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THE BIG THREE

Universal U.K. has enjoyed an impressive 19 #1 albums haul so far this year (at the time of going to print), while also claiming the singles top spot for 17 weeks. Fresh talents like Celeste, The Lathums, Inhaler and Sam Fender have made waves, while homegrown stalwarts including Tom Jones, Elton John, Ben Howard and Paul Weller continue to shine. It helps that the label has a few world-beating international acts on its roster, too, like Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Olivia Rodrigo, Drake, Billie Eilish and Kanye West, all of whom have topped the chart this year.

There’s also been the exciting launch of Def Jam 0207, led by the Boateng brothers, which announced British rap superstar Stormzy as its first major signing. UMG enjoyed four wins at the BRITs with Swift, Eilish, The Weeknd and HAIM, and, with ABBA’s Voyage, claimed the biggest opening week for an album so far in 2021, as the set shifted 204k copies to hit the top of the chart in early November. 

How has the label continued to cut through the noise while also managing the ongoing challenges of the pandemic? Joseph answers: “I have to give huge credit to our teams and labels, who have done exceptionally well to find alternative performance opportunities for our artists during this time. At-home sessions and livestreams brightened the darkest days while innovative merch formats have helped keep our artists and their fans connected.

“Whether it was helping some of our artists set up recording equipment in their homes or steering virtual promo tours across the globe, the reality is that our artists and teams have never been closer. Our A&R has been exceptional, and the creativity from all over the business continues to shine.”

Joseph points to Leicester band Easy Life (which hit #2 with its debut on Island earlier this year) having become the first U.K. act to perform in Fortnite and Celeste’s “magical” Super Bowl moment, which saw the Polydor artist lend her vocals to an ad for the first all-civilian mission to space, Inspiration4. “Those were both real cultural moments that helped introduce the artists to new audiences across the globe,” he adds.

“Every campaign has had to adapt, and our teams have done a fantastic job in helping our artists cut through and reach new audiences—a great example being the success we’ve had with bands where live would normally be a cornerstone of their campaigns. And then, of course, the labels have embraced and amplified every high-profile moment for their artists.”

Joseph says that despite the travel restrictions, “Our artists have been able to visit, albeit virtually, more global territories than ever before. A quick video call takes you from one continent to another in a matter of minutes, so we’ve seen artists connect in countries at much earlier stages in their careers.”

Might this result in a reduced reliance on touring going forward? “Definitely not,” asserts Joseph. “There’s nothing like the electricity of being in the same room as your favorite artist. Nothing can replace that—and from speaking to artists, I know they can’t wait to get back to playing live to their fans. I think in the future it’ll be a best of both worlds where the innovation we’ve seen over the past 18 months will evolve and complement live to ensure that our artists are reaching as many eyes and ears as possible.”

 

Sony U.K. has played a key role in the rock revival this year, thanks to #1 albums with Foo Fighters, Kings of Leon, Manic Street Preachers and The Script, as well as a top-charting EP from Bring Me the Horizon. The label’s #1 albums haul sits at eight to date, bolstered by sets from Tom Grennan, London Grammar and Rag’n’Bone Man, with Adele set to grow that this coming week. Singles-wise, Sony has enjoyed 11 weeks atop the U.K. chart YTD, with releases from Adele, Wham!, Little Mix and Lil Nas X. It also claimed BRIT Award wins for Little Mix, J Hus and Harry Styles.

There’s been a raft of promotions at the company this year, including Amy Wheatley and Negla Abdela to leadership roles at Ministry of Sound, Alice Beal to MD at Insanity Records and Stacey Tang and Damaris Rex-Taylor to EVP and GM at RCA U.K., respectively. Philanthropic efforts haven’t stalled either, and the label has continued to support multiple worthy initiatives through its U.K. Social Justice Fund, and, in partnership with mental-health charity Mind, is funding a research project that aims to discover the best mental-health interventions for young people affected by racism. It also financially supported the Music Venue Trust’s campaign, which helped save hundreds of grassroots music venues from closing during the pandemic, and appointed its first Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Social Impact with the hiring of Charlotte Edgeworth.

Looking back on the past year, Iley notes that while the lack of live has “left a huge hole in the lives of artists and music fans,” himself included, he hopes that the enforced downtime will have a positive impact on musical output. “Many artists spent more time in studios, writing, recording and producing music and making connections which perhaps they wouldn’t have made otherwise. So I’m hopeful that despite a dreadful 18 months, these artists will be releasing some inspired new music.”

