Martin Jessurun’s father always wanted him to be a doctor, but he was drawn more to the music industry. After working part time as a DJ (with his own drive-in show, no less) and a stint working at record store Kareltje in Utrecht, he knew he’d found his niche, and ever since then Martin has been all about the music. As president of Warner Music Benelux, he oversees an impressive roster of Dutch and international recording artists.
‘I don’t need to do anything’
‘I think I’ve always decided myself what to do and how to do it, and have never felt forced in that sense. It started at a young age, when my father told me he wanted me to be a doctor when I grew up. I dislike the idea of having to do anything. I started making money, and getting involved in music, at a young age. I’ve always had an interest in music as long as I can remember. Being able to make my own decisions was always more important to me than anything, and I ended up moving to Hilversum to find work in the music industry.’
‘I joined Warner – which was then still known as Warner-Elektra-Atlantic (WEA) – when I was 23 years old. My first job was as a press promoter, but since that wasn’t really my thing, I switched to radio promoter one year later. After 10 years, I was offered the job of marketing director, and in 2007 I took over as president. As a record label, Warner Music Benelux acts as a liaison between our recording artists and their audiences. We operate worldwide and promote our artists and their music to millions of people. I’m at the head of the organisation, and two of the most important parts of my job are artist development and employee development. I also oversee the management team and liaise with the international head office and other employees at our international offices. I also have a public role, which involves representing the company in media relations and serving as a spokesperson.’
Warner is a traditional record company with its head office – an elegant villa in a leafy neighbourhood – in Hilversum. Martin knew what he was doing when he picked the building, preferring this warm, homely residential property with its lovely garden to a modern office building, which he thinks of as “ice boxes.”
‘I wanted a place where people would know what sort of company we are as soon as they walk in the door: a record company brimming with positive energy. Instead of cold, minimalistic and sterile spaces, we offer a warm and friendly environment where people – whether they’re artists, employees or visitors – feel right at home.’
Creativity always comes first
‘The whole digital revolution has changed the way we operate over the past two decades: in what format we release our music, who we market it to and how people listen to it... But our business hasn’t changed fundamentally: we continue to discover and develop our artists, help increase their fan base and making sure their music is available on all the main platforms, including traditional record shops, online retailers and streaming services.’
‘Back in the old days, simply having a catchy tune would be enough. If a song was infectious and had a good beat, you knew it would turn out to be a hit. It takes a lot more than that these days – every performer needs a story, and that story needs to be unique to boot. Storytelling in all its facets has become important. Social media has opened up possibilities for artists to show people more of their lives. The flip side is that they’re also expected to show a lot more: what food and drink they consume, how they spend their days, and so on. All this calls for a lot more creativity than before. You should try to make the most of the resources available to us today, such as data. R&A (Research & Analysis) plays a huge role, but only after an artist has released their music – it can’t predict whether this or that performer will be successful. Every artist is unique, so you need to be willing to take risks and listen to your gut feeling when deciding whether to sign and support a particular act.’
Being there for people
Martin feels it’s important to make time for people, and personal interaction is very much part of his management style. He believes you need to make both artists and employees feel that they matter and belong. This makes personal, face-to-face contact all the more valuable.
‘I visited a producer called Huub Rijnders in Haarlem last Wednesday, to listen to the new album by Tout Va Bien (musical solo project of the Belgian singer-songwriter Jan-Wouter Van Gestel). I didn’t listen to it on my computer, but in the space where it was recorded. Next, I was off to Antwerp, to meet with (Flemish rock band) de Kreuners. We hadn’t met in person before, so it was about time we got together.’
Martin regularly interacts with performers and employees in a variety of settings, attending events such as the Noorderslag, Pukkelpop and Rock Werchter festivals and the Edison Awards.
‘When my entire team is spending three whole days at the Lowlands festival to work and, of course, to party, I think I should be right there with them on one of the days. If you can’t be bothered anymore to put in an appearance, what are you still doing in this business?’
‘No matter how you slice it, there is a doctor inside me somewhere. I’m fascinated by people, what drives them and what makes them tick. I also like to be surrounded by people and draw inspiration from our artists, my colleagues, family and good friends. They’re all regular people, just like me. I don’t really look up to anyone – or down, for that matter. At Warner, people should be able to be themselves, be able to make mistakes and celebrate successes. But it’s especially important to me that they can always share their opinion no matter what. My door is always open to everyone – I wouldn’t have it any other way.’
What makes him proud?
‘The entertainment industry is highly dynamic and changing rapidly. Looking back on the past year, I’m very proud of our alliance with the 9292 travel app. Consumers who use this app to check timetables are offered custom-made playlists, tailored to the length of the journey and the passenger’s Spotify play history. We will be soon start working with them even more closely. Another fun project was the Ed Sheeran pop-up store, which sold exclusive merchandise. It’s a fine example of how you can mobilise people even when the artist himself is not available for promotional duties.’
‘But what I’m especially proud of is our company’s growth in recent years, the people who work here, and the new acts we’ve signed. That takes creativity, gut feeling, and making the right decisions. Of course, I’m well aware of the targets set by the company, but an environment where people are given the opportunity to develop, fail from time to time and create their own identities ultimately contributes the most to our success as a company.’
‘Sure, I think about the near and more distant future sometimes, but I mostly live in the present. The nature of the business I’m in and the many changes we deal with certainly have something to do with that. As for the future, I’m focussed more on the company as a whole than on my specific role within it. I do know, however, that I want to continue working with people in the future: mentoring people, encouraging them and contributing to their development. Quite similar to my current job, in other words. That’s what seems to suit my personality and what I find most stimulating.’
Hilversum and beyond
Warner Music Benelux has been based in Hilversum from the very start, and their current location feels like a second home both to employees and to the artists who pop in regularly. ‘This place embodies what we’re about as a company. The company has grown in size. We established a local division for Dutch acts in 2013 and continue to expand. We’re located in the best spot in town. What more do you want?’
Lessons from the maker
‘Be yourself! Stay true to yourself; follow your heart and trust your instincts. Don’t be afraid to stick your neck out, take risks, and live life to the fullest!’