Before he joined the music industry, just over 30 years ago, Howard Corner was what he describes as “a record shop kid”.
Most people, of a certain age, perhaps of a certain disposition will know what he means.
A lack of transport and technology might have limited their options, but not their passions, and the local record shop (there might have been more than one, but there was usually only one that mattered) became your social life and your school; partly competitive, partly collegiate; sometimes cynical, more often encouraging. And always all about the music.
For Corner it was Red Rhino in York, which, luck would have it, was part of The Cartel – which meant it wasn’t just a record store, it was part of an independent distribution network.
He says: “I was in there most days with my mates, chatting music and listening to records, and one day I heard about a job in the warehouse.
“It was heaven. I was already totally immersed in music culture – bands, records, DJing, gigs – and here I was, surrounded by loads of other nutters, floor-to-ceiling with records, and all these indie label types coming in. It was like a utopian commune in a business setting – and clearly doomed to failure [laughs].”
Red Rhino did indeed slip into administration, but thankfully the company was bought by a fledgling Belgium firm called [PIAS], who called it ATP and then merged it with another independent shop/distributor in Bristol called Revolver, owned by Mike Chadwick.
“One day, the MD, Pete Thompson, came downstairs and said. ‘Okay, you’ve all heard the rumours, we’re going to Bristol, stick your hand up if you wanna move down there’. Talk about HR procedure [laughs]. I was like yeah, get me to Bristol.”
Way out west, Corner transferred to telesales. He recalls: “It wasn’t cold calling, it was music heads ringing people up and enthusing about the wicked new releases we had. By this time I was really into dance music, so I was dealing with that a lot.
“But I didn’t want to be in telesales, so I answered a job advert and became Head of Buying at Pinnacle Imports. At the time they were selling things like Japanese editions of Police albums, with an extra track or whatever. On my second day, I said, ‘Can we sell some dance records?’ My boss said, ‘Well, we don’t know anything about it and it sounds like we might lose a load of money…’ I convinced him to the point where he said I could make an order, and if it sold, we could talk.
“I found out what people wanted, found out where to get it, brought it in and sold the lot in a day. And then did it again. That was it, I was off, cutting deals direct, bringing records in from Detroit, New York, Paris, Frankfurt. By the end of the month dance music had doubled our profits, and we were pretty disruptive, too.”
He was soon on the move again though, having bumped into Chadwick and Thompson at Midem, their grab bag of independent distributors now united under the name Vital. “[PIAS] had some dance labels and had just done a deal with R&S. They needed someone to look after those, so I went back there as a label manager from 94 to 99, which was a brilliant time to be at the company.
“They were very involved in Britpop, they distributed Oasis, Elastica, Sleeper, and we built a department in London around the dance scene: Warp, Ninja, Mo’ Wax, Sabres, Tribal… London in the nineties was a golden era for dance music and we were right there, out every night, meeting all sorts of people and getting involved.”
Having majored in supply and demand at Pinnacle, Corner now had a crash course in spirit and identity. “I realised that in independent distribution, you get to work very closely with your label partners, and if you’re creative and want to get involved, you can spot the opportunities. You see where the gap is, and you lean in and fill it. You form really, really strong relationships with indie labels that way and can make a real difference.
“The culture there was brilliant. Pete was great, a fantastic figurehead. He was very supportive, he wanted you to find opportunities and encouraged you to bring them in. I really learned a lot: about independents, about how to add value and how to go about things a different way, how to find innovative ways to drive commercial success, because we couldn’t pull the levers the majors had.”
One of the indies Corner worked with was Mute, and after five years at Vital he joined Daniel Miller’s legendary label as Head of Marketing. His first project was a continuation from when he was still at Vital – and it was actually something of a challenge.
“They had this record that they had high hopes for, but it wasn’t doing very well. I felt very passionate about it and was banging the drum, keeping it alive our end, at retail. I was turning up at their meetings, all enthusiastic and contributing.”
“When I went over to Mute properly, we continued to work on this record, which I’d had loads of ideas around. Finally we got it going, and that was Play by Moby, which became an 18-month overnight success.
