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Atlantic UK EVP Austin Daboh: ‘What I do hasn’t changed, but the consequences have’

Having established himself as one of the most influential figures in the UK music industry, Atlantic Records UK EVP Austin Daboh was recently named on the 2023 Powerlist, which recognises Britain’s most influential people of African and Caribbean heritage. Headliner caught up with him for an in-depth chat about inspiring the next generation of music executives, his personal journey from being a “playground media mogul” in school, and why he believes all the best companies are “highly functioning dysfunctional families"…

The 2023 Powerlist includes some of the most successful and influential individuals from across a wide range of sectors, from entertainment and the arts to business and politics. Topping the list is Dame Sharon White, chair, John Lewis Partnership, with Dean Forbes CEO, Forterro, partner at Corten Capital; Anne Mensah, VP of Content UK, Netflix; Tunde Olanrewaju, senior partner, McKinsey and Company; and Steven Bartlett, entrepreneur and Dragon’s Den star among the Top 10 (the rest of the list isn’t ranked).

For Daboh, his inclusion on the Powerlist comes just after celebrating his second year with Atlantic Records UK, where he has been heavily involved in numerous hugely successful campaigns and spearheaded the Warner label’s drive into new markets and genres, as well as implementing new measures to seek out opportunities for new artists and burgeoning cultural movements.

Prior to joining Atlantic, he occupied senior roles at BBC 1Xtra, Spotify, and Apple Music, all of which have given him a unique perspective not only into how such platforms operate, but also in the ways in which other labels engage with them. As he told Headliner last year, he has “seen the guts of every label”.

Ed Howard, co-president at Atlantic Records, told Headliner: “Since joining Atlantic, Austin has been integral to the success of a number of our key artists and to the evolution of the label as a whole. He brings all of his diverse experience into play to guide and develop our staff and campaigns and is a highly respected senior figure amongst the wider Warner Music UK family. We’re all delighted to see him recognised on this year’s Powerlist.”

Fellow co-president Briony Turner also paid tribute to Daboh’s work at the label and inclusion on the Powerlist.

“Austin is an incredible executive, who is deeply passionate about developing and elevating our artists,” she told us. “He is ingrained in the culture and works hard to support it. We’re all really proud of the work he does as a leader and he fully deserves to be named on this year’s Powerlist.”

Here, Daboh opens up on his journey from discovering a flair for marketing during his school days, to making it in the music business, the dysfunctional nature of labels, and what the future holds for Atlantic…

Firstly, congratulations on being named on the Powerlist. How did it feel when you found out you had been included?

I’ve always said that influence and the ability to make a change shouldn’t be judged by a list, and I have never in my career made a list, never lobbied for one, and never been chosen for one. But at the same time, it is nice to be recognised and it feels good to know that the work I’ve been doing has been noticed by people I don’t know and had nothing to do with, and that they have decided to put me on the list alongside a bunch of people making a difference at a regional and global level. It felt really good and was a complete surprise.

Did the fact that you had been recognised by an institution outside of the music industry carry extra weight?

Definitely. For me, being recognised on a list where it isn’t just about music was the most humbling thing. In my previous roles I’ve had the ability to make a direct impact on musicians’ lives. But since joining Warner I’ve had the ability through the Blavatnik Family Foundation Social Justice Fund to be involved in having a direct on people’s lives not just in music. 

A good example of that is us supporting the Black Cultural Archives. We have given a substantial amount to them and that’s going to affect the lives of people not just in the arts and entertainment, but also the Windrush generation and hopefully tell their story in a more amplified way. And it will inspire the next generation of children all over the UK. That was definitely humbling.

How important are lists like this not just in recognising those on them, but also in inspiring the next generation?

