Paul-René Albertini’s summer job as a 12-year-old was a dream come true.
Born in the South of France in the mid sixties, the Marathon Artists co-founder tells MBW that he was obsessed with music from a young age.
Albertini knew someone who worked in the arts, with dancers and actors, in theatres. One summer, Albertini told said person that he desperately wanted to work in music.
“The guy tells me, ‘Look, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” the exec remembers. “You’re 12 years old, so you have no clue, but if you want a summer job, maybe I can find something for you.’”
That ‘something’ was carrying equipment and cases for The Who at a festival in Paris. “I was over the moon,” says Albertini. “That person said, ‘Hey, you want to see what it’s like? Music is not as glamorous as you think. Just go and do some heavy work.’
“It had completely the opposite effect. There was a guy who [had] long hair and long facial hair next to me backstage and it was Eric Clapton, checking [out] The Who. This is how I got the [music industry] virus.”
Albertini later attended business school in Paris where, along with a few friends, he started promoting independent multi-arts events for the alternative music and counterculture magazine, Actuel. He also started a record label called Ooh La La Productions, which was later sold off.
In 1984, Albertini joined PolyGram France as the company’s International Label Manager and two years later was made Marketing Director for the PolyGram-owned, Eddie Barclay-founded, Barclay label. It was here that Albertini met Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti for the first time. “My boss there was a great A&R and he knew amazing artists from all over the world,”
Over the next 10 years, Albertini served in various senior major label positions in France, rising through the ranks from Managing Director of PolyGram-owned Phonogram (Mercury) France in 1989, to Chief Executive Officer of PolyGram Disques in 1991 and President and CEO of Sony Music France in 1995.
In 2000, he defected from Sony and was appointed President of Warner Music Europe; over the subsequent seven years he held the positions of President of Warner Music International, Chairman and CEO, Warner Music International and joined Warner Music Group’s Board of Directors.
“I met amazing people during my years in some of the majors. They genuinely loved artists.”
Albertini successfully steered WMG through the CD boom of the nineties to the piracy-fuelled decline of the early 2000s.
When asked for his thoughts about working in the music industry then as compared to now, he says he has no “real judgment [about the past].”
“The one thing I would like to reiterate is Darth Vader is not necessarily sitting where you think he is sitting,” says Albertini, [obviously not referring to the Star Wars villain, but the notion that major labels are perceived to be the bad guys].
“In those days, the arrangement with artists was closer to employment contracts, you know? And that is not necessarily a good thing; on the contrary. But who took advantage of that? Not necessarily the employers. I met amazing people during my years in some of the majors. They genuinely loved artists.”
By 2008, Albertini had left the major label world to spend time with his family and work as a consultant between the UK, Japan and Germany. He also set up an advisory and investment firm called Sushi Venture Partners, dedicated to working with startups in the media and technology sector.
“I was fascinated by start-ups at that time,” says Albertini, passionately comparing entrepreneurs in their nascent company development stages with emerging artists, who he says both need help to develop and thrive.
In 2012 Albertini, along with his co-founders Philippe Ascoli and Jimmy Mikaoui, set up Marathon Artists, which has since evolved into a multi-disciplinary independent music group covering management, publishing and recordings with imprints such as indie development label House Anxiety and afrobeats specialist MOVES.
Three years later, in 2015, Marathon and Sushi Venture Partners combined Albertini’s obsession with technology and music to launch the London-based music technology startup accelerator Marathon Artists LABs. “We are about to start the third [edition],” says Albertini of the initiative.
“The second cohort was about figuring out how people [who are] not creating music themselves, but are important to music in one way or another, could monetize their [ideas] and add value.”
“In some cases, we invested some money, in some other cases we said, ‘Do you want to start something which is not a label, but frontline activity along the same lines of what we do here, joint ventures, etc.? If yes, you’re more than welcome.’”
Included in the previous accelerator cohort were the likes of new music website Dummy and Marathon imprint Mahogany Recordings, whose YouTube series, Mahogany Sessions, has featured live performances by everyone from James Bay to Jack Savoretti and George Ezra.
