Michelle Kadir, Vice President Digital Business/Sony Music Entertainment
Interview, 12 May 2016
Armed with a degree in Computer Science, a genuine love for music and a resume consisting of prestigious jobs with some of the industry’s most influential companies, Stockholm native Michelle Kadir is on a mission to make the record business thrive again and to rebuild the broken bond between labels and their most valuable assets – the musicians.
In 2007, the record industry was in disarray with physical sales declining and illegal downloads eating away at the revenue of the record labels. Around the same time, a young man by the name of Daniel Ek walked into the offices of Universal Music in Stockholm to pitch a new idea for a music streaming service he had been working on called Spotify.
One of the people in the room that day was 26-year old Michelle Kadir, a graduate from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and now part of Universal’s digital team. Kadir immediately saw the potential and bought into Daniel Ek’s vision.
Shortly thereafter, Kadir left the record label and became part of the young team at Spotify that helped build the company from a local start-up to one of the most powerful companies in the music business.
Fast forward seven years and Michelle Kadir is now back where she started, holding the position as Vice President of Digital Business at Sony Music where she aims to usher in a new and healthier relationship between record labels and the artists that is the foundation on which their whole existence rests on.
Combining her love for both tech and music, Kadir is now in a position to make a real difference and is well on her way to help rejuvenate the industry.
We were invited to Sony Music’s offices in central Stockholm to discuss the future of the record business, building a career around the things you love and why Michelle Kadir thinks record labels are anything but obsolete in todays music world.
How would you describe yourself?
– I’m a highly ambitious person, a huge music lover and a strong advocate of human rights. Most of all I would say I am grateful for the life I live.
Where did you grow up?
– I grew up in Sollentuna just north of Stockholm where I lived until moving into the city to attend university.
Can you recall a specific moment in your youth when your passion for music came to life or has that always come naturally to you?
– It has basically always been with me. I have vivid memories of when I would record my favorite tracks from the radio onto cassette tapes when I was around 5 or 6 years old. Those were solemn moments when the weekend came around and I would get to sit around the radio, listening to the top charts and record my cassettes. I would also transcribe the lyrics once I learned how to write and I had stacks of binders full of them.
Did you write your own lyrics as well?
– No, I’ve never written any music at all. But I did sing in a choir and played some guitar and was like every other child thinking I was destined to become a big star! However I realized fairly quickly that I lacked the sufficient talent to make it. I guess I was quite an insightful kid…
Apart from a passion for music you also have a deep interest for technology; where did that come from?
– I really can’t say. I’ve always been drawn to complicated puzzles and logical thinking. Growing up during the rise of the Internet I got more and more into the tech stuff because it seemed to solve so many problems. I didn’t start writing code until I got into university but I always made sure my parents bought the latest software and computers. I was also a huge gamer in my younger days.
You studied Computer Science at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Was attending that school always a goal of yours?
– Not necessarily at that specific school, but I always knew I wanted to earn a degree after high school because I thought that would open more doors later. I thought Computer Science would be the smartest thing to choose given the evolution in that area around the turn of the new millennium.
You wrote your master thesis for Sony Music but ended up landing your first job at their competitor Universal Music. It was there, during a pitch meeting, that you were introduced to the founder and CEO of Spotify, Daniel Ek. Can you tell us about that encounter?
– Around that time the music business was in serious trouble and we had entrepreneurs coming in to pitch new ideas almost every day. We were of course enthusiastic about all the people that made an effort to change the climate of the music industry, but we were seldom blown away by their solutions. The focus on the consumer always seemed to be lacking in most of the pitches. Then one day this young and timid guy walks in sounding like anything but a sales person. But his pitch blew us all out of our seats. Finally someone had created a solution focusing on the consumer and I knew right away that we had something big in front of us, with a business model that seemed to be sustainable. I sent him an email only minutes after that meeting asking to come work for him.
And how long did it take before you were a Spotify employee?
– About a year after that first email I was involved in the process and started doing interviews, shortly thereafter I was working for the company.
