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Major Rebrand for UPM, the Former Killer Tracks, as It Marks 35 Years

“I look at production music as a business of content and repertoire,” says Universal Production Music (UPM) president Michael Sammis from his memorabilia-adorned Santa Monica office. “What it commands in value depends on the quality of the content and needs of the individual client.”

Quality is the key word when it comes to the business of UPM as the company also marks 30 years in business, previously under the banner of Killer Tracks, which was founded in 1989. To hear Sammis tell it, the milestone represents the company’s global vision, with the name change meant to more clearly align the arm with the greater Universal Music empire.

And there is cause for celebration in the broader sense, too, as some, including Production Music Assn. founder and vice chairman Joe Saba, estimate production music as a billion-dollar enterprise worldwide, with $500 million of that stream coming from the U.S.

Sammis, a 23-year veteran of Universal Music, has played a significant role in the growth of the sector. In his previous position as exec VP of operations/CFO for Universal Music Publishing Group, he oversaw the acquisitions of production music mainstay MasterSource in 2006 and the following year, that of BMG Music Publishing, which brought in both Killer Tracks and FirstCom Music. In 2017, he moved over to become president of Universal Publishing Production Music, which manages all of Universal’s production music assets, including Killer Tracks. Last month, it rebranded as Universal Production Music, a wholly owned division of UMPG.

From the view of the UPM team, production music entities are analogous to labels within a music group, each with a distinct personality and areas of expertise. To illustrate how they distinguish themselves, the former Killer Tracks represents “Abbey Road Masters,” quality orchestral music created in the fabled home of the Beatles. Similarly, FirstCom cut a deal with Capitol Studios for a series of masters, including surf/beach music, blues and other genres associated with the label.

Sammis insists deals like these combat the anonymity associated with production music. To wit: UPM recruits well-known recording artists to create music under individual banners, and among them is Sebastian Robertson, son of Robbie.

“I’ve always been a supporter of artists and their creativity,” says Sammis, who started out managing and serving as a business adviser to acts, and whose son is a working musician. “I have a soft spot in my heart for what songwriters and musicians do … and the value of the content they create. Maintaining that value is important to me, [as is] making sure the quality is always there. We don’t cut corners on that. We spend plenty of money creating content that is responsive to changing times and our clients’ needs.”

Across the industry, those needs predominantly involve depth of a company’s library, a user-friendly, easily searchable platform, instant high-quality downloads and, of course, price.

Unlike music publishers, production music companies own both publishing and the master recording and that makes it a convenient one-stop shop for clients when it comes to rights clearances. Sammis boasts that UPM also offers wraparound deals that allow clients access to Universal’s full suite of production music repertoire across all the various companies.

Other noteworthy offerings from UPM include free downloads; new tools for searching, sharing and collaborating; a My Account section that permits users to control access, download tracks, manage licenses and pay invoices; and a soon-to-be-introduced e-commerce function that enables users to complete a transaction with just a credit card. On tap for 2020: a voice-activated element a la Siri or Alexa.

Sammis also points out that the company has uploaded much of its repertoire to the major streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon and Deezer, whose users have shown an inclination to access mood music, including ambient or chill tracks with which to work or sleep. Since June, UPM tracks have racked up more than 20 million streams, providing another revenue stream. There is also income in so-called neighboring rights, collecting performance funds on master recordings, as well as the growth of emerging markets.

So business is booming, and that’s created a more crowded field in which to work. “The biggest change is the competition,” says Sammis of the three decades since Killer Tracks was born. “Plenty of people have jumped on the bandwagon, realizing there’s money to be made. Back [in 1989], the half-dozen or so music production houses would create vinyl albums and CDs. Now, of course, everything is digital. Technology has really brought down the cost and ease of production. People can create orchestral music in their bedrooms or garages using Pro Tools or GarageBand.”

Indeed, with the ease of streaming, a proliferation of production music companies now dot the landscape. Both Sony/ATV Music Publishing, with Extreme and KPM Music (through its acquisition of EMI Music Publishing), and Warner Music Group (Warner Chappell Production Music), have their own production music divisions, while Universal shares ownership of APM Music with Sony, as well as controlling 100% of Elias Music, a boutique agency that created the audio branding “We Are Farmers” for the insurance company and “Liberty, Liberty, Liberty” for Liberty Mutual.

In production music, quality matters above all, but the company that’s also nimble enough to meet its clients’ needs ultimately wins the business. It’s another touchstone of UPM that Sammis is proud of. “There’s a real custom element to [production music],” he says. “Being able to create repertoire that is responsive to individual client needs.

Moving into the future as Universal Production Music, Sammis is confident his division can make good on the promise that comes with the new name.

“We’re part of the Universal Music Group, the biggest and best music company in the world. You don’t put that logo on your office or business card unless you can walk the walk and talk the talk.”

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