“We have got a marketing team which is highly skilled, but which is also built in the way that we can service all the sub genres in a scalable way.”
In terms of music, Marathon specialises in discovering artists operating in sub-genre scenes globally, and providing support and guidance to bring those artists to a wider audience without changing what they sound like.
The company has released everything from UK afrobeats to New York hip-hop, the genre bending sounds of Senegal’s Baaba Maal to Australian psychedelic rock. The company’s roster across management, publishing and recordings featuring the likes of Mike, Afro B, Jagwar Ma, Courtney Barnett, Pond, Hazel English and Vagabon.
“We deal in [genres] with innovative, exciting fields of research or expression and try to move that into a larger audience,” explains Albertini “We love artistic integrity and we try to support artists, so that they are never in a place where they’re going to feel they have to do something they don’t want to do.
“We are lucky enough to be able to do that, but having said that, it does not mean we don’t have the sharpest marketing support you could dream of. To me, that’s the USP of the company. We have got a marketing team which is highly skilled, but which is also built in the way that we can service all the sub genres in a scalable way.”
Here, Albertini tells MBW about some of the highlights from his career and shares his vision for how he thinks a record label should look and how it should treat its artists in 2019 and beyond…
You went to business school in Paris and worked as a concert promoter and a record producer. Tell us about that time…
When I got to the business school in Paris I had a couple of friends there who were very much into music like me. We started to think about what we could do to reinvent the way live music was introduced to people. At that stage, we started to create events in Paris that everybody was fond of.
“We started to think about what we could do to reinvent the way live music was introduced to people.”
We created multi-art events, with music at the centre, of course. We had visual art, fashion, video arts. I was in the second year of business school and I stopped going to class because [the events were] so happening and so big.
Then we started a small label, Ooh La La Productions, and we were sponsored by an amazing magazine that used to exist in France, called Actuel. We became the promoter of Actuel. That’s how I started in this industry.
Who were some of the artists you were working with?
There was a mixture of US artists. We had Alan Vega from Suicide, as well as artists coming from Africa. In those years they used to stop in Paris because in London they didn’t get too much access, apart from a bit of Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade.
So we had the chance to work with amazing artists coming out of Africa as well as some [American artists] like The Residents.
In 1984 you started working in the major label system, joining PolyGram as International Label Manager. How did that happen?
A company acquired our little label and one of my partners had to go to join the Army. They had no choice. I ended up working for a major label, which was the absolute opposite of what I had done in the previous years.
I enjoyed those years, working with amazing artists that were in my dreams like Robert Smith and Siouxsie and the Banshees. All these people were really exciting to me and so I said, ‘Okay, why not? Major, so what?’ and I spent time there.
Long story short, I found myself at age 26, as head of Mercury [a division of PolyGram] in France under Alan Levy working with Johnny Hallyday, Serge Gainsbourg, INXS, and people like that.
Tell us about how your career progressed from there and what was it like working in that world at that time?
I moved into different positions, but it gets less special because it’s a common journey for many other people. I moved into some of the corporate jobs. I had a very exciting experience as a CEO of Sony Music France for five years, six years.
I was really lucky there, because I had a lot of room to progress. And the company took 10% market share in a stable way.
I moved to London in 1998 to potentially be the head of Sony Music Europe, but I didn’t do that, because I moved to Warner [International] under Roger Ames as President of Warner Music Europe. I was then [President] of International and then Chairman and CEO.
At that stage you deal with other issues [rather] than interface with the artists themselves. Occasionally you meet or you deal with artists, but you meet with infrastructure around the artists. You don’t work with the artists daily, so it’s a different thing.
The corporate thing was a good thing for me to experience because I never did it before.
It was a very high level and I learned a lot. And, to be honest, there were also exciting things about it, but that was not working with art and artists anymore, which was the theme of my life previously.
You left the major label world in 2007, why?
I was lucky enough to do what I wanted to do for myself, including starting a family and starting a little investment group. The entrepreneurial spirit was starting to spread all over the world and I found in a lot of the entrepreneurs the same energy, the same juice I could find in some artists earlier on.
