Fair Pay for Every Play, Ep 26: Mark Williamson - Working Smartly Creatively and Collaboratively

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Kristian: Welcome to Fair Pay For Every Play by Utopia, a podcast about music technology for Music Industry professionals. My name is Kristian Luoma and on this episode, I'm joined by the co-founder of Rostr and Vice President of Creator Services of Utopia Music, Mark Williamson.

Known as the fastest and most up-to-date directory in the music industry, Rostr offers its members important insight to its artist relationship features and an extensive company directory. In this episode, I was curious to ask Mark about his expansive career in the music industry, and also dive into the Creator Services department they will be fronting in Utopia, and what it may hold for the future of the industry.

What is Utopia's new Creator Services department and how can it help build transparency in the music industry?

Kristian: Welcome, Mark. Great to have you on the show! Could you give us a short rundown of who you are and what you do?

Mark Williamson: My name is Mark Williamson and I am the recently anointed head of Creator Services Business Unit at Utopia Music.

Kristian: And what does Creator Services do? What's the ambition?

Mark: It's a good question. I think in a sentence, the goal is to help artists and their teams understand and grow their careers. So, how do we help artists of all shapes and sizes really get better at what they do and compete on a more level playing field across the Music Industry?

Kristian: That's amazing. I just wanted to have a short discussion with you as an introduction to you joining Utopia and your amazing career within Music. As an introduction to that, what things made you start with the Music Industry in the beginning?

Mark Williamson: I guess I always thought it'd be cool to work in the music industry, I just didn't ever really think it was a possibility. I grew up in Africa. My idea of what jobs were available were like lawyer or doctor. I'd never really thought about working in the music industry and even after university where I'd done stuff like events, I didn't really think about it.

But I was always a huge music fan. And after university, I worked in a few different technology roles, a role selling beer, and I kind of ended up stumbling fairly intentionally into the music industry via Spotify.

Kristian: Right. Well, you landed a job at Spotify, and you became a really central figure as a Global Head of Artists and Industry Partnerships, and I'm sure there's a lot of amazing stories of that journey. You started relatively early at Spotify, but what were some of the highlights that you went through as a company?

Mark Williamson: Well, back then, I discovered Spotify as a service, back in 2011, I think, and I was blown away and I decided I wanted to work there. And literally within a week I was working at Spotify in London, and that gives you a bit of a sense of how much time has elapsed since then. I think, if you're going for a role at a company like that, now you're probably talking about a 9 to 12 month process, whereas it took about a week back then.

So, it's interesting because it has so many parallels with the kind of stage that I think Utopia is at right now. There was a couple of hundred people and that was growing like every couple of months, was almost doubling, it was this revolutionary product that really helped drive this.

I think the thing that was dramatic over the years was going from there being this cool product that people that try to how Spotify ingrained itself into the industry, both in ways good and critical. Over the years, that was really kind of my various roles, and my team's job was essentially, we saw it as one of two things. One, we were there to represent and explain Spotify to the artist community and then I think, as importantly, on the flip side, we thought it was our role to explain the artist community to Spotify, which, obviously was a tech company from Sweden and, the artist community is this hugely diverse and strong community that wants to be heard. So we were doing this dual role of both education outside of Spotify, to artists and education back to Spotify as well.

Kristian: Absolutely amazing. Now after Spotify, you decided to continue on the domain of music technology. Let's talk about Rostr. What was the vision behind building Rostr and what could you achieve with Rostr?

Mark Williamson: Yeah, I think there's a simple answer and a more complex answer here. The simple side, Rostr was something that I always wanted for me and my team at Spotify.

My team on the services had a number of different names, but we were really responsible for connecting with artists and their teams. We had 15 to 20 people around the world who were some of the most connected people in the music industry. And at the same time you would occasionally get this email and it would be from Daniel EK, our CEO, or someone else who needed to reach this artist manager ASAP. Of course when you get an email from the CEO, everyone starts jumping, but you could at times have like 20, 30 people trying to find out who the manager for Tool was, and Tool hadn't released a record in maybe 10 years at that point.

We were helping to drive an industry that was rapidly expanding and yet ,the information connections and the ways to get that info potentially was just getting worse. You can't possibly know all of these artists and their teams. And so Rostr was very much ‘okay, how do we fix this’ for people like me, at places like Spotify and brands, how do we make it easy to find the people?

You need to give artists opportunities. I guess the more complex one, I was sitting in Spotify and a revolution in the way that music was consumed. And I also noticed that there was a serious investment and revolution in the way that music was being produced. So, various digital workstations and tools like Splice and this huge investment in changing and reducing the cost and the technology involved in the production of music.

But in the middle of that, the investment in the business side, the way people work and the tools that they use, I fixed significantly. And the long-term vision for Rostr was, how do we invest in this particular area? How do we improve the way that people work and as an extension of that, or not as an extension, as a core part of that mission, how do we create a fairer ecosystem that enables more people to play and play fairly?

Kristian: Right. That's amazing news. Part of our mission and very well aligned with Utopia. One of the most interesting posts that you have been doing, you've been announcing the ‘Who booked Coachella,’ subsequently, in 2020 and 2022, after the lineup has been announced literally during the same day, and in both of the cases, those posts have been hugely viral.

Can you speak about those campaigns and why it's so important to show the data the booking side of things.

Mark Williamson: We kinda stumbled into what I later learned is described as data storytelling. We stumbled into it in 2020, that the lineup came out as a bunch of us sitting in the now defunct LA office. And we just had this idea, let's run some data on this and put some pie charts together. And then at the last minute I was like, I wonder if we can do the poster and we didn't even think it was a big thing.

