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WMG’s New CEO Robert Kyncl Outlines Vision for Music Industry Amid ‘Tough Quarter’

On an earnings call, Kyncl addressed the future of both Warner and the business at large, commenting on AI, subscription streaming and TikTok.

New Warner Music Group CEO Robert Kyncl addressed investors for the first time since taking over the company at the top of the year, acknowledging the “tough quarter” for the major label while also laying out a vision for how he sees the music industry’s present and future.

The company posted revenues of $1.48 billion for the quarter that ended Dec. 31, 2022, down 8% from the same period the year before, which the company noted contained an extra week, skewing comparisons slightly. Growth came from the publishing sector, which saw revenues up 9.2%, or 14.2% in constant currency, while recorded music revenue fell 10.6%, or 5.6% in constant currency, with recorded streaming revenue down an 6.7%, though the company said that streaming revenue was up half a percentage point when adjusted for the extra week, with a lighter release schedule and falling ad-supported streaming revenue the causes.

That led to Kyncl’s acknowledgement that WMG had a tough quarter, noting that, “like most companies, WMG has been dealing with macroeconomic headwinds and the impact of currency exchange rates.” He added that WMG’s release schedule for this year is weighted toward the second half of the year, with releases from Ed Sheeran, Cardi B, David Guetta, Aya Nakamura and Bebe Rexha on the horizon.


Kyncl then spoke about both his decision to join Warner after 12 years at YouTube and seven at Netflix, as well as his vision for growth for the music industry and the effects of artificial intelligence and TikTok on how that future will look, both creatively and monetarily.

“This industry has achieved something rare: It’s built mutually beneficial, long-term partnerships with many of the world’s biggest companies — Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, Spotify and Tencent among them,” he said. “As successful as music has become, there’s still meaningful upside ahead for three reasons. One, as technology opens up emerging economies, the industry’s addressable market will continue to expand even further. Two, innovation is constantly creating new use cases for music, giving us the opportunity to diversify our revenue sources. Three, music is still undervalued, especially when compared to other forms of entertainment, like video.”

On the last point, Kyncl pointed out that Netflix’s subscription price has roughly doubled since 2011, the year that Spotify debuted in the U.S., while the price of a music subscription has remained largely flat, even though music subscriptions contain access to a wide swath of the world’s available music, whereas video streamers — of which nearly 80% of U.S. households subscribe to three — are segmented.


He also spoke about his vision for WMG’s role in that future, noting that he hired two former YouTube employees in his first five weeks — Tim Matusch as executive vp of strategy and operations, and Ariel Bardin as president of technology — which should “tell you something about our priorities” in the future.

“We will continue to invest in new artists and songwriters, our catalog and our global expansion,” he said. “At the same time, we plan to thoughtfully reallocate some resources to accelerate how we use technology and data to empower artists and songwriters, as well as drive greater efficiency in our business.” That, he added later in the Q&A section of the call, will come “with continued focus on financial discipline and cost containment.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean layoffs, however; he noted that WMG “has actually been much more measured in its headcount growth, for instance, over the last few years than others in the industry who are now undergoing significant layoffs,” and had been addressing financial initiatives even before the recent fluctuations in the market. “But again, I’d like to reiterate that I’ll be focusing on reallocating our internal resources in order to invest in technology and drive not only more tools for our creators, but also greater efficiencies for us,” he added.

On the topic of AI — which he called “probably one of the most transformative things that humanity has ever seen” — Kyncl said that the conversation falls into four buckets in how content owners need to work with AI platforms: “One is the use of existing copyrights to train generative AI. The second is sampling of existing copyrights as the basis for new and remixed AI generated content. The use of AI to help and support creativity — so an assistive way to do that. And most importantly, find ways to protect the craft of artists and songwriters from being diluted or replaced by AI-generated content.”


But he also stressed that the conversation is not just about the future of AI, but about how things can be handled today to prepare for that future — namely, that the processes for identifying and tracking copyrighted material on platforms and making sure they are monetized for the copyright owner need to be better in the present to prepare for what is to come. That’s something Kyncl has plenty of experience with from his time with YouTube, whose ContentID system was overseen by new WMG exec Bardin, and something he says Warner will be focusing on under his purview.

Another benefit from his YouTube days, Kyncl says, is his experience being on the other side of the negotiating table from the major labels when it came to developing YouTube as a partner with and contributor to the music industry. During his tenure, Kyncl helped steer the relationship between YouTube and the labels from one of animosity to one of mutual benefit, which he stressed came from a collaborative approach. He intends to bring a similar approach to Warner’s relationship with TikTok, which is currently in a similar situation to the YouTube of old, in terms of being under fire from the music business for its perceived low payouts and under-valuation of music on its platform. Kyncl described how YouTube’s position changed in answering a question about whether the labels will push for changes with its relationship with TikTok.

“At YouTube, we looked at this problem very closely, and we decided that music was very important to us, and that’s why we did it,” he said, referencing YouTube’s push into subscription streaming, tools like Shorts and improvements to ContentID, among other initiatives. “TikTok needs to do that. It’s the right decision for them to evaluate. And you can see from YouTube’s execution what the results of the finding was for us. But I can’t speak to what TikTok finds. That’s up to them. But my answer is, a holistic relationship is what we’re looking for.”