‘It’s an absolute balance of quality and taste with serious commercial ability.’

Ben Mortimer

A couple of times during his conversation with MBW, Polydor President Ben Mortimer says that he believes the most valuable lessons are learned during the toughest times rather than when things are going well.

If so, he might want to enroll for some extra-curricular night classes, just to stay sharp, because the day job’s going exceptionally well right now. In the year-to-date market share standings, Polydor is third in singles and albums, achieved via a string of hits from a wide range of artists.

Mortimer has been in sole charge of Polydor for just over a year, following the departure of former Co-President Tom March to Geffen in July 2022.

Looking back, he says: “I think we both knew that we’d sort of done our stint; we’d had conversations about that. And then, while I don’t want to speak too much on Tom’s behalf, I knew he had a dream of going to the States and I was just incredibly happy for him when he got the opportunity. And I relished the challenge of doing it by myself, giving it a go.”

That relish came with a side order of apprehension. “In some ways it’s easier, you can make decisions faster – maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong, but you can make a decision and then stand or fall by it. But there’s more pressure, certainly. You’ve got to be thinking about more things, more different things.

“Just before I took over, I asked John Janick, who is such an incredible executive, and runs Interscope, this massive institution, by himself: how do you do it?

“He said the simple answer, and the most important thing, is that you’ve got to have a brilliant team. And I think if there’s one thing Tom and I got right, it is that we built a brilliant team. And in a way, Tom leaving, in terms of the things that he looked after, it gave everyone a chance to step up, which they have, brilliantly. I don’t want to single people out, but they are a special bunch of people here.

“But, you know, I’ll be honest, the first six months of being solo definitely coincided with us having a bit of a quieter patch. That happens, it’s just the natural cycle of record labels – that’s what everyone was telling me.

“But in my head, because I do have an ego, I’m thinking, ‘Yep, I’ve fucked this up, this all comes down to me, it’s all about me’. Which was rubbish of course, just like the successes aren’t down to me.

“We really did just have a bit of a quieter release schedule. And now, I don’t want to sound obnoxious, but I feel like we’re really back in it. The results have been phenomenal. We had nine artists in the Top 20 two weeks ago; it’s been a
great summer.”

As a teenager, Mortimer’s obsession was electronic dance music. “I grew up in London in the early 1990s, I was very lucky. I was around a lot of good stuff – and perhaps sneaking into nightclubs and going raving a little earlier than I
should have.

“At 15, I was just besotted with jungle, while there was this whole other thing going on called Britpop that I did not give a shit about!”

Having gone to university in Manchester, he stayed up north for the start of his working life, first at specialist dance title Jockey Slut and then at the listings magazine, City Life.

He says: “While I was there I met an amazing woman called Emma Warren. She was a fantastic writer who was working for The Face at the time, and she asked if I wanted to come and write their clubs pages. It was unbelievable. I was 22 and I was writing about nightclubs!”

From there he went to another specialist dance music publication, Mixmag – “but I knew I wanted to work more closely with artists, so I sort of bluffed my way into a scouting job at Virgin”.

He ended up spending seven years there, despite what he, perhaps a little harshly, describes as a patchy start. “Honestly, I had a terrible time. I had four years where I couldn’t get anything signed. 

“I knew I was on the right track, because I was bringing good things. I brought in Dizzee Rascal, I brought in Franz Ferdinand, I brought in the Scissor Sisters…  I just had to keep going.

“The first person I did manage to get over the line, and I still work with him now, was Jamie T. He’s a career artist, he’s phenomenally talented and he’s a friend. We’ve just re-signed him at Polydor in fact.

“And then I found an artist… she wasn’t even called this at the time, but they became Florence and the Machine. I pursued her for two years, couldn’t quite get it done.

“Around the same time, I got offered a job at Island Records, by Darcus [Beese], and one of the first things I did was tell him I wanted to sign Florence.

