A Conversation With Reigning U.K. Marketshare Champ Ted Cockle of Virgin EMI

Congratulations on your big year. How did you do it?
I have tried to be operational in all genres with as good a selection of artists as I can have in each lane. If we’re talking superstars, I’m happy that last year both Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift came through here. If we’re talking about seasoned legends, I’m happy we’re starting 2016 with the new Elton John record, and we also look after Neil Diamond and Don Henley. In dance music, we look after Tiësto, Alesso, Avicii and Martin Solveig. In terms of British stuff, there’s The Libertines, Chemical Brothers and Jamie T. In the urban lane, we’ve got Krept and Konan, Lethal Bizzle, Naughty Boy and Iggy Azalea. We try to get an exceptional breadth of music across our roster. I like to think that Virgin EMI can provide something of some pedigree to every different sort of consumer that’s out there.

When I was running Island with Darcus, we managed to establish a very strong domestic roster, so I learned how to be reliant on that. Now, I also have a fairly reasonable international roster coming from a few different places, but the domestic situation is in good health too so we have a fully formed record company that’s leading the charge in the U.K. right now. I’m thankful that we now have a team of staff who are a fairly agile, dexterous and skillful bunch that can handle major global superstars, legends, dance artists and pop stars with equal aplomb.

Alongside Adele, James Bay is expected to be the big winner of this year’s BRITs. He’s a British artist who signed to Republic in the U.S. first. When did Virgin EMI get involved?
The management of James Bay—Paul McDonald and Ryan Lofthouse—have been good professional colleagues and friends of mine for some time, so as James was deciding on his home, they were keen to have a foot in the door in America, and, funnily enough, didn’t have a huge amount of A&R interest in the U.K. With Paul and Ryan, we decided that there was an A&R man in America and I was going to be able to put the record out here. We ran with the charge somewhat, and are now heading towards a double-platinum record in the U.K., as well as all the international success. We treated him as if he was our own. I guess his being British helped us feel that way too.

What was your strategy for him?
Both the BBC Sound of poll and BRITs Critics’ Choice were very much in our thoughts from when we started this going. We went out with his first EP in May 2014 and followed that with another in November. He was exceptional live, so he had already got his fanbase there. We knew we had the songs and the record to take us through; the only thing we got pulled out of was the fact that [second single] “Hold Back the River” became a steam train and stuck for months on end as we launched the campaign.

Justin Bieber has done exceptionally well, with Purpose hitting #2 in the British charts and its three singles reaching #1. Why did his comeback work so well in the U.K. as well as worldwide?
I think the British people like hybrid records, whereas in America there is always a slight segregation of sound. Justin’s song with Diplo and Skrillex [“Where are Ü Now”] was exciting for people in the U.K.; they heard a pop star on an edgy club track, and that just bedded in. It really set the tone for him, and then he came back with exceptional songs. It’s kind of embarrassing to say, but he’s undoubtedly a star that people just want to stare at. They are fascinated by his physicality. Without getting too James Dean about it, he’s got a little bit of that vibe to him. Then he came in to the U.K., and he came in again and he came in again. The rules are fairly simple: He had an exceptional record, and he showed up. By the time we got to Capital FM’s Jingle Bell Ball in the O2 Arena at the end of the year, it felt on fire. Even when he was partying, even when he was driving cars, when it looked crazy, he said to me he was still going to the studio every day trying to work on his music, and I think that has paid dividends. People who never even dreamed of liking Justin Bieber love him. He’s the man in the U.K. at the moment.

What was your role in that campaign?
Ensuring we kept the train on the track. Scooter Braun is someone I’ve worked closely with on a number of projects for a long time—including the really clever rapper Asher Roth—and we worked out exactly when we’re going to drop stuff together, and when the important trips for Justin to come in the country are. It’s also about sitting closely with Scooter, harnessing the energy from him, and making sure that when we have time with Justin, we really got the best returns on that.

During your time working in the music industry, have you witnessed any changes in the way the U.S. and U.K. markets work together?
Yes, it’s totally changed, and for the better. I may have to flatter that British bloke called Lucian for his ability to sew a company together, but also the fact that he’s British means it’s a far more connected process in every way, sometimes surprisingly so. In the old days there would be a very formal process to try and establish a release in America, and it would seem like some sort of bureaucratic thing. Now, most of us spend as much time speaking to people in the American company as we do any other territory. It’s certainly stopped being a place where you threw the ball over and hoped something would happen. And that’s not trying to be too much of a sycophantic employee; that’s just the reality of it. You can see it too, at Island. Amy Winehouse took a little bit of a turn where it became an America thing; add Florence to that, and Taio Cruz, who was doing 22 million songs in America, and Ben Howard had some good stuff going on, let alone Bastille recently having such a run. It is well set up, well structured; there’s enthusiasm, conversation, planning and integration. The facts speak for themselves; James Bay was signed in America, we’ve managed to have huge results with that here, and now he’s got the Grammy nomination for Best New Artist.

