‘Our purpose is to make creative geniuses global superstars.’

London-born Tony Harlow had no idea what would greet him on the other side of a one-way trip to Australia in 1997.

But he knew he had to go, despite his slight apprehension, because of an abiding life philosophy: “When you’re sitting in a chair aged 60, what will you honestly think about this? Will you think: I was a bit of a dumb s**t not to take this opportunity?”

This sentence tells us a lot about Tony Harlow. It tells us that he’s a straight-talker (as anyone in the industry who witnessed his performance being grilled by MPs in a DCMS Select Committee in January could attest).

It tells us that he has an enduring sense of adventure, and a thirst for new challenges – one that’s taken him to living in Oz and New York City, as well as meeting one of his lifelong heroes, Miles Davis, at the apex of a Swiss mountain. And it tells us that he’s serious about living his life, especially his professional life, with conviction.

Another of Harlow’s enduring philosophical principles, he tells Music Business Worldwide, has held him in particularly good stead since he took over as CEO of Warner Music UK in February 2020: “Always ask yourself: Is this a big problem or a small problem?”

It’s a simple enough query. But time and time again, it’s proven invaluable in helping Harlow successfully steer an array of businesses – from Richard Branson’s V2 label to Warner Music Australia, to Universal’s European merchandising unit, to WMG’s worldwide artist services division, WEA.

Over the past 12 months, throughout the turbulence of a global pandemic and an ongoing racial reckoning, it’s been nothing short of a credo to live by.

For Harlow, addressing the issue of diversity within Warner Music UK’s ranks was classified early on in the “big” category.

He has set about tackling it with trademark straightforwardness, making a spate of important hires, and launching a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion program that puts tangible targets on, among other things, efforts to hire people of different backgrounds, gender and sexuality across all levels of the company.

“We’ve made a lot of progress this year but there’s always more to do,” says Harlow. The exec’s experience of living and working in New York from 2016 to 2019 opened his eyes wider to societal injustices of which we would all do well to remain cognizant.

He says. “I remember a very senior executive on Julie [Greenwald’s] team at Atlantic [in the US], who I respect greatly, explaining to me why she dreaded her son going out in the car each night. She would say to him, ‘Don’t play your music too loud because they might pull you over, and if they do pull you over, make sure they can see your hands at all times.’

“I grew up in London in the [1970s]. It could be a rough town in those days, but when we were out as kids we never once thought that we wouldn’t be coming back the next day. That’s such an appalling reality for parents to send their child out into.”

“We’ve made a lot of progress this year but there’s always more to do.”

He adds: “All of this ultimately comes down to fairness. Terrible events over this past year have reminded us all that fairness is not a given, and we all need to work hard to make sure that it prevails.” Tony Harlow was brought up in 1970s West London. He doesn’t remember much recorded music playing in his childhood home until a lodger, who also happened to be an intern at Sony/ CBS, joined the fray.

Harlow recalls, “[He] would bring records back and I would play them and tell him: ‘This one’s amazing. I don’t like this one.’ I remember Sly & The Family Stone, If You Want Me To Stay being in there. Then we started watching Top Of The Pops. That was it; the magic happened.”

That magic would carry Harlow to become a regular amid London’s bustling live music scene in the late 70s and early ‘80s, witnessing performances from the Cramps to the Cure, Aztec Camera, Gregory Isaacs, Tito Puente and Grandmaster Flash – not to mention the Smiths’ first ever gig in London, and Bob Marley at Crystal Palace Bowl.

“I didn’t realise what I was getting into, but I was grasping at straws, so I said yes.”

Harlow went to school in Hammersmith before going on to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University. He admits he wasted too many student hours playing pool and listening to records, but ultimately walked away with a degree and that enduring piece of wisdom – “Is this a big problem or a small problem?” – in his back pocket.

Returning to London, Harlow took a job as a counter-dweller at two Beggars Banquet stores owned by Martin Mills, in Putney and Kingston.

