Merlin’s Executive Interview Series offers a range of independent voices from Merlin members around the world. This piece features Damian Thomas, Director, Recorded Music & Digital Accounts at KARTEL.
You came to KARTEL after several years at Warner Music Group. What first led to you kicking off a career in the music industry?
Music was my passion from an early age. My family took me to Glastonbury Festival every year from the age of six and I spent most of school counting down the days to Glastonbury or other memorable concerts. My early 20s involved me hanging around in record shops in San Francisco and London and DJing wherever I could. I did a degree in Music Management and Digital Media in London, which made me take myself more seriously. iTunes launched in 2005 — the very same year I got an internship at the One Little Independent label. My job was to upload the label’s catalogue to iTunes. I uploaded a new Bjork album and it got a banner on the iTunes home page. I was like, well this is cool: digital is clearly the way to go.
My first proper music business job was at Demon Music Group a few months later. They hired me as a marketing assistant for the music DVD department, but DVD sales were in decline so that department folded shortly after I joined. I put my hand up to help on the digital side and became the first “full time” digital distribution employee. It was an exciting time. We did some great campaigns on catalogue releases like T. Rex, Al Green, and Suede. We were putting up new albums + catalogue songs that had not been available before, digitally, and iTunes would put “Catalogue Just Added” on a Flowcase banner — it worked.
I loved it because it was fresh and new. I remember a colleague saying to me, “You’re so lucky you get to look at iTunes all day”. And then Spotify launched! I worked with Spotify from the very beginning as well. Then I wanted to change gears and work at a major. I got a gig at Warner focusing on iTunes/Apple Music and DSPs — working for the US team but based in the London office. It was an amazing experience.
What drew you to KARTEL?
When I first met Charles Kirby-Welch (CEO/Founder) of Kartel, I immediately thought there was a real alignment in what I had been doing, the music I like, the people I knew, and the labels I knew about and Charles was completely switched on and smart. He told me about how he had started Kartel as an artist management company fifteen years ago working with independent artists like Fat Freddy’s Drop, amongst others. Also, he was a DJ. Being a DJ myself, I thought this is all great. I had learnt so much working on international releases at Warner. I thought it would be great to apply some of that deep knowledge and experience at an independent company and help amplify Kartel’s efforts with the digital services for both established artists and developing acts. Kartel had established acts like Morcheeba on the roster and many emerging artists like Ady Suleiman and Jeremy Loops who had new music coming via Kartel. Kartel had all these great labels and independent artists, a lot of dance/electronic, singer-songwriters, interesting and talented indie artists like Liz Lawrence that they were distributing and working with. I thought this feels like a great company to be part of.
The team were great, real music people who cared a lot about the artists and labels they were working with and were willing to go the extra mile to help establish them and build their success. It probably sounds like something most distributors would say, I guess, but in all honesty, we really do lean into projects at Kartel.
In my previous life at Demon Music, I had worked with distributors before, like IODA, and so I had a good grasp of how things worked at an Indie. After being at a large major label for seven years, I wanted to work in an environment where I could really add impact to a smaller team and help a company grow and develop. I was given the opportunity to head up the digital accounts department at Kartel and work across all the accounts like Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, Amazon Music, Beatport, and Tidal.
I loved the name Kartel and the whole design of the company website was aesthetically pleasing. Very slick.
What are some of the challenges in digital streaming that you work to help KARTEL artists and clients overcome?
The main challenges are the obvious ones. The DSPs receive thousands of tracks a day and sometimes not all tracks will pick up editorial support. Often, it’s about managing expectations. Being involved with DSPs for many years and acting as an interface between the DSP and the client/label/artist, I try to convey that it’s not just about getting into playlists. We must work hard to build fans and drive streams from outside of the DSP platforms. That might mean through a good social strategy or digital advertising campaign. We need to build a story and try to provide information and data that is succinct and compelling. We need to stay on top of what is happening at the DSPs and all the new opportunities that are happening all across the digital landscape from TikTok to Facebook, Amazon to Deezer. As streams at the DSPs become more algorithmic, we need to work with the available tools to help our artists drive streams.
“Being involved with DSPs for many years and acting as an interface between the DSP and the client/label/artist, I try to convey that it’s not just about getting into playlists. We must work hard to build fans and drive streams from outside of the DSP platforms. “
How does Merlin help with those challenges?
