Having gotten his start at Warner Music in 1995, Mark Fry worked his way up from a part-time internship to the executive suite, successfully scaling the label ranks over the course of 25 years. He now sits atop the Nordic division whilst also running the Swedish branch, and was kind enough to have me at his office to chat about his time in the Finnish music industry, running Warner Music Sweden and being the President of Warner Music Nordics.
– Hi Mark. Thanks for inviting me over. You started at Warner Music quite early in your career, but what were you doing prior to that in the early 90s?
I was studying Business Administration at the Helsinki University of Applies Sciences. I remember reading Billboard magazine in my dorm and realizing that I could make a career out of my passion by getting a job in the music business. I began wondering if there were record labels in the city that I could apply to. At the time, Finland had Polygram, Sony, Warner, EMI and BMG, so I applied to Warner Music and they gave me a job as a part-time intern in 1995. My role was called “Artist Promotions” and was an entry-level position that involved taking care of small local radio stations by pitching them songs and doing radio tours around the country. It was a good way for me to become familiar with people in the radio world, and a lot of those contacts later became significant figures in the Finnish media industry. That said, studying at university and working at Warner was one of the most exhausting times of my career – I’d work from nine to five and attended evening classes afterwards, all whilst doing my thesis. Once I graduated in 1997, I took on a full-time role at Warner Music Finland as their Head of Promotions.
– You left Warner Music in 2001 to create your own company, Miidia. Talk about that.
I started Miidia with one of my partners and our idea was to work with Nokia by negotiating digital rights contracts for their entertainment portal, Club Nokia, where you could buy ringtones, wallpapers, etc. In order to include branded content, Nokia needed to secure the rights for them, so Miidia negotiated those rights with sports leagues and music companies. During that time, I also managed a Finnish band called Apocalyptica. They became popular by playing Metallica songs on cello, and once Metallica gave them the stamp of approval, the band blew up worldwide. They’re still doing international tours to this day.
– Why did you step away from Miidia in 2004?
A TV show called Idol came to Finland and BMG was their main label partner. The show exploded in popularity, so BMG wanted to maximize everything around it, from sponsorships and marketing to live shows and other opportunities. They knew I was an entrepreneur who’d been experimenting with 360-type deals to create multiple revenue streams, so they approached me and I agreed to work with them on developing that for Idol.
I’d been gone from record labels for three years, but the second I walked in and started talking to the BMG team, I instantly felt that I belonged. Idol became super successful in Finland, so when Sony and BMG merged later in the year, I was given the chance to become the Marketing Director and accepted the role.
– It’s known that certain divisions of Sony/BMG went through difficult times in the mid-2000s, which Per Sundin outlined in our interview. Did the Finnish division experience any similar issues after the merger?
I can’t speak on the international politics since we only focused on the Finnish market, but I worked at Sony/BMG from 2004 – 2008 and things took off for us immediately. We had a great team and became the market leader right away. We had hits from both Idol artists and international acts like System of a Down and Pink. Swedish artists like Kent were also successful in Finland during that time, and we even had a moment that moved the nation when Lordi won Eurovision in 2006, a contest that Finland typically struggled in. Sony/BMG had the idea of submitting the band as our entry, and we came home to 100,000 people on the main square celebrating the victory with helicopters flying around. It was an unforgettable moment.
– The mid-2000s saw the rise of piracy become a bigger problem for the music business. Did Warner Music Finland see its revenues decline due to that?
I think it was a similar situation in all territories. Revenues were declining due to file-sharing sites like Napster and The Pirate Bay, and Finland experienced the same thing. But we weren’t at the center of the battle the way Sweden was; we only watched from the sidelines and contemplated on how the industry would have to reinvent itself, which is why I moved from Sony/BMG to Warner Music in 2008. The new Managing Director at Warner Music Finland wanted to create a dream team of industry people who were the best at what they did. CD sales were declining, so the team was given a blank slate to create a new type of label that would address the loss of physical sales. I joined that team as the Marketing Director, and we took a new approach to brand partnerships, publishing and the live business that ended up being successful.
– Who was the new Managing Director?
