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I.B. BAD ON THE GRAMMYS AND OTHER BIG DEALS

COLD SNAP: Though the weather may be milder than many feared, rain is in the Manhattan forecast for this weekend, and biz folk who aren’t already there don’t want to travel to NYC for the Grammys. People are going who have to go, and several Grammy-week events, such as Fleetwood Mac at MusiCares and Jay-Z at Clive’s party, are additional enticements, as is Sir Lucian Grainge’s Saturday luncheon—which, with its limited guest list of the most powerful movers and shakers, has turned out to be the place to be on the day before the Grammys, as artists mingle with the most essential gatekeepers.

But the shitty climate and its attendant travel headaches only add to a prevailing mood of crankiness.

Let’s face it: The Secret Committee has demonstrated that it’s way out of touch—and has alienated the labels and much of the rest of the business. The committee’s approval rating, already on the decline since the snubbing of Justin Timberlake several years back, has taken a nosedive with the exclusion of Ed Sheeran from the top categories. “Sheeran-gate,” as it’s come to be called, not only marks a clueless snubbing of the moment’s biggest star (2.6m sold on his most recent album) but also inflicts a stunning blow to the 1/28 telecast. Ed won’t be performing on Music’s Biggest Night. Neither will his pal Taylor Swift (2.2m). Or Timberlake (2.7m on 20/20 Complete; he’ll get a gigantic look with a Super Bowl halftime set on NBC instead). So producer Ken Ehrlich, CBS exec Jack Sussman and teams will have to soldier on without music’s biggest pop stars, who are pretty essential for Grammy’s biggest ratings.

Still, no one could deny that nominations leader Jay-Z is deserving of every accolade bestowed on him this year, including his eight Grammy nods, induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and his forthcoming honor at Clive’s wingding. His influence as both artist and entrepreneur has cast an enormous shadow over the last two decades. Indeed, has anyone accomplished as much over that same period? And while Kendrick Lamar might not yet have the marketplace pull of a Drake (whose last true album, Views, has sold 4.6m, compared to 2.8m for KL’s DAMN.), he has created a massive cultural impact for the last few years as the most important hip-hop icon—and one of the most trenchantly political artists—of his generation. (Speaking of Drake, the megastar has broken another Spotify streaming record, his two new tracks are now on top of the Spotify and Apple Music charts, and one new song is the top single at iTunes.)

The Grammys had previously been dunned for not being cool, many observers note, and responded by rewarding Arcade Fire and Beck with Album of the Year trophies. (Of course, if the committee picks the winners, which many believe is true, why didn’t Beyoncé get Album last time? That’s what everyone in the room—including Adele—wanted to see happen.)

Anyway, the awards have lately been criticized (not unjustly) for being too lily-white. Once again, rather than merely refining the approach, the occupants of the smoke-filled room have overreacted wildly, pushing hip-hop, R&B and Latin records so far to the fore that Sheeran—whose dominance of the pop landscape continues unabated in 2018—was eliminated from the top tier.

Recording Academy boss Neil Portnow is taking much of the fire for this overcorrection, but the Grammys are not an absolute monarchy. Most expect Ehrlich and company to strike a balance in the broadcast that lives up to the demands of the variety format and appeals to a broad range of viewers. But it’ll be no thanks to the committee, whose cold streak continues.

It should also be noted that since it’s an Olympics year, both the Super Bowl and the Grammys have been moved to earlier spots on the calendar. In light of 2018’s irregular schedule, how did Mr. Azoff convince Mr. Portnow to hold Music’s Biggest Night at Madison Square Garden and MusiCares at Radio City Music Hall, bringing the circus back to the Big Apple for the first time in 15 years?

WHEELING AND DEALING: As part of artist negotiations, is the 50/50 joint venture at times becoming 60/40 in favor of the artist, due to competitive deal-making? UMG had been aggressively taking deals off the table throughout Sir Lucian’s seven-year reign. But the radically changed economics of the business have made WMG and Sony Music much more competitive—prompting Grainge to throw down with even greater intensity. As a result, rich artist deals are becoming de rigueur, as lawyers and managers feel that competitive heat from the labels and publishers.

Acts receiving or about to receive checks include Diplo, Ron Perry’s first signing as Columbia CEO; Justin Timberlake, who’s re-upped with Peter Edge’s RCA; Childish Gambino (683k on his last set), also newly done at RCA and probably quite expensive; and Kenny Chesney (364k) lately closed by Max Lousada and heading to Espo’s Warner Music Nashville. This rich new atmosphere extends to new artist deals, where $3m is not an unheard-of figure nowadays.

New exec deals are also proliferating as the board reshuffles; the latest finds Joe Riccitelli and John Fleckenstein stepping up as RCA Co-Presidents, on the heels of the announcement of Laura Swanson to EVP of Communications and Special Projects at Tom Corson’s Warner Bros., along with the wholesale changes covered ad nauseam in this space.

BEYOND ADMIN: Among pubcos, Kobalt has become a key bidder for top talent; the admin-focused pubco raised $14m from ex-Google Ventures exec Bill MarisSection 32 last fall, and its fully owned subsid Kobalt Capital added $600m shortly thereafter (from U.K. pension fund RPMI Railpen, among others) specifically to buy copyrights. Did the company’s purchase of SONGS at the end of last year (for a reported $160m), as well as its aggressive bidding for other pub prizes, signal a change in business model? Willard Ahdritz’s outfit claims to be hewing to the service model. Could the fund’s escalated buying of copyrights, combined with Kobalt’s technology, eventually add up to another sort of play altogether? Does the company need sexy headlines to keep the big money coming in to a non-asset-driven business? Could they assemble sufficient cheddar to make a play for EMI Music Publishing?

In any case, Kobalt is believed to be one of the leading suitors for Kendrick Lamar’s publishing. The TDE/Aftermath/Interscope hip-hop superstar, due for a very big Grammy night, is rumored to be commanding $20-30m for his publishing; TDE boss Top Dawg, who has been absolutely on fire of late, is said to have had a close relationship with Kobalt’s Sam Taylor for years. But Top has also developed strong ties with another pubco player said to be very much in the running. In addition, there’s undeniable magic swirling around SZA (who’s clocked 734k so far on her album), Universal pub boss Jody Gerson and Top since the breakout artist/songwriter inked there. Lamar’s publishing has hitherto resided at Warner/Chappell, having gone there as part of the Dr. Dre Aftermath deal.

HE WANTS TO PUMP YOU UP: Meanwhile, the hottest free agent in the marketplace is Lil Pump, after WBR neglected to get his deal ratified, voiding the contract he inked as a 16-year-old SoundCloud sensation last June with WBR JV Tha Lights Global. Pump’s “Gucci Gang” is a monster, and his album has hit 360k, 340k of that from streaming. The Miami-based rapper born Gazzy Garcia turns 18 in August; wonderers are wondering who was responsible for the ratification gaffe. In addition to requiring court certification, California family code section 6710 stipulates that “a contract of a minor may be disaffirmed by the minor before majority or within a reasonable time afterwards.” Attorney John Branca is entertaining offers, and there’s interest across the board—for a reasonable amount. The asking price is said to be $8m per album, but many think Pump is worth $3-4m per album tops. Interestingly, Chris Anokute is consulting Tha Lights Global.

What two very well-financed 2018 startup labels are now looking to do their own distribution domestically, as the digital-distribution platform permits easy accessibility? This scenario means no big check for those distribution rights—but if the sales and streams are there, immediate income will follow, as payment is quick. On the other hand, if an act needs big-label radio heat and marketing, there’s still a possible big deal to be made.

 

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