It’s an old adage of the music business that there’s a limit on how much meaningful impact any executive can make while sitting behind a screen.
It’s fair to say that Ed Howard and Briony Turner have tested the boundaries of that limit in the past 18 months.
The duo officially took over as co-Presidents of Atlantic Records UK in January 2020, just two months before The Unmentionable Thing became The Uncontrollable Thing – with their entire workforce suddenly consigned to working from their bedrooms and lounges.
There was also the small matter of Howard and Turner’s determination to evolve the culture of Atlantic following the exit of significant senior execs at the label.
Plus the fact that Turner took maternity leave to look after her newborn son just before her promotion to co-President. (As she rightly points out in the below interview: No would-be mother “should put their life on hold for the music industry”.)
Since being upped to jointly lead Atlantic UK, Howard and Turner have taken these and other challenges in their stride.
They had, after all, already been working together for over a decade in the cauldron of Atlantic’s award-winning A&R department – Howard with the likes of Ed Sheeran, Charli XCX, Anne-Marie and Mahalia, Turner with the likes of Clean Bandit, Jess Glynne and Plan B.
Item No.1 on the duo’s lockdown agenda was a refresh of Atlantic’s team, alongside some carefully-curated additions to its artist roster.
The first part has been achieved with the additions of standout executives such as Atlantic UK’s EVP, Austin Daboh, alongside the label’s GM, Liz Goodwin, both of whom have joined veteran promo exec Damian Christian – recently upped to MD of Atlantic – within the record company’s management echelons.
“When Ed and I took over, we had a challenge on our hands because a few people, for one reason or another, had left Atlantic. But through that challenge, we had an incredible opportunity to add some new energy and create the right kind of space and culture.”
In addition, there’s been the hiring of exciting A&R talent such as Rich Castillo, who alongside Daboh has driven Atlantic hits including Tion Wayne & Russ Million’s Body, which went to No.1 in the UK and Australia, and has attracted over 280 million Spotify streams since becoming a TikTok sensation earlier this year.
Says Turner: “When Ed and I took over, we had a challenge on our hands because a few people, for one reason or another, had left Atlantic. But through that challenge, we had an incredible opportunity to add some new energy and create the right kind of space and culture.”
Other standout additions to Atlantic’s artist roster have included the likes of Maisie Peters (now at half a billion streams worldwide, with a No.2 debut album under her belt), Mercury-nominated Laura Mvula, plus Joel Corry, whose five UK Top 10 singles in the past couple of years include breakout smash Head & Heart (with MNEK) which topped charts in the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands and Ireland, as well at hitting No.2 in Australia.
These artists have joined Atlantic mainstays like Ed Sheeran – whose recent two UK chart-topping singles bode very well for his album release later this year – plus Charli XCX, Anne-Marie, and Mahalia, who signed with Atlantic nearly a decade ago, and recently surpassed a billion cumulative streams of her catalog.
Here, MBUK asks Howard and Turner about how they’re recalibrating the culture of Atlantic Records UK, their long-term artist development philosophy, and what they believe the music industry could be doing to improve the way it treats its talent and its employees….
If an artist arrived in your offices today, how would you pitch Atlantic UK as being different to any other label?
Turner: Without a shadow of a doubt, it’s our amazing team, who have incredible skill sets across the board, and an immense amount of passion for the artists that they work with. And then in terms of our unique A&R approach, it would be the musical cross-pollination between our roster.
That’s something Ed and I have focused on over the past 10-plus years, right up to now with Ed Sheeran’s remix of Bad Habits alongside Tion Wayne, Central Cee and Fumez The Engineer – with a bit of engineering help from Fred Again. We’ve been doing that for years, with collaborations between artists like Clean Bandit, Jess Glynne, Rudimental, AnneMarie, Joel Corry and Charli XCX.
“For a UK label we’ve had an unusual amount of international success.”
Howard: There’s also a good long-term mindset at Atlantic. On an executive level Briony and I have benefitted from time and space to develop here in our careers, and the same is true for how we take time over artists – we build foundations for artists, and we don’t rush. You can see that in everyone from Ed Sheeran to Paulo Nutini, Anne-Marie, Clean Bandit and Mahalia, who walked through the door here as a 13-year-old and is still a [priority artist] nine or ten years later.
In addition to that, for a UK label we’ve had an unusual amount of international success. That’s important when talking to artists who say, ‘Why do I need a record label now I’ve got this far on my own in the UK?’
They’re absolutely right to ask that question – but we can offer something meaningful from a global perspective. We have partners like Julie [Greenwald] and Craig [Kallman] in the States, and an amazing international team across the world, led by Victor [Aroldoss] that can help take Ed Sheeran to be the biggest streaming artist of the last decade, through to newer artists like Joel Corry and the success he’s seeing.
