Seven Months Into His New Job, Sony Music Ruler Opens Up

Rob Stringer flew to London last week, seven months into his reign as Sony Music chieftain, with a packed itinerary in front of him. The splashiest part of his trip would involve a visit to the Grosvenor House Hotel, where he’d be given the 2017 Music Industry Trusts Award, whose past recipients include Elton John, Roger Daltrey and Simon Cowell. The award helps raise funds for The BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology and music-therapy charity Nordoff Robbins.

Of course, the 55-year-old exec also planned to spend quality time with his Sony U.K. team, whose Chairman/CEO Jason Iley is “building a really good story there—I’m thrilled. Thrilled!” Stringer made that statement to Music Week in the most illuminating of a series of interviews he would grant during the trip. And he hoped to catch an away game between his longtime fave football club, Luton Town, and the Wycombe Wanderers.

He arrives in the wake of strong Q2 numbers for Sony, including a 21.6% jump in overall recorded-music revenue, nearly half of that from streaming. Its U.S. marketshare is 26.9% SPS and 27.6% streaming.

The native of Aylesbury, England, has said that he’s wanted to be in music since age seven. He worked in a local rock club as a youth and attended London’s Goldsmiths College. He visited the U.S. at length in the early ’80s, thanks to big brother Howard (who would serve as Sony Corp. chief decades later), and entered the music business at CBS in ’85, during the Walter Yetnikoff era. There he was trained in marketing and A&R and signed the Manic Street Preachers, as well working with Paul Young, Alison Moyet, Deacon Blue and Bros.

In ’92, then aged 29, Stringer was promoted, during the Tommy Mottola era, to run Epic U.K., bringing the Preachers with him; his achievements included persuading George Michael to return to the label after his very public falling-out with the company. Stringer earned the Sony Music U.K. chairmanship in 2001. After the Sony BMG merger, during the Andy Lack era, he became U.K. Chairman of the conjoined companies.

In 2005, he was tapped as Chairman of the Sony Music Label Group by Rolf Schmidt-Holtz. Following the ascent of Doug Morris to the top Sony Music post in 2011, he was made head of Columbia (sharing the Chairman title with Steve Barnett for a brief period). Stringer was named UJA Music Visionary of the Year in 2013. He concluded his tenure at Columbia with marketshare rule and Grammy glory, thanks to Adele, Beyoncé, The Chainsmokers, the late David Bowie and more, and flexed his A&R chops once more to win the Harry Styles signing derby.

The revelations were plentiful during Stringer’s conversations with journalists from MW, The Sunday Times and British GQ, in which he came off as disarming and refreshingly candid.

Looking back on his years at Columbia, he explained to MW, “The reason I went to America was because it was screwed up. I didn’t get the job because it was great, I got it because it wasn’t in good shape… I literally took out the middle band of management because I couldn’t fix them. I brought in a lot of young people, we grew up the same and taught each other the way to do things properly. They’re now in their early 30s, they don’t have a sense of entitlement and they behave well. They treat artists properly. Back then, it was a jackpot economy, and the values of that economy were pretty gruesome. Since I’ve gone there, I’ve tried not to succumb to that economy and, luckily, the business wasn’t allowing it anyway. Now that it’s back, it’s going to be very challenging… We’re really going to have to justify what we do over the next half a decade, and that’s going to require a lot of work by people like me and Lucian.”

When MW asked whether any British execs were in line to succeed him at Columbia, Stringer replied, “No. There would’ve been at the beginning. It’s fairly common knowledge I offered it to one person before [Max Lousada being the assumed initial target], and maybe they used that to get somewhere else. That’s OK.”

“With Columbia,” he continued, “I want someone to do, not exactly what I’ve done, but to take it to a different place. That’s taken a minute, but I’m in decent shape. [The latest speculation centers on SONGS partner Ron Perry.] And on Epic, [L.A. Reid’s abrupt departure just one month into Stringer’s new job] wasn’t something I wanted to happen or envisaged happening. I had to do something about it and really reflect the appropriate conduct of the company. But Sylvia Rhone is there, and she’s run labels before. I’m not actively searching for anybody else at the moment, because Sylvia’s there.”

Asked by MW if it helps that he’s renowned as an artist-friendly executive, Stringer deflected that viewpoint as “an exaggeration. It’s a very nice tag—I mean, I wouldn’t want to be tagged as somebody [who’s] a great record company guy but the artists fucking hated him. And I don’t want to be perceived as the enemy.”

“But the power has shifted,” he continued, getting down to brass tacks. “The artists have as much power as we do. Look at what Taylor Swift did with Apple… I will represent very big brand-name artists who are absolutely not less powerful than us. You have to get on with those people, you can’t run a record label and not get on with the artists. I want to help them make the right choices.”

“There’s more money up for grabs than there has been in history, but the way that money is divided up has yet to be decided,” he pointed out in The Times. “We don’t control distribution and we are therefore not as much in control of our destinies as we were during the boom of CDs, or the explosion of vinyl in the ’60s.

“With streaming services,” he continued, “we want to be at the top of the playlist or home page. That’s no different to wanting the in-store display at Tower Records. If there’s a billion streams, everyone is making money; it’s a profitable enterprise for the artist, songwriter, producer and label. ‘Happy’ by Pharrell is still streaming four years on—it’s got longevity. It makes the economics very different.”

Discussing the globalization of music with MW, Stringer said, “The U.K.’s important, but you know what’s amazing about the digital transformation? Everywhere is important now. Music is coming from everywhere. The world has absolutely shrunk, and the gateway through digital has made it easier.”

In GQ, Stringer compared his role to curating an art gallery in terms of the need to display young artists alongside the old masters. “Those moments [like signing Adele and One Direction] can change the destiny of a record label,” he stated. “The number of artists that make that much difference is less than 10.”

“I just like people who do good work; it makes no difference whether it’s an executive or an artist,” he explained in MW. “You have to bear in mind, I work with an organization that’s mature and has been around a while. Bob Dylan has seen six of me. I’m passing through! I get on really well with Barbra Streisand, but she’s seen six of me; Bruce Springsteen has probably seen five. Adele will be a part of our company long after I’m gone. So I don’t ever want to be thinking that I’m in charge, because it doesn’t work like that.”

Stringer’s philosophy is completely in harmony with company tradition. He made that clear when he spoke with HITS back in 2013. “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,” he said then. “Do I think we are a destination for sophisticated, tasteful, cool stuff? Absolutely... 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.”

It goes back to the old axiom from the CBS era: The execs come and go, but Sony will always be defined by the great artists on its roster, who have given execs through the decade the precious experience of “bumping into geniuses,” as Danny Goldberg so eloquently put it. It’s safe to assume that Stringer and his team of Yanks and Brits will continue to run the company in the manner of their forebears, from Goddard Lieberson to Walter and Tommy onward. The times may be a-changing, but the beat goes on.

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