Four decades ago, Denzyl Feigelson began an odyssey through the music biz in his native South Africa. Now, as CEO of Platoon, he’s paving the way for Apple’s expansion on the continent where he grew up.
In April, Apple announced a bold expansion of its Apple Music streaming service: It would move into 52 additional markets — including 25 in Africa — even amid the anxiety and belt-tightening necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic.
At the same time, Denzyl Feigelson — a former flower farmer whom Steve Jobs had enlisted years ago to help build the original iTunes Store — was working on tackling an even more ambitious project for the continent’s musicians. As co-founder/CEO of Apple’s artist services company, Platoon, Feigelson was about to start offering health insurance to his artists, a first-of-its-kind initiative that felt all the more urgent as the world ground to a halt. By May, the program began covering 30 artists in South Africa, with plans to roll out into more territories in the future — just one of a suite of services he’s putting together to help his acts. “It sounds a little altruistic,” says Feigelson. “But life’s too short to have what we call in the music business ‘agita.’ I like to sleep well at night.”
For the past three years, Platoon has been striking licensing and services deals with acts in countries like South Africa, Ghana and Nigeria, offering advances, distribution and support to 88 African musicians — and quietly becoming a major player amid an industrywide shift toward establishing a larger footprint on the continent. Feigelson also has been exploring new kinds of offerings that position the company as a one-stop finishing school that can make artists the CEOs of, well, themselves.
“I want artists to be able to manage their music on our platform; get services like health care, legal and accounting; learn about publishing, touring, how you market; and conquer things like YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, Twitch,” says Feigelson. “Because if I help them grow their businesses, it’s only helping us grow our business, too. And we’re doing that in all kinds of ways.”
Since its 2016 founding, Platoon has provided 250 artists free studio time; funding for videos, promotion and marketing; distribution; tour support; playlist pitching; and data and analytics support from all digital service providers. This spring though, as the coronavirus shuttered countries around the globe and devastated the touring industry, it doubled down on those efforts. Platoon has offered six-month advances on royalties to 60 artists to give them financial relief while other income streams suffer; hosted video-mentoring sessions with the likes of Nile Rodgers, Apple Music global editorial head of hip-hop and R&B Ebro Darden and record executives Alex and Alec Boateng; and helped connect performers — like South African singer-songwriter Msaki with Diplo, Ghanaian rapper Kwesi Arthur with Nasty C — to make new music.
For Feigelson, 63, bringing Platoon to Africa (it arrived in South Africa in mid-2018) is the culmination of a lifetime’s work that has been laser-focused on artists. Born in South Africa during apartheid, he was working in a Johannesburg studio in the 1980s when he got his first big break, working on a little album called Graceland. He should, in fact, be in Cape Town right now, opening up Platoon’s shiny new headquarters, complete with recording studios, content studios, podcast studios and more. It’s now set to open sometime later this year, and instead, Feigelson is in the English countryside, in the thatched-roof Oxfordshire cottage to which he retreated once shutdowns swept across the United Kingdom. But he hasn’t paused when it comes to taking care of the Platoon family.
“If an artist cannot survive through this COVID-19 period, they’re not going to survive,” he says. “Just like companies are going to go down, too. And I don’t want that to happen. So we’re finding ways to mitigate this time that we’re going through to help artists.”
Asking Feigelson about his career feels a bit like getting a music history lesson — not because he’s particularly long-winded, but because he simply has so many incredible stories to tell.
There’s the tale about that studio in Johannesburg, where he was working with South African musician-activist Johnny Clegg (whom he would later manage) and producer Hilton Rosenthal, when a phone call came that would change his life’s course: “ ‘Hi, my name’s Paul Simon. I’m looking for Hilton or Denzyl.’ And Hilton and I were both like, ‘Yeah... Who is this really?’ ”
The story of Simon’s masterpiece Graceland — which won the 1987 Grammy Award for album of the year and helped bridge the gap between South African music and American pop — has been told many times. But Feigelson’s role facilitating its initial recording during the United Nations’ cultural boycott of South Africa over apartheid and helping assemble the musicians from that country with whom Simon played is far less known.
