She was named after Emmylou Harris, but it was Kylie Minogue that really inspired Emmy Lovell’s music industry career.
Despite the presence of two heavy metal-loving older brothers, Lovell grew up a Kylie superfan: dressing like the Australian pop star, doing her hair like her and wearing out cassette after cassette of her music. Lovell’s first tentative steps into the world of work involved helping to run Minogue’s online forum. And, when she hesitated over her big music biz break, it was Kylie that sealed the deal.
Lovell had embarked on a career in media after writing a letter to then-Capital Radio MD Andria Vidler, insisting the business needed her and offering to work for free. A month’s trial led to a job at the radio group and stints in digital marketing at Kent Messenger Group; the BBC and Bauer followed.
But when Vidler – who Lovell describes as “an absolute badass” who continues to mentor her – landed the job as CEO of EMI UK. She remembered Lovell’s unparalleled enthusiasm and tried to lure her to Parlophone to help turn around the troubled British major. Lovell prevaricated until Vidler pointed out: ‘You get to work with Kylie!’
“I said, ‘Sign me up!’” chuckles Lovell, as she looks back. “And the rest is history!”
Minogue also taught Lovell her first music biz lesson, when – one week into her new gig – the superfan committed the cardinal sin of getting the name of her single wrong in a marketing meeting.
“I still haven’t forgiven myself for it,” she sighs. “She was amazing about it, but I was like, ‘I’m never screwing up again’. I learned you have to pay attention to detail. This isn’t just a job, this is someone’s life, their dream, their entire reputation. From that point on, I was always going to do right by the artist.”
Lovell has barely put a foot wrong since. As Parlophone transitioned into Warner following EMI’s sale and break-up, Max Lousada spotted her potential and she not only survived but thrived, rising through the ranks from Head of Digital to EVP, WEA Europe & ROW.
So, it was a surprise when she jumped ship in 2021 to head for streaming service Napster as Chief Strategy Officer. Soon after, she found herself being interim CEO as the company was bought and pivoted into the NFT world, but, since the start of this year, she has been happily ensconced as Global Head of Music at SoundCloud.
She admits she’s still working out the role, but is clearly relishing being back at the centre of musical creativity. Her schedule has her shuttling between London, New York, Nashville and Los Angeles, but there’s no trace of jet lag or cynicism as she talks from a rainy LA office about the renewed enthusiasm for music that means she didn’t watch a single movie or read a single book on any of those flights, instead listening to new releases and catalogue throughout her time in the air.
SoundCloud has experienced a rather more turbulent ride since 2007, nearly crashing and burning in the 2010s and recently laying off 8% of its workforce as it seeks long-awaited profitability.
But Lovell insists that, “the future looks pretty rosy” as the company exclusively reveals to MBW that it now has around 500,000 artists on its Fan-Powered Royalties programme (out of 40 million creators on the platform). This sees a share of each listener’s subscription or advertising revenue allocated to the tracks they actually listen to, rather than through the traditional pro-rata model. According to SoundCloud, independent artists have seen near-60% increases in rates on the new model.
Lovell’s old home Warner Music and indie collective Merlin have already signed up so their artists can be paid this way, and the exec expects more deals to follow, as SoundCloud looks to build on the artist-friendly credentials that helped launch the likes of Billie Eilish, Chance The Rapper, Fred Again, Lil Uzi Vert and UK rapper Strandz to prominence.
Lovell is clearly the perfect ambassador for that approach. Despite her ‘digital guru’ status at Warner, she demurs on discussing the implications of AI-generated music for the streaming platform (“I learned from Napster not to pretend I know about something I do not understand,” she smiles) but everything else is on the table as she settles down to talk through her life and times.
Especially for you, of course…
How tough was it to walk away from Warner Music?
Very – but it was also really easy because I did it in 2021, when we were all working from home. You shut your laptop, you didn’t have leaving drinks, so it felt like the coward’s way to leave because I didn’t face having to say goodbye to people.
It took me a long time to get over Warner because it was an incredible place and I had the happiest memories there. Doing the digital committee for the BRITs was probably the highlight of my time at Warner, because I grew up watching the BRITs – loving it, obsessing over it, knowing everything about it. So to then be part of making it happen was ridiculous.
I didn’t think it could get any better than EMI and, when we were going through that transition I was incredibly sad. But Warner turned out to be the most incredible place I’ve ever worked. Largely thanks to Max Lousada, who saw a passion in me and a desire to grow – and helped facilitate that growth journey by giving me opportunities, but really pushing me to see how I could develop and be successful within the company.
So why did you leave?
I absolutely love the music industry, but to only be on the major label side of it feels very one-sided. To be part of a distribution company and understanding things from the other side gives me an advantage to understand and help facilitate artists’ careers. I can see it from the DSP side and I’ve seen it from the rights-holders’ side – [Napster] felt like a really good way to learn, at a small enough company to have an impact and help drive some positivity, because it was in a distressed place.
Presumably you didn’t expect to end up as interim CEO?
No. I don’t like that bird’s eye view, I want to be in the middle of it all. I now know how to run a business, so it was an amazing experience from a personal development point of view.
I’m now much more understanding of how and why decisions are made and the impact all the way through to the board and investment. But it’s not my sweet spot, it’s not what I’m passionate about and it’s not something I’d ever want to do again. It was an amazing learning curve to figure out what I’m good at and what I want to do.