We just put it in part of, as an item, in one of our emails and it just went wild. And I guess the kind of reverse engineered insights from that was that, people just aren't used to seeing some of this info that is behind the curtain. actually super aligned with what we were trying to do with Rostr, where we essentially take some of this information that has previously been hidden whether by intent or by just cause people don't bother to put it online, by putting this information out, it's actually really interesting to people and creates a nice little viral marketing thing that drives growth. But far more importantly than that, I think what it starts to do is it starts to socialize the transparency around this data.

For me, I was thinking a lot of my investors in Rostr were agents and managers and people who have interests as successful agents and managers. And a lot of the feedback we had at the beginning of the Rostr whilst I was raising money was, I don't think people are gonna like this. And my thing was always, ‘Hang on a minute.

not as a team? With that connection to the rest of the world? And by extension that connection to opportunities, right?’ If you're a company you don't hide the people that are supposed to do partnerships with you. And so I always felt like, while you couldn't dismiss this information, people may only know some of it out there.

I always felt that the value of having this information out there fully outweighs the negative impact of having it out there. So, long story short, we did a seminar along with what’s called the world's leading artist management company. We did one around the Grammys. The point of this is really to start to socialize the idea that this data is not secret.

This data is part and parcel of the industry and what it actually generated more than eyeballs and viral attention was every single time, within a week, every single major agency asked me to come in and meet them and tell us who we were. I was being someone they weren't exactly thinking, ‘Hey, this is great.’

They were like, ‘Hey, could you come on in?’ Two years down the line, most of those agencies I went to see are now customers of Rostr Pro. And so this is the kind of thing we need to do. It's not just about technology. It's also about the culture of the Music Industry and how we start to shift and change and create that fair landscape.

Kristian: An amazing value for the whole industry. And you will be continuing to drive that value as part of the Creator Services team and Business Unit within Utopia. In your words, what sort of growth opportunities do you see Creator Services providing for the Industry?

Mark Williamson: I think there's some kind of fundamental things here. Utopia Music as a whole, and the macro mission of Fair Pay For Every Play, talks a lot about this concept of the data gap and the data gap in payments and the way through it.

But actually, I think that data gap, and this is probably true, exists right down to an audience level as well. We’re still in the situation where a lot of the data and the insights that can help artists and then the tools and services that help them exploit those insights are still relatively inaccessible and spread out in a way that makes it really hard for almost every stakeholder in the industry to understand what is going on with their career. What I think we have an opportunity to do with Creator Services is to democratize access to that data and to those tools and services.

And if we can do that, the opportunity is massive because today where we are in the Music Industry, even though we've had a decade plus of streaming, which was supposed to be this great democratizing technology, we're still in a world where literally 16,000 artists generate 90% of the volume of consumption.

And that is partly because the music industry is kind of top heavy. There is a quantity set, quantity component. But the truth is we should have seen that start to change more dramatically than it has 10 years into this revolution. It has in almost every other media, when you look at a fragmentation of content, but in music it’s pretty solid.

I think while there are many components to this and those areas for us, for me, at least, with Creator Services and the continuation of that augmentation of the vision for Rostr is, how do you put data in the tools in the hands of many more artists and just give them a way to fairly compete? Not every artist can have a career just because they want one, and not every artist can have hundreds of thousands of listeners, but every artist should have the same opportunity to get to that.

I think really the driver with Creator Services is to create that opportunity.

Kristian: That’s amazing. I'll just close with a question on the macro, like beyond Utopia in the Music Industry, what do you think we need to do to make this more fair and transparent for artists? Creator Services by Utopia will be one piece of that, but can you think of anything else that needs to be done right?

Mark Williamson: I think there are a thousand little pieces that need to be put together. I think that it's not a magic wand, but honestly I think this idea of data transparency is really key.

But I'll give you an example of one of the things that data can help, but we have to be really cognizant of, there's this thing and you take fairness, like a very mental example of this is you take almost any festival lineup and we track hundreds of them. Like, at best a festival lineup, if, unless it's a dedicated female led festival, you have maybe a 80, 90% male or predominantly male line-up.

This is a problem everyone talks about, right? It's a very obvious. It's a problem in many parts of the world, but in the Music Industry or festivals, it's a particular problem. And then we have the data and we look at it. And if you look at management posters and particularly booking agency rosters, the numbers have almost identical - about 75, 80% - of booking agencies that audits on their Rostr are male.

And so, the reason I'm in this office, if you look at that, how does an artist get on a festival lineup? How does an artist get signed to a label? How artists find an agent in the first place. If rosters are predominantly male, you're going to end up with predominantly male lineups and charts and so on.

And that doesn't just apply to gender balance situations. This applies to geographies, this applies to economic background. I think the point I'm trying to make here is like, there's a lot that can be done by data and by technology companies like us. but I also think we need to be thinking about some of these culturally, and further down the line, how we can make an impact there as well, because of the lagging effects of some of the imbalance and the unfairness across the Music Industry. All things that we deal with down the line have to be solved much sooner.

Kristian: Thank you for being an amazing guest and a colleague, Mark. It's always a pleasure to talk to you and a pleasure to have you as part of the Utopia team.

Thank you for listening to this episode of Fair Pay For Every Play by Utopia. Utopia Music is dedicated to giving Fair Pay For Every Play. We provide the solutions to make royalty payments transparent, efficient and fair. The artist and rights holders for the music featured on this podcast have been rightly paid for their contribution. As always please remember to subscribe on Apple Music, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts or your favorite music. To find out more about what we do and the mission we are on, please go to utopiamusic.com.