Another story, or rather two: It’s the early 1990s, and Feigelson is managing boat-shoe icon Kenny Loggins, who decides he would like to make a children’s album. Sony, Loggins’ longtime label, balks at the idea, pointing to a clause in his contract that stipulates he only make pop albums; Loggins makes the album anyway, which he and Feigelson release independently. Sony, seeing that it looks headed for a Grammy nomination and gold certification, eventually distributes Return to Pooh Corner, and Feigelson sees up close precisely how major labels sometimes treat their artists.
That experience was fresh in his mind when he subsequently quit the music business and headed to Hawaii, where he started a mail-order flower business that he promoted and ran through the nascent internet. “The fact that I could make an album myself and distribute it myself without using the network that the labels used... I thought, ‘If I can build a website to sell flowers, why can’t I build a website and sell music from all my friends who can’t get record deals?’ ”
In 1996, that idea became Artists Without a Label, or AWAL, which Feigelson launched as a home for acts who still had a fan base but were no longer the major labels’ flavor of the month. Run out of Feigelson’s converted three-car garage in Ojai, Calif., AWAL quickly became a one-stop licensing outfit and distribution network for a deep catalog of music unattached to labels or publishers. (In 2012, he sold AWAL to Kobalt for seven figures; it now offers marketing, promotion, A&R, distribution and licensing for some 25,000 artists who retain ownership of their master recordings.)
Then came another of those serendipitous moments that seem like business as usual when Feigelson tells the story. A neighbor, none other than Academy Award-winning documentarian Bill Couterié, knocks on his door asking if he is the music guy everyone keeps talking about. Says he is working for a man named Steve Jobs — the one who keeps saying, “But there is one more thing,” and then showing off, say, the iPod — and he needs to license some songs to soundtrack all those “one more thing” videos. Feigelson starts handling the music, Jobs is into it — and especially into how easy it is to clear — and suddenly Feigelson starts getting calls from different departments at Apple: “Steve’s office told me to call you, said you could help me with some music.”
Thus begins Feigelson’s consulting for Apple — joining the team building the initial iTunes music download store in the United States; moving to London to oversee its expansion to the United Kingdom, France and Germany; then spending a decade booking the annual 30-day iTunes Music Festival, helping develop Apple Music and always keeping a hand in the company’s music-biz dealings, talking to artists and their teams about their needs and how they’re planning their next moves.
Platoon, which Paul Simon calls “an amazing example of what can be accomplished when a label truly has the best interest of its artists at heart,” started simply. During Feigelson’s years booking the iTunes Festival, artists would tell him that they didn’t really want a label, or even a distribution company, just the space to be creative and slowly build their fan base. “How can you allow an artist to stay independent, stay creative, stay inspired, but still give them those label services that they wanted without being a label?” he recalls thinking. “How do you allow that magic to happen so an artist can find their tribe?”
Platoon started raising money and built its first multistudio headquarters in King’s Cross, London, keeping its nonexclusive contracts to a single page. It attracted then-unknowns like Billie Eilish, Jorja Smith and YEBBA, taking a cut of streaming revenue from their Platoon-released music. Some of those artists have since been snapped up by major labels, which have at times viewed Platoon as a kind of farm system.
Enter — or, rather, reenter — Apple. The company had launched Apple Music in June 2015 and quickly became a player in the streaming world — it’s the second-largest subscription service behind Spotify. In 2016, Apple began throwing that muscle — and money — behind independent labels and artists, cutting direct distribution and marketing deals for Frank Ocean and Chance the Rapper, and later backing Doug Morris’ indie label 12 Tone Music. In the fall of that year, it acquired 100% of Platoon, adding a label-services wing to its growing music portfolio as its overall services division — which includes Apple Music, the App Store, iCloud, Apple Podcasts and licensing — began to set revenue records within the company.
“Denzyl is a creative force with an entrepreneurial spirit who has dedicated his career to continuously finding inventive ways to support and shepherd artists,” says Oliver Schusser, vp Apple Music and international content. “We share an artist-first philosophy, global perspective and the belief in supporting the artist community from the earliest stages of their careers.”