“Sometimes in the old days [expression] was exclusively through art, but nowadays it’s also through ideas. Those ideas can be politics, but it could also be about something that needs to exist in orderly life.”
Sometimes in the old days [expression] was exclusively through art, but nowadays it’s also through ideas. Those ideas can be politics, but it could also be about something that needs to exist in orderly life.
Someone seeing a gap in something they could invent to help. I enjoyed a lot working with the start-ups and doing acceleration for these guys. I did that with Startupbootcamp, I was one of the early founders in partnership with Startupbootcamp.
Why did you decide to get back into recorded music with the launch of an indie company?
In 2012 we had the sense, myself and a friend, that the turmoil of music was coming to an end and something else was emerging. That was definitely an interesting moment to start something again in the music world. It was an appropriate moment.
I don’t like the approach whereby majors are [perceived as] the naughty guys and independents are the nice guys, or do it yourself is the right way, or the only way. I would expect people to have more discernment about these things.
“I’m not suggesting the majors are snowy white. What I’m saying is, the majors are [not] the nasty guys and the others are the good guys. I’d like to have more discernment about these things, not only because I’ve [worked for] majors, but because this is a judgment that helps to better understand the full picture.”
For instance, when I was running majors myself, yes the relationship with artists was what it was, but I can tell you, we were nothing compared to some of the other big actors [playing a role] in those industry changes. [They] started to move along to create their own added value and were figuring out that music was an interesting free support to do that.
They didn’t care [about] the artist, or majors, or whoever got paid or not. And I’m not going to mention what and who, but there was a moment in time where some of the big telcos, for instance, were extremely happy that people were stealing music and not paying for it, because that was creating a lot of traffic at the time, and creating their added valuation.
If you didn’t have the majors to face the landscape; to counterbalance things, you probably wouldn’t have the situation you have today.
I’m not suggesting the majors are snowy white. What I’m saying is, the majors are [not] the nasty guys and the others are the good guys. I’d like to have more discernment about these things, not only because I’ve [worked for] majors, but because this is a judgment that helps to better understand the full picture.
When we started the business at the end of 2012, we thought that we should really position the business with no strings attached to operate within the landscape. The landscape being, the entry barriers for artists are not where they used to be.
You can record, you can start sharing with the first circle of friends and fans, you can start your first ticketing business yourself. You can do a lot and that is pretty exciting, because you have no [barriers] for people to express their creativity.
Now, when it comes to getting to the next level, to make that voice heard, it is like X thousand times more complex than it used to be, which means this is where the entry barrier is now for the artist.
And therefore, [those] working in the music business need to figure out how to support the artist who goes for that second circle. Some like to call it artist services, some like to say it’s management, that an artist with a good manager can do all that.
Don’t you think some managers can do it all by themselves though?
At a certain stage the manager is also going to need to address the marketing context in different territories, [deal with] different DSPs, different distribution, different models. By the time the manager [does] that, using all the sort of third parties which are required, what the manager just did is to create a 2.0 record label.
The approach we’re trying to have is to be adaptable and first of all to figure out how to help the artist according to the personal view of the artist themself. This is different from one artist to the other. But also the genre, the music genre, the scene, the landscape they want to work with or within because this is so different from one to the other. So you need to have that flexibility to understand what sub genre, what context, what creative mind you’re dealing with. You also need to give artists the sensation that they have got ownership of what they do and they can make money out of it. The monetization is a very complex issue as well.
Between the person who creates, wants to communicate their art with contemporary people, and the monetization of their work, there is a value chain. Whoever is working in the music industry today needs to understand the value chain and how to help according to different cases.
That’s what we’re trying to do here. We keep it flexible, adaptable to the genres and profiles, and that’s why when we started this, we started to offer joint ventures to artists. We started joint ventures from day one. A lot of the law firms were not comfortable with that. A lot of people were not comfortable with that. They didn’t get it.
Why was that?
