The Interview: Christian Harris, Deezer’s MD for UK and Ireland

10 Mar 2015

Image via Deezer

It’s largely accepted that streaming is the major growth area of the music business at the moment as digital downloads reduce and tangible sales vanish. But how big can the industry grow?

“The market is ready to explode, within that I think Deezer can outstrip the general growth and gain market share from our competitors.”

So says Christian Harris, installed as MD of Deezer’s UK and Ireland operations a few months ago.

He’s joined a company in an industry which, as a whole, is on a significant uplift with all the indicators showing this is the process for access and acquisition of music that consumers are most comfortable with today.

“I completely believe in streaming and I believe it’s the future for music,” he says, noting the appetite of consumers who want access to entire catalogues of music, across multiple devices.

Are partnerships the way to go?

Deezer’s business model is interesting, as it targets audience bases and – rather than marketing itself towards those demographics, hoping to garner a slice of the action – it creates partnerships with businesses already well positioned in that area.

“Look at Sonos and our relationship with them,” says Harris. In the past year, Deezer’s work with the electronics company largely reflects this business model. For example, Deezer offered 12 months of access to its service for free to anyone who bought Sonos devices in the six weeks leading up to Christmas last year. It was “hugely successful” says Harris, with very good activation rates off the back of the promotion.

“Sonos brings us the audiophile segment,” says Harris. “Now, to find that segment in substantial numbers would take tremendous advertising investment. But we don’t need to make it because we have partnered intelligently with one of the best brands worldwide in that segment. We’ve now launched Deezer Elite with Sonos exclusively, it’s our high-res proposition.”

Buy local!

Other partnerships include companies such as Bose and Samsung, with Deezer fairly focused on localisation, always key when it comes to an audience populated by countless, never-ending niches.

“Of course we work with the major labels, but one key difference is we also create a local proposition in local markets, and try and work with local independent labels in particular, which is very impactful. In each local market there is a localisation process that needs to be done. Not just the language and how it is presented, but also the product itself.”

The example Harris gives is London, which has half a million French people residing there. Ignoring that market would be foolish, so Deezer actively targets them with playlists and the likes, to build a relationship with the customer.

What’s curious is the realisation that artists and management are now really getting on board with streaming, trying to learn how to maximise their impact on the service, be that creating exclusive content or just building their own relationship with their fans.

“The way Deezer works is on an algorithm,” says Harris. “What becomes popular will rise up a feed and become more visible. The whole service is built around following what people are listening to and putting it higher up. It’s completely different to other music services in that respect.”

Curating the catalogue

The company has a number of curators located around the world that actively look at those trends, all the time creating new playlists for users to tap into.

“So the playlist that was created at the start of this year began with 10 tracks and a few hundred followers. It now has 113 tracks, with 20,000-30,000 followers. It has become more and more popular because, as more and more people listen to it people share it on. So through human curation and the likes those tracks should become more popular, better ranked and listened to more.”

Interestingly Deezer has a relationship with Songkick, which gives recommendations to users about what live gigs are on in the area, by working out what consumers listen to most, however, it’s fair to say live music and streaming services are not yet mutually supportive, on the whole.

That’s not to say the mutual benefits don’t exist, though. For example, following the recently aired Brit Awards, all the performing artists received significant upsurges in popularity on Deezer’s service, with Royal Blood (a band Harris particularly likes) seeing a popularity spike of well over 200pc.

A content creator by trade

Harris’ career started out in media, working in radio and TV. Working in production for around five years, Harris was actually making content, before joining a dotcom at the end of the millennium, just in time for a bubble to burst.

Working in London, Finland, the Netherlands and Germany, he eventually headed up Gorilla Box, another media streaming company, before moving to Deezer last October.

“I can’t overstate the importance of having learned on a great big radio recorder. Actually producing, cutting content with a tape, broadcasting it, getting feedback and then going out and doing it all again. When you’ve done that you have a different editorial perspective on what constitutes good value content,” he says.

Actually creating content to then sell is an interesting background to come from, especially when considering the elephant in the room: piracy. For all the growth metrics showing streaming as the profit model for music sales now, it’s fair to say the true web-based growth is in piracy, and will perhaps forever be, as long as the internet remains as open source as it currently is.

“Pirated content? We can’t control that,” says Harris. “We take a strong position on it, clearly it’s wrong and we don’t agree with it. Nobody knows actually how big a problem that is. It’s assumed that it’s very significant … It probably is pretty significant.”

But what does Harris hope to do as MD of Ireland and the UK? “Ultimately I want to improve the brand position of Deezer, ensure the name gets better known, develop the range of partners that we have and continue to grow our base.”

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic