Sixteen years ago, Phil Christie applied for the Warner Music Group graduate scheme. He got down to the final three, but didn’t get the gig.
Funny how things work out, eh?
Christie has now been sole President of Warner Bros Records UK for nearly two years – and his label is flying.
WBR enjoyed roaring success in the past year with the revived Liam Gallagher, whose No.1 debut solo album As You Were has gone comfortably platinum.
What’s more, the label is breaking its very own global pop superstar in Dua Lipa, whose New Rules is – at the time of writing – at No.6 on the Billboard Hot 100, having attracted more than a billion plays on YouTube worldwide.
A&R specialist Christie didn’t get into the industry via the typical route of trundling up and down motorways as a youthful scout.
His first job was actually as a plugger, first for the London-based Outside Organisation and then Lucid PR, before Mark Collen hired him in the mid-noughties as a junior A&R for EMI-owned Angel Music Group, which worked across adult contemporary, crossover classical and grown-up pop.
From there, Christie jumped to Warner/Chappell UK where, under ex-MD Richard Manners, his talent began to sparkle.
Christie signed a slew of influential writers and artists including Rag N Bone Man, Michael Kiwanuka, Ben Howard and Royal Blood – a track record which quickly caught the attention of a certain Max Lousada.
A fair few in the business saw Lousada’s decision to lure Christie to WBR – first as Head of A&R and then label President – as a ballsy move, not least because Christie was under 35, with no record label experience, when he made the switch.
But, as we all know, time moves fast in the modern music business.
Christie has already proven his Midas touch with multiple artists, epitomised by the two Ls (Lipa and Liam) – and, he says, there’s a whole lot more where that came from…
You came from the world of publishing where the song was everything. How has that background helped with running a record label – and what have you had to learn on top of it?
The power of a song has never been more important because streaming is such a great leveller. There has to be a reason for someone to go back and listen to your song again, or save it into their playlist.
Working at Chappell, that was our entire business – songs and the quality of songwriting. I’ve learnt a huge amount at Warner Bros. So much has changed even in the past two years – the flow of records a label puts out, visual content, storytelling, all of these things are evolving at such a fast rate.
People say that once you think you’ve figured it all out, you’re obsolete; I don’t think that’s ever been more applicable than now.
To what extent do you still formulate campaigns and A&R strategy around the idea of an album?
Some people were down on the performance of Dua Lipa’s album initially, but she’s now one of the biggest new stars in the world. That same album has done over 1.5M in total consumption terms worldwide.
People still use the album as a measure of success, yet it’s only one part of a million different metrics now. Dua’s album did 15,000 in week one in the UK [after being released in June 2017] – yet it was still the biggest-selling female debut pop album of the year.
People talked about the time it took us to get it out, but we moved that album back three or four times for good reason, partly due to demand – going in at a good position on the album chart is still important to some people in media and the industry.
But internally [at WBR] the thing we were really interested in was Dua’s streaming run rate and her social media presence – and both of those were massively over-indexing.
Now, when statements are made about Dua being the biggest new streaming artist of the year, people are saying: ‘Wow, she’s really arrived.’ But we were aware of that growth all along, and those were the metrics we were using internally to communicate and measure her trajectory.
Is it fair to say that Warner Bros has been having enviable success with artists which other labels arguably might not have considered the most competitive signings out there?
That sounds like a compliment, so I’ll take it! Maybe we see promise and potential in artists that other people don’t at first glance.
Dua’s signing wasn’t really ‘on the market’ very widely because we discovered her early and were unequivocal about wanting to work with her and Tap Management – we did the deal quickly.
“We don’t need to know that another label likes a potential signing in order to justify us trying to sign it.”
We don’t need to know that another label likes a potential signing in order to justify us trying to sign it. Invariably, with artists that become [wrapped up] in those hype deals, it often becomes a challenge to deliver on those projects.
I love the idea that we sign tricky or unconventional artists and turn them into a mainstream success.
It’s no shock that some couldn’t see how the Liam Gallagher campaign was going to work after his last project ended as a commercial disappointment. What do you think the key elements were in As You Were exceeding typical expectations to such a degree?
People thought Liam had been dormant since leaving Beady Eye, but his social media presence was extraordinary. I looked at his Twitter feed and saw 2m followers, following zero people – it was like a statement in and of itself.
I realised that this was a guy totally in control of how he was presenting himself. We also heard some great songs written by Liam, some of which were very personal.
There was an appetite out there for the return of a rock‘n’roll personality.
People seemed to forget that alongside the bravado and the confidence, there’s also a real human side to Liam. He’s a genuinely warm character and he’s great fun to be around. Plus we’ve had some great support at media, and the live shows were always going to be incendiary.
What do you think connects the artists your team have signed at Warner Bros?
People want authenticity – they want things that feel real. In recent years that’s only been enhanced by social media; people want artists they feel connected to.
That’s perhaps led to less aspiration-driven pop music, but that doesn’t apply to everything: you look at an artist like Kendrick and just see wildly ambitious artistry, with sophisticated music, and it’s massively popular. Again, because it’s completely authentic.
You are under 40. Your age marks you and only a couple of others – including Aaron Bay-Schuck (pictured inset), another Max Lousada hiring – as rarities at the top of major labels. What impact does your relative youth have on the way you approach the job?
Well, I guess I’m not stuck in my ways, because… I don’t have any ways yet! Experience is a great thing to have, but youth in this modern market is also incredibly important.
