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TWO HEADS ARE BETTER THAN ONE

Polydor Presidents Tom March and Ben Mortimer have been the new kids making waves on the block in Blighty since taking the helm of Universal U.K.’s second-biggest imprint in 2016. Across their tenure to date, the duo have overseen a 2.2% rise in AES all albums marketshare to hit 8.5% as of August this year. That’s down to a diverse roster of both developing and established singles and albums-led acts, U.S. superstars and successful soundtracks.

During that time, Polydor has also climbed from #8 to #2 in the U.K. radio airplay market share charts with a 12.4% slice so far this year thanks to pop hits from Zedd, Maroon 5 and Years & Years. Two of the label’s developing acts, Mabel and Stefflon Don, were nominated for 2018’s coveted BRITs Critics’ Choice Award, while its soundtrack releases have ruled the Official Albums Chart with A Star Is Born ending last week at #1, Mamma Mia—Here We Go Again spending five weeks at the top earlier in 2018, following last year’s #1, La La Land. The latest stint at the top of the chart ends a total of 11 non-consecutive weeks at #1 thanks also to Eminem, who stayed there for four weeks with Kamikaze.

March—formerly GM at Virgin EMI—brings meticulous marketing, strategy and promotions nous, while former Polydor A&R Director Mortimer contributes on the creative side. They’ve known each other for 20 years and first met when Mortimer was a journalist at famed British style bible The Face and March was in PR, sending records for review. It was during a golden period for Island Records, where they first worked together under Darcus Beese and Ted Cockle, who enjoyed success with the likes of seminal British talents Amy Winehouse, Florence + the Machine, Mumford & Sons and Ben Howard. The diversity of that roster has inspired March and Mortimer’s approach at Polydor—they were the first to get behind the Latin explosion after signing #1 “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and J Balvin’s Top 5 track “Mi Gente,” and are in the process of developing homegrown acts Raye, Mabel, Jax Jones, Sam Fender and Grace Carter. They’ve also grown their urban—for want of a better word—roster after hitting #2 with viral track “Barking” by rapper Ramz in January, and signing a big deal with hotly tipped Stefflon Don last year.

In terms of what’s to come, there’s a third album from The 1975 on the way—a “masterpiece,” says March—new music from Ellie Goulding and a 30-years-of-Take That celebration that kicks off with a greatest hits project in November. We also hear there’s a couple of surprises that can’t yet be mentioned. Into next year, expect noise from Lana Del Rey, Elbow, James Blake and Michael Kiwanuka, as well as debut albums from all those developing acts mentioned above. Here, we visited the duo at Universal Music’s super swanky new central-London home at Kings Cross for a crumpet and a cup of tea. 


How’s the new office?
Ben Mortimer: I massively prefer it; it’s really quite inspiring being here being amongst Central St. Martins—one of the best art schools in the country—and YouTube, Google, and Facebook, who are coming too. I don’t know if it was by design or not, but we suddenly seem to be in the middle of everything. I grew up in West London, so I’ll always have a soft spot for that area, but our end of High Street Kensington always felt a little bit flat—there wasn’t a lot around. Also, the central location means that you can pop everywhere in half an hour, and artists keep coming by to visit.

Tom March: They don’t want to leave! The whole building is exceptional—all the staff here are blown away. It’s what a record company should feel like in the modern age. We have a whole chill-out floor for relaxing and holding meetings, there is a floor that’s full of studios and a cinema for screenings. As a creative hub you’ve got everything you could possibly need here, and there is so much more space to think and create. 

And it’s a very positive sign for the future of Universal U.K. that Vivendi has made the investment.
Tom: Yeah, totally. We are working at a time now where we feel very ambitious with everything we’re doing. You feel like you’re backed, and you can take risks, spend money, chase artists and build them. As the industry is exploding and there’s a whole exciting time of change, to be able to move into a building like this, with everything we’ve now got around us, is as future-focused as we can be. The fact the building is brand new as well really adds energy to it.

Ben and I were able to design our whole floor and we made a very conscious decision that we didn’t want to lock everyone away in offices, that felt old and dated. So we are very open-plan; everyone can move around and not feel like they are chained to a desk or sat in glass boxes. That is quite a modern way of working and the team have really jumped at it. Everyone works off laptops and people don’t have to be in the office 24/7—we want them to be out there and amongst the music scene and artists. 

