What a year! The U.K., like the rest of the world, has spent the past nine months navigating a global pandemic, with life as we know it turned upside down. Given the absence of in-person live music, attention has been drawn to new-release campaigns and innovative ways to reach fans.

Ticketed live streaming has taken off, with performances by Laura MarlingLianne La HavasEllie GouldingLiam Payne and Dermot Kennedy, while Sam Fender performed two socially distanced, 2,500-capacity gigs in August. 

News on the business side hasn’t slowed down either. David Joseph’s UMG U.K. has been busy with the relaunch of EMI Records under Rebecca Allen, whose label is responsible for creating the new U.K. home of Motown RecordsHipgnosis Songs, meanwhile, has been tearing up the London Stock Exchange with its seemingly never-ending buyouts of globally renowned music catalogs. Hipgnosis is where longtime UMG exec Ted Cockle landed as President after seven years leading Virgin EMI

At Sony U.K.Jason Iley, who was honored with an MBE from the Queen in October for services to charity and music, has bolstered his team with the addition of Dream Life Records, appointed his first Director of Africa, Taponeswa Mavunga, and ventured into the podcast game with Somethin’ Else. Tony Harlow, the new Chairman/CEO at Warner Music U.K., has been getting his feet under the table, having only started in February. He’s made some major hires, including former Apple Music exec Austin Daboh as EVP at Atlantic and Trenton Harrison-Lewis as SVP of Artist and Label Development at ADA and WMUK.

Despite the challenges this year has unleashed, there’s a sense of adaptability and optimism from the top brass at Universal, Sony and Warner, as you’ll see in the interviews that follow.

UMG U.K. CEO David Joseph says the response to the coronavirus crisis from his teams and labels has been “phenomenal,” remarking, “I’m fiercely proud of how they’ve responded and, despite being physically apart, I don’t think we’ve ever been closer as a team. The sense of camaraderie has been inspiring, and I’ve been overwhelmed by the creativity and innovation flowing throughout the business.” 

At UMG that’s included a three-day livestreamed music festival from Virgin EMI, Lockdown Live, which was held in April in support of Global Citizen and the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund. Thirty-two acts performed from their homes, including The VampsAlessia CaraSG Lewis and Twin Atlantic. Then, in August, Decca released a charity single from choirmaster Gareth Malone, “You Are My Sunshine,” which was recorded online with 11,000 participants of his Great British Home Chorus. Also pulled together: a new-artist showcase. All three of these projects were on track within the first weeks of lockdown.

In addition, the company has enjoyed #1 albums this year from more than 18 artists, in-cluding homegrown talents Lewis Capaldi, The Vamps, Paul Heaton and Jacqui AbbottNiall HoranThe 1975 and Ellie Goulding. “There’s been no letup in our A&R activity, including signings,” Joseph continues, “and the labels have been brilliant in supporting our artists so they can keep creating, from setting up a recording studio and production rig in an artist’s home to facilitating remote video shoots via Zoom. On top of that, we’ve sent artists on virtual promo visits to Southeast Asia, launched some of the first ticketed live streams from U.K. venues and had particular success with our direct-to-fan physical business.”

Joseph points to boosted creativity, a more diverse workflow and new audiences absorbing culture online as positives derived from a difficult year.

“We know people have relied on music during this crisis. I recently saw some re-search published here in the U.K. backing that up—some 90% of people saying music has helped them through,” he relates. “History also tells us that extraordinary creativity results from extraordinary times, something that couldn’t be more true for our artists and their teams. I’m confident this momentum will continue. We have learned so much, obviously experiencing new ways of working. And I’m determined that we don’t just revert to how things were.” I also like this idea of ‘the great acceleration’ we’re seeing, such as older audiences consuming culture online for the first time.”

Moving forward, Joseph hints at exciting launches and more work to promote inclusion, diversity and social justice. “Despite the lockdown, we’ve made some big moves to evolve, not least the relaunch of EMI,” he says. “Also top of the agenda is the important work of the U.K. Task Force for Meaningful Change. The team has been hard at work, and nothing is off the table. We’re putting into place a comprehensive plan to fix the gender imbalance in A&R as well, bringing through the next generation of female A&Rs.”

Over at Sony U.K., Jason Iley’s teams have scored #1 albums with J Hus and Headie One and Top 5s with Little Mix, Nothing But Thieves, Declan McKennaOzzy Osbourne and Louis Tomlinson. Imprints RelentlessBlack Butter and Ministry of Sound have enjoyed Top 20 singles from U.K. acts Headie One, Young T & Bugsey and Regard, respectively. Moreover, Australian artist Sam Fischer is making waves at RCA, having peaked at #16 on the U.K. singles chart with “This City.” 

Iley says his people are focused on “nurturing a great team spirit—pulling together, listening to concerns, supporting each other and learning how to understand and respect each other’s space.” He elaborates, “We’ve tried to avoid over-reliance on video calls because we all need time to think to be creative, and back-to-back video calls do not help that! But we are creative people—we do need each other. We need the conversation, we need feedback, we need to look into each other’s eyes in ‘real life,’ and we need to spend time with our artists. There has been a rollercoaster of emotions; some days have been good, some bad, but we’ve held each other’s hands through it as much as possible.”

