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Sony Music announces that Vanessa Picken will lead the reset at its Australian division

By | Published on Wednesday 15 June 2022

Vanessa Picken

Sony Music has announced the appointment of a new CEO for its Australian division. This comes almost a year after the sudden exit of the major’s long-time boss in the country, Denis Handlin, who was accused of overseeing a toxic corporate culture at the company. The music firm will be hoping that it can put all the bad press that followed Handlin’s departure behind it, and begin a new better chapter at Sony Music Australia, once new hire Vanessa Picken takes on the CEO role in September.

Handlin had run Sony Music in Australia for decades and was a prominent figure in the Australian record industry. His sudden departure from the major coincided with a report in The Guardian in which more than 20 former employees discussed what it was like working for the company. There were specific allegations of bad conduct, including sexual harassment at work events, intimidating behaviour, alcohol abuse and the unfair treatment of women in the workplace.

None of those former employees accused Handlin himself of harassment, however many were critical of the outgoing CEO for overseeing such a toxic working environment. Subsequent media reports on the corporate culture at Handlin’s Sony Music Australia expanded on those original allegations. That included a headline-grabbing report on Australian current affairs show ‘Four Corners’ which resulted in various Australian music industry organisations revoking honorary awards that they had previously presented to the former Sony chief.

Many critics also argued that it was widely known in the Australian music industry that the corporate culture at Handlin’s Sony division was toxic, while another Guardian report noted that Sony Music’s US HQ had investigated complaints to that effect as far back as 1998, albeit without taking any action. The fallout from Handlin’s exit also put the spotlight on working practices across the wider Australian music industry, with allegations that harassment, abuse and misogyny were commonly found elsewhere in the sector.

That in turn prompted the launch of an independent investigation into sexual harm, sexual harassment and systematic discrimination within the Australian music industry, supported by Australian collecting societies APRA AMCOS and PPCA, record industry trade group ARIA and music industry charity Support Act, and led by consultants Alexandra Shehadie and Sam Turner.

Meanwhile, back at Sony Music, there was much speculation as to how the major’s global bosses in the US would seek to press the reset button at its Australian division, overhauling working practices and demonstrating to the wider industry that significant change had occurred. Finding the right replacement for Handlin was a key part of that, which is probably why the recruitment process ended up taking a year to complete.

Confirming that Vanessa Picken had been selected to take on the challenge of running a reinvented Sony Music in Australia and New Zealand, the major’s global chief Rob Stringer said yesterday: “After a careful and thorough recruitment process, we are delighted to have Vanessa join our company in such a key role”.

“Her impressive background covers so many areas of the modern music business in Australia and New Zealand and her recent leadership experience in the United States adds a global understanding to those existing skills”, he added. “We believe Vanessa will be a trailblazing executive leading Sony Music Australia to an exciting future”.

As Stringer noted, although her previous major label experience was at EMI Australia in the latter half of the 2000s, more recently Picken has been based out of LA, running her own digital and marketing agency Comes With Fries and, since 2019, working for independent distributor and label group [PIAS].

That CV is interesting given the task ahead. The majors, and especially Sony, are increasingly seeking to form partnerships with artists who basically run their own labels, while also expanding their artist and label services businesses. Meanwhile, digital marketing and global strategies are ever more important aspects of a major record company’s operations in the social media and streaming age.

So, Picken’s experience of major labels, indie labels, digital marketing, and the record industry in both the US and Australia, definitely ticks lots of important boxes, beyond her being a brand new boss for a brand new era at Sony Music Australia.

Confirming her new job, Picken said: “I’m delighted to be coming home to join Sony Music Australia and New Zealand to take the company into a transformative next chapter. Our strategies will focus on music, allyship and innovation, with a global mindset”.

“Sony Music has a renowned reputation for empowering its artists and creators, breaking down traditional barriers to put them at the centre of everything it does”, she went on. “We will reaffirm our commitment to the discovery and development of new and emerging talent across both countries, as well as expanding the commercial and creative opportunities for our roster of artists locally and internationally”.