Tell us about the team you’ve built since taking the helm at Polydor.
Tom: We came in at a point where we could see where the industry was going, and we could reshape our company based on what we think artists and managers need and want in the current climate, rather than being set up like an old record company has been for the last 10 years.

We have a really young team, and I think we were the first label to hire someone to work on influencers and influencer PR, we were definitely the first label to hire someone to work solely on streaming, and we now have four people working solely on streaming and data and analysis. When we joined, we had three video commissioners; we now have one video commissioner, a content commissioner, nine people working on content and content creation and someone making content in-house. We’ve been the first to adapt to where the industry has gone, so having those elements set up and then moving into a place like this feels like we are ready to break artists, build them and have success with the new challenges of the modern world. People can do a lot of stuff themselves now, so it’s important that we show our artists and managers how we are adding value. 

How do you add value?
Ben: It’s about listening and knowing what artists and managers want. That’s something I think I’ve been quite good at—you hear what it is that people want, and you make sure that you’ve got that thing to help them. Also, Polydor is quite broad, and that ties into the ability to provide different services, for want of a better word. At the moment, we’re going from planning a new James Blake album to Mamma Mia! 2, and I think that’s what a major label should be like—it shouldn’t be about one sound and one type of artist, it should be able to do all different types of stuff as long as it’s great.

Tom: And to have experts in every area that can work across different types of records and do the best job possible on those. We want to make sure that if people are talking about Polydor, they go, “You know what, they work their arses off, they do brilliant work, they really help us and they are great to work with”—that’s the key for us. 

Who or what has shaped your individual approaches to running a label?
Ben: I’ve been really lucky throughout my career to have worked with some really good A&R people, Ferdy [Unger-Hamilton] and Darcus [Beese] have both been really great mentors to me, and Ashley Newton in America has always taken the time to help me out. Those people have really inspired me when it comes to the balance between art and commerce. And [UMG U.K. chief] David Joseph too, of course.

Then, taking people like Florence [Welch], who are quite left-field, and bringing them through to the mainstream has been the most satisfying thing. In the last few years, I almost feel like I’ve returned back to my days of working at Mixmag, because it’s the closest it’s been to the U.K. garage years, when it was very exciting, with records exploding really quickly from the scene.

I feel like the experience I had back then has helped here with us being able to have a lot of hits from the likes of Jax Jones, Mabel, Stefflon Don and Ramz. Working with brilliant artists and breaking them around the world is the thing that inspires me the most.

Tom: The first person I have to be massively thankful to is a gentleman called Ed Cartwright, who is a manager now and used to run a company called Darling Department when I did PR and started working in music when I was 18 or 19. I worked with him for six years, and he was an absolutely fantastic boss. Then, working with Ted Cockle and Darcus Beese as our bosses at Island was excellent. When I went with Ted to Virgin we had a really successful couple of years—he has been a mentor and taught me loads.

David Joseph has been exceptional; he is understanding, really lets you get on with it and puts his faith and trust in you. It was a big call from him to put us here—we are probably the youngest couple of guys that have run a major record company the size of Polydor, so David really went out on a limb, and Lucian Grainge backed him. John Janick and Interscope in the U.S. have been really important partners too.

We still have a lot of work to do, but I hope we are doing a good job at the moment. 

We hear you’re closing some very competitive deals.
Ben: I don’t think we look at it like that—we are closing deals with people that we want to sign. And actually, competitive deals are sometimes not a good thing to close, the big successes I’ve had were deals that have not been competitive; they’ve been people that no one else really wanted to sign. There is a lot to learn from that.

We’re always very conscious about not trying to sign too much—I’ve worked at labels where there is so much coming through and everything gets on top of each other and it becomes a bit of a mess. Recently, I measured the number of signings me and Tom have done since we took over from how it had been a couple of years prior, and it’s exactly on par, if not slightly lower. We are being really conscious about making sure the artists that we’ve committed to have got enough space to breathe and come through.

Tom: We know how to break artists so sometimes that looks like winning hot deals or signing a lot, but the reality is we don’t sign much, and we make sure that everyone we do sign gets focus and time. Maybe other people want the ones that we go for, but if we do a brilliant job on the artists we are working with, people are happy to sign to us because the industry talks. It’s as simple as that.

What makes a Polydor artist?
Ben: It’s a tricky one to define, because Polydor as a label and logo has meant so many different things throughout the years. I’m quite proud of the way that a Polydor artist can be anyone as long as they are great. For me, this label is about greatness, success and breadth.

