The Heat-Seeking Missile

ROLLING IN THE DEEP...AND THE DOUGH: Stringer with Adele and Doug Morris. Below right, Stringer with Childish Gambino.

Sony Music boss Rob Stringer is never happier than when he’s in the back of some tiny club, checking out a fledgling artist. Indeed, his obsession with A&R has guided his career and been a key focus of his tenure thus far as a label group head.

“It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do since I was seven,” he told U.K. paper The Independent. “I can look bands in the eye, still to this day, and not have my purity questioned on that level.”

Stringer’s advantage over the competition is that he has the innate ability to identify and sign top talent. As Columbia Records’ Chairman/CEO, he was the dominant label head when it came to closing the top acts, especially the rock artists of the era; his pedigree was impeccable.

Subsequently, during his first year as Sony Music chieftain, Stringer’s anointment of Ron Perry and the returning David Massey, along with his abiding confidence in Peter Edge, are indicative of his firm belief that a label’s top dog should be a creative exec.

“I’ve known Rob for a long time and respected what he’s done at Columbia Records,” Edge told us recently. “He’s been in the day-to-day business of running a label for years, so he understands everything that’s going on, and it’s super-valuable to have his insights. He’s a music guy, which I really love, because you can have great musical conversations with him and he just gets it. He’s also an aggressive player; his support is enabling us to make these deals and go for it.”

There’s something about Rob that’s reminiscent of the golden age of the rock raconteur—those passionate free spirits who ran the business in the U.S. and the U.K. during the mid- to late 20th century. Like his forerunners, he can look an artist in the eye and feel comfortable about the commitment he’s making, because he believes in the artist and the commitment he’s making. Now, of course, Stringer’s mandate is far broader, and his global plate is overflowing with responsibilities.

Even so, he remains focused on instilling that same feeling in all those who work for him. And if he has the first meeting with a prospective signing, the artist in question may well pass on taking a subsequent meeting with any of the others who are in pursuit, according to a top U.S. manager.

“Rob is a great partner whom I’ve enjoyed working with over the past 11 years,” Jonathan Dickins, Adele’s longtime manager, tells us. “The term ‘artist-friendly’ gets bandied around way too easily, but it is something that absolutely can be used to describe Rob and the way he supports and empathizes with artists.”

"He’s a music guy, which I really love, because you can have great musical conversations with him and he just gets it. He’s also an aggressive player; his support is enabling us to make these deals and go for it.”

- Peter Edge

Stringer’s obsession began quite early. In 1976, the 14-year-old—dazzled by David Bowie and stirred by punk—started sneaking into shows at Friars Aylesbury, the coolest nightspot in his Buckinghamshire town. It was there he bore witness to the righteous racket of The Clash and was forever changed. Shows by Tom Petty, U2, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, XTC, The Stranglers and other breakouts of the era electrified him.

Stringer has been in the Sony system for a staggering 33 years—a hair longer than this wretched publication has existed. After graduating from Goldsmith’s College, he entered as an A&R and marketing trainee at the London outpost of CBS Records, while his older brother Howard, who would one day become the first Westerner to helm Sony Corp., was an exec at CBS News. His marketing mentor was Nick Rowe, but it was Tim Bowen—who came to the Blighty office from New York—who moved him into A&R. His grounding in these two skills, Stringer later told Music Week, was vital for the “mixture of creativity and common sense” it bestowed. “A&R is schizophrenic,” he mused, “and for me to have a bit of schizophrenia in my makeup at that time was good. In marketing you can maybe end up a bit too rigid, especially once you’ve been doing it a while. A&R is not that—it’s lonely, it’s subjective and it’s far from rigid.”

His tenure at CBS saw Stringer exercising both his creativity and good sense in inking George Michael, Paul Young, Manic Street Preachers, Alison Moyet, Deacon Blue and Bros. He was tapped as Managing Director of Epic U.K. in 1992, two years into Tommy Mottola’s reign at the mothership; by 2001 was Chairman of Sony U.K. That move opened his eyes to the costs of being the boss.

“Running a label was in my comfort zone,” he recalled to Music Week’s Dave Roberts, “so I, perhaps foolishly, thought running a company would be an extension of that. But it was very, very different and very, very difficult,” in large part because he was removed from what he loved best: the day-to-day work of signing and developing artists.

“I didn’t handle that as well as I’d have liked,” he continued, “because I didn’t expect it and I just didn’t think about it enough. I ended up spreading myself too thin and it was much harder than I thought it would be, that’s the honest truth. But that’s a good thing in a career: Why should it always be easy? It won’t, that’s for certain. And I learned as much in that period as I did in any other.”

The next several years would be tumultuous ones. “A lot of people didn’t want me to win,” he told Roberts, “because of what I represented.” Still, he agreed to cross the pond and step into the role of Chairman of Sony Music U.S. While the new gig gave him “the chance to reinvent myself,” he noted years later, “I walked into a firestorm.”

Stringer with Steve Barnett, Beyonce and Jay Z. Above left, Stringer and Jason Iley.

Read the entire profile here.


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