Merlin acts as a great sounding board and provides us with the most up-to-date information about the latest developments at the DSPs. I will often chat to Merlin to ask for their advice about how to approach a service such as TikTok or Twitch or a particular promo opportunity and they always provide me with great feedback. Merlin is extremely well connected and it’s so valuable to have them to talk to. I can’t thank Merlin enough for all that they do for Kartel and the Independents. When I was at Warner, there were so many teams or people that I could reach out to if I had a question about a nuanced way that a service works or a legal query.
“Being an independent company, it’s up to us to find out the best way to approach something, and Merlin is a great go-to expert in the digital streaming space that we can reach out to.”
What are some of the latest trends in the digital streaming landscape that have you the most excited?
There are a ton of opportunities that are popping up in the digital streaming landscape that I am excited about. Twitch is one of them and I am keen to get our feet wet with some artists that would be a good fit for Twitch. Marquee at Spotify is something we have been trialing with some of our artists; to me, it makes sense to advertise directly to casual or lapsed fans on Spotify. We all want to stream more, so it’s good to test how these activations work. Discovery Mode is another initiative that I am embracing and exploring with the teams at Spotify and our clients and that we’re seeing great results from. Getting music into the ears of more music fans just makes sense. We can’t just rely on editorial support; we must find other ways to drive streams.
There are a lot of programmes for new and emerging artists at the DSPs: Spotify has Radar, Apple Music has Up Next, Amazon Music has Breakthrough, Deezer has Focus; and the list goes on. The DSPs are being very proactive about supporting new artists and it’s great there is more space for artists to be put forward for these programmes. Fresh Finds at Spotify is a great playlist range focused on independent artists, and it’s a delight to see the range of artists that get featured in these.
Spotify testing out an album pre-save function for the Florence + The Machine album recently is a brilliant initiative. It makes complete sense to have an album pre-save very much like an Apple Music pre-add/iTunes pre-order. We spend a lot of time setting up one-track singles for Spotify and other DSPs and then we are doing instant grats for Apple Music/iTunes and similar for Amazon and Deezer, so it would be great to deliver the album to Spotify ahead and have it visible pre-release. We have always created our own pre-save campaigns for Spotify, but having an album pre-save in the service is going to be a great way to get fans excited about an album.
Apple Music has motion art on some albums, and we were recently able to provide motion art for Kat Von D and for our recent US chart-topping debut from Mammoth WVH.
Where do you find new ideas and what’s the process you use to bring ideas to life?
I get tons of ideas from talking to people in the team at Kartel or within the industry. Music business press, of course, is a great place to get ideas. I just went to The Great Escape in Brighton, and it was so wonderful to see so many folks again (after so long) from the music industry — from distributors to artists to labels to DSPs to one-man band operations all working on similar trajectories. Those kinds of events are a great place to get ideas. I also caught up with Merlin there, and that meeting was a great source of inspiration.
There are so many things I want to accomplish that I normally make lots of notes on my phone and then try and attack them as quickly as I can or at least get them started. I usually try to get buy-in from others so that projects become team projects and so ownership is shared and fun. I was at Indie Week in NYC in June, and I got a ton of ideas and inspiration there. Friends of course — many who are musicians or DJs — give me lots of ideas, and I often spend the weekends with friends talking about music. There are so many opportunities with the DSPs that I often watch and listen and pick up ideas that I think might be suitable for a particular release in a particular niche market.
What has happened at KARTEL over the past year that you’re most proud of?
We launched a new initiative last year called EMK (Electronic Music Kartel) which encompasses a record label, specialised distribution, publisher and multimedia platform dedicated to promoting and celebrating all forms of electronic music and culture. As a DJ, this has been a particular area of interest for me and has given us time to focus on more genre specialist platforms such as Beatport and Traxsource.
We are acutely aware of how challenging it is to be a successful independent artist today. So something we have developed more recently is, ironically enough, a more traditional independent label partnership deal structure. We realised that often new and emerging artists want to have an actual “label” and full team working with them that can fully market the record and help them grow as artists. One of the great things about Kartel is that we have an in-house marketing agency that works on both internal projects and also for external artist and label clients.
One of the artists we have recently signed to our EMK label that I am excited about is Yarni, a talented electronic artist who we actually discovered on Spotify’s Fresh Finds UK & Ireland. We just fell in love with his music. His new album, Pigna, was released on June 10th, and his music is picking up some great editorial support.
We also worked on the distribution of Mammoth WVH’s (son of Eddie Van Halen) debut album that was a Number One rock album in the US last year and was a huge success on streaming and downloads (Number One iTunes US album).
Photo credit: Eddie Judd Photography
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