“By that point, she wasn’t a mystery, everyone knew about her. And I’m not gonna say who, but someone said, ‘You sure about this? You know, a lot of people have seen her and passed…’

“I took Darcus to see her at the iTunes Festival – she was supporting The Ting Tings – and it wasn’t a fantastic show at all. But Darcus said, ‘I see magic; go for it’. He really backed me, we signed her, and three months later, she won the BRITs Critics’ Choice award. From there it went pretty ballistic quite quickly. I was at Island for three or four years and I loved my time there. There was so much happening.”

Asked to reflect on what the Island culture was at the time, with Beese and Ted Cockle as Co-Presidents, Mortimer takes a judicious pause, smiles and simply says, “spicy”.

After letting the playfully ambiguous descriptor hang in the air for a moment, he continues: “Spicy, but really successful. It was such a run. It wasn’t necessarily the easiest place to work, but it was incredible. And there are so many people who came out of that era who are doing incredible things around the business.”

We’re less about chasing the moments and more about looking for the artists.”

It was also where Mortimer reconnected with March, who had been a PR contact when he was writing about London clubs for The Face.

“We ended up working on Florence together, which was amazing, and then I got offered a job at Polydor by Ferdy [Unger-Hamilton] as Head of A&R [in 2012]. It was hard to leave Island, because I had an amazing roster, but it felt like the right moment.

“And when I look back on that early period at Polydor, I just think it was phenomenal in terms of the artists we signed. There was Lana [Del Rey], there was Ellie Goulding, there was Haim, there was Years & Years, there was The 1975, there was Michael Kiwanuka…”

After four years at Polydor, and after Unger-Hamilton left for Columbia, Mortimer was named Co-President, with March joining him at the helm, following a stint as General Manager at Virgin EMI.

That was in 2016. Over the next six years the duo had a hell of a run, breaking or accelerating UK artists such as Sam Fender and Michael Kiwanuka whilst also working with US superstars like Billie Eilish and Selena Gomez and legends like The Rolling Stones [more on them later] and ABBA.

Then, last year, March moved to the US, via a new role as President of Geffen, and Mortimer found himself, for a short while, mired in that ‘quiet patch’. It didn’t last long. And now, as he continues to grow and evolve one of the UK’s most successful labels, he talks about flying solo, A&R, Sam Fender, Raye, what success means and what makes Polydor special…

I want to ask you about that success you mentioned and about lots of artists on the Polydor roster, but first we have to talk about one who has left, and that’s Raye. Can you give us Polydor’s side of a story that a lot of people have had their say on – but not you, as far as I can tell, not much anyway…

Yeah, so, you’re right, I haven’t spoken much about it. And what I have said, I still stand by massively: I am so happy for her. I think she’s an incredible talent, an incredible songwriter and such a hard worker. It’s really genuinely good to see
her succeed.

Beyond that, I definitely learned some things on how on how to operate. Tough situations provide the biggest learning curves.

I don’t want to speak too much to the detail of things, but sometimes, as a team, you try as hard as you can, you put the time and money in, you put everything in, and it doesn’t work out; it’s unfortunate, but it does happen.

I also want to ask specifically about Sam Fender, one of the biggest and most interesting UK success stories of recent times. Where do you think he’s up to in his career – and where do you see him going from here?

He’s just been on a phenomenal tour of Australia, he’s played a run of European festivals that have been an absolute triumph. He’s conquered the UK, there’s no doubt about that, and you’ve just got to think that he can go all the way. And we will back him to do that.

By which you mean become a global artist operating at the highest level?

I do, yeah, and I really believe it.

What can you tell us about the third record?

I don’t want to say anything at the moment, sorry. Other than it’s going to be great!

Can he break America?

Can Sam do it? Yes, he absolutely can, if he decides he wants to. So that’s the answer to that.

But there’s a whole other thing. We live in a mad time at the moment, where the UK can have its own Springsteen, but there’s almost certainly an Italian Springsteen, a French Springsteen…

Every territory has gone so domestic at the moment. And I think that’s the biggest challenge for us all at moment, to figure out how we can break out of that.

