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BEN COOK: DIVIDE
AND CONQUER

Since Ben Cook was named President of Atlantic U.K. in April 2014, the label’s singles share has risen nearly 70% to 10.9%, while its AES artist albums share has more than doubled to 8.9%, as of H1 2018—making it the second-biggest imprint in Blighty (a rise of four places up the leaderboard). That’s thanks to success with Ed Sheeran, of course, but also RudimentalClean BanditJess GlynneAnne-MariePlan B and Charli XCX as well as U.S.-based artists like Bruno Mars and Cardi B.

Cook’s golden streak is continuing through 2018; at the halfway point of the year, Atlantic had the two top-selling albums with The Greatest Showman soundtrack and Sheeran’s stratospheric Divide. Over on singles, the label boasted five in the Top 10. Atlantic’s domestic repertoire has also spent 36 weeks at #1 on Shazam worldwide since the start of 2017.

Cook took the top job at Atlantic after restarting Asylum in the U.K., following eight years of finding and breaking hits at what was then a singles-led label, Ministry of Sound. Inspired by David Geffen’s approach to artist collaboration at the original Asylum in the U.S., Cook has used a similar strategy at both Asylum and Atlantic. That started with signing the four-piece Rudimental, who have had two #1 albums and helped launch the careers of labelmates and featured vocalists Anne-Marie, who has clocked 3.1 billion streams worldwide, and Jess Glynne. The latter had a #1 hit in “Rather Be” with another of Cook’s collaborative signings, the trio Clean Bandit, before she’d released a solo single. In June, Glynne scored her seventh U.K. #1 with “I’ll Be There”—which just so happened to be one of three Top 3 entries from Atlantic that week. Her second album, which follows 2015’s 3x platinum debut I Cry When I Laugh, will arrive later this year.

Need we delve into Ed Sheeran? The kid no one wanted to sign found faith with Cook, and alongside manager Stuart Camp, the Atlantic chieftain has helped create a truly global superstar through a combination of hard work, strategic decisions and artistic freedom. Here’s a mad stat from the Official Charts to frame that point: After the release of Sheeran’s third album, Divide, in 2017, Atlantic claimed a massive 72% share of artist albums, while its singles slice stood at 53%. Rightfully so, Cook and his team walked away with the Label of the Year gong at the Music Week Awards in April.

Tell us about your early relationship with music.
I grew up in London near Camden Town, and there was always music around. Half of Madness went to my school; I’d see Roland Gift from Fine Young Cannibals or Dave Gilmour driving around in a Ferrari. Or Andrew Ridgeley [of WHAM!] and Keren Woodward from Bananarama—I cleaned their car! A lot of other artists went to my school as well, so there was a rich musical culture around, and that was quite inspiring.

In terms of the industry, I remember Muff Winwood being famed as the best British A&R man of a generation, and I loved the idea that someone really added value through A&R. That was quite a guiding light. I was also inspired by some of the record labels and people who ran Def Jam or a little bit later, XL.

What was your first job in the music business?
I hustled my way in, rang around and cold-called until a kind person called Trish Whelan got me a job at Island Records, where I made tea and tapes. I worked there for nine months, and then my sister put me in touch with a guy called Matt Chalk, who was setting up his own company, which didn’t really happen, but we did do a deal with Sony Music Publishing. So I did publishing for a bit and worked for Matt for about two years.

After that I got a job at Ministry of Sound, where I was the lowest of the low, but within a year I’d signed my first record, “9 PM” by ATB, and it was a #1. The track was very much against the grain of what people there were into—they were very snooty about the stuff I was bringing in. It was when U.K. garage was starting to happen, and two step, and a whole load of progressive dance music was coming in from Europe. I moved from publishing into records full-time a little while after that. It was a really fruitful time, and we had big hits, like Eric Prdyz’s “Call on Me” and Benny Benassi’s “Satisfaction,” and I signed the individual members of Swedish House Mafia before they became a group. We had a lot of success as a label, and what we were trading off was our strike rate, but there wasn’t a genuine appetite to invest the required level of resources to sign artists and break them, so that’s why I left. I wanted to work at a place that had the culture and architecture to break artists.