It was Niko Nordström. He ran Warner Music Finland from 2008 – 2017, after which he moved to Australia and became the President of Warner Australasia. He came back to Helsinki in 2021 and ran the Finnish office until November 2023, after which Ramona Forsström took over as Managing Director.
– During your stint as Marketing Director at Warner Music, what kinds of artists were you working with?
I’ve always worked with both local and international acts. Warner Music’s international artists were mostly based on the US roster, so it included names like Madonna, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Green Day. In contrast, the local Finnish roster was pretty weak at the time. We had a few superstars but not much beyond that, so the new team sought to change things. We acquired a small live company with its own roster of domestic artists. Additionally, Niko and his A&R, Asko Kallonen, had a small label called Helsinki Music Company with its own roster, so we started off with that and gradually signed more local artists. By hiring the right people to work with them, the artists started taking off, and since we had a label and live music company as a one-stop shop, it made a big difference to our offering in the Finnish market. All the people making decisions about an artist could sit at one table and pursue a common goal, and if there were any conflicting interests, the live office was down the hall so we could talk about things with them.
– Can you outline some of the strategies you guys implemented to break your artists?
Sure. Warner Music Finland didn’t have a global infrastructure for live music, so our live efforts focused almost entirely on domestic artists from 2008 onwards. We have a great relationship with Live Nation and Scorpio, so we collaborated with them on the international side. At the time, arenas and stadiums were mostly reserved for international acts, and domestic names were typically signed to smaller live companies that couldn’t take the financial risk of booking them in such big venues. To compensate, we decided to invest more in marketing – recorded music has always been driven by marketing whereas live music wasn’t, so by initiating multi-level marketing campaigns for live music at different points in an artist’s career, we could take more risks once an artist started taking off. The marketing efforts would kick in during single releases, album releases, smaller tours, arena shows and eventually stadium shows. We might start off with having an artist play a small ice hall, then a bigger arena and finally a stadium. As a result, we consistently brought Finnish artists from clubs to stadiums, which was a cultural impact we’re really proud of.
A key part of our success involved taking note of a show that was, and still is, very successful in Sweden called Så Mycket Bättre (So Much Better), where musicians do covers of each other’s songs. When it came time to produce the Finnish adaptation, titled Vain elämää, Warner Music met with the Finnish production company and asked to be the main music partner since we could offer both recorded and live music. So we helped cast season one, which is the hardest season to cast in a new TV show, and we became their longterm partner in providing artists for a few seasons. Once the show’s ratings took off, it elevated our artists to the next level and we were able to do Så Mycket Bättre arena shows. We had a 360 stage at the Hartwall Arena and sold 26,000 tickets across two nights for the season ender. Once consumers got used to paying for tickets to see domestic artists in arenas, it gave us the courage to start booking our artists in similar venues, which turned our domestic stars into superstars.
Så Mycket Bättre was also an important part of elevating hip-hop in Finland, particularly the pop-driven variety with singable choruses. We started placing those artists on the show and some would become pop stars that played in arenas and stadiums across the country.
– 2008 saw the launch of Spotify and the streaming era began some years after. What kind of changes did you make as Head of Marketing to adjust to the rise of streaming?
Because of our confidence in the live division, we increased our marketing efforts and invested more into creating artist brands. Back then, people were worried about whether acts who’d previously sold CDs would do well with streaming, but we believed our artists would do fine if we could turn them into brands, and once their tours sold out, we felt their streaming numbers would be fine. So we increased our investments because of the multi-revenue approach we had. Rather than cutting back in an attempt to limit the damage from lost CD sales, we did the opposite. As a result, we grew our market share and the artists that we’d broken from 2008 – 2012 ended up streaming just fine.
– Is it true that Warner Music became the biggest label in Finland during this time?
Yes it is. In the 2000s, Sony-BMG and Universal were dominant, with Warner Music being a distant third. During the CD era, any label could change the market-share rankings in just one year by selling a lot of records, so when Warner Music had instant success with the new team in 2008, we started challenging Universal and Sony-BMG, and we became the biggest Finnish label from 2009 – 2017, both in terms of domestic and international acts. Things changed once streaming took over the consumption of music in 2017 because Warner Music’s international back catalog was the smallest. So it wasn’t possible to dominate the international market share anymore, but we were still the biggest domestically.