Since then, Feigelson has set up a boutique operation that is part of a class of companies offering artist and label services without actually being a label — i.e., not owning masters or locking people into long-term deals. It’s not quite a distribution aggregator, like TuneCore or CD Baby, and not a platform like SoundCloud or Spotify, but sits somewhere alongside companies like EMPIRE (though it is smaller), offering a la carte options for artists who, more than anything, want its support to double down on their craft.
“It wasn’t about signing artists. It wasn’t about keeping artists. It was all about building creativity, which Apple is so good at,” says Feigelson of the acquisition. “And they’ve allowed us to do that. We’re still independent, we’re still Platoon, we still distribute globally to every [digital service provider], we distribute artists, so we don’t sign them to long-term deals. We’ve just become a better version of ourselves, and that was the intention.”
Platoon has also given Apple a new way to sell itself: as a haven for artists. As global sales of its hardware begin to decline due to smartphone saturation, the company has looked to beef up its services sector — including with that massive expansion in April that brought the number of countries in which Apple Music is available to 167, compared with 79 for Spotify — with the goal of doubling that revenue by the end of the fiscal year, which CFO Luca Maestri said in May the company was “well on its way to accomplishing.” And if Apple can cater to artists with label services through a division like Platoon, it can glean valuable insights into how artists work and what they value most, helping it build out more functionality to boost its appeal as a partner to them.
In Africa, Apple has a fresh opportunity to lead the streaming conversation in a way it couldn’t in the United States or Europe, where Spotify has a head start. Apple was the first streaming service to launch in South Africa, for example, and its recent expansion means it’s now operational in 37 countries on the continent, compared to Spotify’s five. “Apple has managed to really maintain that market leadership here in South Africa,” says Nothando Migogo, a Johannesburg-based intellectual-property lawyer and the former CEO of performance rights group Southern African Music Rights Organisation. “They’ve really been at the forefront of shaping that online streaming music culture. If you do well on Apple Music in South Africa, you do really, really well.”
Platoon is not only helping to draw in new subscribers, but also to scoop up artists for Apple Music to showcase as it works to promote playlists that offer a more nuanced representation of the number and variety of genres across Africa’s regions and platforms like Beats 1 Radio shine a light on developing acts. “I didn’t feel like I needed to be with a bigger engine or a bigger label to be successful,” says Nigerian singer WurlD, who just released his Afrosoul EP on Platoon. “I just needed a team of people that understood my art and shared a similar vision. I feel like Platoon works with artists they believe in — not just ‘This artist is doing something; let me jump on it and make some money.’ ” Msaki notes that Platoon doesn’t “apply one strategy to everyone. They’re literally looking at it case by case. I don’t know if majors have the capacity to look at artists that closely and that intimately.”
Feigelson says that Platoon pitches its artists to all digital service providers equally, without favor from Apple, and doesn’t get access to Apple Music data beyond what the company shares with all of its partners. Even as Platoon expands in Africa — where four of its 17 employees are now based and which in some months accounts for 40% of the company’s business — he is relying on personal connections to do so. “I do find it quite refreshing that it’s not the brand first; it’s the artist first,” says Migogo. “I mean, look — what is it that artists want? They want the freedom to create, and they want flexibility. And I think that’s really what Platoon is trying to give.”
As Platoon’s efforts dovetail with Apple Music’s massive expansion on the continent, the streaming service is providing Platoon with a springboard to establish a presence in Accra, Ghana; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Lagos, Nigeria; and beyond. If Feigelson isn’t there in person right now, he is very much in spirit, video conferencing with his artists, recently hosting a Zoom Q&A with early Platoon success story Mr Eazi (who built his own emPawa label while releasing music and videos through Platoon) and preparing for more new music on the way.
“Our long-term vision is to help artists grow their businesses, and our goal is to not see it as African music but as global music,” says Feigelson. “Storytelling has become our key weapon these days: How do you tell a story of an artist? What’s going to make your track, your story, stand out so that people get it? Our quality just has to be good. That’s the magic sauce — you’ve just got to be fucking good.”