5 Questions: Sony/ATV's Guy Henderson on Closing the Value Gap & Why China Is on the 'Cusp of Something Big'

Courtesy of Guy Henderson
Guy Henderson

Recently promoted to Sony/ATV President International, Guy Henderson oversees all of the publishing giant's operations and sub-publishers outside of North America and the U.K -- a remit that spans continental Europe, South East Asia, Russia, Australia, India, the Middle East and his home continent of Africa.

Since joining Sony/ATV in 2001, the Johannesburg-born, London-based executive has overseen continued growth for the company across both established and developing international markets and was part of the team that secured regulatory approval for the 2012 acquisition of EMI Music Publishing.

Prior to joining Sony/ATV, Henderson spent six years as managing director of Sony Music South Africa and before that seven with South African indie Gallo Record Company. Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, Die Antwoord, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Gloria Estefan, Toto, Yusuf Islam and the Bob Dylan organization are among the acts that he has worked with during the course of his 25-year career.

Fresh from being upped to president international, Billboard spoke with Henderson to discuss fixing the value gap, growing a global business and what keeps Sony/ATV at number one.  

Billboard: What do you consider your immediate priorities in your new job?

Henderson: Taking advantage of the fact that digital can work in territories that previously had no opportunity to be in the music business is my biggest priority. There's lots of big opportunities in China and we've got to ensure that our continued presence there enables us to grow in line with the way that we believe the market is going to grow. South East Asia and Pan African digital licensing are also exciting. Having grown up in that continent there was always a huge frustration at having to wade through the piracy world of physical products. There is now, for the first time, an opportunity to be able to license on a Pan-African basis. In terms of developed markets, apart from organic growth which will boost the whole industry, the way that we grow is by strengthening our A&R teams. Particularly in Europe, staying ahead on the creative front is paramount to continue growing our business. 

Establishing a legitimate music business in China has long been the industry's big hope. Is that getting any closer to fruition?

I think the reality is looming and looming very quickly. China went from being almost entirely pirated into what is now a legitimate market, although still a challenging one. The major DSPs have licenses, albeit in a bit of a silo system where cross licensing between local aggregators still has a way to go. But there is now movement to convert consumers from free ad funded services to subscription services. Already services like QQ Music, Kugou and Kuwo have a combined user base of 15 million subscribers. There is also a lucrative local film and TV production and games market who license both Chinese and international music, while local A&R is growing to feed the approximately 85 percent of local digital market. With the vast online audience, legitimate and lucrative careers are now being independently fashioned online. I think China is on the cusp of something really big.

Sony/ATV chairman and CEO Martin Bandier has been a vocal critic of YouTube underpaying artists and rights holders. Are you optimistic that the ‘value gap' issue will get fixed?  

I think we'll get there but we still have a long way to go. We have problems in various parts of the world in regards to the value attached to our part of the business. If we go to China, you would say there is a huge value gap problem there. But we also realize that we have got to convert 300 million people who have never paid for music in their life, so we have to be patient. In the Western world, we're in a very different scenario. We have a developed market where frankly the value gap needs to be closed. There seems to be this strange misconception in the world where people will readily attach value and be prepared to pay for other goods and services, but for some reason music doesn't fall into that group of products. That needs to change and it's up to us to maintain that value and make sure our songwriters are adequately remunerated. As the biggest publisher in the world, it's encumbered on us to take that lead and to speak out against things that we disagree with.  

The past 12 months have seen sustained growth across almost all areas of the industry. Do you see that continuing?

I do. We're all very aware of how we bottomed out in the last few years compared to the heyday of the mid-Nineties, so it's very encouraging to see the growth and I think it can only get better. If you look at that numbers that Spotify and Apple Music and others have, the numbers are growing, but relative to the population the numbers are small. I would like to think that the industry can get back to where it was in the Nineties in the near future. If having a digital subscription becomes part of a way of life for everybody we could really see super growth in this business. 

What's been the most valuable lesson that you've learned throughout the course of your career?

If you come from a small territory and you're repertoire is considered to be marginal, that's no reason to give up trying to get it out into the world. Working in the music industry in South Africa, it was always a challenge to get South African repertoire international. But if you just keep plugging away at it, you can develop a hit from anywhere in the world. If I've learned anything it's to keep going on that track and eventually the cream floats to the top.