“Beggars Banquet was brilliant because it was obviously an indie store – that’s what 4AD and Martin’s labels did – but they also brought in a lot of imports and sold tickets for lots of the important clubs,” he says.

“We were getting in the first house records, all of that mid-’80s hip-hop; I remember when they brought in Public Enemy No.1 when no one [in the UK] had ever heard it. It was a brilliant way to find out about music.”

During one shift, he noticed an ad in UK trade paper Music Week for a Jazz Buyer at HMV’s Oxford Circus store. Having fed a love for jazz during his first stint working in record retail – while regularly hitting clubs run by Gilles Peterson and Paul Murphy in London – this was a dream opportunity for Harlow, who got the gig.

His next move, in 1988, was into Record Label Land, where he’s stayed ever since. Harlow took a job in marketing with jazz specialist Blue Note Records at EMI – then the world’s fourth biggest major record company – working under legendary Beatles expert Mike Heatley.

After the cosy world of retail jazz buying, was Harlow’s entry into a major label, we ask, a baptism of fire? “It was more like the baptism of the back cupboard!” he jokes.

“We were in the bit of the company no-one cared about, but because of CDs, we’d suddenly become interesting. I got to work with unbelievably brilliant people in America like [then Blue Note President] Bruce Lundvall, rest in peace, Michael Cuscuna, who was the expert on the reissue front, and Jim Fifield, who showed me what a real business brain was like.

“I also got to meet a lot of jazz musicians, who to my mind are often the maddest but also the most incredible talents; guys who are really in it for the right reasons. Ultimately for them it’s all about stretching the boundaries of music.”

“Ask yourself: Is this a big problem or a small problem?”

It was during this period that Harlow lucked into an introduction to Miles Davis, at the mountaintop Montreux chalet of Claude Nobs, founder of the city’s famous Jazz Festival. “I met so many amazing, funny people with incredible stories during that time,” says Harlow. “It was a wild, unbelievable route into the music business, made all the more so because no one at EMI gave a shit what we were up to!”

Still, Harlow’s own talent was spotted: he began handling international marketing for bigger catalogue hits – including Wilson Phillips and Roxette – before Jean-Francois Cecillon (aka JF), then boss of EMI Records UK, hired him as Marketing Director, working under Clive Black.

Harlow’s tenure in this role coincided with the merger of Virgin Records into EMI via a $1 billion acquisition in the early nineties, which saw a flurry of staff changes happening around Harlow’s ears.

After the merger, senior Virgin figure Charlie Dimont asked Harlow if he fancied becoming Managing Director of EMI in Australia.

Harlow admits today: “It was a place I’d never been to, and never gave too much of a shit about unless we beat them at cricket.” But he took Dimont up on his offer, despite “not really knowing what he saw in me to do that job”. (Harlow says today, having in lived in Oz for a total of 13 years, “Australia has become a place I love dearly – almost a second home.”)

Having visualised himself as a glum, regretful 60-year-old should he refuse to make the leap to the Southern Hemisphere, Harlow landed in Australia in 1997 knowing nobody. His first mission at EMI was to bring a bit of Aussie pride back to the company’s domestic A&R strategy – even if that meant using crude tools to achieve it.

His first masterstroke was pushing his uncertain staff to release The Best Beer Drinking Songs In The World… Ever!, packaged in jingoistic Aussie Green and Gold, featuring homegrown Oz/NZ talents like Divinyls, Aussie Crawl, Johnny Diesel and The Angels, alongside international talent.

It sold over 400,000 copies. Next, Harlow formed a joint venture between EMI and Stephen ‘Pav’ Pavlovic’s Modular Records. It signed much-loved rockabilly punk band The Living End, and then The Avalanches for their breakthrough album Since I Left You (2000), which became a worldwide smash.

“Everyone told me that [joint label] with Pav wouldn’t work, but I just knew he had good ears,” says Harlow. “Success in this business is so often about people, and Australians are the greatest people on earth to work with.”

