Rob Stringer: One of the most powerful figures in the music business

Rob Stringer spent his teenage years following punk bands. He knows how quickly the industry moves - and how easy it is to be left behind. Ian Burrell meets the boss of Sony-BMG, one of the most powerful figures in the music business

Monday 06 March 2006 01:00 GMT

When Rob Stringer was a teenage punk fan growing up in the Buckinghamshire market town of Aylesbury, one of his favoured items of clothing was a US army jacket from the Vietnam war that happened to carry the same surname as his own.

The full significance of this jacket will become apparent later, but in the late 1970s it was suitably edgy attire for a young man already convinced that he wanted to commit his life to working in the music business.

A generation on, Stringer, who still enthuses about first seeing The Clash at one of their earliest shows in 1976 when he was just 14, has risen to become the chief executive of Sony-BMG UK. He is now one of the most powerful figures in the British music industry, with a roster of acts that includes home-grown stars such as Will Young, Jamiroquai, Dido, Manic Street Preachers, Eurythmics, Lemar, Natasha Bedingfield, Shayne Ward and The Coral, and international acts including Michael Jackson, Neil Diamond, Justin Timberlake, Outkast and Jamie Foxx.

"It's all I've ever wanted to do since I was seven," says Stringer. "I can look bands in the eye, still to this day, and not have my purity questioned on that level."

That may be so but Stringer, unlike some music industry executives past and present, is not one to settle back on his remaining laurels, with his headphones over his ears and the volume turned to loud, while the rest of the media industry undergoes a technology-driven revolution. He is putting in place a wholesale restructuring of the company, aiming to reposition it as a genuine multimedia giant - a major player in the television industry, a provider of radio and other music content to mobile phone users, a key source of digital downloads and a force in the worlds of advertising and marketing. The idea is to use Sony-BMG's roster of talent to engage in branding partnerships with all areas of business.

In a world where going to the record shop is seen as a futile activity by an increasing number of young people, Stringer, at 43, is youthful enough to know that music companies must move quickly to alter their business models. "We have to think that the principles of the record company in the old-fashioned sense are becoming dated now. Until five or six years ago the music industry was self-sufficient and there wasn't much interest in connecting the dots of the other areas of the media," he admits, referring to the golden years when the CD was king.

With piracy and illegal downloading still rife and CD sales decreasingly valuable, "we have to use any platform we can to get our music across to people. Circumstances have changed."

The most striking symbol of Stringer's approach is a new heavyweight television production arm, details of which will be unveiled shortly.

To show just how serious it is, Sony-BMG has lined up a team of high-level TV executives with a combined track record in making such hit light entertainment and factual shows as Strictly Come Dancing, Great Britons, and Dragon's Den.

Stringer says the important venture will be closely tied to Sony-BMG's core business of music. "I don't think audio-visual platforms like television are going to become less important to music. In fact I think they're going to be more important."

Sony-BMG UK's advance into the world of television has been spearheaded by impresario Simon Cowell, whose own production company Syco TV (the makers of ITV's The X Factor and Pop Idol) has been under the BMG umbrella for 15 years.

"Simon Cowell is a proper A&R person," says Stringer, who has already sold a lot of records off the back of these reality hit shows. "That's first and foremost what he is. We are getting good artists out of it. Kelly Clarkson (winner of American Idol) has sold five million records in the past year. People like Will Young are proper artists."

The success of American Idol with the Fox Broadcasting Company has led to a string of new Syco contracts in the US, where it will make a show called Inventor for ABC and a new format for NBC.

"The Syco experience made us realise that we didn't need to dip our toe in the water and that this was possible on a much wider scale," says Stringer of his TV ambitions. "We've got the links into areas of the business we never had before. Before we just had pluggers who'd say, 'Will you back this artist?' That's great, and we need to persuade the booker on Top of the Pops and the producer on Later with Jools Holland, but that shouldn't be the only way. We should have more control than that."

Syco recently worked with talkbackTHAMES to make an ITV documentary on Sony-BMG group Take That, which triggered a million fresh record sales, 500,000 concert ticket sales and - they hope - a new album. "The knock-on effect of a multimedia platform has been immense," says Stringer.

Sony-BMG UK, which has former Channel 4 chief executive Michael Jackson on a consultancy contract, has talked about starting its own channel but finds the idea "limiting". Instead it is building relationships with established broadcasters. Aside from Syco's partnership with ITV, Sony-BMG has established the Sony Ericsson Christmas Calling music season on Channel 4, which has important branding spin-offs for the company's mobile phone arm and will this year be extended to a Summer Calling season.

