Last week, the ASCAP Pop Awards — a major songwriting awards show, closely watched by the entire music business — awarded Publisher of the Year to independently owned music company Kobalt. Considering that Kobalt’s songwriters helped write smash hits of 2019 like Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” and Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Old Town Road” remix, its win isn’t exactly a surprise.
But Kobalt beat out the behemoth publishing arms of the three global music majors Universal, Warner, and Sony. In his 20 years of attending the awards, Kobalt founder and chairman Willard Ahdritz says, he’s never seen any other independent publisher take that crown, which honors songwriting in major pop hits.
When Ahdritz founded Kobalt two decades ago in London, he didn’t want it to just be a publisher: Kobalt is a “service company aligned with creators that used technology to deliver transparency and data,” he tells Rolling Stone. Ahdritz saw the transition to a streaming-based world as a “win-win-win” for publishers, because they could work with tech companies and create new value for fans and rights-holders alike. To that end, Kobalt’s first-of-its-kind app provides creators with real-time data at their income, sync activity, and music activity, and the company strives to establish trust and fairness with its songwriters.
“When streaming becomes a larger and larger share of your income, it’s more transparent because it is what it is,” adds Kobalt’s CEO Laurent Hubert. “You can see it, you can monitor it… There are more opportunities, and frankly, there are more choices today as a creator.” Team Kobalt also allows songwriters to get royalty advances from an online portal — a feature it launched 10 years ago that has proven more valuable than ever in COVID lockdown. “With five clicks, you could take out money if you needed to,” says Ahdritz. “Historically, it would take me three to six months to renegotiate your contract.”
While Kobalt’s coup at the ASCAP awards show is a milestone for the company, it’s also one of several recent triumphs for independent music companies in general. Executives across music publishing tell Rolling Stone that the idea of “going independent” has clearly gained steam in the last several years — in tandem with the rise of streaming — and that the trend is visible in hirings patterns, awards, and chart positions. Writers’ publishing contracts have also gotten shorter in time length, allowing for an “entry point” for indie companies to swoop in, one source says. And a recent MIDiA analysis and a report released earlier in 2020 show that independent music is growing at four times the rate of the music industry, with indie artists possibly generating more than $2 billion in records and publishing by the year’s end.
“We’ve had seven Number Ones in four or five months,” says Scott Cutler, co-CEO of indie music publisher Pulse. “They span genres… Top 40, Country… And we have five more right behind them that are going up.” Pulse, he says, just witnessed the best six months in its 10-year history.
“Independent companies are attractive to writers because we are able to be more scrappy and hands-on, which is due to keeping our roster lean in size,” says Prescription Songs’ head of West Coast A&R Rhea Pasricha. (Prescription, which has had a hand in some of Dua Lipa’s biggest hits, lives under the Kobalt umbrella.) “We always say ‘we have an independent hustle, but with major muscle.’ That hustle comes from our in-house team of A&R and sync creatives, backed by the muscle of our partnership with Kobalt and their global reach and resources.”
Execs also say the very definition of the word “independent” suggests a willingness to embrace change — and that in an ever-changing marketplace, smaller-scale operations have an easier time roll with the punches than major corporations, which is attractive to talent.
Cutler believes that the differences of “indie vs. major” don’t really matter anymore, and that this destigmatization alone shows the growth of indie work. He adds that distinctions often seem arbitrary and at times unfair — pointing to the fact that Kobalt won the Publisher of the Year award but BMG won the Independent Publisher of the Year Award, even though the latter has millions of songs under its belt.
ASCAP did not respond to request for comment on whether any indie companies have won its tentpole award in the show’s 37-year history. BMI, whose yearly publishing award rivals ASCAP’s, only offers one award but expanded the eligibility rules in 2017 to take various new kinds of publishing deals into account. The organization “previously calculated Publisher of the Year based on the number of songs owned by a publisher, with a few independent publishers winning,” but now has a more level playing field, a rep tells Rolling Stone.
Indie publishers’ flexibility have become one of their biggest selling points. Kobalt in particular prides itself on the personalization of its contracts. Ahdritz says he has no interest in locking a client into a long-term, binding contract like a major might: “I’ve always said, ‘If you don’t want to be here, you don’t need to.’ And our retention rate has been 98%. People say, ‘I have freedom but I want to be here.” Ahdritz adds that 40% of signings come from Kobalt writers recommending the team to other writers. “I think they need all the trust, support, and security they can get, because their operational business is usually the opposite,” he says.
Hubert also points to Kobalt’s love for administration deals, which tend to offer writers less money up front but give them more control, because they focus more on royalty collection and copyright registration than creative and marketing services.”We represent about 600 smaller music publishing companies — and we do a lot of the work for them, especially on the administration side. So, in some ways we are also an incubator for that independent sector to continue to grow and diversify,” Hubert says.
A Downtown Music Publishing rep tells Rolling Stone: “The whole construct of ‘indies versus majors’ feels like such an antiquated way of thinking about the industry. What does that even mean in a world where creators can retain the rights to their work, in addition to being able to record, distribute, and promote their music themselves?” This week, Downtown welcomed former Warner/Chappell U.K. managing director Mike Smith as its new global president — muddying the divide between major and indie at the executive tier as well.
Downtown has seen more and more “indie” songwriters working with major artists, such as Cautious Clay having three songs on John Legend’s new record, Anthony Rossamando writing with Lady Gaga for “Shallow,” and Tee Romano writing Chris Brown and Young Thug’s recent release. “It begs the question, what constitutes an indie songwriter?” says the rep. “Is Ryan Tedder an indie songwriter? He penned the Jonas Brothers’ ‘Sucker,’ ‘XO’ and ‘Halo’ for Beyonce, ‘Rumor Has It’ by Adele, among other massive hits. He also happens to be repped by Downtown Music Publishing.”
“I would argue that the ‘major versus indie’ framework models other shifts we’ve seen in recent years — digital-first streaming platforms like Netflix versus cable and traditional TV, or social media versus. traditional media,” the rep continues. “In these cases, the challenger has managed to become more directly competitive.”