Why are British executives ruling the modern music business?

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It’s becoming par for the course during debut lunch meetings with US major label execs.

Normally, it pops up somewhere between the main course and the arrival of the green tea we definitely don’t order for show (before I definitely don’t secretively dart straight to Pret to jack up on a more unwholesome stimulant).

“So… why is it that British executives seem to be taking over the world right now?”

They point to Sir Lucian Grainge and Rob Stringer, chiefs of the world’s two biggest record companies.

And, of course, they point to Max Lousada and Guy Moot – the global bosses of Warner’s recorded music empire and Sony/ ATV’s worldwide creative efforts, respectively. (Who both just happen to feature prominently in the new issue of Music Business UK, available below.)

I have my answer to this oft-parroted query down pat, complete with role-play cogitation in a bid to mask the fact that, at some point, I’ve almost certainly pilfered it from someone cleverer than me.

Here it goes: “The British market is not analogous to any other major music territory because our broadcast media is not restricted by genre, and it’s delivered across borders. When UK executives grow up with that in their ears, they’re bound to develop an innate appreciation of a broad array of hit-making ingredients.”

Then I mumble something about how lucky we are to have BBC radio in this country, before spending the rest of the day slavishly glued to the same 15 tracks on Spotify because, like many of you, I talk a good artist discovery game, but I also like what I fucking like.

My wordy justification for why British execs are soaring might sound informed, but it’s actually hogwash.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the real reason UK executives are annexing the upper levels of the US business – and, by all likelihood, will continue to do so – is all to do with their freedom to fail.

Or, more accurately, their freedom to try and fail, then try and fail again, and then – the crucial bit – to learn and succeed.

The British music industry affords its denizens the liberty of second chances because it’s a market that’s small enough to forgive, but large enough to really matter.

Allow me to qualify that, by way of Daniel Ek.

According to Spotify’s recent warts-and-all filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the firm turned over €444m (£390m) in the UK in 2017. That was not only significantly larger than revenues taken by Global Radio’s parent in its 2017 FY (£303m) – it was bigger than a quarter of the cash (€1.6bn) Spotify generated in the United States last year.

This, despite the UK’s population (circa 65m) only being a fifth of the size of Uncle Sam’s.

The important bit: per capita, the UK is a more lucrative market than the States for recorded music’s biggest service.

Good stat, right?

Meanwhile, the UK industry is still diminutive enough that superior executive talent shines brightly amongst its (numerically) slim pickings – even if it stumbles and starts during its initial professional development.

It wouldn’t be right to name them, but I have spoken to a raft of British executives who’ve fluffed their first, second or third jobs in the industry – or simply suffered an unfair HR guillotine – only to return with a vigour (and sometimes a venom) that blows away many of their competitors over the Atlantic.

This is particularly, true, it must be said, in the sink-or-swim world of A&R, where many ex-bosses now rue the day they decided, ‘Nah, he/she’s never gonna be good enough.’

So, from now on, I won’t be pilfering overwrought industry theories about the media conditions behind the rise and rise of the Brits.

I’ll do the smart thing, and pilfer Einstein instead: “Anybody who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”


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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