It is talking to the BBC about a series of documentaries about American music stars from the Sony-BMG roster, following the corporation's work last year with Martin Scorsese on Bob Dylan (another Sony-BMG artist). The company is also working on projects with such leading independent production companies as Endemol, Tiger Aspect and Lion Television.

Opening up another front - and fresh revenue streams - Stringer and his head of futures division, Clive Rich, have brought in a branding expert, Duncan Bird, the former group business director of advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty. Relationships between artists and brands will be sought to raise the profile and incomes of both.

"We thought we could cut out the middle man," says Stringer, referring to ad agencies. "Brands undoubtedly like getting close to music - it's something people find exciting, vibrant and sexy."

In an early example, Chico, the failed X Factor contestant who nevertheless landed a Sony-BMG deal, provides fitness video clips at 50p a time to customers of the mobile company 3. Talks are under way with Procter & Gamble to form pan-European relationships with artists from the Sony-BMG roster.

The march into TV and advertising will not be at the expense of the "lifeline" of unearthing new musical talent through A&R, Stringer promises. "If we went to an advertising brand and didn't have the type of artists they wanted that would be pretty bad.

The whole premise of our expansion relies on us having a breadth of roster."

Rob Stringer has a hotline straight through to the CEO of the Sony Corporation, whom he calls at least once a week. The head of the Sony Corporation is none other than the previous owner of the US army jacket that he used to wear in the days when he was a young punk. The head of the Sony Corporation is his big brother Howard (below), who left Britain in the 1960s to seek his fortune in America.

That the Stringer boys have risen to become two of the most powerful figures in one of the biggest media organisations on the planet is both remarkable and an extraordinary coincidence.

Howard was the product of the private Oundle School, followed by Merton College, Oxford. With ambitions in journalism, he crossed the Atlantic on the SS United States and landed a lowly job on The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS, rising through the news division to become president of that network.

"It's almost two different chapters in a generational family thing," says Rob Stringer, who is two decades younger than his brother. "He went to public school, Oxford, America, Vietnam, television journalism. I went to state school, an art college and ended up working in a record company."

The most important decision of Howard's life came shortly after he arrived in New York, when he faced the choice of being drafted to fight in Vietnam or go home to the UK. He elected to sign up and served two years in the US army military police, narrowly surviving an attack by Viet Cong gunners on the transport plane that was bringing him home.

In June last year he became the first non-Japanese to run Sony worldwide. Although his army jacket found its way to the Stringer family home in England, Howard chose to live on in America and is a US citizen.

Rob speaks of his brother's odyssey with evident pride. "America was the brave new world at the beginning of the 1960s and he took a huge gamble by going there. My brother was born during the Second World War and I think there was a tradition of war journalism being the most important avenue into serious broadcasting. People like Ed Murrow and Dan Rather had all been fantastic war correspondents. I just watched Mick Jones playing guitar in The Clash."

From the age of 16, Rob Stringer had worked in his holidays at the renowned Aylesbury Friars rock venue, run by local entrepreneur Dave Stopps. "Aylesbury was a market town of 30,000 people but we had a rock club that everyone played, from David Bowie to Iggy Pop to Genesis," says Stringer. "Dave Stopps inspired a whole generation from the town."

His other inspiration was his chemistry teacher at Aylesbury Grammar School, Robin Pike, an unlikely correspondent for the cutting-edge underground fanzine Zigzag.

Stringer went off to study sociology at Goldsmith's College in south London, and immersed himself in the beer-and-lino world of the students' union. He landed the job of social secretary, which gave him the chance to book the first London shows by Simply Red and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. "That was a legitimate learning curve for joining the industry, but when the students' unions were hit at the end of the 1980s by the Conservatives' reduction in fees, that live circuit stopped."

He saw an advert in the National Union of Students newspaper saying "Wanted: graduates with university entertainment experience". Like his brother, he was taken on by CBS.

Though Howard had taken no direct role in his appointment, he had, as a New York resident and American citizen, given his younger sibling a competitive edge by inviting him to New York on holidays.

"The opportunity of being a kid and going to America and buying singles there was fantastic," says Rob, who, as a student, also used his fraternal connection to help out with CBS television coverage at the Republican and Democrat conventions in the 1980 and 1984 elections. "I was in America all the time at the beginning of the 1980s, every holiday from college. I absorbed that," he says.

