During the second half of the 1980s, the arrival of the compact disc turned the music business into a money-spinning juggernaut, with the format moving from essentially zero early in the decade to 400 million units produced in 1988 alone. But that explosive growth was driven less by superstars of the era — although Whitney Houston and Guns N’ Roses sold many millions of the high-priced discs — than by people replacing their old vinyl albums and cassettes with a more convenient format.
The same syndrome has taken hold with streaming: According to BuzzAngle’s 2017 year-end report, a whopping 51% of songs consumed are from “deep catalog” (music three or more years old), with an additional 12.5% coming from “catalog” (18 months to three years old). Which means that for all the discovery opportunities that a virtually unlimited pool of music can offer, people are using it far more to hear music they already know, or to explore previously untraveled corners of a genre or a favorite artist’s oeuvre.
That trend was not lost on new Sony Music Entertainment CEO Rob Stringer. For 28 years, the company has been host to one of the most popular catalog labels in the business, Legacy, which has won multiple Grammy Awards for beautifully curated collections from Sony’s vast repertoire — which includes Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson and many others — as well as new releases from heritage artists like Willie Nelson and Earth, Wind & Fire. But in recent months management found the business to be too oriented toward physical releases, and a major reorganization is under way, a source close to the situation tells Variety. By mutual consent, Legacy president Adam Block agreed to step down earlier this year, and several other staffers have or will leave the company.
Yet Legacy, which is housed within Sony’s Commercial Music Group under the direction of president Richard Story, is also staffing up in the digital space, with nine new roles and more likely to come. The source tells Variety that the company felt renewed urgency in realizing it did not have sufficient staffers specializing in deep catalog, streaming, marketing and analytics. The insider stressed that the company will continue to release lavish boxed sets and other physical product, but it has moved to correct that imbalance.
Promoting catalog on streaming is a dramatically different proposition than pushing physical product, according to a veteran distribution executive. “Format changes have always given catalog a bump,” the executive says. “But what’s different now is the idea of lifetime value — before, you were trying to get people to buy something once, but now you’re trying to get people to keep coming back.”
Key to that repeat business is discovery, which is generally discussed in terms of new music but is just as relevant for catalog. “When a song or an artist is featured on, say, [former] President Obama’s Spotify playlist, or in film or TV or in a commercial, it can lead to a big boost in streaming numbers,” says another major-label executive. “For example, [the N.W.A biopic] ‘Straight Outta Compton’ led thousands of people to discover N.W.A and Ice Cube and Dr. Dre’s older cuts.”
The distribution executive points to Jai Wolf’s song “Indian Summer” — which was released in 2015 but has taken on new life via multiple syncs, including an Izze beverage campaign and uses in “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance” — as an example of how such factors can make a new hit out of an older song (it has nearly 55 million plays on Spotify). Also key are playlists like Spotify’s “This Is” — which combine an artist’s older music with new — and recommendations on streaming services, which represent more frequent and active endorsement than what was available in the physical world. “There are all kinds of ways of rabbit-holing into the platforms now, where one artist leads to another and another, and you can connect the dots musically,” adds the distribution exec. “You didn’t really have that in a record store unless someone told you.” The exec also notes playlist promotion and seasonal opportunities like Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day as ways to get classic songs in front of fresh audiences.
Just as streaming has broken down barriers between musical genres, it can break them down between eras as well. “If you’re a 14-year-old kid who likes N.W.A or Led Zeppelin but doesn’t know Public Enemy or Cream, there’s a whole world just a click away,” the major-label exec says. “The trick is leading them to it.”