With fellow Columbia artists Adele and Beyoncé competing against each other for album of the year, song of the year, record of the year and best pop solo performance at the Grammy Awards, label CEO Rob Stringer will be squirming in his Staples Center seat more than most on Feb. 12 — but he’s not complaining.
The prospect of having to console a diva or two diplomatically is the kind of problem that Stringer’s rivals wish they had this year. Columbia comes to the 59th annual Grammys with the largest number of nominations of any label — 32 — including one in each of the top four all-genre categories. (The Chainsmokers are nominated for best new artist.) Add to that two years of strong sales — Adele’s 25 album has sold 9.2 million copies, while the label’s 2016 current market share is 12.45 percent — and Stringer’s promotion to CEO of Sony Music, which becomes effective in April, and it’s clear that the Aylesbury, England, native is having one of the best years of his nearly three-decade career in music.
“It has been remarkable to be in the slipstream of these artists who are really at the top of their game,” says Stringer. “The sales of 25 is an astonishing number by any stretch of the imagination,” and, he adds, Beyoncé’s success is an achievement rarely seen by an artist 15 years into her career. “She’s more culturally relevant now than at any point before,” he says of the singer whose tour earned $256 million to be the top-grossing trek of 2016.
When the married father of two succeeds Doug Morris and takes Sony Music’s top job in the spring, Stringer, who lives in Manhattan’s Gramercy neighborhood, will bring with him an institutional knowledge that comes with having worked in a multitude of offices and titles at the company. His career began in the late ’80s in the marketing and A&R departments, and his jobs have included managing director of Epic Records and head of Sony U.K. And in contrast with the industry’s dark post-Napster era, “where we may have been behind in the prototype with digital,” says Stringer, “now we are running alongside the distribution system and have caught up.”
The outlook for the industry and Sony is much brighter than when Stringer first made his way stateside and was greeted by shrinking revenue, a tense merger with BMG and labels struggling to find an identity — or, as Stringer describes it, the music biz version of Game of Thrones. “I’ve got to be optimistic about the days ahead, " he says. "Can we do better? Of course we can, and I’m ready.”
First thing’s first: who’s going to be running Columbia?
I don't know yet. We're taking our time with that. That’s not to say I don't want to let go, but it's got to be the right person. It’s reasonable to say that there's not that many people who can do this kind of jobs now, so we’re being very careful about it.
Is it possible that you could run both Sony Music and Columbia for the near future?
It's feasible but I don't have the intention of doing two jobs. My intention is to find the right person who’ll remain with the company for the next 10 to 15 years. Columbia is running well and I'm not leaving so the transition will be ok. Literally, when I move it will be 30 yards down the corridor. I trust my staff at Columbia to do the right thing. It won't fall apart.
It’s been six straight years of profit for SME under Doug Morris, not a bad way to exit.
And I've had a fantastic five years working with him closely, having enormous fun and learning a lot from Doug. And I don't see that ending. His track record as an executive is incredibly good. And one of his biggest legacies in the industry is that he's mentored a lot of the great executives. I'm glad to be in this most recent chapter.
Anything you can tell us about your plans for Epic or RCA?
They seem to be doing great. The last thing I want to do is f--k that up.
How about the Harry Styles album?
We're close and we're very excited. We have a record we're incredibly excited about and it’s not far away from being ready. We obviously want everything to be beautifully done, because we think he's here to stay. Harry has stepped up with the vision of someone who's authentic.
Typically with boy bands, there’s only one breakout star. How is it that One direction – with successful simultaneous singles by Niall Horan and Louis Tomlinson – is bucking this long standing norm?
They didn't box themselves into a corner singing and dancing. It didn't have all the rules of the boy bands of the past where they're too boy-next-door, too sickly sweet. They weren't caricatures. And today, they're making smart choices. It doesn't surprise me that there's is a different path and they're doing pretty well. With One Direction, they became so big everywhere and from day one that their spread is much wider than other previous boy bands.
The Chainsmokers have had a tremendous 2016, but it’s worth noting that Adam Alpert’s Disruptor had a deal with Columbia that did not include them originally…
It’s an unusual story. They came to us with “Selfie” and we thought it was a lot of money for a record that would fizzle, which it did. They went with Republic with “Selfie,” but we kept tabs on them. Then Doug [Morris] met Adam, liked him and signed him up to a label deal and, as it happened, they got dropped. So at that point, they were going through Sony RED, and my guys heard “Roses,” and said, “This is a hit record.” And we upstreamed it very quickly to Columbia, paying the advance to pick them up. It's pretty remarkable because I don't think we would have known from “Selfie” that there's a songwriting prowess to these boys. As we delved into demos with Adam, we just kept hearing better and better records. I feel very confident that there’s a long chapter to this group because they're really talented songwriters. But it was weird because they were on the rebound from another label and now they’re arguably the biggest new act of the year.
They’re also a singles act, much like Calvin Harris, who is also on Columbia. What does that mean for the future of the album?
Both artists believe in albums. Alternatively, I think the world of digital and streaming is built for delivery where, much as they have done, you just put a record out. Calvin has obviously had albums before. The Chainsmokers album is coming at the beginning of April. We’ve done EPs. … It's also a reflection of how music is distributed. The Beatles used to put out a lot of singles. It's almost gone full cycle to back in the '60s with Motown records, where you’re putting singles out on a regular basis.
But bear in mind, with Beyonce’s Lemonade, we sold 2 million-plus albums at $18.99. Look at Adele and her sales. Ironically, with Solange, when we put out A Seat at the Table, we knew it would be a critically acclaimed album and that it was an important statement, but the streaming really helped get that album to people.
And the financial model on which that $18.99 album is based? Although streaming has exploded in the last year, the per track rate pales compared to the price of a download or a full-length purchase.
I think we already addressed it in the decade when everybody said we were f---ed. We’ve made sure that costs went down, we didn't spend as much money on certain things and we reconfigured the model, and as it turns out, the model went with us. We may have been behind in the prototype of it with digital, but with streaming we’ve caught up. Of course, every six months the benchmark changes on what the streaming numbers are.
How has the data gathered from streaming had a direct impact?
It's not a fully formed process yet. There's no suggestion that it's peaked, so as it matures, we're going to learn more about the consumer. But the truth is that you get a pretty good pattern. Before, you could put a record on the radio, look at the research and then the sales research would be a different set of data analysis altogether. But with streaming, it pretty much tells you what it is. It doesn't lie. You can't hype a record if the data isn't good.
Looking ahead to Grammy night, with two Columbia artists – Adele and Beyonce -- up for the top prizes.
I would have liked to separate them into different years but having two artists at the top of their class in that category, which isn't always the case, I can’t really complain.
Where does Adele go from here?
I think the tour set her up for the next 25 years. From the point of view of getting across to the audience and making a connection with them. It was a remarkable tour. If they were in love with her before, they were in love 10 times more when they walked away because they felt she was with them. I was awestruck by that. But I have to stress that Adele and [manager] Jonathan Dickins make such smart decisions -- the best of any artist I've ever worked with. I’m part of a team. And when you work with people who have amazing instincts, it's just a bloody dream.
She’s more culturally relevant than at any point in her career. It's an incredible achievement and absolutely a testament to her. And we try and reflect that as best we can and work with her to accomplish what she wants to do. She's earned that right.