It was something which was not really the way it was done before. So now, today, it’s a common thing, so forget about it. But not too long ago, in 2012, 2013 it [wasn’t common]. So this is just as a for instance as how we try to be innovative in the way we organize our relationship with the creative world.
But surely it makes more sense to the artist to go into business with each other as opposed to using that artist as a commodity for your company to make money?
Absolutely. Correct. That was the idea, but a couple of lawyers didn’t want to do that. They preferred to have much bigger advances and much bigger things. It’s not as black and white as people think. But, long story short, it’s exactly what you said. [Artists] should have ownership of their work, and be seen as being in business with the partners, not being owned by the partners during the relationship.
The common DNA about all the music sub genres we’re dealing with is the integrity, the passion. I would say we are looking for innovative talent, people doing things which have not necessarily been done before. That would be the common denominator of all the sub imprints and people we have working here.
Has Marathon’s vision changed a lot from when you started in 2012 to now?
Yeah, it had to evolve. The organisation, the strategy, and everything, that hasn’t changed too much. When it comes to the A&R approach, yes, it has diversified. The A&R gurus like in the old days, and I’m not taking anything away from some of the super talented big icons, but still, the A&R gurus are not the way the world’s going now.
You need to have people generally passionate, fascinated, and knowledgeable with their own sensitivity to sub genres. You have to give them the tools to make sure that what they want to do has the best chances of going where they think they can take it. You need to have a specialist for each of the sub music genres you’re dealing with. You cannot have one person for all, because by nature it’s too hard.
Has A&R become more difficult or more complex because of the diversification of genres in music?
Nowadays everybody can express themselves by creating some music and posting it. The diversity in such a massive, massive volume makes the function of A&R, or discovering talent, more complex than ever simply because you’ve got 100 times the material that you had to analyze before.
How do you meet the challenge of being an attractive proposition for an artist compared to service companies like AWAL, or Amuse?
Artist services on paper [are] a good thing. To get from the first level where you create the music yourself and then share it with the first circle of people, if you have a chance to get to the second circle, some of these distributor services are interesting.
My take, for what it’s worth, is that if you want to go beyond that second circle it’s not scalable that much. It’s not powerful enough. There is a stage where you’re going to need something more. A lot of people call artist services different things and I don’t want to get it more confused.
I do understand the concept of Do It Yourself as well, because it works with everything you said before. The thing is, if you don’t have at least a manager, and the manager has artist services in one way or another, you won’t be able to go there.
“Even if someone makes it attractive by giving you a cheque up front, it’s not going to be enough. That’s why we try to do something which is more a performance kind of a service.”
Even if someone makes it attractive by giving you a cheque up front, it’s not going to be enough. That’s why we try to do something which is more a performance kind of a service. Something that goes beyond the second circle much faster. It’s much bigger and powerful. When it comes to [matching major label] advances we don’t have the funding capacity, so we try to do whatever we can to help the artist.
A lot of noise [is being made] about Do It Yourself and artist services, but one needs to scratch the surface a bit. This would work beautifully for a lot of people, but there are other cases where it wouldn’t work. It’s not enough [for all artists] and that’s what we try to bring.
What about meeting the challenge of being an attractive proposition in comparison to the major record companies, then?
The major imprints have a lot of communicative advantages, including the international set-up, the fundings, including very good teams, etc.
The one thing they don’t have, because they can’t, and it’s not a criticism, they cannot be like a music group like this one, with no strings attached.
“The majors have to run the business with some basic rules, otherwise there would be no business.”
If you want to make a deal, which is one EP and no option and still work and spend because you believe that the artist is going to make it, and [think that] you’re going to keep that artist whatever happens, you’re maybe naïve, but you want to be able to be naïve and you want to trust people.
If you have the rules of working for a big company, you have to make sure that everything’s done by the book, otherwise you become careless. The majors have to run the business with some basic rules, otherwise there would be no business.
They have other competitive advantages, but the one we have is no strings attached. We can do the deal the way we want, how we want, as fast as we want, at the rate we want. Everything we believe is going to be tailor-made for the artist and the creative person we’re dealing with to be able to work with it. That’s the beauty of it.
Music Business Worldwide