Warner Music U.K. CEO Max Lousada on His BRIT Awards Side Hustle, Madonna's Tumble and Breaking Ed Sheeran
Ahead of the Feb. 24 BRIT Awards, the label boss talks Madonna's spill, breaking Ed Sheeran and why Sony and Universal aren't the competition.
At 8 p.m. on Feb. 24, Max Lousada will take his seat at London's O2 Arena for the 36th annual BRIT Awards only too aware that despite months of rigorous planning and rehearsals, there's no guarantee that anything will run smoothly.
The 2015 ceremony -- the London-born executive's first at the helm -- included an expletive-riddled performance from Kanye West and Madonna's headline-making tumble from the stage when a dancer accidentally snagged her cloak. But it also helped reverse years of falling TV audiences, drawing 5.8 million domestic viewers -- up 1.2 million from 2014 -- and 7.8 million tweets.
But the BRITs are Lousada's side hustle; his main job is running Warner Music U.K. Since he took charge in September 2013, the company has grown its domestic market share by about 4 percent thanks to a roster that includes Ed Sheeran -- whose 2014 sophomore set, X, reached No. 1 in more than 20 countries -- Muse, Charli XCX, Jess Glynne and Clean Bandit alongside Coldplay, Pink Floyd and Iron Maiden, who became part of the roster following Warner Music Group's 2013 acquisition of EMI imprint Parlophone.
Lousada took an entrepreneurial path to his current role, working as a club promoter and forming a distribution company before he hit pay dirt in 2001 with British electronic duo Zero 7, whom he had signed to his Ultimate Dilemma label. (The group's Mercury Prize-nominated debut, Simple Things, featured an early outing by Sia.) He went on to posts with indie labels Rawkus and Mushroom before becoming head of Atlantic U.K. in 2004. "The independent spirit is in my DNA. I always tell artists that if they want a remote relationship, Warner isn't the place to sign," says Lousada, who spoke with Billboard in his penthouse office above London's Kensington High Street.
Billboard: Is it a challenge running both the BRITs and Warner U.K.?
Max Lousada: It adds an additional element of stress. Last year was my first year, and I hadn't quite comprehended the scale. We had Kanye West [performing] with flamethrowers, Paloma Faith singing in the rain and finished with Madonna being pulled from the stage by a cloak -- an unplanned viral sensation.
How did you react when she fell?
First, "I hope she's OK!" I knew it wasn't planned because I had seen the rehearsals, so there were five seconds of open-mouthed silence and then thankfully she got up. I went backstage to speak to her, but I saw her car flying off so I knew she was OK. Prior to that I was concerned about Kanye's 52 N-words and how [U.K. broadcaster] ITV would respond. I had promised them there would be no swearing, and Kanye had promised the same thing to me. I was concerned that certain sections of the media would blow it up as some racist thing.
What form will the David Bowie tribute take?
In some respects, it still feels too soon. So we want to do something respectful and understated. Hopefully we'll achieve that, and people who knew Bowie will talk about him to the room.
How do you avoid a conflict of interest between your roles at Warner and the BRIT Awards?
It's a committee. Ultimately, I'm very impartial with my BRITs chairman hat on. I have a Warner representative on the BRITs committee who pushes acts and then they are voted on. I just want to put on a great show.
What have been the biggest challenges during your first years as head of Warner?
The first challenge was to deliver confidence within the building, the media and our whole organization. The second was that Parlophone had been through a period of instability, and bringing the two cultures together at the same time as delivering a strong release schedule was a big challenge.
What distinguishes Warner U.K. from your competitors?
I don't see Sony and Universal as competition. I see fans' attention time as our competition. We're competing as much with Facebook as another label. It's the consumer's choice, and we're trying to create music that allows fans to lean in. Not many other labels wanted to sign Ed Sheeran. We saw his ability to move an audience and backed it.
And now he's a Grammy winner. When did you first see that potential?
Ben Cook [now president of Atlantic U.K.] and Ed Howard [A&R rep at Asylum U.K.] took me to see him at [250-capacity East London venue] 93 Feet East in 2010. At that time, Ed already had played something like 450 shows in 18 months, and although in essence Ed is quite a traditional singer-songwriter, he was performing these songs in an urban context. Here was this ginger kid playing in urban clubs next to grime MCs, yet he was winning crowds over.
Coldplay's Super Bowl halftime performance was followed by headlines that Beyoncé stole the show. Your thoughts?
Their intention was to have this amazing one-off collaboration, and they achieved that. I wouldn't say that it overshadowed [Coldplay], but it added another dimension, which is always the way when you put megastars on the stage. There are going to be different narratives going on, and you can't control that. All you can do is look at what the general public responded to.
Major labels are often criticized for prioritizing instant hits over building a long-term career. What's your view?
People want the new. Consumers' time and attention have reduced, but the album length hasn't. I don't know many people who have the time to listen to 12 songs in a row, yet that's a tough conversation to have with an artist. We have to constantly re-evaluate how we can engage people's attention, and that's challenging. But it's also exciting, because it forces us all to be more creative.
This article first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of Billboard.