‘You have to be understanding of the multiple pressures artists are under.’

Ed Howard has been at Asylum for over a decade, rising through the ranks to Managing Director – before being appointed co-President of Atlantic Records UK at the close of last year.

Asylum is a record company, he says, that prides itself on some of the guiding principles of Asylum’s original co-founder, David Geffen: (i) Not over-signing acts to the roster; (ii) Encouraging collaboration between the rare artists you do believe in; (iii) Sticking with your acts for the long-haul.

Geffen was obviously more Laurel Canyon than he was Boom Clap, but Howard’s claim does hold water.

For example, in recent times, across Asylum’s roster, Rudimental have collaborated with Mahalia and Anne-Marie, while Mahalia has collaborated with Kojey Radical.

Adding in parent company Atlantic Records, Asylum’s Charli XCX has collaborated with Icona Pop to chart- topping effect, and, more recently, she’s teamed up with Lizzo.

And then, of course, there’s that other Ed.

Howard met Sheeran back in 2010 at Notting Hill Arts Club, after which the world’s favourite ginger (sorry, Harry) stomped back to the flat shared by the music exec and his now wife, songwriter Miranda Cooper, to continue boozing.

There, Sheeran would “drink all our beer” according to Howard and, due to a broken iPod, also whip out his guitar and debut tracks that have since gone down in history as cornerstones of his debut LP, +.

(On the David Geffen tip: Sheeran has, to date, collaborated with Asylum/Atlantic artists including Rudimental, Anne-Marie and Stormzy, while also writing for Rita Ora, Jess Glynne and others.)

It was Howard who signed Sheeran to Asylum in the first place, alongside Ben Cook, some nine years ago. The Asylum boss has remained an integral, trusted A&R voice in the homestyle superstar’s world ever since.

Sheeran manager Stuart Camp says: “Ed Howard has been with us since the beginning… actually possibly before the beginning of time, which I count as when I started managing Ed.

“[Howard] has been the calm and knowledgeable big brother to Ed since then, and always will be. Atlantic has a strong future with him in place.”

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Asylum since Howard joined its ranks, as a Label Manager in 2007, is its hit rate. Pretty much everything the label has signed has been successful, to some degree, in recent years.

That all started with Wiley’s summertime classic, Wearing My Rolex, back in 2008. And it can definitely be seen this year, with Ed Sheeran’s No.6 Collaborations Project (at time of going to press, the UK’s second biggest artist album of the past 12 months).

Such consistency is a definite rarity in a major label world where, at best, typical A&R track records suggest that only somewhere around one in five signings will ultimately ‘work’.

Asylum’s commitment to its artists during this timespan has been self-evident: take, for example, Charli XCX, who Howard signed 10 years ago, and who continues to evolve as one of the world’s most iconic alt-pop artists, and most sought-after collaborators.

That spirit of commitment can also be seen with Mahalia, not to mention newer signing, and Instagram sensation, Lewis Blissett – who is managed by ex-Syco MD Sonny Takhar.

Here, Howard discusses his own life and career, his personal A&R philosophy, the Ed Sheeran story, and his experiences with Asylum and Warner Music Group

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Hammersmith, West London, where I now live again. I’ve gone full circle, having spent years in East London. I have two musician parents: my mum is a professional musician and a teacher, and at a time before I was born, she was an orchestral agent.

She used to move orchestras around the planet, during an era when you used to have to put them on boats and fax ahead [to the person expecting them]. They’re very different worlds, but I like to think there’s some parallels there to what I do now.

How did you get into the business in the first place?

My journey into professional music began at university. Before that, I loved music, but had no real inclination that it was definitely something I wanted to do [for a career]. We built a studio in the college, a rehearsal room, so everyone could play.

I ended up being in loads of bands as a drummer, as well as putting on nights and managing a couple of very talented singer/songwriters. For a little while after that I ran a recording studio, and then I got an internship – first at Universal Classics & Jazz, for a couple of weeks, and then Sony/ATV. That was 15 years ago and led to my first proper gig.

