‘We operate at the intersection between creativity and culture for our artists.’

Credit: Caroline Workman
Bob Workman

If content is king, then Warner Music Group’s WMX division has good reason for its claim that it’s the “No.1 entertainment media company” in the US for adults aged 18-34.

WMG launched Warner Music Experience (WMX) in late 2021 and described it at the time as “a next-generation services division” to “connect artists with fans and amplify brands in creative, immersive, and engaging ways”.

WMX, which also claims to be one of the top five entertainment media companies in the world, was born after WMG axed its historic WEA brand, and consolidated its owned media companies under the leadership of Maria Weaver.

The new division united WMG’s owned media publishing properties with a number of other artist-servicing units, some of which used to operate under WEA.

These functions included Warner’s global merch and e-commerce operations like Germany-based merch giant EMP (acquired by WMG for $180 million in 2018). It also included a range of services designed to develop and amplify artists’ own brands but also to connect artists with commercial brands.

WMX’s divisions today operate across Commercial Services, Media Business, Artist & Fan Experiences, E-Commerce & Retail, and Audience Strategy.

“WMX is an exciting portfolio of verticals that are designed to drive fandom and fan engagement,” explains London-based Bob Workman, SVP, International Brand Partnerships, Warner Music and General Manager, WMX UK.

“We are the engagement engine of Warner Music. It’s where we create the fan experience around our artists, in music but also beyond music. We recognise that our artists exist with or without their music in lots of different settings.”

“We recognise that our artists exist with or without their music in a lot of different settings.”

A recent example of a high-profile project outside of an artist’s core music activities was the company’s work with Ed Sheeran to create a hot sauce brand called Tingly Ted’s. Launched via WMX’s new ‘Ventures’ offering, the campaign, devised by Sheeran, saw WMX bring in food giant Kraft Heinz to help develop the brand.

 “It is a project that is a testament to what’s possible for an artist when they’re given the right support network to bring their ideas to life,” says Workman.

In addition to its powerful brand partnership and creative capabilities, WMX is a content powerhouse that operates various genre-specific editorial properties.

WMG acquired properties like youth media brand Uproxx (1m Instagram followers), which WMG bought in 2018, and hip-hop publication HipHopDX (800,000 Insta followers), which it swooped for in 2020. WMX also owns and runs content publishing brands focusing on highly engaged genres like metal and hard rock (The Pit), country music (Lasso Nation), as well as making genre-focused video content via streaming channels on Roku.

“We regard ourselves now as a media company,” says Workman. “We operate at the intersection between creativity and culture for our artists. We are in a new era.”

Workman’s own career in the music industry started in the promotions department at Island Records where he got to work on projects from the likes of U2, Chaka Demus & Pliers and The Cranberries.

“I had a huge love for and admiration for [the label] because I had grown up in a household where my mum played Bob Marley and loved Cat Stevens,” he says. “Working in promotions was a great way of breaking down social barriers for me. You had to put yourself out there. You had to meet people and socialise and promote the artists.”

After working in promotions across radio and TV, Workman got poached by a well-established independent promotions company called Gut Reaction, where he represented various artists at national radio. Then Gut Reaction set up its own recorded music company called Gut Records and he made the leap from promotions to marketing at the label. 

“That culminated for me in being Marketing Director [at Gut Records], and running a big album project with Tom Jones called Reload,” he says. “We really reinvented Tom at the time.”  Reload became Jones’s best-selling album, and has sold over four million copies worldwide.

Workman then left Gut Records “wanting to go into fashion and other businesses”, but ended up setting up a music and brand partnership-focused agency called Spin Music, one of the first agencies of its kind in the UK.

“This was in the very early days of brand partnerships,” says Workman. “Social media was only just getting going. It was the advent of social media that was the revolution.”

“We are the engagement engine of Warner Music. It’s where we create the fan experience around our artists, in music but also beyond music.”

After roughly six years, he moved to EMI to set up a brand partnerships division. “In the first month I was there we were signing Tinie Tempah, who had 30,000 Facebook likes. That scale was considered mind-blowing. We then got acquired by Warner Music, and now here I am.”

Workman was promoted to his dual role of SVP, International Brand Partnerships, Warner Music and General Manager, WMX UK at the end of 2022, and reports into Weaver. The move saw Warner Music UK’s Artist & Brand Partners team become part of the global WMX division.