And what do you want to do at SoundCloud?
I want to work with artists and creatives and help facilitate their dreams coming true, whatever that looks like – whether that’s as a hobbyist or a career person. When I’m passionate, it brings opportunities and makes people feel like we can do things together that are impossible. Music is magical and we shouldn’t ever forget that.
Can SoundCloud still break artists?
There are 40 million creators on the platform and obviously I can’t work with all of them, but it’s at the forefront of what’s next. And that’s the most exciting thing – trying to figure out what’s coming next in music and what cultural impact that could have around the world.
It’s never been easier to make music, but it’s never been more difficult to be a successful musician than in 2023. But you can still break an artist on SoundCloud and I’m really hopeful that we can help facilitate that.
“It’s never been easier to make music, but never been more difficult to be successful.”
One of my artist development team, Drea Jackson, has been championing Ice Spice. She gave Ice Spice her first ever live performance at SoundCloud and she’s now starting to break through. So yes, we can have those moments still, but it’s not easy for anyone.
And, obviously, with 40m artists on the platform, not all of them are going to be career-defining, culture-defining, generation-defining, prolific artists. But the majority of them want to make a living. There are very few that want global superstardom; we’re happy to facilitate that too, but it takes a lot of work, data, listening, time and patience.
What do you want to achieve for artists with SoundCloud?
I want to change the world! That’s quite a lot to achieve [Laughs]. My desire is to facilitate musicians’ dreams coming true. I want SoundCloud to be the place that, if a musician wants a career as an independent musician, we can ensure that they’re earning money from music. Because that’s the only way the music industry survives and thrives. I want to hear from as many artists as possible on why they use SoundCloud, what’s special and how we can help them.
Fred Again is a really good example. He was making music but didn’t know what to do with it, so he started uploading it to SoundCloud and listening to the feedback. He used that feedback to tweak his sound and come up with his own – there’s a very Fred Again sound now.
The SoundCloud community is really tight-knit. They want to elevate people. We’ve had so much success from artists that have been discovered on SoundCloud, but that’s because the communities have got behind them. The artists love it because they don’t get that anywhere else.
Does it matter if artists get to a certain level, then piss off to another platform?
No, it absolutely doesn’t. But labels need to stop ignoring SoundCloud after they find an artist on SoundCloud. What’s happened on a handful of occasions is, they find an artist on SoundCloud, sign them and then the label deletes everything from SoundCloud – and then spends a shit ton of money on other social platforms. They ignore the community the artist has built up.
“Labels need to stop ignoring SoundCloud after they find an artist on SoundCloud.”
They should use SoundCloud to facilitate that organic growth journey. Don’t delete the history, because the history is part of the story-telling and, in order to be a true artist these days, you have to have that artist-fan connection. You only get that if you understand who they are as a person, and you can’t do that in one or two songs.
What have you learned from the Fan-Powered Royalties (FPR) programme?
It’s a lifeline for the independent community that monetizes on SoundCloud. Many artists aren’t making a living wage, so this is a way to try and positively change the challenges that the streaming era has created for working musicians.
And those that signed up to FPR have access to Fans, which we announced a few weeks ago. They can actually know who their fans are and have direct communication. That’s totally unique.
It’s a new world that we’re working through; everything is going to evolve, but we’re on the right track for the right reasons because we’re an ‘artist first’-led company.
Would you like FPR to become the industry standard, or would that remove a SoundCloud USP?
I may be saying the wrong thing here, but of course I’d like it. If it rolled out, it would be incredibly flattering. But I don’t think the industry will all move to this specific model, because no one likes to do everything in an easy fashion! It’s definitely moving in the right direction. The fact that people are having conversations about changing what [remuneration] looks like is very positive.
I love the fact we’re leading the charge on this. SoundCloud is here to change the world and that’s why I came here, because the ambition is huge, the stake in the ground is huge and to be really crass, SoundCloud have big balls to do this.
But it’s also the right thing to do for working musicians and I’m incredibly proud to be part of a company looking to change how the music industry monetizes.
If you could change one thing about today’s music industry, right here and now, what would it be and why?
I would like to see more female executives leading. And the reason I say that is, it’s been well-documented that female musicians like to have females to help navigate the challenges of the music industry. It’s changing, but it shouldn’t have taken so long and I want it to change further. Major rights-holders are doing a good job and there are some amazing women leading labels now, but it’s really important for female musicians to be able to look up to and work with female execs.
Championing, mentoring and helping navigate choppy waters with young female talent is something I’ve always done. I want to see the next generation of female leaders.
SoundCloud has had to weather a lot of storms over the years. What does its future look like?
You’ll have read we’re chasing profitability, and that’s incredibly important. But [SoundCloud] is in a really great place because it’s not one specific thing.
From here on in, [we want to] be at the centre of it; help facilitate pop culture, find the next Billie Eilish and amplify talent so they can make a living. More of the same, but in a really good way; continue pushing the boundaries and experimenting.
The conversations I have with rights-holders across the board, around the world, are really positive. People love SoundCloud. For the first time, I feel
really excited about not knowing what we can do in the future – because anything’s possible.
Music Business Worldwide