Iley points to learning how to capitalize on platforms like TikTok as an example of how the pandemic has brought about new ways to discover fans and build careers. “Throughout the years, there have been many challenges thrown at the music industry—this one is clearly one of the biggest—but we work together to figure out solutions,” he explains. “The industry is more competitive than ever, so it takes constant experimentation, skill and working closely with our artists to build their audience and connect with fans. Our labels have the capability and expertise to help Sony Music artists stand out—whether we are analyzing data, deepening fan engagement, striking innovative brand deals or creating new opportunities in podcasts, voice or gaming. Our offering is constantly evolving, alongside all the other elements of a modern artist-campaign strategy.

“No label or artist can afford to stand still. We reinvent ourselves in line with shifts in tastes, trends and consumer behavior, and as the tech changes how music is delivered, so do we. For instance, new teams and plans dedicated to TikTok that simply didn’t exist a few years ago. But while the industry is more complex now, with new and different opportunities, our vision remains the same: Sign the best talent, make the best records and share them with as big an audience as possible.”

Going forward, Iley says the label’s focus is “working with partners to get our artists onto the stage they were born for and being there in the crowd to soak up the joy they provide to their fans and support them on their journey.”

 

The return of Ed Sheeran is clearly Warner Music U.K.’s success story of the year—a campaign that kicked off with two #1 singles, which spent a cumulative 15 weeks at the top of the chart from July onwards. Sheeran’s fourth set, =, claimed the #1 albums spot on arrival. On top of that, the label has earned #1 albums with Michael Bublé as well as homegrown talents Coldplay, The Snuts and Royal Blood, and enjoyed another top single with Russ Millions and Tion Wayne’s “Body.” In total, Warner has been at the top of the singles chart for 18 weeks in 2021 so far—the most of any label. 

Warner has grown this year, too, with the launch of Atlantic U.K.’s dance imprint, SIGNAL >> SUPPLY, as well as its newly signed JV with Irish label Trust It Entertainment and the rebirth of Parlophone’s FFRR. In addition, ADA has signed new partnerships with NEVER SEVEN and Foundation FM Records. Warner also claimed significant wins at the BRITs with Dua Lipa, who went home with two, and rising talent Griff (whom you’ll hear more about later). The label has supported the live industry by helping to lobby for causes like touring passports, which aim to make the bureaucratic nightmare of touring through Europe easier, while also supporting the Music Venue Trust (which was chosen by staff as their go-to charity for 2021).

How much of an impact has the pause of touring during the pandemic had on new-artist development? “The loss of live music is felt grievously across the business, regardless of whether artists are new or established,” Harlow replies. “Music is essentially a social activity—it’s elevated by fans being together—and, of course, this part of what our artists do has been removed. In particular, when we speak to new artists, it means they can’t see how people react to their music, and we can’t sense their popularity building in anything other than social numbers. And, of course, it has robbed artists of one stream of income. This matters more in some genres than others, but everyone feels the lack of joy at not seeing and experiencing their fans.”

However, as Harlow notes, labels always need to respond to changes in the ecosystem. At Warner Music, this means trying to “embrace them, understand them and move swiftly to incorporate them rather than fighting them. So it’s a constant process of trying new ideas, working with them and looking at what others are doing.” A prime example is TikTok, which has “changed the conversation for both new and catalog acts,” he points out.

Harlow is looking forward to capitalizing once again on the “magic” of a fan seeing their favorite act perform live and continues to lend support to those working on that side of the business. “We’ve always believed in the partnership with the live business across the board and seen it as critical. We try to build our strategies with live presence in mind. So I think all we can say is that we feel enormous sympathy for our friends there and admiration for how they’ve coped, and we can’t wait to work with them again fully.”

REPUBLIC UPS GOLDSTEIN, ROPPO TO CO-PRESIDENTS
Team Lipman doubles up. (11/26a)
CHART FINAL:
THE BIGGEST BOW
OF THE YEAR
Big numbers for "30." (11/29a)
COUNTRY GRAMMYS' ROOTS ARE SHOWING
Deck the Grammys with boughs of Holly. (11/24a)
THE BRITISH
ARE COMING
Rolling out our U.K. Special print issue (11/24a)
PUTTING THE POP
IN POPCORN
Putting the audio into audio-visual. (11/29a)
TURKEY
Basting.
STUFFING
Stuffing.
YAMS
Candying.
PUMPKIN PIE
Stuffing (in face).
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