In recent years, the UK Artist & Brand Partners team at Warner has worked on major artist campaigns with the likes of Ed Sheeran and Kraft Heinz, Dua Lipa and TikTok, a campaign for Clarks Originals with Liam Gallagher, and many others.

Here, Workman tells us more about the company’s artist brand partnerships, its new Ventures offering, and more… 

You oversaw the campaign for Tom Jones’ Reload album. Could you talk a bit about the transition at the end of the 1990s and into the 2000s, from booming physical sales to the arrival of downloads as physical revenues declined. How important did brand partnerships become for artists and labels to generate revenues?

It became wildly more important but not until the late 2000s. In 2008 or 2009, that’s when we really started to see artists having influence with their audiences beyond music.

When Tinie Tempah signed to Parlophone, for the first time we had an artist for whom brands were just as important as Radio 1. It was a different set of brands, like BlackBerry, but these were brands and aspirations that helped flesh out the artist’s proposition. It helped create additional engagement and additional investment that enabled our artists to do more than they would otherwise.

“For the first time we had an artist for whom brands were as important as Radio 1.”

Music marketing budgets are limited. Music companies rely heavily on editorial coverage and the media to drive a lot of engagement around our artists and our music. Brands opened up another lane of investment.

You mentioned Spin Music as being one of the early UK specialists in music and brand partnerships. Was it initially difficult to sell the concept of partnering with brands to certain artists in the early 2000s?

It was, yeah, particularly in the UK. There were certain artists for whom the idea of ‘selling out’ to a brand was considered a thing. 

It has taken quite a long time for an artist like Coldplay to engage with brands. And they have only done it for very deeply authentic reasons that relate to their values.

What really drove it was hip-hop and R&B culture, particularly from America, and particularly with luxury or aspirational brands.

When the consumer or the fan felt that the brand was adding some value or contributing to their fan experience with the artists, that’s when it became acceptable and defendable to work with a brand.

What are the expectations in 2023 that artists and their fans have of each other around brand partnerships in the social media age?

We should never get too far away from the fact that we’re in the entertainment business. So being entertained, informed, and engaged by the content, or the output of a brand partnership is absolutely critical. 

Because there’s so much content out there every day, what brands want essentially is to pop up in your social feeds and to get inside that slipstream that exists between the artist and the fan.

That’s what social media has offered brands who want to engage with artists and music, that very privileged, ‘by-invitation’ opportunity. Artists have become influencers for sure, but they have become their own media channels, too.

Provided the curation is done carefully, [along with] the [right] messaging, language, visual cues, and cultural cues, then the brand is welcome [on artists’ channels].

But it needs to entertain, inform, surprise and delight. Sometimes it relates to the artists’ recorded music and their releases; sometimes it doesn’t. Quite often, fans are just as engaged with artists around something that’s got nothing to do with music.

You’ve recently launched a new Ventures offering and worked on the recent Ed Sheeran hot sauce campaign through it. How did that come about and what was the brief from Ed?

We had been working with Kraft Heinz on a big [Tomato Ketchup] campaign with Ed back in 2019. We were considering moving on to do another campaign.

We did the Kraft Heinz Ketchup campaign because Ed loves ketchup. He’s got a tattoo of the label of the Kraft Heinz Ketchup bottle on the inside of his left arm. It couldn’t be more authentic, rooted in a huge connection with the product. It was all about bringing two icons together.

Then off the back of it, Ed was like, ‘I’ve got an idea, I’d really like to do a hot sauce’. He had the idea and the name of the brand.  He already had a sense of what he wanted it to be. He talked about democratising hot sauce. He wanted it to be the Ketchup of hot sauces. 

It was not far from the way he acts as a musician, which is that he wants to entertain at scale. It was the same for Tingly Ted’s. He had the idea, and we mentioned it to Kraft Heinz, like, ‘Would you want to partner with us on this?’ They were like, ‘Absolutely, we’d love to’.

They were brilliantly proactive. They went off and created some early samples to prove that they could do this. In February last year, we did a workshop with Ed and a few people from Kraft Heinz. We had a kitchen scientist from Kraft Brand Partnerships come in and he was an expert in ‘taste elevation’ as they call it.

