Interview: Adam Holt, Universal Music NZ

It was my pleasure to chat with Adam Holt, the Chairman of Universal Music New Zealand and a Director of Recorded Music New Zealand.

Here’s what he had to say…

Suzi: You are a leader in a vibrant, creative and fun industry. I’m sure there are a gazillion people (myself included) who are jealous of your role. So, my first question has to be, what do you love the most about leading in the music industry?

Adam: I love that it’s music. It really is the best industry you could hope to be in. Music is something that has been at the centre of my whole life. Ever since I first heard the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night aged about five years old, I’ve been passionate about music, musicians and the magic of song writing. Being involved in music is about all I’ve ever done, so it’s impossible for me not to be passionate about the business. Being surrounded by incredibly creative and talented people with big hopes and dreams inspires me every day. If we help them achieve success, there is no better feeling.

I love too that the industry is right at the forefront of the digital revolution. When the tidal wave hit us at the turn of this century, it took a lot of fortitude to realise things would never be the same again, but there was a way forward. Today, I enjoy my job more than I ever have at any time in the past thirty years. It’s dynamic and challenging, but with music as the soul and centre of the business, I absolutely love the fact we are navigating our way through the biggest changes in the industry since the advent of radio in the thirties. They’ll write books about the digital revolution in the future and it’s a buzz to know we were at the centre of that change, taking what was seen as an old media business into a very exciting new world.

Suzi: You would have seen a significant amount of change within the music industry over the years. What has remained constant?

Adam: Music is the true constant – without a great song, a great record or a great artist there is no music industry. It doesn’t matter what is going on, without amazing music and artists we have nothing.

I should also say that in today’s music industry the other constant is change itself – it’s the new normal. When I first started in the business, change in the music industry was measured by decades, today it’s measured by months.

Suzi: What are some lessons you’ve learned about leading others through change?

Adam: Most importantly don’t be scared of change. Ignoring it or pretending it isn’t there is only going to deliver you a world of pain. Fronting up to change quickly, without worrying too much about what you might be losing (the classic innovators dilemma), allows you to spot the opportunities that come from leading within the industry rather than following. We’ve learned this through experience.

It’s been very pleasing to see my crew at Universal Music in NZ become so comfortable with change. Everyone knows there is far more career danger in resisting change than owning it. The team who I work with today are passionate about our artists and our industry and they are adaptable, keen to learn new skills and develop new strategies. Because the media and distribution landscapes are so different today, we are constantly trying new things.

They don’t all work, but we consider failures as “failing forward” – i.e. we’re learning and growing by doing new things.

I also love that today we are hiring young people into the company who are true digital natives. It used to be that experience was everything and you taught downwards. Today you hire in to teach upwards. The “senior” staff (myself included) know they can learn as much from the new kids on the block as those kids can learn from us. It’s amazingly collaborative.

Suzi: Who have been some of the biggest role models in your life and what have they taught you?

Adam: There have been a few. My father of course who gave me two pieces of advice – “to thine own self be true” and that it doesn’t matter what you do for a job, just be the very best at it you can.

Those little pearlers have sat in the back of my head since I was about fifteen.

Musically and socially, Joe Strummer from The Clash has always been a guiding light for me – through his music and his interviews he taught me about living, about passion, having the courage of convictions and how to deal with failure. The man was a god.

In an industry sense, when I worked in Australia I had a boss at Polydor Records by the name of Paul Dickson. Paul was a larger than life character who ran almost entirely on instinct and he could charm the hardest of hearts. He had the best catch phrases on marketing discipline – phrases I still use with my team today.

Paul taught me how to get lucky and that’s a big deal in our business. He also taught me you have to lead from the front. You can’t just organise a team and hope they are successful; you have to make that team believe they can do anything.

I was struggling for a few months in Australia when I got my first Managing Director’s position; having stepped up from a marketing role within the company. Nothing was sticking, our release schedule was light and the company was drifting.

I hadn’t made the mental move from team member to boss. Paul sat me down and said pick an album, any album, and tell your staff you are going to make it go multi-platinum, then do whatever it takes to make that happen.

It sounds weird, but I latched on to a Bee Gees record. The Bee Gees were past it at the time and my team thought I was a bit mad for championing it. However it had this song called Alone on it and it felt right.  We went after it hard and Australia became the first territory to re-establish the group in the ’90’s, selling bucket loads of records and getting them loads of awards.

Paul’s advice worked – we had made our own luck, the team began to believe in me as a leader and most importantly, I began to believe in myself – and my own instincts. I owe Paul an awful lot for what he taught me.

Suzi: What do you find toughest about being a leader? What’s the most challenging thing about leading Universal Music in New Zealand?

I think dealing with issues beyond your direct control – the times and issues where you can’t affect change without relying on others and you can’t rely own your own sweat and strategy to ensure the results go your way.