“When I got there, it had been doing 200 copies a week and got to about 20,000. We just kept on going and until we saw signs of life and then we turned the pressure on. It went Silver at the end of that year, Gold in February, Platinum in March, 3x Platinum in June, 1.5 million by the end of the year.”
“That sort of set our blueprint at Mute. I was there for eight years, and in that time we had somewhere between 20 and 25 Gold and Platinum albums, all career artists and without a single hit record on any of them, which is quite astonishing when you think about it.
“That’s definitely a theme for me. Indie labels aren’t necessarily in the hits businesses – but that doesn’t mean to say they can’t sell a lot of records. There’s a difference between what a hits business does, how they’re structured and their raison d’etre, and what independent labels do and how they do it. You can be just as successful and just as competitive going a different way.”
When Mute sold to EMI in 2002, there was a period where the label had to navigate the new landscape, but Corner could see benefits.
“When it comes to selling records, I’m aggressive and I’m ambitious; I’m a unit shifter. So when EMI came along, we had a partner who shared a similar philosophy. I was put into an environment with a different set of people and ambitions and I thrived on it.”
He left Mute as the storm clouds gathered prior to Terra Firma’s arrival. Next stop, Sony, as European Marking Director. His first job at the heart of a major.
Asked if this felt like a big and possibly wayward step for ‘a record shop kid’, Corner says: “Not really, no. A lot of people fear change, I don’t. I like change, I like the chaos and opportunity of change. One of the things when you’re on the indie side is this sort of inherent anti-major sentiment. But I’ve always been one of those annoying types who questions popular assumptions:
‘Oh, this is like this’
‘Is it, why is that then’?
‘It’s just what they say, isn’t it?’
‘Who’s they and why do they say that? Why don’t we have a look, and have a proper look and I’ll make up my own mind?’
“It turned out to be an experience, because I got to see how the pipes work in a global business. I got to understand how priority systems work and I got to understand the hits business a bit better, because I was working on transatlantic superstars with global mega hits; Britney, Justin, Avril, Alicia… It was about turning the taps on everywhere at the same time. To be able to see how to light a company up like that was good.”
In 2008, as the industry went into decline for the first time in decades, Corner, naturally, decided it was the perfect time to set up his own company, 12th Degree. “I was ostensibly doing label services. I had a lot of indie experience, a lot of commercial experience and a lot of contacts. I was working with labels and artists, and D2C businesses like Sandbag, who had just done In Rainbows with Radiohead.
“We were also doing digital marketing services for artists, management companies, independent people generally outside the ecosystem. For instance, I was approached by Modular with a band they really believed in. They needed someone to put a team and a campaign together in the UK, cut a distribution deal and give it a shot. That was Tame Impala.”
A few years later, a friend told Corner that Warner was looking for someone to run ADA in the UK. “I knew it was under-developed and I thought, that sounds like a great opportunity because I know about distribution, I know about indie labels, I know about marketing, I know how to sign things and I know how to sell them. And I knew whatever I did would only take it upwards…”
When you first arrived at ADA, what needed fixing?
ADA at that point was a very flat, passive, distribution service based on the old Pinnacle business. One of the issues that I had to fix immediately was that a lot of the labels wanted to leave and our competitors were all over them. I thought, this could go wrong before I’ve even started.
The company needed to be more dynamic and engaged. That involved everyone at ADA understanding what we had to be about as a company, what our partners needed from us and how to add value, because I’d been on both sides of the fence and I’d seen how it could work if you did it properly
So I had to get on the phone with people and say, ‘You don’t know me, but this is who I am, this is what I’ve done and this is what we’re gonna do; please trust me’. And we managed to quickly shore those relationships up.
The other thing that was happening was the acceleration of some artists no longer wanting to sign a record deal. In the year or two before, Noel had done well, Beady Eye had done well, a few other things, so that emerging sector of ‘new’ indie acts was increasingly of interest.
