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Rule Brittania: U.K. Executives Find Success Running Major U.S. Music Labels

The British are... here.

When veteran U.K. music executive Max Lousada officially took over as Warner Music Group’s CEO of recorded music in October, it meant that the direction of all three major U.S. music groups was now in the hands of Brits. While Lousada reports to WMG CEO Stephen Cooper, an American, the British exec is more involved with the creative guidance of the company, as are fellow Englishmen Lucian Grainge (pictured above, with Rihanna) and Rob Stringer, chairman and CEO at Universal Music Group and CEO of Sony Music, respectively.

The milestone marked a culmination of sorts for the British Invasion of 1964, which saw the Beatles jump-start the U.S. record business, helping it become a $14 billion-a-year behemoth by the turn of the century. And while this year British musical exports have been overshadowed on the pop charts by those of Sweden, Latin America and Canada, the global success of acts like Ed Sheeran and perennial platinum-plus songstress Adele are reminders of how potent the U.K. talent pool can be.

Arguably, the country’s executives have fared even better: Grainge and Capitol Music Group chief Steve Barnett named fellow Brit Ashley Newton as group president early last year; RCA chairman and CEO Peter Edge and Island Records president David Massey rose through the ranks, both in the States and in Britain, within the past decade. They join other U.K. music execs who succeeded in the States, such as Chris Blackwell (founder of Island Records), Richard Branson (Virgin), Chris Wright and Terry Ellis (Chrysalis), Martin Mills (Beggars Group) and Simon Cowell (Syco Records).

So what’s the secret? Edge points to Britain’s global gaze. “Pop music has always been part of the national discussion in the U.K., and England has always been a country that looked out on what was going on in the rest of the world,” he says.

Edge, pictured below with A$AP Ferg, relocated to the States in 1993 after running his own Chrysalis-affiliated Cooltempo label (which released such hip-hop originals as Doug E. Fresh, EPMD and Eric B. & Rakim in Britain). Stints at Warner Bros., Arista and Clive Davis’ J Records — where he signed the likes of Alicia Keys, Dido and Angie Stone — led to his current post at RCA, home to rising stars Khalid and SZA, who earned a combined 10 nominations for the 2018 Grammys.

Edge’s experience working with U.S. hip-hop artists in the mid-’80s, a genre the major labels left wide-open for indies like his Cooltempo imprint, was one reason he was able to transition so seamlessly. “That was the music I championed,” he says. “Coming to America was a natural progression for me. … England has always been a country that looked out on what was going on in the rest of the world. The U.K. looked to American R&B and soul music and made a version of it that metamorphosed into British rock.”

RCA Records CEO Peter Edge and A$AP Ferg attend the "Trap Lord" album listening event at The Darby NYC, in New YorkA$AP Ferg Listening Event at The Darby NYC, New York, USA - 5 Aug 2013
CREDIT: DeC/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Of course, it’s not only the U.K. which has taken advantage of the music business’ digital-inspired globalization.  As one industry wag put it, “Isn’t the business being run by a Ukrainian-born American, a Frenchman, a Japanese and a Swede?” referring to WMG’s Len Blavatnik, Vivendi’s CEO Arnaud de Puyfontaine, Sony’s Kaz Hirai and Spotify’s Daniel Ek.

Could it be the Brits’ ability to control budgets in an age of diminishing returns that has landed them in crucial executive roles? History is littered with instances of the Japanese tiring of the spendthrift ways of Walter Yetnikoff and Tommy Mottola, or BMG attempting to ease Clive Davis into an early retirement.

RCA’s Edge insists that’s no more than a stereotype, while Big Deal Music Publishing founder and president Kenny MacPherson points to the disaster of Guy Hands’ failed, go-for-broke Terra Firma takeover at EMI for exceptions to the rule. “There’s a sense that the American record executive is more willing to gamble, to ‘go for it,’” agrees Edge. “But it’s hard to generalize. I’ve known some British executives that spend like crazy – no names — and some American executives who have been frugal.  Anyway, this is more than ever, a talent discovery business.”

