Kobalt is a Major Label Waiting to Happen

Disclaimer: Kobalt is a label, a publisher as well as a Performing Rights Organisation (PRO). This post focuses on its label business, but does not presume to overlook its other aspects.

Lauv Kobalt

News has emerged of Kobalt potentially looking to raise an additional $100 million of investment, following a 2017 round of $89 million and a 2015 $60-million round led by Google Ventures. Kobalt has been the poster child for the changing of the guard in the music business, helping set the industry agenda by pursuing a creators-first strategy while

building an impressive roster of songwriters and artists at a scale that would have most indies salivating. But it does not have its sights set on being the leading player of the indie sector, instead playing for the big game: Kobalt is the next major label waiting to happen.

So, what makes Kobalt so different? In some respects, nothing. Most of what Kobalt is doing has been done before, and there are others plotting a similar path right now (e.g. BMG, United Masters, Hitco). What matters is how it is executing, how well backed it is and the scale of its ambitions:

  • Moving beyond masters: In the old model, artists signed away their rights in perpetuity to record labels, with nine out of ten of them permanently in debt to the label not yet having paid off their advances. The new model (i.e. label services) pursued by the likes of Kobalt, reframes the artist-label relationship, turning it one more akin to that of agency-client. In this rebalanced model artists retain long-term ownership of their copyrights and in return share responsibility of costs with their label. This approach, coupled with transparent royalty reporting, lower admin costs and continual tech innovation has enabled Kobalt to build a next-generation label business.
  • Laser focus on frontline: In a label services business the entire focus is on frontline, as there isn’t any catalogue. An artist signed to such a label therefore knows that they have undivided attention. That’s the upside; the downside is that the label does not have the benefit of a highly-profitable bank of catalogue to act as the investment fund for frontline. This means that a label like Kobalt often cannot afford the same scale of marketing as a major one, which helps explain why Kobalt is looking for another $100 million. However, there is a crucial benefit of being compelled to spend carefully.
  • Superstar niches: In the old model, labels would (and often still do) carpet-bomb TV, radio, print and digital with massive campaigns designed to create global, superstar brands. Now, labels can target more precisely and be selective about what channels they use. Kobalt’s business is based around making its roster superstars within their respective niches, finding a tightly-defined audience and the artists they engage with. The traditional superstar model sees an artist like a Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran or a Taylor Swift being a mass media brand with recognition across geographies and demographics. The new superstar can fly under the radar while simultaneously being hugely successful. Take the example of Kobalt’s Lauv, an artist tailor-made for the ‘Spotify-core’ generation that hardly registers as a global brand, yet has two billion audio streams, half a billion YouTube views and 26 million monthly listeners on Spotify. By contrast, heavily-backed Stormzy has just three million monthly Spotify listeners.
  • Deep tech connections: The recent WMG / Spotify spat illustrates the tensions that can exist between labels and tech companies. Kobalt has long focused on building close relationships with tech companies, including but not limited to streaming services. This positioning comes easier to a company that arguably owes more to its technology roots than it does its music roots. The early backing of Google Ventures plays a role too, though with some negative connotations; some rights holders fear that this in fact reflects Google using Kobalt as a proxy for a broader ambition of disrupting the traditional copyright regime.
  • A highly structured organisation: One of the key differences between many independent labels and the majors is that the latter have a much more structured organizational set up, with large teams of deep specialisation. This is the benefit of having large-scale revenues, but it is also a manifestation of ideology. Most independents focus their teams around the creative end of the equation, putting the music first and business second. Major labels, while still having music at their core, are publicly-traded companies first, with corporate structures and a legal obligation on management to maximise shareholder value. Kobalt has undoubtedly created an organisational structure to rival that of the majors.

Earned fandom

Kobalt is a next-generation label and it is plotting a course to becoming a next generation-major. That success will not be reflected in having the rosters of household names that characterise the traditional major model, but instead an ever-changing portfolio of niche superstars. The question is whether the current majors can respond effectively; they have already made big changes, including label services, JV deals, higher royalty rates, etc.

Perhaps the most fundamental move they need to make, however, is to understand what a superstar artist looks like in the era of fragmented fandom. The way in which streaming services deliver music based on use behaviours and preferences inherently means that artists have narrower reach because they are not being pushed to audiences that are relevant. This shifts us from the era of macro hits to micro hits ie songs that feel like number one hits to the individual listener because they so closely match their tastes. This is what hits mean when delivered on an engagement basis rather than a reach basis. Quality over quantity.

