November 10, 2015
The music business has certainly changed with the advent of the digital age. With physical sales, market share and chart position no longer essential to success, the majors now have to be as nimble and open-minded as their indie label brethren. Enter Jon Cohen, founder of the indie Vagrant Records, who as EVP/Recorded Music for BMG, balances the recorded music side with publishing, then incorporates a fluid marketing approach to give their artists the best chance for success. Here, he explains how BMG makes it work.
How did you come to be at BMG?
A couple of reasons. First, you can't help but be impressed by what BMG has achieved. Seven years in and they're already the fourth biggest player in music publishing in the world. I saw a lot of opportunities to come in and be a part of their plan to grow recorded music to a similar scale. Vagrant is still a dear brand to me; it's still very much alive under the BMG banner, and I get to continue to run Vagrant.
Is being at BMG very different to being at Vagrant?
Working in a big company is naturally different to running your own company, but if you look at the fact they've bought Infectious in the U.K., Rise Records in the U.S. and now S-Curve in New York, the ethos is very much an indie ethos, so it wasn't as big of a culture shock as I thought it would be.
How is BMG's approach to making records different from other music companies?
There are some great labels out there -- both indies and majors - but what is unique about BMG is the way it combines publishing and the recorded music under one roof, and the way everyone works together. We have a lot of writers and executives on the publishing side, who are just as vested in helping out artists on the recorded music side - even our artists who don't have a publishing deal with BMG. It's an "all for one and one for all" mentality that really contributes to our success. The Janet Jackson record actually came to us through our publishing contacts.
How has your perspective on the business changed since joining BMG?
I'm not sure I believed it was possible for me to be more enthusiastic about the music business, but I am. BMG has a very clear focus on creating an alternative to established companies and it is very exciting to be involved in building something genuinely new.
In terms of the recorded music market overall, I'm still very bullish. Unlike virtually any other industry, we have weathered the dramatic effects of the information age, and as the long-term detrimental effects of the Internet and piracy are beginning to slow, we're starting to see things turn round.
You mentioned the impact, good and bad, of the current digital age. How does that affect your view of how to run a successful record business?
You need to be battle-hardened to survive in recorded music today ... a lot of people here at BMG are independent-minded; they've had their own companies and have had to learn to weather the digital revolution, to understand how to control marketing, when to spend on the right acts, how to support and service artists and not just survive, but thrive.
Has your view of what constitutes success for artists and labels changed in that time?
We have all had to adjust our expectations. The market is smaller. What is good is that it has forced people to focus on the fundamentals. That means focusing on sales and profitability rather than market share and chart position. It also means recognizing that for many artists, the revenues they generate from the recordings business are not as important as they once were. Very often you'll see bands with deteriorating record sales, but with ticket sales that have never been stronger and they're as relevant as ever. If you can maintain strong ticket sales, merchandising and streaming as an artist in the music industry today, you're happy.
And what's your take on the streaming industry?
It has become an undeniable force. In a way, it may represent the ultimate evolution of the sound file ... I certainly don't know where else the sound file can go.
But there's clearly still a lot to be worked out. I don't think the specifics are there yet, with artists and labels and streaming companies all complaining they're not making enough. One thing is certain: The way we can all make money and recover the music business is by having streaming reach a real mass market.
BMG recently had a #1 album with Janet Jackson's Unbreakable. How big a deal was that for you?
Really important. We have a fantastic partnership with her, and her management has been just as instrumental in having this project work. We're doing all the things to make it comfortable for Janet. Personally, I've never been part of a #1 record in my career - and in just under a year at BMG, I'm finally part of one. It's very exciting, but this is really about Janet over the next two to three years, making our long-term plan work. This is just the first great milestone; it's really more about supporting her for the next 18-36 months.
BMG has also had some recent success with bands such as metal group Iron Maiden. Are certain types of music more conducive to physical sales?
There are bands that are still very physical sales-heavy. As much as the market has declined over the years, BMG has probably sold more physical records in the past five months than Vagrant did in the past two years. Iron Maiden is a fantastic example. They made a great record, and we set it up through our catalog divisions with reissues and box sets of Iron Maiden. That paved the way for a fantastic first week of 75,000.
