John Preston, the former BMG Entertainment chairman who guided the careers of the Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, M People and Take That and many more stars of the ‘70s through to the ‘90s, has died after a brief illness. He was 67.
“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,” notes the BPI in a tribute to the late executive, who served as chairman of the trade body from 1996-1997.
During his career, Preston served as Managing Director of Polydor Records UK (1984 – 1985), Managing Director of RCA Records UK (1985 – 1989) and then Chairman of BMG Entertainment (1989 – 1998), with executive stints at Decca and Universal Publishing along the way. Preston was also a trustee of the music industry charity The BRIT Trust during its formative years (1994 – 1998).
A graduate of Oxford University, Preston began his career in the 1970s, initially working for the chain of Bruce’s Record Shops in Scotland, before taking an artist development role with EMI Records in 1977. At EMI, Preston worked with the label’s young signing, Kate Bush. His career flourished and didn’t slow down until he stepped away — by his own choice — in the late ’90s.
He is recognised as being 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, (now chair and CEO of Worldwide Independent Network) ran Conifer Records, initially independently, but then under his chairmanship as part of the BMG umbrella.
Simon Cowell, Hugh Goldsmith, David Joseph, Jeremy Marsh and Korda Marshall are among the many executives whose careers thrived under his leadership. During his time at the top, Preston played his part in raising the profile of the music industry and engaged with policymakers. He counted former Prime Minister Tony Blair and Former Home Secretary Jack Straw among his friends.
In 1998, Preston retired from the music business and he and his wife Roz moved to the West Country where they indulged in their passion for sailing. They built a boat, the aptly-named “Sweet Dreams” (a nod to the classic Eurythmics record) and lived the dream as they sailed it extensively around Europe.
Tributes are pouring in for the late music professional, who was described by those who worked with him as a “giant” of the industry. “It’s very challenging to write about John in the past tense,” comments Annie Lennox in a statement. “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 its hard driven cut-throat competitiveness,” she added. Preston, she recounted, “was a thoroughly good man – a rare diamond.”
“Artists felt akin to him even though he was a CEO and steered a big ship,” said Stewart. “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.”
Preston was “one of the industry’s giants,” noted WIN’s Alison Wenham. “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.”
Those sentiments were echoed by BPI chief executive Geoff Taylor, who called Preston “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, Taylor added, “Preston 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.”
Funeral details will be announced shortly.