Does anyone working in a major music company know more of its secrets than its head corporate lawyer? Probably not.
With that in mind, Paul Robinson, currently celebrating an unprecedented 25 years of unbroken service at Warner Music Group, has likely been privy to more confidential information than any other figure in the firm’s history.
MBW wishes we could tell you that Robinson recklessly spills the beans on every juicy detail in our interview below – but he’s far too much of a professional for that.
What he does offer, however, is a ringside, blow-by-blow account of the three epochs of Warner’s recent history: (i) Its ownership by Time Warner, the then-largest media company in the world, in the 1990s (and TW’s subsequent merger with AOL at the turn of the Millennium); (ii) WMG’s sale in 2004, for $2.6bn, to a group of investors led by Edgar Bronfman Jr; and (iii) the purchase of WMG by Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries for $3.3bn in 2011 – a deal which took the company off the stock market… before it jumped onto the NASDAQ this summer with a $15bn day-one valuation.
Robinson, who initially joined WMG as Associate General Counsel in 1995, stepped up to his current role as EVP/General Counsel under Bronfman in 2006.
Since then, he’s played an instrumental role in some standout artist signings, executive hires, and corporate developments for Warner – not least the firm’s acquisition of Parlophone for circa $760m in 2013, and that NASDAQ flotation in June.
New York-based Robinson’s tenure at a major music company may be uncommon in its length and loyalty, but it wasn’t always a sure thing: prior to landing his gig at WMG 25 years ago, he worked for the likes of MTV Networks and ad agency Young & Rubicam before taking a role at an outside law practice in 1988, which happened to handle Warner’s recording contracts. (This technically means Robinson has worked with/for Warner for 32 years straight. No wonder he says “my blood runs Warner blue”.)
Steve Cooper, Warner Music Group CEO, tells MBW: “Paul’s work ethic, intelligence, and integrity mean he’d have been a success at whatever he wanted. Fortunately for us, he has music in his blood, so he chose to dedicate his talents to our company, our artists and songwriters. And it’s not just Warner that’s benefitted. He’s a champion and consensus builder for our whole industry.”
“Paul’s a champion and consensus builder for our whole industry.”
Steve Cooper, Warner Music Group
Robinson’s ability to find common ground in the fractured, fractious music business has been put to good use in recent years. As well as his duties at Warner, he’s an influential figure on the Board of SoundExchange and RIAA, helping to protect and – wherever possible – increase the value of music. Behind-the-scenes, he’s also often an early advocate for music companies taking progressive stances on issues such as sharing breakage and equity proceeds with artists.
No-one can argue that his achievements haven’t demanded a great deal of sweat and enterprise. But, you could also say his choice of career was destiny. His father is Irwin Robinson, a legendary figure in music publishing circles, who ran Chappell Music in the US, as well as EMI Music Publishing Worldwide and Famous Music Publishing, and who’s served on the ASCAP Board since 1972 and the NMPA Board since 1974.
At Warner, the younger Robinson has himself helped to raise up a whole generation of execs, many of whom have gone on to shape the modern business.
“Paul taught me the importance of integrity. He’s the ultimate example of a person who does the right thing no matter how hard the context.”
Tamara Hrivnak, Facebook
Tamara Hrivnak (currently VP, Music Business Development & Partnerships at Facebook, formerly YouTube) says of Robinson: “Paul taught me the importance of integrity.
“He’s the ultimate example of a person who does the right thing no matter how hard the context. He also showed me what it looks like to truly care about your team and shepherd their careers.”
“Brilliant music executive, patient teacher, devoted friend and loving family man, Paul is that extremely rare individual – one who embodies both integrity and kindness.”
Elliott Peters, EMPIRE
“During the decade I worked for him, Paul was, under ever-changing circumstances, the one constant. Brilliant music executive, patient teacher, devoted friend and loving family man, he is that extremely rare individual – one who embodies both integrity and kindness. Like everyone in his orbit, I feel lucky, even privileged, to know him.”
