With AWAL and Platoon both acquired, Tencent-backed FRTYFVE is becoming an indie power player in artist services

Credit: Daniel Alexander Harris
FRTYFVE-signed Rachel Grae, based in New York, has nearly 2 million monthly listeners on Spotify. Her top song on the platform has just shy of 10 million streams to date

“We don’t care what genre you work in, or what ‘industry experts’ might think about the music you make.”

This isn’t your typical record label pitch to an artist. But FRTYFVE isn’t a typical record label – in fact, it slightly shudders to be described that way.

Conrad Withey, the UK-based founder of the ‘artist growth company’ (FRTYFVE does approve of that description) says his firm signs around three acts each month – and is turning away many more every week.

Yet, interestingly, FRTYFVE never rejects an artist on the basis of musical taste.

“What we care about in the signing process is whether or not we believe we can realistically get you to 10 million streams a month,” says Withey. “Because, once you reach that point, it means you’re making a living from music.”

Word is getting out about FRTYFVE’s accelerative effect on indie artist careers. The Tencent-backed company – which specializes in social marketing, streaming promotion, artist financing and brand partnerships – cumulatively racked up over a billion streams in the first ten months of 2022.

FRTYFVE’s biggest artist success stories to date include the likes of SadBoyProlific (2.5 million Spotify monthly listeners) and New York-based pop artist Rachel Grae (1.9 million), while its fastest-growing acts include non-binary ‘interdisciplinary’ artist Rio Romeo (646k Spotify monthly listeners).

FRTYFVE cites data showing artists like these have seen a material surge in social and streaming activity since signing with the company. Rachel Grae, for example, has seen an 801% increase in her Spotify monthly listeners since her first release with FRTYFVE, while her social following has more than tripled in 2022; another FRTYFVE artist, Jessica Baio (787k monthly Spotify listeners) has seen her Spotify plays bounce by nearly 1,000% this year; Rio Romeo’s lead single, Butch 4 Butch, has topped 25 million Spotify plays.

On average, says FRTYFVE’s Label Director, Emma Banks, its artists grow their streaming business by 463% in their first year after signing with the firm.

FRTYFVE isn’t bothered if you haven’t heard of any of the aforementioned artists – in fact, that’s its sweet spot: acts who haven’t come close to troubling the Billboard Hot 100, but who are building strong audiences that play their music millions of times each per month. FRTYFVE is, however, very choosy in terms of the artists it’s willing to work with.

The key to its roster’s consistent growth in popularity, says Banks, is a pact between FRTYFVE and its artists – with accountability on both sides.

“What we care about in the signing process is whether or not we believe we can realistically get you to 10 million streams a month.”

Conrad Withey, FRTYFVE

In 2021, FRTYFVE launched its ‘12 Months To Make It’ plan, a step-by-step program for indie artists on its roster to help them rapidly expand their online audiences.

On its side, FRTYFVE commits to running each act through a process of investment, promotion and marketing which has already paid dividends for acts that are now cumulatively earning hundreds of thousands of dollars from their streaming income each year.

FRTYFVE’s artists, however, are expected to follow a ten-point list of guidance – ‘The Fundamentals’. The company believes these are the cornerstones of rapid audience expansion on music streaming services and social sites in 2022. And here they are:

  1. Be prolific musically & ‘social first’ (including Spotify).
  2. Build a strong visual identity.
  3. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.
  4. ‘Re-version’ relentlessly.
  5. Think global from Day One.
  6. Own your fan base.
  7. Let the data drive you.
  8. Don’t try & guess the hits.
  9. Go big on viral moments.
  10. Convert online moments to offline.

Perhaps the most controversial two rules within the above list – or at least, the least conventional rules – are numbers (1) and (8): In essence, release as much music as you’re able to do comfortably, and let your fanbase – rather than ‘industry experts’ – tell you what they like best.

Point (1) there – release as much music as you can – has shades of an infamous quote from Spotify founder Daniel Ek from 2020, in which he said: “You can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough. The artists today that are making it realize that it’s about creating a continuous engagement with their fans. It is about putting the work in, about the storytelling around the [music], and about keeping a continuous dialogue with your fans.”