I was in Berlin a couple of weeks ago. I hadn’t been out to see the labels out there since before COVID. And Germany has always been such an amazing jump-off point for our records, and then they travel out across Europe. But their chart, like everyone else’s right now, is so domestic; it’s a challenge.

How do you feel about the overall size and genre balance of your roster at the moment?

I really like our size. I think we compete at the highest level and I genuinely believe that we’re one of the top labels in the country. I don’t want to sign too much. I want to stay focused on what we’ve got and I think we do that really well.

Credit: Ciesay
Perhaps in terms of balance rather than size, then, are you active in A&R terms in some specific areas, maybe looking to fill some gaps?

We’re so broad, honestly, that’s one thing I always hear back about us, we’re so broad.

You look at the chart the other week that I was talking about– and, you know, some of these are not direct signings – but you’ve got Jazzy popping off from Dublin, you’ve got Becky Hill back in the charts, which is always great, you’ve got Clavish (pictured), who I’m really excited about.

If there’s one thing that I know people used to say about us, it was that we weren’t particularly strong in that area of UK rap. And I think Clavish is the most exciting new artist in that genre, without a doubt. He’s also the biggest-selling new artist in the country this year, in any genre, which is pretty mad. I’m so glad, and we’re really lucky, to be working with him. I just love him and I love his team. So, yeah, we’re really broad and we have hits, we’ve demonstrated that time and time again this year.

And when it comes to a competitive signing, what’s the Polydor difference?

I think we’re really calm, we’re really dignified. I think people know what we do. We’re a culture-driven label, when you look at artists like Lana and Michael, but we also have the ability to deliver hits. I believe that if you have respectful, grown-up conversations, you will work something out. And the fact is, we do sign most of the artists that we go for.

What do you think have been the biggest changes in your time in A&R, in terms of goals and processes? What are people looking for and how/where are they finding it?

I think data has been brilliant, but I think it became a little overwhelming. We’ve really made a concerted effort to pull back from it slightly over the last couple of years, and combine it with some of the more old school methodology. I’m maybe slightly doing us a disservice there actually, because I think we always did that. But we’re less about chasing the moments and more about looking for the artists.

What’s your take on the current health or otherwise of the UK A&R scene on the global stage?

I think it ties back to what I was talking about earlier, about the domestic-ness of things. I think every country is quite obsessed with what they’ve got going on themselves right now. And I think that’s making it harder for British artists to break through. I don’t think there’s a lack of quality. I think there are brilliant artists out there, and I think there are brilliant artists coming through. They just might not be traditionally the kind of things that the UK was known for.

What are your key success metrics these days?

We’re really making a concerted effort to not look just at the OCC as the sole metric. We look at the charts every day, and they’re vitally important to what we do. But at Polydor, for the past 18 months, we’ve had our own monthly revenue charts that we run internally, so we can see how an artist is really doing in a very kind of black and white and holistic way, across the piece.

I’m really trying to instil in the culture here the idea to not obsess about chart positions. And if you are, then it’s where you are at week 11, not week one.

“I’m trying to instil in the culture here the idea not to obsess about chart positions.”

You look at an artist like Lana, here she is, this far into her career and probably having one of the most successful years so far; that’s what we’ve got to be aspiring to. And I don’t necessarily think you always get that picture just from looking at the OCC. Then you’re just obsessing about the hit, when you’ve really got to be thinking about the artist as a whole, not just about one song and where it’s going.

What’s coming between now and the end of the year that you’re especially excited about?

Well, Hackney Diamonds was recently announced, of course, and how could we not be excited about the first Stones’ album in 18 years? It’s a phenomenal record and we’re all feeling very lucky to be able to play a part in its release.

