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NEAR TRUTHS: ZOOMING IN

ZOOMING OUT: You likely don’t need reminding that the ongoing prosperity of recorded music—in the midst of a pandemic that has shut down the concert biz—derives largely from the work of black artists. Drake, The Weeknd, DaBaby, Travis Scott, Lil Baby and Future—not to mention new breakouts like Roddy Ricch, Lil Mosey and Rod Wave—are among the acts scoring astronomical numbers, lockdown or no lockdown. We’ll be tracing some of the pathways to the present in June, Black Music Month.

(Speaking of Roddy, what’s up with his management situation? Has he fired Moe Shalizi?)

Drake’s big surprise mixtape drop was a boon for his label and fans, but a big headache to Team Kenny Chesney. The Nashville superstar, having teed up his blockbuster album bundle for what looked like a 200k+ first week and a surefire #1 bow, had to white-knuckle it to the finish line after being challenged by the hip-hop colossus. In the end, Team Kenny got their #1. It’s highly probable that the dates for Chesney’s tour will be canceled or postponed (whichever Kenny and company deem best) once the bundle is certified.

This whole business of canceling or postponing shows after the first-week certification of ticket bundles, we might add, is funky enough to have the geniuses at the Bible looking at one another sideways.

TO RELEASE OR NOT RELEASE: For new acts, there’s no downside to dropping new music now even without touring options, as opportunities still exist to gain traction and move the needle via TikTok, radio and assorted social/viral platforms. For artists coming off successful debut albums, though, it’s a bigger decision. If you’re planning a tour that will take you to the next level of your career, how long is too long to wait—especially in an ecosystem where the dominant acts (Post Malone, Drake, The Weeknd, Travis, et al) are constantly releasing music?

Consider Dua Lipa. Warner’s 2018 Best New Artist winner has seen a solid run for her album since its late-March drop (418k+ RTD). Single “Don’t Start Now” spent six weeks at #1 at Pop radio and remains in the Top 5, as well as Top 10 on the Spotify Global chart; follow-up cut “Break My Heart” is Top 15 at radio. A headlining tour at this moment could very well have elevated her to the next glittery career plateau, but even without it she’s kicking ass.

The livelihoods of the great middle class of artists are so dependent on touring that they need to be strategic and engage their fan bases in creative ways (and that naturally includes releasing new music).

It’s a slightly different calculus for rock and country acts that don’t rack up major streams. That album drop is the E ticket for promoting that tour; just look at the Chesney situation outlined above, or Justin Bieber’s cancellation after his chart-bundle bow (his Changes has racked up about 715k RTD). While it won’t hurt Rihanna to hold her album until 2021, what about a band like The Killers? Their new single has some momentum, but that cash-cow tour is in jeopardy, with U.S. dates slated for August and no tickets on sale yet. (Their 2017 album is at 315k+ RTD). We can expect that 5/29 date to go south soon. So why not just dole out another track and figure out the next best timing for album and tour? Likewise Sam Smith, who could wait things out and keep putting smash singles out one after another—and maintaining a steady presence at radio. His 2017 full-length has done 1.6m+ RTD.

The Dixe Chicks tour will be big—but it’ll be bigger if they have that ticket bundle driving a #1 album, to make it promo heaven for their TV appearances promoting the trek. Is politics a factor in the timing of their new drop date? Would they like to dump Gaslighter on the Orange Infection just ahead of the election? We wouldn’t be surprised. The Chicks’ last album has done 3m+ RTD since its release in 2006.

 Lady Gaga had only a few big stadium shows to offer fans; her records may not be bulletproof, but her touring, thus far, has been. The question is, how long will it stay that way? Her 5/29 drop date is now official; a ticket bundle should assure her of a #1 bow—unless something drops that can do 200k first week, which would likely be a stretch for Gaga at this point. Then again, it would be unwise to underestimate the star, her fans or the market prowess of IGA. Will she cancel/postpone her scheduled dates once the ticket bundle is verified?

Beyoncé really is bulletproof—she hasn’t had a big pop smash in years, but it doesn’t matter in the least. She’s a cultural icon and can fill stadiums without releasing music. Whatever she does, the world will go on kissing her ring. Even so, insiders say they wouldn’t be shocked to see new music from her by year’s end.

Adele, on the other hand, is the most interesting case of all. A few years ago, it seemed women between 25 and 60 couldn’t buy her album fast enough; 25 has done more than 11.5m since its 2015 drop. But will that hardcore audience give her streams of comparable volume? In any event, expect great music and the star’s low-key, understated approach, which has galvanized her worldwide legions. And discussion continues about a single in the fall and an album just before Thanksgiving, depending on the state of the pandemic. One would think that those decisions need to be made early enough to set all the moving parts in place. 

What about Cardi B? She’s dropped a number of tracks and features in the last year or so, but it’s been a long while since her 2018 debut album (3.3m+ RTD). Still, she’s a monster brand; insiders say a protracted renegotiation of her record deal has held up the release of her next full-length. What’s taking so long to get that deal done? Is something more than money involved?

