Cindy James is the quiet achiever. The Australian-born label executive is a music streaming pro, a big player in the Big Apple, where she serves as VP of streaming & playlisting strategy for Island Records.
James has a reputation for identifying industry trends way ahead of time, and has been characterised by her colleagues as a “force” in music and pop culture. At Island, the Sydney native plays point on streaming strategies with focus on Spotify, Soundcloud, and more. Alongside the commerce team, Cindy works on release planning and consumption projects on streaming platforms in the United States, the world’s biggest streaming music market.
Those artists include Shawn Mendes, Lovato, Nick Jonas, Fall Out Boy and Australia’s own Dean Lewis.
Prior to joining Universal Music Group in NYC in late 2017, James accululated more than 10 years’ experience working in senior positions with Sony Music in Australia, the U.K. and U.S., rising to senior director of streaming & playlisting strategy at the music giant’s New York office.
TIO spoke with the high-flyer about her career, the ever-evolving streaming space and Australians’ “get it done” attitude.
Cindy, congrats on the Island gig. How did you get your “international” break in this business?
Thank you. It was the experience from past roles within record labels working across physical, download and into streaming that opened the opportunity to move from Sydney to London, and then onto New York.
Before moving to the U.K., I was leading the Australian digital sales, operations and web development teams at Sony Music Australia, in addition to working on the digital and business development across the Asia Pacific region. I was working closely with the global digital business team in London and New York at the time, and the head of the division asked if I would be interested in a new role he was looking to create based in London. Before I knew it, my husband, our Labrador x Border Collie and I were all on a plane to the U.K.
Many Aussies spend time living and working in London, myself included. Not so many make it to New York. How did you make that happen?
My role in the U.K. was a global position which required a lot of travel and exposure to all territories around the world. I was working on global artist campaigns and release strategies for the likes of One Direction, Calvin Harris, and Kygo while building best practices and monitoring market growth for both Spotify and Amazon across all territories worldwide.
I spent almost two years in this role when Sony Music’s head of the U.S. sales team reached out about a similar position he was looking to create in the U.S… The role focused on developing strategies for the U.S. market across the streaming accounts, playlist and data landscape while leading the Spotify and Pandora account teams and the playlist brand “Filtr” for the U.S. market.
At the end of 2017 after almost ten years and three countries with Sony Music, I moved over to Island Records within the Universal Music Group, remaining in New York City in another newly created position of vice president, streaming & playlisting strategy. Each of these positions is an extension to the previous, which has made every opportunity feel like a natural evolution.
There’s a stereotype that Aussies fit in well in the U.K. and U.S., due to our attitude and our ability to get stuff done. What’s your experience on that?
I think that due to the high exposure to Australians, the British recognise the “get it done” attitude as part of the Australian culture, where it’s less known as a cultural norm in the States. It’s also related to the economy of scale where the population in both the U.K. and the U.S. is significantly greater than Australia, so I’ll often see three people doing the same job that one person would be doing in a music industry gig in Australia. Because of this exposure to “multiple roles,” Australians can cross skill themselves quite quickly, often out of necessity to get through the workload.
You’re working for Island Records, the label launched by the legendary Chris Blackwell. Have you had a chance to meet him and learn from him?
We have not met each other yet. However, Darcus, our company president, and Eric, our COO, work closely with Chris on different initiatives. Darcus started his career at Island Records in London when he was 18 years old and has had the opportunity to work with Chris and has become quite close with him over Darcus’ 24 years at the label.
Eric also has an incredible tenure with Island, having first joined the company in 1997. It’s inspiring to be led by two leaders who have been with the company for as long as they have.
This year is the 60th anniversary of Island Records, and both Darcus and Eric are working closely with Chris to bring the label’s incredible story to life throughout a range of artist initiatives that will run all year long.
What tips can you share for other Aussies coming through the music business with an eye to heading overseas?
I’ve learned the importance of relationships. The industry is small, and you’re likely to come across co-workers and acquaintances in other corners of the world again, so upholding good-standing associations with those you interact with is essential. My advice is that if you want to work overseas, take risks, and network with integrity. I have seen associates attempt sponsorship both from Australia and while living abroad, and if you don’t have the opportunity to move internally with your company, you may have a higher success rate being employed overseas if you are already on the ground and building your network. Working abroad is something I would recommend anyone thinking about doing, to do. It is the most incredible experience you’ll ever have.
