Did you happen to find yourself in a provincial German discotheque in the early 2000s, somewhere betwixt Berlin and Dresden, watching Rednex – and we say this with a modicum of charity – ‘perform’ Cotton Eye Joe to a wide-eyed dancefloor?
While you were there, did you notice a 19-year-old woman, stood to the side of the throng, with a handbag suspiciously stuffed with tens of thousands of Euros?
If so, we do hope you were polite to her. Because she went on to become one of the most influential international executives in the global music industry.
Today, Dominique Casimir is Chief Content Officer at BMG, and sits on the board of the Bertelsmann-owned music company. Most importantly, she oversees BMG’s ‘repertoire’ (that’s publishing and records) operation in 17 separate territories, including Central Europe, Latam, and the UK. Or to put it in a more succinct way: Casimir runs BMG’s entire music operation everywhere outside North America.
Twenty years ago, such professional heights must have seemed a long way off for Casimir, who had moved to Berlin as a teenager with the initial intention of becoming a doctor. Within a few months, she’d pressed pause on these medical ambitions, and found herself studying an aimless mix of subjects at university, while waitressing in her spare time to pay the rent. One day, a realization hit her: “This leads to nothing.”
Following her innate passion for music, she signed up as an intern for a German talent agency that specialized in booking shows for Swedish pop acts. It was an eye-opening introduction to the music business.
She spent most of her time in a van, “picking up acts like Rednex and [nu-disco trio] Alcazar, and taking them to shady discotheques for playback performances – multiple venues in one night. When we got to each show, I’d been told to [accost] the venue owner: ‘No one goes on stage until the money is in my handbag!’”
This precarious lifestyle was a thrill for Casimir until one December night, still in her teens, she found herself arranging an emergency helicopter to the local hospital. The lead singer of Rednex had succumbed to a life-threatening fever… in a minibus driven by Casimir… which was stuck on the Autobahn… because of an avalanche. Casimir was out of money, out of phone battery – and very nearly out of a lead singer of Rednex.
Somehow, Casimir made it back to her parents’ house in Hamburg that Christmas. And far from being scared off the music industry, she decided to double down.
Returning to Berlin that New Year, Casimir launched her own successful independent booking and management company – keeping her contacts from Swedish pop-land, while also branching out into management of young German rock bands. She made enough waves over the next half-decade to impress Fremantle, a Bertlesmann-owned TV content company, who hired her to handle sync licensing and music publishing agreements in 2007.
A year later, her work caught the eye of Hartwig Masuch, who had just become CEO of the ‘new’ BMG, a startup music company backed by Bertelsmann capital. (The ‘old’ BMG was no more, after Universal Music Group acquired its publishing assets in a USD $2.19 billion deal in 2007.)
“I’d been told to accost the venue owner: ‘No one goes on stage until the money’s in my handbag!’”
Today, outside of the major music companies, BMG is arguably the largest music publishing and recorded music entity globally.
In the first half of 2021, BMG turned over EUR €371 million, up 25% year-on-year, with 40% of that revenue figure coming from recorded music and the remaining 60% from publishing. Its repertoire across publishing and records includes all-time classics from Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones and Tina Turner, through to modern releases by the likes of George Ezra, Kylie Minogue, Jason Aldean, Slowthai, Lewis Capaldi, Mabel and Louis Tomlinson.
Remarkably, Hartwig Masuch says that BMG had achieved its 25% YoY revenue uplift in H1 2022 “with virtually no hits” – his point being that BMG’s primary focus is not on achieving global chart-toppers, but instead on amplifying the prospects of all its repertoire, regardless of audience size.
As head of BMG’s repertoire outside the US, Dominique Casimir oversees music that is responsible for around 50% of her employer’s worldwide turnover.
Many of her most notable moves to date have come in her home nation of Germany. In August, for example, BMG swooped for Telamo, Germany’s largest independent record label and a specialist in Schlager music (often described as Germany’s equivalent of country music in the US). As a result of that deal, BMG now stands as one of the largest label groups in the German market.
Casimir has also personally been at the forefront of BMG’s investment in three significant areas of live music. During the pandemic, she led the majority-acquisition of German live music promoter Undercover. She also led BMG’s backing of the stage musical Ku’Damm 56, which has sold over 200,000 tickets to date, and was recently extended to the end of February 2023.
Most recently, Casimir took the wraps off BMG’s latest foray into live entertainment: The firm has booked out Berlin’s most renowned theater, the 1,600-seat Theater des Westens (TdW), every night until the end of 2024.
