Peter Edge’s journey into the music business is cooler than yours.
The RCA Records CEO and Chairman (pictured) was studying at Coventry Polytechnic in the early ‘80s – DJ’ing on local radio and in nightclubs in his spare time – when he struck up a friendship with Jerry Dammers from The Specials (and, later, The Special AKA).
As a result, A&R maven Edge’s earliest exposure to the music-making side of the business was a front-row seat for one of the most creatively daring periods of one of the great British groups. (Ghost Town, released in 1981, remains one of the UK’s most bizarre, harrowing and brilliant No.1 records ever.)
From there, Edge moved down to London, nabbing a job as a music producer on a show called Switch on Channel 4, while continuing to DJ. It was through Switch that Edge met Simon Fuller – who was then working at Chrysalis Music Publishing. Edge told the Idol-founding magnate about a new track he’d discovered, Holiday by Madonna, and the duo managed to lock down the publishing. Smart move.
How did Edge then become one of the most powerful British executives in the modern-day global business, and the head of RCA? By paying his dues.
Fuller recommended Edge (understandably) to Chrysalis President Doug D’arcy, who hired the A&R specialist to start a new label, Cooltempo. The imprint went on to play an influential role in ‘80s UK electronic music – signing the likes of Adeva (Respect) and Paul Hardcastle (19) – as well as inking deals with pioneering hip-hop acts from overseas like Eric B. & Rakim, Monie Love and Doug E. Fresh.
Edge’s talent was then spotted by Benny Medina and Lenny Waronker, and he was hired by Warner Bros. Records, moving to Los Angeles in 1991. More success followed, including working with The Jungle Brothers, before he was poached by Clive Davis at Arista in the mid-’90s. This started a career for Edge at Sony/ BMG that has now lasted 23 years.
At Arista, and then J Records, Edge’s biggest signings included Dido, Faithless, Angie Stone, Jamie Foxx and Alicia Keys, whose talent he first spotted and admired when she was just 14 years old. It was during this period of his career where Edge enjoyed many of his early multi-Platinum successes, including Dido’s White Flag and Life For Rent albums, as well as Alicia Keys’ groundbreaking debut LP, Songs in A Minor. In 2007, he became a fully-fledged RCA’er, as he was named President of A&R.
These days, the roster at RCA is very different – but Edge’s A&R principles remain. This year alone, the New York-based company has released No.1 albums from Khalid and P!nk, while banking five Grammy nominations for priority new artist H.E.R. The Sony label also counts both Miley Cyrus and Mark Ronson on its roster – who jointly had a major global hit at the end of last year with Nothing Breaks Like A Heart.
MBUK caught up with Edge to ask him all about RCA’s philosophy, his thoughts on modern British music and his path from Coventry boy to worldwide music business influencer…
I’m pleased to say we’re becoming known for being a destination label for artists, with great artist development stories in the last three years. People are impressed, for example, with how we took Khalid from a high school senior at 17 years old to being the No.1 artist on Spotify globally [a title the artist secured in April]; that’s a feat achieved in a relatively short period of time.
We’ve also managed to have such a lot of success with SZA and the TDE team. She’s become a big critical favorite with a multi- Platinum album and is definitely now on the world stage. We also got those great [Grammy] nominations for H.E.R., who’s emerging as one of the next era of important artists. And then you look at Childish Gambino, who chose to come work with us [signing with RCA last year after an extended period with Glassnote Records]; we did This is America and it became Record and Song Of The Year at the Grammys. RCA is known for quality and artistry and a certain level of taste.
Looking at Childish Gambino, when you sign a deal with an existing big artist like that – rather than a development act – what’s the ‘sell’ for RCA?
Other than the advance cheque! The big thing is that we’re a creative-first label. That really speaks to who I am and who we are as a company. We like to do different and innovative kind of things – sometimes obtuse things. We like to do the unusual.
You spent your formative years in Coventry, as a friend of Jerry Dammers. What did that period teach you that you still find useful today?
It’s actually connected to what we’re talking about in regards to RCA today. I was in art school and college in Coventry. Jerry was a little older than me but we definitely spent a lot of time as friends, hanging out at the time. He truly believed in artistry. I was always amazed by the lengths he would go to to make sure something really ‘spoke’ to the listener. Artistically, he was on a really high level. When he really took it to that [next level] he could do something transformative; something really incredible. Ghost Town is perhaps the best example of that – one of the all-time great records in my humble opinion.