– Aren’t you still the biggest producer of live shows in Finland?
Domestically, yes. The live company we bought was integrated into Warner Music in 2008. They had two employees at the start and now they have 20.
– In 2012, you became VP of the Nordics whilst still being the Marketing Director of Warner Music Finland. How did that happen?
Jonas Siljemark ran the Nordic division and he wanted more repertoire-driven support in the Nordics to foster collaboration between artists, which would lead to more regional success stories. So I was made VP of Nordic Marketing from 2012 – 2017. The role probably paved the way for my current job, so Jonas might’ve been preparing me to take over after he left.
– Joakim Johannson also had a dual role at Universal when he was both Marketing Director and General Manager. When I asked him, “Did you get paid for two roles?“, he was like, “No, I only get paid for one“.
It was the same for me (laughs).
– You eventually went from being the Marketing Director to the Managing Director of Warner Music Finland in 2017. How did that come about?
After Niko moved to Australia, Jonas called to say, “Niko left. Do you want the gig? “. I answered, “Absolutely“, and he said, “I’ll send you the papers “. That was the conversation (laughs). The underlying context was that I’d been part of the team who contributed to the last ten years of success, and I was basically acting as a General Manager already, having been involved in setting up the live operations, building the roster, etc. So the transition made sense.
– Were there any challenges in the Finnish market that you had to deal with once you took over?
I think the biggest challenge was expectation management. Warner Music Finland had been doing well for so long that it raised the question of how long we could continue. Whenever a label’s management changes, competitors start watching to see what loyalty the artists have to the new leaders, so one of my first steps was to prolong key artist’s deals right away. Then I had to assemble a strong group of leaders that had the freedom to run their own teams. My approach wasn’t to change the whole company since we already had a strong foundation, but we needed someone to be a strong business driver, so I hired a new Commercial Director who had worked in Formula 1 with the likes of Valtteri Bottas. His name was Ville Ahtiainen, and he was a key part in bringing new business to Warner Music. There are a lot of interactions between artists and athletes in the entertainment space, but most of the brand sponsorship money still goes to the athletes. Thanks to Ville bringing his sports contacts to the music world, he channeled some of that money towards our artists.
– One of the notable label acquisitions made during your time as Managing Director was that of Monsp, a well-known hiphop label. How did you pull that off?
Monsp was a very credible indie label that most major hip-hop artists released their first or second albums on from the late 90s to the mid-2010s. Many people in the industry had tried to acquire them, and we were lucky to succeed and incorporate them into Warner Finland. Keijo Kiiskinen, the owner of Monsp, knew that Warner traditionally had a close relationship with the artists and took artist development seriously. During the 90s, Warner Finland had bought up most of the Finnish catalogs released from the 30s to the 70s, so we knew how to take care of catalogs, and I think Keijo was convinced we’d do the same with his.
– Once Jonas retired from the position of Nordic President, did you take over his role immediately?
Yes. Jonas had been with the company for eighteen years and chose to leave in early 2021, so Warner Music had to find a successor. The company has always been good at considering internal candidates and saw that I had the right background given my international work and previous role as VP of Nordic Marketing. So I got the job.
– Was it a requirement for the position that you moved from Helsinki to Stockholm?
I didn’t really think about it. I brought my wife and two kids with me and it became a natural start of the new position. Also, I feel like Stockholm is the music capital of the Nordics. Apart from New York, London and LA, I feel like Sweden is closest to the core of music pop culture. To be honest, you’re probably closer to the core of LA’s music world by living in Stockholm than you are living in LA because of the songwriting and producer talent here, as well as the stars you bump into who’re writing their albums in the city.
– How was your first year as the head of Warner Music Sweden?
During my first year on the job, I told the A&Rs that I wouldn’t comment much on their signings because I first needed to listen to the radio and Spotify playlists to understand the Swedish music scene. That way, I’d be able to participate more in the following year, which is what happened.
– Given your dual role, does there ever arise a conflict over whose interests you should pursue? The local versus regional?
Not at all. I learned how to tackle that dynamic in my previous role as VP of Nordic Marketing. It used to be a challenge, but now I know how to split my time between running the Swedish company and the Nordic one, so I don’t have problems separating the two.
