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Martin Bandier Slams Spotify, Looks to the Future at Syracuse Q&A

The 2019 graduating class of the Bandier Program at Syracuse University finds its namesake at an interesting point in his nearly 50-year career: After 12 years at the helm of Sony/ATV, in which he transformed the company from the world’s fourth-largest music publisher to by far the biggest — one that includes the catalogs of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, Queen, the Rolling Stones, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Hank Williams and Stevie Wonder among thousands of others — he stepped down at the beginning of April.

It marks a brief — and rare — pause in the career of one of the most formidable music publishers of all time, who also built SBK and EMI Music Publishing into powerhouses. Along the way, he’s been the architect of some of the biggest deals in the music industry, including EMI’s purchase of the Motown catalog, spearheading the consortium that brought EMI to Sony/ATV for some $2.3 billion, and leading the Sony Corporation’s $750 million acquisition of half of Sony/ATV from Michael Jackson’s estate. Yet to hear him speak of it, all of those accomplishments pale next to the Bandier Program, the highly respected music-business program that he founded at his alma mater in 2006. It has spawned dozens if not hundreds of industry professionals, and is regularly voted one of the best in the country — and at the end of each school year, he flies up to Syracuse and meets with each graduate, and then sits for an interview that is attended by a hundred-or-so students and others. (This year’s interview was conducted by Variety senior music editor and fellow Syracuse alum Jem Aswad, who also did the honors in 2017.)

While he declined to get into specifics, Bandier spoke a bit during the interview about his next chapter — a “plan” in which he is a principle that will include “music as a major component,” and which is operating under the name Bandier Ventures, at least for the moment, and is temporarily operating out of the offices of former Sony C-suite colleague Doug Morris’ 12 Tone label while its future offices are under construction. (A report earlier this year said the new company is a partnership with Texas-based investment company TPG Capital, which is also a majority owner of CAA and an investor in Spotify, but a rep for Bandier declined to confirm that.) However, Bandier did speak at length about the state of the industry, Spotify and streaming services and their efforts to lower the Copyright Royalty Board’s rate-raise for songwriters, and more. (Variety published extensive interviews with Bandier in 2017 and late last month, so we tried to avoid covering similar terrain here.)

You’ve seen the music business at its peak, about 20 years ago, and in the doldrums, about 10 years ago. From your perspective, how are things now?
Yes, I’ve lived through bad times and good times — and today, the business is flourishing. Clearly everything is being driven by streaming and paid subscriptions: Spotify announced today they have 100 million paying subscribers and Apple is somewhere close to 60 million. Analysts in the industry believe that the paid subscriber base will continue to grow through 2030. And it’s not only the growth of paid subscriptions —there’s a strong tail wind in publishing as well. Over this past year we had several events that created more value for songwriters: the Copyright Royalty Board decision that raised rates almost 44% over the next five years; the Music Modernization Act, which for the first time gave benefits to songwriters and publishers; and the Justice Department is looking at the consent decrees that have controlled ASCAP and BMI since the 1940s, and they’re [considering] either terminating or amending them. It’s an incredible time to be in the business.

Now, having said that, when this program first started [in 2006], we were in some deep doo-doo, and I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights I had thinking about the kids graduating from this program not being able to find jobs. But it made me work harder to find opportunities, and I think now we can honestly say we’re in a growth business.

It’s almost miraculous that a generation that was raised on free music now believes they should pay for it. What are some things you think the industry did to convince people of that?
I think the all-you-can-eat subscription model adds value, and I think it was inexpensive enough. But I also think people realized at the end of the day that if you didn’t pay for music, the business would die. I think people felt responsible for supporting artists and the companies who put out music. Still, I can hardly believe we’re in a growth business again — for years I would look at the recorded-music business and say “This is like owning [analog camera company] Polaroid,” (laughter) but it’s not anymore.

Do you think there’s too much optimism? Universal Music has put 50% of itself on the market: first analysts said it was worth $22 billion and less than a year later some are saying it’s worth $50 billion.
I think if you look at what the future is forecast to be, you could make assumptions that would justify those types of prices — in publishing, prices have skyrocketed. [Some analysts] project that there will be a billion streaming subscribers, I don’t know how [accurate] that is, but the optimism is there.

Do you think streaming services have become more aware of the value of songwriters and publishers? When Spotify, Amazon, Google/YouTube and SiriusXM/Pandora appealed the CRB ruling, it made many question that.
I thought they were, for a while — I forced them to give songwriters credit [on their platform] for the first time. But then, after two years of fighting songwriters and publishers in this very expensive CRB [case], they lost, and songwriters and publishers won. It was the first time in maybe 10 years that we got an increase of any kind. And lo and behold, on the last day to appeal, Spotify appealed. It’s important to understand that [the CRB ruling] is almost impossible to overturn — you would have to show fraud or that somehow the math was wrong. I think it was the dumbest PR move ever. The entire industry, music publishers and songwriters, have risen together [against it]. All it does is cost the publishers and ultimately the songwriters a huge amount of money for legal fees.

