Instrumental: “I saw an opportunity to build a business around the new generation of talent”
Conrad Withey is CEO of Instrumental, the fast growing artist discovery and development business focused on talent emerging on social media. We sat down to chat about mining YouTube for undiscovered artists, the evolving relevance of traditional music labels, and Instrumental’s new partnership with the Warner Music Group.
-Conrad, thanks for taking the time to chat today. Can we start with your professional story, prior to Instrumental?
I’ve worked in entertainment over 20 years. I started at Polygram and from there did rights acquisition for what became Universal Pictures. In 2003, I set up The Rights Company, working with independent TV producers on managing their rights. We were acquired by Warner Music, who were looking to grow their in-house content capability on a global level. I went from there to the music side and ran Warner Music Entertainment for nearly eight years. During that time we started signing artists who were breaking via a visual medium rather than radio, and we started to be aware of the power of social platforms. The catalyst for setting up Instrumental was seeing the proliferation of artists who had built their own fan base and I saw an opportunity to build a business around the new generation of talent.
-How did Instrumental (formerly PopShack) come into being, and how did it evolve into what it is today?
Because I had a central role with projects that were non-radio, I was the guy that would be get pitched a lot of YouTube talent by managers. A lot of time we’d pass on really talented artists because – despite their established fan base – they didn’t fit the major label’s notion of what an artist looked like. I decided to create a new business where they would fit in. We originally called it PopShack because we thought it would be focused on teen stars, but a year in we realized there was wider breadth of musical genres worth working with, and therefore changed the name to Instrumental.
-Instrumental discovers a lot of its music talent on YouTube. With YouTube being so vast, how do you weed through all the artists and what do you look for in the artists you want to work with?
It was one of the challenges we had to figure out: how do we find talent early and how do we get below the YouTube algorithm? We have a team that spends every day searching and discovering, looking at data, shares, likes, comments and subscribers. Our criteria is less old-school musical capability; we’re more about artists that have engaged an audience and built an established fan base. We reach out to artists who meet that criteria and encourage them to come onto the Instrumental platform.
-What do you do for the artists you work with?
We’ve built an environment where artists all over the world can connect and communicate. When they partner with us we give support and guidance, and connect them with other artists for collaborations and opportunities with brand partners and traditional labels.
But the discovery process that we’ve developed is also a tool to work with brands. Brands and advertisers want to access engaged social audiences; just as we need to discover artists, brands need to keep track of what’s going on with YouTube. We’re leveraging the discovery tools to help brands discover artists that can have influence for them.
-YouTube and social media have changed how new artists are discovered, with less emphasis on traditional record labels. Is this good for the music industry or bad?
YouTube and other social networks have broken down all barriers. In the old days, a label had to champion you or you wouldn’t be heard. Now you can upload your music to social networks and reach a global audience on your own. You can prove your potential without anyone backing you, and because most social networks operate globally you find a global audience. It means niche propositions are much more successful and that you can thrive even if you’ve not a global phenomenon. It’s changing the way everyone can work – artists are finding they can build a very effective career without a label’s support.
-YouTube stars tend to have to behave differently than ‘traditional’ stars, in that they have to create at least the illusion of being accessible to their fans. In some cases this has caused fans to turn up at artists’ doors, expecting to be treated as a friend. Is there a middle ground?
What works on YouTube is authenticity. There are definite pitfalls around appearing super accessible, so we do spend time on social media training and appropriate behavior. Some of it is instinctive – our artists are digital natives who have grown up with social media, so they’re slightly smarter and savvier.
But as an artist get bigger they become no different than any other pop star – the fans want to get closer and will find out where you live and what hotel you’re in.
-Instrumental has just partnered with Warner Music. How will this change Instrumental, and what other plans do you have for the future?
We’re thrilled when that WMG has decided to invest in a partnership that is very supportive in our ambitions to scale. It will help with new business because it gives us credibility, but equally important is that we’re still independent. WMG is excited about the social space, and where we’re gong to collaborate is on brand and media partnerships, star spotting, and where they can support that talent in their ambitions.
Read more about Instrumental here.