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I.B. BAD: BETTING ON THE COME

Hot properties Diplo, Tommy Brown and Metro Boomin

Rights holders, seeing a light of increasing intensity at the end of a very long tunnel, are making a serious reinvestment in A&R. This ramped-up commitment to an area that has long been considered the foundation of virtually every successful music company has been inspired by a return to increased profitability following a decade and a half of diminished expectations. The turnaround is due in large part to the industry’s collective bet that the mainstream would come to embrace paid streaming. This quantum leap in subscriptions—recently evidenced by Apple Music passing the 20m threshold, or roughly half of Spotify’s subscriber base, though the Apple service’s rate of growth has slowed of late—is fueling the major players’ intensified focus on investing in their future by snapping up viable new acts, talent-seeking execs, JVs and priceless catalogs—the latter including Sony’s taking complete ownership of Sony/ATV, UMPG’s purchase of the Prince catalog and Capitol’s deals for the McCartney and Bee Gees’ master recordings. The industrywide recommitment to A&R, colored by an understanding of its modern-day applications, first became apparent early this year and by summer had hit warp speed in direct response to the ever-increasing revenues flowing into the rights holders' coffers from the streaming services.

Sir Lucian Grainge, whose business philosophy has always been predicated on strong A&R, is leading the charge at UMG, throwing down the gauntlet to his staff during his global A&R meetings in September, and subsequently making several forward-looking deals that enable JV imprints to release through any of his labels—including his brand-new deal with Alex Da Kid. Scooter Braun’s label deal with Uni set the template for such arrangements earlier in the decade. These deals follow inkings including the Roc Nation-Dreamville agreement that finds the new J. Cole album going through Interscope, and Capitol’s pact with Quality Control (which yielded Lil Yachty).

A&R has also become a greater priority at the label-group level. John Janick’s IGA just upped A&R veteran Neil Jacobson to helm Geffen in an effort to revitalize that label, another house built on A&R from its very beginnings under Jimmy Iovine. Def Jam this week tapped Tuo Clark of producer/writer duo Da Internz (Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna) as SVP A&R, reporting directly to Steve Bartels. former Def Jam exec No I.D., meanwhile, landed a post at CMG, which had grabbed veteran A&R man Ashley Newton for a prexy post earlier this year. Warner Bros. tapped Aton Ben-Horin in June as Global VP of A&R, while Columbia recently tapped DJ Moremile as its new head of Urban A&R, following Epic’s deal with DJ Khaled and his We the Best label.

This quantum leap in subscriptions is fueling the major
players’ intensified focus on investing in their futures
by snapping up viable new acts, talent-seeking
execs, JVs and priceless catalogs.

Doug Morris’ own career-long commitment to A&R is presently manifested in the specialties of his label heads, RCA’s Peter Edge, Epic’s L.A. Reid, Sony Nashville’s Randy Goodman and, of course, Columbia’s Rob Stringer, whose achievements in the creative arena made his elevation to CEO of the entire company (effective in March) a no-brainer.  

Concurrently in the U.K., moves by Jason Iley’s Sony included his naming of recent hire Ferdy Unger-Hamilton to head Columbia and the $55m Ministry of Sound acquisition, which also brought white-hot MOS exec Dave Dollimore into the fold. SYCO’s Simon Cowell brought Australian Pat Handlin in as Senior A&R Manager, while Sonny Takhar left the company to start his own talent-focused, L.A.-based operation. What’s more, U.S. indies started looking eastward: Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine opened offices in Blighty, as did Daniel GlassGlassnote.

In keeping with the times, writer/producers—particularly those who’ve scored at Urban and Rhythmic Pop formats, which own the streaming charts—have become increasingly hot properties. Among with hotter properties taken off the market in recent months are Julia Michaels (Bieber, Hailee Steinfeld, Selena Gomez), who went with Republic, and Bibi Bourrelly (Rihanna, Alessia Cara), who now calls Def Jam home.

Industry observers wonder who will jump on creative players like Tommy Brown (Ariana Grande, Meghan Trainor), Metro Boomin (Drake, The Weeknd, Future, Nicki Minaj) and Michaels’ longtime collaborator Justin Tranter (Justin Bieber, Zara Larsson, Fifth Harmony, DNCE). Diplo, who powered huge hits with Bieber, his own Major Lazer and more, can write his own ticket; his indie label Mad Decent put out hits by Jack U, Lazer and DJ Snake, among others. These hitmakers are likely to be part of the next wave of signings to JV imprints, A&R gigs and/or artist deals.

A key aspect of the new reality is that it’s essential to be in black music, which dominates the streaming sector. What label will become the next Roc Nation or Cash Money? Will it be We the Best? Top Dawg?

As 2016 draws to an encouraging close—more encouraging than at any time in this century—it’s now looking like the beginning of a whole new ballgame for the revitalized music business.

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