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'We have to keep pushing!': Inside Ezra Collective's plan to follow up their Mercury Prize win

We’re almost a year on from Ezra Collective’s Mercury Prize win and, with their follow-up imminent, the hype around their name is intensifying once again. Channelling both The Beatles and Fela Kuti, they recorded Dance, No One’s Watching at Abbey ...

Robots + Humans president Robert Ronaldson - The Music Week Interview

Pioneering talent discovery methods in the music industry was never part of Robert Ronaldson’s career plan, but his work with Robots + Humans has helped break a wave of acts including Koffee, Young T & Bugsey, Powfu and more. Here, the tech entrepreneur turned frontline president opens up about his major label life at Sony, analyses music’s changing relationship with data and sounds a reassuring note about the UK’s emerging talent challenge… WORDS: JAMES HANLEY      PHOTOS: JOE MAGOWAN It would be clichéd to suggest that Robert Ronaldson isn’t your typical label executive, but that doesn’t make it any less true.  “I love chess,” the entrepreneur and self-taught coder reveals to Music Week. “I used to stream on Twitch to no-one during lockdown.” Though he plays down his chess skills as merely “decent”, Ronaldson is proving a grandmaster at music. As founder and president of Sony Music-backed Robots + Humans, the unassuming 33-year-old has quietly spearheaded a data-led A&R revolution.  Focusing on “identifying and cultivating new artists using cutting-edge A&R insights”, Robots + Humans has chalked up four billion streams to date across recordings, management and publishing. The imprint has charted with five of the nine songs it has released this year, including hits by Pozer (Kitchen Stove/Malicious Intentions), Flex UK (6 In the Morning) and Shy Smith (Soaked).  “We believe we can really add value on certain projects,” says Ronaldson, sharing his sales pitch to would-be signings. “Robots + Humans, as a major label, is all about doing our best to complement the artists and add value. Obviously, we have a technology engine, but our A&R guys are fantastic at actually making records and I think we complement the artists we work across quite nicely.” Ronaldson’s relationship with Sony predates the current arrangement. Prior to striking the 2020 deal, he ran software company The White List, which helped discover and sign artists to the major including Koffee, Regard, Young T & Bugsey and Sam Fischer. Robots + Humans started as a small label, partnering with other Sony frontline labels on releases, using a data-driven approach “to develop ways to market our artists online in new and creative ways”. Its first signing was Powfu, whose 2020 single Death Bed (Coffee For Your Head) has been streamed three billion times.  “We found lots of cool artists,” recalls Ronaldson. “The music industry is super-competitive and you get sucked in. It’s a really fun industry to be in, so when Sony acquired The White List, we had a small imprint and we saw that rather than focusing on purely discovery, there weren’t that many applications on the marketing side. That still felt quite old-school, so we spent that time developing tools to help artists on the marketing front.” All of which led to a realisation for Ronaldson. “You then have the ambition to get more into music,” he says. “I’d never dreamt of starting a label, but I wouldn’t want to do anything else right now.”  Ronaldson’s entrepreneurial streak has long been in evidence. A few months after graduating from university, he started and sold his first business – an automated tool he built with his brother to cut out waiting times for customer service enquiries.  “We built a computer programme to identify potential start-ups [through data] – the idea being that we could find the next Uber,” he explains. “We could go and work there as employees No.2 and No.3 and be right in amongst it. We tracked all the late angel investors to see what they were navigating towards.” However, an encounter with Black Butter Records veteran Roger Ames persuaded Ronaldson to change course.  “He convinced me that I should find artists instead,” says Ronaldson. “We actually started doing it for Roger at Black Butter. We were building out The White List to help him find artists, so that was the transition. I think Young T & Bugsey came from the very first part of the software.” Remodelling the tech towards music was not as dramatic a shift as it might appear, he explains, and the innovation ultimately led to a meeting with Sony Music UK chairman & CEO Jason Iley. “Start-ups and artists are pretty similar,” notes Ronaldson. “They both have a core product, they’re trying to gain users and fans, and then at some point they take on funding to make it more tangible. Analytically, that is similar. Roger showed the earliest iteration of the software to Jason. He saw its value in the music marketplace and gave us a small seed round to branch it out – the rest is history, I guess.” Robots + Humans encompasses a publishing arm in partnership with Sony Music Publishing, while Ronaldson has also dabbled in management, assisting the rise of BRIT-nominated singer-songwriter Mimi Webb, who is signed to Epic Records/RCA, from the start of her career. The pair have since parted ways, leaving Ronaldson to concentrate fully on his principal endeavours. “We’re not doing management any more,” reports Ronaldson. “The main focus is on the record label and publishing company. Being a manager is such a personal role and it’s pretty tricky to juggle both.” He reflects fondly on his time working with Webb. “I was fortunate enough to meet Mimi before she really