Utopia Music New CEO Michael Stebler Takes Over for Alain Couttolenc – Billboard
Written by GRB on 12/01/2024
LONDON — Less than three months after installing a new CEO, Utopia Music has once again reshuffled its executive ranks, appointing Michael Stebler to lead the Swiss-based company. Stebler, who represents the majority shareholder group behind Utopia Music, succeeds Alain Couttolenc, who has been in the top post since October.
Couttolenc switches to deputy CEO and chief commercial officer, while Drew Hill, who runs Utopia’s U.K.-based physical distribution businesses Utopia Distribution Services and Proper Music Group, has also been named deputy CEO in addition to his ongoing role as chief of distribution.
Pedro Lima, a former Swiss-based executive at global data and analytics company NielsenIQ, joins the firm as chief operating officer.
All appointments are effective immediately and were communicated to Utopia staff in an internal memo sent by the board of directors on Thursday (Jan. 11).
Speaking exclusively to Billboard, Stebler says his extensive experience in the banking and financial industry will bring stability to the troubled firm and help steer it towards growth.
“We believe that the combination of Utopia’s strategy, our network and our financial support will bring the company to the next level,” he says.
Stebler’s appointment as CEO is his first executive post with Utopia, although he has held close ties with the company for several years through his role as managing director of Investment Advisors Zug AG, which operates on behalf of the majority shareholder group. Like Utopia Music, Investment Advisors Zug AG is headquartered in the scenic Swiss town of Zug, located close to Zurich.
Financial details around the size of investment or identities of investors are confidential says Stebler, but he does confirm that the investor group he heads recently increased its shareholding through a successful Series C funding round. Billboard understands that the investor group led by Strebler covered between 40-60% of the first tranche. A second tranche of C-round funding is underway.
The funds will be used to drive commercial growth, enhance product development and strengthen the company’s balance sheet, says the newly appointed CEO, who steps down from his role with Investment Advisors with immediate effect to focus on Utopia..
“We decided to invest further money into the company and we want to have control in the execution,” says Stebler, adding that “intense due diligence” was carried out by the group before increasing their investment.
“What we saw is a really strong backbone, a strong product and service offering, and great USP with the distribution business in the U.K.,” he says. “Otherwise we would have never made a further commitment and gone into a management position.”
FROM RAPID GROWTH TO SNAP DOWNSIZING
Utopia’s latest structural reorganization comes on the back of a highly turbulent few years for the tech company, which delivers financial services for labels, publishers and distributors and first made waves in the music industry by embarking on a frenetic buying spree of 15 companies between 2020 and 2022, including Lyric Financial, a Nashville-based provider of royalty-backed cash advances; and Proper Music Group, the United Kingdom’s leading independent physical music distributor.
Utopia’s period of rapid hyper-growth was followed by a just-as-quick downsizing, beginning with the axing of around 230 jobs in late 2022. More layoffs followed soon after, along with multiple executive departures, office closures, legal action over a stalled acquisition deal, late payments to staff, and the offloading of three of its businesses — Absolute Label Services, U.S.-based music database platform ROSTR and U.K.-based publisher Sentric.
As a result of those divestments and cost-cutting measures, the firm’s global workforce has been trimmed from approximately 1,200 staff to around 440.
“Today, we are in a much better position,” says Utopia co-founder and executive chairman Mattias Hjelmstedt. He says yearly cash burn has been reduced by 84 million Euros as a result of the changes and calls the new injection of C-round funding into the business “paramount” to getting Utopia on a stable footing.
Going forward, Hjelmstedt and Stebler say there are currently no plans to sell any of Utopia’s remaining businesses or to make further staff layoffs, but say that the firm will continue to evolve and finetune its offering to clients across the music industry.
“We believe that we are able to grow with our [current] head count and achieve profitability by mid or end of 2025,” says Stebler. “From an investor perspective, we prefer to invest more in substantial growth instead of cutting costs.”
One way that Utopia will look to do that is by rolling out its advance finance service, which provides music labels and clients with cash advances, to international markets, including the U.S., Continental Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
The company’s executive team is also looking to grow its core tech offering to clients across the music business. Those product services include cross-platform analytics, an AI-powered recommendation engine targeted at DSPs and streaming services, and Utopia’s royalty processing and payments system, TrackNClaim, which tracks music consumption on digital platforms and helps identify conflicts and unclaimed mechanical royalties.
THE PATH TO PROFITABILITY
Utopia’s other core businesses include its two U.K.-based physical music distribution entities: Proper Music Group, which provides distribution services for over 5,800 indie labels and service companies, and Utopia Distribution Services (formerly Cinram Novum), whose clients include Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and [PIAS].
According to its most recent accounts, Proper Music Group recorded revenue of £30.1 million ($38 million) for the nine-month period ending Dec. 31, down from £42 million ($53 million) in the prior 12-month accounting period, and a £1.9 million ($2.4 million) net loss in 2022. The company said lower sales and increased operating costs were behind the disappointing figures, while accounts for Utopia Distribution Services are yet to be filed in the U.K.
Deputy CEO Drew Hill, a long serving veteran of the U.K. physical distribution industry, says Proper is on track to return to profitability in 2024 as a result of significant investments Utopia has made in the sector.
They include last year’s opening of the U.K.’s biggest distribution warehouse for physical music and home entertainment — a 25,000-square meter facility in the town of Bicester with handling capacity of up to 250,000 units per day — as part of a £100 million ($125 million) long-term deal with international logistics company DP World.
“With the new facility we’ve been able to show all of our labels and clients just what Utopia can do,” says Hill. “From here, we can concentrate on selling Utopia’s services and products to our existing client base, which was always the plan, and use Proper and Utopia Distribution Services as funnel to those people. We’ve shown what we can do, built some amazing relationships. Now people are going to see what the true Utopia product is.”
At present, Proper and UDS generate the bulk of Utopia’s revenue but Strebler is confident that the structure is in place to help grow the firm’s other income streams so that it moves closer towards a 50/50 split between physical distribution and tech/financial services.
He declines to discuss revenues, but confirms Utopia’s two biggest markets are the U.K. and U.S. (Last year, Hjelmstedt told Billboard the firm generates over €100 million [$110 million] in global revenue a year, but this was prior to it offloading Sentric and Absolute.) The company says it nis focused on strengthening its balance sheet and is currently working through its outstanding debt and tax obligations.
“We have never been about disrupting or taking over the industry,” says Hjelmstedt. “It’s always been about helping the industry be better and grow. And the more that we have been able to talk to the different parts of the industry, and the more that they are now trusting us to solve those problems, the more likely we are to succeed with that mission.”