BMG UK president: Why artists are flocking to the music industry’s most unique label

BMG UK president Alistair Norbury has spoken exclusively to Headliner about the company’s ongoing expansion, his ambitions to land the label’s first stadium act, and its proud reputation as an outlier on the music industry landscape.

In many ways, BMG and Alistair Norbury are a perfect match. Neither a major nor an indie, the company occupies its own unique space in the market. As both a label and a publisher, it “serves its own purpose”, as Norbury puts it, free from the trappings and expectations that come with a ‘major’ or ‘indie’ tag. Likewise, Norbury doesn’t slot neatly into the profile of typical label head.

In a career spanning three decades, he has served as a lawyer at Island Records, ran music publishing firm Blue Mountain Music, and spent 10 years at the helm of his own management company, where he personally managed the likes of Bryan Ferry, Texas and James to name but a few. This experience across recording, publishing and management has possessed Norbury of a skillset seldom seen in record label and music publishing bosses.

“Having done both sides is quite unique,” he says, explaining his journey from music Iawyer to BMG UK president as Headliner sits down with him at the company’s plush London office. “I often find myself coming from the point of view of the artist or songwriter. And having been a manager for 10 years, I have a good instinct for what the artist or songwriter needs.”

This perspective has contributed significantly to BMG’s recent successes. Having added the likes of One Direction star Louis Tomlinson, Rita Ora, Mark Owen and Julian Lennon to the fold, the company has not only grown its roster, it has also become something of a specialist at elevating the status of its signings. Whether significantly upping record sales, streams and chart positions, or taking an act from clubs to theatres, or theatres to arenas, this ability to transform the fortunes of an act is unquestionably part of BMG’s allure. And on the publishing side, it has just leapfrogged Warner Chappell to become the UK’s third biggest publisher.

So, what next for BMG? Here, Norbury opens up on his plans for the future, what makes BMG such a unique proposition, signing Louis Tomlinson and why he flat out rejects the idea the company is all about 'heritage' acts…

How significant a draw is your personal background in the industry when attracting clients? Especially when combined with the singular status of BMG as being neither major nor indie?

We tend not to hire people directly from traditional labels – not that there is anything wrong with that – but Hartwig’s [Masuch, BMG CEO] vision has been to bring in entrepreneurs, people from outside the industry, as well as some incredibly talented young people who have started their journey with BMG. Someone like Christopher Ludwig, who heads up our global digital business.

Understanding the perspective of the artist is sometimes difficult for someone who has only ever been on the label side. We view this as a partnership – our job is to service your requirements as an artist or a songwriter, and most of the managers we work with recognise that when they are working with me, they are working with someone who has done their job. It helps when somebody comes to you and says ‘so-and-so won’t do an 8am performance on Zoe Ball on Friday’. Well, do you know what time they have to get up to do that? Radio 2 might want them to soundcheck at 5.30am, and not everybody can sing at 5.30am. You have to put yourself in the shoes of the performer.

Does the lack of major or indie identity present any issues?

On acquisitions, the distinction is really ‘are you a fund or a music company’? The indie versus major question doesn’t usually get asked in an acquisition discussion. The question we’d typically get asked is, ‘if we sell part or all of our rights to you, what are you going to do with them’? So with quite a few of the deals we’re doing, even if they are selling 100%, they would like to know what we will do to add value to their rights. The first thought can be, ‘well you don’t see any benefit in that value’. They say, ‘we do, as it’s our legacy’. They don’t want to sell their rights and then discover they are being schlocked around the world or devalued.

The other thing that has really resonated is that BMG made a huge statement at the beginning about fairness, transparency and service. That resonated first with the artistic community. It is now resonating with the institutions. Now, some of our deals we fund 100% ourselves and some we fund alongside [investment firm] KKR.

With regard to publishing, because we are now No.3 ahead of Warner Chappell, we could arguably say we are a major music publisher, but we don’t use that terminology. We publish everything and everybody, from the Rolling Stones to Roger Waters and Van Morrison, to the hottest new songwriters, from a George Ezra to The Blessed Madonna.

On the label side, we very much enjoy this unique position of being our own entity with our own purpose. That works brilliantly when you are talking to our core artist community, which is iconic, established artists. We are seen as a home for artists who want to be respected, want creative control and total transparency in marketing budgets. And those artists are marketing BMG for us. The success of Rick Astley led to the success of Kylie, and the success of Kylie brought us Louis Tomlinson, who in turn attracted the interest of Rita Ora.

We have been gifted by our shareholder the right to do deals that are very favourable for the artistic community. It’s a great pleasure to be able to do a deal with a manager and say ‘you will get your rights back, you will have creative control and you will have an international campaign’. We don’t have to break the UK to get you into Germany. We have a new artist called Lady Blackbird, who is fantastic - hasn’t really started in the UK yet, but was No.10 in the German charts recently, because the German team love it. So that international coverage really matters in the digital age.

Artist-label relationships today are fractured. Not at BMG. Alistair Norbury, UK president, BMG

Why is BMG such a popular home for established acts?

