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NEAR TRUTHS:
DEVELOPING STORIES

THE STOCK OF THE NEW: New and developing artists have become almost everything to rights holders, as fresh or very recently established acts continue to dominate the marketplace. As we roll out our latest N&D special issue, we’re ever mindful of the fact that most of the songs crowding the upper reaches of the DSP charts are from acts who weren’t even on the radar a couple of years ago. With strong A&R and marketing, Columbia (Lil Nas X, The Kid LAROI, Polo G, BTS), IGA (Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo, DaBaby) and Republic (Morgan Wallen, Post Malone) have led the charge, and this is reflected in their consistent chart performance.

Astronomical growth in the Latin market has also altered the landscape. Spanish-language cuts (largely from acts that have broken in the last few years) now represent about 25% of Spotify’s Global Top 50. Bad Bunny and J Balvin have become international superstars, selling out stadiums.

For many artists who’ve been around a while, though, the present situation is problematic. As advances shrank amid diminishing sales and the live side flourished, more than a few of these artists took the monies they earned from masters for granted. Artist cycles and the delivery of new music were, until quite recently, governed by the global touring schedule. During that span, which might easily last three years, an artist, with one album as her vessel, could sail blissfully on a vast river of cash. Then all the sea lanes closed as COVID simultaneously darkened the world’s venues and lit up the streaming scoreboard.

With these other changes came a massive increase in fan engagement and a relentless appetite for more content. Along with streaming, TikTok and other social apps formed the infrastructure for a new recorded-music economy that relied on a much steadier flow of releases. The album-every-three-years model was fully supplanted by consistent drops—of new singles, features, EPs, mixtapes, deluxe albums and so forth. The buzzword is content, and this extends to multiple “visuals” for tracks and social initiatives to remain on fans’ radar.

This trend really began in the hip-hop world and was later adopted by savvy pop artists. Drake, Kanye West, Lil Baby, DaBaby, Lil Nas X, Travis Scott, Polo G, Roddy Ricch, Future and Moneybagg Yo are among the acts that have kept the content supply constant and occupied ample real estate on the playlists and platforms that matter. Artists like Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Doja Cat, Dua Lipa and Morgan Wallen kept feeding the DSP pipeline to maintain fan interest and chart longevity.

Much of today’s recorded market revolves around hits and one-offs by artists who have never sold a ticket—and may never sell one. The question, which will require some time to answer, is how many of these young acts will parlay their big records into careers.

 STAGE WHISPERS: The labels, traditionally, have gotten all the glory in the media. The coveted trophy is that little gramophone. It’s always “RCA (or Capitol or what have you) recording artist so-and-so” before the National Anthem. Rights holders have rarely accorded the live sector the respect it deserves. It was never the glamourous side of the biz, and didn’t garner much media attention—until Michael Rapino (with an able assist from Irving Azoff) built a mighty machine called Live Nation. Most artist managers let the lack of media glory slide on their way to the bank, and a handful—such as Coran Capshaw, Q Prime, Team Crush, John Silva and Scooter Braun—built fabulous businesses based on their relationships with talent.

The contractual relationship between rights holders and artists is much more enforceable than that between artists and managers. At the same time, there are countless examples of 20-plus-year relationships between acts and managers, relationships with shelf lives that—for the most part—far exceed those with rights holders.

This is important to bear in mind as the live side grapples with COVID. The situation is spurring no small amount of resentment among some top managers, who see the escalating valuation of rights holders’ assets and a return to record profitability just as artists are struggling to cover the expenses of running their businesses. Times have changed, for certain; music sales spent a decade in the dumper post-Napster, while the live sector began a wild upward swing fueled by rising ticket prices. Artists had considerably more leverage, and releases were a means to the all-important end of selling tickets. Now the pendulum has swung radically in the other direction, and the grumbling among artist reps is considerable.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS: With the recent stadium action in Dallas and Miami, it’s apparent that the outdoor live scene has come roaring back, with fears of “superspreader” incidents looking minimal for now. A brace of sold-out festivals, including Lollapalooza (which kicked off just before this issue went to press), will further test the safety of outdoor events. Between Rolling Loud, Hella Mega and Lolla, Live Nation sold 1 million tickets over the two weekends.

The return to indoor venues is an entirely different matter, of course, and significant stress accompanies the reopening of ballrooms and clubs as the Delta variant continues its rampage. Will proof of vaccination/COVID tests be a requirement for entry? How much pushback might that engender, particularly with the political sensitivities attached? In any case, most believe another shutdown of the live side is extremely unlikely, as nobody wants to crash the economy again. The new gestalt is: Get your ass vaccinated or pay the piper.

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(Adele.)
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