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NEAR TRUTHS: CHANGINGS OF THE GUARD

ANY BUBBLY LEFT? Well, 2020 finally ended—even if seemed to take 10 years and the threads holding our democracy together continue to fray. May you be safe and vaccinated in the near future, and may we continue to have a president rather than an emperor. With that benediction, let’s take a quick look at the top stories at the dawn of 2021.

OPENING PITCH: Beyond the nightmare of an attempted coup and the drama of the second impeachment, the year is starting out with big fireworks—in a good way—for the biz.

Right out of the box, the House of Lipman (via Seth England’s Big Loud) has a giant set from country streaming phenom Morgan Wallen, which not only hit #1 but earned the biggest first-week streams of any country album ever with 228m. Its opening frame was double that of the #2 country streamer, Luke CombsWhat You See Ain't Always What You Get (Deluxe Edition), and equaled the totals of the other Top 4 country sets’ openings combined. Wallen is one of a handful of young Nashville stars who know how to surf the waves of the new ecosystem.

Five of the Top 10 on 2020’s final chart are Lipman’s. Taylor Swift’s latest appears to include real hits, Ariana Grande and Victor Victor’s Pop Smoke continue their phenomenal runs and The Weeknd should see a major bump with his Super Bowl halftime performance. Monte will soon add a new Drake release to his hot hand.

Geffen has a genuine breakout—and the biggest story of the new year—with young pop artist Olivia Rodrigo. Her “drivers license” is a bona fide supernova, smashing nearly every streaming record in sight and further fueling John Janick’s mighty IGA. How big? It had the #2 opening week of the streaming era with 62m, surpassed only by Drake’s “God’s Plan.” In fact, Drake has three of the Top 5 songs and Cardi B the other. That this artist virtually nobody knew about on New Year’s Day now ranks among these giants is astounding 

Rodrigo’s massive numbers have some insiders wondering if a new lane (powered in part by the emo kids who love Billie Eilish and their younger siblings) is emerging to challenge hip-hop’s dominance in the streaming sphere. This track is pure magic, and its incredible rise is the essence of the new marketplace. A pub contest is now in full swing, with multiple bidders and UMPG thought to have the inside track; manager Kristen Smith once worked for Universal Pub. Rodrigo is repped for legal by Kelly Vallon at Ziffren Brittenham.

Current label marketshare leader Janick will undoubtedly continue his run, though without longtime hitter Joie Manda. Janick retains a quiver full of arrows, however, including pop’s most gravity-defying stars and multiple hot A&R sources—among them SCMG, LVRN, 10 Summers, Darkroom, Grade A and Todd Moscowitz’s Alamo. He has two of the Top 3 albums on 2021’s first chart, as well as the aforementioned Rodrigo breakout.

Will Mosco’s Alamo continue its successful joint venture with Janick’s IGA? Negotiations are reportedly hot and heavy; some are convinced Mosco will remain at UMG, but nothing’s done yet—and the competition is highly motivated to pick this deal off. Still, label brass are said to be big believers in the partnership’s potent chemistry, even as they assess what’s shaping up to be one of the biggest JV deals in recent memory. The Alamo boss has been developing talent quite effectively in the hip-hop sphere over the past 15 years (going back to his days with Liar), and the advent of the singles-driven streaming marketplace played right into his power alley. Among his big successes: Lil Durk, Trevor Daniel, Rod Wave and blackbear.

You may still be plotzed out from the holiday break, but you can bet Columbia boss Ron Perry’s 24/7 finding, signing and developing of projects has barely slowed down. Will he, too, be rolling out new music from a megastar early-ish in 2021? The Kid LAROI is Big Red’s current meteor, while Ritt Momney is showing signs of reaching the next level.

Justin Bieber has yet another giant—one of several now racking up major spins at Pop radio—suggesting that the Def Jam superstar may be on the verge of yet another huge chapter. Scooter Braun is once again putting mad points on the board with the same playbook that broke Biebs’ Purpose album wide open. That strategy controlled vast DSP and radio bandwidth with multiple duets and features, and was coordinated with military precision in the months prior to the album drop. A similarly calibrated plan kicked Ariana Grande into overdrive.

Bieber’s 2020 set, Changes, was a minor departure from that playbook—and a mild disappointment commercially—but it doubtless contributed to the star’s ever-growing artistic credibility as his career began to reignite. When touring resumes in earnest, meanwhile, Bieber’s return to the stage will be an important litmus test for the live sector.  