So, as well as fixing the basic premise and core offering of the business, and retaining the existing partners, there was some opportunity. We had albums signed that needed plans putting together – Johnny Marr, Suede – and the US company had signed a new unknown act over there whose video had started moving. We looked at it and thought, there’s something in this, let’s jump in. That was Macklemore.
In my first three months, we had a No. 1 album with Caro Emerald, a No. 1 single with Macklemore and three other top 10 albums from acts that we’d signed. Now we have some energy and some success stories.
Then Warner acquired Parlophone Label Group and we brought the EMI label services business over. So by the end of the year, we’ve added Noel Gallagher and the Ignition business and some other great indie labels.
Plus, as I say, we’ve had a handful of Top 10s, the hottest new international act in the world, stuff working overseas and we’ve doubled the size of the business. Now we’re at the races.
It sounds like one of the things you changed was the energy of the company.
Yeah, you could say that [laughs]. I think I brought some vision, some purpose and, yes, some energy which didn’t previously exist there.
Everyone started to see that what they did could make a real difference, they started believing in what we were trying to do. It’s about everyone being very connected to what’s going on in the business, seeing an opportunity and then saying come on, let’s go
And we’ve continued to build on that, with exactly the same principles, but also constantly evolving. In 2013, that was the first year people were going: physical, great; iTunes, smashing it; and there’s this line on the bottom of the statement called streaming….
Macklemore was an early streaming success and at that time we were working with Because, who had Major Lazer. So we had some of the biggest selling records of 2014/15, and all of a sudden we’ve got streaming game. And from that you learn: okay, that worked, let’s apply it to this. You identify opportunities, you exploit, you evolve skills, you find gaps, you build, you scale…
And then rap really started popping around 2016. There had been a wave of rappers doing major deals a few years previously, but as the labels moved on to other sounds, the next wave of rappers were left to work out how to do it themselves.
“When rap started to take off again, many acts felt they no longer needed a label, because they had learnt how to do it themselves, but they did want someone who could help with the digital platforms.
So the emergence of rap, direct marketing through socials, the growth of DSPs with strong suites of playlist brands, all of a sudden it’s a perfect match: rap, streaming and label services.
The expansion into that space was very powerful for us: Stormzy (pictured), AJ Tracey, Bugzy Malone, Cadet, The Plug….and we’re still right in it: Central Cee, of course, Abra, we’ve just signed JBee, Songer…
And we’re still evolving. Dance has followed rap into this space. The type of acts who were previously signing label deals no longer want to work in that way, they’ve become more interested in ownership than signing it over on the front end. So we’re very involved in that space too. We recently signed Camelphat, Sonny Fodera, Hybrid Minds and Franky Wah.
How has the sector itself evolved during that time?
Well, you know, honestly, it’s been around a long time. When I was at [PIAS] at the end of the nineties we were talking about how some labels needed quite a bit of help, and was it possible for us to provide more services. [PIAS] then started a division in the early noughties that was doing label service deals with artists.
Plenty of other labels will tell you they’ve always had acts on those deal structures: providing services, shorter deals, profit splits – a partnership model.
That’s existed for a long time, and I think what also happened around 10-15 years ago is you had some artists who, for one reason or another, were not signing a traditional record deal. 2008/9/10, all of a sudden there’s a reluctance in labels towards signing and investing in acts. They’re picking their shots a lot more carefully, so artists had to think of new and different ways of doing things, which changed the landscape for a lot of people.
And, of course, with technology, there are no barriers to putting a record out anymore. There have been many people enter the market who can provide options for people at every career level and who can pick and choose whatever level of service they want.
How much more competitive is it now?
Well, I would say the independent distribution business has always been rapaciously competitive. And as a result you have to have a high tolerance for partners coming and going in this sector, because it’s all short-term deals; everyone can potentially get up and leave at the end of a term for a variety of reasons. If you are not comfortable with that, you are going to get seasick very quickly. It’s just how it is.
“I would say the independent distribution business has always been rapaciously competitive.”
The added difference now is that the three majors are a lot more prominent in these sectors, so there’s a bit more of an A&R orientation. There is a lot of business built around fast-moving tracks, so now you’re into an A&R world, and it is competitive in that respect.