Ever since Gotye smashed through, we’ve seen some healthy international love for Aussie artists. Are you seeing that impact?
Absolutely. Aussie artist Dean Lewis is having incredible success globally right now, including in the U.S. where his single ‘Be Alright’ has just surpassed platinum and became the No. 1 song in the country on the Hot AC Radio Airplay charts! The single stayed Top 40 on Billboard’s Hot 100 charts for 12 months after the song’s release.
Dean’s album project has been an incredibly fun one to work on, not only because he’s a fellow Aussie achieving so much success here in the States, but because he is a true breaking artist that we can develop with all our partners.
The song started at Spotify with regular features in the “New Music Friday” and “Pop Rising” playlists. After a few weeks of the song reacting incredibly well, the single was upstreamed into “Today’s Top Hits,” Spotify’s biggest playlist globally with over 20 million followers.
At this point, the song was sitting outside Spotify U.S.’s Top 50 charts. To help push the song into the Top 50 and increase Dean’s exposure within the platform, we released a vertical video into the service which sat inside many of Spotify’s key playlists. Once you’re in the Top 50 chart, your exposure expands exponentially due to the number of listeners who stream the “United States Top 50” chart playlist every week.
This playlist is one of Spotify US’s Top 10 most listened to playlists on the service. From here, Apple Music’s playlist support gained even more momentum, with ‘Be Alright’ receiving Top 3 placement in one of their flagship playlists ‘Today’s Hits’ and spread in many other corners of their ecosystem. The weight in streams from Apple Music’s contribution to the Billboard Hot 100 was enough to push the song into the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
From there, we worked with Pandora to pull their levers and increase Dean’s exposure across their platform. Due to the sheer volume of spins that Pandora’s 70 million monthly active listeners generate, Dean’s Billboard chart position continued to catapult. From here, U.S. radio started to come on board in a big way. The spins from traditional radio, coupled with the incredible amount of fans Dean has collected along the way, generating repeat streams, has led to the incredible commercial success Dean is experiencing.
Another major proponent to Dean’s achievement is the amount of time he has spent in the States. His work ethic is second-to-none, having gone to almost every radio station and toured almost all of the major cities across the country over the past year, and winning the hearts of industry and fans.
We are now gearing up for his next single off the album. He has just completed another sold-out national tour — and preparing for another tour, including the major festival circuit — and performed on major U.S. TV shows including Jimmy Kimmel, The Today Show, and Ellen. Dean is an Apple Music global “Up Next” artist, has had incredible Spotify support which includes outdoor advertising with a billboard in Times Square, is one of Amazon’s 2019 “Artists to Watch” and continues to be supported by Pandora. It’s just the beginning for Dean.
Dean Lewis, ‘Be Alright’
What’s your day-to-day like?
I start my day looking through all the previous day’s playlist additions and how both audiences, and songs are reacting. I spend a lot of time referencing the consumer behaviour and the way the consumer is interacting with our releases to identify the songs’ trajectory and build the narrative of what is going on with each project in context to the overall landscape and build recommendations for the different departments to adapt or accelerate our strategies accordingly. I work very closely with A&R, marketing, digital marketing, radio, the artists and artist management.
I have a daily dialogue and regular music meetings with our streaming partners and playlist editors and multiple senior management meetings through the week where we talk through every project, discussing updates and tactics to continue pushing the music further.
We listen to brand new music and build-out plans. It’s all very collaborative within the teams. One of the exciting things about being in such a big city like New York is that we always have an artist in town and performing. So, multiple nights a week we are out at shows watching our artists live.
How often do you come home? Do you see the family for Christmas?
We just had our first child, a little girl this past December, so we stayed here in New York for the holidays. I was lucky enough to have family come and visit us, which was a special time, and we just went back in April for a quick visit. This was the first time back to Australia in two years, so it was nice to take our new addition to the family home to meet those that couldn’t be here when over the holidays.
Technology makes our time away from home much more manageable. Having the ability to video call and instant message family and friends keeps us incredibly close together.