Columbia U.K. Co-Chiefs Alison Donald and Mark Terry on Breaking Domestic Acts, Navigating the New Order and Keeping It Real

Since they became co-heads of Columbia U.K. in 2012, Alison Donald and Mark Terry have refashioned the label with an “open plan” approach powered by an emphasis on authenticity—and have broken artists like George Ezra, Calvin Harris, Rita Ora and Mark Ronson. With Donald’s A&R background and Terry’s marketing pedigree, the pair have a business synergy not unlike the Edge-Corson regime at RCA U.S.—and a kindred enthusiasm that often causes them to finish each other’s sentences. With the arrival of new Sony U.K. boss Jason Iley, they’ve hit a new plateau. But after talking to us, Donald and Terry might be considering a more “closed” plan.

“For four domestically signed artists to sell 8 million albums is a remarkable achievement and a testament not only to our incredible artists but to the great A&R team at Columbia U.K.,” notes Iley. “As these remarkable sales figures demonstrate, the Sony international structure and executives are first class. Alison Donald has an amazing connection with her artists. They trust in her. She gives them the time and space to develop not only their sound, but also their identity. Mark Terry is one of the most considered, smartest and focused marketing executives I have ever had the pleasure to work with. He understands the finer detail and the bigger picture. Together, Alison and Mark make a formidable partnership. There is a first-class team ethic at the label. They have brought together an innovative, thoughtful and smart team of executives at Columbia U.K. They think differently.”

What do you consider your most significant achievement from the past year?
Mark Terry: There are obvious achievements in terms of sales, singles and artists breaking—which we’re obviously very proud of—but the label has also gone through a journey over the last three years; since joining Columbia we’ve had to really shape the roster and the team and last year was really the culmination of a lot of that workI feel like we have a great team locked in place now and thanks to Alison and her team, the U.K. roster has never been better.

We’ve got a great dynamic within the U.K. label, and I think a result of that is that last year we had our best year. We broke George Ezra in the U.K. and saw that success spread through Europe and into the U.S. We had great results with Calvin Harris and obviously Mark Ronson as well. So it’s two-pronged, really, in terms of just settling down at the label and finding our groove, but also having the validation of the success as well.

Alison Donald: Mark and I came in here three years ago and brought different skill sets. A big moment that first year was breaking Rita Ora here, as well as taking Calvin to incredible levels in 18 months. Those successes allowed us the time to build the U.K. label and sign and develop new acts—to build up the roster again.

MT: Rita felt like the first project I really got my teeth into when I first got here. She was ready to take the next step. We sold 340k albums in the U.K., with multiple #1s. That gives you a bit more confidence and a lot of breathing space.

I think Calvin was on his fifth hit single at that point, but he hadn’t had a #1 record, and we released the album on his sixth hit single. I don’t think anyone really imagined that we’d get to the levels that we got to. We sold 900k albums in the U.K. and took him from being a successful singles artist to a successful album artist. His career has really spiked on every level. 

Tom Odell was also a breakout success in our first year. His album sales didn’t hit the heights that George hit last year but he won the Brits Critics Choice Award that year and delivered platinum sales on his debut album, which is still a major accomplishment.

AD: George had just turned 19 when he first walked in here and had a great voice, great lyrics—the makings of his one song, “Over the Creek” that actually was on the album—and we were able to take the time to allow him to develop. That was a case of good old-fashioned A&R.


MT: There was an inspiring moment where Alison and [Sr. A&R exec] Ollie Hodge took George aside, bought him a European rail ticket, and told him to get on a train and travel through Europe. The songs that were written on that trip formed the backbone of his first EP and included “Budapest.”

And you earned a huge international response.
AD: When we were first getting through our first EP, we knew we had to get it out there so we could book more live shows to build an audience. We’re very much about the pull here, not the push. We created an actual demand for him from real people. That EP was played at an international managing directors’ meeting, and the Italians said, “We love this! We love ‘Budapest’! We want to go with it. We want to go with it now!” So we let them. We told ourselves, “Wherever there’s passion, be open to it.” That’s why there are two “Budapest” videos —we had to quickly rush one together for the Italians. So it quickly developed.

