‘Amazon Music operates at 100 miles per hour, at all times. That’s fine. It matches mine and the team’s ambition’

MBW’s Inspiring Women series profiles female executives who have risen through the ranks of the business, highlighting their career journey – from their professional breakthrough to the senior responsibilities they now fulfill. Inspiring Women is supported by Virgin Music Group.

At Amazon Music, where she has been Head of Music Industry for UK, Australia and New Zealand for a year, Laura Lukanz is on a mission to offer artists the fuel they need to cut through an ever-crowded marketplace.

With eight years’ experience in management at First Access Entertainment, and over a decade at the BBC, where she was part of the team that launched 1Xtra, she certainly knows which buttons to press.

Across the last 12 months, Lukanz and team have been busy delivering recording sessions, events, livestreams and pop-up fan experiences for Stormzy, The 1975 and Central Cee, plus developing talents like Jae5. Amazon Music’s playlist brand, +44, partnered with iconic Notting Hill Carnival sound system, Rampage, and has its own spin-off live series with Live Nation.

Its Amplify playlist brand, which champions women and non-binary artists, arrived with a month of content and performances. The same brand is being used for an apprenticeship scheme, launched alongside AIM and Women in CTRL, which aims to improve access to music industry careers for women and non-binary people.

For up-and-coming artists, a partnership with the Featured Artists Coalition sees Amazon Music backing its Step Up Fund for the second time this year. In January, its Artists to Watch programme kicked off with a partnership with legendary photographer Rankin and Hunger Magazine to create stills that were gifted to the artists to use throughout the campaign.

Finally, Amazon’s new content space, Curved, opened at Kings Cross in March, with performances from Mimi Webb and Beabadoobee. “We’ve done loads of brilliant work,” says Lukanz, “it’s been very, very busy. Amazon Music operates at 100 miles per hour, at all times. That’s fine. It matches mine and the team’s ambition.”

Lukanz started her career as a DJ in Manchester, which led to a job on pirate radio. “I left school and went straight into work, working in the day, DJ-ing at the station a couple of times a week and also doing bars, parties and clubs,” she remembers. After a few years, she went to night school to study music and sound recording, intending to follow the well-worn path from DJ to producer.

However, she didn’t have the patience required to make records. Instead, she ended up with the not-too-shabby alternative of joining the BBC in early 2002 to launch what was going to be the first national Black music station. Over the course of 12 years, Lukanz worked her way up to be the first female Head of Music at 1Xtra – “an epic time” that changed the trajectory for Black music in the UK, she says.

After meeting First Access founder Sarah Stennett, Lukanz knew that was the next step on her career journey. “I went to her office and she kept playing the same record over and over again. She was trying to get the chorus right and was asking for ideas. It turned out to be Iggy Azalea’s Fancy record, which went on to be a huge global smash. The experience of that was amazing — I was brought straight in and instantly connected with her.” At First Access, Lukanz mainly worked with producers and writers, bringing her full circle to her beginnings in music.

The experience gave her “another level of appreciation for artists, artistry and the whole creative process.” She continues: “There’s a lot of the business that you don’t see when you come into radio. I had to learn to have a much thicker skin and understand that business decisions weren’t personal.”

A similar meeting with her boss at Amazon, Jillian Gerngross, sealed the deal there. “I knew it was an incredible opportunity and an incredible role, something again that I hadn’t done before. There was so much scope for growth,” Lukanz says.

“When I finally met Jillian after this really long, intense interview process with loads of different people in the business, I knew I’d met another amazing woman who was wildly smart, very strong-minded and had a big heart. For me, that’s really important. I’m very strong and I’m drawn to strong women, which is definitely to do with my upbringing.”

Here, Lukanz delves further into her mission at Amazon, curation, Alexa, breaking artists, her career, and her ambitions.

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned across your career?

Keep an open mind and don’t take on other people’s opinions. When you spend a lot of time around DJs, everyone’s so opinionated, which is brilliant. We used to have these incredible debates and, at times, shouting matches in those meetings. But you’ve got to be really strong about your own beliefs and opinions and not take on other people’s.

I’ve always been a champion and cared a lot about creating opportunities and flying the flag for new music. That’s never changed. With radio, I was really conscious about the importance of backing young artists and making sure that was not just artists in London, but right across the UK. 

Maybe that’s because I moved to London from the North West. I think there can only be positivity that comes from that role and the investment you put in. I got that bug early from my pirate days.

I was talking to a US executive recently who was lamenting the loss of curated editorial on DSPs, at a time when it can be really hard for artists to cut through the noise. Where does the work you do at Amazon sit in that conversation?

Because of the time I spent in management, I really understand the challenge for artists, managers and labels in this current landscape to build and sustain momentum. It takes relentless work ethic and focus. I’m really passionate about how the team here at Amazon supports emerging talent on that journey because they need it more than ever.

