BMG’s Thomas Coesfeld Talks First 100 Days as CEO: ‘We’re In It for the Long Run’

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Thomas Coesfeld says that the next 10 years will be much different for BMG than the last 10.

Navigating the onslaught of generative artificial intelligence (AI), diverging streaming economic models and the slowdown in streaming revenue growth is among the challenges “that are keeping me up at night,” says the new CEO of the world’s fourth-largest music company, who sat down with Billboard for his first U.S. interview since succeeding Hartwig Masuch in July.

At 33, Coesfeld is the fresh young face of one of Europe’s oldest and most powerful media dynasties. His grandfather was Reinhard Mohn, a legendary CEO of BMG’s German parent company, Bertelsmann. Coesfeld’s predecessor also earned a spot in the media conglomerate’s corporate pantheon. Masuch reinvigorated BMG after serving as an adviser for the company’s uncoupling from Sony in 2007, building it into an entity that generated roughly 900 million euros ($947.7 million) annually. It’s now Coesfeld’s job to lead the company beyond the 1 billion euro mark ($1.1 billion) by 2024.

The Berlin-based executive spoke candidly about the challenge he faces being a relative newcomer to the music industry and the acumen he developed while overseeing BMG’s balance sheet since 2021 as the company’s CFO. Coesfeld received a baptism by fire as one of BMG’s chief negotiators for song catalog acquisitions during the market run-up in the early 2020s. From 2021 to 2023, he helped the company land 70 deals, including acquiring the catalogs of rock icons Mötley Crüe and Tina Turner, as well as those of Mick Fleetwood, Paul Simon, The Pointer Sisters, Peter Frampton and The Hollies.

A photo of Coesfeld’s grandfather, former Bertelsmann CEO Mohn, viewing the Manhattan skyline in 1954. Much like him, Coesfeld says he has a “strong fondness” for the United States.

Bertelsmann, flush with cash after its failed acquisition bid for Simon & Schuster, has promised to invest between 5 billion and 7 billion euros ($5.3 billion to $7.4 billion) across its companies through 2025 — an infusion that should help Coesfeld outpace BMG’s nearest competitors, Concord and HYBE, which are both on track to close $300 million to $500 million in company acquisitions this year. But competition doesn’t trouble Coesfeld. He is less combative and more collaborative than is typically found in the music industry.

“I’m convinced that the key challenge of the music industry is not fighting each other,” he says. “It’s not about conventional distinctions between segments, like frontline or catalog, or companies, like majors or indies. There are bigger challenges than that. What is needed is a more collaborative approach with business partners to face this more challenging environment.”

You’ve been in the CEO seat for just over 100 days. What is the five-year plan for BMG?

My predecessor was an entrepreneur who brought Bertelsmann back into the music space. He achieved a thing you don’t see that often, particularly in media. We are a very established company on a solid foundation. Now comes a new chapter. The next iteration of BMG will focus on better engaging with our artists, songwriters and business partners. I’m truly convinced we can only be effective if we are not focusing too much on ourselves — not building too much resources internally — but instead focusing on the value creation and service delivery for the artists and songwriters. Naturally, we will continue on our investment strategy.

What does BMG taking digital distribution in-house mean for the company’s future?

First, it allows us to significantly upgrade our services for artists. We get better in our marketing ability to advocate for the songs, campaign management, things like that. Second, we get better and direct access to the data feeds from the platforms. Artists care about that. The third point is it’s massively enhancing our service portfolio. This enables us to offer a bigger variety of deals for artists to allow them to choose what kind of service level they want. And then obviously, every intermediary takes fees. So this allows us to have a more sustainable business model, become more competitive and offer more competitive terms to our artists. And artists get the monies faster.

Another photo of Mohn.

How does integrating the frontline business and catalog help you achieve these goals?