All eyes are now on Vine Street as insiders wonder how the new Capitol team will realign under Jeff Vaughn and Michelle Jubelirer, currently beginning their first official year atop the House that Barnett Built. Where do Elliot Grainge and Ethiopia Habtemariam, both of whom are helping drive the company’s biggest hits, fit into the overall game plan? What other moves are already underway to retool the Tower for a new era? Much attention is focused on developing acts Queen Naija and Toosii, while iann dior (featured on 24k Goldn’s smash) is emerging as another story for Elliot’s 10k.

Insiders feel this will be the year that the Warner Records tandem of Aaron Bay-Schuck and Tom Corson turns the corner and realizes the great expectations invested in the team by Max Lousada. Signs of 2021 being a turning point include momentum from Dua Lipa and big streams for hit CJ (now at 710k in activity and 172m+ worldwide streams on Spotify alone), as well as potential gains from Saweetie’s new cut with Doja Cat, Carl Crawford/1501-repped newcomer Erica Banks and pending new music from prior breakout Ali Gatie. In other Warner news, Lousada has taken up residency in L.A. for a month or so, pressing the flesh and kissing babies as part of a goodwill tour.

Over at Sony, RCA boss Peter Edge has made some upper-tier adjustments as the company pivots to address an evolving marketplace. He’s upped erstwhile Urban Music head and ByStorm founder/chief Mark Pitts to President of the label and promoted Co-Prez John Fleckenstein to COO. Longtime player Joe Riccitelli is exiting to start a new venture. He has served RCA with distinction over the years and is undoubtedly due for a spot in the Promo Exec Hall of Fame. Who will fill those very big shoes?

Is Nipper on the verge of heating up again thanks to Top Dawg’s SZA, Andrew Watt-produced Miley Cyrus, Tate McRae, Top 5-bowing Jazmine Sullivan and the buzzing Flo Milli? Meanwhile, rumors are flying that new sets from Doja Cat and Brockhampton will be coming soon.

Sylvia Rhone’s Epic continues to burnish its brand as a key hip-hop destination, the result of stars like Travis Scott, Future and 21 Savage; the label has also made serious inroads in the Latin world with Black Eyed Peas. Sylvia and team are further seeing early global action on HVME and signs of promise from rapper DDG. What else does industry trailblazer (and key voice for change) Rhone have in the hopper for ’21?

COPYRIGHT NOW: The term “going for a song” used to mean selling cheap, but that phrase may need to be retired given the stratospheric deals now routinely being cut for song catalogs. It was rumored that several such deals would be announced before the end of the year due to tax issues, but it was pretty quiet on the catalog front until just after New Year’s, when perpetual disruptor Merck Mercuriadis announced blockbuster deals for Neil Young, Lindsey Buckingham, Jimmy Jam and Shakira catalogs as well as the acquisition of Jimmy Iovine’s producer points on some 259 songs (as well as a couple of films). The floodgates have opened, and the still-uncertain economic picture will undoubtedly cause more than a few more copyright owners to review offers. Larry Mestel’s Primary Wave has also emerged as a major player in the space; his newest deals include Adele tunesmith Dan Wilson and the incomparable Stevie Nicks. Investment house KKR has jumped into the game bigtime, too, landing a fat deal for Ron Laffitte-repped hitmaker Ryan Tedder’s capacious catalog.

While the M Boys have prompted the spilling of much ink thanks to their inkings, the majors too have been shelling out for big troves (such as Dylan’s, a year-ending plum for Jody Gerson’s UMPG, which also just did a deal with top tunesmith/producer Louis Bell). The multiples, as any songwriter’s attorney will tell you with a mixture of glee and disbelief, have gone ga-ga. Will they ever come back down to earth? With streaming’s continued expansion—even as most other things contract—there’s no reason to think they will.

WE’LL BE RIGHT BACK AFTER THIS:  The postponing of the Grammy show makes all kinds of sense given the dreadful situation in Southern California. 3/14 was announced as the new date by Harvey Mason Jr., Ben Winston and Jack Sussman as it’s hoped the worst of the surge will be over and a significant number of vaccinations distributed by then. A settlement of the Academy’s arbitration with former boss Deb Dugan is also thought to be pending, which would be a welcome resolution for the beleaguered org.

Even so, certain fundamental issues remain. This year sees one of the most problematic nomination slates in recent history, with baffling snubs in the Big Four and absurd oversights in several key genres. Rather than the step forward we were promised in terms of transparency, we got business as usual—with the slightly sinister aspect of insiders working the secret rooms feeling even more pronounced. There appeared to be some new players pulling strings behind the scenes, alongside the familiar figures in Nashville. Still, hopes continue to run high for a strong telecast in March, as producer Winston gets his first opportunity to leverage his deep relationships with the top artists of the day, working closely with Sussman.

 

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