Streaming has been a blessing for the catalog business. It’s opened doors for more direct marketing to fans, allowed labels to more quickly capitalize on cultural moments, visual media syncs and tours, and made the marketing of music possible without new product.

And it’s growing—pardon us if we cringe when we use this word—organically. Catalog titles were up across the board in 2019, both in terms of volume and the percentage that catalog represents of streams and sales. Catalog titles, defined as anything more than 18 months old and not in the Top 100, made up more than 60% of the year’s 677m audio streams, catalog titles represented two thirds of all LPs sold, and more than two dozen catalog albums were among the year’s Top 200 sellers.

“When you consider that artists as legendary and diverse as The Beatles, Elton John and Def Leppard have just had their biggest overall music sales in a decade domestically and globally, you realize the incredible power of streaming to connect great artists and music to a larger fan base than ever,” says Universal Music Enterprises President/CEO Bruce Resnikoff.

“We effectively treat these [catalog] artists as thriving, vibrant and alive, which in effect their music is. We didn’t have that opportunity in the past.”

Treating catalog artists the same way as frontline artists is one significant change that has emerged in the streaming era. Labels are able to find new audiences for artists no longer with us—The Doors, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley are recent examples—and use online resources to take advantage of tours, honors and anniversaries of the living such as Def Leppard, which will be playing stadiums this summer after being streamed on audio services more than 340m times in 2019.

“One part of our challenge is how do we create engaging content so that it leads to the next action?” Warner Music Group President, Global Catalog, Recorded Music Kevin Gore points out. “How do you create compelling content that reminds somebody that they loved this band, they loved this song, they loved this album? Then, what does that lead to from an action standpoint in terms of streaming and buying? I think most of our efforts these days are focused on how we convert that [interest] to a stream.

“It’s perhaps the most exciting time, because we now have the challenge, responsibility and opportunity to engage with the fans in a much more direct way than we ever could.”

Those streams, the labels found over and over in 2019, could come from anywhere: a TV show, a movie trailer, a TikTok video, a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction.

“The biggest growth area is in the young end of the catalog,” says Lyn Koppe, EVP of Global Catalog for Sony’s Legacy Recordings. “You don’t have to have a new piece of product, so we spend a lot more time marketing what already exists. And when you’re skewing younger and marketing in a streaming environment, you’re much more track-oriented than album-oriented.”

Two of Sony’s out-of-the-blue marketing opportunities in 2019 were Willie Nelson’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” which wound up being streamed about 1m times—a tenfold increase—in the two weeks after it was used in the finale of HBO’s Big Little Lies, and John Mayer’s 2005 track “Gravity,” which became a TikTok meme in the fall, and the total rose as high as 6m streams in a week.

“No one was anticipating [“Gravity”] was going to happen, so we built a campaign,” Koppe says. “We knew [Willie’s record] was going to be featured, but until you see how it’s synced and the dramatic impact, you really don’t know. We literally saw it like everybody else did on a Sunday night and said, ‘We need a campaign.’ We pulled one together within 24 hours.”

Catalog overlords at the major labels say the big change is storytelling, using Internet platforms and social media to broaden the audience for specific artists, albums and songs.

At UMe, it’s been crucial for recent expanded editions of Beatles albums and plays a huge role in the just-launched yearlong campaign to celebrate Bob Marley’s 75th and the upcoming celebration of The Temptations’ 60th as well.

Resnikoff says, “We’ve just launched YouTube channels and Bob Seger is out there touring, so we now have an opportunity to take the story he tells in his shows and bring it to a much wider group.”

Sony Commercial Music Group President Richard Story agrees with Resnikoff’s take on storytelling. “Every song, album and artist is a story to tell in a very authentic and engaging way. We’ve really refined our skillset to be able to tell stories in a digital landscape.”

SCMG has a department that creates digital content that, most importantly, is done in a tone authentic to the artist’s voice. And with daily meetings with the frontline labels, “We collectively make sure that we don’t let anything slip through the cracks.”

Streaming, too, has provided the catalog overlords with information they can use to make quick pivots in marketing plans or create them from scratch after a sync drives listenership.

“You’re drafting off the brand marketing—you’ve got other people’s money working for you,” Gore says, noting how the Wonder Woman—1984 trailer has bolstered New Order’s “Blue Monday,” The Joker pulled Jimmy Durante’s version of “Smile” out of obscurity and Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” became their second-most-popular track on Spotify after a use in the movie Thor: Ragnarok.

Then there’s the data that comes out of nowhere. Sony’s Koppe found that Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love” “really over-indexes for the under-25 demographic. So we’re in the midst of building a very robust plan around Elvis and that song, specifically targeting to the under-25 [listener].

“Data validates and, in some instances, catalyzes an approach. A gut feel remains something that’s critically important. We use data to help become a detective and figure out what it is that we want to do.”

Gore notes, “I think that we’re all gonna face the challenge of how deep is [fan] engagement? When you look at streaming, is it about one song or 10 songs, or deeper than that? You could argue that the meaning of the album for artists from the ’60s and ’70s was stronger than it would be in the ’90s and aughts. Regardless of that relationship, I think it’s going to be a conversation that begins with songs.”

The biz ponders action after some reflection.
100% guaranteed to be somewhat accurate, probably.
Just to inspect it, though.

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