Q4 Label Special: Columbia's Rob Stringer on Big Releases, Dark Horses, Gift Cards, 'No Daft Punk Xmas Record' (From the Magazine)

Columbia chairman/CEO Rob Stringer

Matt Furman

Daft Punk, "Random Access Memories"
1.1 million TEA, 794,000 copies
No. 1 (peak), 21 weeks

J. Cole, "Born Sinner"
768,000 TEA 609,000 copies
No. 1, 17 weeks

One Direction, "Take Me Home"
721,000 TEA, 459,000 copies
No. 1, 48 weeks

Adele,  "21"
659,000 TEA, 519,000 copies
No. 1, 138 weeks

Susan Boyle, "Home For Christmas" (Oct. 29)

Celine Dion, "Loved Me Back to Life" (Nov. 5)

Barbra Streisand, "Back to Brooklyn" (Nov. 25)

One Direction, "Midnight Memories" (Nov. 25)

The Neighbourhood,  "I Love You" “We have a lot of 18-month cycle records. The Neighborhood, they’ve sold 500,000 tracks and are at 38 weeks of radio on [“Sweater Weather”] and seven at No. 1 on Alternative. And if we time this right with our top 40 approach, we may have something that in December feels completely spot-on,” Columbia chairman/CEO Rob Stringer says.

HAIM, whose combination of studio craft and a ferocious live show should win over radio and club audiences. “That’s going to peak next summer,” Stringer says.

In a special feature package in the most recent issue of Billboard, Ed Christman and Andrew Hampp examined the leading labels heading into the crucial fourth quarter of 2013. Over the next week, Billboard.biz will excerpt portions from this special package featuring Q4's top releases, dark horses and extended executive interviews.

Today, a look at Columbia Records' positioning heading into this important time of year as well as an extended interview with Columbia's chairman/CEO Rob Stringer who discusses his label's Q4 strategy, upcoming releases, the value of gift cards, why there won't be a Daft Punk Christmas album and much more.

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The Insight

Columbia is thriving -- and that's with Adele contributing a mere 500,000 units, rather than the 4 million she was responsible for last year. That means Columbia has found the power in its roster to maintain healthy CD sales. More important, its two biggest sellers so far this year, Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories"  and J. Cole's "Born Sinner," are only on their second singles, so there may be upside left once gift-giving season kicks in-especially with Cole's "Crooked Smile" rising to No. 29 on Billboard's Top 40 Airplay chart.

"It's all about what kids are interested in when they use those iTunes gift cards on Christmas Day through New Year's Eve," Columbia chairman and CEO Rob Stringer says. "That could be an album that's been out for eight months." Looking ahead to the fourth quarter, Columbia has all the demos covered: Celine Dion's "Loved Me Back to Life" is a contender for the must-have gift for parents from their children, while the folks can return the favor by getting the kids One Direction's  "Midnight Memories." (There are also new holiday-music albums from Susan Boyle and Johnny Mathis.) Stringer says he likes to go into the fourth quarter "with four or five records that feel like they're good." It looks like Stringer's got the bases covered, and he still hasn't revealed his full hand. "There's one or two records that we're working on" that, apparently, just might come out in December. Though he declines to confirm it, it's fair to assume one of those might be Beyoncé's fifth studio album, which would be not only a strong finish for 2013 but a good start to 2014.  

Key Executives

Rob Stringer, chairman/CEO, Ashley Newton, president; Joel Klaiman, executive VP/GM; Steve Russo, senior VP of finance and operations; Lee Leipsner, executive VP of promotion; Doneen Lombardi, Scott Greer and Greg Lynn, senior VPs of marketing; Benny Tarantini, senior VP of publicity; Sony Music: Steve Kennedy, senior VP of sales; Kathy Baker, VP of digital marketing; Columbia Records Creative Agency: Lee Stimmel, head

Rob Stringer Q&A

Billboard: Does the fourth quarter still matter?
Rob Stringer:
It’s an unusual situation. Obviously, you plan for the fourth quarter and there are certain types of records that can only come out in the fourth quarter. My attitude is that I'd like to have four or five records pressed going into the fourth quarter that feel like they’re good. And then the fourth quarter ends up being a bit like a lottery. We’re in the Simon Cowell business, which is also unusual. His records really come out in the fourth quarter exclusively because they’re television-led and driven by platforms of television. 

It’s getting to be a little less dramatic than it was. In my opinion, the best time to put records out if you can get it done is April or May. Then you’re on the third or fourth single by Christmas. Everyone rushes around and lets the market get compacted, and yet you’ve got Thanksgiving and iTunes cards at Christmas, which obviously have a huge benefit. I’ve been doing this for ages. You rush to get stuff up to Christmas Eve, but it’s all about what kids are interested in when they use those iTunes gift cards on Christmas Day through New Year’s Eve. From that point of view, that could be an album that’s been out for eight months.

Using that logic, how much will you be relying on Daft Punk to carry you through the fourth quarter?
It’s a global hit -- the sales are unusual, it’s pretty close to 3 million albums worldwide, and about 6 million tracks on top of that and throughout the summer. We’ll see with all the end-of-year reviews and the polls and the awards being announced that we’ve got a shot, yeah. We have a third single planned at the end of November. That record is obviously to be handled with care, but we think we can work it for another year anyway. There's other records in that bracket, too. I’d imagine Interscope feel really good about Imagine Dragons, they’re gonna be on a third single by Christmas. That’s a bracket occupied by someone like fun. last year.