How have you changed the notion of artist development in such a business environment?
It's really a trinity of knowledgeable and willing management, artists and great music. That's the cornerstone of anything, no matter where or how you sell and consume music. You can never forget that it comes down to great songs and landmark records. Janet has made great records; bands I first worked at Vagrant made great records, such as Dashboard Confessional. The same goes for Edward Sharpe or 1975.
The way to stay in the game today is, again, have a coalition of the willing -- managers and artists who work their record over a sustained period. BMG is all about collaboration and complete transparency to the artist. It takes constant communication with the artists and management to compete.
What's your take on YouTube Red and its part in the music business?
I hope that people sign up! The same goes for Apple Music. We hope they can grow their base from those who come off the three-months-free tier. That would prove that people do respect the value of music.
We all know more music is consumed on YouTube than many of the streaming services combined, yet the rates are undoubtedly very low. I hope we can move into the paid subscription model where it does make more sense for all concerned.
Vagrant didn't get a ton of radio airplay for its bands (at least beyond Alternative radio). Major labels, of course, have relied on it for decades. Because of the state of the industry, is radio play as important for BMG acts as it used to be?
There is no one single answer. It depends on the artists - and format. Each format is different. There's a much more level playing field at Urban where, for example, we broke Leela James at Urban AC; and in the Christian format, where Danny Gokey has enjoyed great success and we have his third single coming out in January. There's also a much more level playing field at satellite radio.
Back when I was only heading up Vagrant, we were always radio-minded, and we did have some good success in developing acts. Now, not only can we compete on a level playing field in Urban, Christian, Alternative and Triple A, but we have great guys in the pop formats and Hot AC. We can also hire those who are experts in the formats that are predominantly controlled by the majors -- and hats off to them - who can spend money there 24/7 and can compete on all levels.
Where we depart from the others is in not needing radio all the time. If we don't have a song that will get its shot there, we think about what our digital teams can do with viral marketing. That's better than trying to force our way onto radio. Being that versatile allowed us to build organized strategies that led to the success of 1975 and Edward Sharpe, where we can groom our talent to a point where a big radio song would be the cherry on top.
How do you determine how much effort and investment you place on a superstar like Janet Jackson vs. a new artist?
If you ask any label, it kind of like air traffic control. It's a matter of time management and blocking out a release schedule. You can't just throw everything out there and put all your resources into multiple projects at once. Janet is having a massive rebirth. You can't say she's a new artist, but we're treating this as if she is. And when we get hold of a new band, naturally we'll develop it first before we throw equal resources at it.
What artists/records do you have the highest hopes for in 2016?
We're very excited about Jacob Whitesides, who has written wonderful music and whose debut EP did around 26,000. He has a new EP coming out this week; he's on the precipice of breaking through. He's done an amazing job, building his socials so he can stay very connected to his fans. Another one of BMG's real big breakout acts we're excited about is a very hip indie band called CRUISR. We're developing them from a base of 22,000 singles; they will fall into the Vagrant artist development model.
We're very excited about Leela James' next record for Urban AC; we hope to have a Blink 182 record next year; and we're really excited about a passion project for Jakob Dylan, who's returning in a big way with a special collaboration with big-name artists to pay tribute to a very important time - the 1965 California sound. The tribute will feature music from The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Association, Love and The Monkees. Jakob will be singing with acts as varied as Kat Power, Fiona Apple, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Beck and Nora Jones. There are a lot of new signings in the pipeline, too.
What's your take on the future of the music business? Could you see it becoming more like Vagrant used to be in terms of being more nimble and not relying on the usual roadmaps for success?
If anyone has a unique roadmap to success, I'd love to have it. I don't know if there's any one roadmap. The BMG view is that the future of the music business is fundamentally about catering to the needs of the talent, the artists and songwriters.
BMG is in many ways like Vagrant in that we aim to be extremely nimble, creative and collaborative.
As far as what's next in this business, I don't know. I hope we reach a critical mass in streaming. For us, I just want to continue our success in putting out great music and getting as many people to hear it as possible.