In her previous professional life, as Co-President of Columbia Records UK, Alison Donald came across a hot new artist she was extremely keen to sign.
She courted young London singer and songwriter Tom Misch for months, only for him to turn around and eschew a major label deal in favour of a more flexible agreement with Kobalt’s AWAL. He’s now racked up over 225m streams.
The knock-back turned Donald’s head and she started wondering what it was about Kobalt that had artists shunning the kind of offers they’d once dreamed about.
In 2017, sufficiently intrigued, she left the major label world behind and joined Kobalt as Head of Creative, UK, where she leads A&R activities in London across AWAL and Kobalt Publishing, while driving business growth across all divisions.
The role has seen her reunited with Kobalt’s Chief Creative Officer Sas Metcalfe, who gave Donald her first job in publishing at Warner/Chappell in ‘96.
Donald’s career so far has spanned four decades.
Before she got her professional break, the exec had a knack for spotting talent and spotting talent’s limitations — arguably two of the most important qualities for A&R — early on.
While at school she was an aspiring opera singer who was pretty good (she proudly passed her Grade 8 singing exam with top marks), but not as good as the competition. “I wasn’t going to do it unless I was the best,” Donald recalls.
After leaving opera behind, Donald decided that a life as a performer wasn’t for her. Eager to earn money and get out into the world of work, she got her first job as A&R Administrator at Arista Records.
A stint in advertising followed, but the artist world again beckoned and Donald joined Chrysalis, working with acts like Blondie, The Specials and Billy Idol.
Her next job at Stiff Records saw Donald working closely with founder Dave Robinson (pictured, inset), who she attributes with forming some of the basic principles of her career.
“I sat with Dave in his office and he had this whole thing of, ‘You need to know what I know.’ He really taught me that anything was possible and to not take no for an answer by all means necessary.
“He had this theory that if you really thought about it, within three phone calls you could get to the President of the United States. You probably couldn’t do that now, but he really didn’t take no for an answer!
“working at stiff records was a really important building block for me. [founder Dave robinson] taught me that anything was possible and to not take no for an answer by all means necessary.”
“Stiff was a very important part of my career in that working in such a small label, where you had to do everything, from packing up boxes, shipping records, to calling The Old Grey Whistle Test to make sure that our new band’s video or performance won the competition that night.
“Every single play or sale counted. That was a really important building block for me. Stiff still beats in my heart with that attitude of: if you just think about it, anything is possible.”
After Stiff, Donald joined major label land (much to the chagrin of staunchly independent Robinson) and worked for EMI Capitol in the UK, and then at the Capitol Tower in Los Angeles as an A&R. That time proved another pivotal learning point in Donald’s career.
“That absolutely changed me, I think due to the vastness of America,” she says. “It made me appreciate England as well, and how lucky we are that we are a small country that punches above its weight creatively, and we are exposed to such a melting pot of music.”
After coming back to the UK, a hunger to work in publishing led to a job as Head of A&R for Warner/Chappell, where Donald truly learned the importance of the song.
She then returned to Chrysalis Publishing as Managing Director for a decade, signing and working with Fraser T Smith, Danger Mouse, Laura Marling, Thom Yorke, Pendulum, Fleet Foxes, Damon Albarn and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
When BMG bought the publisher, Donald was hired by Nick Gatfield to run Columbia as Co-President alongside Mark Terry, where her successes included George Ezra, The Civil Wars, Tom Odell, Declan McKenna and Rag’N’Bone Man.
Over the last year in her new job at Kobalt, Donald has helped secure publishing deals with Swedish duo First Aid Kit, Australian artist Tash Sultana and Atlantic signing Mahalia.
Her signings also include British hiphop artist Scarlxd, singer/songwriter Sam Fender, neo-soul singer Mullally, rising star Jade Bird (pictured, inset), rapper AJ Tracey and Sam Gellaitry, who scored a Super Bowl sync in February.
Donald says: “When I joined, the publishing side was already up and going but just needed a little refocus. I’ve been able to come in with a fresh set of eyes to look at the roster as a whole and go, Okay where are the gaps?”
Here, MBUK is granted a rare sit down chat with the charismatic Donald, who gives her take on the ever-evolving music business, her A&R strategy and predicts where Kobalt is heading…
Aside from the evolution of technology, what are the biggest differences in today’s music business to the one you started in?
When I first started, and for most of the years I’ve been doing this, so much of the aspiration for artists has been to have a big record deal.
Now we are in this time where the aspiration has changed and Chance the Rapper is their God. Artists want to be in charge of their own careers and there is a whole kudos that goes with doing it yourself.
Technology has completely enabled that and I think it’s amazing — the democratisation of music!
“some of the most interesting music is over there [outside of the mainstream] and I love that those people now have a path to their fans, are able to run their careers and be empowered by the insight that technology gives them.”
What I’m also very excited about is what [Kobalt CEO] Willard [Ahdritz] calls ‘the middle class of artists’ and the niche; not everything has to be mainstream – that can get a little dull.
As a music fan, some of the most interesting music is over there [outside of the mainstream] and I love that those people now have a path to their fans and are able to exist and live, run their careers and be empowered by the insight that technology gives them.
You’ve worked extensively in both the major and independent worlds. What’s the future relationship between the two?
I think that in a good and healthy marketplace there should be choice and competition. Artists should have a choice in how they want to run their careers.
In the future, who knows who else will exist in these spaces, but I do think there is room for everyone to work together.
What’s your A&R strategy and the biggest lessons you’ve learned during your career about working with artists?
First off, it’s all about the song — publishing really drums that into you.