Breakthrough is our global artist development programme that’s there to support up-and-coming artists and amplify new talent. We work really closely with the artists we select for that to support and champion them, outside of all the programming we offer new artists generally. 

“I’m really passionate about how the team here at Amazon supports emerging talent because they need it more than ever.”

We create bespoke plans, based on where artists are currently at in their trajectory. That can include everything from playlist and programming support, to creating social content with them and marketing support. Our newly launched editorial performance space is part of the offering now too.

There are so many ways that we are there to support developing talent. It’s really beyond important. We’re going to work really hard this year with the team to build that out even further and work closely with managers. 

We want to be the service that artists can come to and have a conversation with, they can get feedback, and there’s a huge range of opportunities for them to collaborate with us on. 

There’s always more we can do and I’m really excited about how we explore that and have a bigger and greater impact for artists at a time that’s meaningful for them.

Spotify is the market leader in the music streaming space. What is Amazon’s competitive USP?

We’re very focused on us, improving our service, being as innovative as possible and ensuring our customer experience is really positive from start to end and gives them access to their favourite artists in unique ways. We also want to reflect, understand and help cultivate new genres and shape the future of the business.

“With Alexa, we’ve made music streaming accessible and created this seamless interface for music listening.”

With Alexa, we’ve made music streaming accessible and created this seamless interface for music listening. We’ll continue to be really innovative in that space with new voice features. We’ve expanded HD and Ultra HD in spatial and made it available to our unlimited subscribers, making a premium listening experience the standard for our customers. 

Our top podcasts are all ad-free and live streaming is also a really important space for us going forward. We’re very much focused on expanding the music streaming segment, bringing more listeners to streaming generally and focusing on what we can do in our space.

How do you see the role of DSPs evolving in future?

We’re at a really interesting point in time. Music services are becoming more than just streaming services. Amazon Music will always be a destination where people come and listen to music and discover great music: their favourite artists, new artists and legacy artists.

But we’re now bringing a lot more alongside that music discovery and personalisation experience. You can see that in the moves we’ve made around livestreaming, content creation, our events and podcasting.

We’re now an immersive audio entertainment service that is there to serve and to drive fandom and be a connection point for the artist, the fan and the creators through the music, content and community that we’re developing and curating and the culture. That’s how we’re evolving as a service.

What would you change about the music industry and why?

I really want to see a greater level of diversity and opportunity given to those sections of the workforce that are always under-represented. I really believe that it’s a much richer experience in your team when you have a breadth of knowledge, experience and different life experiences, stances, characteristics and perspectives. 

That’s always going to help enrich and inform what you do, which then has an impact on what you deliver to the customer and the music fans. There’s still a lot of work to do in this space and I’d love to see more progression across the music business.

What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever been given?

I think it’s about never losing sight of your purpose and the energy and passion you have for what you do; that’s your superpower. There might be days along the way when you get jaded and feel frustrated, tired, or whatever it might be. When those days happen, you have to take yourself back to the start. What was it that brought me here in the first place? What was the energy that I had as a 16-year-old, back in the day? Your purpose and motivation might change but I think that really helps to remind you what’s so great about working in music.

Also, staying hungry, curious and connected — these things are really important to remain intact as you get older and get more experience or move on in your career. If you can do what you love with people that you really like, you’re very lucky.

If you could go back to the beginning of your career and tell yourself one thing, what would it be? 

I would tell myself that 20 years from now, I’ll still be working in music. That’s a really powerful thing. I could tell myself, ‘Have more confidence, have more self-belief, that my past failures won’t define my future’, but none of that would have lifted the load, because I still faced, and continue to face, those challenges. Knowing that I would continue to work in music, the thing that I love the most, that assurance would have been the best start that I could have given myself.

How about your future plans and ambitions? What are you working on this year and beyond?

This year, we’re going to continue as we’ve started and make great strides with our editorial content. We’ve got our studio and we’re ambitious with our livestreams and podcast content. We’ve also got exciting plans around our playlist brands. With +44 and Dance UK, we want to continue to extend and reinforce our commitment to Black music and dance music and to show up in exciting and special ways for the fans.

On a personal level, I’m looking forward to working with our team to create more of those unique moments that music fans absolutely have to be there for, do not want to miss out on and, if you do, you’ve got pure FOMO – experiences that only Amazon Music can deliver. I want to solidify Amazon Music as the destination to connect fans and artists. I care deeply about helping to amplify and move the needle for new artists, so that’s going to be a big focus for the team.

Virgin Music Group is the global independent music division of Universal Music Group, which brings together UMG’s label and artist service businesses including Virgin and Ingrooves.Music Business Worldwide

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