Warner, because of its size, releases fewer priority records globally each year than Sony and Universal. Do you think that works to your advantage when it comes to UK repertoire?
Turner: I think it’s extremely advantageous to us in the UK. Going back to your first question, when an artist comes through the door of their label, I think a lot of companies go: “We don’t sign very much.” But at Atlantic, that’s actually true. We are extremely cautious about the volume of artists we sign; we know the level of love, passion, commitment, blood, sweat and tears we’re going to put into their career. You can’t show the extra value that a record company can bring to an artist’s career when you have a bloated roster.
Howard: It all comes down to the artist development approach that’s been established over the past 15 years. There’s a subconscious part of our DNA here that goes back to when Max [Lousada] ran the label, and this continued with Ben [Cook]. There’s definitely an emphasis on breaking UK talent here, and that is really healthy for the artists that are signing to us.
How would you characterise the impact TikTok has had on you signing and breaking artists?
Turner: Obviously TikTok’s become a go-to platform for general music discovery for many people, and from an A&R perspective our team spends hours on it every week. That’s something that’s been totally accelerated by the pandemic; if we were excited about an artist [pre-pandemic] you’d go to a gig.
Now if you’re excited about an artist, you’ll go see what’s going on around them on that platform. That said, though we’re using [TikTok] to both inform and discover at the moment, we haven’t yet signed any artists off the back of it.
Howard: In terms of using TikTok to break, rather than sign, artists, we just have to look at Body. TikTok was very important for that record, especially the international reach. Seeing that record climbing the charts in America was really remarkable, and a large part of that was down to TikTok. It’s also worth mentioning Ed Sheeran’s interaction with TikTok for Bad Habits.
That was really interesting because it was a superstar engaging with the platform. [TikTok UK’s] Paul Hourican came to us and had this idea for a live-stream tie-in with Euro 2020 and Ed, and that combination and the timing of it all came together beautifully. The work done before, during and after that by the team at Atlantic, Ed’s management, and TikTok has very quickly built Ed a substantial following on the platform this year.
One of your A&R team comes to you and says: ‘I’ve found this truly amazing artist, but there’s zero online footprint.’ Is that exciting, terrifying or somewhere in the middle?
Briony: At the end of the day, we’re in this business because we’re music people. So if someone presents something to me and goes “this is incredible”, and then you hear a voice that makes your jaw drop… we’d all be in the wrong industry if we didn’t get excited by that.
It’s terrifying in the sense that there’s a really long journey to go on with an artist like that. It could take three or even four years [to establish them] without a viral explosive moment – and there’ll be an amount of dedication, work, passion, and spend from the label to fuel that. But if we structure deals in the right way, that definitely diminishes the terrifying aspect of [signing ‘unknown’ new artists.
I could speak to Dylan Fraser as an example of an artist who, while he had a good footprint on Instagram, didn’t have huge metrics elsewhere – but we fell head over heels for him, his vision, his vocals and the quality of his music. It always starts with either an amazing metric, or an amazing talent.
Let’s talk about Mahalia specifically, because she’s been around for a beat at Atlantic. That’s not always the case in this industry – especially the UK industry – when labels can still be guilty of fixating on ‘the new’, the BBC Sound Of… poll etc.
Howard: Like we said at the top of this conversation, nothing is more rewarding to us than meeting young artists and helping them build a career that can support them in the long term. The question we always ask ourselves with [Atlantic’s current roster] is: Would we sign this artist again today?
And with Mahalia (pictured inset) the answer is always yes. When you’ve got someone as special as her, underneath all of it, whatever else is going on, you remain confident that it will all fall into place, and that she’s going to bring the magic. She’s in a very good place now, managed by Radha Medar, who’s a long-time collaborator of Atlantic’s and has done a phenomenal job in developing Mabel.
Is it genuinely still possible to break a UK artist in the audience’s mind today, versus just a song?
Turner: What is true is that there’s no singular way to anoint a “broken artist” today. Back in the old days, if you had an EP at No.1 in the iTunes chart you were on the right path, whereas now it’s really crazy – you can be popping off in different areas, maybe having that explosive moment at Glastonbury, but you’re not troubling the charts.
So something can feel really hot but it’s not being borne out by more old-fashioned commercial metrics that are in place. It’s become very difficult to measure. It definitely takes more than a hit, or even a run of hits, to say you’re a [broken] artist today; you need the audience to be able to put a face and a personality to the name.
Joel Corry (pictured inset) is an interesting example of that. He was a DJ and reality TV star before he started making records, and now we’ve had a really successful run of hits – he’s at around 2 billion global streams. His personality is starting to land, that kind of infectious warmth that he has about him.
Major record companies don’t always get applauded for their long-term commitment to artists. An infamous example of what can go wrong is RAYE castigating Polydor for what she perceived as holding back her career by not releasing music.