Robinson joined WMG in a historic year for the company… and not completely for harmonious reasons: 1995 was the year that Time Warner, under pressure from ‘moral rights in media’ types over the bracing output of Death Row Records, sold its 50% stake in Interscope Records back to the label’s co-founders, Ted Field and Jimmy Iovine, for a measly $115m. (Whatever happened to Interscope anyway?)
Robinson, who while in private practice worked on the original “bare bones” joint venture agreement that brought Iovine and co. to Warner, says that this formative experience is nothing out of the ordinary, in a one-company career that has generated plenty of high points, and a fair few dramatic moments…
Twenty five years into your career with Warner, why do you still enjoy your job?
Every day there are things that come up that were not there the day before. I rarely felt that way 10 years ago. I like the complexity of it. I like being part of a team that’s solving problems for the future.
I love contributing to this organization that puts great music out into the world, that entertains, inspires and challenges people. 25 years on, I love my job even more now than when I started out.
Also, I get to collaborate with the fantastic worldwide business and legal team that we’ve built at WMG. Not only are they are a pleasure to work with but they also make me look my best every single day.
Warner floated a portion of its company on the NASDAQ in June, something that was initially supposed to happen months before… until Covid hit. What was that process like for you?
When we started the IPO process last September, there were basically six people at our company that knew, including my Deputy General Counsel, Trent Tappe. It was very secretive until we filed our first public registration statement this February. We’re a company that knows how to make a big splash when we want to, but we’re also able to keep things confidential when they need to be.
With the help of Don Wagner at Access who is on our Board of Directors, we found a window, and we found a way to [IPO] completely virtually. That was something that had rarely been done before.
But, perhaps the biggest difference [from our IPO in 2005] was that, today, we’re a growing company, in a growing industry. People’s excitement about the story is palpable.
Putting the IPO to one side, what are the positive things the industry can learn from the year of Covid?
We’ve always known that music is essential to people’s lives but, this year, we’ve felt and understood that on a whole new level.
At the same time, we’ve learned all over again that we must never get complacent. We’ve got to stay focused on new ways of doing business. 70% of our revenues are digital, but COVID has really brought home all of the untapped opportunities there are in live streaming, gaming, social media etc.
“The music business has the power to change culture; we can move faster and do so much more. There’s a lot of work to do next year and beyond.”
We’ve also been forced to work more flexibly than we’ve ever done before. We’ve learned there’s almost nothing we can’t do virtually.
There’s also been a new level of awakening to the systemic inequities in our system.
We’ve made some progress, and there’s new depth of commitment in our industry and our company. But the music business has the power to change culture and we can move faster and do so much more. There’s a lot of work to do next year and beyond.
Warner is a rival to Universal and Sony, but as an industry you have to stand together to champion the business. How do you strike the right balance?
Mostly we do try to achieve an industry consensus on public policy matters. It’s strange – when I started my career, there were six majors and it was sometimes easier to reach consensus than it is now with just three majors. The environment has changed. I guess with six majors there were more voices, but it was often easier to get to a shared point of view.
I certainly see it as part of my job today to try and reach consensus on these issues with Universal and Sony, whether it’s pulling one of them closer to our point of view or moving a little bit to get closer to theirs. My counterparts at Sony and Universal, Julie [Swidler] and Jeff [Harleston], are great partners in that – we all share that philosophy.
We also really value our relationships with the independent community, including with Helen Smith at IMPALA. It’s fantastic to see [former WMG exec] Jeremy Sirota appointed CEO of Merlin for instance. He’s doing excellent things there.
Since Access Industries took over Warner, Steve Cooper has been your boss. How would you describe him as a leader?
Steve’s been a great CEO. Our results over the last nine years speak for themselves.
Part of his success is that he’s got a great relationship with Access; it’s always really important for a CEO to have a trusting relationship with a company’s board and with its owner. Steve’s got that in spades. He’s assembled a tight-knit senior management team that works together seamlessly.