Tom: You can’t pigeon hole us in any way, from the big U.S. superstars to some of the best and most exciting emerging artists, through to heritage acts and established British names. What we do really well is everything. Does that sound arrogant? 

It sounds confident.
Tom: We have a skilled team of people that are experts in each genre, so we can genuinely work with any kind of artist well and deliver any campaign. 

The Stefflon Don deal you signed with her and her label V-IV London last year is said to have been highly competitive, and very expensive—-£1.2m, according to her latest mixtape. What is the history of that, and what are your ambitions for her?
Tom: Everyone knew how exciting and hot she was; she was releasing brilliant music, and we were like, “We back you immediately—we’re in.” We believed in her more than anyone else did. It’s been an incredible first phase for her, and she will take over the world in the next 12 months as we move into her debut-album campaign.

In the U.S., she’s got full backing from the Quality Control and Capitol team, who have been excellent. Greg Marella in particular has been a driving force and really important to us in building her over there. Over the last 12 months, she’s been there seven or eight times, and she was the first British artist to appear on the cover of XXL’s Freshman Class issue, so she is making fantastic inroads. We are coming with her first proper global single in the next couple of months.

How do you justify the price of that kind of deal?
Ben: When you get into the economics of [a deal like that] over time and you approach it—in a much more long-term way, which I’m trying to do with everything, because hopefully we’re at Polydor for a long time—it does start to make sense in the streaming age. You look at some of the deals that are happening in America at the moment, and it’s crazy the levels that things have got to—I’m glad we’re here, because it’s crazy enough! But over time they are making sense. Not all of them, but enough.

The Official Chart has been through a few changes over the last few years. Has the purpose of it changed for you?
Tom: Yes. It used to be that you could get into a chart to break a record or an artist, and you’ve now got to break the artist to get into the chart. You’ve got to build your audience before you can think about going for chart success, and if your artist doesn’t have an engaged audience, your song has to be absolute dynamite to have a chart hit. The key nowadays is building an audience, which is why content and creative is so key, and it takes time. Five of our most exciting new acts, all of whom will have impressive debut albums next year, were all signed three years ago. It’s also very rare that you have an artist who works on both the singles and albums chart, which is something we are striving for but haven’t yet cracked.

It’s been interesting reading the narrative about the U.S. chart off the back of comments from Nicki Minaj. The U.K.’s albums chart is not based purely on albums—if you sell a lot of tickets, you’re going to have a great week one. So there is a lot of fun and games that goes into the albums chart in the U.K. and the U.S., and maybe that does need to be looked at. Perhaps it’s not as pure as it should be. But kids don’t want to buy albums, they want to stream them, and I do find it odd when we’re looking at album sales in a world where it’s about consumption and building audiences.

I prefer to look at how we’re building an artist: are people engaged with an artist, and is the audience growing? If they are, then I’m feeling brilliant about the artist, and I’m not looking at a chart to tell me that. I’d love for there to be an album at the top of the charts as well, but it’s certainly not the be all and the end all like it used to be. 

There’s a renewed sense of optimism in the industry—as we can see by the very impressive building you’re in. What is integral to that growth continuing?
Ben: My boss David has an interesting way of putting this, which is that it’s great that you have growth, but you don’t want joyless growth. For the sake of British music, we’ve got to get back to breaking artists again and not just growing, seeing revenues rise and having a succession of hit records. That for me is integral. 

Could Polydor break an Adele, Ed Sheeran or a Sam Smith?
Tom: We definitely can. Getting the route to market in the U.K. for those artists is key. It’s only the U.K. that can build and create those kind of exceptional artists—culturally, they are distinctly British acts. But the way the media landscape over here is set up makes it harder for those more direct artists to get through the door, even though the mass market wants them. You’ve got to be a bit edgy or a little bit dangerous to get to a point where you can come through the media. I’d love the U.K. media to take more of a shot on direct-route artists from the get-go, rather than needing them to come through certain other channels, like breaking through Germany, via a sync or a feature record. It would be great if our media would go, “You know what, this might not be trendy, edgy or a bit left of center, it might not fit in a particular scene, but this act is undeniably talented, and we are going to go for it,” like we do when we sign something.

We have a couple of acts I feel very confident about that we are going to do that with, so we’ll see in 12 months’ time. We haven’t done it yet and that is the one thing that drives us. I feel that we are doing so much well here but it does take time to build an act, especially those kind of acts, and that is what we’ve got to do. 

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