Former Head of WMG's Global Playlist Strategy Launches Humble Angel Records, New Streaming-First Indie Label

How do you run a record label with no budget?

This is what Kieron Donoghue, former vp of global playlists strategy at Warner Music, faced upon launching the major's streaming-first imprint Artists To Watch last March. In fact, WMG’s overall A&R expenses actually jumped by 19 percent year-over-year in 2017, from $810 million to $964 million -- but Artists To Watch saw none of that investment.

“I had zero budget for anything, so no marketing, press or PR campaigns,” Donoghue, who joined WMG in 2014 and built its Topsify playlist brand, tells Billboard. “The only route to market I had were the Topsify playlists that I curated, and of course the songs that I signed still had to find homes in the appropriate playlists.”

In other words, Artists To Watch was a low-cost, singles-driven experiment to see what types of artists and songs could thrive in a multi-tiered playlist ecosystem, where WMG-owned Topsify coexisted and competed with analogous brands owned by Spotify, Apple Music and other services.

While the venture was not a failure per se -- Artists To Watch releases have attracted nearly 55 million streams on Spotify to date -- the concept lasted no more than half a year. According to its corresponding playlist, the last Artists To Watch release was in Sep. 2017, and the entire sublabel reportedly closed down upon Donoghue’s departure from WMG a month later. (WMG did not respond to a request for comment by press time.)

Today, Donoghue is revamping his streaming-specialist bent on his own terms with the launch of his new indie label, Humble Angel Records. The label's first signee is Jazz Mino, an electro-pop singer-songwriter who has already caught the attention of Austin Daboh (senior editor at Spotify UK), and whose single “Crush” -- a cover of Jennifer Paige’s 1998 song of the same name -- just surpassed 100,000 streams. Mino’s first release on Humble Angel is another cover, this time of the 1984 song “Together in Electric Dreams” by Giorgio Moroder and Philip Oakey.

Anyone can submit music for consideration to Humble Angel via a simple Google form (similar to how Spotify fields submissions for its global EDM playlist brand mint), signaling a more democratic approach to A&R. “Labels tend not to even start looking at an artist if they don’t have huge social media numbers around them,” Mino, who currently has around 39,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, tells Billboard. “My manager and I have built our careers by ourselves for so long, and it’s great to have someone like Kieron on board who’s just as enthusiastic about the music as we are.”

One of the key benefits of running a streaming-first label independently, rather than under a major or corporate umbrella, is identifying and reacting to artists and opportunities with greater agility. “The biggest lesson I learned [from Artists To Watch] was that you have to move fast,” says Donoghue. “You have to act fast to find new music and artists just as soon as they publish a song online -- act fast to reach out to them, put a contract together and then sign them. Major labels can take weeks if not months to negotiate terms, draw up legal papers and so forth, whereas Humble Angel Records is designed to do it in days, sometimes hours.”

Moreover, major labels are still obligated to drive sales of physical and download formats -- 22 percent of WMG’s revenue in 2017 came from physical sales -- while Humble Angel will focus all of its marketing efforts on streaming, although the label will still make its releases available for fans to download.

Transparency and efficiency of payments will also be a key focus for Humble Angel. According to Donoghue, his label's standard contract will offer at least double the average royalty splits of what major labels provide, and will pay artists monthly instead of once or twice a year (Humble Angel is partnering with Stem to handle distribution and revenue management).

Without direct access to the Topsify ecosystem, Humble Angel is also free (and, for the sake of survival, required) to experiment and strategize around a wider variety of playlists across streaming platforms.

For instance, Mino had recruited electronic producers Oliver Nelson and Ben Benim to remix her first two singles, leveraging a typical remix strategy in the EDM world for the purposes of supporting more consistent release schedules and mutual promotion across artists’ fanbases. For some of her upcoming singles, however, Mino will be releasing her own acoustic versions instead of third-party remixes -- an approach that Donoghue previously implemented at Artists To Watch with MARC’s single “Show You The Light." Mino understood the power of this strategy to expand her reach beyond the chill-pop playlist silo and into truly untapped audiences, as “people who listen mostly to acoustic music might not immediately buy into what I’m creating and sharing with my fans,” she says.

As for specific stats, while Donoghue sees potential value in all sources, he places particular importance on metrics like the percentage of listeners who stream a song from their own Saved Music collection on Spotify -- which lends deeper insight into passive versus active listening habits. On the other hand, skip rates are more arbitrarily defined, and might bog artists and managers down too deeply in unnecessary detail. “I much prefer to focus on volume of streams and where those streams came from, instead of digging in the weeds for some magic formula that may or not exist when it comes to skip and save rates,” says Donoghue.

Skeptics of the streaming-first label model may point to the downside of concentrating all of one's energy into a single revenue source -- particularly one like streaming that hasn't yet proven to be profitable on the platform level, and will only become more privy to the volatility of tech stock performance as Spotify's public offering approaches.

But Donoghue claims that specialization coupled with operational flexibility will be a valuable asset for his label, in a music industry landscape that refuses to slow down. “Our focus is going to be on doing one thing and doing it extraordinarily well,” he says. “It makes sense to focus our efforts first and foremost on streaming, because we know the streaming music ecosystem inside out and we believe this is what's going to deliver growth over the coming years.”