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Kieron Donoghue talks ‘streaming-only’ label Humble Angel Records


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In late January, former Playlists.net and Warner Music Group executive Kieron Donoghue launched his new venture, a ‘streaming-first’ independent label called Humble Angel Records.

He promised royalty payout rates for artists ‘at least double’ the average of those offered by major labels – paid on a monthly basis, using startup Stem’s platform – as well as an ‘open song submission process’.

The label has since released two tracks: Jazz Mino’s cover of 80s hit ‘Together in Electric Dreams’, and Loic Penillo’s ‘Love’. Music Ally caught up with Donoghue to find out more about his plans.

“Every artist we sign, every song we sign, the marketing and PR will all be around streaming. That’s where the market is, and that’s where the opportunity is. We want to maximise and amplify everything via streaming music,” he says.

“We’re not necessarily looking for artists to develop and build over two or three albums. We’re looking for songs that will resonate with the streaming audience, which can come from anywhere in the world, from a producer in their bedroom to an established artist who hasn’t had success in streaming yet.”

Donoghue left Warner Music Group in October 2017, three years after WMG acquired his playlist-sharing startup Playlists.net, appointing him as its VP of global playlists strategy and curation.

kieron donoghue

Humble Angel isn’t his first crack at a streaming-focused label though: in October 2016, he launched the Artists To Watch Records imprint for WMG, tasked with identifying emerging tracks and artists early, then putting marketing and playlists behind them. That experience is informing Humble Angel Records now.

“The deals are pretty much track-by-track: we’ll get a song and maybe an option for a further one or two songs. It’s about being flexible. Some artists may have one brilliant song, but they might not have a follow-up. A major label wouldn’t really look at that,” says Donoghue.

“I’m looking for songs that connect, but it is flexible. If an artist comes to us and has an album’s worth of good-quality songs, we’ll look at that too. Some artists we get might not ever be able to perform live, but that wouldn’t stop us either.”

Donoghue is promising to listen to every song submitted to Humble Angel Records – artists fill in a form including a link to their track on SoundCloud, Dropbox or other services – and says he has moved away from the data-mining algorithms hinted at in the original announcement for Artists To Watch Records.

“I’m not so much looking at the data side of things as I am at tastemaker playlists and blogs: independent curators both inside and outside Spotify, and people on other platforms who are championing new and unsigned music,” he says.

“I’m talking to one artist right now who’s got a song on Spotify – a really good song! – that has less than 1,000 streams. So it’s partly about getting some of these songs that may be struggling to cut through the noise, and helping them.”

jazz mino

The initial focus for Humble Angel Records is on pop, dance and urban tracks – a close match for the genres that are currently most popular on Spotify globally – although here too he’s keen to stress his flexibility: he’s already spotted a pair of guitar-based indie tracks that may be worth snapping up.

“For the first six weeks, we’ll have a song a week. After that, it may quieten down, or it may get busier. As long as I keep finding good-quality music and I’ve got the bandwidth to do it, I will release it,” says Donoghue.

Spotify and Apple Music will be the platforms on which Humble Angel Records will focus most of its energy in the early days, although Donoghue notes that “Deezer is still a relevant chunk of the market, as is YouTube, as is SoundCloud to some degree, and specialist services like Beatport”.

He’s also keen to explore potential opportunities on the Amazon and Google Play streaming services. “What does it mean to ‘release a single’ on Google Play? What can we do to amplify it on their platforms?” he says, while expressing his fascination with how music is being discovered and listened to on smart speakers like the Echo and Google Home.

As for marketing, Humble Angel will be pitching to prominent playlisters, but also looking beyond them.

“It’ll be about identifying and talking to influencers in certain genres and markets, to get those guys championing music,” he says. “Approaching people who have an audience, not necessarily music, and trying out new ideas and new routes to market. We’re not relying 100% on playlist-pitching.”

The No Copyright Sounds-fuelled success of Alan Walker’s ‘Faded’ has shown the potential for tracks that are used in the background of YouTube videos to become streaming hits, and it’s those kinds of opportunities that Donoghue is keen to explore for his artists too.

“We’re looking to do more PR and marketing outside the streaming environment so that we can have the back-story for the artists. You’ve got to show that there’s stuff going on, and that you’re putting your effort in to other channels,” he says, of how he hopes this work will pay off in prominent playlist slots.

“We ask artists what they’re doing. Jazz Mino is doing a school tour, building up a fanbase and testing songs on that audience, playing three or four songs and asking people to message her their reactions,” he says.

“She’s doing these live singing sessions on Instagram and building an audience there. She goes busking in King’s Cross station. It’s all of these things, to have that story going on around the artist that we can pitch to DSPs.”

It’s early days: Mino’s debut for the label has been streamed just over 29,000 times so far. But Donoghue is optimistic about the future as an independent.

“I think there’s a massive opportunity to develop and release songs that can be big in themselves on streaming services, and I think the majors are a little bit behind,” he says.

“Do we need albums any more? I don’t think we do, to be honest with you. A release can be one song, three songs, five or six songs, a mixtape… We’re flexible: we’ll look at absolutely anything, as long as it’s targeted for the streaming audience.”

Stuart Dredge

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