BMG, in conjunction with Bertelsmann, will pack that theatre with live content each week, with a view to emulating the Vegas/Broadway-style ‘residency’ successes of artists in the US such as Bruce Springsteen, Adele, and Celine Dion.
Here, Casimir explains what her early experiences in music taught her about treating artists and why she believes BMG has cracked the right way to do deal-making with artists – as she reveals an interesting theory for why the music industry continues to obsess over weekly charts…
You started life in the music industry as a teenager, sitting in splitter vans with Swedish pop acts and German rock bands. Is there anything you learned during that time that still resonates with your professional life today?
Definitely. As a manager [in the early noughties] I saw a totally unbalanced, unfair and super-weird situation: The artist would be putting their entire life into this, and you had the industry – whether that was live or record companies – making all the money and calling all the shots.
That triggered something in me from minute one. There was this tone from the music industry during that era: We have the power; you, artist, are small. Now shut up while we overrule you, because we know better.
I met lots of anxious artists who were so busy trying to make their A&R at the record company happy. They were delighted when one of these ‘super repertoire’ people from the label visited the show. To the artists, it felt like these label people really could open the gate of magic at a major music company. But that was actually when the trouble would really start!
What do you mean, trouble?
I believe that the most important thing you can have when you’re starting a [commercial] discussion with an artist is clarity. Clarity on what it is we can achieve together, but also clarity on agreeing on a realistic picture – sometimes, a reality check! – on what the best case scenario looks like at the end of a project.
“The moment you create a relationship with an artist where there is ‘you’ and not ‘us’, it just won’t work.”
That means not promising the sky and everything in it just to get an artist to sign to you. Because what happens in that scenario is you enter into an ‘us and them’ relationship. Record companies might think [when the artist signs with them] that they have ‘won’ a deal, but if you haven’t invited clarity and honest discussion into the room, you will be left with a huge amount of pressure. And, soon, you will be left with the blame game.
The moment you create a relationship with an artist where there is ‘you’ and not ‘us’, it just won’t work.
Artists are not always super-predictable – that’s part of the reason we all love them so much. But when they know who they are, you can all agree together what the goals are and what the goals aren’t. When they’re willing to get into the ‘boat’ with their [record company partner], when you’re in it together, there is no blame game. You have a recipe for success.
Isn’t the ‘promising the moon’ element of record company deals with artists very often because the artist involved has a likelihood of releasing a chart hit – or already has one on the way?
Yes. I know you noticed Hartwig’s comment about BMG not requiring a hit to grow 25% in the first half of this year. That is the new music industry.
Of course it’s nice for every artist to have a hit, and we’ve had our fair share. But hits come and go, and for some of them [the record labels] massively overpays. Some artists have just one hit in their career, and it’s not even a super-hit.
You can’t live off that forever, but it might cost you everything because of the way your deal is structured; if that deal, for example, is completely predicated on you having a second hit, with massive expenditure [baked in] at radio. If you don’t get that second hit, you’re toast.
“Traditional record label A&R is like cooking spaghetti: throw 10 pieces at the wall and hope one sticks.”
Think of it from the artist’s perspective: The industry often doesn’t talk nice about artists who don’t get that follow-up hit, especially if a lot of money has been spent trying to get it, and artists know that. A huge part of this industry still spends all its time and attention – and a lot of its money – playing that hits game, and it leads to bad incentives.
Traditional record label A&R is like cooking spaghetti: throw 10 pieces at the wall and hope one sticks. Those pieces of spaghetti are artists! It needs to change. There are so many ways of making a living for an artist today. Even though it remains really hard to do so, focusing on just the hits and the recorded music charts – in an age when 600,000 new songs a week are going on to streaming services – isn’t a sensible strategy.
What is a sensible strategy?
Our perspective is to look at artists and ask: Is there an interesting brand here, an interesting story we can use our expertise to grow around the world?
As an artist, you need as diversified an income as possible – Covid proved to all of us that just relying on live income can quickly be disrupted. It’s not about just living off your vinyl sales or D2C, or Spotify, or ticketing; you need to understand which income streams work best for you, and turn up the volume on all of them.
We don’t just promote records anymore – we promote artist brands.
Why do you think so much of the music industry continues to focus on charts and hits? Surely that doesn’t make sense under your argument; there must be a sound economic reason for it?