I’m by no means the embodiment of youth, I’m 37, but the fact Max has hired me to run Warner Bros empowers me to drive a youthful culture within this label.
The thing that changed within the music business since I came into it – all for the better, may I add – is this used to be an industry based on hiring young, inexperienced people, then ‘teaching them the ropes’ until they became of value to the business.
That’s totally inverted now: young people are of value because they’re young, because of the way they consume content, because of their perspective on culture – that’s been a really healthy shift in the music industry.
It’s our duty to bring young, intelligent, exciting people into this business – to not sit by and watch them join tech or advertising companies.
And then we need to empower them to push this industry forward.
Doing the maths, you came into the industry at a tricky time post-Napster… when many others were looking for the exit sign.
I was having this conversation last night: anyone who joined the music industry after 1999 must be a mad romantic bastard – leaping feet-first into a business in decline!
But maybe, actually, that means we’re the right people to take the business back into growth. We didn’t jump into a money pit; it was a stricken business in commercial [trouble].
I was madly passionate about music and the feeling it gives you; I just wanted to be near it. It’s the buzz you chase your whole life.
How has Max Lousada personally affected your professional approach? And how does the way he runs Warner benefit the way you run your label?
Max has obviously had a massive impact on my career; he’s shown real confidence in my abilities. I have utmost respect for anyone who backs their staff to go beyond what even [those employees] might think they are capable of.
People talk about the best leaders having clear vision, and that completely applies in Max’s case.
“Max started in the UK with a vision for how the culture of Warner could evolve… he’s now exporting that on a global level.”
He started in the UK with a vision for how the culture of Warner could evolve – born out of his belief that our future competition is not necessarily labels on Kensington High Street; for one, it’s tech firms coming for consumer attention in the entertainment space.
Max started that process in the UK several years ago, and it’s been proven as a big success. Now he’s exporting that ethos on a global level.
You worked under Richard Manners for a long time at Warner/Chappell, and then alongside Miles Leonard. What key lessons did those two teach you?
They’ve both been hugely influential and great coaches for me. Richard is an amazing publisher, an artist-facing executive I have the utmost respect for.
He gave me a break and backed me at a point when I was very inexperienced. He taught me to have courage in my convictions, and only to look for artists and songwriters who would move culture; not to get blinded by insignificant, overly-aesthetic or frivolous things.
With Miles, he exudes the charisma and energy of a leader who embodies the spirit of his label. And the relationships he’s forged with artists are extraordinary.
Warner Bros UK hasn’t been too well-regarded in the world of British urban music, but that is changing in a big way with MIST, Steel Banglez and others. Have you deliberately implemented changes that have improved your stock in that world?
There was definitely a concerted effort to move more into that area. We couldn’t claim to be a modern major label reflecting popular culture if we weren’t reflecting the hottest youth music movement in a generation.
Jerome [Porritt] came in with Steel Banglez (pictured inset) long before most people had heard of him, and even then we believed he could become like a UK DJ Khaled. [Banglez] has got bags of talent, with an amazing personality and take on life; he’s a producer who could really become a household name.
Guv [Singh] manages Steel Banglez and MIST, so we got to know MIST through that and helped him to understand how we could enhance what he was doing [independently on Sickmade Records].
MIST is a very distinctive and wildly talented artist. I’m delighted with his first mixtape, which is hugely exciting.
How would you define the culture you’re building at Warner Bros? What do you want people to feel part of when they come to work each day?
Youth, excitement, vibrancy and fun. I love that the people we have working here, more often than not, are doing other things in music; they’re DJs, they manage artists, they run club nights, they’re musicians.
That brings authenticity to the people we have in this building, and artists can see that. There’s a real passion for music and popular culture at this label.
One idea that comes out when you speak to Max is his wish for Warner’s labels to feel part of something bigger than just their own P&Ls – to enjoy being part of the broader entity of Warner Music Group. Would you even say you have collegiate relationships with your fellow Warner labels?
Definitely. There’s healthy competition between us, but we’re united under a shared goal – and that’s down to Max.
It feels like the individual success of the labels is feeding into the success of the wider Warner company, and that’s a good thing.
Sometimes [at major record companies] you can see labels operate like isolated silos. That’s not the case here; there’s a common goal, which is the success of the group.
Tom Corson was recently hired as COO and Chairman of Warner Bros in the US. What’s your view on him as an executive?
He’s fantastic. I loved some of the records he worked at RCA and the reputation he built there. I’ve got to know him personally only recently and I’m hugely impressed. He’s a serious operator who’s very experienced and ambitious. I can already sense he’s going to be a great partner to work with.
Atlantic UK and US have had a close relationship for many years to great effect – now Warner Bros UK and US can only get closer, especially with Aaron [Bay-Schuck] coming later in the year, which will give us a competitive edge that maybe we didn’t have before.
Do you feel a responsibility to the legendary history of Warner Bros – Madonna, Prince, Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young and many more – or are you always too busy looking forward and thinking about the future?
I’ve spent a lot of time researching Mo Ostin and his golden era in particular.
He’s synonymous with an artist-friendly model at a time when that was quite radical. It’s become commonplace now for labels to think that way in how they partner with artists.
He was a real pioneer, and I take a lot of inspiration from that.
Our complete raison d’etre here is to help make great artists better than even they thought they could be.
This article originally appeared in the second issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK (pictured), which is out now.
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