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.

Taylor Swift, Label Services and What Comes Next

universal-music-group-logoTaylor Swift has done it again, striking a deal with UMG that includes a commitment from the world’s largest label group to share proceeds from Spotify stock sales with artists, even if they are not recouped (ie haven’t generated enough revenue to have paid off the balance on their advance so not yet eligible to earn royalty income). This follows Swift’s 2015 move to persuade Apple to pay artists for Apple Music trials. That Swift has influence is clear, though whether she has that much influence is a different question. Let’s just say it served both Apple and Universal well to be seen to be listening to the voice of artists. But it is what appears to be a label services part of the deal that has the most profound long-term implications, with Swift stating that she is retaining ownership of her master recordings.

The rise of label services

The traditional label model of building large banks of copyrights and exploiting them is slowly being replaced, or at the very least complemented, by the rise of label services deals. In the former model the label retains ownership of the master recordings for the life time of the artist plus a period eg 70 years. In label services deals the label has an exclusive period for exploiting the rights, after which they revert to full ownership of the artist. Artist normally cede something in return, such as sharing costs. Companies like Kobalt’s AWAL and BMG Music Rights have led the charge of the label services movement. However, Cooking Vinyl can lay claim to being the ‘ice breaker’ with its pioneering 1993 label services deal with Billy Bragg, negotiated between his manager Pete Jenner and Cooking Vinyl boss Martin Goldschmidt. It may have taken a couple of decades, but the recording industry has finally caught up.

Major labels in on the act

The major labels remain the powerhouses of the recorded music business in part because they have learned to embrace and then supercharge innovation that comes out of the independent sector. Label services is no exception. Each of the major labels has their own label services division, including buying up independent ones. Label services are proving to be a crucial asset for major labels. The likes of AWAL and BMG have been mopping up established artists in the latter stages of their careers, with enough learned knowledge to want more control over their careers. By adding label services divisions the majors now have another set of options to present to artists. This enables them to not only hold onto more artists but also to win new ones – which if of course technically what UMG did with Swift, even though it had previously been Swift’s distributor. As with all new movements, examples are often few and far between but they are there. The UK’s Stormzy is a case in point, signing a label services deal with WMG before upgrading it to a JV deal between WMG’s Atlantic Records and his label #MERKY. For an interesting, if lengthy, take on why Stormzy and WMG took this approach – including the concept of secret ‘Mindie Deals’ that allow more underground artists maintain some major label distance for appearances’ sake, see this piece.

The early follower strategy 

In August 2018UMG’s Sir Lucian Grainge called out the success of UMG’s label services and distribution division Caroline, noting it had doubled its US market share over the previous year. UMG was already not only on the label services deal path but had identified it as a key growth area and wanted the world – including investors – to know. UMG has stayed ahead of the pack by pursuing an early follow strategy of identifying new trends, testing them out and then throwing its weight behind them. Before you think of that as damning with faint praise, the early follower strategy is the one pursued by the world’s most successful companies. Google wasn’t the first search engine, Apple wasn’t the first smartphone maker, Facebook wasn’t the first social network, Amazon wasn’t the first online retailer.

What comes next

The label services component of the UMG deal was actually announced by Taylor Swift herself rather than UMG, writing:

“It’s also incredibly exciting to know that I own all of my master recordings that I make from now on. It’s really important to me to see eye to eye with a label regarding the future of our industry.”

While this might betray which party feels most positive about this component of the deal, the inescapable fact is that other major artists at the peak of their powers will now want similar deals. Label services success stories to date had been older artists such as Rick Astley, Janet Jacksonand Nick Cave as well as upcoming artists like Stormzy. Now we will start to see them becoming far more commonplace in the mainstream.

But perhaps now is the time. Catalogue revenues are going to undergo big change in the coming years, as MIDiA identified in our June 2018 report The Outlook for Music Catalogue: Streaming Changes Everything. Deep catalogue is not where the action is anymore. For example, 1960s tracks accounted for just 6.4% of all UK catalogue streams in the UK in 2017, while catalogue from the 2000s accounted for 60.4%, according to the BPI’s invaluable All About the Music report. So, by striking a long-term label services type deal, UMG secures Swift’s signature and can still benefit from the main catalogue opportunity for the first few releases without actually owning the catalogue.

Label services have come a long way since Billy Bragg’s 1993 deal and Taylor Swift has just announced that they are ready for prime time.

Penny for the thoughts of Bill Bragg having paved the way for the queen of pop’s latest deal….

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.