It was the same thing with Free Nelson Mandela [by The Special AKA]. We had both moved to London at that point, and my flat was right next to the studio where he was making that track in North London. I heard many iterations of that song; he just kept perfecting it and perfecting it and perfecting it. And in the end, again, he delivered a piece of genius.
How do you marry that love of thinking big, those creative aspirations, to the realities of ‘feeding the machine’ at a large major record company?
Well, we try and find something that’s got a touch of magic to begin with, [but which] we really believe can translate to a wider audience. I often joke that we’re a bit like HBO these days; we’re making quality programming to fit a subscription model. It’s very different to the model we all grew up on over the years; the transactional model.
Once you understand that, you can start thinking about things in a different way. I have to try and keep a high bar and at the same time run a lot of projects here. That said, we don’t just try to do everything that comes along. We have to focus.
What was the biggest career lesson you learned at Cooltempo when you glance back at that period?
It’s funny, looking back I realise that I’ve always been doing a version of the same thing – just morphing it into different eras and iterations. At Cooltempo I signed hip-hop records when hip- hop was pretty much brand new – Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick and Eric B. & Rakim.
They didn’t really have any [global] major record deals in America so I signed them for Europe. We managed to have success in the UK with records that were really underground records in America. I loved the hip-hop scene, and still do. And, similarly, with house and dance – we had a lot of big records in those [genres], when I worked with Danny D. The whole thing was about finding music that was new and exciting and that I was passionate about, and where I felt like I could help nurture or support an artist who wasn’t necessary being appreciated fully.
You started out in your career DJ’ing, both on the radio and at club nights. Do you think that having a musical sensibility is an important factor in your success as a leading A&R executive over the years?
I would like to think so. Certainly having an understanding of what it is you are listening to, what the musical inspirations might be, what the influences and connections are – that’s very important. My prime interest in life is music. It’s completely been my life, and always has; it’s in me. I come from that place. So I marry business to my passion for music – not the other way round.
Where did your passion for music come from?
My sister had a hell of a record collection. She was a big fan of Motown, Atlantic Records and soul music. She’s nine years older than me so, when I was a little kid, she would be playing these really cool records. That was the soundtrack to my childhood; I often think if that hadn’t been the case, I would have had to find music in a different way.
We’re used to seeing high-flying British executives in the US music industry now – of which you’re very much a part. But when you joined Warner Bros. it was much rarer. Which qualities do you think the British industry instilled in you that helped?
I always feel that the level of interest in music from people in the UK is really intense. It’s part of the national conversation, part of the language of the country, and that really prepared me to work in some of the areas that I have in America.
Even growing up, people knew who was No.1 on the charts. Perhaps being a smaller [market] than the US is a factor in that. Music has a similar kind of role within communities in the States – in the African American community, especially – but, nationwide, the passion is not quite as focused as it is in the UK.
You had an important run of your career under Clive Davis, first at Arista and then J Records. What are the most important things that he taught you?
Clive taught me an enormous amount. People often joke that working for Clive is like going to Harvard for the music business, and that’s kind of true. Working with Clive was a steep learning curve. He has a very specific approach, a very successful approach, to how he conducts business and initiates things. That was really inspiring.
We worked on things in the late ‘90s – on Whitney Houston, Santana and all of that. At the same time, I was also able to bring my level of taste to Arista and then to J Records, [with acts like] Faceless, Dido, Alicia Keys and Angie Stone. Those artists were my ‘thing’, stylistically, and we had great success wit them. I learned a lot from Clive but that was also a time of a lot of [professional] growth for me, when I had to get my own thing together.
Khalid is becoming one of the world’s biggest artists, out of a US industry that’s been so hip-hop dominated in recent years. Is there a feeling that R&B is making a comeback?
There absolutely is something happening, although I don’t know if I’d call it ‘R&B’ exactly, because I feel like the hybridization of where music is today makes it different. Many people say [this new trend] started when we signed Bryson Tiller and had huge success with his Trapsoul album, which was multi-Platinum and was a shape-shifting record. Before that album, it was wall to wall hip-hop – there was hardly any R&B on US radio, for instance. Bryson changed the landscape, helping create a situation where we were able to subsequently break other artists.
I’m a big R&B proponent; I’ve always loved R&B music. I don’t know whether Khalid should be [classified] as R&B, just because his musical aspirations move in so many different directions. After his [initial] success with Location, the duet he did with Billie Eilish [Lovely] was a turning point in her career; he also [collaborated on] the first major hit for Marshmello with Silence, neither of which were really R&B. But there is an R&B influence that’s strong in his music, and it’s the same with other artists like H.E.R. I definitely feel there’s a new kind of R&B-influenced, or soul-influenced, music really takingoff now. It’s reviving a type of music that needed some reinvention, and I’m excited [RCA] is at the forefront of it.
