Google, Michael Dell invest in a possible music future

Musicians in recording studio
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Google Ventures' new London arm is making its first investment by leading a $60 million Series C funding round for Kobalt, a music rights management services firm that could help the next Taylor Swift build wealth.

"The music industry is going through dynamic changes all around the world, and Kobalt will be instrumental in shaping its future positively for all constituents, starting with artists," Bill Maris, managing partner at Google Ventures, said in a release from Kobalt on Friday.

Founded in 2000 by Swedish entrepreneur Willard Ahdritz, the London-based Kobalt Music Group consolidates the traditionally layered music distribution system by providing services from global licensing management, royalty collection and processing to digital marketing and monetization, such as through Spotify.

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"One song can have 700,000 royalty streams; one of them could be Vevo" with thousands of streams in itself, Ahdritz told CNBC. He spoke of "the tree of data" through which "one song could have billions of transactions."

The additional funds will allow the firm to double its investment in technological services to reach an audience of 1.5 billion, Ahdritz said. Kobalt also plans to expand into Latin American music with two new offices, one in Miami and another in Brazil, he said.

Casey Rae, Georgetown University communications professor and CEO of the Future of Music Coalition, said Kobalt has "demonstrated leadership around how the music industry can function with greater efficiency and transparency."

"From the perspective of a digital music service, you want your partners on the content side to have their house in order with regard to data and infrastructure," he said in an email. "On the content side, you want to have confidence that you're getting paid when your music is used on any platform around the world. And increasingly you want insights into not just what you're owed, but what that data means."

The new financing round adds to the $66 million Kobalt has already raised, the firm said in a release. The other backers include current Kobalt investor MSD Capital (the private investing firm for Michael S. Dell and his family) and MSD Capital's investment advisor, MSDC Management.

Michael Dell, chairman and CEO of Dell, said in the Kobalt release that he is "pleased to have Dell continuing to support the company as its preferred technology partner, providing the hardware infrastructure and the knowledge, services and support that Kobalt needs to achieve its goals."

MSD Capital made a $25 million, or 9.9 percent, stake in Kobalt last March, reports said.

Catherine Moore, clinical associate professor of music business at New York University, said that Kobalt offers fast income collection for music copyright holders and "is an example of how a company can automate processes to benefit its clients and to cut its own costs."

"Certainly based on past history they have the capacity but as you expand (you have to find) what's an area you can really thrive in," Moore said. For example, she said if Kobalt were to own copyrights "that would be a very big departure" from their current business model that emphasizes distribution and no content ownership.

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Kobalt's clients total more than 14,000 songwriters, artists and music publishers. Revenue for the last fiscal year ended in June was $260 million, which continues the 40 percent average annual revenue growth the firm has seen for the last 10 years, Ahdritz said.

Major artists and music publishers working with Kobalt include Miles Davis, Paul McCartney, National Geographic and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. Retention rate among artists is 98.5 percent and the firm turns away about 75 percent of all calls "because we would like to grow with quality," Ahdritz said.

Kobalt represents about 40 percent of the top 100 songs and albums in the United States and United Kingdom, the firm's release said.

"We're here to work with all platforms," Ahdritz said. "People want to consume their entertainment in music in different ways."

To be sure, the multiple platforms that Kobalt bases its model on could be a challenge for the firm as those distribution channels evolve constantly, said the Musicians Institute's vice president of academic affairs, Donny Gruendler.

"This is especially true for the mid-level artist who may not yet have a prime time TV placement or large-scale promotion behind them," he said. "Thus, it is yet to be seen if this type of artist will benefit from a service like as Kobalt and if this service will help them to build into their next level of success."

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The Google Ventures London office opened in July 2014 with initial funding of $125 million for European entrepreneurs.

"We have spent a lot of time with founders in cities like London, Paris and Berlin, and the start-up scene in those cities is as exciting as anything we're seeing in in the Valley right now," Google Ventures advisor Shernaz Daver said in an email. "Kobalt is our first and you should expect to see others."