Direct signings at EMI Australia followed, including local country singer Kasey Chambers, who Harlow describes as “the most impactful singer I’ve ever encountered – we were so proud to get her totally authentic music to No.1 in pop. That changed how the company was seen.”

Harlow left Australia in 2002, having agreed in principle to take a role heading international for EMI out of London. And yet, on the plane home, he saw that vision of himself aged 60 again. Something within him – a nagging philosophical inner-voice – told him it wasn’t the right move.

“I informed [then EMI UK boss] David Munns that I didn’t want the job, and he was gracious about it,” says Harlow. “But essentially when I walked out of his office, I walked out of the music business.”

Fate was about to intervene. Two days later, Harlow’s phone rang; it was Richard Branson, on the recommendation of exVirgin boss Ken Berry, asking if Harlow would come and run his flailing V2 label. “I didn’t realise what I was getting into, but I was grasping at straws, so I said yes,” says Harlow. Once again, trusting his gut proved to be a smart move.

“Richard’s other shareholders at V2 were Morgan Stanley, and it was all a very interesting experience,” says Harlow, whose team enjoyed success at the label with artists such as Stereophonics (via David Steele) and The White Stripes (via Andy Gershon and Ian Montone).

One of Harlow’s most impactful moves as V2 boss was to establish Co-Operative Music. In the UK, Co-Op pioneered the model of in-house services at a ‘major’ partnering with independent record labels – and trusting those indie labels with transformationally handsome advances.

Under Harlow and Vincent Clery-Melin, Co-Op helped labels such as Wichita, Transgressive and Moshi Moshi attain chart success that arguably would have been out of their reach without the firm’s backing.

Harlow modestly says he nicked the idea for Co-Op from Emmanuel de Buretel’s DeLabel model: “I even pinched his guy, Vincent, to run Co-Op! EDB is one of the greats and I was lucky to work alongside him.”

But others put Harlow’s launch of Co-Op in more trailblazing terms. Mark Bowen, the co-founder of Wichita, has said that Harlow and Co-Op “saved” his label’s business. Bowen has also called Harlow “the smartest brain in music”, adding: “I think he’s a genius – he understands the businesses stuff as much as the music stuff.”

Co-Op is now owned by independent label group [PIAS], which acquired it from Universal Music Group around the time of UMG’s own acquisition of EMI Music in 2012. Harlow is proud to see Co-Op’s continued existence, run by “a really good mate of mine” in Jason Rackham, the MD of [PIAS] UK.

After leaving V2, Harlow joined Universal Music Group in international marketing working for Max Hole. “Max is one of the greatest, an inspirational and brilliant person to learn from. But after a year I said: ‘I really don’t want to do this – I’ve been running businesses and I’d like to run a business again.’”

Lucian Grainge, Chairman & CEO of Universal, stepped in and offered Harlow the chance to join Tom Bennett at the helm of UMG’s fast-growing merchandise unit, Bravado.

“I suppose I’m one of the few record people who has properly dipped into that merch world,” says Harlow. “Bravado was a great learning curve, especially as [merch] has only got more important to the record industry since then, but I wouldn’t say I was any good at it! I’m full of admiration for people like Barry Drinkwater and Tom Bennett – they’re street-smart, nimble and really clever. But [merch] requires a totally different mindset to copyrights.”

In 2010, Lachie Rutherford at Warner Music came knocking. This time, Harlow was offered the opportunity to return to Australia as MD of Warner’s recorded music operation across Australasia. Harlow spent six more years in Oz, reporting to Warner Music Group’s then international boss, Stu Bergen, who has since credited the British exec with transforming WMG’s business in the region.

Harlow’s successes during his reign as Warner Australasia boss included the breaking of Ed Sheeran, who has now sold more than 2 million records in the region. Says Harlow: “We knew Ed had what it takes to be big in Australia – a bit of larrikin spirit, a sense of humour and a proper ability to deliver live.”

