Talking Artist Development, Marketplace Changes and More With Columbia U.K. Chief Ferdy Unger-Hamilton

erdy Unger-Hamilton has just completed his second year as President of Columbia U.K., during which time he’s steered strong singles and albums success. So far in 2018, the label has the top-selling album with George Ezra’s platinum Staying at Tamara’s, and has spent 16 weeks at #1 with best-selling singles from Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa and Ezra. That follows a run of six #1 albums in 2017—the most of any label—including the debut from triple BRIT Award winner Rag’n’Bone Man, which has sold more than 3m globally. In marketshare terms, Columbia was #6 on the leader board with an AES (Album Equivalent Sales) all-albums share of 6.1% to the end of Q3.

Unger-Hamilton was crowned Columbia chief after a nearly eight-year stint leading UMG label Polydor, during which time he signed and developed an eclectic mix of acts including Lana Del Rey, Ellie Goulding, Years & Years, The 1975, HAIM and Elbow. A born and bred Londoner, the exec has never known anything other than the music business (well, aside from a six-week gig stuffing job-application forms in envelopes). His first big break arrived aged 17 when the dad of a friend, Brian Lane, offered him a job as a roadie on a world tour for the band he managed, Yes. As you can imagine, the experience was “as close to Spinal Tap as life ever got!” says Unger-Hamilton.

That was how he found out about A&R, and after serving briefly as a scout for Chrysalis, Unger-Hamilton was hired by Go! Discs co-founder Andy MacDonald. There he had his own imprint, Go Beat, and signed Gabrielle—for whom he penned the #1 hit “Rise”—as well as Portishead, David Holmes and Arab Strap. Go! Discs got sold to Polygram, and Unger-Hamilton negotiated half-ownership of Go Beat with chairman John Kennedy so that he could carry on—the label ran through Polydor, where Lucian Grainge was in charge. “Both John and Lucian were very supportive,” he recalls. “It was kind of like my growing up, actually. I’d been very lucky in terms of the stuff I signed, and it got me into this incredible position, but I really didn’t know what I was doing because I was so young. It was brilliant, it was the ’90s and it was a great time for music.”

New and developing priorities at Columbia include Spanish superstar and Sony Spain signing Rosalía, indie-soul singer Yellow Days, rapper B Young (800k singles sold), Icelandic singer Glowie and young reggae artist Koffee from Jamaica. Q4 will see the George Ezra campaign continue, and there’s a new album 
from Bruce Springsteen as well as a big Mark Ronson release. Going into next year, expect new music from Vampire Weekend, Kelis, B Young and rapper/singer IAMDDB. We sat down with Unger-Hamilton at his High Street Kensington office to share cookies and chat about his career to date. 

Who or what has shaped your approach to running a label?
All my artists, who teach you how to deal with people or how not to deal with people. At Go! Discs, I started off with two artists, one of whom, Gabrielle, I was so involved with that I had co-writes on some of her songs, and then there was Portishead, who I did nothing on apart from say, “That’s great,” because they were so good at making music. So my first experiences were so different in terms of hands-on and hands-off, and that taught me a lot. 
I had a brilliant mentor at the time in Andy Macdonald, who just loved music — we used to sit in his office listening to records all day. He signed Billy Bragg on his own money as a student and then signed things like the Trash Can Sinatras, The La’s, The Housemartins and Paul Weller. We had a brilliant time and he was totally nuts—he spent something like £1 million trying to make a second record with The La’s; he took me and lead singer Lee Mavers on a yacht around Sardinia with an engineer, which was a total disaster but one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life!

I come from a place where marketshare, chart predictions and sharp elbows weren’t really a thing; it doesn’t really matter. You’ve just got to find brilliant music and artists, and brilliant staff who keep up with everything that’s going on. The relationship between those things is just as important—like how a football team plays, it’s about everyone moving together in unison.

Who has inspired you in your career?
John Hammond, the A&R guy, is an inspiration, although I never met him. He signed Duke Ellington and Count Basie, he discovered Billie Holiday, and then he went to the Second World War. He was a terrible soldier because he is a jazz guy, so he ended up fighting for the rights of black soldiers for the NAACP and pissing everybody off. So he came back from the war and music had changed—all the big-band sounds had died, and he signed an artist called Bob Dylan. Imagine being into jazz, then jazz disappears, so you find Bob Dylan? He found a poet a few years later, and it was Leonard Cohen.