started in the music business,” he says. “I heard her sing on this drum & bass track she made and I remember thinking her voice was incredible. I worked with her from then all the way through to her debut album and it was amazing. I was co-managing with Brandon [Goodman], who manages Billie Eilish, and it felt like the right time to part ways just as the label was progressing and she was heading into a second chapter.” The Robots + Humans roster also includes viral sensation Henry Moodie, who has accumulated more than 500 million streams and cracked the Spotify Global Top 100 with his track Drunk Text, and London-born rapper Prinz, who had a hit in the UK last year with Highs & Lows. Alongside artist development, the label continues to facilitate viral moments online, including Jiggle Jiggle by Duke & Jones and Louis Theroux, which has been used in more than five million TikTok videos and streamed more than 200 million times. “We’ve got a lot of belief in our artists,” asserts co-head of A&R Milo Saville. “We’re quite selective. We try not to take on too much and every single time, we’re looking at something more long term. We like working with artists with a very clear vision. We see our role as facilitating that vision more than forcing our approach.” Ronaldson stresses that the numbers do not dictate the A&R process.  “I don’t think you can do A&R by numbers in the literal sense of making albums,” he offers. “I think marketing is more [about numbers], but actually assisting an artist with their creative vision is a harder thing to do with analytics.” “It’s a cool information source, but after that the focus is very much on the music,” agrees A&R co-head Preye Crooks. “The data doesn’t enter that part of the A&R business. We want to make music that matters and that is high quality. There’s more of a requirement for A&Rs now to be across all aspects of the business, but that shouldn’t take away from the importance of making sure those records are as good as they possibly can be.” Asked whether the industry’s preoccupation with creating viral moments was a factor in the perceived shortage of sustained artist breakthroughs, Crooks replies “potentially”. “We always focus on how we can build engaged communities with our artists, I think that’s what really matters,” he says. “We talk about how we can get them to become Glastonbury headliners – and the link between all of those headliners is that they’ve built and developed focused communities, so we start there and then look at all the possible ways to do that. Virality may or may not be one of those ways, but we take it a step back and focus on community first.” “The thing with virality is that it’s almost impossible to manufacture, so it’s a funny thing for it to be a focus,” adds head of marketing Kelly Murray. “Viral moments are a bonus, but all we set out to do when we work with our artists is find an audience. We keep releasing music and hopefully keep connecting in the most authentic way.” That authenticity is key, as Ronaldson explains as we reflect on the Robots + Humans story so far, the industry’s reliance on technology and why the company could do without a global superstar right now… It’s been nearly four years since you launched the partnership with Sony. How would you rate your achievements in that time? “Overall, pretty positive. Fortunately enough, the first record we ever put out was a Top 5 in the UK [SwitchOTR, Coming For You] and the second one was [No.15] with Liilz, Glad U Came, so we came out quite aggressively. But the start of this year is when we really found our feet and have become hyper competitive with the other frontlines. This year we’ve put out nine singles, of which five have charted, so we’re on a good run and are having international success with artists like Henry Moodie. It’s all coming together nicely but it’s definitely challenging. We’re trying our hardest not to pick up artists internationally from the broader global Sony system. It feels like the worst thing we could have right now is a global superstar coming through us in the UK, because that would just dominate our time, attention and focus. Our ambition is to break British artists and songs and build it up. It’s taken us until the first chunk of our third year for things to settle and become more operational, but it feels good.” How do you handle the responsibility that comes with Sony’s decision to partner with you?  “That Sony partnership is the credibility piece for being able to authenticate your offer to artists. It allows you to be competitive because of the legacy and history of Sony. If we tried to do this fully indie, I think we’d find it really tough. I don’t know if we could ever get past that first hurdle of having the recognisability to win competitive deals.”  What’s it like working with Jason Iley? “Great. He was one of the first people who ever backed me in music and he’s been pretty great in helping me navigate it all, but also in this new set-up. He’s helped us win deals and speaks to artists with us, so he’s the perfect balance of helping us when we need help, but also letting us crack on when we crack on.” How do you measure success? “I’d probably be lying if I said that each label at any major company wasn’t to some degree beholden to P&L, but we have business freedom to not focus on it as much as you’d necessarily think. I actually feel I worry about it more than Jason! But in terms of artist success, I think that changes from genre to genre. For pop acts, charts are more important than, say, a rap artist, but it also depends on ambition. I spoke to an artist who was working on an oil rig in the North Sea and was like, ‘I just want to [make music] as a hobby. I don’t want to tour or anything. I want to pursue my career in oil and gas.’ So that’s their goal, versus the artist who wants to headline Glastonbury one day.” Can you talk us through how you’re adjusting to life as a president? “I’ve come from the super-leftfield side of analytics into this other end of the spectrum, so the label is a hybrid. I have learned from [working in management] about understanding the position of an artist and their true motivations and feelings. I don’t know if you get that from working at a label, because you don’t have that kind of relationship. That has carried into the way we approach things – pretty much everyone on the team is in a WhatsApp group with every artist and it’s very free-flowing. We have close relationships, which really helps. There’s no clashing of ideas and vision and direction; it all feels like we’re pulling in the same direction.” Your route into the business is unlike many other execs. Have you ever suffered from imposter syndrome? “The idea of using software to analyse an artist felt pretty radical during those A&R meetings back in the day before partnering with Sony, even though it seems common practice now across every label. At the start, it was hard to gain credibility as a music person, because the industry was so far away from that place, but it definitely feels like we’ve now found our place and are welcomed into the Sony fold.” So what changed exactly? “I think the pandemic played a big part, because it meant things started to exist online more. I remember going to A&R meetings and saying, ‘This is a really exciting artist proposition for these reasons’, but those reasons would never be considered. But as destinies were reached with those particular artists, in retrospect, you could look back and say, ‘Those assumptions were key to that progression.’ You’ve got to wait for those things to happen to gain acceptance.” What are the main indicators that something is going to be big for you? “It varies. It’s about using the information and tooling we have to empower the A&R guys. Both Milo and Preye have signed things purely on passion – on SoundCloud links – so it’s not my job to feed artists we should sign to them. It’s more about empowering them to be the best A&R guys they can be. It’s important to enable them to see the full picture of what they want to work on, so they can make better decisions.”  Sony Music Publishing’s David Ventura and Tim Major said that you “embody the new generation of talented and entrepreneurial A&Rs”. Do you feel like you’re doing something unique? “I don’t know. I don’t think A&R has changed that much generally; I just think the way people consume music has changed. The A&R at the back of the gig, watching how people react to [an act] playing live in the room, has now transcended to the A&R on TikTok, seeing how kids react when they’re singing live through a phone. So I don’t think that mechanism has changed particularly, but the discovery method has changed significantly. I don’t know if it’s a new generation of A&R; I just think it’s modernised.” How do you define A&R now you’ve been doing it for four years?  “I always say there’s two points. One, is the discovery. The first part of what Milo and Preye try to do day-to-day is figure out what’s happening culturally in real time. Being at the forefront of what’s happening for unsigned artists is a key pillar, but the second half is purely creative. Automation technology is very helpful for discovery. But as soon as the discovery process has happened and they are working with the artists they want to work with, it moves solely to creative conversations.” You used to work in partnership with other Sony labels – what gave you the confidence to sign acts directly? “I wasn’t necessarily sure it was something I could do right at the start. The first thing we did on the imprint label was Death Bed by Powfu, which was a monster streaming hit and was the first deal where we actually met the artist. I remember flying to Vancouver to sign him, essentially, and that gave us the confidence to believe we could do it more and more. It wasn’t like flicking a switch overnight; it’s been quite a gradual process.” Is there a breaking acts crisis in the UK?  “I don’t necessarily think it’s as bad as it’s made out to be. I still view it as a linear progression: you have these crazy peaks and troughs, but the trend is up. You can see that, not necessarily with British artists, but with Benson Boone and David Kushner, where the first couple of songs have viral success and then they regroup and figure out the next project and the momentum isn’t as crazy. There’s a peak, a trough and then it peaks again and takes the artist to a whole different place. You have overnight success and virality, but it’s a trap to think that is fan building. It still takes the same time and patience to build fanbases; those are just catalysts.”  Do you put the lack of sustained mainstream UK breakthroughs down to anything else? “I think there’s an algorithmic degree to it with the way the platform serves its content. It’s harder, algorithmically, for a British artist to hit the American [Spotify] For You discovery pages. I think those platforms are anchored more with America in mind, so America’s a beacon and it filters out, which is why it can feel quite regional at times. But even since we’ve been a frontline, global acts have broken so it doesn’t feel like it’s totally gone. I think it feels like it’s more of a thing than it actually is because the virality is so intense.”  