NOWHERENEAR’s Hannan Malik, syncsync’s Mich Mellard, GRM Daily’s Lauren Pavan and KRPT’s Inder Phull were features speakers.
Where do new, young entrants into the music business see the ripest opportunities for disruption and structural change? How might they be building these new opportunities from scratch already — and how can the rest of the industry catch up?
Four music entrepreneurs discussed these and other questions during the “Disruptors, No Rules” panel at the latest International Music Summit in Ibiza on May 24. The featured speakers included Hannan Malik, founder of artist management firm & record label NOWHERENEAR; Mich Mellard, founder of copyright-free music platform syncsync and licensing coordinator at Universal Music Group; Lauren Pavan, COO of GRM Daily, the most-visited urban music website in the U.K.; and Inder Phull, founder/CEO of creative agency KRPT.
The panel was co-organized by Young Guns Network (YGN), a London-based media & entertainment networking group with over 1,500 members and counting. YGN hosts monthly events on topics ranging from brand partnerships to the future of live music and youth culture, and has sponsored panels and meetups at IMS for the past four years.
Below are three higher-level takeaways and guidelines from the panel on how the next generation is capitalizing on the music industry’s ongoing digital transformation, from revamping company culture to looking beyond industry silos for inspiration.
1. Embrace polymaths like you really mean it
To the speakers, the titular phrase “no rules” referred to how new entrants into the music industry not only could carve out their own paths to success, but also could frame their inability to fit into predetermined boxes as a strength, rather than a weakness.
“Ten years ago when I came into this industry, I used to have to sift through CVs and filter out people who showed versatility, or who had too many hobbies,” said Pavan. “These companies saw being a jack-of-all-trades as a liability, if you couldn’t streamline your skill set. That’s so different now: we should expect people to be skilled in multiple areas, to be able to use multiple programs like InDesign and Photoshop no matter what your role.”
“The next wave of entrepreneurs are polymaths,” agreed Phull. “They build and design all aspects of their own businesses, and you’re seeing a lot of projects launching much more quickly than before.”
Malik recounted how he got his start as an artist manager as a teenager, simply by designing artists’ MySpace pages for 20 pounds apiece.
“I wasn’t a ‘manager’ by title, but I was designing and overseeing all of these assets for artists,” he said. “At the time, I think that approach was actually quite disruptive, because one manager pulled me aside one day and said to me, ‘Hannan, you need to choose which side you’re on: are you a creative or a manager?’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ To be a manager, you have to be creative, and you have to understand what’s going on with socials and brand partnerships and in the recording studio. I was disrupting without even realizing it.”
Pavan extended on Malik’s anecdote by encouraging companies of all sizes not to keep employees’ contributions and achievements intentionally limited to their job titles. “Someone working in the licensing department might be the biggest football fan and can help you come up with a great sports strategy,” she said. “It’s about breaking down the boundaries of tradition. I think there’s a growing understanding that barriers around departments and responsibilities are so much more fluid now.”
2. Bake innovation and accessibility deep into your culture, workflow and budget — not just into press releases
Recent headlines suggest that major labels are taking gradual steps to introduce more innovative angles into their day-to-day processes and to develop more meaningful relationships with the tech community. Warner Music, an early investor in “talent AI” platform Instrumental, has acquired two other startups, Songkick and Sodatone, in the last year alone. In Apr. 2018, Universal Music’s Capitol Records launched the Capitol Innovation Center, a new hub devoted to speaker workshops and hackathons with the goal of fostering closer, more meaningful connections among content creators, software developers and students.
That said, incorporating a genuine culture of innovation into a larger organization can sometimes seem like an insurmountable challenge, no matter what the industry. “Part of having innovation and disruption at the heart of your culture is about analyzing whether your company has a truly inclusive approach from the top,” said Phull. “You have to create a structure where people at all levels can come up with ideas freely and challenge the leader.”
As an example of an innovative policy from outside the music industry, Phull mentioned Google’s famed “20 percent time” rule, which gave employees permission to spend 20 percent of their working time on personal projects. Some of the big-tech behemoth’s most successful products, including but not limited to Gmail, AdSense and Google Talk, emerged as a result of the policy.
While “20 percent time” is virtually dead at Google by multiple accounts as the company shifts its focus toward a top-down approach to product development, music companies could still learn from the policy when it comes to maximizing the skill sets and intellectual potential of its employees.
“If you think you’ve hired really smart people, you know they won’t spend that 20 percent of their time doing nothing,” said Phull. “They’re gonna be innovating and coming up with new products. Just a simple change in how your employees spend their time, and letting them have the creativity to think outside of their day-to-day job, can open up whole new opportunities.”
Malik mentioned an example of an innovative, open program that already exists within music: Island Co:Lab, an influencer and creative initiative homegrown from within Island Records’ U.K. offices. The label hosts a popular event series known as Island Fridays, a networking meetup that brings designers, videographers, influencers and musicians together into one room on one Friday every month, with the goal of fostering a more organic, long-term relationship between the music and brand worlds.
Most importantly, anyone who attended Island Fridays got access to the Island Co:Lab private Instagram account, which posted opportunities for independent creatives to build assets for artist campaigns. “They would regularly post on the account that they’d need artwork done for Donae’O, or a video done for Dizzee Rascal, or a pop-up shop for another artist, and anyone could jump on the opportunity,” recounted Malik. “I thought that interaction was amazing, and more importantly the access was free.”
3. Don’t underestimate the power of Instagram — and look beyond music for inspiration
In the spirit of Island Co:Lab, the power of Instagram and influencer culture became a surprising thread throughout the entire panel — driving home the point that artists are competing for attention and fandom not just with each other, but with all other brands and personalities building their own followings on social media. It’s no coincidence that Sony Music even created its own internal influencer marketing vertical in fall 2017.
“People aren’t really looking at how the next generation is consuming music, and that’s where our energy needs to be shifted,” said Mellard. Artists and labels have already caught up to the the fact that “we’re living in a time of instant gratification,” in Mellard’s words, and are releasing as many as 20 songs within 12 months.
Keeping up with the even quicker pace of influencer culture requires tapping into tight-knit influencer communities, especially those with lower- and middle-tier follower counts that major-label growth incentives might overlook.
“A couple years ago, every person who came to us in the grime world would only roll off names like Stormzy or J Hus — basically the few people they saw at that top level — without really understanding the value of mid-tier influencers and vloggers,” said Pavan. “If someone doesn’t get it, and if they’re not willing to ask questions about it and to acknowledge that they don’t get it, it’s always going to be an uphill battle and I generally won’t pursue that opportunity.”
The grime world has embraced influencer culture full-force, and isn’t slowing down anytime soon: in Feb. 2018, Channel 4 commissioned a show co-starring MC Big Narstie and Instagram comedy influencer Mo the Comedian, who has around 360,000 followers on the social platform. Pavan also mentioned Michael Dapaah, a U.K. comedian (a.k.a. fictional rapper “Big Shaq”) who has 1.3 million Instagram followers, as a prime example of a figure outside the immediate music industry who can still play an instrumental role both in artist development and in pushing forward a genre or culture at large.
“I think the format of music will always be important, but how you experience it — that’s where the biggest opportunities lie to grow music’s value and take it to a different level,” said Phull. “Artists and labels have to ask themselves whether they’re really being innovative and visionary with their work. There’s so much repetitive stuff on the radio and on the charts. I would love to see more artists take in inspiration from theater, film or gaming and do things that are pushing the boundary a little bit more. It’s really about the people who are holding the purse strings thinking about whether they’re actually trying anything different, or just recycling the formula.”