch and claw and make it work and have a lot of faith that it will work. On the one hand, things keep me up at night because we’re always trying to do better and we’re always trying to probably have too many things to do in too short a period of time. On the other hand, I have a lot of faith in the people that work here and the artists on the roster. The hits and the great records seem to keep coming. That’s the thing about our business that I probably love the most: Every year you hear all these amazing songs and then next year there’s a whole other set, and they’re even better.

Strang and his WBR team, including MvcCarroll and Rob Cavallo, present Echosmith with a snazzy wall hanging.

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