What were the early milestones for you at Sony/ATV?

Rak Sanghvi (pictured, inset) was the MD at the time and he was amazing. He spotted me – I covered his phones for an afternoon – and we had a couple of good interactions.

He noticed that I was maybe trying to impress him, and said: ‘Okay, I might have something for you, which could became more permanent.’ I then interned in the sync department in 2005/2006, which was just as [sync] was blowing up.

I learned a bunch and put some good structure in place in terms of how they pitch songs, some of which still exists there today. I also met Matt Chalk, who was consulting [both for Sony/ ATV and for Ministry Of Sound]. Matt did a very different thing to everyone else back then: rather than try and sign bands, he would identify unpublished hit song writers.

He taught me some very important skills; we ended up signing a writer who wrote We Belong Together by Mariah Carey, amongst others. Everyone was sort of chasing bands, but Matt showed me a little window into a different world, the pop world and the writer side of things.

This was 2005: not a great time in the commercial history of the business!

It’s funny, when I look back now, it felt like the industry was always heading in one, pretty bad direction. I knew nothing else for basically the first eight years I lived in this business. But I refused to pay too much attention to it – it didn’t put me off. Matt introduced me to Ben [Cook], and, after about three years at Sony/ATV, that led to my move into records [at Asylum].

My publishing career wasn’t particularly distinguished, though I did sign some writers that I loved. Asylum had a strong start with Wearing My Rolex and that gave everyone a lot of confidence in us.

When you look back on that period, what mistakes were you making as a new label exec?

The process. When I’d done 10 years here [in 2017], I looked back and [realised] that my second five years were much happier than the first five years. I don’t regret any of that early stuff, but as we were trying to prove ourselves, make a name for ourselves, and at a time when the industry itself was both challenged and challenging… the levels of stress were pretty high. We were much kinder to ourselves, probably, in that second five years.

But, you know, part of what laid the foundation for meeting Ed Sheeran and the reputation that maybe I had and we had [as a label], was about being decent to artists in those quite difficult times.

Ed spoke to [Asylum artists] before he signed with us. He was like, ‘Actually, I’ve heard good things about you; you might not have had tonnes of success with certain artists, but the process was kind of fair and decent and understanding.’ People said good things about us in that period. So, no regrets about any of it, but it was tough on a stress level.

You arrived at a time that Max Lousada was running Atlantic. With Asylum, he wanted to expand the sonic palette of the label group. What are your memories of Max at that time?

I remember the first meeting we had very well – and clearly he impressed as I took the job. He has grown an insane amount as an executive and as a human being in the 12 years I’ve known him. He was always creative and an exciting person, but his level of focus and his execution have gone through the roof – it’s been really impressive to see.

I hope I’ve been able to follow that path, and might still do some more in the future, but that transformation and growth in Max has been inspiring.

I remember Max started a Monday morning label meeting after I joined and it was like, ‘Oh, everyone can get together and talk about everything going on across Atlantic.’

Suddenly I was plugged into a bit of knowledge on 35 projects, as opposed to just the three things that I was doing in my world. That was a brilliant thing that he started, and we still do it here today.

Ben Cook was another mentor of yours – what did he teach you?

In the early days, Ben protected me in [A&R] terms of stopping me from doing anything dumb. As a publisher coming into records, he opened my eyes to the many layers of this business: artist positioning, routes to market etc.

Things beyond songcraft. I was pretty good at setting up sessions and understanding songs, that kind of thing. But [outside of those skills] it was a very steep learning curve. Ben’s attention to detail, his focus, I would say everyone here benefited from that.

Ben recently left Atlantic in controversial circumstances. What’s your reaction to that?

Ben made a serious mistake, which I know he wholeheartedly regrets. He taught me a huge amount and supported me over the 12 years that we worked together, and he became a very close friend over that time. I wish him nothing but the best and I look forward to seeing what’s next for him.