Majors can still make their artists look huge on traditional platforms, which still command large, if rapidly aging audiences. But what matters most is engagement, not reach. It is a choice between bought fandom and earned fandom. In the old model you could build a career on bought fandom. Now if you do not earn your fandom, your career will burn bright but fast, and then be gone.

What Spotify Can Learn From The Roman Slave Trade

OK, you’re going to have to bear with me on this one, but let me take you back to 2nd century Rome….

Roman Slaves

Roman Slaves

The Roman Empire was at the peak of its powers. Its borders stretched from Scotland down to Syria and across to Armenia, and across its dominions Rome spread its culture, language, administration and of course, military prowess. It brought innovations such as under floor heating, running water, astronomy and brain surgery but the consensus among many modern day historians is that the Roman Empire could have been much more. Rome was fundamentally a military, expansionist state. Its endless conquests produced a steady flow of captured people that fuelled Rome’s most important economic interest: the slave trade. By the mid 2nd century around 1 in 4 Romans were slaves. It was common for wealthy citizens to have 40 or more household slaves while the super-rich had hundreds.

The Importance Of Economic Surplus

The problem was that the over-supply of labour meant that wages were horrifically low for the masses while the rich over spent on slaves to keep up with the neighbours. The net result is that the Roman Empire was not able to create an economic surplus across its population, which meant that there was insufficient investment in learning, science and culture. If that surplus had been created, Rome would have spawned a generation of innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs that should have created an industrial revolution. This raises the tantalizing possibility of steam power and steel emerging before the middle ages, which in turn could have meant that today’s technology revolution might have happened hundreds of years ago by now.

Instead, the Roman Empire eventually crumbled with Europe forgetting most of Rome’s innovations, paved roads weeding over, aqueducts running dry and heated floors crumbling. We had to wait until the second half of the 18th century for the Industrial Revolution for the change, which crucially followed and overlapped with the Age of Enlightenment, a period of learning unprecedented since the Renaissance (when everyone busied themselves relearning Rome’s lost secrets) which was fuelled by Europe’s economies have developed sufficiently to create enough surplus for more than just the aristocracy to learn, invent and create. 

So, Rome inadvertently held back human progress by half a millennium because of its obsession with slaves. But what does that mean for Spotify? The key lesson from the Roman experience is that being saddled with too large a cost base may not prevent you from becoming big but it will hold you back from fulfilling your potential and from building something truly lasting. You can probably tell now where I am heading with this. Spotify’s 70% rights cost base is Rome’s 1 in 4 are slaves.

Product Innovation Where Are You?

Spotify has made immense progress but it and the overall market have done too little to innovate product and user experience.  There’s been business and commercial innovation for sure but looking back at the streaming market as a whole over the last 5 years, other than making playlists better through smart use of data and curation teams, where is the dial-moving innovation? Where are the new products and features that can change the entire focus of the market. Compare and contrast how much the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon have changed their businesses and product offerings over that period. Streaming just got better playlists. Musical.ly shouldn’t have been a standalone company, it should have been a feature coming out of Spotify’s Stockholm engineering team. But instead of being able to think about streaming simply as an engine, Spotify has had to marshal its modest operating margins around ‘sustaining’ product development and marketing / customer acquisition.

Post-Listing Scrutiny

Spotify will likely go public sometime next year as a consequence. But once public it will need to be delivering demonstrable progress towards profit with each and every quarterly SEC filing. Growth alone won’t cut it. Just ask Snap Inc. Spotify does not have a silver bullet but it does have a number of different switches it can flick that will each contribute percentages to net margin and that collectively can help Spotify become commercially viable and in turn enable it to invest in the product and experience innovation that the streaming sector so crucially lacks.  Spotify hasn’t done these yet because most will antagonize rights partners but it will be left with little option.

spotify full stack midia

Spotify The Music Company

To say that Spotify will become a label is too narrow a definition of what Spotify would become. Instead it would be a next generation music company, encompassing master rights, publishing, A+R, discovery, promotion, fan engagement and data, lots of data. If Spotify can get a couple of good quarters under its belt post-listing, and maintain a high stock price then it could go on an acquisition spree, acquiring assets for a combination of cash and stock. And the bigger and bolder the acquisition the more the stock price will rise, giving Spotify yet more ability to acquire. This is the model Yahoo used in the 2000s, with apparently over-priced acquisitions being so big as to impress Wall Street enough to ensure that the increase in market cap (ie the value of its shares) was greater than the purchase price. Spotify could use this tactic to acquire, for example, Kobalt, Believe Digital and Soundcloud to create an end-to-end, data-driven discovery, consumption and rights exploitation music power house.

