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I.B. BAD: WHAT IS REAL POWER?

FLIPPING THE SWITCH: This year’s edition of the Billboard Power 100, which will be published during Grammy Week, will once again inevitably be met with exasperation, eye-rolling and derisive laughter across the industry, for good reason: Those who compile the list are close to clueless about the workings of the music business and the factors that actually make certain people powerful. What’s more, the Power 100 is peppered with functionaries whose names appear simply because of in-house politics (or listola, to coin a phrase); last year, for example, executives from Pepsi and Budweiser were at #14 and 15, respectively.

So what is real power? Many believe that real power is the ability to move the needle and create an environment for change. The industry’s most important people all have big checkbooks and can use the clout of their companies to bend the will of others to their choosing, which obviously has a modicum of implied power to it. Live Nation’s Michael Rapino writes the biggest checks to talent, because the live business has become so huge and is now the primary source of income for artists. The primary rights holders, UMG’s Lucian Grainge, Sony’s Doug Morris and Marty Bandier and WMG’s Len Blavatnik, derive their power not only from the control of content but also from their deep pockets and their ability to force change in the marketplace.

iTunes (with Robert Kondrk and Eddy Cue) and the Daniel Ek-led Spotify are respectively the classic and current examples of the struggle between the rights holders and the new distribution systems. The major labels abdicated some of their power when they lost control of their own distribution, as technology changed the paradigm in a dramatic and permanent way. As rights holders, the majors retain the power to grant or withhold those rights from new-technology platforms, but once the rights are granted, their leverage and attendant power are mitigated by the runaway success of the new platforms. The button they’d previously been able to push whenever the situation called for it, propelling artists to multimillion-selling albums, is no longer automatic, and the once-huge checks written by the labels to those acts as a result of their massive sales have become smaller, in large part as a result of these new technologies.           

Power also resides in those who, like Azoff MSG’s Irving Azoff and Apple’s Jimmy Iovine, are armed with supercharged Rolodexes. Theirs is another form of power—the power of access—as they use their ability to connect with artists and gatekeepers and make things happen.                   

The lifeblood of the music business runs through the new artists who break year after year, sell music and put asses in seats in arenas and stadiums. The label executives who call the shots in terms of deciding which emerging acts to put their companies’ full resources behind definitely move the needle, because the choices they make help create careers. Those who decided to make Sam Smith a huge priority and those who envisioned that Pharrell’s “Happy” could become a mega-hit with the proper exposure have demonstrated their power by delivering the goods. Likewise for the believers in Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” transforming a previously little-known Aussie rapper into a pop-cultural phenomenon and major star.     
     
The gatekeepers of mass media—the DickeysPittman/Poleman and Weatherly/Martin, as well as the BBC Radio 1 and Capitol FM programmers in the U.K., are the final links in the chain, taking their cues from the decision-makers at the labels to trigger 2014’s biggest breakthroughs, establishing careers as well as selling albums and singles: Capitol’s Sam Smith (about 2m TEA) and 5 Seconds of Summer (1.5m), RCA’s Pentatonix (2m combined in their breakout year), Def Jam’s Iggy Azalea (1.16m), Warner Bros.’ Jason Derulo (1.03m), Epic’s Meghan Trainor (671k last year—prior to the release of her full-length) and Columbia’s late-breaking Hozier (600k).          

The talent bookers of certain TV shows also wield a certain amount of power, but nothing remotely close to that of NARAS head Neil Portnow and longtime Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich, who choose the performers—and inspired Grammy performances truly move the needle. Their performances on the 2014 telecast generated sizable additional sales on 2013 hit albums from surprise opener Beyoncé (1.35m in TEA last year), Capitol’s Katy Perry (1.36m), Lava/Republic’s Lorde (1.31m) and Columbia’s John Legend (906k). Looking back over the last several years, AdeleMumford & SonsBruno Mars and Justin Timberlake were among the acts who managed to take their Grammy performances to the bank. Which of the artists now prepping their performances under Ehrlich’s watchful eye will get the biggest liftoff from Music’s Biggest Night, triggering legitimately memorable Grammy Moments? That’s an exhibition of power that takes place in real time in front of tens of millions. 

NAMES IN THE RUMOR MILL: Jay BrownAshley TaborAllen ShapiroSylvia RhoneDon PassmanGuy Oseary and Chuck Ortner.

For more on power lists, go here.

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