Through Sheeran, Harlow also cemented a friendship with legendary Aussie entrepreneur – and founder of Mushroom Group and Frontier Touring – Michael Gudinski. Gudinski sadly died earlier this year, aged 68, and was granted a state memorial in March. Harlow remembers him fondly.

“Michael [Gudinski] was a link to the real record business, when it was music-first,” says Harlow. “He was a force, an energy and he brought excitement.”

“Michael was a link to the real record business, when it was music-first,” says Harlow. “He was a force, an energy and he brought excitement. I realised after he passed that he [was in the habit of] never saying goodbye – he’d just put the phone down or pass it to someone else. ‘Goodbye’ would have suggested he’d finished – but he never had. The next idea was always coming.”

Adds Harlow: “Another legendary character was Denis Handlin, who I got to know through ARIA. He’s a world-class executive, who maybe doesn’t get the global recognition he deserves. Denis is a fierce competitor who doesn’t know how to be second. Fighting him was a real learning experience.”

Harlow’s next challenge was a move to New York City in 2016 to become President of WEA, which offers Warner artists services such as streaming account management, direct-to-fan and merchandising operations, content creation, and financial management.

“Running WEA wasn’t the obvious next choice, and I initially struggled with it as a next move, but the chance to work in New York outweighed the prospect of sitting on my arse doing a few more years of what I was already doing,” says Harlow. “It offered the prospect of an enriching learning experience.”

Harlow admits moving to NYC full-time was something of a culture shock – not only because of the switch from the vast open beaches of Australia, but also because his experiences of the Big Apple to this point had been rather more hedonistic.

“I soon learnt that New York does actually have a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday…”

“I’d been going to New York since the early ‘80s, clubbing and partying; it had always been a place where you go to have a couple of meetings and a great time. But I soon learnt that New York does actually have a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

“It’s an intense, full-on place, and you’re right near all the big decisions. Yes, it can be hard, and definitely expensive, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.”

As part of his duties at WEA, Harlow had to respond to issues with Direct Shot – a physical distribution company who also worked with Universal and Sony. Due to a backlog at Direct Shot, physical items, including vinyl, didn’t make it to stores in good time, costing indie labels and artists key sales around Record Store Day. Tegan & Sara, amongst other artists, publicly spoke out about Direct Shot’s failings.

Says Harlow of the experience: “It was an extremely difficult situation that has affected many people across the industry, but what matters is how you handle it, and I’m proud of how the brilliant WEA team dealt with [the fallout].

“The essence in those situations is to be courteous and polite at all times, to accept it’s caused people problems, and do your best to respond to that and help.”

Harlow had set WEA on a route towards transformation, playing a key part in the integration of new assets in Songkick, UPROXX and EMP.

Then, in 2019 Max Lousada – global head of WMG’s recorded music operation – offered his fellow Brit the chance to run Warner Music UK, starting in February 2020.

Speaking about the moment he got the call, Harlow said: “When Max asked if I’d be interested in the UK job, I jumped at the opportunity. It really is my dream job. WMUK has always had a unique energy and spirit; on one hand it’s home to global superstars like Dua, Ed and Coldplay, and then on the other, it’s known for nurturing new and original talent.

“And we’re starting to see the world take notice of the next generation – artists like Ashnikko, Griff, Joel Corry, Pa Salieu and Maisie Peters. It also had a spiritual link to my old EMI days through the Parlophone label – which bought back old friends like Iron Maiden. We have so many special artists and brilliant young executives and, as a bonus, London is home and I’d been away a long time.”

Harlow took the reins of WMUK from Lousada himself, and quickly made key hires including Austin Daboh as EVP, Atlantic Records, Rich Castillo as A&R Director, Atlantic Records, and Trenton Harrison-Lewis as SVP Artist and Label Development, ADA and WMUK.