THE NEW CALLOUT: TikTok has become the most important tech platform of the current era. This fact was obvious even before last week’s announcement that the Chinese-owned pop-culture engine had set a new record for app installs in a single quarter (315m) and had earned more than 2 billion worldwide since its launch. It has been the catalyst for recent breakouts like Doja Cat, BENEE, Surfaces, Arizon Zervas, SAINt JHN and more—and the accelerant for hits by established acts like The Weeknd and Dua Lipa. It is where Gen Z (and whatever comes after Z) discovers music and leans on the button, sending songs into the stratosphere as they fly from TikTok to comparatively old-fashioned socials like Instagram (OK, Millennial) and up the streaming charts.

Its influencers have the eyes and ears of kids in a way most pop stars could only dream of and are commanding substantial sums for their various hustles. When they get behind a release, the response can be formidable. Witness platform megastar Charli D’Amelio (53.3m followers) giving the new Marshmello/Halsey, “Be Kind,” a serious boost by premiering a snippet on her official page.

There’s changing strategy being employed in the use of influencers to develop a story and gauge the appetite for a track—it’s comparable to warming up the audience for the headliner or starting out in secondary markets before calling one’s shot with the top gatekeepers. Eventually, though, all roads lead to Charli.

Lest biz folks imagine they can easily tame and ride this beast, though, understand that this all-consuming platform of dance crazes and other short-form, viral video is a true wild card. One of the most mind-boggling aspects of this phenomenon is that there really is no such thing as a TikTok song—its lottery can be won by new tracks, classic hits, big stars, unknowns, moldy old AM mid-charters. Any genre is eligible, not to mention a great song that fuses all the genres together (“Old Town Road,” you’ll recall, first pinged the radar when scores of kids used it in clips of themselves turning into cowpokes).

This is the new callout. And though some TikTok hits may fizzle before they can cross to other platforms, having the viral energy of its community behind your song can be absolutely explosive. Call it a datamining operation if you like; in terms of discovery, TikTok is a goldmine.

THAT’S NOT ALL, FOLKS: Less than a year and a half into the Warner Records regime of Aaron Bay-Schuck and Tom Corson, there’s been a noticeable uptick, thanks to Dua Lipa, PARTYNEXTDOOR and NLE Choppa, with new music from Saweetie on the way.

 ALPHA WOLF: With our editorial deep dive on radio promotion, its colorful cast of characters and its heightened importance during the pandemic, we’ve in-evitably done more than a little reminiscing about the greats in biz history who played the game at the highest level. Names like Palmese, Ienner, Thyret, Phil Q, Minor, DiLeo, Barbis, Benesch, Wax, Wendell, Coury, Bettencourt and Leach all come to mind.

But if there were ever an all-star team of the greatest pros—or a FedEx Hall of Fame (where Quid Pro Quo was the motto)—the late, great Polly Anthony would be the MVP choice of many bizniks. The rare combination of a titanium work ethic and a determination to win not unlike LeBron James was part of Polly’s legacy. Yes, she was capable of the double sincere, but wielded it with considerable grace and a genuine feeling that she cared about others—especially the artists she represented.

Polly came up inside the CBS system in the Walter Yetnikoff era, making her bones in Epic’s West Coast promo department, led by the legendary Frank “Tookie” DiLeo as Michael Jackson exploded. She earned the top promo job at Epic after DiLeo, who helmed the Thriller campaign, went off to manage MJ (he also credibly played mobster Tuddy Cicero in Goodfellas; his own legacy could have come straight out of a Scorsese epic). Polly was one of the very few execs from Team Walter to not only survive the transition to Tommy Mottola’s leadership but thrive in the Wolf Pack. Indeed, a case can be made that Polly was an alpha wolf.

After Tommy pushed Walter out and tapped Dave Glew to run Epic, Dave launched the 550 imprint; Polly became 550 GM and then Epic’s chief. She and her close friend and mentor Michele Anthony ran with the other overachievers of Sony’s mid-’90s label group (Tommy, Donnie, Dave, et al), and achieved unprecedented chart dominance. Add Celine Dion, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, Titanic, J.Lo, Gloria Estefan and more to Jackson’s monster releases.

Polly reigned at Epic until Mottola and Glew exited and her longtime nemesis Ienner fired her. Jimmy Iovine quickly scooped her up to head Geffen.

Before she left the lair of the wolves, Steve Barnett replaced her at Epic, catapulting him on a meteoric run that’s still underway—and a young Jacqueline Saturn had begun her promo career under Polly.

Caroline boss Saturn, who shares that she first worked for DiLeo walking Laura Branigan’s dog, making Taylor Dayne’s egg whites and picking up Frank’s club sandwiches from the deli back in the day, remembers the fearsome figure Polly cut in the office. “I will always remember how Polly only rolled with the guys,” she says. “It was Steve Kingston and Rick Bisceglia, and she could out-party anyone and just left them in her dust. I have vivid memories of everyone coming to work dying of the worst hangover and her rolling in with her perfect outfit, acting like nothing happened. We were scared to say hello to her; you didn’t talk to her unless she spoke to you first.” Of course, Saturn has since become quite formidable in her own right—she is one of the few execs in the biz to transition from promotion to a senior-management level.

As for Polly, she was among the baddest of the badasses. She was renowned for her abundant grace under pressure and ability to close when the right time came. (She was also known for “fixing” anything resembling a cold streak by firing some top promo people.) She was charismatic and disciplined, ruthless and fun, relentless and hilarious. In short, quite remarkable. We lost Polly to pancreatic cancer in 2013, but her legend lives on.

 

 

 

 

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