Today, in spite of their positions in the Sony empire, their weekly phone conversations revolve around sport and family matters rather than work, says the younger brother.

Starting out on a major label quickly taught Rob Stringer to be eclectic in his tastes. Early in his career he had responsibility for pop acts such as Bros and The Bangles, but he also got to work with his idol from The Clash, Joe Strummer, putting together the compilation album The Story of the Clash. In a 1987 interview in the music paper Sounds, Strummer credited Stringer for including the song "I Fought the Law" on the album, a fact which still has Stringer gushing like a teenager, even though his name was mis-spelt.

It was his first encounter with the Manic Street Preachers, at Mole's club in Bath in 1991, that was to be the defining moment of Stringer's working life. "The relationship with them has been the core of my career. They changed record labels with me. As much as anything they've been the reason why I do this job." Stringer is close friends with the band and had dinner with them the night before this interview. "I speak to all of them at least once a week and have done for 15 years," he says. "We've had lots of ups and downs."

Dressed in a simple black V-neck jumper, Stringer doesn't look much like a music mogul. He talks of "wanting to be Peter Pan-esque", and when he rubs his hair it sticks up like that from a singer in a boy band.

Stringer admits a little regret at working on 10th anniversary retrospectives of Manics albums that he originally helped to release, but is quickly enthusing about younger rock bands on his roster, such as The Zutons, Kasabian, Hope of the States and Mew.

"I come from an alternative background, of standing at the back of a pub and watching a four-piece guitar band, but I don't think that's any more or less legitimate than a kid singing on television. If people are talented they'll last the course. There are plenty of bands I've been to see over the years that have had a huge fuss about them and they've been crap."

Stringer has always fought hard against the danger that his artists might see him as exploitative or "some sort of corporate twat", as he puts it.

He is especially taken with a comment by the former Blur guitarist Graham Coxon in NME, in which he said that "the biggest cliché in rock'n'roll is that there should be a struggle between the band and the record company". Stringer says: "We don't fall out with artists who have vision. Obviously pop music is transient but the best bands manage to transcend eras." He still goes to "as many gigs as when I was 21" but the routine now is a lot more sober and conscientious than in the record industry of old.

Everyone is having to work that much harder these days, he says, when emerging bands are producing "less that is brand new" and when 10 million-selling records are rare.

"There are very few records that are going to be like Michael Jackson's Thriller or Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA or Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits," says Stringer, who has been a Beach Boys fan since he was seven. He has a Brian Wilson-autographed album on his office window ledge, alongside a photograph of the Wembley goal that settled the 1988 League Cup final in favour of Luton Town (on whose board he sat for four years, before deciding he would rather return to being an ordinary fan). He might wear a V-neck these days but Stringer much admires the autobiography of the hell-raising former Sony/CBS music boss Walter Yetnikoff, a self-confessed power-crazed alcoholic and cocaine addict who masterminded the careers of stars such as Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel and presided over an era when the industry was awash with money and immersed in a culture of hedonism.

Stringer, who acknowledges that the book "pretty much sums up what it was like", and later bikes a copy round, says: "You could accuse record companies 10 years ago of being incredibly one-dimensional. We were making so much money that nobody stopped to think 'This is going to end one day'."

He recognises the danger, in the modern multimedia world, of music being marginalised to the point where it becomes merely "an accompaniment rather than the core of what we do" but, after 20 years in the job, remains undeniably upbeat. "I think it's the most exciting time for British music since the dawn of Britpop," he says. Promoter friends tell him that the live music business is in the best shape for 20 years. Stringer is thinking of ways of earning a greater slice of that pie.

Mobile phones, he predicts, "will be as important carriers of music as any format in history". Digital income is about 8 per cent of Sony-BMG's total UK revenue and growing monthly, though displacing physical sales.

Sony-BMG UK, says Stringer, will thrive because it is about to turn into "a more well-rounded entertainment company" that fully capitalises on the talents in its stable.

But, just in case the Manics might start to see him as "some sort of corporate twat", he wants to make one thing clear. "Music is still an art form," he says. "There's no way, coming from a background that is purely about the love of artists and records, that I would want it to be anything else.

"We are not looking to sell music as a commodity. In Great Britain, more so than almost any market in the world, music is central to what people do and we don't want to change that."

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