MT: It was #6 on the European airplay chart as we were taking it to radio in the U.K. It would be lovely to think that we planned it this way.

AD: By that time we were confident enough to say to Italy, “Yes, go!” We worked with the team; we worked with digital; it just felt like we were under no pressure, which was what was so lovely about it. And then we absolutely focused on Europe and Australia.

It’s really indicative of how we work now as an international company. It went all through Europe, and we knew very early on that we had a home in Columbia U.S. Rob Stringer and Ashley Newton were very clear from the beginning about wanting him on Columbia. They let us focus on Europe and Australia first, and when he did get to America, we were really able to give the U.S. a clear run. They were brilliant; they got in the trenches and it became theirs. Rob and his team have been fantastic.

MT: We have a great relationship with Columbia in the U.S., likewise with RCA and Epic.

AD: Mark Ronson was fantastic for us last year and it will continue to be. We work incredibly closely with Peter Edge and Tom Corson.

MT: It’s the #1 selling record in the U.K. this year, and that’s been replicated all around the world. The stats are phenomenal; again, that required everyone aligning, getting behind the record and the artist, and delivering it in the right way. All around the world, that’s been replicated. They did a brilliant job.

We’re also working with all of the U.S. labels to develop their new acts, as well as the domestic artists we have signed. We’ve recently been working with Kemosabe on Lunch Money Lewis and were able to deliver a breakout hit with his debut single “Bills,” which charted at #2 in the U.K. We’re now moving into his second single, “Whip It,” which will peak here at the end of October. We’ve also had great success with Leon Bridges so far. It’s early days in terms of his development, but the reception to Leon in the U.K. has been fantastic—and we have a long road ahead of us. He’ll be in the U.K. in September to play a sold-out tour, which comprises two nights at Shepherds Bush Empire.

AD: We also can’t wait to get going on Elle King. We’ve been waiting for Elle, actually, from when RCA signed her in the U.S. We identified her as somebody we’d love to work with when they were ready.

MT: It’s very much a two-way street. We get lots of support from the U.S. for our domestic acts, and obviously we reciprocate with their artists. There’s no “purity of stream” within Sony, which enables us to work with artists from all the U.S. labels and also to decide the best home for our domestic acts.

AD: And Ultra. We actually just signed Danny L Harle, whom we’re working on with Patrick Moxey. There’s a great breadth of diversity within Sony. Its fantastic and we’re able to work with everyone.

 Clearly the business is more global than ever, with the global release date and the growth of streaming.
MT: Yes, I think that all of that is changing perceptions of how we do business. There are positives and there are negatives. We’ve gone through a seismic change in the U.K. over the last six to eight weeks; some of that has been complicated, and some it has actually made our jobs a lot easier. We’re now enabling the audience to consume records as soon as they hear a record played on radio, which is a much healthier way of being in the music business. And it’s also brought us in line with the rest of the world, which means we can work records on a truly global basis.

I’m wondering about your sense of the streaming marketplace that has begun to emerge, especially how the arrival of Apple Music plays into that.
MT: Well, from a track perspective, it’s booming in the U.K. It’s hard to say what part Apple Music are playing in that, as it’s early days for them as a streaming service. However, they are obviously a major player, and will become more impactful over the next few months as they get more of a foothold in the streaming market and more Apple users adopt the streaming service. From a U.K. perspective, we’re seeing a dramatic shift. Obviously, downloads are still declining, but the streaming market is booming. More people are listening to more music generally, and I think that’s really healthy.

AD: It’s going to be a great thing, absolutely.