What’s key on the recording side is marketing. What is new and increasingly important is understanding the [streaming] channels. You need expertise for each [digital service provider]. Spotify is really different from Apple. We’ve had a direct relationship with YouTube for the last eight months, and the results are phenomenal — not just from a topline perspective, which is the ultimate measure, but also in having access to data, providing improved service on marketing, trending and velocity to artists. If you look through the lens of marketing, frontline and catalog become more integrated because the skill that makes the difference is marketing and understanding the channel. Consumption is way more fragmented. Fans make their own choices. Music taste is the decisive factor.

What do you expect streaming growth to look like in the coming years?

Two trends are relevant: One is that the massive market growth for the future of streaming in Western markets will happen through price increases. The second is the majority of the volume growth will happen in the developing markets. The good news is that the market is still fundamentally growing — not at the same speed as in the past 10 years — but we still have a fundamentally attractive market.

We need to own distribution to fully understand the trends early on and to react faster, to market in more tailored ways. With lower growth, we need to be more precise in how we invest marketing dollars.

How would you describe your leadership style?

There is a German saying: “You always see each other twice in life.” The idea of this saying is you always have opportunities — from a power-play perspective, you’re in a better situation — but the more sustainable approach is to still treat everyone as partners. We are in it for the long run. This is, for me, a paradigm for how to act on a daily basis. I’m very grateful for the partnership we had [with ADA]. We tripled our revenue. We’ve learned a lot, and it was clear from the get-go that at some point in time we would leave. [Warner Music Group CEO] Robert [Kyncl] and I had very frank conversations about it.

The statuette, which was a gift from Coesfeld’s aunt, “represents ambition,” he says.

What opportunities do you see in the catalog market?

We have a well-oiled machine. We know how to assess catalog, pitch and discuss with artists and songwriters. Hartwig built a reputation. Artists and songwriters trust us. That’s a big opportunity from a positioning standpoint. Paired with a very committed parent company, which is willing to fund the further growth of this company, we see massive growth, and I remain very optimistic about the market fundamentals. There are a lot of things going on which may cause challenges — streaming economics, generative AI — but I see those as massive opportunities for the industry overall.

How have your previous executive roles at Bertelsmann shaped you, and how will they shape BMG?

This is my first CEO role. Now, I can’t blame the CEO any longer! I’m a firm believer from my own experience that the way you treat people, the way you interact in all types of relationships, is critically important to firm longevity and business success. If you take that and apply it to BMG, it’s even more important because our clients are a diverse set of characters. That’s why they have fans. They are not normal. They are not average. They are different. They are beyond that. Treating people with respect is critically important, and that sets Bertelsmann apart from other companies.

And in my CFO role, I had the privilege of being responsible for a catalog acquisition strategy. That helped me a lot in getting to know so many artists over the last two to three years. That introduced me quite well to this industry. Not having been around for decades in the music business was a challenge and, at times, still is.

A keyring that Coesfeld bought in New York when he was 12 and has carried with him since.

What is BMG’s view of the ongoing experiments with artist-centric and user-centric streaming payment models?

We are not the market maker there, which is important to understand our views. Overall, I welcome that we are having this discussion as an industry. What is on the table is a great step in the right direction. We are about to establish mechanisms to fight fraud, money laundering, things like that. Even more importantly, in light of gen AI, it is so easy to create music and to have artificial consumption of music.

How do you see this as a tool to address your concerns around generative AI?

If you don’t have mechanisms that make a distinction between human artistry and white noise, then something is wrong about the system. The streaming economics were designed 12 years ago. They are just not the appropriate models any longer. One thing I’d love to see more pronounced is trust in consumer choices — so a distinction between the superfan who is listening to just one artist and the more infrequent listener who is also paying $11 a month but listening to 50 streams a month.

What are the pitfalls and opportunities of generative AI?

I do see a fundamental threat to the ‘copyright-ability’ of human creativity. If regulators do not hold up, we will have a big issue. What keeps me optimistic is that fans don’t just care about the musical expression. It’s about the personality, the artist — especially for superfans.

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