Colleen Theis, left, introduced by Steve Leeds.

A Visit From Colleen Theis, COO of The Orchard

On March 20, 2018, Collen Theis, COO of The Orchard, visited William Paterson University’s Music Management Seminar Series, hosted by Professor Steve Leeds.  These are contemporaneous, James Comey-style, notes for your reading and learning pleasure.


Colleen got her first job in the music biz as an assistant at Elektra Records.  She did it through networking.  But with that first job, she worked until eight or nine o’clock at night in order to get free dinner.  Because of her low pay, this was a major perk.

She left Elektra to work at an indie label – a bigger job at a smaller company.  The company was Rykodisc, which had Bob Mould, Throwing Muses, Frank Zappa’s catalog.  They did reissues of David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Devo.  These artists were able to go to Rykodisc, which licensed CD rights in the early days of compact discs.  The company amassed about 1,500 titles and had licenses for 10 years.  They had green-tinted jewel boxes so that they would stand out in the racks at record stores. 

She was “doing non-European international” for the company, including the Middle East.  She would build relationships at MIDEM with independent distributors, who would get the product into retail in other countries. 

Rykodisc moved her from Philadelphia to London and the company joined up with Palm Pictures.  That job became, through company sales, a job at Warner Music’s ADA.  She oversaw the switch of being a label to becoming a distributor of other labels. 

Then The Orchard came calling.  This is 2011.  She brought physical into The Orchard, which had traditionally been a digital-only company. 

Meanwhile, Sony had purchased an independent distributor called Iota, but didn’t know what to do with it.  So The Orchard formed a 50/50 joint venture with Sony to merge with Iota.  After the term was complete, Sony purchased The Orchard (in 2014). 

The Orchard has 450 employees, 32 offices around the world, and has an average margin of 20%.  “The labels basically pay us a fee for service.” 

“We’re digital first, with the other traditional” formats “layered on top.” 

The Orchard has competitors in the space:  Believe (independently owned).  INgrooves (partially owned by Universal).  Caroline (owned by Universal).  ADA (owned by Warner Music). 

The Orchard’s platform is transparent so artists/labels can have access to information at any time.  Their business is mostly with labels, but they occasionally do direct artist deals. 

“I don’t think people should” put out albums anymore because of the way music is consumed now.  So The Orchard works with plans built around singles and a constant stream of content.  She mentioned the “strong, technical aspect” of Kobalt which has turned them into a company doing artist deals with an a la cart menu of services. 

There is no real difference between Sony’s RED and The Orchard, because The Orchard has absorbed RED. 

The Orchard has also expanded into film.  They distribute from theatrical all the way through to home video streaming.  “We release 8 films theatrically a year.  And then we have a whole bunch of films that we do direct-to-digital.”  They distribute their films to Apple and airlines.  “We’ve cornered the market on extreme sports.”  They also work with the NBA, horror genre, and What We Do In The Shadows, The Overnight, and been up for some Oscar talk.  They look for pockets of niche films, not the mass market blockbusters. 

Sony funds recordings and marketing of masters.  The Orchard is a distributor representing independent labels and artists.  Sony took a strong stance against YouTube and formed Vevo, with Universal.  But The Orchard went the other way and built a tech software called Bacon.  They also work with YouTubers, making sure channels point in the right way and helping with content creation. 

The Orchard works with synchronization rights too.  They have a team of music librarians who constantly listen to music coming in so they can tag it and classify it so that if someone came looking for a certain type of song, they could find it easily and monetize it. 


BTS, a K-Pop band, has a tremendous worldwide fan base called The Army.  But they’d never had any partner in the United States.  The Orchard’s Singapore office was hooked up with BTS, which needed distribution help (much of the conversation was done over WhatsApp).  The Orchard has been working with the artist on the physical side here and the album recently went gold and is close to platinum. 

The lesson is that having feet on the ground in other territories, working in those time zones, has helped to give The Orchard more opportunities.

BTS (photo credit: Getty Images)


47% of Sony’s staffers are female, but only 15% of its executives are.  “That’s not acceptable,” Theis said.  She “wouldn’t take no for an answer” so doesn’t feel she was held back because she’s a woman.  She hasn’t “overtly” been sexually harassed and has tried to not put herself in dumb situations.  “Just keep barreling through and remember what you want in life.” 

“If you see something like that happening, you have to say something.  Because we’re done.  We don’t put up with that stuff anymore.”  She doesn’t think women should be afraid to speak up.


“Look for a mentor,” she said.  Let somebody spend time to mentor you.  Look for ways you can collaborate and contribute to a team that can complement the goals of the team.  Bring your skills and use them. 

“Listen to your gut.  Go for it and don’t be scared.” 

She also said “learn to code.” 

The two best courses she took in high school were Spanish and typing, “which comes in handy because we type all the time.”  


“People.  Human expertise driving your releases/artists up and down the food chain.”  The aggregators are technology platforms that distribute music onto the streaming and digital services.  But The Orchard can take that music the next step. 

They’re biggest genres are Rock, Urban and Latin.  The Orchard releases thousands of “records” per week.  That means the other distributors are doing that too.  So artists really need to understand who they are and how they’re going to communicate that to the public.


The U.S. market is behind Europe in streaming in terms of per-capita subscriptions.  But, we can collect more money from more countries now because of technology.  As streaming grows incrementally, so will revenues. 

The three most difficult countries to penetrate are 1) China 2) Russia 3) The block of Middle Eastern countries.  Issues include government censorship, from tattoos to offensive references.  Russia is a “very local market” and different in terms of language.  Hip Hop is very local around the world due to culture and language. 


Unless you’re getting a deal you can’t refuse from a major, start with an indie.  “Launching, at the beginning, is the hardest part.  So you need somebody who’s going to be physically engaged all the way” and not just drop them.   

Try to do a contract for 1 album or single and a fixed-term license, like 10 years, rather than perpetuity.


“If you go in and do it yourself, you need to understand all the pieces of the puzzle.”  From booking shows and advertising to delivering content to the rest.  “Find a partner to help support you and fill in the gaps.”

How can an artist reach a wide audience?  “First, find a core audience and build from there.” 

Instrumental music may have a wide appeal, just because there won’t be language difficulties internationally.  It may be easier to synch instrumental songs.


The hard connection is when songs are streaming well and Shazamming well, but when taken to radio the reaction isn’t as strong in terms of call-out.  Then people have to figure that out.


There are ways, from the school program to temp agencies.  There are websites too.  And, of course, networking.

From L to R: Professor Philp, Dr. Marcone, Colleen Theis of The Orchard, Steve Leeds.


For full details about the Music & Entertainment Industries Program, including courses, the minor, and our MBA, click HERE.

For full details about the WPU Pop Music Studies Program, including courses and audition requirements, click HERE.


Professor David Philp is Assistant Professor Music & Entertainment Industries and Popular Music Studies at William Paterson University. He is the co-host of the only FREE advice college radio-based music & entertainment industry talk show in America, Music Biz 101 & More, which airs live most Wednesday nights and is available as a podcast HERE every night (days too).  Your favorite professor is also co-author (with Dr. Steve Marcone) of Managing Your Band – 6th Edition.  Reach him at or find him on LinkedIn HERE.

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