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I didn’t realise it was so archaic: PRS CEO on her ambitions to transform the music industry

PRS For Music CEO Andrea Czapary Martin sits down with Headliner for a chat about joining the industry as an outsider, shaking up the established order, and how she has made a habit of transforming juggernaut organisations the world over for more than 25 years…

It’s been four years since Andrea C. Martin took the helm at PRS For Music, but the transformational impact she has had during that time is suggestive of someone who has served in the post for twice that time. From the moment she was appointed CEO of the royalty collections society, she swiftly set about implementing sweeping changes across the business, from its approach to tech and gathering and analysing data, to the culture that exists across its brace of London sites.

Such a comprehensive overhaul would represent a mammoth task to even the most experienced industry executive, but for a complete outsider, it posed an altogether different prospect.

“I didn’t realise how archaic it was,” Martin laughs, recalling her first impressions of the music industry as we join her in one of the meeting rooms of PRS’s London HQ by the Thames. She is warm, good-humoured, and surprisingly open in conversation for such a senior and experienced executive. Over the course of our time together, she will go on to explain that despite the vast challenges she has faced on account of her status as a female newcomer to one of the industry’s eldest institutions (“who’s this lady who knows nothing about music”?), her fresh perspective has significantly benefited the 110-year-old company.

The numbers certainly bear out her observations. In 2021, she outlined a five-year plan to reach annual distributions of £1 billion – something PRS is close to achieving, ahead of schedule. She has also introduced a £30 joining rate for under-25s, while massively ramping up engagement with existing members.

The ability to inspire speedy transformation within her organisations has been a hallmark of Martin’s career from the very beginning. Rising rapidly through the ranks at virtually every company she has led, she has become accustomed to making tough decisions and immediately identifying problems and solutions.

“I started off at Reader Digest as an analyst,” she says, offering an overview of her career trajectory. “And I moved quickly through the ranks and became the first female CEO at the company in Canada. And I realised before I became CEO that we really needed to change the company, and that if we carried on the way we were with digital, that we would not survive. We really pivoted in the digital strategy, and from that point I then went on to change and implement new digital strategies for the brand around the world.”

From that moment she would go on to serve as president and CEO of three international business units of Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., including chair of Reader’s Digest Canada, president and CEO of Biocean Canada, managing director of data services at the Royal Mail in the UK and president of ADT Canada and Protectron. As such she has garnered a reputation as formidable force in transforming businesses of all shapes and sizes with a particular expertise in big data.

Her uncanny knack for being able to uncover blind spots and forge new ways forward in just about any given company or industry is something that Martin traces back to her childhood. Although more recently, she says her dyslexia has helped explain the unique approach she applies to her craft.

Coming from outside the music industry definitely brought a fresh perspective. Andrea C. Martin

“It was only when I was about 40 that I discovered I was dyslexic,” she says. “And when you’re dyslexic you view the world in a different way. You look at it from a different angle; you don’t view it from A to B. It’s more, ‘where is the solution’? I was very lucky to be brought up with parents who had two mantras. My father’s was to be super positive - you can’t be more positive than him. My mother was to be just super, super focused. They arrived in Canada with nothing, and I watched them build their lives, which was inspiring.”

She also points to her earliest experiences with Readers Digest as laying the foundations from which to build her future skillset.

“Readers Digest was a really good training ground, as I realised that I was always being put in situations where things needed fixing,” she continues. “And you just learn every time. I remember the second time I became a product manager there - I was heading up books and in Canada they were losing millions in the book division, and I could see right away what needed to be done. And within a year we turned it around. So, I think because they kept putting me in situations that needed fixing and required a different way of thinking, I became better and better at being able to spot what the problems were and how they needed to be fixed, regardless of what sector or industry that was. And the more I was put in those situations, I found myself striving for change, wanting to build teams and fix and improve things. The more you do it the better you get.”

So, how did she arrive at the role of CEO at PRS For Music?