Notes Harlow of his switch from the US to the UK: “Partly by benefit of being closer to the [HQs] of the various digital services, the American industry is also closer to what’s happening in technology developments – and that’s such a critical part of the changes that are coming. It’s not just what the new tech enables, it’s what it means to music.

“I think of the way we’ve responded to the growth of UGC [user-generated content] and how important that’s become in breaking acts, and about the change in experience from ‘music plus’ to ‘plus music’ – by which I mean the shift from music as the primary focus of each experience, to those where it plays a supportive role to other activities. Those are examples where the US was moving way faster than the rest of the globe.”

Harlow praises Lousada’s leadership of Warner on a global level. “One of the very few upsides of the current [lockdown] has been that I’ve probably got some extra hours with Max between 9am and 11am, before his phone starts exploding from the US,” says Harlow. “He’s a brilliant motivator, guider and ideator!

“There is a new generation of executives coming through now, and I really believe that generation will be led forward by Max. He yearns for, and is really excited by, tomorrow’s music business. He’s building a place that proves why big record companies, whatever you want to call them, have a big future.”

That future, of course, is regularly being called into question by those keen to erode the market share of major record companies – particularly those operating in a space that services independent artists. What makes Harlow confident that the majors will be able to hold their own in this shifting environment?

“We have a very strong place in this business, so long as artists still want to be really big,” he says. “In order to be big, whether in your own country or worldwide, you need a reach and global infrastructure that allows creative talent to succeed everywhere. We offer that infrastructure and we add to that a wish to take risks and invest in growing acts to their full potential.”

“There are more options for artists than ever now, which is great, and those options will lead to more change. But I don’t think we’ll lose our purpose, which is to make creative geniuses global superstars.”

He adds: “There are more options for artists than ever now, which is great, and those options will lead to more change. But I don’t think we’ll lose our purpose, which is to make creative geniuses global superstars.”

Another key topic for the UK business to tackle right now is the idea that it’s harder than ever for British artists to become globe straddling icons. The UK, in this regard, is slightly hamstrung by its size: every time streaming grows in another part of the world, the UK inevitably becomes a smaller contributor to the global record industry on the consumer side.

Meanwhile, the US continues to dominate: in the IFPI’s ten biggest artists of 2020, picked on the basis of revenue generation, there were zero British artists. Nine were North American (including Canadians Justin Bieber, Drake and The Weeknd) and one was South Korean (BTS).

Warner Music has its own crop of modern British superstars, of course – including Dua Lipa, whose Future Nostalgia was the tenth biggest-selling album globally last year. Harlow acknowledges that it’s “trickier for the UK to have the [global] impact it did before”, but he argues that the British market has “been able to survive those conditions brilliantly”.

Adds Harlow: “The UK still has an advantage, because we operate in a language that many people speak as either their first or second tongue, and popular music tends to be based on Anglo/ American tradition.

“The thing to focus on is making your artist proposition really robust and interesting to people around the world. It’s an attention economy and you need to give people a real reason to care.”

We ask Harlow what he thinks Warner’s standout difference is as a major record company in 2021. He replies, without hesitation: “Thoughtfulness, compassion and focus.”

“We really think about how and where we do business,” he continues. “We’re thoughtful and compassionate about the stresses artists face, and the stresses our own staff face. And we focus on picking the artists we believe will win, and on supporting them. We try to bring them approaches, ideas and opportunities they don’t get elsewhere – and to be as thoughtful and strategic as we can.”

He adds: “I remember breaking my recorder when I was a child, and I had to hide in music lessons because it was never in tune. Then you start listening to Coltrane and stuff, and you realize the difference between what being talented, and being talentless, really means.

“The artists and musicians we work with are awe-inspiring in what they do. It’s like, when you’re in my position, you’ve got to remember what real talent is, as opposed to being quite good at running a business.”

This article originally appeared in the Q1 2021 issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK (pictured), which is out now.

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