Turner: Ed and I are both really passionate about this subject. First and foremost our artists are humans. We get to know them before the signing process, and only [sign them] if we’re really passionate about them as people. You want to super-serve them for maximum impact on the market, but I genuinely don’t think that hits alone are enough anymore.
“You’ve got to create a whole world around artists, and you do that by intelligent and bespoke marketing, and by making sure that if you’ve got an artist with an amazing personality, you’re connecting that extra layer.”
You’ve got to create a whole world around artists, and you do that by intelligent and bespoke marketing, and by making sure that if you’ve got an artist with an amazing personality, you’re connecting that extra layer – doing your best job to amplify those special things to a broader audience. Our bottom line is this: A happy artist is much more likely to be a successful artist.
How much importance does a company like Atlantic put on the UK chart these days versus other metrics?
Howard: The charts have been a hallmark of Atlantic’s success for some time and, to some extent, they reflect the financial health of a record label. It’s something that we use to build confidence in artists, as a tool to keep [industry and audience interest] going in artists in the long term. So it’s certainly something we still look at. But as you say it’s not really the whole picture today: we’re really conscious of all the plates we have to keep spinning at any one time to keep an artist’s career and business moving forward.
What makes a good artist manager?
Turner: First and foremost, a manager who has a super-deep understanding of their artist, their artist’s audience – and what makes that audience move. We pride ourselves on an ‘honesty’s the best policy’ approach with the artists and managers we work with, as that definitely brings about better long-term relationships.
But that in itself is dependent on artist managers being excellent communicators with us and with their artists. We love managers who challenge us to think differently. Plus obviously it’s always useful if they have any tentacles of influence into media and [digital/broadcast] partners, so it’s not just the label’s voice going into those outlets.
Howard: We’ve had the pleasure of working with a few younger managers who bring a unique perspective, especially if they’re a similar age to the artists themselves – and it’s the same for younger team members at Atlantic. But sometimes [managers] like that need space and time to grow, which isn’t always easy when you don’t have the formal structure we benefited from in our careers at a label. That makes mentors all-the-more important. It’s equally as rewarding to us to partner with those managers as it is to work with the super-smart, super-experienced managers in the industry.
What’s the challenge and opportunity with pulling together an Ed Sheeran campaign in 2021?
Howard: We’ve all seen over the last kind of 18 months that there’s no guarantee that any superstar coming back into the market is going to be as successful as they have been historically. The challenge is not resting on your laurels, not taking anything for granted. The world is moving at an extremely fast pace.
Ed has had a bit of time out, off social media, which is unusual for a [star] of his calibre, and itself sets a certain challenge. But with Ed and his level of talent, the opportunities are always greater than the challenges.
The way we’ve overcome those challenges was to try and come with a record [Bad Habits] that didn’t feel like ground we’d covered before. It’s hard to do that with Ed, when there are so many things he’s done so well before, but we’re very pleased with the reaction so far.
What would you change about the modern industry?
Howard: It’s hard to answer that question sitting next to Briony and not to talk about inclusion of underrepresented groups, especially at the top of record labels. I’m extremely grateful to work with Briony, but I’m also really mindful, all the time, of what she went through at the start of the pandemic and continues to with [her son]. Also just how rare Briony is as a woman running a UK major record label – that’s something that we really need to look at as an industry.
“Our biggest learning from the last 18 months is that our team is stronger when it’s diverse enough to truly represent our artists and their fans.”
Our biggest learning from the last 18 months is that our team is stronger when it’s diverse enough to truly represent our artists and their fans, and that means making sure that we’re creating an environment where people of different backgrounds, sexual orientations and beliefs can truly thrive. That leads to more trust, more creativity, more understanding and ultimately more success. We will continue to be proactive in terms of hiring, making sure we’ve got people from underrepresented groups at the final stages of every appointment we’re trying to make.
Turner: Tony [Harlow] has been remarkably supportive to both of us. He’s extremely smart, while also being a proper human. He’s been a really good friend for us over the past two years, and his energy is great – he’s made some amazing hires into his senior team.
Briony, do you have any advice for women who may be about to go on maternity leave in this business? Music Business Worldwide has run stories before about women who felt unsupported by their employers in that situation, which is no secret in this business.
Turner: I’m incredibly fortunate to work at Warner; they treat women very well. But we need that level of support for women across the industry. My only advice to women who want to have children is: procreation is arguably the most important thing to humankind! So don’t put a barrier up to that because of your [industry commitments].
It’s up to the music industry to catch up. Things are getting better, and I have faith that the level of support I received will start to be seen across the board. It’s already much better than when I started in this industry: 20 years ago there were zero female A&R people, let alone women in senior positions. In short: Don’t put your life on hold because of the music business. That would be my advice.
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