Willard Ahdritz is lounging in his brightly lit office in Manhattan’s West Village, a jazz record spinning on a turntable in the middle of the room. The Swedish-born executive is 18 years into his reign as founder/CEO of publisher and rights administrator Kobalt, and though his big-spending company hasn’t turned a profit to date, he’s oozing confidence about his latest, $150 million bet: AWAL, a full-service recorded-music company offering marketing, promotion, A&R, distribution and licensing for some 25,000 artists ranging from industry vets like Nick Cave to emerging acts such as Rex Orange County, Little Simz and Kevin Garrett.
“It was time for the global streaming label,” says Ahdritz, who named his first CEO of recorded music, Lonny Olinick, in January; rebranded Kobalt’s recorded-music division under the AWAL umbrella in March; doubled the label-services staff; and acquired independent radio-promotion company in2une in June. “You saw what happened with Chance the Rapper. Now it’s possible to break out bands in the streaming world.”
Not that it’s going to be easy: Kobalt is just one of many companies now jumping into the label game as streaming revenue rises. Intensifying the competition, Spotify has started inviting artists to ditch these very label-service providers and upload their music straight onto its fast-expanding platform. (Spotify’s new deal with DistroKid will soon allow artists to use Spotify to place their music directly on other platforms, too.) Making money, meanwhile, will be even harder for Kobalt than its label rivals because of Kobalt’s guiding principle and most seductive selling point: It lets artists keep full ownership of their copyrights.