While you may not recognise his name, Cameron Strang commands a powerful reputation in the music industry. Objectively speaking, he’s one of the most powerful music executives on the planet as the chairman and CEO of Warner Bros Records and Warner/Chappell Music.
Strang is the only person in the entire industry to simultaneously run both a frontline major record label, as well as a leading music publisher. Before he earned the top job at Warner Records, Strang launched and ran a successful label and publishing outlet.
An independent native, Strang founded both New West Records in 1998 and then Southside Independent Publishing in 2004. He joined the Warner family in 2010, when then-Chairman Edgar Bronfman Jr. acquired Southside, and Strang with it, immediately minting him as boss of Chappell.
Within just six years, Southside, under Warner, had built a roster that included budding superstar Bruno Mars, arena giants Kings of Leon, producer Brody Brown, country hit-makers Ashley Gorley and Blair Daly, and Christian music star Matthew West.
These days, Strang is busy overseeing a music empire with a roster of current and future megastars, spanning all genres, styles, and scenes, from Jason Derulo, Michael Buble, and Neil Young, to Katy Perry, Tom Petty, Nile Rodgers, and Drake.
Clearly, the Canadian native worked hard to succeed, and as he recently explained to a crowd gathered for Canadian Music Week in Toronto, his years as an independent and time at the top of the ladder have taught him many lessons experienced and budding music execs could learn from.
Music Business Worldwide have gone ahead and collected seven of the best nuggets of advice that Strang gave Canadian Music Week attendees on Saturday, including, perhaps most importantly, the importance of remaining a fan.
1. Don’t Try and Be Too Big, Too Soon
“New West Records was a great lesson for me. When I started the record company, I was the only employee for four years. I learned to do everything; make records, mix records, make the deals, all of that stuff.
“Slowly we built it to 22 or 25 employees. Our biggest years were selling $20m-$25m of music around the world. But it was all achieved through a slow-building network of relationships.”
2. Be Persistent… And Remember: You Never Know Who Knows Who
“I met a fellow named Stephen Bruton at the Ironworks Barbecue at Austin, Texas. We started talking and it turned out he produced some records I really loved, including an album by Alejandro Escovedo, a great artist from Texas. I didn’t know much about [Stephen] but we became friends and I put out his own record.
“I’d seen Delbert McClinton open the Vancouver Jazz Festival years before in 1991. I was totally blown away. He he hadn’t made a record in a long time, so I cold-called his house in Nashville to try and sign him.
“God bless Delbert and his wife Wendy, who answered the phone at the time; they thought I was crazy, but they finally agreed to take a meeting. It turned out Delbert had grown up with Stephen Bruton.
“He later ran into Stephen, who said: ‘I met this kid at the Ironworks Barbecue – I’ve been making some music with him.’ And Delbert was like: ‘That kid’s been calling my house!’
“Delbert agreed to sign. We made a record, it won a Grammy and sold hundreds of thousands of copies.”
3. Change Can Hit You At Any Time
“Edgar Bronfman is one of the great executives in the history of the music business – he did it all with such elegance and grace. I admire him greatly. He’s helped me a lot in my career.
“His office called my cell phone one day [in 2010] and said Edgar would like to meet with me somewhere private in Santa Monica. I was like: ‘Starbucks probably isn’t private enough… maybe my house?’
“So Edgar came over and we talked for three or four hours in the back yard. We didn’t talk specifically about publishing, my company or those kind of things – just business in general, life, how we saw artists and the music industry.
“At the end of it, he turned to me and said: ‘I’d like to buy your business and I’d like you to run Warner/Chappell.’”
4. Recognise Those Who Can Help You Take Things To The Next Level
“When I got the Warner/Chappell gig, it was fantastic and we were doing great. But I knew all about Jon Platt as a competitor and a colleague – and I knew in my heart that if he’d agree to come over and help me that we’d be unstoppable together.
“Jon’s one of the great executives in our business – not just publishing, the entire music business. He’s got an incredible work ethic, he’s a great leader and an incredible person. He’s something else. He’s larger than life.
“Together, we’ve gone from essentially – in terms of market share – fourth place of major publishers to first in 18 months.
“Sony bought EMI and number two and number three joined together to leapfrog us… but we don’t count that! We’re still No.1 as far as we’re concerned.
“We have 1.2 million copyrights under management globally, we have offices everywhere you could imagine – including China, Singapore and all over Asia, plus every country in Europe and South America.”
5. Stay A Fan
“Growing up, going to college and university, I didn’t know anything about the music business. I’m still a glorified music fan, really.
“I thought it was normal, but looking back on it, I guess not a lot of kids skip school in the 10th grade to take a greyhound bus to Seattle to see The Stones, then two months later go back to see The Who and The Clash.
“I spent a lot of our time fishing and all the things people tend to do on the West Coast, but then I also had a ’71 Volkswagen van, going back and forth to San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego to see concerts.
“I had two great passions at young age: hockey first of all, and then music. Music was always in me. I had no idea it would be a career.”
6. Accept Help When You Need It, You Might Be Able To Repay It Later On
“I knew Mike Campbell, the guitar player from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, before I knew Tom.
“I was always astounded: when we had the independent record company, making records on no budget, we’d scour for old studios that would give us time for cheap [recordings] – we were doing it on a shoestring.
“Mike was open to that. I remember one time went to his house, he let us use his studio for a day and he even played a solo on the record for us.
“He’s a terrific guy, and Tom’s obviously an all-time great. I remember seeing him play in Vancouver when I was young.
“He really is a rebel. He doesn’t take shit from anybody.”
[Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ Hypnotic Eye became the band’s first album to top the Billboard 200 in 2014 on Warner Bros Records.]
7. Don’t Be Afraid Of The Future – But Remember It’s Not Everything
“It’s easy to get lost in all of the noise in the music industry, but at the end of the day when you have courageous artists, songwriters and producers making incredible music, you’re going to be okay.
“That’s really the lifeblood of everything.
“Len Blavatnik is a great believer in change and pushing forward. He encourages us to take risks and try new things. We’re very fortunate to have long-term ownership from Len – he’s looking at long-term value.
“He encourages us to change the company. I’m incredibly fortunate to run a [business] that’s based in Los Angeles – Silicon Valley’s not far away. Although I don’t have to drive the Volkswagen van there anymore!
“We can go there anytime and meet the people – mainly young people – in tech who are going to bring this business forward in the future.
“But whatever the technology companies create, a lot of it runs on and relies on music. You have to embrace change – but you have to meet it half-way.”