In the great documentary [The War Room] about the Bill Clinton presidential campaign, when [campaign strategist] James Carville was brought in he changed everything and wrote all over the walls, ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ I’ve often wanted to write, ‘It’s the song, stupid!’ That is what it all comes from.
My approach to A&R has always been a light touch. When you sign somebody it’s about making sure your visions are aligned and helping them to get to theirs.
“The more you push somebody and demand that they write a hit, the less likely they are going to do it.
“[A&R is] about creating environments where artists are able to thrive, feel safe and do their best work.”
The more you push somebody and demand that they write a hit, the less likely they are going to do it. It’s about creating environments where artists are able to thrive, feel safe and do their best work.
You need to present artists with the right opportunities but never force them into doing something they don’t want to do. There is compromise in life, but when you are working with artists they should never feel like they are compromising their true artistic integrity.
Giving people time is one of the biggest things of all. Everybody expects instant gratification but artist development takes time.
And always listen to the artist.
How does Kobalt compete when trying to sign the same acts/writers as the more established major music companies?
I realised when I came in here that while Kobalt has changed the marketplace of publishing, actually it’s not apples and oranges anymore, it’s apple and apples, because a lot of the other publishers have had to change and be more like us.
I still like to think that from the transparency and technology point of view, we do have the jump, but we can’t afford to stay still and get complacent.
We also have a global roster, so whether you are in LA, Stockholm, Hong Kong or Sydney, you are on Kobalt’s roster. I love that and think it’s really powerful. There is one global budget, so what is good for one is actually genuinely good for all.
I think the fact that acts have a choice, are not signed to long-term deals and can leave, is fair. That means we have to provide good service, because otherwise they will leave, although I believe our retention rate is 98%.
“When I first went into publishing I remember being shocked at the size of my roster at Warner/Chappell. you can’t [serve them all] and [those you do are the ones] who shout the loudest or have the hit.
“at kobalt, That’s one of the reasons why, while we have big reach, we don’t control an enormous amount of copyrights. “
That’s one of the reasons why, while we have big reach, we don’t control an enormous amount of copyrights. When I first went into publishing, having spent the early part of my career in records, I remember being shocked at the size of my roster at Warner/Chappell.
I’d gotten used to having a roster of five, max, it was like, ‘Oh my God I’ve got a roster of 70 people, how am I supposed to serve them all?’ Then you realise that you can’t and [those you do are the ones] who shout the loudest or have the hit.
There is that element of, well, you don’t drop them so you might as well just hang on and see what happens, and that is soul destroying. I don’t think it’s something that’s done on purpose, it’s just due to a lack of man hours and capabilities.
Some people say it’s tricky to break new acts in the UK right now. Do you agree?
It’s always been tricky, right? I do think that for all of the great things about technology, it’s terrifying when you hear that Spotify uploads 20,000 tracks a day. How do you punch through that white noise?
In many ways I think that goes back to a lot of the old principles of the importance of the song and being good live. It’s as important now, if not more so, that you exist in real time as well as up there on the DSPs and that people can go and see you.
And you better be great when they do because they have lots of choice and new things to discover. It’s all about how you define ‘break’ really.
What is the definition of a ‘breaking’ artist in your mind?
To be able to have a sustainable career. The most powerful thing about being in A&R is that when you sign somebody to a publishing or recording deal, you validate them to give up their day job and tell them, ‘You are now a musician, you can put that on your passport.’
“[The definition of a ‘breaking’ artist is] to be able to have a sustainable career. if you can build foundations, which is what AWAL is all about, you can build long-term sustainable careers.”
So it’s fantastic when you sign something, but it’s horrific when you have to let somebody go. It’s their lives, their dreams and everything that you promised them didn’t work out. That is the element of A&R that I’ve never, and will never, be comfortable with.
But if you have the ability to build foundations, you can build long-term sustainable careers, which is what AWAL is all about. Artists are able to run their business, go through all the information, analytics and insight that they get.
We were having breakfast with [AWAL signing] Bruno Major recently and [his manager] Sam was saying how he’s just booked his American tour through the information [Kobalt provides] of where his fans are.
Bruno is a fantastic example of what we do here. I remember meeting him at Columbia three or four years ago and thinking he had great songs and loving what he did, but being at a frontline major label it was like… Where does this fit? Where is the hit?
He signed a big deal over in America, and in some terrible old Game of Thrones corporate thing that happens all the time, but is completely outside of your control, his A&R person goes and he gets dropped. Nightmare!
But, holed up in his bedroom, he learnt Logic and how to produce his own music and we are just about to pass 100 million streams. So the Bruno Major ecosystem is growing and growing and he now has a sustainable career ahead of him, selling out shows in America.
Kobalt disrupted publishing in a big way. Can it do the same for records globally with AWAL while working on a different economic model to the majors?
Yes, absolutely, and Lauv – who is just about to cross 1 billion streams with a genuine hit – is a perfect example of that.
We are paving the road as we go, but it’s a pathway that’s becoming clearer and clearer.
“We are paving the road as we go, but yes, we can give artists important, successful and commercial careers.”
With us there to help, and more people coming in to push marketing, digital and A&R, yes we can give artists important, successful and commercial careers.
Where will Kobalt be in five years’ time?
If I knew that… ! It’s a super exciting time and I’m finding music so amazing again. I love that it’s different here and it’s not all about the hit, it’s about building long-term careers, doing artist development and making them self sufficient.
It’s really exciting to be part of the revolution and at the forefront of these dramatic changes that are taking place.
When I was younger I used to dream of a global jukebox and now we have it.
There are so many possibilities for artists to have sustainable successful careers, to be able to make important music and to help change the world.
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