But it’s also competitive because artists have got a choice of whether they want to sign a record deal, or go to a distribution services company, or use DIY technology. So you’re not necessarily just competing with distributors anymore, you’re sometimes competing against frontline labels or tech companies too.
How does your A&R process work?
[Laughs] I’m not going to tell you how the sausages get made, but ultimately it comes down to whether we think it’s a good fit for our business and our offering. We know what we do, how we do it and what it involves, and we’re focused on providing that level of service to our partners and not diluting it by being too thinly spread – so we are quite selective.
Just as importantly, we’ve got to like the music, we’ve got to like the people, and there has to be the right level of commercial opportunity for us. Ultimately, this is what’s at the heart of the business, the core essence of what we do: we identify and exploit commercial opportunities.
When something does fit, and it’s a competitive environment, what’s the essence of your pitch?
Well, it’s not really a pitch deck approach. We obviously have some examples of what we do and how we do it, but there’s an energy about us in those situations, and when we want to work with somebody, when we come into the conversation, I think people feel that straight away. It’s an energy and passion and a belief in what we do and I think that’s a big part of why people choose to work with us.
And how has the perception of ADA within Warner changed? Is it fair to say it was something of an outpost when you joined?
It was beyond an outpost and off the edge of the map [laughs]. But artists were increasingly having success outside the traditional label structure, so there was a greater awareness everywhere that getting the distribution and services right was important.
And, as I mentioned, fortunately, in the first year of being here, we had a No.1 single and album, top 10s, the hottest ‘unsigned’ act in the world on the roster, and we’d massively grown the company – so that helped.
Warner have been amazing. There’s been a great appetite to learn, engage, encourage. Max [Lousada] and Tony [Harlow] both have backgrounds with independents and are great supporters of the business. They not only see it as very important, but they’re both active in it, they both participate. And not just here, but globally, it’s grown everywhere. It has a much more prominent profile now than it used to, for sure.
Which projects have you been proudest of during your time here at ADA?
We’ve obviously had some great commercial successes, something like 30 Platinum singles, 30 Gold and Platinum albums, I don’t know how many No. 1 singles and albums, and I’m proud of them because they are all team efforts and we have a great team.
But what I would say I’m proudest of at ADA is the culture. There’s a way in which we do things that, when people join us, they sign up to.
“What I would say I’m proudest of at ADA is the culture. There’s a way in which we do things that, when people join us, they sign up to.”
As a result, we’ve got an incredibly strong team culture, very collegial, very collaborative, very creative, very supportive. And it’s flat in terms of everyone having a share of voice. We pick our people carefully and they’re all encouraged to contribute to the business.
Testimony to that is that over the last 10 years, I’ve seen a lot of people come and go – and some of those people have been big contributors to the culture – but when they go, the culture remains. Having established that in a business, something that people find rewarding, enjoyable and motivating – and the fact that it endures – I’m proud of that.
What’s the single most important lesson you’ve learned during your time in the business?
One of the most important things, and this is one of the things I preach here about our acts and labels, is: give a fuck. What are they saying? What do they want? What do they need? What are their requirements? How can we help them? You know, care, really care. Lean in, be passionate, bring value – before they even ask.
Because if you care, and are engaged, if you’re working to support them and meet their needs, it doesn’t matter if something goes wrong, because they know you care and are trying. The problem is if you’re disengaged or uninterested, and something goes wrong… then we have a problem
Would you say that the label services division of a major is the sweet spot for you in terms of your background, your skillset and your passions, the perfect place for an indie kid who loves to sell a lot of records?
I would certainly say this has been a great place for me to express myself. I’m not an A&R person, but in another way I am, because it’s always been about these [ears] with me.
If I hear something I like, and I think it’s an opportunity, I go after it. Great music, indie ethos, commercial sensibility – yeah, it’s been a pretty good sweet spot [laughs].
Has there been a career highlight?
Not yet, it’s still to come…
This article originally appeared in the latest (Q3/Q4 2022) issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK, which is out now.
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