If things had gone to plan, Alex Kennedy would have been an England rugby star.
He was a highly promising player for Henley Hawks – and his brother Nick made it all the way to the international side – but a serious knee injury saw Alex forced into playing retirement in his early twenties.
As it turns out, rugby union’s loss was very much the music industry’s gain. Because, 20-odd years on from that injury (which still gives him gyp now), he finds himself Managing Director of Believe UK. And, under his direction, Believe is finally ready to emerge from the scrum of independent contenders – and put some crunching tackles in on the majors.
“Retiring [from rugby] was one of the hardest things I’ve done,” he says, a tad ruefully. “Because I really thought I had a good chance of making it. But to be able to get into music and have what’s now a 20-year career is not a bad substitute, that’s for sure.”
Of course, if his rugby career had turned out like his music industry CV, he would have played in every position on the pitch. From unfashionable grunt work in the industry’s front row to fancy-dan showmanship out on the wing in some high-profile roles, Kennedy has done it all.
After a first industry job licensing music for cover-mounted CDs for magazines and newspapers, he moved into film and TV, digitising content and licensing it to then-nascent businesses such as iTunes and Blinkbox. Then he pitched up as head of publishing at Omnifone, the pioneering music company that helped make streaming a thing (“For me, from day one, streaming was non-negotiable,” he says. “I was like, ‘This is 100% the future’”).
He got out of Omnifone before the company crashed in 2016 and joined Sky TV as head of music licensing. While there, he also helped launch the Sky Arts Sessions show and learned the skills that would later – in conjunction with Doc Brown, who Kennedy went to university with and manages – see him work on the adverts that put Just Eat, somewhat unfeasibly, together with Snoop Dogg and Katy Perry.
From there, Kennedy became Head of Commercial Development at Sky Tickets, immersing himself in the live sector in an attempt to crack the ticketing market. Like most such attempts, it fizzled out and he left Sky to go travelling for six months. When he returned, he found jobs hard to come by. So he did some consultancy, then got a “crash course in e-commerce” as chief commercial officer at Music Glue, helping to steer it through the pandemic, before joining Believe in April 2022.
Along the way, he also launched (and ultimately sold) Givvit, a social treating app that was too far ahead of its time to succeed, but helped introduce him to the world of start-ups, funding and Silicon Valley. Meaning he has experience in just about every sector the music industry has to offer.
It’s the role at Believe, however, that he describes as his “dream job”, perhaps because the company is also supremely versatile. From its DIY artist platform TuneCore to its legendary metal label Nuclear Blast, and from label and artist services/solutions to distribution, Believe’s influence extends right across the industry.
Kennedy has spent the last year-and-a-half undergoing a “baptism of fire” as he gets to grips with a burgeoning company that had global revenues of €415.4 million in H1 2023, has offices in over 50 territories and employs over 1,800 people worldwide.
Despite that scale, up until now Believe UK – like a stealthy rugby flanker – has operated mainly on the blind side of the British industry. It does not break out separate UK figures, but Kennedy says the growth rate has at least matched that of the global company (which was up 17.9% in H1) in recent years. It’s certainly starting to see success: Welsh singer-songwriter Novo Amor has blown past 1.5 billion global streams, while Believe UK’s close collaboration with dance label Cr2 Records and Believe’s global dance division b:electronic has delivered a huge worldwide hit with Matt Sassari’s Give It To Me.
Such successes are fuel to Kennedy’s plan to make the company as high-profile here as it is in France, Germany and numerous other international territories – and give the major labels a run for their money. So, it’s high time this rucker-turned-rocker sat down with MBW over an English breakfast and explained why it really is time to believe in Believe…
Given the size of the company, why has Believe UK slipped under the industry radar?
Probably we haven’t done enough talking about ourselves. But we’re not much of a ‘fake it until you make it’-type business; we’re more like, ‘Deliver and then go out and talk about it’. And it’s the appropriate time in the UK to talk about the size of business and level of clients we’ve got, future plans and strategies. We’ve shown we can compete against all the different businesses out there.
