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I.B. BAD BUYS & SELLS

UNCERTAINTY SHAKES #1 PUBCO: Last Thursday (10/7), The Wall Street Journal broke the news that Sony Corp. had recently triggered a clause in its contract with Sony/ATV co-owner the Michael Jackson Estate, which allows one party to buy out the other. The initiation of the buy/sell process was confirmed by Sony Entertainment chief Michael Lynton in an email to Sony/ATV employees disseminated as a result of the WSJ report and intended to calm troubled waters.

The initiation of the buy/sell clause by the Sony Corp. leadership in Tokyo reportedly blindsided Lynton, Estate executor John Branca and Sony/ATV ruler Marty Bandier, an odd move indeed given that Sony and the Estate are 50/50 partners in the pubco. In a typical scenario, the partners would meet behind closed doors and come to a joint decision. It’s clear that Sony’s move has been a major disruption for everyone involved and will continue to be a distraction until the situation is resolved.

Sony/ATV’s estimated value is around $2 billion, and is expected to appreciate in the coming years. The company has been throwing off sizable profits; according to Sony regulatory filings, the pubco generated $560m in revenue last year with $580 projected for 2015. Sony owns 29% and the estate owns 10% of EMI Music Publishing, which was acquired by a coalition of investors in 2012.

Sony will buy out the Jackson Estate or vice versa, depending on which party is more highly motivated and willing to write the bigger check. Branca is expected to aggressively pursue the acquisition, and most believe he’ll no trouble building a war chest through investment banks, sovereign funds or a combination of the two. Either way, it’s a win-win for the Estate, which will wind up with the world’s most valuable publishing company or a huge check. If struggling Sony takes full ownership of Sony/ATV, it could conceivably put the pubco on the block and initiate an auction, which would likely draw plenty of suitors in pursuit of much-needed cash to pay down debt. But this is pure speculation.

In any case, those close to the action expect Bandier and his executive team to continue running the company, no matter which of the two parties winds up owning it.

SCREWING THE POOCH: There’s growing dissatisfaction among the top power players in the business with Billboard having to do with how the onetime “Bible of the music business” is being run. In the latest example of the Bible bosses’ loss of direction, they blew off Live Nation and Ticketmaster, which had sponsored the Billboard Touring Conference welcome reception for the last couple of years, opting to accept a six-figure exclusivity deal with StubHub, the biggest scalper in the business. That move reportedly drew the ire of LN top brass, including Michael Rapino, while a shocked Irving Azoff tweeted, “New low even for Billboard letting StubHub take over their touring confab. Scalped by the scalpers!” This is what happens when outsiders with no grasp of the music industry attempt to cover it.

In another indication of how out of touch the people running Billboard are, they’ve marginalized their album chart, which had been considered definitive for decades. The laughably named consumption chart is a singles chart masquerading as an album chart, which is why so few in the business care about it anymore. As a result of this ruinous change, Don Henley and George Strait were denied the top two spots on the BB chart last week, naming the outsold but heavily streamed Fetty Wap the #1 album.

While the album format is arguably on its last legs, it’s still the most accurate barometer of the public’s interest in artists, who will remain the most important part of the music business for as long as it continues to exist. The album is also the engine that drives profits on a global basis, yet BB insists on minimizing its value, as it did last week. Specifically, a Henley #1 would have been a major positive for the business; a #1 for the ephemeral Fetty Wap is not. The impact of this outcome is that there’s no big press moment to drive traffic to top retailers like Target, who are in the process of diminishing their footprint in music. Henley has been making great music with instantly recognizable vocals for more than four decades; he’s a great artist at the top of his game and could be headed for a big Grammy night in February. For these and numerous other reasons, it appears the current BB regime has lost the plot. At this point, there’s little doubt that the inmates are now running the asylum.

ALL-ACCESS PASS: It’s naïve to think that Apple bought Jimmy Iovine’s Beats for its headphones, its streaming service or his tech savvy. They brought him in in large part for his connections the overlapping worlds of sports, politics and Hollywood, giving Apple’s power access to the biggest artists and celebrities in the world. Meanwhile, is Jay Z trying to sell Tidal to Spotify as part of his exit strategy? Such a scenario would give Spotify its own much-needed access to the artist community. It makes sense that Daniel Ek would bite now that Apple Music is competing with him for artists’ bandwidth. In a related note, it could be months before we get a sense of how many users Apple Music has retained as paying customers, in part because not everyone signed up on 6/30, day one of the 90-day free trial. Indeed, new users are still signing up for the offer. 

THE SCHMUCK FACTOR: Look for a growing trend of major artists who will demand no freemium. It’s not just about the money, say those in the know, it’s about artists not wanting to allow their art to be devalued, especially now that there are other options.

COMEBACK STORIES: Scooter Braun’s star is on the rise once again, propelled by what has all the earmarks of a triumphant return for Justin Bieber as well as the rapid ascent of newcomer Tori Kelly. Given all this positive movement, one would expect that there would be increased interest in taking Braun up on his music, film and TV deal. His hit CBS series Scorpion, now in its second season, should make said deal even more compelling. Which strategic partner will step up with a big enough check?

Janet Jackson’s chart-topper this week was aided by the 30k units that were part of a ticket bundle for her tour, which explains why the album sold so well with virtually no airplay. The veteran artist and her wealthy husband, fashion mogul Wissam Al Mana, who financed the recording and underwrote her Rhythm Nation label, had shopped the album to the majors but got nary a nibble, enabling BMG to pick it up. It’s turning out to be a good move for the company’s recorded-music division, which is finally showing signs of life under Jon Cohen.

TRANSITIONAL MOMENTS? Darryl Eaton and Rick Roskin’s promotions to co-heads of music for in North America at CAA, joining the incumbent Mitch Rose, suggest that they’ve been anointed as the eventual inheritors of the empire created two decades ago by worldwide music head Rob Light and Rose. In other CAA action, Jeffrey Azoff’s deal is up at the end of October; will he stay at the agency or will he be styling with Dad?

NAMES IN THE RUMOR MILL: Janice Min and John Amato, Louis Messina, Adele, Don Passman, Ashley Newton, Larry Jackson and Danny Rose.

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