So what is the throughline to the U.K. takeover of the American E-suite? With Grainge, Stringer and Edge all between the ages of 54 and 57, was there a band or a concert or a TV show they all saw that inspired them to go for a career in the music business? Ask this question, and you get different answers. Stringer credits his exposure to music to his hometown, Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, an hour west of London. The town housed a rock club where many of the top British acts played regularly in the 1970s and 1980s, including The Clash, David Bowie, Genesis and The Police. The 1,200-capacity room, which was named Friars, Vale Hall, Maxwell Hall and the Civic at different stages of its existence, was a regular haunt for the future executive and where he experienced life-changing shows in his formative years.

Starting at the age of 16, Stringer (pictured below with Mark Ronson) worked at the venue, run by local Dave Stopps, during holiday breaks. “Aylesbury was a market town of 30,000 people but we had a rock club that everyone played,” Stringer has said. “Dave Stopps inspired a whole generation from the town.”

Mark Ronson and Rob Stringer26th Annual Music Industry Trusts Award, Show, London, UK - 06 Nov 2017
CREDIT: Richard Young/REX/Shutterstock

Others point to the Sex Pistols’ first TV appearance in 1976 on Granada Television’s “So It Goes” program, hosted by  Tony Wilson, who would go on to found Factory Records and the Hacienda nightclub in Manchester. But most would agree that the biggest influence country-wide was radio — specifically the BBC, where programs weren’t restricted to specific formats and offered free-form playlists opening listeners to a wide swath of genres.

With the British today occupying the top creative slots at the three major U.S. music groups, it’s reminiscent of the original settlers landing at Plymouth Rock and holding forth. “The shock waves from Great Britain in the ‘60s are still being felt today in the record industry,” insists The Zombies’ Argent, but for Kenny MacPherson, that’s all in the rear-view mirror.

“I’ve now lived in America longer than I did in Britain, so my allegiances are split down the middle” he says, though he still speaks with that distinctive sing-song Scottish burr. “I’m always happy to see people do well from the country I came from, but I’ve been an American-phile for a while now. This country has been great to me and for me.  I became an American citizen with pride. I love the U.S.A., warts and all.”

San Francisco-born Piero Giramonti, who spent time working for EMI Records in both London and Italy and is now co-GM for Harvest Records and Caroline Records Distribution, says the U.K. has always “punched above its weight” when it comes to the global music marketplace, and that technology may be leveling the playing field for execs making the trip across the Pond.

“Perhaps the problem was, coming to America in the past, you had to work for a while to develop relationships because this country is so vast,” he says. “In the digital era, the business has become much more seamlessly global. To a certain degree, those parochial, geographical barriers have been lifted.”

Back when the Zombies’ Rod Argent first heard Elvis Presley singing “Hound Dog” in the mid-’50s, the idea of Brits succeeding as musicians in America was a pipe dream. By the late 1960s, though, the Zombies could point to a string of hits in the U.S., particularly “She’s Not There.” “I always thought of American music — everything from Duke Ellington and Miles Davis to Ray Charles and Chuck Berry — as the real thing, while we were the imitators,” Argent says, noting that it wasn’t until the Beatles that British rock carved out its own niche. “By taking the music through that English filter, the Beatles proved to have an honest, intuitive, homespun take on American music.”

Taking that kind of success to another level, Zombies guitarist Paul Atkinson, who died in 2004, became a successful U.S. A&R executive, signings acts like Mr. Mister and Bruce Hornsby (after he’d signed Abba to a music publishing deal when he worked for Dick James Music in London). “He was incredibly thorough,” says Argent of Atkinson. “He’d listen to every single demo he received.”

That may be another key to U.K. record executives’ success in the U.S. Opines British talent manager and veteran publicist Versa Manos, “It’s the work ethic.”

That’s certainly true of Martin Mills, whose Beggars Group empire includes the labels XL (Adele, Radiohead, Sampha), 4AD (The National, Bon Iver), Matador (Queens of the Stone Age, Spoon) and Rough Trade.

Yet Mills has chosen to keep his base in Britain even as his stateside operation has grown. “It matters less what country a CEO is employed in, or what nationality they are, than that they have a grasp of multi-territory overview and detail, and that they pay attention to and at least spend time in key markets,” he says. “The U.K. has always lived on its exports — it’s too small a market to exist on its own — hence the need to be outward looking. The U.S., on the other hand, has been large enough to exist on its own, hence a lesser historical imperative for global knowledge and experience, which has now become essential.”

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