Exclusive: Century Media Founder Robert Kampf Talks About Major Label Acquisition Rumors and Company’s Future
Following last week’s editorial on the alleged pending acquisition of Century Media by a major label, founder Robert Kampf reached out to MetalSucks to clarify some of the rumors. What follows is a synopsis of our 40-minute conversation.
1. The rumors that Century Media is in talks to be acquired by a major label are true.
Kampf would not tip his hand as to which of the three majors he was leaning towards, but had this to say about each of them:
Universal: Caroline distribution, which is in the Universal system, is currently one of Century’s international distributors, and “There are people within that organization that we have worked with for a long time that we trust and like, namely Andrew Kronfeld, Dominic Pandicia and Mike Harris.”
Sony: “The same goes for our current distributor, RED. RED is part of the Sony family, and Alan Becker, senior VP of RED, was actually the one who gave Century Media a distribution contract all the way back in December of 1990. We’ve known him for a long time and him and president Bob Morelli, as well as others we’ve known for along time, and trust, so they would be a great choice.”
Warner: “Dave Stein our decade long music lawyer is working there now and is the head lawyer of A.D.A.[Alternative Distribution Alliance, an independent sales, marketing & distribution network owned by the Warner Music Group]. So there’s a level of comfort with them.”
When asked if any of the three choices were his favorite:
“We have friends in all three operations, and would be comfortable with all of them. The easiest for us would be Universal, since we are distributed by Universal in all of Europe, Australia, New Zealand and countries in the Middle East and so on. They would be the easiest. Sony would be an equally easy change in those territories serviced by RED Distribution (the U.S., Canada, and South and Middle America), but it would be a big change for the rest of the world, and therefore complicated. With Warner, it would be starting from scratch.”
2. Negotiations are happening with the umbrella label groups, not the individual labels underneath them.
Meaning that Century would remain its own, independently operating unit within a broader system, as opposed to the way Roadrunner was brought into Warner under Atlantic Records specifically, and those two labels’ staffs were merged.
3. Century’s existing subsidiary labels would remain intact.
Kampf said he would like to maintain the “Century Media” heading, and also floated the phrase “Century Group,” but wants to keep a similar arrangement where existing sub-labels like InsideOut, Superball, Another Century and People Like You would continue operating as imprints under Century.
4. Kampf is now in full control of Century Media.
Following the passing of CM partner Oliver Withöft, Oliver’s share of the company was inherited by his family. Kampf has since come to an agreement with Withöft’s family to take full control of the company.
5. This is not the first time Century has talked about partnering with a major label.
Kampf and Withöft had discussed such a possibility in the past, but those conversations never got very far. Says Kampf:
Over the years, we’ve been approached by the majors, and [selling them the company] had pros and cons. It’s not the first time that we’ve toyed with this idea and had talks about it, but we never intensified those talks. They were informal, without any real serious drive behind them.
6. The main reason Kampf wants Century to be sold now is out of concern regarding the future of the music industry.
When I asked him point blank whether he’d grown tired of running the company, he flat-out denied that this was the case, instead pointing to an ever-shifting industry landscape: “I’m tired of changes in the industry that I do not have any control over. That’s pretty much the only thing.”
Kampf expressed feelings that a major label is better equipped to adapt to those changes, and that a major’s infrastructure can alleviate the pressure on his already overworked staff:
I think Century Media, or any indie label, will have a much better chance to shine within an organization like a major, which is going to lose a lot of its sales due to the changes in the industry. Every music company in the future has this problem: whether it’s Spotify or Beats or whatever comes along, those changes will be difficult. The costs for marketing and the costs for manufacturing and recording have stayed pretty much the same over the years, only the cost of recording and the cost of making music videos has somewhat come down. Those things aren’t as expensive as they were some years ago. But it’s very difficult to maintain everything and keep everything operating if you have less and less sales and subscriptions and so on. Although we’re probably one of the bigger metal or rock labels, we’re still a small, independent company with a pretty big head count and expensive and extensive operations. It makes it tough to keep it all going and it could very well be that every year from now on, we have to find three or five people to tell, ‘Sorry, you can’t work here anymore.’ And then other employees would have to try and absorb that work of those other people. Everyone is [already] working on the limit of what is humanly possible.
7. Nevertheless, Kampf conceded that the passing of his long-time partner Oliver Withöft played some role in the decision.