You met Ed Sheeran in 2010. Is it true he came back to your flat, played songs and drunk your lager?

Yeah. He told the story again the other night, in front of me and my wife, and he tells it best! I’d known about him for about six months and we were sort of getting our thoughts together [as a label]: we loved A-Team, we loved Lego House, which was in a weird format at the time, and You Need Me had come out on YouTube as a live performance on SBTV.

“Anyone who could put together that A-Team video and also do the SBTV thing, using looping like he did while also writing hooks like Lego House and singing them – that’s an incredible amount of talent.”

We had an impression of this multifaceted dude; someone whose [style] was slightly confused, to be fair, but also very, very talented. Anyone who could put together that A-Team video and also do the SBTV thing, using looping like he did while also writing hooks like Lego House and singing them – that’s an incredible amount of talent. I then met him, randomly, at Notting Hill Arts Club, and remember just feeling sort of magnetised by him.

And, yes, he came back to our flat and drank a lot of beer. His iPod wasn’t working, so he ended up playing the songs on his guitar. It wasn’t even his show we went to see that night – it was somebody else’s! But he always had his guitar with him. He played these songs to Miranda and me at home and just kind of laid out the next kind of couple of years of his career. He had this magnetism, confidence and vision that was amazing.

Other labels were famously perplexed by him – Island Records is rumoured to have signed him as a development act and then dropped him. Why did you commit?

Speaking personally, it was totally because of that meeting. But timing also came into it; I think those other [label] conversations happened previously, when [his style] was very much forming. Ed will tell you, he’s a great believer in nurture, not nature, of putting in your time.

He says that when he started writing songs, it was like turning on a tap and the water running brown. The more he wrote, the more the tap ran, and the clearer the water became. He [argues] that he started out as a terrible songwriter, but he wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, and became a good songwriter.

“with every interaction we had with Stuart [Camp] and Ed, it became clearer that they had a great thing going on between them.”

So to answer the question, it was partly an element of timing, and partly an element of that first meeting I had with him – feeling just so connected and trusting in this human being who had a path laid out in front of him. He also had a generosity of spirit and obviously he had likability. And then, with every interaction we had with Stuart [Camp] and Ed, it became clearer that they had a great thing going on between them, too.

Matt [Chalk] and I went to see Ed’s shows first, then Ben [Cook] came along with us later. Every single thing became more convincing. We ended up strategising together with them for the release of the No.5 Collaborations [EP, released in January 2011], even though we hadn’t actually signed him.

We recommended releasing it in January rather than in December, because it would give him a clear lane. We also plugged him a little bit into the 1Xtra tips [for that year], and I think Twin B – who went on to work with us at Atlantic – was the first person to play Ed on the BBC, full stop. There was a nice picture forming of support for Ed here.

Max was very supportive, especially in closing the deal. So by the time it was done, Ed had this momentum and our relationship had already formed; we’d been following him and working with him [behind the scenes] for about four or five months prior to signing.

Did you have big expectations for him?

Well, his [No.5 Collaborations] EP was No.2 on iTunes the day we signed him, so we could see [the potential]. The signs were there: if you looked closely the amount of money he was [generating] on TuneCore [in 2010], I think he did £400,000 in iTunes sales on his own that year, just from his catalogue, before we even released an [Asylum] record.

That actually caused some US labels to pay attention, including Mike Caren and others, and you could also see the tickets he was selling. He did a sold out show at The Waterfront in Norwich, just before Christmas [2010] which we went to. He must have sold over 700 tickets. There were strong signs that something crazy was about to happen.

What has been the most stressful or challenging time of the Ed story from your perspective?

My guess is that it was probably ahead of the release of Multiply, when the pressure was on to define him as a blockbuster artist ready for the US. That’s a good guess. I’ll actually give you a few different ones.

Early on, there was a particularly special 24 hour period around the release of the [re-recorded] A-Team. We all knew it was the right record at that time, but we wondered if [we could generate] the excitement around re-releasing it.