So, why should the industry pay attention to Believe?
We are a considerably sized alternative to the major labels. If you’re an independent business or an independent-minded exec, artist or record label, then you have a foundational business that is able to deliver on a global scale. It makes a lot of sense to come and talk to us because, with TuneCore, our artist distribution business, our artist services business and our label distribution business, we give you pretty much everything along the gamut.
“We haven’t got the benefit of deep catalogue, so we have to live or die by the service levels we provide.”
We’ve developed a real premium level of service in all those different areas. We haven’t got the benefit of deep catalogue like the majors, so we have to live and die by the service levels we provide and the investment we make in our platform and our teams. Having that [service] at the top level means we can really deliver for people, and we retain clients for a very long time.
What can you tell us about your new strategies?
We already sign artists and labels, and service them. My view is, we should also be partnering with execs and other talent out there who want to build their own businesses. We can JV with them and build those businesses in a much leaner fashion than they might do on their own.
I’ve been spending a lot of time getting to know some of the interesting characters in the business that have maybe run a major label, but now want to own their own thing. Or up-and-comers, young entrepreneurial managers who are looking after big artists but maybe want to build their own rights business. That third pillar in terms of entrepreneurs is where we’re really going to
Have you signed anyone up yet?
We’re getting perilously close to signing a couple but, because it’s a new model, it’s taking a while to get it all lined up. We don’t want to just throw a few bets out there and see what happens; we’ve done a lot to make sure the model we’re offering is going to be very powerful for these entrepreneurs.
Everybody’s got a great idea, but you need to make sure the people who are bringing it through have the scope to actually grow a business, because it’s not easy – and it’s getting a lot harder.
It sounds like a potentially risky business to be in…
Of course, but what we’ve had to do for Believe to grow is get hyper-good at assessing and managing risk. If you look at the number of artists we sign versus the ones we’re successful with, we’ve got a very good ratio. Where, if you look at some of the more traditional models, it’s a ‘one [hit] in 10 to pay for the rest’-type of thing. We don’t have that luxury, we have to have a much higher hit rate.
What’s your ratio?
[Laughs] That’s a trade secret, but we also have to have a very high ratio because of the terms that we offer, which are incredibly artist and label-friendly, so our margins are slimmer. If we don’t get it right x times out of y, then we’re out of business.
We have to be very good at looking at people who are going to be successful. That means being patient and not chasing trends – yes there’s been some stuff signed off TikTok that might have a long-term career, but there’s also been a lot of stuff that is a one-hit wonder at best, and a lot of money has been wasted. We can’t afford to get into that.
How important is independence these days?
When you see the majors buying up AWAL – and PIAS is [now 49%-owned] by Universal – there’s no real scale [independent] distribution partners out there for indie labels. Indies want to be independent, so there’s a real tension having to work with an ADA or whoever else.
Being able to offer, at scale, a very competitive service that we actually believe is better than what the other guys offer, is really heartening for independent labels, because they know they can stay independent and they don’t have to compromise.
History shows us that successful independent music companies tend to get snapped up by the majors. Won’t that just happen to Believe?
It would be very unlikely: we’ve broken through that critical mass where maybe it would be attractive, and now it’s more like we’ve got our sights set on catching up to the majors over the next five to 10 years.
If you look at where we’ve made our investments and our bets, they’re in the territories that are growing to such an extent that, in 2030, countries that we’re massive in are going to be some of the biggest countries in the world monetisation-wise: India, China, Brazil, Mexico, but also Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines. A lot of these territories have 80-90% domestic listening, so the space for the historic Anglo-American dominance is diminishing quite quickly. That’s another area for us to be confident in getting even more scale.
Britain isn’t one of those markets, so where does that leave Believe UK?
