Frank Briegmann oversees some of the world’s most digital markets — as well as a few that still depend largely on CD sales. In Sweden, where the music market is dominated by Spotify, physical sales account for about 10 percent of recorded-music revenue. In Germany, where Briegmann works from Universal Music Group’s sprawling office on the Spree River, physical sales account for over half the $1.9 billion business.
“Within this region, digitalization is in very different stages,” says Briegmann, 50, whose purview includes Italy and Austria and extends from Scandinavia to Eastern Europe. “My strategy is to concentrate on expanding digital distribution but also develop the right physical products to reach fans.”
So far, it’s working. The Scandinavian markets have led the music industry’s streaming-fueled recovery, while Germany is finally embracing digital, with its streaming revenue up 42.8 percent in 2017. Universal Music Germany, which Briegmann ran until he was promoted to his current role in 2013, also has a thriving business in high-end CD box sets — including a 330-CD, 24-DVD box of recordings by the Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan.
Briegmann also helped develop Helene Fischer, who has dominated Germany’s pop charts by bringing a modern sensibility to the country’s mainstream schlager genre, recording the best-selling album of the last four out of five years. She is expected to score big at the Echo Music Prize Awards, the German equivalent of the Grammys, on April 12.
Now Briegmann, who talks about the booming German hip-hop scene as easily as the advantages of various business models, is focused on building bridges — and finding synergies — between pop music scenes all over the world.
Billboard: Why are European countries so different when it comes to how they consume music?
Frank Briegmann: Sweden and the Nordic countries are in the lead digitally, but I think that came less from an economics textbook than a crime novel: The Pirate Bay really destroyed those markets. When Spotify came, it revived them. In Germany it’s a different story. But the markets are all trending in the same direction: Streaming grew in Germany in 2017 by more than 40 percent and there’s even more potential. In Sweden, we’ve reached about 30 percent of the relevant online population [with subscription streaming services]. In Germany it’s only 8 percent. But I’m not trying to push people in one direction or the other. I’m thinking about how I can best meet their needs.
In 2017, Deutsche Grammophon put out that 330-CD von Karajan box. Has anyone listened to all of it?
My kids would probably say I’ve listened to too much of it, but I haven’t heard every CD. In Germany, there’s a demand for high-value box sets and special editions. It’s not just the music that makes these special: it’s the editorial work, the design, the books. They’re for highly engaged fans.
Your biggest artist — and the biggest act in Germany right now — is Fischer. How would you explain her appeal?
She made schlager more pop and took it beyond what its demographic was considered to be, which was older. Her music is really accessible with really strong melodies — she’s one of the best performers on the planet and she’s extraordinarily nice and humble. We’ve sold almost 10 million albums in a country with 80 million people — that’s like over 40 million albums in the U.S. She’s playing 83 shows in Germany, Switzerland and Austria’s biggest indoor venues, and then she’s doing a stadium tour in the summer — she’ll play to 1.2 million people. It’s extraordinary.
Four of the 10 best-selling albums in Germany in 2017 were by acts signed to Universal Germany. Is that unusual?
The album market in Germany is dominated by domestic acts. You see the same pattern in Italy. If you look at songs and streaming, it’s the other way around: International artists dominate.
Why do you think that is?
You need to engage with albums and a lot of that engagement is driven by lyrics — you want to know what an artist is talking about. Fans also engage more when an artist is in their market, performing and in the media. But we also have to think about nurturing local artists in the digital world, because the demand is there.
Does streaming change the way you think about A&R and marketing?
It hasn’t changed what we do, just how we do it. We recently had Migos in Berlin and we took them to radio, which we always do with international artists. But we also figured out how to get them together with some German soccer stars. We invested in a surprise show and created digital content around that, which resulted in a massive buzz. We also got Quavo to record a feature for a big German rapper during the visit. We not only provide marketing and distribution, but also a permanent cross-border content flow that meets the needs of the online generation. The same applies to music. We helped get Quavo featured on a track [“Cupido“] by Italy’s biggest rapper, Sfera Ebbasta.
Latin music is becoming more global. How does it fare in Germany?
Germany has always been a country that appreciates music regardless of where it comes from. We’ve had big hits here with Luis Fonsi — not only “Despacito” — and we work well together with UMG Latin. When we saw this trend, we adapted. We also signed Álvaro Soler, a Spanish guy living in Berlin. He has had 1.3 billion audio and video streams and we’ll release his new album, Mar de Colores, in September.
Piracy is still rampant in Eastern Europe. Do you think that will change?
That depends on two things: the success of actions taken against illegal platforms and the appeal of legitimate streaming services. We saw enormous growth last year in Russia and the number of audio premium subscribers had more than doubled, so I see lots of opportunity.