Aside from the fact that we have national radio stations here in the U.K., what are the biggest differences between U.K. and U.S. markets?
Movement is what remains the difficult part, even though it is moving that much faster. It’s a fact that the cycle between songs in the U.K. spans 10-12 weeks, and the cycle in America can be four to five months. It creates a bit of a dilemma about knowing how quickly you can move forward. We’re needing new songs at a time when America is still warming up on a song, so that’s always a problem.

When working with U.S. execs, do you come across any misconceptions about the U.K. music market?
Just the awareness about the fact there are so few radio stations that are drivers in the U.K. You can really build an American radio story, whereas we have the three or four real key drivers for establishing artists, driving sales and getting things going. I think most people are beginning to understand that, but it does mean that the law unto an act has to be approached very differently from the U.K. to the U.S.

Also, most of the stations on the BBC network want something to be culturally relevant rather than just a great three-and-a-half-minute song. I think American formats—pleasingly, in some ways—make a decision solely on the song that works for them. In the U.K., people want to see more: They want to know that the band is interesting, important live; they want to know whether the band has actually got something to say for themselves. Clearly these are sweeping statements, but more often than not, American radio does want to jump for the most obvious, the most commercial, and the most radio-friendly single, whereas the setup in the U.K. is often based on a whole number of other elements.

What’s the culture of UMG U.K. like under David Joseph?
I wouldn’t suggest that it’s a homogenized culture; the culture between all the labels is retained as strongly and as independently as possible. All the different labels are allowed to operate exactly as they would like to with the m.o. of their choice. He has always been exceptional to me and supportive of the decisions that we have made along the way.

Emeli Sandé has been silent for a few years after the huge success of her two BRIT Award-winning and 2.2 million-selling debut album. She’s just formed her own management firm that exists as a JV with Roc Nation; what are your hopes for her new album, and what can we expect?
Emeli is working away on gathering the sound together for album two, and we hope to get something together for late summer. She’s in pretty good shape and is trying to work out something she feels really good about opening up with. The depth of the record is there; it’s now about trying to work out something that will offer a bit of a curiosity, a shift, a little bit of excitement. She had an in through the Professor Green collaboration initially and some of the other features, so she’s always traveled both sides of town with a cooler urban thing and then a massive mid-market bull’s-eye record. She’s making sure the new record has got the balance to it to do the same things as it did last time. She’s been enjoying spending time in the studio with Jonny Coffer recently [known for work with Naughty Boy, Sam Smith and Jess Glynne]. Her debut success was a ridiculous combination. That was an enormous amount of records to sell, and surpassing that is always going to be incredibly difficult. But I think it’s fair to say that we would like to make a bigger inroad into America on this next record.

Elton John also has a new album out at the beginning of February, he’s another act who has had management changes recently.
He may have changed his PR, but the management has just seen a growth in [his partner] David Furnish’s role within the setup. Julian Wright at Rocket Music is still heavily involved. In terms of his new album, it’s a more “up” record, more rock & roll. His previous, The Diving Board, was more introspective. We’ve got some very good stuff, the whole world will be coming to shows, he’s playing L’Olympia in Paris at the start of February and the cover of the record alone is an award winner.

In terms of new signings, you’ve got Manchester-born rock five-piece Blossoms, Def Jam’s Alessia Cara and Island’s Shawn Mendes to focus on this year. When considering new acts, what do you rely on when determining commercial potential?
It’s a combination of everything. With the breadth of roster that we have, we are lucky that we can take a chance on a good number of things. Often we will refer to stats, and often it may just be an ear pick. With [2015 Mercury Music Prize winner] Benjamin Clementine we knew it wasn’t the most commercial of records, but we also knew it had value. I guess at the heart of it, if we are happy to put our name to it and think it has some value, hopefully somewhere along the line, we can convince a wider number of people to appreciate its value as well. We use a whole host of metrics, both scientific and emotional, in making a decision.

Do you have any predictions for the music industry in 2016?
There will always be something coming at us that we probably don’t expect, and that causes a challenge, but most of the issues that come up are about either the distribution or the process of consumption, whether we are buying CDs, cassettes or streaming. But ultimately, our job as an industry, and mine as the head of a record company, continues to be about getting people excited in the music that we are presenting. And if we’ve got people excited, they will go out and buy it in some format. There are people better placed than me to deal with distribution and methods of consumption, but hopefully we’ve got half a clue at working out how to get people excited about what it is that we are trying to sell to them.

Finally, what would you change about the music industry and why?
Nothing. It’s full of lunatics, it’s full of madness, and it makes for a pretty exciting place as a result!•

Bad Bunny makes the most of his turn at bat. (5/20a)
Another record-breaking debut week. (5/18a)
A think piece—cool! (5/19a)
The K-Dot aesthetic examined (5/20a)
23 with a bullet (5/19a)
Who's next?
It's Comic-Con for numbers geeks.
Theories of evolution from 30,000 feet.
A&R in overdrive.

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