“Well, when I was initially approached, I said no way,” she recalls with a laugh. “Then one of my friends said, ‘you shouldn’t say no, you love music, it’s a great opportunity and all your strengths are there’. And lo and behold I got the job. I didn’t realise how much work it was going to involve [laughs]. But we’ve done really well. I adopted a very people-centric approach, have changed the culture to build a high performing team. We had a lot of old tech and we had to transform our data system.”

Despite her proven track record and obvious skill in successfully steering large companies and organisations, her appointment wasn’t without contention, at least from some. In certain quarters, the decision to recruit from outside the music industry for such a significant role was met with doubt and concern. Yet it was her ‘outsider’ perspective that largely tipped the balance in her favour.

“For my interview I had to present a 90-day plan and a longer-term plan and apparently I aced it,” she explains. “There are certain key factors you have to look at regardless of what the industry is. So, what is the culture of the company? In my 90-day plan I had to make sure I got to know the people, the business. Each department had to present to me, and I asked a lot of questions. I went to see the stakeholders. I spent a lot of time with people. Then there is communication. On day three I called a town hall meeting, and I think that was the first time PRS ever had a town hall. I told everyone about who I am, my philosophy, what we are going to do. And you have to be unafraid of making really tough decisions. There is no way you can change a company without making tough decisions.

“My coming from outside of the music industry was absolutely a benefit,” she reiterates. “It brings fresh eyes and a new perspective. I understand membership, I understand acquisition, I understand big data. There are fundamentals of PRS that I understood. So, it was a good thing, and I applaud the chairs for bringing in someone so different, especially when it’s the music industry. It was tough though in the beginning. Really tough. It was like, ‘who is this lady who doesn’t understand the music industry’? To the point that in 2021 it was like, ‘should she really be CEO of this company’? I said people should evaluate me on the results and how we achieve them. And I changed the culture of this company so quickly. When I came in in June 2019 our engagement score was 62% and in September it was 68%. The year after it was 78%. You can’t argue with numbers.”

Though proud of the impact she has had so far, Martin insists there is still plenty of room for change, growth, and improvement across the business, as she reels off some of PRS’s big wins during her tenure so far, as well as her targets for the future.

“I think the overhaul of our data system is going to be huge,” she asserts. “It’s a huge job but it is going to make such an enormous improvement to the way we operate. Elsewhere, introducing a £30 joining rate for under 25s is a big thing for emerging talent. And two years ago, we announced a very ambitious five-year-plan to pay out £1 billion in royalties, which we are close to achieving.

“We are also constantly pushing international growth. Places like India are growing incredibly well, as are Africa and the US, so we are looking at those areas in particular and how we can acquire more members and how we can serve our members better in those areas.

I don't think the industry is ready for AI. Andrea C. Martin

“And I want to make sure that our members have a better membership experience. Our registration platform is being updated and we want to improve the digital experience in every area.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest area of concern on the horizon is the inexorable rise of AI. While few industries can adequately prepare for the transformative impact AI is going to have on our daily lives in the coming years, Martin believes the music industry is less prepared than others. According to a recent PRS member survey, 71% said they are not currently using AI for music-related activities, yet 74% said they are worried about AI-generated music competing with human music.

Furthermore, 89% said they feel that AI tools should be transparent around how they generate AI works, and 93% believe creators deserve to be compensated if their music is used for AI-generated content.

As things stand, it’s a subject few senior music executives are keen to discuss outside of closed boardroom doors, particularly in the realm of major labels. According to Martin, the industry’s unwillingness to discuss it is precisely the wrong way to tackle the issue.

“I don’t think the industry is ready for AI,” she states, having extended our time to the fullest before being called to another engagement. “I was really surprised when I came in at how disjointed this industry is as an ecosystem. We don’t work together enough, and we are better together – we have to do it for the composers, artists, writers. AI will impact the industry in the way that online shopping impacted Readers Digest in the ‘90s. Senior people were burying their heads in the sand over it because they didn’t want to have to deal with it. NFTs were a big thing and now aren’t quite as big, same thing with the Metaverse, some things go in cycles. 

"But AI is going to be there all the time. We have to embrace AI and machine learning for our data; we’re using it in some of our projects, and our members use it as a tool. But creators have to be fairly compensated and that is of course our biggest concern.”