Also, he comes at things from a different perspective. Being from outside the industry, Steve doesn’t take anything for granted. He’s always asking: ‘Do we really need to do it this way?’
For example, streaming is something that we were focused on really early, and something he said from day one was, ‘Why do we only put out a certain number of albums a year? We should be able to sign more artists and put out more music, and still do a quality job.’
Equally, he’s been a big proponent of our global expansion strategy, whether that’s more local investment, acquisitions or launching new offices. He wants to understand the numbers, but he starts from a place of “yes”, rather than a place of caution. We’ve needed all of that in order to succeed in the streaming world.
Let’s go back to the start of your career: Why law and why music?
The music part was easy because it was always my biggest passion. I’ve been a singer since high school and in college I was an a cappella singer and I was in a New Wave cover band. I actually have pictures of that band which… will not be in this interview.
My dad, as you know, is a very successful industry figure. There was a part of me that wanted to do something different; I thought for a really long time that I was going to be a doctor. I was a chemistry major till my senior year, and I ended up working at a hospital, thinking, ‘I’m not sure that this is what I want to do.’
“My parents raised me to think for myself and make my own decisions.”
I switched to being an English major and went to law school. Subconsciously, I must’ve been figuring out how to carve my own path. I was always very inspired by what my dad was achieving, and being Irwin Robinson’s son is a great thing to be, but I didn’t want to rely on that to succeed. My parents raised me to think for myself and make my own decisions. I’m very grateful to them for that, among many other things.
Was it noticeable for you as a young person, that your friend’s parents were doctors, insurance brokers and secretaries, and that your dad worked in showbiz?
A little bit. But my dad’s a very low-key guy; he doesn’t buy into the glamor and the glitz, and he’s never been that classic image of a cigar-chomping, old school executive. So it took me a little while to realize that he was doing something different.
He’s what I strive to be – a humble leader, somebody that drives the company’s agenda, not his agenda, and somebody who takes responsibility.
I remember when he was running Chappell Music, before it was Warner Chappell, they published Rodgers and Hammerstein, who were obviously a very prestigious client, but also a very particular client.
Somebody at the company had made a mistake; I seem to remember that they had licenced a song for a mustard commercial in the UK. But, they hadn’t checked with Richard Rogers’ wife, Dorothy, and it was a great embarrassment.
I just remember my dad completely owning it. Somebody several rungs down had made the error, but he saw it as his mistake. I never remember him ducking responsibility for anything.
Edgar Bronfman Jr made you General Counsel of Warner in 2006. What kind of boss was he?
He was a great boss, really supportive of me.
I remember having a conversation with him in my early days in this position and asking, ‘What is it that you really care about?’ And he said to me, ‘What I care about is that you need to be this company’s General Counsel. You’re not my general counsel. You’re not the board’s general counsel. You have to be the company’s general counsel, so do what’s right for the company.”
That’s always stuck with me and that’s what I’ve always tried to do.
Who are some other mentors that stand out across your career so far?
Fred Wistow, the first general counsel at Warner, basically saw something in me when I was working at this law firm [prior to Warner] and had him as a client. At that point, we only had three lawyers at Warner Music Group in the corporate department because so much of the work was done by Warner Communications legal.
Fred realized that at some point he would have a hard time overseeing the legal and business affairs operations of the company if he didn’t have somebody at corporate that had experience doing record deals and publishing deals.
That was great for me because I became that one person in the WMG corporate legal team who had done music transactional work; I could speak to the head of business affairs at Atlantic, Elektra, Warner Bros. or Warner Chappell and understand what they were talking about and assist them. It’s not an accident that Julie and Jeff, my counterparts and Sony and Universal, came from the same world – like me they started out doing record deals and publishing deals, because most of the people that we oversee today do record deals and publishing deals.
One reason Fred was such a great mentor is he’s a great editor. He would read everything and, and sometimes, I admit, to my chagrin, heavily mark it up. I have to say, I have some of that in me now; I see one of my jobs as being an editor.
