The opportunities to tweak the DNA that runs through existing recordings across an interconnected media landscape are distinct and interrelated, explains Ben Gilbert.
What connects ABC, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Pet Shop Boys, Spandau Ballet and Grace Jones? They are all, of course, acts from the 1980s who enjoyed a pre-eminent phase of success during this era. But there is another defining thread: the production work of Trevor Horn. In fact, so acclaimed was he across the decade that it’s credible to compare the inescapable studio influence of Horn, a three-time Best British Producer BRIT winner, to Phil Spector 20 years earlier, as ZTT Records co-founder Paul Morley attests.
“If in the 60s, Phil Spector created a wall of sound, by the middle of the 80s Horn had already established his sound, a whole room of sound, the walls, floors, ceilings, doors, windows, decorated with absolute flourish,” he said in an online post. This lavish description might also explain why Horn, with eccentricities of his own, is reported to have produced more than 70 versions of ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ when working with Jones on her 1985 album of the same name.
Some 35 years later, this epic recalibration of one individual track actually doesn’t seem quite so hair-brained, particularly as we survey a music industry landscape that is increasingly interconnected, merging cultures and breaking the borders that link music consumers. Take, for example, rapper SpotemGottem’s ‘Beat Box’, which came out 12 months ago and recently sired, after multiple previous reworkings, ‘Beat Box 5’, featuring Polo G.
The song, which has achieved millions of streams across platforms such as Spotify and YouTube, narrowly failed to break the Billboard Hot 100 Top 10 in April. There has been a comparable level of success for Lil Nas X’s ‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name)’, which made number one around the world, in part thanks to the array of versions, which included extended, instrumental, lo-fi and a cappella mixes.
“If people want to listen to your song, simply give them more of it”
As The New York Times reported: “Both ‘Beat Box’ and ‘Montero’ are case studies in how to extract maximum value from a single song, a strategy that – as the internet and streaming services push artists away from albums and toward songs (or, sometimes, snippets of songs) – is emerging as an elegant promotional solution: If people decide they want to listen to your song, simply give them more of it.”
At the centre of this exchange is Intellectual Property (IP) and the ability to remake and remodel the intrinsic DNA that runs through existing recordings for domestic and global markets, in a world where these boundaries feel increasingly transparent. The opportunities here are distinct and interrelated, as evidenced by Synchtank’s recent Drowning In Data report and its analysis of emerging markets.
In fact, it’s clear just how lucrative and impactful worldwide economic contributions are becoming to the music business. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) recently released their 2021 Global Music Report, which found that, even in a calendar year defined by COVID-19, global recorded music revenues grew by 7.4% to $21.6b.
Investment, innovation and technology fuels music industry growth
Despite the near total shutdown of live music, IFPI Chief Executive Frances Moore believes technology has been instrumental in delivering continued financial progress: “Fuelled by record companies’ ongoing investment in artists and their careers, along with innovative efforts to help artists bring music to fans in new ways, recorded music revenues grew globally for the sixth consecutive year, driven by subscription streaming,” she explained.
Highlighting tangible increases in emerging destinations, there are trailblazing examples to explain this burgeoning evolution. Latin America retains its position as the fastest-growing region, accounting for more than 5% of the overall US market. Reggaeton sits centrally within this narrative, which has been in motion since Justin Bieber decided to remix Luis Fonsi’s ‘Despacito’ in 2017 after reportedly hearing it in a Colombian nightclub. The original version topped the Hot 100 for a record-equalling 16 weeks.
With growth of almost 10%, according to the IFPI report, there has also been increased focus on Asia. During this period, BTS, who recently made almost $20m in ticket sales for their record-breaking ‘Bang Bang Con’ show, and Blackpink were “arguably, the biggest boy band and biggest girl group on the planet”. Their success helped South Korea become 2020’s sixth largest music market with a $160m surplus in cultural and arts IP-related assets trade.
What can we learn from markets in Latin America, Asia and Africa?
But this is a very different environment and one with particular nuance and character. What can the broader music industry learn from markets such as Asia, in terms of imitating their successes and importing these acts? Speaking to Music Ally, Shin Cho, senior international marketing manager and head of K-pop and J-pop at Warner Music, cites the specific promotional tactics of “building a community of superfans and turning them into advocates and influencers for the artist”.
Bernie Cho, owner/founder of Seoul-based artist and label services agency DFSB Kollective, says there are also important structural differences in the way the respective industries operate. “The fully integrated, full-stack business model in South Korea – where artist management companies also wear record label and talent agency hats – works extremely well in Latin America and parts of Western Europe. In the US, you rarely see this type of streamlined, synergised setup,” explained Cho, pinpointing how agile this allows such entertainment companies to be.
In an interview with Synchtank, Spek from PopArabia, the Middle East’s leading music publisher, outlined some of the possibilities and challenges of repurposing music IP in Asian markets. He said: “Any company acquiring catalogs or signing writers, will always be thinking of the myriad of creative ways to add value internationally for those copyrights. I think there is definitely an opportunity in interpolating Western music to new markets.
“I think there is definitely an opportunity in interpolating Western music to new markets. However, I think the bigger opportunity may be in the reverse: making local content and taking it global.”
– Spek, PopArabia
“However, I think the bigger opportunity may be in the reverse: making local content and taking it global. It really depends on how it’s done. In simple terms, if the Chinese market overwhelmingly consumes Chinese content (which it does), then the real opportunity to gain economic value in China is in catering to the local market and local tastes. Then taking that around the world,” he said.