Do you have a specific approach to working with artists?
The really basic one is, If I don’t put the time in, they won’t listen to me. If I don’t create a context with them, I’ll be powerless to help. So I always want artists to know me. In the days of Go Beat the artists and I were really close and understood each other, I know that if I don’t have that, it lessens the chance of getting the best outcome.

When I’m saying something to someone from the heart and they don’t listen to me, which is totally their right, I’m always shocked by it. I think that if you love their music and as a consequence love them, you are coming from such a genuine place. But if you don’t create a context with an artist, why on earth would they listen to you?

What interests you in new signings?
I like songs. I’m definitely emotion over style—there is a stylistic end of music and there is a straight-up emotional quality to it, and I’m usually here for the emotive bit; I love a ballad. I always admired people like Gilles Peterson because he was a specialist. I am the absolute opposite of a specialist. I’m a magpie—the music business and culture move around, and I unashamedly follow it, but I follow it instinctively. I’ve always thought I was good at A&R because I have commercial taste, but I have commercial taste based on the things that I like.

I’m obsessed with Bob Dylan, and I used to be really obsessed with Bruce Springsteen. I always love a lot of black music and soul, like Marvin Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder. I love reggae, folk…anything but heavy metal!

What would you like Columbia to be synonymous with?
Really good artists. Our culture at Columbia is to just do things that we believe in. If you asked me to put a boy band together, it would be really shit. If you asked me to do a singing troupe of classical crossover Chelsea pensioners, I just wouldn’t know where to start. I’m not into throwing shit at the wall and seeing if it sticks. The only thing I really care about is belief—we do less but we do the things that we are passionate about.

George Ezra has the best-selling album of 2018 so far and has done really well in the U.K. and Europe. Can he become a truly global pop superstar and crack the U.S.?
The U.S. goes to Top 40 radio on “Shotgun” later on this year, so yes, fingers crossed. Ron Perry has been a fantastic partner on it—he is excited about George and is really going for it. We’ve got to maximize the potential of this record everywhere, and we’ve got two more singles coming. I don’t know what album six is going to be like for George Ezra, but he’s got a great attitude, he is in touch with us all, he’s there, listening, and it’s nice when the success of an artist is defined so much by their mentality. He has definitely been the architect of how his campaign has been run, and we serve to amplify that.

You’ve had three singles spend long stints at #1 this year. Is there a strategy behind that?
Getting it there is harder than keeping it there, once natural momentum kicks in. Everything on it has to be good, and you’ve got to have a very involved mechanism: radio, streaming, digital marketing—the devil is in the details. We’ve got very good people here; my #2, Manish Arora, is fantastic and much more detailed than I am on this stuff. He’s got a great team of promotion and marketing people under him. It’s an ongoing conversation that’s updated daily, hourly. I’m lucky to have people I trust who I can allow to just get on with it.

The U.K. hasn’t had any big breakout artists this year—why do you think that is?
The system has changed again. The world has much more domesticity now—there is a huge market for domestic music and particularly domestic urban music, you are now making money out of records only in the U.K. and streaming numbers are big enough that people can do well.

Every country has found their own language for the oppressed in domestic rap or urban music. The U.S. has 21 Savage, and we have Dave. These markets are huge in every country in the world and that genre is very self-contained, so when we are trying to sell someone overseas it’s very hard to compete with what’s already grabbing the attention.

The idea of a worldwide artist is tough—it’s harder to get there and it takes a minute. We’re in a song economy now, and there is not as much space for artists. Every country is a different market, every country has a different streaming ecosystem in terms of artists and sometimes in terms of DSPs as well, and the fight for space is real.

It’s quite hard to cut through, but I know what damage we can do if we believe in something, and it’s definitely not a time to be half-hearted. It’s still possible to create superstars; you’ve just got to focus on the people that you believe in more. There will always be a will for the audience, the DSPs, the record companies and the artistic community to create global superstars, so I think evolutionarily that will happen. Let’s find one, or if we have one, let’s grow them into that. I don’t sweat the small stuff.

What is exciting you about British music right now?
Black British music is flying, and it’s got that relationship between the market and the audience who aren’t even thinking about what American acts are doing—it’s very domestic. On a personal level, I’m glad the inner cities have a voice, because we live in not necessarily brilliant political times and I always feel that music is one of the things that can help. People have said for years we don’t have any music like that, and now we do. That is very exciting for me.

While the independent scene isn’t always great in terms of my career trajectory, sometimes people doing whatever they want and bypassing the gatekeepers is very good for music and culture. British music is in rude health—Rex Orange County, Jorja Smith, Slowthai, IAMDDB, Yellow Days and B Young are all amazing.

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