– What’s your role as the President of the Nordics? Is it making sure each Warner label in each territory is doing well?
Yes, that’s the main thing, in addition to communicating with our international headquarters about how we’re developing the region. That could include A&R matters, HR stuff, financial questions, etc. I’m also guiding the local Managing Directors and Finance Directors by giving them a vision to work towards, which includes weekly support for their activities and showing them how to collaborate with their Nordic colleagues.
The thing that separates Warner Music from its competitors is the collaboration that takes place amongst our countries. Our structure isn’t just based on shared finances and admin – it extends to marketing and collaboration among our A&Rs, and it makes a big difference for Nordic artists when they have a region of 30 million people as their market rather than five or ten million in each country.
– Can you talk more about this Nordic collaboration structure? What are examples of past success stories?
Ten years ago, we created a Nordic marketing structure that mainly served international artists. We also developed priority systems for the Nordics, but one of our key questions was “How do we get the Nordic A&Rs to collaborate with each other and how do you encourage cultural curiosity? “. Swedish A&Rs typically look to the US and UK for their collaborations, and they tend to question whether Norwegian artists can break here. Collabs with the Danish get overlooked because they have a different language and Finland even more so, but language means less than ever now that the music consumption is so democratic, so how can you combine audiences? At Warner Music, we tried to show our A&Rs through case examples, the best of which was A36’s “Samma Gamla Vanliga“, which went number one in Sweden. It had 15 million streams, and labels would typically be satisfied with that, but we made Finnish, Norwegian and Danish remixes with rappers in each country. That took the streams from 15 million in Sweden to 90 million in the Nordics. The track spent 70 days at number 1 in Finland, was top 3 everywhere and was the first international track nominated for a Finnish Grammy. That’s when our A&Rs started realizing what can happen when we collaborate across the Nordics. So just by being culturally curious, artists will do better by getting access to a larger fanbase and international opportunities. That’s where Kabiru Bello comes in, our VP of International A&R; his main job is bringing artists together globally and in the Nordics.
– What are your thoughts on the Swedish music industry and its track record in creating global stars?
Coming from Finland, I’ve always seen Sweden as a land of exports in regards to producers and songwriters, but when it comes to artists, I think Sweden’s recent reputation has been larger than the results. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though – it actually means there’s opportunities for expansion in that space. In the past, the local languages of each country were dominant, which meant the most profitable way of doing business was for artists to focus locally. Now that language means less than ever, you can have viral moments popping up through Tik Tok and other platforms. Ricky Rich’s “Habibi” is a good example. I think the Albanian remix started resonating in certain parts of Germany and then it took off. So Sweden can certainly create stars, though it’s never easy to produce someone at the level of George Michael or Mariah Carey.
– What do you think is the biggest challenge in the Swedish music industry right now?
I don’t think we have any challenges that are too worrying – it’s more about how to cut through the noise in the market. Even though today’s acts can release their own music, everybody’s doing that, so I’d like to think record companies are more important than ever in helping artists to break through. That said, we do have to ask how labels can reposition themselves so their offering is more meaningful for artists. So rather than reacting to pop culture moments, we should create those moments together with artists as a partnership. Warner Music wants to be the closest partner to the artists, as well as embrace new opportunities and be forward leaning with things like AI and opportunities in the Metaverse.
– Wrapping up, who are some of the standout music executives you’ve met in your years in the business?
Asko Kallonen is a legendary A&R in Finland and also the wisest music industry executive I’ve ever met. He’s a former hockey player and a kundalini yoga teacher, and has a mindset that’s second to none.
My former boss, Jonas Siljemark, was a good mentor on how to adopt a Nordic approach and be culturally curious in the music business, so I intend to continue his legacy with that.
– Thanks for talking to me, Mark. It’s been a pleasure. What will you be focusing on for the end of 2023 and into next year?
My focus will be on maximizing domestic impact. The recent successes with artists like C.Gambino, Peg Parnevik, Jubel, Bolaget and Miriam Bryant are all examples of that. We really want to give our competitors a run for their money, so we’ve been making some great moves. Domestic artists in Sweden and the Nordics are finding that Warner Music is a superior home for them, and they see how we can elevate their careers, not only on a local and regional level but also internationally. So we’ll be building on that momentum.