By Jack Robert Stacey | Editor-in-Chief
On the surface, music can seem like a turbulent and chaotic industry. All around the world, bands and labels are constantly vying to find ‘the next big thing’ and leave their own, definitive mark on the modern cultural landscape. Even within the industry itself, the recent rise of streaming platforms has forced labels to adapt and re-consider the relationship between artistic creativity and commercial-led statistics.
With all of this in mind, the prospect of breaking down the career of an industry giant like Julie Weir can understandably feel like a daunting task in itself. Looking back at over twenty years in the music industry, Weir sat down with Gair Rhydd to discuss her humble origins as an independent label head alongside the key challenges currently facing the industry at large.
In short, Weir begins, her career has been equal parts “terrifying” and “absolutely staggering.”
Since joining Sony Music back in April 2016, Weir has stood as the Label Head for ‘Music for Nations’, the British independent record label responsible for signing legendary artists like Metallica, Tank and Slayer. Self-styled as “the naughty corner of Sony Music UK”, Music for Nations remains to be one of the most successful and well-established rock/metal labels in Europe.
Weir stepped up to take control of Music for Nations after Sony decided to revive the label in 2015.
As someone with a close connection “to the heritage of the label”, Weir said that she relished the opportunity to build on its original catalogue of artists, but was mindful to retain the rebellious, alternative spirit that was (and continues to be) central to its brand.
“We are rebellious in the nicest way considering we work with a lot of noisy music”, she jests. “My team in the office is really small, but we’re lucky because we work in such a specialist sphere that we never get told what to do – Nobody really understands what we do and I like that.”
“On a daily basis,” Weir explains, her team is committed to finding creative ways to support their artists and open them up to new opportunities to grow and develop.
Within the music industry, she continues, “the onus is very much on the artist to make some noise, but in order for that noise to be made, they still need to grab some attention.”
Throughout her time at Sony Music, Weir and her team have collaborated with a range of high-street fashion and perfume brands in order to promote their artists even further. Most recently, Weir added that she has been working closely with partners in the gaming industry as part of an upcoming collaborative project – A project that she believes demonstrates the growing interconnectedness of music with other cultural and technological sectors.
With Music for Nations being “very niche compared to the rest of the company”, Weir added that her team have a lot of creative freedom and are therefore able to take a more hands-on approach with their artists. “It’s being able to see talent and being able to spot the possibilities and where things can go in the future,” she says.
“My interest in this is signing bands and developing them all the way through – That’s where the pleasure in this comes from.”
Signing artists and promoting diversity
Alongside this focus on helping to develop artists, another key consideration for Weir is to provide a platform for a more diverse range of voices to be heard.
Similar questions of representation have remained at the forefront of many recent discussions in and around the music industry. As echoed by the 2019 USC Anneberg Music Report, whilst the industry has made definitive progress in terms of representation and inclusion, male artists continue to dominate with female artists holding only 22.5% of the top-performing songs.
At Music for Nations, Weir said that she is committed to tackling this problem head-on and improving the visibility of female artists from a ‘grassroots’ perspective.
Since last June, the label has been working closely with ‘Witch Fever’, an outspoken LGBTQ+ doom-punk/grunge band that Weir sees as her own “personal pet project”.
“If I was in a band and I was in my early 20s,” she poses, “that’s the band I would have been in.”
As an industry that has been recognised for its tendency “to ‘knock the corners off’ of artists”, Weir said that she admires bands like ‘Witch Fever’ for staying true to themselves and for not compromising on who they are: “A lot of bands come into a label as X and leave as Y, but we sign artists because we like what they do and appreciate what they do.”
When looking to sign new artists, Weir and her team are “always looking for someone who knows what they are and what they want to be so we can just take that and amplify it.” “We don’t want to change them,” she remarks, “we want to allow them to be the best version of themselves.”
Weir’s early career in the music industry
For Weir, however, taking charge of Music for Nations was not without its fair share of challenges; as someone who has spent over 20 years operating independent record labels, she knew she would have to make some adjustments when making the move across to working for Sony Music.
“I felt like the new kid for the first time in my entire life,” Weir says. “At first, going in as label head was a bit daunting as everything felt very different to the little independent bubble I was used to.”
After spending a number of years working with local bands around Leeds, Weir kickstarted her career in the music industry at the British independent label, ‘Cacophonous Records’. Progress from this point was rapid; she moved up the ranks from merchandising manager to label head, eventually leading Weir to establish her own label, ‘Visible Noise’, in 1995.
“My background is indie music,” she explains, “it’s always been shaped around independent rock and alternative sound – I’m not personally musical, but I have always been interested in music and have always found that music has been part of my life.”
Throughout this early period, Weir confessed that she “was always on the side of the artist” which, as an independent label with a limited budget, would occasionally create financial uncertainties.
Despite this, the label found success with metal/alt-rock bands like ‘Bring Me The Horizon’ and ‘Lostprophets’ – The former of which recently collaborated with Ed Sheeran with a headline performance at the BRIT Awards 2022.
Looking back, Weir said that her experiences at labels like Visible Noise and Cacophonous Records were a challenging, but very formative time that has given her an appreciation for the so-called ‘independent sphere’: “If I hadn’t of done that,” she says, “it wouldn’t have equipped me for where I am now.”
“Your skillset,” she considers, “is very different when you have had to exist out on your own limb.” Confined to tight budgets and often long hours in an increasingly competitive industry, Weir said that she takes her “hat off to the people who are running indies now”.
Sony Music and the music industry at large
Now, over five years since joining Music for Nations, Weir said that these early experiences have helped to give her a perspective on all sides of the industry, both independently and as a part of a major label. As she explains, a key part of her role involves balancing her own creativity or ‘gut instinct’ with the detailed statistics that Sony Music has access to.
Within the Sony building itself, Weir explains that “there are structures for everything, there is programming for everything” that her team might need to consider when approaching an artist.
Whilst these resources help to inform the decisions Weir makes on a daily basis, she is mindful not to focus solely on stats and, instead, recognises that “music is a people industry.”
For those on the outside, she considers, “the music industry might seem like some kind of monster where we’re all banging on tables at each other and shouting all the time, but that’s not true.” “It’s such a collaborative atmosphere,” she says, “if someone needs something, they can just ask someone else in the building and share – It’s not like a ‘Hunger Games’ scenario where people are pitted against each other.”
Looking back over her time working alongside bands like ‘Bring Me The Horizon’ and ‘Witch Fever’, Weir said that she feels a real sense of accomplishment for having the opportunity to take these bands and promote them throughout the world. For Weir, setting aside the more commercial nature of the industry, there is something undeniably compelling about “working with a band over 7-8 years and really developing them” – A focus that will remain key for the team at Music for Nations moving forwards.
“I still get excited when I see someone wearing a T-shirt of a band I signed, I’m quite childish, but I think it’s the little things like that I love about my work.”
“It’s amazing to be part of [Music for Nations] and it’s really refreshing to see that people come to us because of our experience.”