Why is it still worth signing to a major label these days? “It totally depends on the artist. If you want to be a global superstar, you can never underestimate the power of having a team in every country. Henry Moodie had his first explosive moment in Southeast Asia. He got to No.1 on Spotify in Indonesia and Malaysia on Drunk Text and without having a local team, it would have been a lot harder to achieve. There’s a culture of music hobbyists like the oil and gas guy I mentioned – he’s not wanting to be a global touring artist so maybe a major isn’t the most sensible route for him. But if the ambition’s there, being part of a major group is powerful.”  How do you see the future of majors in general? “I still feel like the most powerful thing we have in that first conversation is being part of a major group, because of the legitimacy of the history of all the great artists that have passed through. That’s pretty hard to take for granted. A lot of acts started making music because of artists signed to majors, and being inspired by The Beatles or Adele or Harry Styles, whatever it is. And if that’s their core reason for wanting to pursue a career in music, it’s pretty hard to turn away from that. So I think majors have their place indefinitely.” How has the role of tech changed since you came into music?  “I think data analytics plays a part in the discovery process for every label now. All around the world, every market has their own set of tools they look at. In that two to three-year period we were doing the imprint before Robots + Humans, we really tried to figure out what our offering could be to artists. The cool thing about the machine that is Sony is a lot of the services are centralised: there’s an amazing sales team; there’s 4th Floor Creative; there are in-house radio pluggers, so we were very conscious of what we could do to offer a point of difference, otherwise we’re just a brand name with an A&R service. We spent that two to three-year period building our digital marketing offering, so we could really add value in the areas that artists were finding the hardest at the time: navigating social media, virality and how that whole thing works. That development is the main way it’s changed for us.” So are labels harnessing tech in the right way? “I’m not 100% sure on what everyone else is doing. It’s so secretive in this industry and to be honest, we’re not that focused on it. We’re just trying to build the best proposition we can and keep driving forward. I don’t have any critiques of the industry as a whole; I think everyone, genuinely, is doing whatever they can to help artists be as successful as they can. If you [compare] the first viral song on TikTok to now, the industry is getting better at translating that to long-term propositions.” Where does TikTok figure in your reckoning when it comes to new music? “We’ve actually just signed a Gen Alpha artist. Her first social platform is TikTok and it’s super-interesting. It’s so popular and prolific with that generation and it’s for the label to accommodate where the consumer is and try and hit all different pockets. For new music and discovery of that younger generation, it’s likely that’s where the party is at the moment. But these things change.”  What did you make of the Universal-TikTok debate earlier this year? “I’m not particularly close to it, but my understanding is it was done in favour of artist protection, which is always positive. I think it’s tough when a company as big as TikTok comes into the marketplace – there’s always going to be a few teething problems between rights-holders and tech companies, but I think it’s sorted out and driving forward now, so it’s a positive in that respect. I think with something as explosive as TikTok, it takes a minute for everyone to catch up.”  To revert back to your operation, you also do publishing – why was that important to you?  “Before the label, started, I met this incredible writer and producer called Sarcastic Sounds. It was aroundthe time we did the Powfu record. He was lo-fi producing and we became friends and I saw he was so talented. He ended up doing an artist deal with Columbia in the US and I just wanted to help out where possible. I was a big fan, so that was the main motivator. I’ve been working with him now for three years and he’s had his first hit with David Kushner’s Daylight. He is finding his feet and he’s super-talented, so it was an easy decision.” What are your ambitions with your publishing offering? “We want to grow both records and publishing at the same time. The cool thing about records and publishing is that it is quite intertwined. It’s relationship building. Like how management is such a key part of how we run the label, I think it’s important to understand where the writers and producers are coming from and how their side of the industry operates. It’s good to be across all verticals so you can understand those intricacies.” Which part of your offering do you feel you excel at most? “I’m fortunate enough to have Milo and Preye, who are amazing, and the thing that excites me the most is breaking records and artists and that’s the big goal. Music is obviously the most important piece of that, but as a label we excel at navigating the new world for artists beyond making a great song – how to harness the power of social media and the internet. We’re still very much like a traditional frontline in the sense of the services we offer, but our X factor is that digital aspect.” Finally, what are your plans for the future of Robots + Humans?  “Super-ambitious – it might sound delusional now but we really do want to be the biggest label in the world at some point, so it’s full steam ahead in that respect. We want to work with the biggest artists, break the biggest songs, and be the biggest and best.”