And then you joined Warner?
I came to restart Asylum, which was a dormant label brand that had been David Geffen’s first label.

I liked its collaborative culture, and that’s really impacted what I’ve done here. Wiley was my first signing, which was an interesting experience because he was the founding father of a really strong musical culture, but I realized that it was a whole combination of other factors that would lead to his success. As a character, he wouldn’t really go all the way. Two and a half years in, I’d found Ed Sheeran and Rudimental, who were the bedrock of that little label, and it’s built out from there.

What is the thing that Atlantic U.K. does best?
We really invest in talent. If you look at the roster, it’s not like we are spread-betting on a massive scale; we make select choices, work with artists who want to work with us and that we are passionate about. We place bets and make sure those bets come through.

Point two is that we are very committed and loyal as a bunch of people, and we really care; there-fore, we all go the extra mile. That’s probably why you’ve got artists here on their third, fourth or fifth albums who are still really successful, or artists who have taken a long time to develop who then come through later. Maybe some other labels wouldn’t have had the nurturing qualities to do that.

The ethos that runs right through Warner as being a nimble company that isn’t encumbered by a billion signings works well for that too. Its size allows success to be navigated quickly and easily, and there are some very strong relationships internationally that synchronize well.

How many artists do you sign on average a year, and what’s your success rate with those?
Not an awful lot, and there is no set amount. We sign when we believe we can add enormous value and form a really strong partnership with someone. Our success rate is pretty formidable and definitely a lot higher than everyone else, but I haven’t actually worked out that equation. When we want to sign an artist, our other artists are always really helpful, willing to jump in and support and endorse us. I’m really proud of that.

In terms of imprints at Warner in the U.K., you’re the most successful in the building. How interested are you in remaining #1? How competitive is Atlantic with your colleagues?
I definitely enjoy being successful, and I think everyone here is really driven by that. There is a good rivalry here, but it’s friendly rather than being negative, which I think can occur elsewhere. I want this company to be as strong as it possibly can be, and that’s Atlantic as well as the wider company. We’ve had an amazing level of success, and it’s taken many years to get there. I’m sure there are very skilled people in the rest of the company as well, and I fully respect them.

Is there a secret formula for breaking an artist in the streaming age?
I wish I knew. The music has to be exceptional, it has to be even better than it used to be, and I think you’ve got to be committed, organized and really skilled and draw on all the relationships and experiences you have to deliver for your artists.

What was once very linear is now a complete multi-dimensional journey, where every element has to be cooking, from the content you’re producing to the music, the engagement and the live experience.

It’s been an incredible learning curve over the last few years, and we definitely have a global mindset from day one. It’s an evolving thing, I don’t think we are necessarily going to ever go, “Nailed it—done,” but we are getting very close to being fully versed in what is a very complex and competitive landscape. It’s now the norm for us to be operating in this landscape; it doesn’t make it any less complex, competitive or challenging, but that’s what gives us energy and buzz.

Once upon a time, the Official Chart was the most important marker of success for a release. In recent years, streaming has caused it to stagnate—how important is it to you?
It’s interesting how much artists care when they are #1 or how much they want to be when they are not. It’s amazing how much platinum awards are coveted by artists as well. So I think it’s still a very powerful leveler and measurement. It’s incredibly competitive, and you have to be really great and successful and have a beautiful campaign to get there. But there are a bunch of other things we look at to judge ourselves on performance, be that engagement rates, live tickets or views of a particular piece of content. That is a richer and less binary load of metrics, whereas perhaps in the past the Official Chart was the primary one.

For me, Shazam is still a genuine measure of passion that indicates how potent your music is. We have been #1 globally on Shazam for 36 weeks since the start of last year, which is quite incredible when you consider we are a British record label, and that’s across four or five different acts. That is a real testament to what we are about, how we operate globally and how we inspire our artists to deliver great music.

The ultimate goal is to create momentum and growth. There are the big mega-hit acts, and then there is a bunch of other artists who are creating a really good livelihood for themselves, but not necessarily having #1s or Top 10s. The important thing for us is to have a broad roster of diverse and interesting artists who are operating at different levels.