“Local expertise” a crucial factor in conquering domestic markets
Meanwhile, Merck Mercuriadis, who founded Hipgnosis Songs Fund in 2018 and has since made headlines worldwide after snapping up back catalog from the likes of Neil Young, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Shakira, suggests “local expertise” is a crucial factor in conquering domestic markets. “We’re in the middle of doing a deal with Tencent to allow them to be able to interpolate our songs into new IPs specifically for the Chinese market.
“They obviously control the two biggest DSPs (digital service providers) in China, they have the biggest publishing companies, the biggest record companies, so they’ve got the ability to be able to take our IP and turn it into new hits for the local market. We’ll own half of the IP of the new versions, they’ll own half the IP,” he told Bloomberg.
But while Aaron Davis, Integrated Media Consultant at iHeartMedia, agrees there are big opportunities in repurposing music for foreign markets, it remains a “tricky” proposition. ”Chinese IP law in particular is quite dangerous and a shipment of masters can result in your entire company’s identity being cloned and exploited without your permission by people who assume ‘you’ (as in, your identity as an employee or principle of XYZ publishing company) and have a ball charging license fees or simply selling CDs of your music, for whatever they can get for it,” he told Synchtank.
Elsewhere, a similar success story is being witnessed in Africa, a region that experienced an extraordinary rise of 36.4% in streaming revenues and total growth of almost 8.5% in 2020. These figures have been propelled by the success of Burna Boy, the Nigerian singer-songwriter who hit number one in multiple global streaming charts last summer with fifth album ‘Twice As Tall’, which recently won a Grammy.
Music IP can travel symbiotically in every direction and distance
“K-pop continues to make great strides, of course, but I would argue the most exciting development this year has been how African music and African artists have been embraced by fans worldwide,” Simon Robson of Warner Music Group said in the IFPI’s Global Music Report. His comments featured in a Quartz Africa piece which detailed the efforts of major labels such as Universal, who recently signed South African rappers Nasty C and Nadia Nakai to Def Jam Africa, to establish firmer footholds in these regions.
Sherrese Clarke Soares, former CEO of Tempo Music, describes music as a “vessel” and one that, powered by IP, can travel symbiotically in a wide range of directions and distances, far beyond simply being tweaked for foreign markets. “I think there’s definitely that potential. But I also think there’s a lot of value in local markets with local language or local music becoming more global.
“Five years ago, Afrobeats or K-pop was not as ubiquitous as it is today. Now it’s everywhere. There’s a huge opportunity to bring local perspectives to global markets.”
– Sherrese Clarke Soares
“It goes back to why I love content as a vessel. Five years ago, Afrobeats or K-pop was not as ubiquitous as it is today. Now it’s everywhere. There’s a huge opportunity to bring local perspectives to global markets as well. So, platforms that have global extensions are really ones that are interesting to me because you can find opportunities that way,” she told Synchtank.
Pandemic shows how receptive consumers are to global entertainment
The potential in Africa, which has the youngest population in the world, is being harnessed across mediums, to further propel this upward trajectory. Netflix are reported to be working on a number of African Original TV shows, while filming recently completed on the second season of Blood & Water in Cape Town. Meanwhile, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s acclaimed novel Americanah is being turned into an HBO series.
Indeed, a key learning from COVID-19 has been how receptive consumers have become to visual entertainment from other territories. “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen our members watching more content from other countries or cultures,” Netflix chief Reed Hastings commented in an audio essay broadcast on BBC Sounds. Shows such as Spain’s Money Heist, Italy’s Summertime and Germany’s Unorthodox have been cited as blueprints for this cultural crossover, alongside the barnstorming response to Oscar-winning Korean drama Parasite, which has grossed more than $250m.
The sync industry is perfectly placed to benefit from the transformation of a fully globalised music industry intent on rethinking their approach to IP. Large production music catalogs, for example, are able to tailor their libraries for different international audiences and songs can be repurposed, remixed and covered at dramatically reduced costs. Music publishers are in an ideal position to do this as they control the copyright to commission new versions.
“One Album Released By 44 Labels. Is This The New Global Jukebox”?
Summarising the simplistic mechanics of this process, Davis told Synchtank: “A composition, and a recording (or ‘master’), are two separate legally acknowledged forms of IP that may or may not apply to the same song, enabling yes, re-recordings of known songs where this new recording is available for license at a fraction of the cost of the ‘famous’ version. This cost savings is often enough to get a budget challenged license request financed since you’re now likely to pay about half as much.”
With digital hindsight, perhaps Trevor Horn’s single-minded vision for ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ doesn’t seem quite so unhinged. Arguably representative of both his unconventional thinking and visionary studio processes, Horn’s zeal for reworking material retains modern relevance in an entertainment sphere wired in a totally different way to his 80s heyday. In February, Indonesian act Senyawa were featured in the New York Times, under the headline: “One Album Released By 44 Labels. Is This The New Global Jukebox”?
Recognising the dual power of IP and national identity, the experimental duo authorised myriad unique releases of ‘Alkisah’ across four continents, including 200 remixes, bonus tracks and localised packaging. “The Beirut cover glows in iridescent orange and pink, the band’s name scrawled across it in Arabic. One of four German editions is stark and striking, suggesting cool minimal electronics,” explains the story, before concluding: “It is the most daring iteration yet of Senyawa’s new credo: ‘Decentralization should be the future.’”