What other ‘label’ could offer artists the end-to-end ability to be discovered, have your audience brought to you, promoted on the best playlists, given control of your rights and be provided with the most comprehensive data toolkit available in music? And of course, by acquiring a portion of the rights of its creators though not all (that’s where Kobalt / AWAL comes in) Spotify will be able to amortize some of its content costs like Netflix does, thus adding crucial percentages to its net margin. It will also be able to do Netflix’s other trick, namely using its algorithms to over index its own content, again adding crucial percentages to its margin.

Streaming Is The Engine Not The Vehicle

The way to think about Spotify right now, and indeed streaming as a whole, is that we have built a great engine. But that’s it. We do not have the car. Streaming is not a product, it is a technology for getting music onto our devices and it is a proto-business model. While rights holders can point to areas where Spotify is arguably over spending, fixing those will not be enough on their own, they need to accompany bolder change. Once that change comes Spotify can start to fulfil its potential, to become the butterfly that is currently locked in its cocoon. While rights holders we be understandably anxious and may even cry foul, they have to shoulder much of the blame. Spotify simply doesn’t have anywhere else to go. Unless of course it wants to end up like Rome did….overrun by barbarians, or whatever the music industry equivalent is…

The Problem With Streaming Exclusives

Jay-Z’s ambitions for TIDAL has triggered a lot of discussion about how streaming models can evolve.  One focus has been exclusives with a number of references to TIDAL ‘doing a Netflix’ by commissioning exclusives.  Netflix can attribute much of its growth over the last couple of years to its flagship ‘Netflix Originals’ such as ‘House Of Cards’ and ‘Orange Is the New Black’.  It is an appealing model but the Netflix Originals approach cannot so easily be transferred to music.

There are three main types of exclusives:

1.    Service Window: album is released exclusively to a single music service for a fixed period of time e.g. only on TIDAL for 1 month

2.    Tier Window: album is released across one type of music service tier before others e.g. only on paid subscription tiers for 3 months

3.    Service Exclusive: music service acquires exclusive rights to an album so that it will never appear anywhere else unless the service decides to let it

The first two will become increasingly common components of the streaming landscape over the next couple of years.  Daniel Ek and Spotify fought a brave rear guard action against Taylor Swift and Big Machine to ensure the Tier Window model did not carve out a beachhead with ‘1989’ but it is an inevitability.  If free tiers are to have a long term role alongside paid tiers they have to be more clearly differentiated.

TIDAL and Apple look set to become the heavyweight players in the Service Window, duking it out for the biggest releases.  TIDAL will argue it pays out more to rights holders (75% compared to 70%) while Apple will argue that it can directly drive download sales (which is where everyone still makes their real sales revenue).  Apple will have to play that card carefully though as it stands just as much chance of accelerating download cannibalization as it does driving new sales.

When Is A Label A Label?

The really interesting, and potentially most disruptive, exclusive is the Service Exclusive.  This model would start blurring the distinction between what constitutes a music service and what defines a record label.  If, for example, TIDAL was to buy out the rights of the next Beyonce album or sign a deal for the next two Calvin Harris albums TIDAL would effectively become the record label for those releases.

The irony is that this ‘ownership of the masters model’ by streaming services is emerging just as the next generation labels are distancing themselves from it.  A new breed of ‘labels’ such as Kobalt’s AWAL and Cooking Vinyl’s Essential Music are focussing on providing label services without taking ownership of the masters and in turn putting the label and artist relationship on a more equitable agency / client basis.  But there are far more impactful challenges to the Service Exclusive model for music than simply being out of step with where the label model is heading:

