When Sony Music announced the promotion of Joe Gallo to vice president of sales last month, it was telling that it listed in the press release the company’s retail partners as “Apple, Amazon and SoundCloud,” in place of what was once Tower Records, Musicland or Camelot Music. In an entertainment content world rapidly transitioning from physical product and downloading to streaming, it raises the issue of whether “sales” is even an appropriate moniker at music companies anymore.
“‘Sales’ is an antiquated term,” says Jim Urie, the former longtime head of Universal Music Group Distribution, which itself was effectively dismantled in April 2015, with its executive team divided into such areas as brand partnerships, partnership content and commercial services administration. “It should be called ‘commercial affairs,’ because you need somebody at the label to keep track of all the individual revenue sources, which eventually will be solely streaming.”
The old days of working the phones to secure proper store visibility on front racks and endcaps at Tower and other retail outlets has gone the way of co-op advertising, once the chief domain of sales execs, with real estate now applied to which streaming service playlists can best spotlight the latest releases. “It requires a whole different skill set,” Urie says. “You need people adept at analytics and computer savvy. When you talk to Spotify to promote a song, the facts at your command are complex and unique. The title of ‘sales’ just doesn’t fit the job.”
Jim Donio has spent the past 30 years shepherding the National Assn. of Recording Merchandisers from an annual retail convention to its digital-intensive reinvention as the Music Business Assn. (Music Biz for short), in his role as president of the trade org. “When we rebranded, we got away from terms like ‘retail,’ ‘label’ and ‘distribution’ for ‘content,’” he explains. “We’re agnostic to the way the ‘sale’ happens. We want to represent anyone interested in the commercial transaction of music, whether it’s a physical sale, a subscription purchase or an ad-supported service — as long as it yields revenue to some part of the business.”
The business has always been about how consumers discover and explore music, says Joe McFadden, who spent three decades in the Capitol sales department and is one of the rare veterans to segue into the brave new world as chief commercial officer at the Eleven Seven Music Group (which includes Mötley Crüe and Five Finger Death Punch). “It still involves getting the music into people’s hands and getting them to pay for it. The discipline is the same, just the storefront is different. The gatekeepers [base decisions] on data, projections and algorithms. If something isn’t performing on a playlist, you know right away and it won’t last very long. In the old days, a record would remain on the shelves for as long as the program you paid for lasted.”
One longtime major label sales exec puts it this way: “It’s about building an artist brand with a commercial partner, whether it’s Walmart or Apple, but at the end of the day, buyers still have to think it’s a great song by hearing it. The people who run these playlists are incredible music people. The analytics are secondary. Human curation is still important. The [data] is just one part of an overall plan; it’s certainly valuable, but we can’t let it dictate everything.”
Digital-first executives — such as Jay Frank, Universal Music Group senior VP of global streaming marketing — have bridged the gap. UMG has also extended new titles to Adam Granite, exec VP of market development, and Scott Greer, exec VP of marketing & commerce for Def Jam Recordings. Rethinking those positions is a big reason why, according to Urie, UMG has dominated the streaming world.
“You have to figure out how that information can motivate the curators at Apple, Spotify or PledgeMusic,” says McFadden of his own reinvention. “You have to adapt to their mindset because they’re not coming from the traditional retail space. And you have to realize that every decision impacts the world — it’s truly a global market today. But I’d hope relationships will always play a role in this business. Music is emotional — it has a heartbeat, and so should the transaction.”
Adds the label vet: “Great A&R and gut feeling still matter. Selling music is not like selling cars.”