And then when Dave Johnson started [as General Counsel] after Fred, he was also a real mentor, but exactly the opposite; he never marked up anything I did! I thought, ‘What’s the matter? Doesn’t he love me? He’s not editing the shit out of my documents.’ I soon realized he was saying ‘I trust you.’
Today, I try to steer between the Scylla and Charybdis of Dave and Fred.
There’s a young lawyer starting out, it’s their first day working at a major music company. What advice would you give them?
This is an incredibly high-powered work environment right now. I would just tell them that they need to put in their 10,000 hours, and that everything’s going to be okay.
“There are some people in the [music industry] environment that are screamers and who let their egos get out of control. That’s not a good path for a long-term career.”
The only way you learn what we do is by doing tons of record and publishing deals. The lawyers on the other side, each have their own individual style; every one of those deals is a learning experience and a chance to build a relationship. It’s about putting in the work and doing it in good humor.
You know, there are some people in the [music industry] environment that are screamers and who let their egos get out of control. That’s not a good path for a long-term career, and I would advise against it.
What was your perspective on the industry crash during the post-Napster era?
In my first 5 years, it was all up [in terms of industry growth]. Then it was 15 years of down. Now, we’re back to up again. My career here has been bookended by five-year growth periods.
Of course, it was really hard being a public company in a world from 2005 to 2011 where your revenue is declining every year.
But I also think it was a great learning experience, because we had to focus all of our efforts on keeping our A&R investment going, keeping our marketing investment going, keeping our roster as strong as possible. And unfortunately, you had to throw overboard everything that wasn’t strictly necessary for that.
The good thing for people that experienced that period is, we have all those learnings to put to use in this new world: Don’t Get Fooled Again. Be aware of all the risks, be aware of all the challenges, and don’t take for granted that things are just going to keep going the way they’ve always gone.
Give us the inside story of Warner’s acquisition of Parlophone in 2013.
The Parlophone story is great because we didn’t end up with what we thought we wanted. Instead, more importantly, we got what we really needed. That deal was a major inflection point in the history of this company.
The whole tale begins in 2000, the first time we tried to merge with EMI, a few days before Time Warner announced their deal with AOL. At that point there were five major [music companies] and it got defeated on antitrust grounds, which seems strange now as there are only three majors. The antitrust authorities had trouble at the time with [the idea of] us going to four majors.
A big part of that antitrust decision was us being part of a large conglomerate. It was, ‘Oh my God, this incredibly powerful company [AOL Time Warner] is going to control the internet – letting them also have this gigantic music company is impossible.’
Then in 2005, we went public; EMI was also a public company at the time. And in 2006, EMI tried to buy us – and we tried to buy them. It was a very rare thing that they call the ‘Pac-Man Defense’, where two public companies are pursuing each other. We tried to eat them instead of letting them eat us! But that got blown up, because Sony BMG, which had just merged got sent back to the European Commission by the European Court of Justice.
Then in 2007, we tried to buy EMI again, but we lost out to Terra Firma. And then, finally, in 2011, EMI was available, but it was really bad timing because Access had just bought us for $3.3bn. Are we really going to double down and spend another $1.9bn on EMI? It ended up not happening [EMI went to Universal] but, eventually, we had the very satisfying outcome in which we ended up with Parlophone.
What excites you most about the industry now and the future of music?
I’m excited about the possibilities in other territories, increasing our footprint globally and championing music from so many different cultures around the world. We’re going to be signing more artists in Africa; in India; in China, for example. There are very few companies like ours that can turn a local artist into a global superstar.
And I think Warner’s really well positioned to be the most pioneering music company. The fact we’re a ‘pure play’, solely focused on music, backed by Len and the Board, who are so supportive and take such an innovative, long-term view of the business.
We see a future where music is all around us, and the fan’s experience will be far more interactive and immersive than ever.
We’re a company of global scale but we also have the agility to navigate the complexities for artists and songwriters better than anyone.Music Business Worldwide