I’m an ‘80s baby who grew up in the ‘90s. When I was in secondary school and deciding what I wanted to do with my career, the only black people I saw in positions of power in the UK were athletes or entertainers, so to think that the list has got politicians, senior bankers on it… if you’re a black or mixed race kid growing up now in the UK, your police chief might be black; your head teacher might be black; you might walk into a restaurant or a shop and the owner might be black. That just wasn’t the case 15-20 years ago. So, while things aren’t perfect, and there is a long way to go to address a lot of the institutionalised racism in the UK, the Powerlist shows it’s not just in sports and entertainment that you can see powerful black and mixed race people killing it. That’s so important. You might be a young black kid growing up in Manchester and not want to be a rapper or a footballer. You might want to be the best insurance broker in the land.

What are some of the projects you’ve been most proud of this year, and that may have contributed to you being recognised on this list?

My first year at Atlantic was about setting up the foundations and the building blocks to achieve success in the black music space. We had a couple of really exciting things happen with Tion Wayne, Body being the most explosive of those exciting things. But year one was really about making sure we have the right cultural leaders on the staff roster and making sure that our artist roster represents the diverse culture we are trying to represent in the black music space. Fast forward to this year and the success we had this summer was a result of the strategy we put in place the year before. So, Tion Wayne continuing his ascent and turning into a rap UK superstar, crossing over one billion streams, and having another Gold record was huge. That was one of a few exciting moments that happened this year.

Burna Boy, after a decade of being a cultural leader in the Afro space, having his first commercially successful moment as a lead artist and having a No.2 album (Love, Damini) was huge. US hip-hop is still massively important in the UK, and Atlantic has an amazing US roster with Cardi B, Jack Harlow, Kodak Black, and others. It was only nine months ago that Jack Harlow was playing the Kentish Town Forum, and this Thursday (November 3) he does Wembley Arena, which shows the energy he’s brought.

Then we also have Lizzo, who obviously skirts alongside the pop and R&B space, and the alternative pop space, but as a black, queer, female, we are showing that there is variety in what we’re doing in the black culture space at Atlantic. I’m really happy to have spearheaded the teams in delivering those campaigns and it has definitely been a team effort.

I'm still learning the crazy ways that labels operate. Austin Daboh, EVP, Atlantic Records UK

Tell us about how you got to where you are now.

My entire career, what I do every day, hasn’t really changed, but the consequences have. Ever since I was a teenager I’ve woken up in the morning, listened to new music, and the music I’m most passionate about I shout about and argue with people about! I started off in secondary school in the late ‘90s, and it was the height of UK garage. Me and my friends all wanted to be garage emcees and rappers, and what I realised early on was that I was terrible at rapping and emceeing [laughs]. But what I did notice was that I had a bit of creative flair in helping amplify my friends in the school playground. So I’d bring my mini DV camera in and film people and make little flyers for contests that were put on in the common rooms. And without realising it, I became a bit of a promoter within the school playground.

Then a bit of luck came my way, and if you look at most people who have had a level of success, there is an element of luck. My little story is that my mum had a job where they gave her a computer to take home, and this was at the turn of the century when not everyone had a computer at home. This computer was loaded with the Adobe suite, Microsoft Office etc. I was the only person in my area who had a computer like that at home in my social circle, so all of the local artists - mainly rappers - would come to my yard so I could help make their CD covers, burn CDs for them, help them write press releases etc. I became a bit of a media mogul on my estate [laughs]. Also, my best friend went from being a hit in the playground to being hot in the area to then being played by some 1Xtra DJs and some pirate radio DJs. I started managing him, so via that I got my foot in the door by networking. That was one path.

There was a second path I took concurrently. I was working in retail to put money in my pocket, and then doing work experience with different media companies. I thought that if I could get my foot in the door, then I could use that experience to hop, skip, and jump to a bigger company. I got a job at a company called Durrants, which was a media monitoring company. I had a list of clients and I had to read through hundreds of news articles and tag all the mentions of them. What I didn’t realise at the time was that the junior staff were given the massive companies, as they were the ones mentioned the most. So, I was given BBC, Coca-Cola, and I was like, ‘yeah, I’m killing it, they’ve given me all these massive clients’, but it was the equivalent of counting paper clips [laughs]. But that was incredible, because I was basically reading every day about the BBC and, via osmosis, was learning at a really high corporate level how the BBC worked.