[Laughs] I probably have one of the trickier jobs for Believe MDs! The UK is a market that is very much affected by transatlantic crossover. Because we share the same language, American content takes up a lot of UK listening, so it’s a challenge for us. But it does also work the other way: a lot of the content that we work with in the UK gets listened to a lot in America.
We’re out there trying to sign as many UK artists and labels as we can, with the quality to make sure we can push domestic product as much as possible. What would be great is if we had a government who would help the arts more, like they do in Canada, Spain or France, because, without their support, you’re struggling to get as much quality coming up through the ranks. It’s cost-prohibitive to be an artist now.
It’s been a while since the last British global breakthrough star. Can Believe produce one?
I would very much like to think so. It is increasingly challenging because of the volume of music that’s now available and the priority that markets are showing to domestic music. The model where you have an Ed Sheeran or an Adele and they do insanely well in 100-150 different countries… we might not get that as much in the future. What you’re more likely to get is lots of mid-level artists doing very well in their local territories and then some breakouts doing well in clusters of territories. You might get regional superstars rather than global ones in the future.
TuneCore enables a lot of DIY artists to release their music. What do you think of the majors’ concerns about the market being flooded with ‘inferior’ product?
Flooding the market is an extreme way to look at it. I don’t know that there should be a line that says a track an artist creates isn’t of a sufficient quality, so people don’t deserve to hear it – because how do you then introduce music into the world?
Some of the quotes I’ve heard saying you shouldn’t allow certain music onto platforms, [are coming from] people that signed artists from TuneCore in order to build them into the next big artists. So, it feels slightly hypocritical to say those artists shouldn’t be allowed to be heard. Quality is in the ears of the beholder and we should let people listen to the music they want to listen to.
It does mean things are more competitive: to get your music listened to, you have to have better music, better marketing, better promotion and better services. Maybe that’s their fear, that they don’t have the requisite teams to be able to get their music heard as much as they want them to…
You’ve had a lot of success with dance music. Is that an area that’s been ignored by others?
Well, they’re definitely not ignoring it anymore – each week you’ve got a new imprint or something going on!
It’s huge for us – b:electronic is forming the connective tissue between all our local offices to help globalise a dance hit and it’s working phenomenally well.
It’s helped us make some really interesting new signings in the last six months, with people like Hospital Records and Rinse Records, and we’ve got some more to announce later in the year.
They sit with people like Cr2 Records and Shogun and the other amazing dance labels we have. And it’s a very global music; the lyrical content can be relatively low, so the barrier to entry to listen to dance music is quite low. In the global world we live in now, dance hits can be a lot more exportable than hip-hop written by a guy from East London, where the lyrics aren’t understandable to someone in Mississippi.
You came in with a brief to power mergers and acquisitions. How’s that coming along?
It’s been good so far. You’ve seen us buy Sentric in the last nine months – we’re working really hard in the background to integrate that and then we’ll talk about it properly. The M&A stuff takes a while but, rest assured, we’re having some really interesting conversations. The aim is to make some deals that we’ll be very proud to announce in the next 12 months.
Where do you ultimately want the UK company to sit?
Our ambition is to become one of the biggest territories for Believe globally. Our aim is to be seen as the fourth major, the independent major, both for artists and for labels, so they know there is a home for them that has equally as much firepower, if not more than those guys, to power their business.
“It’s not inconceivable that we can grow to approximately where Warner are in the UK.”
If you look at a time horizon of the next seven or eight years, it’s not inconceivable than we can grow to approximately where Warner are in the UK. You have to have lofty ambitions, and that’s what our ambition would be.
You’ve moved around a lot. Are you at Believe for the long haul?
I’d like to think so – as long as they’ll have me! With a lot of the moving I’ve done, and the itchy feet I’ve had, it’s been with a view to gather a real broad range of experience to give me the ability to do a job like this. But now I’ve got it, I would love to be here for a really long time. I can see a huge trajectory from where we are now. It’s going to be very exciting to be part of this business for the next five to 10 years.
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