There’s surely a fine balance to be struck when launching non-music brands associated with superstars, so that you don’t put fans off and instead amplify the artist in front of fans?

The modern artist, and with that the modern fan, are much more open to the 360 [view] of the artist. When I was growing up, artists thrived on having mystique and you never pulled back the curtain, until maybe later in their career. You might read their biography or whatever and find something out.

Now the curtain is constantly pulled back with an artist like Ed. It’s actually that visibility and intimacy that the fan gets with the artists that drives a new form of commitment.

“It’s that visibility and intimacy the fan gets that drives a new form of commitment.”

[Fans] genuinely feel they know the artist and they’re almost like friends with them in a way. That wasn’t the thing to do 10 or 20 years ago. 

We’ve learned that it doesn’t damage the magic of who the artist is. It doesn’t undermine them and make them any less special. If anything, it actually elevates them. 

Fans have enough capacity to exist in different lanes with the same artist. They can love the new music, want to buy a ticket, go and see the show. But they can also celebrate in the fact that [the artist’s] football team just won a cup, or that they’ve just done a campaign with a brand that they like.

We’ve gotten over our anxiety as a business that we have to just do one thing incredibly well. It’s now a much more portfolio approach. If we don’t do that, the artist will do it without us. It’s really important that we’re there to support them.

What are your ambitions for the Ventures unit following the success of this campaign?

Our ambitions are to work in lots of different lanes in terms of product development, but also with a diverse range of artists.

We already work in a very diverse manner across our partnerships business and not just with superstars.

We recently launched a campaign with Rachel Chinouriri (pictured), who’s an amazing young artist who did a great collaboration with Converse. 

We brought PinkPantheress into a really big campaign with Bose in the US, which was all around the under-representation of women in music production. We developed that idea and the creative for that and then took it to Bose.

For Ventures, we want to represent that same approach, which is, yes, we’d love to develop high-profile products with high-profile artists, but there’s an opportunity to start at a more grassroots level, and to develop at a lower scale.

We’d love to work in fashion and beauty. There are also opportunities in the food and drink space. We’re exploring a number of things with artists at all levels.

WMX claims to be one of the top five entertainment media companies in the world, and the No.1 Entertainment Media Company in the US among adults aged 18-34. Those are gigantic achievements for a division of a major recorded music company. Could you talk about WMX’s positioning in the global entertainment media landscape?

What we’re witnessing is a transition from a world where music companies produced fairly generic creative assets, which were then pushed out to the media and to platforms and publishers, who would then editorialise around those things, and sell advertising around them as well. 

There was a strong sense that we were disintermediated by a lot of those platforms. So, carefully and gradually we have been either acquiring businesses or creating businesses within our own ecosystem that are driving and establishing audiences around passion points around our artists and so on. 

We were building huge audiences around our artists, particularly on YouTube, and other social media platforms. We have the opportunity to harness all of that audience not just to promote, market or drive audiences around our releases, but to potentially monetize that audience as well. 

The value of data is something that we are really passionate about. It’s taken a moment for us and our competitors in the industry to put in the right mechanics, to bring in the right talent, to harvest and understand that data, so that we have really good insights.

Particularly with first-party data, we have the opportunity to speak to the audience and communicate in a way that we weren’t able to so clearly before.

If there was just one thing that you could change about the music business right now, what would it be and why?

To untangle some of the restrictive elements of a rights industry. We’ve increasingly been doing that in recent years, but in a world of access, anything that restricts access is a problem that needs resolving.

One of the things I’m really ambitious about is our catalogue, our iconic artists. Even though it’s one of the smaller catalogues globally, we’ve got more than our fair share of genre-defining artists. 

We have all of [David] Bowie, all of Prince, we have Fleetwood Mac, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and more.  It’s wildly exciting. What I would like to do is unlock and liberate the stories, the values of those artists, alongside the music. Because of the access [to music via streaming], literally the youngest generation of music consumers know the music.

We’ve got a responsibility and an opportunity for [fans] to become familiar with the full story of our artists. There are businesses and products that we can develop around those legends of the past, some of whom are still with us, some aren’t. Let’s liberate those stories. 

Let’s liberate some of the great assets that are hidden away in vaults. It’s difficult, but there’s a really great opportunity to do that.

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

MBUK is available via an annual subscription through here.

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 Music Business Worldwide

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