The evolution of the music industry: a Q&A with Conrad Withey, CEO of Instrumental and FRTYFVE.

By   Zoila Marenco 4 min read

Conrad began his career in FMCG marketing with roles at Boots and then Kraft Jacobs Suchard. In 1994 he moved into the entertainment industry, joining PolyGram Filmed Entertainment in marketing, and he quickly moved into the rights acquisitions team. In 1999 he became VP of Programming for Universal Pictures International.

After a move in 2000 to Momentum Pictures to run their Home Entertainment division, he set up The Rights Company in 2003, with backing from Blenheim Chalcot. The business created digital content with established artists, broadcasters, sportsmen and entertainment brands and licensed it to major distributors – as well as consulting with independent producers on their rights management. The company was sold to Warner Music Group in 2006.

From then until early 2014, Conrad was President of Warner Music Entertainment, an international label division formed after the merger of TRC with their existing content business Warner Vision. In April 2014, Conrad co-founded and is CEO of Instrumental, a music tech company focused on the independent music sector.

Q1. Tell us a bit about Instrumental and FRTYFVE and how you came to launch a business in music talent & rights management. 

Instrumental is ten years old. The co-founders of the business, me and Abi Hanna (also my wife), recognised that social media was going to introduce a whole new generation of music creators to the industry who were self-sufficient, socially savvy and able to build their own large global fan bases effectively for free.

We felt that those artists were going to need a different kind of business to support them, and that the industry was also going to need to embrace big data to find the best talent in the first place.

That has certainly turned out to be the case. There are around 150,000 tracks uploaded to services like Spotify every day now. And TikTok has transformed the music business with hot new artists and tracks now largely being discovered on social media, rather than traditional media.

Q2. At Whitefox, we’re fascinated by your take on contemporary creative rights management and how this role is evolving. Can you tell us how you perceive this to have changed since your days working at Warner Music?

I think the main change is that the cost of developing an artist ten plus years ago was still enormous. It meant that all the risk was with the label. So you needed to take the lifetime of copyright to underwrite your investment.

These days much of the heavy lifting is being done by the artist themselves in the early years of their career. There is momentum already underway when a label sign someone. The next job is to augment the ongoing growth and help the artists maximise their potential but often that can be done with far less risk.

As a result, there are many more different kinds of rights deals available to creators now than ever before. Talent can access funding through very flexible distribution partners and keep funding their growth independently OR they can still work with the large music labels but will have more leverage to improve deal terms.

Q3. You’ve talked about organisations such as yours ‘augmenting and accelerating existing momentum’ established by up-and-coming music talent. Do you think that is something that can be replicated in book publishing?

Critical to this model in music is the ease of music creation and distribution. It is effectively free to make a record and get it distributed to everyone on the planet. This creates a huge melting pot of content and the goal of the labels now is to have the data management tools in place to spot the best talent amongst all that noise.

I know there are equivalents in book publishing but I am not sure it will ever get to the same volume. A kid can turn out a hit song in an evening – that’s hard to replicate in the book world.

Q4. How will AI continue to change your world in 2024? 

We see GenAI having a massive impact. Tools are already being embedded into services like TikTok, Google and Microsoft that help anyone write and record music. It is going to be easier than ever to craft a potential hit.

We predict a new era of hyper production as a result with the volume of music being released perhaps growing tenfold over the next decade – and there’s already a lot!

AI will, as a result, be needed to help the industry deal with that volume of content. AI needed to deal with AI. It’s nuts really!

Gen AI Whitefox

Q5. Tell us one thing you are excited about in the coming year.

I think major labels have finally realised that the way we are working is going to be the mainstream and it feels like the industry is headed our way in terms of business models and ways of working.

I am excited that we have already got ten years of experience working this way – I think that knowledge is going to be very valuable as traditional organisations try and pivot.

Zoila Marenco
Zoila Marenco
Zoila has five years of experience in client management. She transitioned from working in an organisation offering talent management services to a tech startup specialising in behavioural change in teams. Her experience with clients and communities prompted her move to marketing, taking on the role of a community manager to help Whitefox build, expand and oversee online communities.