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After Spending Spree, Utopia Refocuses on Fixing Music Royalties

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LONDON — In early February, Universal Music Group chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge drew a line in the sand between the traditional record business and financial companies entering the fray to tap into the global growth of streaming. “Our industry is entering a new chapter where we’re going to have to pick sides,” Grainge said at the Billboard Power 100 launch event in Hollywood. “Are we on the side of fintech [financial technology] and functional music, functional content? Or are we on the side of artistry and artists?”

Though Grainge didn’t name names, he could well have been talking about Utopia Music, a Zug, Switzerland-based tech company that delivers financial services for labels, publishers and distributors. Over the past two years, Utopia, whose motto is “Fair pay for every play,” has embarked on a frenetic buying spree of 15 companies, including music tech company Musimap; Lyric Financial, a Nashville-based provider of royalty-backed cash advances; and Proper Music Group, the United Kingdom’s leading independent physical music distributor, which provides distribution services for 1,000-plus indie labels and service companies. 

Industry executives don’t quite know what to make of Utopia’s rapid growth, its direction or where exactly the company fits in today’s multifaceted global music business. It’s one of several fintech companies, many backed by venture capitalists, that have penetrated the music business to varying degrees amid the streaming boom. “At its core, Utopia is a royalty tech company,” co-founder and executive chairman Mattias Hjelmstedt tells Billboard in a rare interview. “It’s about fixing the many data gaps in the industry.”


Hjelmstedt says he understands and even agrees with Grainge’s opposition to “pure fintech” companies that “go in and try to optimize [their] revenue versus the rest of the industry.” But that, he insists, is not what Utopia is about. His company uses technology — leveraging what has been described as “a database of more than 213 billion global data points” — to better capture royalties and process them accurately, faster and with greater transparency. That, in turn, will “help all facets of the industry earn more money,” not just Utopia’s slice of it, he says.


“We’re on the side of anyone who owns the copyright, which is a creator, which is an artist, which is also a Universal [Music Group] or a copyright fund or a publisher,” he says. “I don’t think there is a mismatch there [between fintech and artists]. It is actually fully aligned for me to have a clear path from usage to creator.”

Utopia is hardly alone in pitching ways to use tech to give artists more control over their music royalties than they’ve traditionally had with label deals. Hifi, a fintech with backers that include industry executives like Quincy Jones and Capitol Records chair/CEO Michelle Jubelirer — as well as artists Diplo and G-Eazy — is launching an “enhanced royalties acceleration service” that promises to pay artists advances based on predicted streaming royalties. Los Angeles-based beatBread offers funding for existing music catalogs and employs artificial intelligence to help artists secure advances of up to $1 million for unreleased music. And Brazilian fintech company Hurst Capital says it has set up a “hyper-specialized team” to manage the royalties of catalogs it has acquired from sertanejo (Brazilian pop-country) stars like Gusttavo Lima and the late Marília Mendonça.

Hjelmstedt is a Swedish serial entrepreneur known for founding gaming platform Electronic Sports Network, which Electronic Arts acquired in 2012, and co-founding video-on-demand platform Voddler, which filed for bankruptcy in 2018. He co-founded Utopia in 2016 with Thomas Gullberg, basing it in the town of Zug, where around 60 of the company’s staff of 1,000 are based.

Details about Utopia’s finances and funding remain opaque. The company’s only publicly listed investors are Switzerland-based investment firms CV VC and FiveT Fintech (formerly Avaloq Ventures). Hjelmstedt says the firms “are by far not among the largest investors” but declined to reveal any others. Utopia, which he says generates over 100 million euros ($107 million) in revenue a year, recently completed an investment round, but Hjelmstedt declined to discuss figures or what the capital will be used for.


Lately, the company has been characterized by change. In November, Utopia cut its workforce by around 20%, or about 230 jobs, according to a company representative. Hjelmstedt says the job cuts resulted from the global economic downturn coupled with the company’s goal of achieving sustainable growth. A month later, in December, Utopia restructured its business into two separate divisions: Music Services and Royalty Platform. Then in January, Utopia reshuffled its senior leadership, with former CEO Markku Mäkeläinen exiting the company and Hjelmstedt taking over as interim chief executive. (U.K.-based Roberto Neri is CEO of the Music Services division.)

As part of the reorganization, Utopia announced on Feb. 7 that it had sold U.S.-based music database platform ROSTR — which has a directory of artists, managers, booking agents and record labels — back to ROSTR’s founders for an undisclosed sum. Utopia purchased the company in December 2021 to strengthen its direct ties with the artist community. But Hjelmstedt says Utopia will now primarily focus on delivering financial services. He declined to comment on whether there will be further divestments or acquisitions this year, claiming the company will reveal more about future plans, including new product launches, in the coming months.

Utopia’s music services division is headed by U.K.-based former Downtown executive Roberto Neri and includes the acquired companies Proper, Absolute Label Services, Liverpool-based publisher Sentric Music Group and Cinram Novum, one of the U.K.’s leading physical home entertainment suppliers. (Cinram Novum provides warehouse, fulfillment and distribution services to labels, including UMG, Sony Music Entertainment and [PIAS].)  

Utopia’s royalty platform arm, which Hjelmstedt oversees, looks after the company’s financial technology services, data operations, copyright and royalty processing. 

Hjelmstedt declines to comment on whether dividing Utopia into two separate divisions signals an intention to make the split between distributor and royalty platform permanent. He rejects speculation that Utopia is a tech scale-up looking to capitalize on the growth of the music industry rather than to build a sustainable business. The company’s myriad acquisitions, he says, were made “to understand different parts of the industry better, so we can serve them better with the data.” Despite acquiring a significant chunk of the U.K. music distribution business, he says, it was “never the idea of Utopia to be a distributor.”

“We will never be a collecting society or a [performing rights organization],” says Hjelmstedt. “We will never sell data and we will not take investments from a large strategic player in the industry, and by doing so, we can safeguard the core of what we stand for.” 

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