The shake-up has meant determining how to work together more effectively and a freer structure. “We’ve learned a lot from how we’ve adapted over the past six months,” Iley affirms. “I think we’re more considerate of each other; we’re more understanding of time—how and when to connect with people and when not to. There’s an awareness that we can’t always be ‘on,’ that we must take time for ourselves, which ultimately makes us even more efficient.

 “We implemented a flexible-hours policy before the virus struck, and we weren’t sure how it would work. Lockdown took it to another level! We now know for sure that it can work. We can think differently, work differently and have more freedom.”

Asked what the rest of the year holds, Iley says: “We’ll be focused on new domestic albums from Loski and Fredo and further developing artists like Joy Crookes, Headie One and Regard [whom you’ll hear more about in these pages]. “We’ve had a lot of success over the past few months, which has been great for morale. We have some long-awaited albums coming that we’re really excited to work and a new generation of artists making waves globally. We’ve also enacted some new label partnerships, which will deliver new acts we’ll help break in increasingly innovative ways. Developing artists and executives is always a top priority, as is ensuring Sony Music U.K. is as diverse and inclusive as we can be.”

Warner Music U.K. CEO Tony Harlow took up his new post just six weeks before lockdown hit Blighty. Nonetheless, he tells us the solidarity of his troops has seen them through. “We know people who work in entertainment aren’t medics or supermarket workers. Those are the heroes, saving lives and keeping us going. But music lifts people’s spirits in the darkest times. It makes us feel connected and comforted,” he says. “So of course we’ve been doing everything we can to help our artists get their music out to the public. This is where the team has really excelled—they’ve embraced the challenge of finding new ways to do things.”

That support has seen Charli XCX turn around her quarantine album, how i’m feeling now, in a mere five weeks, and Dua Lipa promote Future Nostalgia, which spent four weeks at #1 in April and May, at the height of lockdown. Furthermore, the label claimed 2020’s song of the summer with “Head & Heart,” by new act Joel Corry f/MNEK, which stayed at the top of the singles chart for six weeks. Further #1 albums have come from Nines, Biffy Clyro and Liam Gallagher and Top 5s from Gorillaz, Creeper and Cliff Richard.

“It’s been an intense time, but our teams in all areas, from IT to marketing, have been brilliant,” Harlow says. “And we shouldn’t forget that we’ve been working on all sorts of projects—whether that’s been improving our company culture or breaking artists like Joel Corry or persuading new artists that they should join us without even having met us! I’m so proud to be part of an organization that has rolled on without missing a step.”

As has been the case at UMG and Sony, Harlow says, “We’ve learned to simplify and be smarter about how to share ideas without meeting and be more creative, and that’s something that will stay with us. It’s also shown beyond a doubt that flexible working is easy and effective. While we’ll be pleased to reopen our offices and be together when it’s safe, our people will have different options for working in the future.”

The pandemic has certainly driven a renewed focus on digital. “I think the last few months have really completed a shift we’d made already,” Harlow allows. “I’m not just talking about formats—our physical partners remain critical to us, and we wish them well in a hard environment—but in terms of how we understand our audiences. This has enabled us to work with our artists on new ways of connecting with fans.”

That emphasis resulted in Warner’s three-day virtual music festival, PlayOn Fest, which featured rare footage from British acts like Coldplay and Ed Sheeran, Lianne La Havas’ gig streamed live from the Roundhouse in London and the book club newcomer Maisie Peters started for fans on Instagram.

As to what the future holds, Harlow points to new projects from established acts, the launch of much buzzed-about developing artists and a renewed commitment to inclusion and diversity.

“We’re home to some of the U.K.’s biggest and brightest talent—Coldplay, Dua Lipa, Ed Sheeran, Stormzy—and what’s so exciting about our artists is how original they are and that they have a clear idea of who they are and what they want to say. It’s our job to help them tell their stories and spread them around the world. Over the next year, we’re looking forward to introducing the next generation of original talent, artists like AshnikkoGriffSnutsJC Stewart, Joel Corry, Maisie Peters, Nathan DaweTion Wayne and S1mba and working with them to help fulfil their artistic potential.

 “We’re also more dedicated than ever to moving our inclusion and diversity strategy forward. The last few months have been sobering, but they’re also an exciting doorway to a better tomorrow. We’ve known we needed to bring more women and people of color into the top levels of our business and ensure more perspectives are heard in our decision-making. Now we have a global mandate and the support to get it done. Nina Bhagwat, our U.K. Head of Inclusion & Diversity, joined last year and will be collaborating with Maurice Stinnett, the new Global Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Warner Music Group. As Maurice says, diversity plus equity plus inclusion equals belonging. I’m looking forward to that becoming a company mantra.”

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