Artist development isn’t dead, but it sure has changed. Two decades ago, a 20-something jazz musician named Norah Jones became a breakout star for Blue Note Records, a traditional route to stardom when people still bought CDs and social media didn’t exist. Last year’s breakout jazz artist, Laufey, cultivated a fan base on TikTok and posts sheet music for her songs online so fans can download it before the recordings come out.
To AWAL CEO Lonny Olinick, Laufey’s success is a sign of the times. The Icelandic singer built an online following by herself, but she needed a team to develop her career and handle marketing and promotion logistics. Her second AWAL album, Bewitched, topped Billboard’s Jazz Albums and Traditional Jazz Albums charts in September. “We’re seeing this real inflection point where artists are starting to, with their own teams and then between the team and AWAL, realize that there are no barriers in what can be achieved,” says Olinick, who earned an MBA from Stanford Business School and worked at consulting firm Bain & Company before joining Kobalt in 2016.
Artists such as JVKE, whose “Golden Hour” reached No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2022, and Mercury Prize winner Little Simz have used AWAL to find success outside of the major-label system. AWAL’s services-focused approach is becoming the norm as major labels increasingly provide distribution, marketing, promotion, accounting and even financing without needing to own the rights to artists’ recordings as part of standard deals. Sony Music acquired AWAL in 2022 to complement its labels and its distribution business, The Orchard. Universal Music Group is also building its own artist services business, through a revamped Virgin Label Group.
Paradoxically, services-based music companies still have to do many of the same things as traditional labels — just with different deals. Only recently, Olinick says, has the 16-year-old company truly met that challenge. “Last year and the year before were probably the first years where we fully realized that vision, where I’m confident that we can do all of the things that exist in the traditional world.”
Most people in the music industry understand record labels and distributors, but services-based companies are a bit harder to get. How would you describe AWAL to the uninitiated?
The most important part of music in my mind is artist development. You try to find artists who have great music, compelling stories and a work ethic and try to help them forge their own path. And throughout history, the best artists have been artists who don’t fit in a box, and the path that they take is completely bespoke. And you can’t do it again the same way. What we’ve tried to do is build a company that’s the best in the world at doing that — at finding outlier artists who have great stories to tell and helping them grow. You need a great marketing team, a great digital marketing team, radio, synch and branding — all the things that exist in the traditional world. What we’ve tried to do is build a company that can do all those things, just with a different business model to keep the economics in favor of the artist.
You don’t have an everyone’s-welcome model — you choose who you want to work with. How do you do that?
We’re very opinionated about music. It’s really important as a company to have that creative, A&R-driven aesthetic. There’s three dimensions to it in my mind. There’s the music: Does the music speak to people? Two, is there a story to be told, and does this person want to communicate something beyond just the music that’s interesting and compelling? And three, does the person have a work ethic? Being successful in music requires relentlessly hard work on all sides.
Tell me about the staff on the creative side, as well as the administrative one.
We do everything, but the majority of our staff is focused on A&R, marketing and creative. That’s where we think we can be different and where we can help our artists tell stories. There’s 180 people across 14 offices. It’s run as a global company. If we find a record in Sweden, the U.S. company can jump on it, or the U.K. company or the Canadian one. Everyone is working collaboratively to try to do the best they can for the artist. And in each of those offices, we have traditional marketing, digital marketing, synch, brand partnerships, publicity — we basically do everything that an artist needs largely in-house. And then to the extent that we feel like we need something beyond what our 180 people can do, we will partner.
What’s the financial commitment when you work with an artist? Are you always writing a check?
It depends. Some of the deals are unfunded. We’re fortunate to be a part of Sony, so if it makes sense and we believe in the opportunity, there’s no check we couldn’t write if it made sense. But each deal is bespoke for the artist. We try to put as much money into marketing as we possibly can because we believe that that’s the thing we can do that hopefully makes a difference.
Sony acquired AWAL in 2022 and it already owned The Orchard. How do the two work together?
The whole Sony ecosystem makes a ton of sense, and AWAL and The Orchard are great examples of that. The Orchard is best in class at supporting record companies. And if you look at the scale at which they operate, and the quality of what they do on behalf of labels, there’s just no one who’s doing that kind of work. It’s an incredible team led by Brad [Navin] and Colleen [Theis], who are just incredible executives. I look at us in a very similar way: the best at doing artist development in this nontraditional way. Being able to work together on tools and distribution is a great advantage for our clients and for The Orchard’s clients.
Our job is to develop the best artists in the world. And I think if we do that — especially if we do that at any scale — there’s going to be certain artists where the deal offered by a major is really compelling. Early on, we saw a lot more artists who would migrate and go do another deal. We developed Steve Lacy, Omar Apollo and Kim Petras — artists who have gone on and had real success at majors.
You’ve had some time to integrate into Sony. How has being part of this larger company changed your life as a CEO?
Anytime you go into these things you have aspirations for what it will be. At the same time, [merger and acquisition] deals tend not to be what you expected them to be. People think that I’m sometimes saying the company line, and it couldn’t be further from the truth: The experience has been phenomenal. That comes down to two dimensions. Rob [Stringer, Sony Music CEO] is just an incredible music executive who comes from an A&R perspective. Being a part of a company where he sets the tone that music is at the center of everything you do has made us a better company. And because of that, it has basically been, “Here’s all these resources that Sony has that you can take advantage of, but continue to run the company the way you have because we’ve had tons of success doing it.” It has all been additive.
We have more resources to invest. We have better technology. We can partner with Sony in certain markets where it makes sense. We’re out there building local businesses in Spain, Brazil, Nigeria and India. The Sony team has been incredibly supportive. Everyone sees that this is a meaningful part of the business and because AWAL is so music-centered and so is Sony, there’s just a lot of mutual respect and collaboration. It has been nothing short of reenergizing in an already energized business.
The music business is undergoing some contraction with layoffs and consolidation. Do you foresee laying people off, or are you hiring?
We’re actively hiring. We hired a head of hip-hop and R&B last year in Norva Denton. We hired a senior vp of A&R in Chris [Foitel]. We hired Cami [Operé], who’s our publicist. We just hired a new CFO [Sumit Chatterjee]. We’ve hired in Spain, Brazil and Nigeria. We bought a company in India [digital distribution firm OKListen]. So, we’re actively in the market because the business continues to grow. We had our best year last year; we’ll have our best year this year.