We are in the fortunate position to be able to sign artists who have fanbases, huge experience in the live world, and still feel relevant. What changed at BMG in the past four or five years, was that when we started actively being a label, we would be asked to put a record out. Well, of course we’ll put your record out. But now what happens is we’ll put your record out, but we can also introduce you to Jamie Nelson, who is one of the best A&Rs in the business. He’s taken Kylie, from her last record on Parlophone, which sold under 100,000, to one million over her last two albums. A lot of artists come to us and still want to make the best music. Now, with our A&R and marketing teams, we can help you do that.

In some cases, like Gary Numan, there is no A&R. Gary was very clear, ‘this is the record’. But, if you need to do an edit for Radio 2 or 6 Music, that’s marketing. And artists understand that. We are raising the bar and the recent signings – we’ve just added Tom Chaplin from Keane and the new Suede album, which is absolutely incredible.

Suede are a great example of a client that we published who wouldn’t come across to the label until they felt we were able to do the job for them. So, Ian Grenfell, who manages them, loved BMG as a publisher, and now sees that we can deliver on the label side as well.

What is your response to those who describe BMG as a heritage or legacy label?

If you sat with artists like Richard Ashcroft, Johnny Marr, and said ‘welcome to BMG, home of the heritage acts’, they would be straight out the door because that is not what they are. The way people use terms like heritage artist and legacy artist is very insulting to creative artists. Heritage is the Rewind Festival. The reason Rick Astley has done so well is that, with Simon Moran’s work as his promoter, he didn’t do any of those shows. They built him back having avoided those shows, and that’s a very lucrative business if you want to go down that route. But a lot of the acts we’ve been working with have been so successful because they are still hungry.

Blondie are a great example. When Korda [Marshall] signed Blondie, they couldn’t sell out Shepherds Bush Empire. The last show they did was The O2. That’s not just because of BMG, but we play a part on that journey. The live setting is a relevant reference, because five years ago we had a lot of theatre acts, now we have lots of arena acts. By this time next year, I predict we’ll have our first stadium act. You have to prove on each stage of the journey that you can deliver physically – we’ve done almost double our physical units on this time last year – you have to show you can deliver digitally, and you have to show you can deliver around the world. The real excitement at BMG is that we are still building towards something. The journey continues. We have massive catalogue, streaming uplift… the great times are back. We started at the worst of time, with the 2008 financial crash, so for a lot of people – and I’m only six years here - who have been here form the beginning, they sense there is more to come.

Has your reputation with established acts spread through the artistic community via word of mouth? Is BMG seen as a company that can be trusted with established catalogues?

The most impactful promotion you can ever have is artist-to-artist. The artist community talks. And over the last few years the relationship between artist and label is often fractured, but what we have here is the opposite. There was a wonderful meeting of Kylie and Rita Ora in Milan where they congratulated each other for being on BMG. You cannot make that moment up. There are many examples of artists asking each other about what label they are on, what it’s like there etc.

The discussions and the chatter definitely help. We created that first with the songwriters, we now have it with the artists, and as a result we have it with the management community. The new curveball we didn’t anticipate is the fan. When we signed Louis Tomlinson we had no idea what world we were entering. It’s a different level of fan engagement. For the very first time there are fans outside the office expecting him to come in. For the first time our digital team saw their personal social media following rise stratospherically because they are being bombarded by the Louis fan base. But also, his fanbase are commending him on signing for BMG, so there is this other world of punters talking about BMG.

How have you been able to leapfrog Warner Chappell in the publishing stakes?

It’s been a combination of our audio-visual publishing business, so we represent ITV, Netflix, and we’ve done very well in our media partnerships. We have renewed and extended and added some significant deals to the business, we’ve done very well internationally, and we’ve been very forensic in not chasing the pop hit. There was a time in music publishing where having track seven on a hit album was as valuable as track one, because it was a mechanical copyright. Now, unless you have track one or two, it's difficult. Luckily, we have a very strong sync team who, unlike other companies, work on both records and publishing. Having that integrated sync team makes a lot of sense.

Is there a limit to where BMG can go?

I worried about that for a period of time, because I kept thinking ‘is the well going to dry up’? Then I discovered that what we are doing is building a roster. So next year we’ll start our third album with Kylie, and we only expected to do one. So the roster is building to a size where it is almost self-sustaining. We already know our first Q1 and Q2 releases for next year. But we also know there is a huge untapped market out there. There was a time I would not be confident sitting down with a certain type of artist. Now, I’d be happy to sit down with them, tell them about BMG, what we’re doing and our successes. I don’t think that in the foreseeable future that’s a problem. And we’re starting to sign less but bigger.

Are the majors looking over their shoulder at what BMG is doing?

There is no doubt that we are noticed. The moves some of the majors are making to have divisions or parts of the business that service some of the areas we are in recognises that. I feel their response to what we’re doing is clear, but I don’t think it’s their biggest priority. We’re not stopping and the fact there is a direction of travel in artists we’re going after, that is only going to become an even more relevant question as time goes on.