Interview by Rhian Jones

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Ferdy Unger-Hamilton’s  first year as President of Columbia U.K. has been jolly impressive. It began with Rag’n’Bone Man hitting #1 with the February release of his debut album, Human, which has since sold 800k. The Sony imprint went on to have three more of the Top 10 biggest-selling week-one albums of 2017 in the U.K. with Foo Fighters (61k), Kasabian (52k) and Harry Styles (57k). In all, Columbia has had six #1 albums in 2017, thanks also to Arcade Fire and The Script. Unger-Hamilton was crowned head of Columbia in late 2016 after spending eight years as President of UMG’s Polydor. He met Sony U.K. boss Jason Iley when the two worked at Island on Keane in the mid-noughties. “We did 200k albums week one and it just flew,” Unger-Hamilton remembers. “Jason was a fantastic guy to work with. I’m a huge fan of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Nas and Miles Davis, so running Columbia has always been an easy fit for me and a very exciting thing to do.” At some point, Unger-Hamilton will also have a JV under Sony, but for now he’s putting all of his efforts into running Columbia.

Columbia has had one of the very few artist breakout success stories this year in the U.K. with Rag’n’Bone Man—tell us about that project.
It was brilliantly timed. Prior to me arriving, Columbia and management, Polly and James at Black Fox, had done a brilliant amount of groundwork in touring him worldwide. When radio is the last piece of the puzzle, it’s the best time to have a hit, which is what happened with “Human.” He was selling 1k tickets in London before that record exploded. There is something special about him hitting an albums market that only certain artists can get to, especially in that short space of time.

What was unique about him was that we worked it globally. We gave him the budget and had him set out and tour the world. It took off in GSA first and then everywhere else. I think that’s indicative of the modern world.

What’s next for him?
We’ve got a fourth song, “Grace,” coming into Christmas, and he’s got a big song with another artist in a Netflix movie. It’s been a great year for him, and I think it will go from strength to strength. Columbia U.S. have been behind him from the get-go; Joel Klaiman and Doneen Lombardi have been particularly supportive. He’s sold about 1m singles with “Human” in the U.S., and they are going to have another go on “Grace.” 

If we find music and artists that are compelling enough, we will be OK. We do have a new set of challenges, though—that’s for sure.  

You had four of the Top 10 biggest-selling week-one albums this year. What’s your secret?
A great roster and great staff—GM Stacey Tang and her team are really good, so coming into Columbia wasn’t a huge rebuilding job. Having a great release schedule allows you the time to bed in and try and make things right for the future. I was blessed with a wonderful staff and a wonderful start!

How are you going to continue that run of success?
We’re going to break Khalid from RCA in the U.S.; we’ve got three records in the Top 20 at the moment, and his album is amazing. We’ve got a little-known act, Lotto Boyzz, coming through Danny Boyle and Phil Taggart’s label Pitched Up, and 21 Savage—who’s of course already huge in the U.S. The new George Ezra album is amazing, and that will be important for us next year. We also have a couple of acts we’re developing now. We are an artist company, so we’re going to continue to work artists. We won’t have as much signed to us as some other companies; we focus on what we’re doing and take them as far as they can go.

The U.K. music market and singles chart has been particularly slow this year. Has that made it hard for you to break new music?
It is hard for people to break new acts. There has never been a better time to be a big American artist, because you have the benefit of worldwide playlisting. If you are a U.K. artist, you’ve got to fight for your space. That said, I still believe we live in a world where the cream rises to the top. If we find music and artists that are compelling enough, we will be OK. We do have a new set of challenges, though—that’s for sure.

What are those challenges?
We are very much on our way, singles-wise, to a purely streaming world. We’ve still got physical albums and will continue to see those for a while, but we are all going to have to work out how to cope with the challenges of streaming, which is predominantly a Spotify world. How do you find space for discovery in a hit-driven environment? It’s a bit of everything: You can’t rely on finding the space purely online or within Spotify; you’ve got to find ways to reach the public above and beyond what your playlisting strategy is.

But for all this talk about a hit-driven world, there is some fantastic optimism about where British music is going at the moment and what it has achieved this year. You can’t measure it only by the amount of albums that people have sold; there are lots of people quietly building big fanbases outside the Top 10. It’s a very transitory time, but show me a time that hasn’t been like that since I’ve been doing this!

What are your predictions for the business as a whole in 2018?
I think people will start to understand the slower speed at which things operate and how hard it will be to get artists into that “breaking” position. The challenge for record labels is having a compelling reason for people to sign to you, and sign to you early. You have to have a very good material reason over and above someone taking an advance, because artists can earn money without committing to what seems like a long-term deal. They are very aware that they can move three spaces forward without locking themselves in for a long time. We are going to have to have more answers to that question, because the playing field has completely changed.

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Adele Adele; Adele.

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