Former colleagues, long-term friends and close associates have been shocked and saddened to learn that one of the music industry’s most influential figures, John Preston, has passed away after a brief illness.
John made an outstanding contribution to the British music industry for well over three decades but most especially during the 1980s and 1990s – a period of remarkable growth for the sector, when he was Managing Director of Polydor Records UK (1984 – 1985), Managing Director of RCA Records UK (1985 – 1989) and then Chairman of BMG Entertainment (1989 – 1998).
John graduated from Oxford before beginning his career in music in the early-to-mid 1970s working for Bruce Findlay’s chain of Bruce’s Record Shops in Scotland. In 1977 He moved to EMI Records in artist development, working with Kate Bush before joining Decca. John was a long-standing member of BPI Council for much of the 1990s, including two years as BPI Chairman (1996 – 1997) and as a director of Universal Publishing. John was additionally a trustee of the music industry charity The BRIT Trust during its formative years (1994 – 1998).
These positions of leadership within the music industry do not tell the whole story, however. It was a source of great pride to John that he was the first record company Chairman to promote two women to the rank of label managing director (Lisa Anderson to RCA and Diana Graham to Arista). A third female executive, Alison Wenham, ran Conifer Records – initially independently, but then under his Chairmanship as part of the BMG umbrella.
Many iconic artists have emerged under his tenure, not least Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, M People and Take That, whilst the early careers of such luminary record label executives as Simon Cowell, Hugh Goldsmith, David Joseph, Jeremy Marsh, and Korda Marshall flourished under John Preston’s direction.
John recognised the vital importance of raising the profile of the industry and engaging with policymakers to help shape and secure its future prospects. Former Home Secretary Jack Straw and Prime Minister Tony Blair were amongst his friends.
John Preston always liked to steer his own course, however, and, whilst still at the peak of his powers as the new Millennium dawned, in 1998 he chose to leave the industry that he loved and had done so much to build. He and his beloved wife Roz moved to Lyme Regis in Dorset to train at the Boatbuilding School there so that, as Preston and Preston, they could build their very own boat. Seven years and a labour of love later “Sweet Dreams” was finally completed, enabling John and Roz to live out their passion by sailing it extensively around Europe. John then spent time developing the famous Hospital members’ club in Covent Garden for Paul Allen.
The recorded music industry has come together to offer their profound condolences to John’s widow Roz and to his close family and friends, and to pay fulsome tribute as follows:
Annie Lennox said:
“It’s very challenging to write about John in the past tense. His passing seems premature and untimely. I’m barely processing this very sad news through the qualities that immediately spring to mind as I think of him with much affection. He was kind, thoughtful, highly intelligent, compassionate, gentle, humorous, supportive, trustworthy, loyal, decent and honourable. It’s unusual to encounter these attributes in people working at the top of an industry known more for it’s hard driven cut- throat competitiveness.
“John had a deep passion for music. His heart and soul remained intact. He was a thoroughly good man – a rare diamond. Dave and I appreciated everything he did, for and with us. We can only extend our heartfelt deepest sympathy to Roz – his life partner and greatest love.”
Dave Stewart said:
“In addition to being an amazing business leader, John Preston became one of my great friends. The thing about John is that he understood artists. I remember when Annie and I first started working with him, he was such a fan and was delighted to hear me say we would have an album to release on 1st May. I told him we were going in the studio the next day. John said “can I hear the demos?” and I replied, “no, we haven’t written any songs yet”. From that moment on he understood the Eurythmics were a different kettle of fish. We delivered the album exactly on time and it was full of hits.
“When John retired, Annie and I sprang a surprise on him for his leaving party. It was a tiny little place in Kensal Road, upstairs at Cobden Working Men’s Club. We were hiding and as we came on stage, he started crying. He used to cry a lot but it was such a sweet thing because he was a really sensitive person. That made it very easy to connect with him as an artist. Artists felt akin to him even though he was a CEO and steered a big ship. He had a gentle side to him that was actually quite rare in such a tough business. This is a really sad moment for me.
“John was one of these people who wanted to enjoy his life and live for every moment. He spent five years building a yacht with his wife Roz that they called Sweet Dreams. They sailed it all over the place. Some people come through your life and you move around, but the great moments with John and Roz stick in my mind forever.”
Simon Cowell said:
“John was one of my first bosses at BMG and an absolute gentleman to work with. He inspired incredible loyalty and I owe a lot to him. I am sending his family my thoughts and prayers. He will be greatly missed.”
Alison Wenham, CEO WIN, said:
“John was one of the industry’s giants. He was an inspirational boss, a scrupulously fair man with an infectious energy which made him a joy to be around. He brought an intellectual rigour to the industry and was crucial in steering us successfully through the MMC enquiry into CD pricing. His untimely death is such a loss. I will always have fond memories of John and send love to Roz, to his friends and family.”
Andy Heath, UK Music Chairman, said:
“John Preston always had a smile about him and it was always a pleasure to be with him. He was always courteous, correct but a formidable negotiator behind that bonhomie. For a man who held exalted positions in the music industry, he maintained a wonderful relationship with artists that he worked with. I remember at a party thrown for him, the Eurythmics reformed for that one night and anyone who works with world-famous artists knows what a compliment that is.
“I was so saddened and shocked at the news of his death. We have lost a great ambassador for our industry and a very bright, intelligent and witty executive, he will be greatly missed. Our thoughts go to his wife Roz and all his friends and family.”
Bruce Findlay, Artist Manager (Simple Minds/China Crisis/The Silencers) & John’s first boss at Bruce's Record Shops, said:
“There are so many things I could say about John, but I will simply add that he had impeccable taste in music and he was a great friend for almost 50 years....I'm going to miss him terribly.”
David Joseph, Chairman & CEO Universal Music UK, said:
“John was so extraordinarily generous with his time, encouragement and advice to me personally and everyone at RCA. He created a culture that never felt like work and he absolutely got the best out of everyone to work as one. He was a total gentleman. We've lost a great figure from the world of music.”
Geoff Taylor, Chief Executive BPI & BRIT Awards, said:
“We’re so very sorry to learn of John’s passing. As former colleagues who had the privilege of working with him and who held him in the very highest regard, we share the profound sense of loss with his wife Roz, and with his close family and friends, to whom we extend our profound condolences.
“John was a luminary who contributed hugely to our industry – leading some of its most dynamic record labels with his pioneering approach at a time of remarkable growth and success for the industry. In the process he helped to launch and develop the careers of iconic artists and talented young music executives. We will also always be grateful for the direction he helped to give the BPI as its Chairman and as a Council member, and for his important work as a valued trustee of The BRIT Trust in the charity’s formative years. He will be greatly missed.”
Rob Dickins C.B.E., said: “For John, taken too soon…a rare intellectual in our business, a lover of music, a leader, a gentleman and a friend. Cherry’s and my thoughts are with Roz who has lost a wonderful husband, first mate and best friend.”
Jeremy Marsh, EVP International Warner Music UK, said: “I’m so profoundly saddened by the news that John has been lost to us, but grateful too that I had the good fortune to have worked with him for the best part of a decade.
“Of all his many qualities his greatest, arguably, was that special and rare ability of being able to harness disparate talents and personalities to forge a hugely effective team. He was a quiet and unassuming man, but it speaks volumes that he was able to successfully balance the particular challenges of managing a fiercely indie label like Deconstruction, the strong personality of a Simon Cowell, and to get the very best out of someone like myself and other young executives coming through. There’s a whole generation that owes him a great deal, and he will be greatly missed.”
Funeral Details will be announced shortly.