Broadly speaking, record-label bosses tend to have similar backgrounds, rising through A&R, promotion or management ranks, usually hitting a massive success that lands them the big job. And while Max Lousada, Warner Music Group’s head of recorded music, has followed some of that model, his background is unusual by any stretch, and is reflected not just in WMG’s approach to music but in the roster itself. Among the acts Variety’s Executive of the Year oversees are Dua Lipa, Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars and Silk Sonic, Lizzo, Cardi B, Brandi Carlile and Saweetie; newcomers Don Toliver and NBA YoungBoy; and Nigerian acts CKay and Burna Boy. He’s also played a key role in recent career-spanning deals with classic artists like David Bowie, Madonna, Coldplay and David Guetta.
Lousada was raised in the 1980s in London by a photographer mother and a social worker dad. The sounds of left-wing rockers like the Clash and Billy Bragg, along with jazz greats like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, boomed through the household. In his teens, he was attracted equally to the hip-hop wafting from across the Atlantic and to the dance-music culture of Britain at the time. He became friends with DJs and label heads like DJ Shadow, James Lavelle and Gilles Peterson and, ditching college after six months, launched his music-industry career by starting an independent distribution company to service their records. He followed by running the international operation for the briefly thriving Rawkus hip-hop label (which included Rupert Murdoch’s son James as a co-founder), then Australia-based Mushroom Records — signing his first massive act, Zero 7, featuring a singer named Sia — which was acquired by Warner Music in 2003, bringing Lousada into the company’s fold. Bolstered by the success of artists like Muse, Sheeran, Plan B, Rudimental and James Blunt, he rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming Atlantic U.K.’s head of A&R, president and chairman by 2009, then chairman-CEO of Warner Music U.K., and assuming his current global role in 2017. It’s all given him an atypical perspective on music and management, and where to find talent in a rapidly shrinking world.
“Five years ago, we’d really only be talking about Anglo-American repertoire — you wouldn’t be asking me about artists from Latin America or Africa or India or China,” he says. “I think we’ve had real success over the last 18 months or so strengthening that global team and creating the next chapter.”
In addition to making strong repertoire moves in those territories, Lousada has been revamping the company’s staffs across the globe with an eye toward increasing diversity, and giving labels — from the powerhouse Atlantic Records to Nigeria’s Chocolate City, from Travis Barker’s DTA to Drake’s OVO Sound — the room to be “independent entrepreneurs working within the wider system,” he says. “I come from that world and still very much have an independent point of view.”
Warner has also embraced digital entrepreneurs such as Twitch and Roblox, striking licensing deals with those companies well before its competitors. “I think a lot of that approach came from Len [Blavatnik, whose Access Industries owns Warner Music Group] being an independent entrepreneur — you know, why wouldn’t you expand your reach?”
It’s all added up to a company whose approach and roster are eclectic and diverse, reflecting the attitudes of its chief executive. “I’ve never really been a snob about music,” he says. “I’ve always believed great music makes you feel. So if I’m listening to Neil Young or A Tribe Called Quest or the Clash, I don’t really see the difference because each of them gives me the emotional satisfaction and energy that I need.”
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