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.