Do you sometimes feel that songs are being broken more often than artists? Is your challenge to get the new generation to appreciate and understand the personality and character behind the music?
That’s part of a dynamic we’re all working with on the streaming services. I’ve been a fan of Spotify and the other DSPs from the beginning, because I’m such a music head – to have all of that amazing music so accessible is a revelation. But it is a shame that sometimes when you play a song, you can be immediately diverted to another artist. Just the other day, I played a song from [Coldplay’s] A Rush Of Blood To The Head and thought, ‘This is such a great album.’ I was ready for the next track on the album but it totally shifted the playlist to a completely different artist. The discovery factor is really important, but I’m not sure we’ve cracked how we encourage listeners to dig deeper on artists.
Do you have any thoughts on the huge rise in the influence of social media? Artists with millions of Instagram followers seem to be dominating the charts – and it sometimes feels like a chicken-and-egg thing.
As a fan of music, I’m interested in musicians, so I don’t particularly enjoy that [social media] aspect of where things have gone. But you can’t ignore it – we spend a lot of time here talking about context and narrative around an artist. That’s really a big part of today’s world.
Everything now needs some sort of story, to help people understand how it relates to them: ‘Why am I listening to this? Who is this and what is their connection to whatever it is I know?’ Context is everything and social media is a big component to that. Hip-hop has [accelerated] that factor – hip-hop is so context- orientated. It’s very much about the story that’s being told lyrically, who the artists are and how they relate to each other: ‘Where are you from? What is your background? Why are you telling this story? Are you legit about the story you’re telling?’
How does someone who works closely with artists, particularly in A&R, reach a point where they can have truly creative discussions – where they can offer their opinion or challenge ideas and be heard by the talent?
I don’t know, exactly. But I do think this job requires a certain sense of empathy, which allows you to understand what artists see from their side of the situation; to understand what it is that they’re trying to do, and what their artistic process might be. Rather than just presenting a [record company] agenda of ‘I need this and I need that’, it’s important to try and understand what artists are going through [and] what they want to get expressed.
UK music has had a tough time in the States over the past few years. That golden period of Amy Winehouse, Mumford & Sons, Adele, Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith seems quite distant. What’s most exciting you about British music right now?
To be honest, it’s probably the connection between British music and the African diaspora, and the connection with Jamaican music too; Koffee (pictured inset), in particular – who’s actually from Kingston but signed by Ferdy [Unger-Hamilton] in the UK – is getting huge support and we’re very excited about her.
With African music, there’s such a big African community in the UK, and you can hear the influence of that music everywhere – in Ed Sheeran, for instance, and many others; the Afrobeat influence abounds. We’re having breakout success with Davido, and Wizkid – that music all definitely feels fresh, and it’s music that has a special relationship with the UK.
How’s Rob Stringer doing as a CEO of Sony Music?
One of the things I like most about Rob is that he really appreciates artistry and the importance of maintaining a level of taste, and that definitely aligns with how I feel about things. I love the fact that I can sit with him and talk about music: ‘What’s the level of artistry here? Is there something great going on with this artist?’ I love having a guy like that in the boss’s seat.
We’re moving into a whole different era at Sony now and there are lots of new initiatives going on. There’s expansion in terms of A&R, but also expansion in terms of different relationships that are being built with artists.
How have things changed at RCA for you since the departure of your former President and COO, Tom Corson, to Warner Bros.?
We feel really great about where we are and what we’ve accomplished. One of the things that I’m very grateful for is the fact that there are a lot of talented people who have worked together for a long time here. It’s a very strong team with people like John Fleckenstein, Joe Riccitelli, Carolyn Williams, Keith Naftaly, Mark Pitts and Mika El-Baz, to name a few. That’s made things really cohesive. And, in addition, one of the things that I’m most excited about is the arrival of young talents, people like Tunji Balogun; he’s made a huge difference to the company. We’re ambitious and heading in an incredible direction.
What is getting you excited about the potential future of the record business?
I’m really a big fan of visual art and I like the fact that things are starting to hybridize – that contemporary art and music are collaborating now. Art and music interest me but many other things do too; architecture, film etc. When there’s collaboration, when disciplines interact, that to me is very exciting.
The recorded music business is just one aspect of what artists are up to today. It used to be one of the main events, along with performing live. Now there are many things that artists can create, to the point I was just making. And we want to be involved in that – we’re trying to broaden what the relationship is between RCA and its artists within our partnerships.
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