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History of the Music Industry

Nick Gatfield
Former Chairman and CEO, Sony Music, UK

Learning outcomes

  • How the music industry has developed pver the last 40 yeaars after multiple format and platform changes
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Executive Bio

Nick Gatfield

Former Chairman and CEO, Sony Music, UK

Nick is a British music industry executive with over 34 years of experience scouting, signing, and working with global artists such as Amy Winehouse. Nick started his career as a musician in the band ‘Dexys Midnight Runners’ before moving into recorded music. At the age of 26, he was made Director at EMI Records, the youngest in the company’s history. Over the next 20 years, he went on to lead global labels such as PolyGram and Island Records and has worked at three of the four major record labels. More recently, as the Former Chairman of Sony Music, he was leading negotiations with Spotify and both new and old artists in the repertoire. Nick currently runs Twin Music, an incubator for new talent, which funds and services new artists coming to market.Read more

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Interview Transcript

Nick, can you provide a short introduction to your background and experience in the music industry?

I am a 30 year plus veteran of the recorded music business. I started my professional career as a musician, as a member of a band called Dexys Midnight Runners. By various osmoses and relationships, I ended up taking an A&R job at EMI Records, back in the mid-80s, after I had had enough of touring. The plan around that was always that I was putting my own band together and I was writing songs. I was explaining to people that I had nearly got the set together.

So I started in the recorded music side and the business side, in the mid-80s, at EMI Records, as an A&R manager. For the benefit of those who don’t know what an A&R manager is or does, A&R stands for artists and repertoire. We’re the people who go out and identify talent to sign and then work with that talent to develop their artistry, their material and really represent the artists within the major recorded music companies. I started doing that and some in-house production, so I worked in the studio with quite a few of EMI-signed artists at that time. As things evolved, I was lucky enough to have a reasonably good degree of success and became head of A&R at EMI in 1987. I was 26, at the time; apparently the youngest director in EMI’s history, for what it’s worth. Probably the worst paid, as well.

I worked with a whole range of artists and, again, we were lucky enough to have a good degree of success, in terms of reinventing the roster. Funnily enough, EMI in the mid-80s was actually in the doldrums. It was still considered The Beatles company. It always has been, which is always great, as well as being associated with Pink Floyd and Queen. But in terms of its recent history, at that time, breaking new artists had been pretty poor and, believe it or not, I was still getting queries as to why EMI dropped the Sex Pistols. From the artist’s community, it was a no-no, although I was at school at the time.

We went through a course of really reinvesting in the roster, rebuilding the artist’s roster and that resulted in developing breaking acts, such as Blur, Radiohead, who I was deeply involved with. We did unusual deals at the time, with imprints, like Food Records. In fact, Blur came via the Food Records imprint, as did an act called Jesus Jones, who is somewhat forgotten now, maybe, but there was a wonderful moment in the early 90s, where Jesus Jones and another act that we’d signed, called EMF, traded number one places in the US chart. I got calls about coming to America and I decided to go to the States in the early 90s. I went for Polygram, from 1992 to the end of that decade. At that time, Polygram was the biggest recorded music company in the world and were very European centric.

I ran Polydor Records there and Polygram Music Publishing. The company was then acquired by Seagram, who also had a small music play, called MCA and has morphed into what, today, is the Universal Music Group, which is by far the biggest music company in the world. By some strange quirk of fate, when Polygram was acquired and they, effectively, shut down the US operation, I had that wonderful moment where I wasn’t allowed to work for a period of time, but I was then hired by Universal, to go back to the UK and I took over the running of Island Records. Again, that was a label with a fantastic history of, obviously, Bob Marley, U2, but had been in the doldrums for quite some time, with regards to newer artist signings.

Out of all the majors, Universal was very A&R centric. They were very aggressive about reinvesting and rebuilding the roster. Of course, you rebuild the roster to grow your catalogue, which is the bedrock of your business. We had a very good run with Island Records which, obviously, culminated in amazing acts like Amy Winehouse and Keane.

Towards the end of 2008, I was approached by Terra Firma, Guy Hands, who had recently acquired EMI Records. This was very big news at the time, because it was the first time that an investment business had acquired a music company and saw the value in those assets, beyond the catalogue. I was charged with running a division called New Music, which is really the current artist roster for North American and the UK, which were the two primary repertoire markets. It was a very interesting time, firstly, because it was a very controversial takeover of the company. Music companies have always, basically, eaten their own. Music companies acquired other music companies. There was very rarely a time where a company which had no relationship in music at all, had acquired, at the time, the third biggest major music company in the world. There were a lot of question marks about what they would do with it.

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