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You’ve had big Christmas albums in the past, from Mariah Carey to Susan Boyle to “Glee.” What’s your strategy this year?
This is the first time in three years we don’t have a “Glee” Christmas album. But I think we sold 1.87 albums of the “Glee” Christmas editions. What have we got for Christmas this year? We’ve got mainly just the Simon Cowell stuff --  another Christmas record from Susan Boyle, a new Christmas from Johnny Mathis, and we’ve got a lot in the catalog --  Mariah, Destiny’s Child, a new Neil Diamond collection and Barbra Streisand''s Brooklyn live album will be a festive season purchase. No Daft Punk Christmas record, although we’ve just come up with an idea on that one. I’ll cut you in on that and make sure you get credit.

So how are you stacking the decks with your fourth-quarter releases?
We didn’t make January, February or March with loads of records, so we’ve been putting a lot of ours out right now. We have brand-new artists coming out like Krewella this week, Haim next week. We’ve got a new record from One Direction which, obviously, the last two albums did 500,000 first week. We have Celine’s first record in seven years which I think feels really good and has a fantastic TV plot. Every year there’s one record that sort of captures that adult consumer, and we’re hoping Celine does that because she put out a French record last year that sold 1 million in France, and she’s doing tons of televison. And we’ve got one or two records, which will be coming out that we’re working on, he said cryptically. I feel good about those records, too -- we’ve got records lined up that hopefully will make the beginning of December.

Wait, more than one? I can think of one right now that has been likely for a long time now.
I would never be quoted as saying anything to do with that [laughs]. Look, we’re OK. Look at the competition -- every label has really got one or two between now and Christmas. The fall really big sellers just week of release are probably Katy, One Direction, Eminem, maybe Britney and maybe Miley. And then it’s almost like, “who’s got the biggest hit songs going into Christmas?” There’s some records we had, like Foster The People was on the schedule for November. But we just decided, they’re so important to us, it’s a second record, we didn’t want them to be stumbling a hurtle too intense like that fourth-quarter competiton. So we moved it to the first part of next year. The record’s so beautiful, I didn’t want to take a gamble of potentially losing it in the rush.

What are some key drivers for your releases in terms of marketing and promotion?
It depends on who the artist is. With Celine, we need big television. We’re not gonna get her on top 40 radio. With One Direction, we’ve got big event television, another single coming out and want that to be a big hit. And as I said, we’re working with Simon Cowell, so we picked up this opera act from “America’s Got Talent” called Forte. We put their album up on Amazon and it went top 10 straight off the show. With others, it can be radio. On The Neighbourhood, we need it to be a top 40 radio record. On Haim, we need everything. It’s a completely mixed bag.


What are some dark horses on your release slate that might surprise everyone heading into 2014?
We have a lot of 18-month cycle records. The Neighborhood, they’ve sold 500,000 tracks and are at 38 weeks of radio on this record [“Sweater Weather”] and seven at No. 1 on alternative, and now funnily enough if we time this right with our top 40 approach, we may have something that in December feels completely spot-on. So we’ve got that, and Haim which is gonna peak next summer. We feel really good about that record. We really worked that in the UK first, it’s gonna be No. 2 this week out there. Krewella’s gonna take another eight months. We’ve even got records like the Civil Wars those records are gonna sell through Christmas over the next three to six months. We’ve just got a lot of songs, and the radio piece is complicated. There’s a John Legend record, a ballad which is a huge priority, and he’s gotten a lot of TV. John Mayer, his Katy Perry duet will go out to radio after Katy’s album comes out. We’ve had David Bowie and Depeche Mode this year, those records weren’t on the schedule this time last year but each got to 1 million worldwide. I think we’ve put out more new records than ever before.

Who else is on the cusp of breaking?
Next year it’s really about Broken Bells, Foster The People. We’ve also got London Grammar -- I love that record I think that record is incredible and that’s a huge priority for early to beginning of the year. We just did a showcase with them in L.A., and we had Sam Taylor Wood, who’s a filmmaker who’s about to direct “50 Shades Of Grey.” She said it changed her life back to believing in music again. We like these kind of acts here. They are very, very special and it’s gonna take some really sensitive work. It’s not something we can just shuck out there. It’s got this sort of authenticity that comes from being independent minded, but also London, England.

From that point of view, we’ve got a lot of stuff I would love to have a sort of instant, TV-based Christmas record like I’ve had in the past that explodes in six weeks like a “Glee” or a Susan Boyle or an Il Divo. That platform is not as easy it was four years ago. When that was brand-new, we were one of the first to the table so we were on top of that as a platform. I’m currently happy with the stuff we’ve got. I also have to say I’m as concerned as where I’m at in April -- my fiscal year is in April -- as I am about December or January. So we’re setting up Foster The People and Broken Bells in the new year, and we’ve got Pharrell, who is in the studio for us, which is a big deal. And Solange is in the studio for us. Hopefully those records will be coming first part of next year.

Any final thoughts on who might take the holidays?
I mean, we just saw Drake, that’s a fucking good number. One Direction, we’re tracking exactly on pre-orders the same as the last one. If I could sign now for the same number, I would. Gaga, that’s a difficult number, I don’t know where that might net out. And you have Eminem, who gets that broad hip-hop base. We’re down right now, but we had four points on Adele last year. I didn’t expect that to be the same. Market share’s been important at the right expense. I know where we want it to be, but it’s fine.

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