After Gaining Ground on Major Labels, Believe Targets U.S. Market
The French company, facing criticism for operating in Russia, has grown with a digital focus and early bets on emerging markets like India and China.
Believe — the Paris-based digital music company that operates in more than 50 countries and has over 1,600 employees — has grown rapidly in recent years from a pure-play European distributor to an international conglomerate, spanning labels, publishing, distribution, marketing, artist management and artist/label services. Fueling that rise has been a series of timely acquisitions, such as its 2015 purchase of TuneCore, and a focus on digital music and early investments in key emerging markets like China, India and Southeast Asia.
Believe’s expansion comes as the major labels are increasingly concerned about the dilution of their share of the global streaming market, and now Denis Ladegaillerie, Believe’s founder and CEO, tells Billboard the company has its eyes set on the United States. “Ultimately, we want to be a top three player in most markets,” he says.
Amid all this, Believe is still dealing with criticism over how it continues to do business in Russia — Ladegaillerie denies it is trying to gain market share in the absence of Western competitors — a controversy that reflects the increasing attention the company is commanding. Believe’s business model, which focuses on markets and genres where artist promotion and marketing are predominantly online, is successfully competing with, and in some territories beating, the majors.
Believe’s revenue grew 32% year over year to 760.8 million euros ($825.5 million) last year with the company serving 1.3 million artists, either directly or through labels. In revenue terms, that places Believe — founded in 2005 by Ladegaillerie, a lawyer — right behind German label and publisher BMG, which generated revenue of 866 million euros ($912.6 million) in 2022.
Since launching, the French firm’s portfolio has grown to include French imprints PlayTwo, Jo&Co, AllPoints, Tôt ou Tard and Naïve, German record labels Nuclear Blast and Groove Attack. In March, Believe acquired U.K.-based publisher Sentric from Switzerland-based Utopia Music in a €47 million ($51 million) deal.
The United States has remained more challenging for the company — though as traditional marketing formats like radio and TV have ceded their centrality Ladegaillerie sees that changing. “We think that with TikTok, with Spotify at a larger scale, with YouTube, there is more opportunity to develop artists [there] digitally,” he says.
Believe is strongest in France, where revenue grew 34% last year to 129 million euros ($141 million) — representing almost 17% of its total revenue —and last year the company was the second-largest label in digital local repertoire behind Universal. Top-selling acts there include rapper Jul, whose album Demain Ça Ira topped the French charts and has spent 94 weeks in the domestic Top 200.
Believe’s second-biggest market is Germany, where it was the third-largest recorded-music company for local repertoire streaming last year, and the market’s second-largest company in hip-hop. In the United Kingdom, the company landed its first No. 1 album in February 2022 with Don Broco’s Amazing Things.
Outside of Europe, the company has been investing heavily in Asia Pacific and Africa for the past decade, signing deals with local label partners — like Filipino label Viva Music and Artists Group, and India-based imprints Think Music and Panorama Music — and growing its on-the-ground teams. In Japan, the world’s second biggest recorded music market, Believe is “closing onto third place behind Universal and Sony,” says Ladegaillerie. Overall revenue from Asia Pacific and Africa rose 40% year over year to 56.1 million euros ($61.8 million) from January through March, representing 28.2% of the company’s earnings last quarter.
Over the next five years, much of the growth in the global music industry is expected to come from emerging markets like China and India, the world’s most-populous nations. “Believe made that bet a long time ago and said we’re really going to focus on building relationships with local players early on in those territories,” says Mark Mulligan, analyst at MIDiA Research.
In India, where Believe has been active since 2013 and partners with between 400 and 500 labels and around 100 artists, ranging from Punjabi pop acts to local hip-hop stars, the company says it is now the No. 1 player in the market. In China, Believe has deals in place with more than 300 local labels and over 250 artists, overseen by a staff of 80 working across five offices.
Vivek Raina, managing director of Believe India, who leads a staff of over 200, says the company will spend the next two years expanding teams, regions and the types of artists Believe works with in India to achieve its goal of becoming “the number one player in each market segment — be it Punjabi, Bollywood, original soundtracks or independent pop.” That includes using TuneCore to enter less-economically developed Indian regions where Believe has yet to establish a presence.
To Mulligan, Believe is part of a breed of “midsize, next-generation” music companies “carving out a new mold for what a 21st century music business is.” He identifies the 2015 acquisition of TuneCore, the New York-based distribution company, as a “crucially important” factor in Believe’s year-over-year growth, plugging the company directly “into what this new generation of artists want” and making “the future part of Believe’s DNA.”
Despite the Russia controversy, Ladegaillerie says artists and labels sometimes choose to partner with his company over major-label rivals because “we are much better at developing artists in the digital world than they are.” The German duo Milky Chance — whose 2013 international hit “Stolen Dance” has more than a billion streams on Spotify — left Universal Music Group for Believe in 2021, as has the French pop/hip-hop artist Nej’.
“We used to develop artists, and then major record labels [would] take them away from us,” Ladegaillerie says. “In the past 18 months, what we have seen is that the tables have turned — we have seen more and more top artists come to us from major record labels.”
Additional Reporting By Amit Gurbaxani