You did a few interesting things for Ed Sheeran’s latest album campaign—releasing two singles at the same time to kick it off and then three versions of “Perfect” with Beyoncé and Andrea Bocelli, resulting in a collective 20 weeks at #1. What was the strategy behind Divide?
The strategy behind the whole campaign was to be really fan-first and give them what they want. By that I mean taking away as many of the filters that we could between Ed and the fans, so that exactly one year to the date he came off social media, going back on Twitter with a blue square as a clue that got the fans excited. We were very careful to keep the fact we had two A-side singles going at the same time a secret, so the fans were super-served when the first music came out. Streaming allowed us to operate in that innovative way and not be beholden to historical baggage.

In the case of “Perfect,” to deliver longevity in a campaign, it’s important that an artist is able to have a number of singles promoted, and I think with streaming there is a tendency for music to be gorged, which makes it harder to then re-profile singles later on down the line. For Ed, “Perfect” was a song he wanted to be promoted at Christmas, so we were really tactical about how we made that record big again.

Can Atlantic break another global superstar?
There is no reason why not. Anne-Marie is doing incredibly well, and Clean Bandit are having global mega-hits all the time. Britain has always punched above its weight musically and culturally, and I think there is an opportunity with streaming and global distribution to do more of that for sure.

If you could put money on the next British success story to break overseas, who would it be?
I know how good our artists are, Anne-Marie is incredible, Mahalia is someone we have known is brilliant since she was 14, and she’s really hitting her stride, which feels very vibrant indeed. Stormzy is really well-positioned to take on the world from being top of the tree in the U.K. There is a lot of opportunity.

You signed Stormzy and a JV with his label #Merky after the release of his #1 debut album—tell us about that deal and how it came about.
That was four years in the making. Our joint Head of A&R Alec Boateng is a real confidant and trusted ally of Stormzy and has introduced him to a number of key people in his team. Stormzy was very focused on putting his first album out on his own, and we were not completely certain, but it always felt like if he was going to sign with anyone, he was going to sign with us. We agreed on a deal, and I think he was very smart about how he evaluated us and other labels and the kind of deal he wanted to do. He recognized that we would offer him a really great opportunity to take what he has already achieved and help him build on it.

Will he be signing other artists to #Merky?
That’s the plan, yes. Like a lot of artists, Stormzy is really great at spotting and nurturing other talent, so we are looking forward to that being fruitful and growing out #Merky into a strong roster. At the core of it is Stormzy’s next record, which is the thing we are really focused on right now—that will be a joint release between Atlantic and #Merky.

Is Stormzy’s entrepreneurial approach to his career and the deal you’ve signed with him indicative of a wider trend when it comes to the terms artists are asking for?
Broadly speaking, there are more artists who are choosing not to sign for a little bit longer, and there is definitely an appetite from the artistic community and lawyers to get a bigger advance and be tougher on other terms. I guess that is a fact of life, and there is a pragmatism to our deal-making, for sure. But I think we are still recognized as a label that’s in it for the long term as the primary investor in an artist’s career, and long may it continue.

What’s on the horizon for British music?
I’m really excited about what we’re doing here at Atlantic. We are going to have to start thinking about the fact that the market is super-fractured, cluttered and noisy. It’s not only really important to have the best songs, but also to have the best storytelling and engagement with your artists. That’s how we are positioning ourselves moving forward, and our new GM, Katie White, who used to be Managing Director at i-D magazine and comes from an ad-world background, will be helping us with that.

What’s to come from Atlantic this year, and what are your hopes for the new Jess Glynne album?
She’s had two #1 singles for this campaign, one with Rudimental and one with herself; the third single, “All I Am,” is looking amazing, and she has got huge songs to come. Her first album was on the cusp of streaming being the dominant consumption form, so whether or not the new album will open as big as last time I don’t know, but I’m confident we’re going to have a lot of success with it. It’s a brilliant record, and she has stepped up and developed as an artist.

In terms of what’s to come, more from Clean Bandit and Rudimental, Mahalia is a really bright prospect for next year, Stormzy, Rita Ora and twenty one pilots. We had the Top 3 singles on Shazam globally recently as well as on the U.K. chart, and that wasn’t with Ed Sheeran, so it feels like our roster is in rude health.

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