BMG boss Alistair Norbury on making music under lockdown

Alistair Norbury

Ten weeks into lockdown and the record industry is getting used to what everyone is obliged to call the new normal.

This week’s issue of Music Week, available now, goes behind The Sound Of Lockdown, as songwriters, artists and producers explain how they’ve been keeping the hits coming from isolation.

And it’s the same for the big labels. While many high-profile releases have been pushed back, most record companies are continuing to manage multiple projects – and Alistair Norbury’s BMG, which of course is also a major player in music publishing, is no exception.

As global CEO Hartwig Masuch revealed to Music Week earlier this year, BMG was flying before the pandemic, with revenues rising 10.1% over the 2019 financial year.

And BMG has also been setting a fearsome 2020 pace in the UK, with its streaming growth once again out-performing the market. It has nominations in the Artist Marketing Campaign, Catalogue Marketing Campaign, Publisher Of The Year, Record Company and Sync Team Of The Year categories at the 2020 Music Awards, set for Monday, September 21 at Battersea Evolution.

And, despite the pandemic, in this week’s magazine, the UK president tells us that he has a string of high profile future projects across records and publishing – including Kylie Minogue, Katie Melua, Natalie Imbruglia and Texas – on the go for release this year and in 2021.

So Music Week got on a call with Norbury to discuss the mini-major’s coronavirus strategy, and why the industry may never be the same again…

How has lockdown been for BMG?
“Very sadly, we’ve had two people directly connected with us who’ve passed away: Tony Allen, who had recently made a new record with Hugh Masekela for World Circuit, and the producer Hal Willner who we’ve made our wonderful new Marc Bolan/T Rex tribute album with for later this year. It’s very sad. Thankfully, in the UK, all 200+ staff are well and healthy and working very effectively remotely. We tested this out before the lockdown and made sure it worked so, when the lockdown happened, we were fairly well prepared.”

What has the impact on the business side of things been like?
“All our campaigns are continuing as planned and budgeted. Release dates have moved, but in terms of the people who are working on these campaigns, whether they be publicists, pluggers, session musicians, engineers or producers, the infrastructure of the UK recorded business has carried on as normal. We’ve not put anyone on furlough and we’ve not made any changes, it’s very much business as usual from that perspective. Obviously, the biggest impact is hitting the live community and then the promotion aspect of the industry. A lot of the things we’d normally be doing, we can’t do, but artists and creators are being very creative in terms of how to keep working. For me, the biggest upside to this has been the amount of creativity in music making that’s going on. That’s both in our music publishing division, where the amount of sessions and co-writes and collaborations that are taking place is incredible, and also in how artists are creating, recording and taking advantage of this time.”

Is this going to change the music industry permanently?
“Yes. This feels to me like a shift to the days when the labels set the agenda in terms of making and promoting records and then there would be a fairly long period of time before the touring would start. We’ve lived for many years now with records coming out and touring happening almost straight away, and often we’ve missed out on extended promotional opportunities, particularly internationally. We’re going to get back to a period where managers realise that the label relationship is gaining the significance that it used to have.”

With artists unable to tour, are they asking for more money from recorded music?
“No. We’d like to feel that we have always treated our artists and clients very fairly. We have responded to artists who have been impacted by the coronavirus. But, generally, it’s more a request for ‘What can we be doing during this time?’ We produced a fantastic best practice digital guide within a week of the lockdown, which we distributed to all our clients, both publishing and records. Basically, it said what you can do during lockdown to maximise and optimise your social media base and your digital/streaming base while you’re locked down at home. We’re finding a lot of artists wanting to dive deeper into what they can be doing in terms of social media and raising their profile from a steaming base. So we’re seeing a lot of artists doing the homework and becoming more cognisant of the digital landscape.”

How do you see the rest of the year?
“We’re continuing to outperform [the market on streaming] even in a difficult time, so it’s giving us a lot of pause for thought to focus on streaming across the business. We’re obviously disappointed about Eurovision [being cancelled] but our commitment to James Newman remains so we carry on there. And we’re sitting here with a very exciting release schedule for the rest of the year. One thing we all need to be aware of is, the congestion in the second half of the year is going to be immense. If ever there was a time for record labels to be a little bit more collegiate over the release of records to help all of us, it would be to look at the second six months of the year, because we’re not only competing with ourselves, we’re going to be competing with everybody else. And that’s not just for retail and media space, but also promotional opportunities on TV and radio. It’s going to be an absolute bonanza for the consumer but it’s going to be critically important that we logistically plan and discuss this amongst all of us.”

* To read the full interview with Alistair Norbury, see the current issue of Music Week, available now, or click here. To make sure you can access Music Week wherever you are, subscribe to our digital issue by clicking here.

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