Withöft had been sick for a while before his death, so Kampf had already taken on Withöft’s usual role of running the business side of the company and was comfortable with it. He cites Century’s big year in 2014 as proof.
Still, while he doesn’t mind handling the business side of things, it’s not where his true passion is:
I’m not necessarily a backend admin kind of guy. Although I’ve been running this business for 25-plus years and certainly know how to do it, it’s not really what I want to do. What I want to do is identify artists, build and market them and hopefully make them very successful.
That’s my key drive and interest. I think there is amazing talent out there, [and I don’t like to be] bogged down with other stuff. I have a lot of very competent help. We have great people working at Century Media, and we’ve built a very good and capable operation that Oliver had a huge part in, because that was his role. I long to be more of just a real music company and label and not have to react to any of the different curveballs thrown at the entire industry.
8. Kampf’s “personal preference” is more in the hard rock game at this point…
Kampf said that Century’s newly created sub-label, Another Century, will be the more rock-centric brand under the Century umbrella.
9. …but he emphasized that other staff at the label will continue to sign and develop extreme metal bands as well.
That has a lot to do with the fact that I’ve been doing extreme metal for 30 years – playing it myself and listening to it from the mid-’80s tape trader days to this point. And we’re still signing heavy acts. I’m not the driving force behind signing those bands and it’s not because I don’t like them, I just don’t have the right kind of personal feel for them right now. We have A&Rs like Jens Prueter, Leif Jensen and Philip Schulte in the German office, and we have people in the U.S. like Dan Dismal, president Marco Barbieri and VP of A&R and Steve Joh, who all like the extreme bands. Steve does more mainstream and rock bands as well, but his heart lies with the much heavier stuff. Now, Mike Gitter (also VP of A&R) has come back to Century Media and he basically signs bands all across the board; it could be something that is very heavy and very underground, or it could be something that is a little more rock and mainstream-oriented. We’re keeping Century Media’s integrity with regards to metal and to underground metal as well as some metal that is a little broader, and we’ll keep it free of any experiments where we tried to broaden the main brand of Century Media and have Another Century to doing all the rock stuff. Primarily it’ll be young and upcoming bands more than established bands that have reached or gone over their peak. That’s kind of the direction for those two labels. Century Media is the metal label and Another Century will be a more rock-centric label.
Still, while Kampf emphasized that Another Century will focus more on hard rock and that Century Media proper will continue to cater to all things extreme and underground, I came out of this conversation feeling as if hard rock will be more of a priority going forward — on the whole — than it has been in the past. The company launched Another Century less than a year ago, hard rock is much better suited to thrive in the major label environment than it is at an independent, and Kampf’s stated “personal preference” for it would all seem to point in the direction of Century having more of a presence in the hard rock world going forward. Whether that negatively impacts the label’s more extreme acts is anyone’s guess, but Kampf seems to think it won’t.
10. The emphasis will be on signing new, up-and-coming acts and developing them, not paying big dollars for bands that are already well-established (unless past sales suggest it’s worth it).
A lot of the metal bands that have a certain level of status — Machine Head, Soulfly, Fear Factory, etc. — those kinds of bands have gotten deals that are too expensive for the label. It’s great for them that they can command that kind of money and interest, and it doesn’t take anything away from creating great music, playing great live shows and being somebody’s favorite band, but it puts me in a position where I would rather buy a CD or a download of that new record than to lose my ass on it.
11. Kampf does not worry that the more extreme bands will have trouble thriving in a major label system.
He feels that since he is keeping his own staff, and tying into an umbrella group rather than merging into another individual label (see point #2 above), Century will be able to keep full creative control. He also cites Century’s existing and long-standing deals with major distributors (see point #1 above) as proof that majors aren’t going to meddle if, say, an album cover is too gory.
We have full artistic freedom and [these companies] have been very happy to distribute these bands and generate those sales. They are [just] happy that there are people out there who care about and buy music.
12. Kampf expects to have a deal completed by the middle of 2015.
13. Closing thoughts:
[The sale is] something that I’ve been mulling for a long time — whether or not I’m 100% convinced that it’s the right step. I feel at this point extremely comfortable with what is going to happen, and I think it will be successful, and I think the timing is very good as well.
I feel very confident that we’ll remain strong, remain independent, and actually grow the company. Rather than saying that I’m tired of this and getting out of it… it’s quite the opposite. I’m actually pumped and looking forward to this new chapter being written.