One of the reasons I’m so thankful I started out in live is that I got to witness that ‘live moment’ – when eveything you’ve worked on together as a team is realised. You hear the audience; it’s such a direct and satisfying reaction.
“That’s one reason I think the charts remain so important to friends and colleagues in the record industry – charts are a mirror that tell a team: ‘You’ve done something successful.’”
That’s something you don’t get when you work in a record company. That’s one reason I think the charts remain so important to friends and colleagues in the record industry – charts are a mirror that tell a team: ‘You’ve done something successful.’
But the truth is the charts only reflect a small proportion of the music industry, and even if you do have chart success, it should only be one part of a much bigger story.
That was made clear to me from the first minute of being interviewed to join BMG. Hartwig was very strong and opinionated: we need to apply expertise and systems to what music IP is, and what an artist identity is. That’s the goal. And we need to do it while being honorable, transparent and offering the best level of service – not overruling or overpowering because ‘we know best’.
What were your first impressions when you met Hartwig?
He was busy choosing the new BMG logo at the time! I remember him turning around and saying, ‘Why do you want to join this new music company.’ And I said: ‘Actually, I’m not really sure why the world needs another major music company.’ That got him going!
He looked and me and said: ‘I will tell you why…’ And that was followed by Hartwig in full inspiration mode: What he wanted, why he thought artists and songwriters deserve it, and the type of people he wanted around him to make it happen.
Since May, you’ve been Chief Content Officer of BMG, overseeing all repertoire operations outside North America. Which markets around the world are you most excited by from a business perspective?
Mexico, and Latam more generally, stand out. We announced we would launch BMG Mexico earlier this year, we’re in the process of getting it up-and-running and it is already so much fun. There’s tremendous growth, of course, in LatAm [territories] with many of them growing by more than 30% per year for three years in a row at this point.
Streaming and digitalization of the LatAm markets is generally very advanced. But on the other hand, other parts of the industry – the live business, brands, merch, the sync business – all have room to become much more relevant, and I think we as BMG will really make a difference to that.
You mention live: BMG has made significant strides into live in its home market in these past few years, especially with your majority acquisition of Undercover, and more recently with your two-year residency of the Berlin theatre where you’ve seen success with the Ku’Damm 56 musical.
Germany is a good country for us to test things. It’s the fourth biggest music market in the world, and in some years it’s the third [overtaking the UK].
What we’re trying here with Bertelsmann, is to ask: Can we extend what we do in rights management in music to the live business? Because from a marketing and promotion and storytelling perspective that idea makes a lot of sense. We’re very good at that in [music rights]. And then another thing we’re very good at is financial transparency, and I think there’s a need for that in the live world. And we found a company [in Undercover] just like us. The first meeting I had with [Undercover founder Michael Schacke], he said: ‘We are about fairness and 100% transparency. Our artists can come and audit us anytime.’
One big annoying needle in every artist’s foot in live is the consumer data. There’s a huge amount of valuable fan data created in the process of selling tickets, but it’s often difficult for artists and managers to access that information. We are trying to crack that open with some artists, and get the fullest picture possible of their fanbase, so we can really optimise their income streams.
Our involvement in live concert promotion is the opposite of a ‘360’ deal structure: We offer live promotion and agency services on an opt-in basis to our [recorded music and publishing] artists. We hope those artists do opt-in, because we think we’re offering a lot of added value. But it’s their choice and if it doesn’t suit them that’s fine.
One of the biggest stories in the music industry this year has been the revival of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill via a Stranger Things sync over the summer. What was your take on that, and how even though it’s a ‘catalog’ record, it exploded like a new streaming hit amongst millions of teenagers who were hearing it for the first time?
It’s a beautiful dynamic, and it’s not about ‘catalog’ or ‘frontline’. Kate Bush is an icon and an iconic brand. The question for this new generation of consumers, and those in the music business working to maximize this moment’s potential is: What’s the core of the brand? Why why did she have such a cultural impact? What’s the essence of this artist’s appeal?
“What’s the core of the brand? What’s the essence of this artist’s appeal?”
I translate that to what we’re doing with Tina Turner [whose music interests BMG acquired last year]. What is the essence of why people feel so strongly and so connected to Tina Turner (pictured)? We’re talking about a premium brand here, and a brand that comes with very strong emotional attributes attached to it. Obviously, it’s about the music, but it’s about more than the music.
So, again, that’s the question: Why was an artist so culturally impactful in the first place? Once you can answer that, you go from there.
This article originally appeared in the latest (Q3/Q4 2022) issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK, which is out now.
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