Songs for Screens is a Variety column sponsored by music experiential agency MAC Presents, based in NYC. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and former correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column will highlight noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as new and catalog songs that we deem ripe for synch use.
As documentaries continue to be surprise hits of the summer box office, a dual trend of hip-hop docs and limited series continues to sweep streaming services and premium cable. The Sundance hit “Fresh Dressed,” Sprite-sponsored lyricist tribute “Word Is Bond” and Netflix’s anthology series “Rapture” are just a few of the stealth hits in recent years to marry hip-hop storytelling with original music and classic synchs.
All three of those projects happen to be helmed by Mass Appeal, the cult ‘90s fanzine turned multimedia company that’s added film, TV, management and, earlier this summer, Universal Music Group-distributed label services to its roster since its 2013 reinvention.
Led by CEO Peter Bittenbender and creative director Sacha Jenkins, the company has put TV and film front and center of its new cross-platform strategy that has included the May soundtrack to “Rapture,” featuring all-new tracks from featured artists like G-Eazy, Logic and 2 Chainz, and a forthcoming digital re-release of “Word Is Bond” that will be accompanied by an all-new soundtrack.
Bittenbender first merged music and film with 2002 hip-hop and LSD documentary “One Big Trip,” and credits his previous company Decon, which distributed the film and its cult-hit soundtrack, for paving the way for the new Mass Appeal. “That’s been the model ever since – using music as a tissue to connect stories and an audience,” he says.
Mass Appeal’s resurgence has also been aided in large part by Nas, who helped launch Mass Appeal Records in 2014 and finally released his first new music in six years in June, “Nasir,” via a newly inked pact between the label and UMG.
Songs for Screens caught up with Bittenbender to learn more about Mass Appeal’s approach to hip-hop synchs and soundtracks, a glimpse at how the Netflix sausage is made, preview upcoming projects and get the scoop on when more new music from Nas is coming.
Before you came onboard, Mass Appeal was known for its magazine and record label businesses. How did you identify film & TV for the company’s latest venture?
We did this a few times at Decon when we realized we needed a consumer-facing brand that we could build a commercial business around. Up until then, it had been one-off projects or work with a certain artist. There wasn’t a connectivity back to Decon, it was a service-based company doing cool stuff. Nas and I had been friends, talking about doing some investment partnerships with Sacha Jenkins, who is now one of my partners at Mass Appeal. Nas quickly said, “You’ve got this great company. It’s small but has a great model in the way you guys work with talent and tell stories. I feel like this should be a lot bigger.”
Shortly after you partnered with Nas and raised capital to take Mass Appeal to the next level, Mass Appeal released albums like Killer Mike and El-P’s “Run the Jewels 2” and began branching out further into film. How did that lead to creating “Rapture” with Netflix?
We had this movie “Fresh Dressed,” which went to Sundance, and was a backdoor way of telling the story of hip-hop through fashion. It became quite a little cult doc, and CNN ended up becoming our partner and it got a lot of press. Before you know it, it had a third a window and got picked up by Netflix in 2016. Netflix doesn’t really tell you anything about viewership – it either does well or it doesn’t do well. But they called us into their offices and said, “Hey, this film did really well. How else can we work with Mass Appeal?”
We pitched them a couple ideas, and a really smart person there said, “Hey, these sound like a lot of stand-alone ideas.” They found some commonality, and we had a few artist docs in there that we wanted to pursue. So we quickly flipped those from individual concepts into a larger format to tell a lot of artist stories in an intimate, compelling manner.
The series premiered on Netflix in March, and in May you put out the soundtrack on Mass Appeal/Def Jam featuring new songs from participating artists like Logic, G-Eazy, 2 Chainz, Nas, Rapsody and Dave East. Was there a reason for the slight delay in between those releases?
Because the show was such a massive undertaking, the soundtrack didn’t get quite the same attention at first. We had all these songs of artists collaborating with each other, but there wasn’t as much content with the artists in the studio. There were too many things going on to connect all the dots. What we did realize was that these artists have really large, engaged fanbases, and the music is what got all these people to view the series in the first place.
We partnered with Def Jam, because four of the artists in the series were partnered with Def Jam Label Group, and as we were in post-production we knew we didn’t want to put it out the same day as the series because the soundtrack wouldn’t get as much attention as it deserved. We had already had a South by Southwest event, plus some of the songs weren’t done as soon as I would have liked. But we ended up putting out a great 6-track EP, which resulted from all the artists collaborating with each other. The fans loved it, and we connected the dots on the series for people that had never heard about the series.
Is that why you’re taking a similar approach to the re-release of “Word Is Bond”?
We put it out through Showtime, and because of that it maybe didn’t get the eyeballs and attention it deserved. So when the Showtime window was up, we knew we wanted to put it out for a wide release. Now we get to do a soundtrack with all the artists doing original songs, for when the film comes out [in a few weeks] on iTunes and other platforms.
We knew we weren’t gonna put out the trailer again, so what’s another moment we can have to have people talk about the film? The soundtrack will come day and date of the film, and we’ll be able to use the music and press and social activity we get form the soundtrack to reintroduce people to the film who maybe heard about it, or saw it was on Showtime and maybe didn’t have time to watch it. I’m excited to see how that impacts the awareness around this film and still creates other revenue streams.
We’ve got everybody in the film from Nas and other Mass Appeal label talent to people like Tech Nine, Rapsody, Rakim, Flatbush Zombies and some producers who appear in the film talking about working with great lyricists like DJ Khalil, J. Cole and Big Daddy Kane. For the soundtrack, everybody has said they want to do something for the most part. We have about five to six tracks that are done with a bulk of those artists like Flatbush Zombies, Nas, Rapsody and Tech Nine.
You just released Nas’ “Nasir,” through Mass Appeal and Def Jam. How did it feel to finally get new music from him out there?
It was great. We had investment from Universal, who wanted the right to the label but we were tied in another deal so they waited patiently until we could enter into a full distribution deal. As part of that, they let Nas sign to himself and he was able to transition out of his deal into one that gave him more control and more of the freedom he desires in his career and life.
So once we had the deal done, we knew the album was coming really fast because that’s how all these Kanye West releases had been dropping with no setup. We finished the Universal deal, it was announced on a Wednesday and the album came out on a Friday. It all came about very quickly. There were hiccups like anything else – the record didn’t get uploaded until Saturday because they were still working on it, so we lost a day of sales in the first week, but most importantly fans loved the music.
How long until we hear the other music that Nas has been working on?
It won’t take six years, I can tell you that. Nas is in a position where he’s excited and back in control. Expect more, is all I can say.
What else is next from Mass Appeal in TV & film?
We have a series called “Rhythm Roulette” to help producers who are so talented that’s saying, “Hey, you should be making your own album. You can turn what you get to do for a single song into a whole project.” And we have a doc with Future that’s coming out with Apple that we’ve been working on for the past couple years. It’s kind of a biopic looking at his impact and what he’s done, and will be streaming on Apple sometime in the next couple months. There’s a lot going on — hip-hop don’t stop.