  • Scarcity: ‘House Of Cards’ is only available on Netflix (and some download to own stores such as iTunes). It is a scarce asset, which is not something that can be said about any piece of recorded music.  As TIDAL found with the near instantaneous Beyonce YouTube leak, music scarcity is ephemeral in the YouTube age.  As long as YouTube is allowed to hide behind its perverse interpretation of ‘Fair Use’ and ‘Safe Harbour’ there will be no music scarcity.  (Of course true scarcity is gone for good, but if that can be made to only mean P2P then the problem is manageable, as it is for TV content).
  • Consumer expectations: Consumers have learned to expect their video experiences to be fragmented across different platforms and services, to not find everything in one place.  For music consumers however the understanding is that catalogues are either near-complete or useless.  So if all music services suddenly started having high profile gaps then subscribers would be more likely to unsubscribe entirely than they would be to take up multiple subscriptions.  Ironically the net result could be a return to download sales at the expense of subscriptions.  Talk about going full circle….
  • Industry relationships: Netflix started out as a pure licensee, paying TV companies for their shows.  Now it competes with them directly when commissioning new shows.  It has become a frenemy for TV companies and is finding many of its relationships less favourable than before.  And this is in an industry that is built up the frenemy hybrid licensee-licensor model.  The music industry does not behave this way, so any service that took up the Service Exclusive model could reasonably expect itself to find itself developing tense relations with labels.  Which could manifest in those labels giving competitor services preferential treatment for their own exclusives.  Labels have long feared the disintermediation threat posed by the web.  It is unlikely to materialize any time soon but they are not exactly going to encourage retail partners to kick-start the process.
  • Appetite for risk: Buying up the rights to the latest release of an established superstar is the easy part, and we already have some precedents though neither were exactly run away successes (Jay-Z’s ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ with Samsung and U2’s ‘Songs Of Innocence’ with Apple).  But being a label, at least a good one, isn’t simply about signing proven quantities, it is about taking risks on new emerging talent.  And that doesn’t simply mean having a DIY platform on a streaming service – though that can act as a great talent identification tool.  If streaming services want to start playing at the label game they need to also start nurturing and marketing talent.
  • Limited horizons: Stream is still only a small fraction of recorded music revenue.  There are few non-Nordic artists that rely on streaming for the majority of their sales income.  That will change but not for a few years yet.  So a release that only exists on streaming, let along a single streaming service, is only going to deliver on a fraction of its potential.  TIDAL and Apple especially could easily choose to loss-lead and pay over the odds for Service Exclusives to ensure artists aren’t left out of pocket.  But that only fixes part of the problem.  An artist locked into one single streaming service will see his or her brand diminish.  ‘House Of Cards’ may be one of Kevin Spacey’s most assured performances yet only a few tens of millions of people globally have ever seen it.  If it had been on network TV the audience would have been hundreds of millions.  With touring becoming the main way many artists make money the album is the marketing vehicle and if that album is locked behind the pay wall of one single music service the marketing potential is neutered.

Streaming music services will find themselves locked in total war over the coming years and while Apple’s cash reserves will likely make that warfare appear asymmetrical at times, exclusives of some kind or another will be utilised by most of the services.  Just don’t expect them to deliver them Netflix-like success because that’s not going to happen.

Five Long Term Music Industry Predictions (And How Disney Will Rule The World)

The new year is typically a time for predictions for the year. But at the midway point of the decade, rather than do some short term predictions I think this is a good time to take a look at the longer term outlook for the music industry. Here are five long term music industry predictions:

1 – Disney will become the world’s biggest music company

Consumers are buying less music and there are more ways to easily get free music than ever before, both of which make selling music harder than ever. Major labels have addressed this by doubling down on pop acts (Rihanna, Katy Perry, Rita Ora, Ariana Grande etc.) which have a more predictable route to market. Video (YouTube) and very young audiences (also YouTube) underpin the success of these artists. While the majors have been pivoting around this very specific slice of mainstream, Disney has quietly been building an entire entertainment empire for this generation of pop focused youth. Unlike the majors, Disney has TV shows and channels targeted at each key kids and youth age group and uses them to bring artists through. They start them out kids TV shows such as The Wizards of Waverly Place (Selena Gomez), Hannah Montana (Miley Cyrus) and Sonny With A Chance (Demi Lovato). Disney then very carefully matures these fledgling stars as their audiences age so that by the time they and their audiences are fully fledged teens, they are fully-fledged pop stars. At which point they have shaken off most of their bubble gum imagery and have conveniently acquired a little edge, a specific positioning and a personality. It is a highly effective process. Each of those three Disney stars are only in their early 20’s but already have multiple albums under their belt. Disney will not only continue to excel at this model, they will most likely become the biggest pop label on the planet. Which given where music sales are heading (pop accounted for 44% of the top 10 US album sales in 2014) could well mean Disney even overtakes Universal to become the biggest music company of all.