Would we get a [Radio 1] Hottest Record? Things like that, which seem less important in [the Ed story] with hindsight, but at the time felt like everything. We believed in him so much, we wanted to launch it perfectly and get it right.

We all agreed to stick with [A-Team] and that whatever right or wrong we might suffer, at the end of the day it was 100% the right record with the right message, with the right video that portrays Ed’s artistry perfectly.

There was a big debate around the first single on Multiply: Sing was a great moment, but there was a big Sing/Don’t question mark at that time – they were both amazing records.

Then Sing came out, and it felt like loads of people that hadn’t paid attention to Ed, people who might not have previously thought he was for them, kind of jumped in and really loved that record.

And another brilliant moment, obviously, was: What should we do with Shape Of You and Castle on the Hill? Shape of You, just like Thinking Out Loud, came in a week or so before we closed Multiply. It was a song we didn’t particularly know we needed, but obviously we were very grateful for!

Ed’s got a habit of turning in his best homework late, hasn’t he?

Exactly! It’s when the pressure comes off. I feel like part of my role is, as best as I can, helping him stay in that mindset: ‘You are not under any particular pressure. Let’s just see what happens.’ If Ed stays in a creative, positive mindset, miracles occur pretty consistently.

So Shape of You also came super late, but then we had to work out how to handle those two records. I loved Castle on the Hill – I loved them both, really.

The way that we – Callum Caulfield, Nick Long, Ben [Cook], Stu [Camp] – strategised that, it ended up making both records bigger and blew the album up. It was perfect.

Ed’s No.6 Collaborations album this year was full of UK and US stars. You weren’t just dealing with one individual’s famously modest ego… you were dealing with all of those other ones as well. Was it still fun?

It was fun, mainly because it meant working with FRED [Gibson] and Ed, who are really good mates, in some really fun places and with a few people that we maybe wouldn’t otherwise – producers and writers. There was an element of freedom that we built into the process, which FRED really, I think, helped Ed unlock; it gave Ed the confidence of having that wingman, making him feel good in situations that maybe weren’t totally natural to him beforehand.

But obviously on a logistical perspective, Cannelle [Bencherqi, A&R Co-Ordinator] with Stu [Camp] and Jim Doyle, that was intense. We will all think very hard about doing a Collaborations No.7, that’s for sure!

But, creatively, some of my favourite music of Ed’s career is on that record. Interestingly, I think not having the whole promo cycle – not going out there and talking about the album, doing the radio stations and everything – was actually quite a strange experience for Ed. [He] missed it a bit, I suppose.

Charli XCX had two massive hits in I Love It (with Icona Pop) and Boom Clap, but has more recently evolved into a less hitdriven, overtly commercial artist. Why is Asylum comfortable with that kind of evolution when other labels would be impatient for more quick hits?

Charli started off making really cool records like Stay Away, Nuclear Seasons and [album] True Romance, which we spent a lot of time carefully helping her realise. She always had [hit] songs from the get go – there were great songs on True Romance. But the ‘package’ didn’t always make sense for a mainstream pop audience, and we were always completely cool with that.

We just loved her creativity. But then when that same artist starts writing those [hit] songs and they’re incredible, obviously you want to give light to those as well. Fancy came out of a session I put her in with Iggy [Azalea] and, again, that’s a really cool record, but these things were just kind of happening around [her main career].

Because she knows her identity better than anyone, Charli originally didn’t want to release I Love It, but then she ended up being a feature on it instead, and that kind of worked. We didn’t want to stop her turning in these unbelievable songs; we want to give that confidence in that.

“I think Charli’s so important as an artist that you can only really support her in whichever direction she goes.”

But now, I would argue, her music and her creative are perfectly aligned, and she owns it. I’m looking forward to the moment she takes this amazing, creative, clubby kind of dynamic she’s got going on, and finds the right song that unlocks it perfectly, in a way that maybe Robyn has done a couple of times in her career. Charli and Robyn are actually quite close these days.

