‘Our Offices May Be Closed, But BMG Is Very Much Open For Business
Subject: Society, Corona
How do you run a 900-person global music company remotely? Ben Katovsky knows. The COO of Bertelsmann’s music company has taken day-to-day charge of BMG’s Resilience team managing the company’s efforts to ensure that whatever the coronavirus throws at us, the music will play on…
Mr. Katovsky, how is BMG faring through the coronavirus crisis?
Ben Katovsky: On the whole, we are doing remarkably well. We have transformed BMG seamlessly from a company working out of 19 conventional offices to one now functioning out of more than 900 different locations. Clients are being paid, digital songwriting sessions are being set up and records are being released. Our team has responded magnificently. That’s not to underestimate the challenges. Many of our people have suffered a severe dislocation. One or two have been very ill. There is a clear need to support our teams through this experience. But overall, we can be very proud of what has been achieved.
Let’s go back in time a few weeks, when did coronavirus first become an issue for BMG?
Ben Katovsky: Since we have offices in Beijing and Hong Kong, we were affected quite early on in late January and early February, so we had experience of remote working from the beginning. As it began to sweep through Italy towards the end of February, we set up our Resilience Team comprising myself and the heads of HR, IT and Corporate Communications to take control of the situation.
What is the brief of the BMG Resilience Team?
Ben Katovsky: Our first priority was to safeguard the continuity of the business by ensuring the health and safety of our 900 team members worldwide. Beginning with the phased introduction of travel and social distancing restrictions, the Resilience Team took control of BMG’s switch to remote working. We supplemented the work of the central Resilience team with local teams and resilience managers in our international offices. This has resulted in a centrally coordinated plan using existing resources but drawing on the expertise and excellent advice of our shareholder, Bertelsmann. As the situation has developed, there has been an evolution of the Resilience Team’s role. Having successfully ensured business continuity with the switch to remote working, the emphasis has moved on to client outreach, supporting team members to deal with the challenge of remote working, and preparing the groundwork for the ultimate return to the office.
Many companies have found a switch to remote working problematic. Why has it been so smooth at BMG?
Ben Katovsky: Our greatest asset has been decisions made long before coronavirus came about. Eleven years ago, with the new BMG, Bertelsmann decided to invest in a single, modern, IT platform for the world, covering both music publishing and recordings. That infrastructure is not only a lot more modern than those of some of our competitors, it has proven incredibly robust. Meanwhile we had already taken a strategic decision to move most team members on to laptops rather than desktops and had already rolled out cloud tools such as Office 365 and Microsoft Teams. The combination of these factors put us in a very good place. We are fortunate to have a great IT team, a point borne out by the incredible 99% satisfaction rating for our technology in our team survey about remote working.
There’s more to remote working than technology. How have you dealt with your team’s other needs during this period?
Ben Katovsky: It is vital not to underestimate the challenges many of our team members face, whether it be childcare or – for those living alone – potential feelings of isolation when they are living and working in the same space. We have spent a lot of time soliciting and listening to feedback from our teams. That has led to a raft of well-being initiatives, including purchasing subscriptions for all of our team members worldwide to the Headspace meditation, exercise and sleep app, launching virtual yoga and exercise classes and also a range of social events from online birthday gatherings to bingo! At the same time, we are investing in training to help managers with the challenges of managing their teams remotely.
So business has not come to a halt?
Ben Katovsky: Absolutely not. Our offices may be closed, but BMG is very much open for business. The switch to remote working coincided with one of the busiest times of the year for processing and paying royalties to clients. In the end we didn’t miss a beat and payments to over 12,000 clients proceeded as normal. Our synch department which licenses movies, TV and commercials has pulled in some very significant deals during the past weeks. And we continue to set up songwriting opportunities for our songwriters and release records by our artist clients.
And what has been the response from staff?
Ben Katovsky: It has actually been quite humbling to read some of the emails we have received. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. They have appreciated our regular, open and accurate communication, the fact that we have shown flexibility in responding to their needs and, most recently, have provided tools to ensure their wellbeing.
The results of our global employee survey were overwhelmingly positive and reflect the commitment and efforts of our IT, HR, Office Management and Communications teams. A few highlights – 92 percent reported a good or very good overall experience of working from home, 99 percent said they were satisfied or very satisfied with BMG’s communication around coronavirus and 98 percent said they were satisfied or very satisfied with BMG’s overall response to coronavirus.
How do you communicate with your clients during this crisis?
Ben Katovsky: COVID-19 is of course not just a challenge for us and for the communities in which we live, but it is also a particular challenge for the artists and songwriters we represent. They are our key focus and it is vital that we communicate with them through this crisis and beyond. BMG has activated a mass instant messaging facility on the myBMG app to reassure artist and songwriter clients that their latest royalty payouts will not be disrupted by COVID-19. Clients logging on to myBMG are confronted with a pop-up window explaining the measures BMG is taking to maintain service through the pandemic. This pop-up facility gives us a way to instantly message the more than 10,000 songwriters and artists who use myBMG. We are all too aware that many of our clients are suffering financially because of the impact of the virus on the live business. It is great that we are able to reassure them at this time. Some of them have requested financial assistance and we have found solutions. At the same time, we are bringing forward a number of innovations we already had in the works to try and make life easier for them at this time.
How is the coronavirus affecting the music industry as a whole?
Ben Katovsky: The impact is significant. The live business has evaporated, much of physical retail has been closed, and conventional promotion severely disrupted. In the current crisis artists and writers need all the help they can get. We are in close touch with our clients and are receiving very positive feedback about our efforts to keep them informed and engaged. Among other initiatives, we have put together a “Best Practice Guide” for digital content and social media, and we have brought forward the launch of “Watchlist”, a function within our myBMG app that offers creative opportunities to songwriters and artists to work together at a time when they can no longer travel.
How are you dealing with record releases?
Ben Katovsky: We continue to release records right around the world both digitally and physically. In some cases the physical editions of new album releases have been postponed to later in the year, but the dominance of streaming services, which continue to operate unaffected by Covid-19, means it really is very much business as usual. Marketing and promotion during the pandemic is all about digital, and it is incredible how artists have responded to the challenge. One particular example: BMG Germany artist Max Giesinger performed to an astonishing 70,000 people when he played an online music festival on Instagram and presented a new version of his current single renamed ‘Nie stärker als jetzt’ (‘Never Stronger Than Now’). As part of the Bertelsmann Content Alliance initiative 'Gemeinsam gegen Corona' the money raised from sales and streams will be donated via Mediengruppe RTL Deutschland’s 'Stiftung RTL – Wir helfen Kindern e.V.' to a coronavirus charity.
So far, so good. What does the outlook look like?
Ben Katovsky: It seems unlikely that everything will return to normal quickly. There will be long-term effects. Some will be negative, but some will be positive. During this crisis, we have made the biggest single leap forward we have ever made in the adoption of digital working tools. Those positives will ensure. It is important to remember that there is light at the end of the tunnel.