What are your thoughts on how U.K. radio has changed of late, especially with the departure of Zane Lowe from BBC Radio 1, among other key people?
MT: I’m not sure radio has changed massively, to be honest. Radio 1 still is very much championing new music and there is slightly more diversity now with the emergence of Capital Xtra and Kiss Fresh platforms that support more underground music. You still have Radio 1 at the forefront of working with new artists and supporting new music, which is part of their mandate. You still have Capital jumping on board with records early, when they’re the right record, particularly with U.S. hits. So I’m not sure that the landscape has changed particularly, apart from the fact that all radio stations in the U.K. are now getting their heads around day-and-date. Some have found that an easier process than others.

 In certain respects, the global release date has stabilized things.
MT: U.K. radio has had almost an exclusivity period in terms of playing music and it not being available for 6-8 weeks. That window of exclusivity has now essentially gone, and that’s been complicated in terms of sensitivities around the process. However, the global release date means that it’s now far more of an even playing field and records become available around the world at roughly the same time. Aligning the release of a record globally definitely helps to create a much bigger impact. It always seemed a very natural progression for the U.K. market. It’s just taken a minute to iron out some of the creases when it comes to working with radio stations and how we deliver records.

Perhaps we could talk a little bit about the structure of the company, working under Jason—what’s evolved since his arrival, and also perhaps we could get into your team?
MT: Jason has been a breath of fresh air for us. He’s very much a supporter of labels, of the culture of labels. He came in with a lot of energy, and he’s aggressive in a positive way. He’s ambitious for us so there’s constant push, but there’s also a sense of reality and pace that we find really positive. He’s only been supportive of Columbia U.K. culture, and that’s been a big plus for us.

AD: He’s empowered us. And he certainly leads from the front. So it gives a great new focus and ambition for the future.

There’s definitely a sense of a revitalized group identity.
AD: Absolutely. There’s a very new, positive energy, throughout all of the labels.

MT: From our first meetings with him, it was very much, “Do what you do best.” He said, “Go out there, be positive; I’ll support you in your signings.” He’s been true to his word all the way through.

AD: And he recognized that there is absolutely a culture here. He wants us to be the best label in the U.K., which we are endeavoring to do. It’s been a really great experience—the future feels very bright over here.

Tell me a little bit about the people on your team.
AD: We have an A&R team of seven. Mike Pickering, who signed Calvin and worked with Kasabian, is still very much Calvin’s A&R guy. The A&R team also includes Ollie Hodge, Julian Palmer, Will Hunt, George Tykieff, Ophelia Conheady and Shivas Howard Brown—it’s a nice mix of people. We work very collaboratively, and I’m very much all about the team.

We’re an open-plan office—I’m at one end and Mark’s at the other. We agree that two brains are better than one and in fact many brains—the collective brain—is the best of all. So we encourage a really collaborative process. A&R works incredibly closely with marketing, digital, promotions. The moment when we in fact identify an act that we want to sign, I discuss it with Mark and we bring marketing in to work with A&R. We start the ball rolling and it gets passed down through the label, through the open plan. Everyone’s involved in each step.

MT: Even if we’re signing an unknown act, it’s about building the audience, doing things in a healthy way, finding live opportunities, making sure that the right content is made available. We talk a lot about keeping things real.

What new projects do you have on the way?
MT: The two that are probably coming the fastest are Raleigh Ritchie and Josef Salvat—both domestic acts. We are coming with Raleigh’s debut album in Q1 of 2016. We’re just going to radio with his next single, which will impact in end of September/October. He’s already had hits in the U.K. From there, we just really had to put the groundwork in to build him an audience, and build up his social community online. That process has taken a while and we’ve not rushed it, but now we feel we’re in the game.

Josef has already actually had hits in Europe. He did a cover of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” before Christmas for a Sony 4K ad campaign, which predominantly ran in France and Germany, and delivered a #3 record in France, Top 5 in Germany, #2 airplay record in Germany and #3 airplay record in France. U.K. radio is already very supportive. He’s actually got a great profile in Europe, France in particular. We actually just had Josef record his single in French, which is already flying on French radio—#1 airplay. So we’re very positive about both artists. •

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