So when a job came up in the BBC marketing department, one of the key things you needed to know was how the BBC worked, and current affairs. I went to the interview and it seemed clear that I didn’t have the right level of experience required for the job, and I was literally about to leave - my hand was on the door handle - and one of the guys called me back and said, ‘Austin, it says on your CV that your favourite TV channels are Sky News and BBC News. That can’t be true, can it? You’re only 19 years old’. And I said it was true. Rather than having MTV playing in the background, Sky News and BBC News was generally my background listening. So he goes, ‘who won the German election this morning?’ And I said Angela Merkel. He said, ‘who did she defeat’? And I said Gerhard Schroder. And that was what got me the job. Knowing who won the German election back in 2005!

It was luck. Right place, right time. Ultimately, it’s all about being prepared, blagging and working my balls off. And just to finish the story off, I got my foot in the BBC with the marketing department. And I was managing my friend who was playlisted on 1Xtra, so I joined the dots and blagged my way into 1Xtra and that was where my journey started.

It’s been a couple of years since joining Atlantic. How have you adapted to label life?

I’ve loved my life at Atlantic and Warner in general, because with Atlantic it almost feels like a start-up. I joined 1Xtra when it was only a few years old. I joined Spotify before it was the dominant player in UK streaming, so I know what it feels like to work at large organisations that have a start-up mentality. That’s really what Atlantic feels like. I feel really blessed and lucky that almost the entire top layer of the organisation were new in their positions. Ed and Bri were new into their presidency and you had new heads of departments all over the place, so we’ve really been on this journey together, obviously with all the staffers who had been there before as well.

I feel like I’ve always been confident in my ability to read the market and to second guess how the general public are going to move or react. At the BBC, which is world class at doing this, you really have to use your gut feeling and mix that with anecdotal data. At Spotify you had almost household-to-household data. Coming to Warner, I’ve been able to take what I’ve learned from those jobs and work with the A&R teams and marketing teams. I try to let me team lead from the front and I back them up with what I’ve learned over the years.

But I’m still learning the crazy ways in which labels operate. Every company I have worked at is like a high functioning dysfunctional family! All the best companies are like that. Tony, Ed, and Bri have been great at supporting me on that journey, and I’d like to think I’ve brought something new to the table. And I hope I’ve been able to deliver for the label in the black music space, as well as across the rest of the business. We’ve hired data scientists and analysts – no front line label at Warner had that before I joined. We measure culture in a way we believe no other labels are doing in the UK, and possibly in the rest of the world. Hopefully the results have shown that we’re on the right track.

Who and what should we be looking out for as we approach 2023?

We’re really excited about KSI’s next move, coming off the back of a huge Top 5 record, which was the opening salvo of our relationship. It’s no secret that KSI is a monster entrepreneur, a monster musician and a monster athlete - a real triple threat. So we’re going to have new music from him in the new year that will surprise and delight.

We also have a new kid called MKAY. He is a drill rapper who is really leading the charge in terms of being a drill rapper coming at it from a different angle. He’s seen a lot of bad things growing up, but his record Frozen Gold which has just clocked 20 million stream on Spotify is a love song effectively. What we love about him is how musical he is. He’s a grade eight piano player and his dream growing up wasn’t to play the O2 but to play the Royal Albert Hall.

Mahalia will have new music in the new year. When people talk about black British artists we hail up the rappers, and rightly so, because they are often maligned by the mainstream, but we can’t forget how successful females in the soul and R&B space have been. Mahalia streams as well as, if not better, than a lot of the rappers who are held up. I’m hoping her fellow black music artists support her and her music when it comes next year. There will be new music from Kojey Radical and the irrepressible Tion Wayne will have another banger up his sleeve at the back end of this year. We have a lot coming up. Shout out for the A&R team who have done an amazing job in identifying and partnering with these artists, and of course the marketing and digital teams as well.