Interview by Rhian Jones

Atlantic Records
has topped the U.K. singles chart for 16 weeks this year, thanks to Clean Bandit and Ed Sheeran, with the latter also holding on to the top albums spot for 17 non-consecutive weeks and selling 2.2m combined to date with ÷. It’s no surprise the Warner label, led by President Ben Cook, was crowned Major Label of the Year at the A&R Awards in November. Cook joined to relaunch the Asylum imprint under Atlantic 10 years ago after earning a reputation as a hitmaker at Ministry of Sound. Success at WMG with Wiley, Rudimental and Sheeran followed, and Cook was promoted to President of Atlantic U.K. in 2014, leaving A&R Director Ed Howard in charge of Asylum. Since then, the label’s breakthrough acts have included Jess Glynne and Clean Bandit. After joining Warner from Sony/ATV, Howard has played a key role in signing and developing Sheeran and Charli XCX, and also works closely with Rudimental and Anne-Marie—who’ll release her debut album in 2018. Cook tells us there’s a rich year ahead for Atlantic U.K., with LPs from returning acts Plan B, Rita Ora, Rudimental and Glynne. Keep your eyes peeled for such developing acts as singer/songwriter Mahalia, underground phenomenon Kojo Funds and Brighton band Yonaka.

What is your A&R strategy?
Ben Cook: To be brave, to sign artists who are going to shape popular culture and to follow remarkable talent, not fashion. We want to go for really distinctive artists who are ahead of the curve. Then it’s all about focusing on great songs. Also, when I relaunched Asylum, one of the things about that label that originally inspired the relaunch was how incestuous it was, for want of a better word. Joni Mitchell and the Eagles, and Bob Dylan, who was signed for one record, were all recommendations from each other and were writing together. There was a lot of cross-pollination going on, and that is one thing we took on board when we set up Asylum that bleeds into the ethos at Atlantic as well. Jess Glynne has been a great example of the way we do things at Atlantic, being completely homegrown, and that spirit of collaboration was really powerful on her first album.

When you’re looking at new signings, what attracts you to an artist initially?
Ed Howard: I look for somebody’s drive, ambition and artistic vision as much as anything else, given how incredibly competitive it is nowadays. They have to be very talented and unique to stand the course of three to five years of development. There is no quick route anymore.

How will Max Lousada’s global role have an impact on what you do, and how Warner Music U.K. operates?
BC: The U.K. is already a great A&R powerhouse and an incoming breakthrough territory for global acts, and Max is in a brilliant position. He has great taste, and he’s great at spotting and harnessing those opportunities, so his new role is only going to further our ability to campaign acts globally, tie up opportunities and join dots.

Has streaming changed how you think about what music to release or how to release it?
EH: Yes, that conversation has developed over the last year for sure. In the case of Anne-Marie, when we launched “Alarm” and it found legs across the world very quickly, the immediate thinking was that the follow-up had to work in a lot of different places. A few years ago, you would have been thinking about the domestic market, and then based on success there you’d be thinking further afield. Now you’re considering how songs sound to someone in America, Latin America, Europe and beyond.

How do you make sure those that discover new music on streaming playlists are converted into loyal fans who remain engaged with artists?
BC: Ensure that you are more than just a song, that you are an engaging person and character. Mahalia recently did a content piece for a YouTube channel called Colours, based out of Berlin. I defy anyone to watch that and not be moved by it. It’s that kind of thing, coupled with a brilliant piece of audio, that is going to compel people to follow and to become fans of an artist.

A few years ago, you would have been thinking about the domestic market, and then based on success there you’d be thinking further afield. Now you’re considering how songs sound to someone in America, Latin America, Europe and beyond.

EH: Fandom nowadays often comes from nontraditional points of engagement with an artist. So it’s not the main video for the song, and it’s not even the song on its own anymore; it’s those little moments where they’re mucking around on YouTube with another artist backstage and that other artist is the gateway, or it’s an amazing piece of content. When talking to young people, those are the things they point to as moments when they become fans of an artist. Artists still need songs on the radio and videos, but they also need to be remarkable and engaging over time.

Final question: What are your ambitions?
BC: We want to continue to shape culture, not to follow it; we want to be brave and not be afraid of innovating. The strategy for Ed Sheeran’s third-album campaign was impeccably thought through to be really innovative, and it produced incredible results, which is what we thrive on and get really excited by. So I’d like to stay right at the cutting edge and continue to work on the music we love, artists that we respect and can be proud of.

EH: For Asylum, I’d like each of the artists on the roster to have an incredibly distinct vision and for us to execute that very effectively, day in, day out.

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