Conrad Withey – an ex-International President of Warner Music Entertainment – is unapologetically in agreement with the Spotify founder.

“I went to see a live agent the other month and told him that an artist we both work with is releasing a track every couple of weeks with us,” says Withey. “He nearly fell off his chair, and said: ‘Every couple of weeks?! We have artists in the studio right now agonizing over selecting the music they’re going to take to the market.’

“That made me think: how does any artist know what music the market wants… without asking the market?”

FRTYFVE’s answer: keep feeding the market until you hit paydirt. Withey says that, as a minimum, FRTYFVE’s ‘12 Months To Make It’ acts are expected to put out at least 12 pieces of music across a year.

“It’s all about focusing on what matters – which for 90% of artists is purely social and streaming, and cutting out everything else that’s cluttering up their days,” says Withey. “That challenge does get more intense as an artist’s popularity grows, but that’s why they need to lean on a team with expertise.”

“Guess what? Streaming algorithms really like fans who share music, save music, and keep streaming.”

Conrad Withey, FRTYFVE

Adds Withey: “The beauty of streaming for independent artists is you can get to a place where you start making $3k to $5k a month – or for some artists much more – without investing an awful lot [in marketing]. All that matters is growing an audience that loves you, converting that into streams, which then converts into predictable income. There is no influencer required in that process. And guess what? Streaming algorithms really like fans who share music, save music, and keep streaming.

“I get frustrated when streaming economics are bemoaned by artists who don’t have a real fanbase. They might think they do, because a certain trendsetting radio station is playing their music, or they sold a few thousand albums ten years ago and received an advance. But if you strip all of that away, if your music’s on streaming services today and you’re not getting a lot of plays – and therefore not getting very much money as a result – it’s because you don’t have a real fanbase.”

The average FRTYFVE deal encompasses an advance and a 12-month exclusive recordings contract, though the artist retains all rights to said recordings. Music released via FRTYFVE then stays on its books for a short licensing term.

FRTYFVE invests multiple millions of dollars on artist advances every six months. (The firm has paid out individual artist advances ranging from around $12,000 to significantly over $1 million, says Withey.) This capital is drawn down from FRTYFVE’s parent company, Instrumental, whose investors include Tencent Music Entertainment and UK fintech venture builder Blenheim Chalcot.

Instrumental, which launched in London in 2014, was initially built upon an AI engine that spotted emerging talent online via streaming and social analytics. (That engine was early to spot the likes of Lil Nas X and Tones & I, amongst others.)

“When we first meet an artist, we really dig into, What’s your goal? Buying a house? Okay, then let’s shoot for that, and see where we end up.”

Emma Banks, FRTYFVE

For its first few years, Instrumental licensed out use of its talent-spotting AI (likened by the Financial Times to the wizardry behind ‘Moneyball’ in baseball) to music industry giants such as Republic Records and Live Nation. But then, following Tencent’s investment in 2020, a realization struck Withey and his team: They could wrestle back exclusive use of their technology to discover and sign artists to their own label – sorry, ‘artist growth company’ – which became FRTYFVE.

“Since we soft-launched FRTYFVE, we’ve seen the likes of AWAL and Platoon sold to large companies [Sony Music and Apple, respectively],” says Withey. “We think that leaves room in the market for a truly independent company like ours to partner with high potential artists and help them scale their music business.”

Instrumental continues to develop other products and technological solutions for independent artists outside of FRTYFVE, notes Withey, with launches to come in the months ahead. But right now his company’s main focus is building FRTYFVE which, he says, has doubled revenue annually since Tencent’s investment in 2020, and recently became profitable.

Adds FRTYFVE’S Emma Banks: “We offer artists this flagship program – ‘12 Months To Make It’ – but that itself raises interesting questions around what ‘making it’ even means. When we first meet an artist, we really dig into that idea. What’s your goal? Buying a house? Okay, then let’s shoot for that, and see where we end up.

“We don’t get distracted by artists who don’t want to work our way. When we sign artists we sit down at the outset and agree, together, on success metrics that are a bit of a stretch, but are also achievable and very measurable. Then we get to work.”Music Business Worldwide