I took Charli to her first Robyn show, and we both cried – I cried a bit, and she cried a lot! I’m confident Charli will find that song, but she’s going to do it on her terms, rather than having [a label say], ‘Okay, we’re going to do massive pop songs over here and then really cool stuff over here.’

It’s about bringing those two things together; finding music that has the potential to have scale, but is also really, really cool, and which makes sense of the amazing shows she’s been doing at Brixton Academy or Reading [Festival], and all over the world. I think Charli’s so important as an artist that you can only really support her in whichever direction she goes.

Is Asylum’s roster size a crucial factor in your hit rate, or should other factors be credited?

There are a few factors, I would say. We’ve had some level of success from the get go; we’ve also broadly had stability down the years through Ben [Cook], Max [Lousada], Damian [Christian], Mitch [Mark Mitchell], Kevin [Christian-Blair] and others. Plus Ed Sheeran obviously [creates] a bit more time for Mahalia, a bit more time for Charli and many others.

Ongoing success like that buys you stability within the corporation. Mahalia has definitely benefited, for example, over her four or five year development here, of having huge supporters in Ben and Max – people who have remained completely convinced that she could one day be one of the most important artists on the label, as she’s now proving to become.

You clearly have a very close relationship with your roster. What brings you the level of trust and closeness with artists you need to suggest difficult things from an A&R standpoint – like a different single to the one they prefer, or a different producer etc.?

Time is definitely an important factor; the longevity of your relationship, going above and beyond, and being seen to be supportive. As with Charli, it’s about allowing artists freedom for their journey; not putting crazy pressure on, not making everything a life and death situation.

Broadly speaking, it’s about giving them space to create, supporting that and seeing where they want to go. I don’t find [those conversations] very difficult with the people I’m very lucky to work with today.

But it certainly helps that I know Ed from the days when he was sleeping on our couch, and the same with Charli, when she was sat on the floor of this office, making sleeves for her cassette tapes. She was 17 when I met her, she’s been signed here 10 years; I’m incredibly proud of that. We have multiple relationships that stretch years back, across Ed, Rudimental, Charli and Anne Marie.

“As we always say here, it’s ultimately advice we’re giving. We’re never going to dictate to artists what they should or shouldn’t do. But we are going to put our case forwards – robustly!”

That in itself is really important. Also, you have to be understanding of the multiple pressures artists are under; to be supportive and allow them, as much as possible, to find their own way. Sometimes you have to be more vocal at the beginning.

I find myself very much more in the backseat now with a lot of these relationships; I’m watching Anne Marie flying, kind of dictating where she’s going; Charli is completely doing her thing and being much better at it than we could ever be.

But that thing of being there at the beginning, of being supportive and helping artists, that creates a path which then gives you credibility for when you have had those difficult conversations.

As we always say here, it’s ultimately advice we’re giving. We’re never going to dictate to artists what they should or shouldn’t do. But we are going to put our case forwards – robustly!

When you see a new artist, raw and unrefined, bearing in mind how judicious you are with your signings, what makes you think: That’s a potential Asylum signing?

It’s about a strong personal connection, and an artist that’s trying to be in their own lane. If I think across Charli, Skrillex, Ed, Rudimental, Lewis Blissett, Anne Marie, Kojey Radical – these are all people that aren’t doing what everybody else is doing.

If you could wave a magic wand right now, what one thing would you change about the industry and why?

If I could change anything, I’d want to make sure that all artists, and the teams that support them, have access to resilience training and psychological support if they need it. In today’s always-on culture, there’s an expectation that artists should share everything and be constantly available.

“In today’s always-on culture, there’s an expectation that artists should share everything and be constantly available.”

We need to remember that often they are very young people who are dealing with personal growth alongside what’s going on in their career, which can be daunting. I believe that getting this right at an early stage creates the foundations for a long and successful relationship with an artist.

This article originally appeared in the latest (Q4 2019) issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK (pictured), which is out now.

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