Your journey with Spotify was unique because you came onboard at an early stage and saw the company grow into the massive enterprise that it is today. What were some of the key things you learned from your time there?
– Wow, that’s a tough question because there is so much. Six years at Spotify feels like 12 years somewhere else. During my time we grew from a small startup where everyone knew everyone and where we worked like animals to get things flying. When I left, the company had 2000 employees and offices all around the world. What I can honestly tell you is that I grew tremendously during my time at Spotify, not just as a professional but as a human being as well.
So today you’re back in the record industry working at Sony Music, once again combining your love for music and technology. What state would you say the record industry is in today?
– The record industry is currently going through somewhat of a recovery phase where it is slowly merging into a growth phase without having found its true form just yet. The new way of consuming music has taken a healthy shape, at least here in Sweden. That said, there is still plenty of room for improvement. 2015 was the first year where digital sales surpassed physical sales around the world. I think it will take maybe five more years until we have a market that has settled.
With all the changes the industry has gone through over the past few years, do you think the new market will allow for a stronger bond between the artists and labels, where creative collaborations can take place and establish a deeper sense of trust between the two?
– I think that’s a great question. I think it’s crucial that it becomes that way because otherwise the labels will find themselves in deep trouble. That’s one of the main reasons I came back to this industry because I still see a lot of issues that needs to be addressed and I want to be a part of this revolution. The question labels need to be asking themselves is: what is our purpose in today’s music world? The same goes for artists, why do you want to be signed to a label? Anyone can upload their music online but that doesn’t mean people will find your stuff and listen to it. We have a team of creatives here at Sony whose only mission is to take projects and cut through the noise by finding new ways of reaching the listeners. Another important issue is helping artists create relationships with the likes of Apple, Spotify or YouTube, and I think we can be very helpful in that aspect. Finally, labels today can provide access to helpful data and advice or insights that can be extremely relevant to an artist’s career, something that might be more difficult when you are working independently.
"The love of the craft is why I fight so hard make a difference in this business."
You live with an artist and have lots of friends who are musicians. Living in that sort of world and having the job that you do - how often does your love of music and your duties to the world of the record industry collide?
– The two don’t collide that often actually, mainly because of the fact that the primary duties in my work is to make it easier and more fair for the creative people that I love and socialize with. But at the same time I often have to explain why we have to do certain changes or why some things that have worked well in the past cannot stay the way they are. Music will always come first to me personally. The love of the craft is why I fight so hard make a difference in this business.
What are your principles when it comes to work ethic, where does your ambition come from?
– I’m very driven by nature. It comes from a deep desire to succeed and to always do my best. I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror if I didn’t give it my all. As human beings we will always encounter failure at some point but it comes down to taking chances. I think I’ve always been fearless when it comes to trying new things and avenues in life.
What was it like for you as a young woman to work your way up in the record industry that has a reputation for harboring some pretty ruthless and dubious people?
– It was extremely challenging at times, especially at that point when the industry stood before a major restructuring process and me being a part of the new generation, so to speak. You learn to deal with some tricky situations, both in meetings and generally in a business that at least until recently was heavily male oriented. But like I said earlier, I’m pretty fearless as a person so I think that has helped me avoid certain situations before they appeared.
"Labels need to be asking themselves: what is our purpose in today’s music world? The same goes for artists, why do I want to be signed to a label? Anyone can upload music online but it doesn’t mean people will find your stuff and listen to it."
What would be your advice to young women starting out in the business today?
– To be bold, take the backseat to no one and to do your own thing. It can be tough at times and that’s when you will need someone to have your back - a boss, colleague or a friend. It’s a really sad fact that advice like this has to be given to young women, because in all honesty the real advice needs to be given to the men. Certain things cannot be said and certain behaviors are not accepted in the work environment.
Where do you envision the record industry being in a few years time?
– I think we’ll have a business where artists are fully confident that the labels have their best interests in mind and where the labels have evolved into a more innovative state and use data in a more efficient way. I also hope that we have more companies that pushes music consumption into a healthier state of being and take the industry into the next century.