I don’t get it, and I’ve said that to the powers that be at Spotify. You might expect that from YouTube because they’re kind of a different breed, but Spotify is now a public company. They have to figure out how to make money, but maybe they should start in their own house and figure out how to save money in general overhead instead of the royalties they pay out. If I ran a business and had that type of overhead I would have been fired a long time ago. You just can’t do that and expect to be successful.

Some people within Spotify have called me and sort of off-the-record apologized [for the CRB appeal] — but I ran the world’s largest music publishing company, and I’ve never gotten a call from [Spotify CEO] Daniel Ek. He’s the head of the largest subscription service and I’ve never heard from him. Maybe he could explain why they appealed! I’ve always been vocal about songwriter rights and when people step out of bounds, and at the same time you have to compliment people who aren’t [stepping out of bounds]. Apple has clearly been way ahead. They’ve paid more than statutorially they had to, although, yes, they [can afford to].

That 44% rate increase from the CRB was a big surprise to a lot of people — how do you think the publishing and songwriting communities convinced them?
I think we introduced a lot of expert testimony on the economics of the deal and what happens with the $9.99 [monthly subscription], and that the song is equally as important as the recorded version of that song. We never asked for parity with the record companies — I think there’s been a longstanding tradition that the record companies get more money, one day there might be parity. I think our lawyers did a great job and so did David Israelite, the head of our trade organization [the National Music Publishers Association]. And for once the record companies, who I’ve fought with for my entire career, were not adversarial, because [the three major labels and publishing companies have the same owners].

You negotiated with Berry Gordy to buy Jobete, Motown’s publishing arm, for a year and he decided not to sell, although you did acquire it later, via deals at EMI and Sony. What was the takeaway from that experience?
The takeaway there is to be persistent, especially if you love the music. We went through a trial by fire: We met with every major artist, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, [hit songwriters] Holland-Dozier-Holland and others — the one person we didn’t meet with was Stevie Wonder, and I suspect he had something to do with why Berry didn’t want to sell the catalog at that time. But we just sort of hung around, and I have such incredible respect for Berry, he’s become a really good friend, and finally I said “Sell half the company to me and I’ll make more money than you can believe and you’ll be prouder of the songs than ever,” and he agreed. And I also promised I would pay a lot more money for the second half, and I did. It was a great lesson in life about persistence, especially if you really believe in something. There are intrinsics in the Motown catalog that you could never put a value on — who could put a value on the life story of Marvin Gaye? Or the story of the Temptations, which we have on Broadway now, and Berry’s Motown story? I just knew that music would last forever. I watched the “Motown 60” special last week, basically with tears in my eyes. My wife said “Why are you crying?” and I said “Because I don’t own it!” (Laughter)

What areas of the business would you encourage young people to explore?
I think management is an incredible opportunity because it covers a multitude of areas — you need to understand publishing, labels, touring, merch and more. It really covers the universe, and the creative managers like the Irving Azoffs find other opportunities for their artists, like being a judge on “The Voice” and things like that. Touring is booming, and I know [publishing] is maybe a little conservative, but the environment and the rates have never been better.

What advice do you have for young people in this program in finding jobs in the industry?
The folks who run this program and I offer a lot of opportunities. But overall, you’ve got to apply for as many jobs as possible and use whatever front door or back door entrance you can — if your sister-in-law knows the head of HR at a major label, that’s okay. Also, you have to prepare for whatever questions might be asked, and display the enthusiasm that got you into this program in the first place. There’s tremendous opportunity out there.

You’ve put a lot into this program — what do you get out of it?
Oh my god, it’s the greatest pleasure in the world. Honestly, I can’t tell you how proud I am. Every year when I come up here, I’m on a high for days after I leave. There are things you can do for charity, cancer and heart organizations and things like that, that are very important, but it’s not as personal as this. You get to meet the students, their parents, and you know that they’re going out there ready to compete in the world of music. And I see them everywhere I go. I was just at CAA in Los Angeles last week and a young man in a nice suit came up to me and said, “Mr. Bandier, do you remember me? Bandier Program Class of ’16!” It was a great thrill for me to see this kid, who’s now at a great agency and looked as happy as could be, and that’s just the most recent one.

Speaking of which, what can you say about what’s next for you?
I have a plan for the future, and at this point in time I’m going through the process of solidifying that plan. I think it would be premature for me to say what it is, but I can assure it will include music as a major component. I’m not going to work for [another company], it’s something I’m a principal in, but it’s not there yet. I’ve been out of Sony for 29 days, and so I think I’ve made progress that you don’t know about —

Maybe not yet! (laughter)
… but it’s still not the type of progress where I could safely announce, “Here’s the deal.” I’m encouraged and excited — how could you not be excited to be in the music business now?

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