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NEAR TRUTHS:
AMERICAN MUSIC

AMERICAN MUSIC: As Black History Month begins, we’re reminded once again of the seismic impact of black American music and culture around the world—and of the bloody and tumultuous history in which that culture has developed. Consider music from Africa arriving on these shores during one of the most brutally cruel, inhumane periods in history. Ponder how the evolution of the blues and jazz provided hope and catharsis through the many bleak decades of discrimination, segregation and violence that ensued. Imagine how, in the midst of ferment and fear, rural and urban musical strains converged at midcentury in places like Memphis, Chicago and Detroit and were cross-pollinated into rock ‘n’ roll, the dreaded “race music” that social conservatives (not incorrectly) feared would seduce white teens from the straight and narrow and throw kids of all colors into one teeming, lascivious mass. Note how gospel went secular and conquered the charts as soul music. Recall how blues, rock and soul, exported to the U.K., returned in amplified form with the British Invasion led by The Beatles and Stones; how fans became a force at Monterey and a nation at Woodstock; how this world-shaking sound became part of a massive sociopolitical revolution, soundtracking an era roiled by Vietnam, assassinations, bombings, riots and Watergate. Remember how R&B and funk served as a joyous force of consciousness, liberation and community that nurtured the struggle for civil rights. Now trace the development of hip-hop in the crucibles of house parties and streetcorner rhyme battles amid grinding poverty, police brutality and a racist “culture war,” gathering into a juggernaut that utterly controls the music marketplace.

THE FOURTH QUARTER IS NO LONGER THE GAME: Q4, once the boiling point of yearly music-marketplace activity, no longer looks meaningful in the overall annual revenue picture. In fact, the goalposts have been moved and the two-minute drill starts now. Release dates now revolve around touring cycles—and acts that are hot at the top of the year can go wire-to-wire. With physical retail now a niche market and the holidays now dominated by gadgets and gift cards, the album as stocking stuffer is over. What’s more, artists have begun to embrace a new model of releasing music that conforms with a subscription-heavy and social-media-saturated world: doling out tracks periodically over the course of the year to maintain fanbase cohesion. Just take a look at Ariana Grande, who has dropped new music on a continual basis and will have a new album in the marketplace two days before the Grammys; her prior set remains a giant, and she has two songs in the Top 5 at Pop radio as well as a brand-new, apparently even bigger one at #1 on Spotify’s U.S. and Global charts and #2 at Apple Music and  iTunes.

With Q4 so radically diminished in importance, Q1 now appears to be where the action is. Get out of the box early in the year, establish a lead and keep turning out music. Ariana, Drake, Post, Future and other recent market rulers understand that going “off-cycle” in the traditional way now looks like ceding the field.

So how does the field look with Q1 well underway? UMG (38%), Sony (25%) and WMG (17%) are roughly where they were at the end of last year; Atlantic remains up top on the label side with 10.8, Interscope moves up to second place with 9.5, Capitol slides into third with an 8, Republic dips slightly to 7.8, Columbia retains its #5 berth with 6.9, Warner Bros. is relatively flat with 6 and RCA is 5.4.

Breaking the world down by genre, hip-hop naturally rules the roost with a 21.7 share; pop has 20.1, rock 14, R&B 10.6, Latin 9.4 and country 8.7.

EYE EXAM: Is the Grammy telecast becoming less and less relevant to artists and labels as the consumer music experience moves ever further away from broadcast TV? Is there any way to stop the erosion of the show’s impact as Grammy continues to alienate the superstars it needs—more than ever—for ratings? It’s a deadly combination: artist disaffection, changing music-consumption behavior and new viewing habits. Do you think Drake, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake and Childish Gambino are even remotely focused on the show’s impact on their careers? Once, perhaps, but not anymore. Insiders say Drake is disinterested in Music’s Biggest Night; will he stay in NYC for Raptors games instead? Meanwhile, ongoing friction from last year between Kendrick Lamar’s camp and the show is said to have led to him opting out this year; Grammy insiders say that Kendrick demanded the opening spot on last year’s telecast, and his incendiary segment hurt the show’s ratings (look for him on the Oscars).

Will the potential launch platform of Grammy night be impossible for Ariana and Scooter Braun to resist, since her album drops two days before? Will they give her the freedom to do it her way? As for Lady Gaga—one of the few superstar options left to this year’s show—she’s said to be mulling over a possible opening appearance. Would performing on Grammy night help her Oscar chances? Given that she tends to knock it out of the park every time she gets a big look, we’ll go with yes. Noters note that if Ken Ehrlich exits in a year or two, he’ll take his bevy of relationships and his Grammy moments—like them or not—with him, leaving the show even further up Shit’s Creek as the awards’ pricey CBS deal obliges the team to keep trying to reconcile these opposing concerns.

These are the sorts of issues Recording Academy boss Neil Portnow won’t have to grapple with anymore, no doubt much to his relief. But the process of choosing his successor is itself loaded. Korn Ferry, the outside firm tasked with the candidate search, is expected to present a half-dozen or so candidates for consideration—likely sometime in the spring. Will the finalists come from inside or outside Grammy’s tight inner circle? Expect much agonizing over #GrammysSoWhite and #GrammysSoMale (and the ongoing repercussions of “step up”) as the process grinds on. Things could get worse. Might the Academy choose a civilian to run the show? Biz watchers can tick off the names of non-music execs who presided over shitshows like they’re programming a disaster-movie festival: Lack. Nicoli, Fifield. Hands. Morgado. Middelhoff. Messier. Fuchs. Zelnick. Schmidt-Holtz. Leoni-Sceti. Oy, vey. In the event of deadlock, could the controversial John Poppo exploit an opening to grab the ring? Is Tina Tchen involved in this process?

SURVIVING R. KELLY, CONTINUED: As expected following the revelations of his alleged monstrosities on the highly rated Lifetime miniseries, R. Kelly was dropped from his Sony/RCA deal without fanfare—at least without fanfare on the label side, though the media heat was up so high that off-the-record confirmation of his removal from the company’s roster made for explosive headlines. Activist groups such as Ultraviolet had organized rallies, social-media campaigns and even banners flown by aircraft to demand his ouster.

While the Kelly drama has been resolved on the micro level, there’s a looming sense among many in the biz that there are plenty of other shoes to drop—misdeeds by artists, execs and others who were shielded by a system that was laissez-faire, to say the least, where big earners were concerned.

In this post-Weinstein/Moonves era, have several women (and some men) execs been silenced in this process, caught between ethical considerations and fiduciary responsibility? How can these two often conflicting concerns be reconciled? And who takes responsibility for violations long past? The current Sony Music leadership has had to deal with a succession of messes it essentially inherited, removing creators and execs whose ostensible misdeeds happened before (and sometimes well before) the present regime took power. In the wake of all we’ve learned, perhaps the real acid test is this: Has a management team created a company culture that feels safer, more responsive and more open than what preceded it?

ARTICLE 13 GETS TRUMPED: The European Copyright Directive —and particularly its much-discussed Article 13, which removed safe harbor protection for aggregators of content—once seemed destined to sail to passage; now it looks to be on the ropes. The directive is floundering, no thanks to Lyor Cohen’s aggressive, Trumpian campaign of disinformation on behalf of YouTube. Rights holders are up in arms over the neutering of Article 13, though the eternally lying Lyor—still the most despised character in the business—is largely viewed as a sideshow (copyright “minimalists” around the globe have been chipping away at 13 while he was busy trying to build a wall around his table at Madeo). What now? More scrambling to try to get things back on track by next month; otherwise the whole effort could be sunk. Stay tuned.

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