2 – The western pop music industry will increasingly resemble Bollywood

2014 was the first year film soundtracks accounted for 2 of the top 10 selling US albums (‘Frozen’ and ‘Guardians Of The Galaxy’), generating 4.4 million sales and 30% of the top 10 overall. And both albums were Disney. In India music plays a supporting role to film in revenue terms but is culturally centre stage, the beating heart of Bollywood film. The music and film require depend on each other for context and relevance. We are set for this model to become increasingly pervasive in western markets. Just as video underpins the success of pop stars, it creates an audience bond to music in film and TV, turning the music into the soundtrack of memorable, fun and moving moments. Triggering the same emotional chemistry music does in real life. With music sales still tumbling but movie sales holding up, expect movie soundtracks to become an ever bigger part of music sales, and for the dividing line between film star and pop star to blur entirely. Expect Disney to, again, be the key force.

3 – Live music will lose ground to other live entertainment

Live has been the music industry’s ‘get out of jail free’ card, holding up total revenues while sales revenue declined. The balance of power has shifted with sales revenue now just a third of the total revenue mix, down from 60% at the start of the century. But cracks are already appearing with price increases underpinning much of the live revenue growth in recent years and the big revenue polarised between ageing rockers and pop divas of the moment. There are only weak signs of a next generation of stadium filling rock bands. The big live venues are already looking for alternative ways of getting bums on seats, with TV show spin offs in particular proving successful. Venues and promoters love TV show tie-ups because they bring big TV cross promotion which helps ensure commercial success.   TV comedy shows are now doing 10 to 12 night sell outs in 10,000 capacity venues. You don’t see many artists doing that. Shows like Disney On Ice (yes, Disney again) fill out the biggest venues with ease. And it is not just the top end that is moving away from music. Comedians like the UK’s John Bishop play tours that happily play a small club one night and an arena the next. Expect the live market to shift more towards a broader range of entertainment, especially TV tie ins, squeezing out many music acts in the process.

4 – Old world copyright establishments will lose relevance 

The fragmented nature of global music rights, especially on the publishing side, has long been a thorn in the side of digital music.   The system of multiple national rights bodies and commercial rights owners administering different parts of music rights across the globe hinders the ability of the digital music industry to be truly global. A handful of rights bodies are pushing the innovation needle, others are not. The distinctions between recording, performance, mechanical etc. served well in the analogue era when there was a clear distinction between a sale and a performance. But in the streaming dominated landscape they are less useful. Additionally the entire range of audio visual elements that an artist comprises in the digital era can be prohibitively difficult to put into a single product. This is because the rights are usually held by so many different stakeholders, each with different priorities and appetites for risk. Expect music companies, artists and their managers to increasingly collect as many rights as possible into one place so they can create multimedia experiences without having to navigate a licensing minefield. In doing so, more and more monetization will happen outside of the traditional licensing frameworks. Whether that be because all of the revenue occurs in a single platform (e.g. YouTube) or because new licensing /collection bodies are used such as Audiam or Global Rights Management administer the rights. Creative Commons might play a bigger role but the real focus is going to be on being able to license more easily AND monetize more effectively.

5– Labels will become agencies

Finally we have agencies or what you might call labels, but I’m going to call them agencies, because that is what they need to become. The label model is already going under dramatic transformation with the advent of label services companies like Cooking Vinyl’s Essential and Kobalt’s AWAL, and of fan funding platforms like Pledge and Kick Starter. All of these are parts of the story of the 21st century label, where the relationship between label and artist is progressively transformed from contracted employee to that of an agency-client model.   Labels that follow this model will be the success stories. And these labels will also have to stop thinking within the old world constraints of what constitutes the work of a label versus a publisher versus a creative agency versus a dev company. In the multimedia digital era a 21st century labels needs to do all of this and be able to work in partnership with the creator to exploit all those rights by having them together under one roof.

Streaming is changing the music world right here, right now, and there is an understandable amount of focus on it. But it is just one part of a rapidly changing music industry. This decade has already wrought more fundamental change than any previous one and the rate of change is going to continue to accelerate for the next five years. All of the rules are being rewritten, all of the reference points redefined. This is nothing short of the birth of a new music industry. The blessing of a generation is to be born into interesting times, and these times are most certainly that.