The digital revolution has put creative industries under pressure for some time now and finding the balance between the needs of creatives, the consumer and big tech is a big and ongoing discussion point – not just for the creative sector but for the wider community as well.

I’m a consumer, a creative and I love tech so I fully understand the competing dynamics at play. However it’s incredibly frustrating to see competing interests trying to diminish the value of creativity in New Zealand to suit a narrow view and short term gains.

Politics is a tough space. Fighting for the rights of our creative sector in that arena is a tough assignment and the biggest challenge we face right now.

Suzi: What’s the biggest mistake you have made as a leader and what did you learn from it?

Adam: For me, the biggest mistake is deferring the hard but ultimately obvious decisions. I like to think I’m inclusive and that through encouragement or time, problems will sort themselves out.

The truth is, as a leader, your job is to fix things, remove obstacles and clear the pathway for your team to barrel on through. The biggest mistake I’ve made as a leader is not addressing problems when I see them. You believe and hope that things or people will change without intervention or confrontation, but they never do. Your team sees the lack of action, gets frustrated and loses focus.  Without exception, whenever I’ve dilly-dallied on a problem, the problem has a negative ripple effect.  When I’ve finally taken action, I always ask myself – “why the hell did I not do that sooner?”. I tend not to dilly-dally so much these days!

Suzi: I know you and I have spoken a little in the past about the role of intuition in good decision making – like following your gut when you first came across Ella (Lorde). When has listening to your gut feeling or intuition served you?

Adam: Pretty much every day. I know I have spoken about getting fresh new blood into the business to re-invigorate the thinking and the knowledge base of the company, but within the music industry, intuition is vital and that generally comes from experience. With artists you learn something new every day and every deal and relationship is bespoke, but it’s amazing how past experiences can help you see the bigger picture, or give you pointers on the best way to approach things.

With such constant change happening in our business, there is a lot more cross checking of decisions and knowledge acquisition going on. However, when it comes to music itself, good ears and gut instinct is all you need.

Signing the Exponents when everyone else had written them off was a gut instinct decision. I knew they had more to give and that Jordan was still one of New Zealand’s greatest writers. The first single we did was Why Does Love Do This To Me which of course is now considered one of the greatest Kiwi songs of all time – so the instinct was working that day!

Jordan Luck and Adam Holt.

Jordan Luck and Adam Holt.

Lorde was one of those very rare occasions where a counter-intuitive approach paid off. Ella is a true genius, a child of the internet with a singular and highly intelligent vision. We could have trampled on in with our experience and knowledge telling her what to do, but fortunately we were smart enough to know not to second guess her.

To leave a 15 year old teenager alone to set the direction of her own career was a gut instinct decision – and the best one we made. If we had tried to shape her through what we knew and what we felt, we would never have achieved what we have with Lorde to date. The truth is, Ella is so smart she would have told us to bugger off even if we had tried!

I think after 30 years in the business, you should have a pretty good gut instinct, but I’m pretty excited to see some young crew joining us recently whose senses are right on the money.  I think that just goes to prove that experience in our business only counts for so much. When it comes to music, intuition is king – you either get it or you don’t.

Suzi: Who (and what) are you listening to at the moment? Which emerging artists should we keep an eye (and ear) out for?

I’m loving some great new songs from a guy called D.A. Wallach. He’s quite brilliant both as a musician, a writer and a business executive. He’s a really interesting character and his first two solo singles are genius. Can’t wait for the album to drop. I think New Zealand’s Broods have made a great record and I strongly recommend getting into the Sam Smith album.

I’m also listening to a lot of U2 right now as well. I got tipped off about this brilliant and very funny podcast called “Are You Talkin’ U2 to Me?” by Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation) and Scott Aukerman (Comedy Bang Bang). It’s hilarious stuff from two guys who love U2. It’s made me go back and listen to U2 again, something I hadn’t done in ages.

About Adam Holt

Adam Holt is the Chairman of Universal Music New Zealand and a Director of Recorded Music New Zealand. Holt began his career in music playing in bands in Auckland in the late 70s and managing record stores in the early 80’s. His recording industry career began at Festival Records in 1988 as a radio plugger before moving to PolyGram NZ in 1990. In 1992 he moved to Polydor Records Australia, a division of PolyGram and a leading label in Australian music in the 90s, before becoming managing director of the company in 1997.

In 2001, Holt was appointed Managing Director of Universal Music NZ and over the past 13 years he has been at the centre of the significant transformational change that the music industry has experienced. In his role Holt has worked closely with a number of great New Zealand artists who have enjoyed strong success both domestically and internationally.

As a director of Recorded Music New Zealand, Holt is a strong advocate for the promotion of New Zealand artists and for the New Zealand music industry.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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