Sam will be back at some point, Becky Hill’s going to keep having a phenomenal year. As I said, I’m incredibly excited about Clavish and I think we’ll have a new mixtape from him by the end of the year. Jazzy will keep going from strength to strength, there’s a new Holly Humberstone album on the way, there will be the return of
Glass Animals…

Which global artists are you excited about working with in the UK this year?

We’re really excited about Olivia Rodrigo’s album. It’s all been said before, but she is such an exceptional talent, and her team are so brilliant to work with.

We are also very excited about Ice Spice (pictured) too, of course. And Byron Messia, who’s a brilliant artist from St Kitts. And Renee Rapp and Destroy Lonely.

What do you think is the Polydor personality in the Universal multiverse?

I don’t… it’s funny, I’ve worked here a really, really long time – as head of A&R, then Co-President, now President, and I’ve always sort of wondered: what is the DNA? Because it’s had so many different iterations through the years, it’s quite hard to put a finger on it…

To me, it will always be the home of The Jam…

There you go! And Weller’s back! We’ve re-signed him here and it’s been one of the highlights of my career. He just tipped me on a really good act the other day. He’s so on it still…

For me, it’s about having artists that have developed here over a very, very long time, while also having an ability to deliver things at the coalface. It’s an absolute balance of quality and taste with serious commercial ability.

Do you ever feel David Joseph’s eyes, or even Sir Lucian’s eyes, burning especially hot in the back of your neck because you’re the custodian of the label where they made their name? Is there a sense of, ‘Do not fuck this up?’!

Of course! [Laughs] David would never say it. Lucian has [laughs] – but in a really nice way, and it’s an absolute honour to be entrusted with a label that means so much to both of them.

Sticking with David, how would you describe the overall company culture he’s built at Universal in the UK?

He’s very loyal, he’s incredibly intelligent, but just as importantly, he’s instilled a sense of kindness and caring into a business that is not notoriously known for those qualities. He always asks those sort of questions first.

I love the fact that he’s not a big shouter, maybe because neither am I. I looked at David and I was like, he’s someone who has been incredibly successful, but also someone I can identify with. He’s done it the way I would like to do it, and maybe the way it wasn’t done all that often in the past.

Credit: Charlotte Patmore
What’s been your proudest or happiest moment in the in the business so far?

Oh, man, there’s been a few. The whole Florence thing was huge. From people saying you shouldn’t sign her, through to No.1 albums in America.

Having a No.1 single with Years & Years, that was a real highlight for me. I’d probably worked more with album artists, like Florence and Jamie T, and then to be like, oh, wow, I can have a hit single as well, that was a huge amount of fun.

The whole period that Tom and I had together at Polydor… you know, we were young. And I think there were quite a few people that were perhaps a bit quizzical, a bit doubtful. But we had a really great time. Being able to do that, especially through COVID, being able to steer the ship through all of that, I’m very proud of that.

Glass Animals’ Heatwave becoming the Billboard No.1 was so great. That song had such a remarkable trajectory.

And Glastonbury 2022, where we had 18 of our artists playing, including two of the headliners in Billie Eilish, and Kendrick Lamar – plus career-defining moments from Olivia Rodrigo and Sam Fender. It was an insane weekend for me personally.

And, honestly, I know I’m supposed to say this, but this period we’re having right now; I feel so happy about things, especially because I know there’s so much more to come.

It’s so great to see the team here, who I love to bits, really stepping up and going forward into their roles, that is so satisfying.

I also take some satisfaction from the fact that, out of the A&R team that I built and developed here, one of them’s head of A&R at EMI, one of them’s head of A&R at Columbia, one of them’s head of A&R at Warner.

Either I’m a terrible boss and people want to leave, or I’m doing something right. I hope it’s more of the latter than the former!

What about the toughest moment or biggest challenge?

I don’t really want to single anything out. But I do think they’re important and I know I’ve learned much more through those than I have during the good times.

And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?

If you have great artists, listen to them.

This article originally appeared in the latest (Q3 2023) issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK, which is out now.

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