So far so good: UK indie So Recordings builds 'global network' for chart stars

Silva Screen Label Group MD Adam Greenup has spoken about the evolution of So Recordings and its strong results with new and established acts.  The label has become home to bands and artists including Placebo, Enter Shikari, Seasick Steve, Hamish Hawk and Public Service Broadcasting, who have just signed to the indie.  Previously on PIAS, Public Service Broadcasting peaked at No.2 with 2021’s Bright Magic album (24,353 sales to date – Official Charts Company). “Our ambition for Public Service Broadcasting is to find the fans that maybe have been a bit dormant, reactivate those, find a load of new fans and get the band a No.1 album,” said Greenup. The group achieved a Top 30 result last year with This New Noise, a live recording of their 2022 BBC Proms show at London’s Royal Albert Hall. “That was a moment that we want to build on,” said Greenup. “They’re doing something unique, the Proms crystallised their potential and reach.” The label is now targeting global markets for PSB including South America, North America, Japan and India. They will also benefit from the services of the sync team within the wider Silva Screen operation, which specialises in soundtracks. So Recordings achieved its first No.1 album last year with Enter Shikari. The UK rock act also earned their first chart-topper with A Kiss For The Whole World (24,741 sales to date), the group’s second studio album on the label. “We absolutely love working with the band,” said Greenup. “They’re hard-working, they never stop. They’re doing the biggest live shows they’ve ever done, and internationally it’s building again. Enter Shikari are a very important band that are evolving, and we’re trying to keep pace with them.”  Greenup confirmed that the label is set to partner with Enter Shikari on their next album. “We have found our groove in the balance between developing brand new artists and working with the more established artists,” said Greenup. “The case in point would be Placebo and then Enter Shikari achieving their highest ever chart positions on So Recordings, versus the six or seven albums they put out previously on majors and with the major independents.” So Recordings has become a magnet for established acts because of its favourable terms and its global focus, according to Greenup.  “I think it’s relationships, word of mouth and our proof of concept,” he told Music Week. “We sign bands for the world knowing that we’re going to really lean in everywhere. To be able to do that, we have a network of independent distribution.” The label works with international distribution partners including Republic Of Music in the UK, PIAS in the Benelux region, Rough Trade in Germany and Believe in South America. “It’s about making it feel global but it’s done locally,” said Greenup. “It’s a very independent approach that leans heavily on local expertise.”  Deals are often done on a JV basis, and the label does not require options on future albums. The company is also forming alliances within the indie sector, including an alignment with boutique indie label Fierce Panda. The first release was Ash’s Top 20 LP Race The Night. “We’re doing deals with smaller labels and trying to build that indie community through partnerships, so that they can draw on our infrastructure,” explained Greenup.  In terms of new talent, So Recordings cracked the albums Top 40 this year with UK punk duo Big Special’s debut, Postindustrial Hometown Blues. “Breaking and developing a brand new artist and getting them in the Top 40 is a huge achievement, especially in that world of indie rock,” said Greenup. “For developing new artists in the indie rock space, So Recordings is probably now one of the biggest independents.” The label is building new acts including Opus Kink, Deadletter and The Joy Hotel. While acknowledging that So Recordings is known for rock and indie bands, the label boss stressed that it is broadening its roster.  “We have an artist called Emily Burns, who is straight-out pop,” he said. “We definitely don’t want to be pigeonholed into one genre.” A low staff turnover since launch in 2010 has helped the team navigate an evolving industry. “The fast-changing landscape requires that everybody has to lean in and do more,” said Greenup, who joined the label group 15 years ago. “Everybody has to multitask, everybody has to be skilled at doing lots of different things.” Describing their streaming income as “solid”, Greenup said the team had worked hard to build relationships with editorial teams at DSPs. Working with Townsend and Music Glue on D2C strategies, the company is also maximising physical sales opportunities for artists. “We love physical music,” said Greenup. “Probably 80-90% of our week one sale will be physical. We sell a lot of vinyl – more than ever.”  Despite the challenges for an independent, Greenup said that So Recordings is in a strong financial position as part of Silva Screen, which was founded by CEO Reynold D’Silva and will mark its 40th anniversary in 2026. “It’s remained 100% independent, despite having offers along the way,” said Greenup. “It has that spirit of independence, and there aren’t many left like that.”  

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