The late 1990s were arguably the pivotal period for musical theatre. In 1997, The Lion King debuted and has so far grossed $8.2bn according to Forbes, making it the most successful musical theatre production of all time. Two years later, however, Mamma Mia! arrived and changed the shape of musical theatre forever – generating over $2bn to date and ushering in the era of the jukebox musical as a cultural phenomenon.
Jukebox musicals actually date back to 1975 with The Night That Made America Famous, based around the songs of Harry Chapin, with other notable ones in the decades since being Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story (1989) and Boogie Nights (1997) built around disco hits. It should also be pointed out that Mamma Mia! was not actually the first jukebox musical based around the music of ABBA – that honour goes to ABBAcadabra, a children’s musical that began on French TV in 1983 and later transferred to the stage in the UK. But Mamma Mia! was the one that shifted everything and its influence is still being felt in London’s West End and Broadway in New York.
The Society Of London Theatre reported that in 2017 West End theatre audiences topped 15.5m. Adding in data from UK Theatre, that number rose to 34m across the UK, generating revenues of £1.28bn. In London alone, almost two-thirds of attendance (9.4m) came from musicals and they accounted for £503m of the £765m generated across all theatres (so 65% of the market).
It is an even more impressive story on Broadway with musicals there in the 2017/2018 season accounting for $1.44bn dollars while other shows accounted for $257.67m, meaning that musicals controlled just shy of 85% of Broadway box office takings in the period.
In recent years, Hamilton, with its music based around hip-hop, has been the runaway success in its migration from Broadway to London, playing to packed houses and bookings running many months into the future. On top of that, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (with music by Dan Gillespie Sells from The Feeling and its plot revolving around a teenage boy expressing himself through drag) burst out of the gates and shows how the themes musicals are addressing are evolving. Even the music of Bob Dylan, perhaps the least likely source of a jukebox musical, is reaching new audiences through the theatre in Girl From The North Country.
Musicals are evolving at a rapid rate and are without question the new centre of gravity in theatre-land. Those licensing the rights here are seeing a sharp uptick in their revenues, of course; but they are also seeing the very architecture of the business changing in parallel.
“Those licensing the rights here are seeing a sharp uptick in their revenues, of course; but they are also seeing the very architecture of the business changing in parallel.”
To understand the changes, we first need to understand the different types of rights that apply here – namely grand rights and small rights.
“Grand rights are the licence that is given by a publisher for, say, a ballet or an opera,” explains Gill Graham, the group head of promotion at The Music Sales Group. “Grand rights are really quite significant. And also the amount of money we get from a repeat – like Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, which is licensed a lot around the world – is significant income.”
In such a set up, what would typically happen is that an opera house would commission new music for a production but the writer and the publisher will control the rights. While buy outs of the rights can happen, they are rare.
The revenues resulting here, however, will vary depending on where the production is playing. “For example, you might see a tariff of 14% of net box office receipts in Finland and in the UK you might see 10% of net box office receipts,” says Graham. “So we participate in licences per territory wherever the work is being performed. In the case of something like Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland for The Royal Ballet, we do a licence with them if they are on tour either direct to the house that they’re going to or with them. It can work both ways.”
These rights will be negotiated between the writer/publisher and the producer or theatre behind the show. PRS for Music, which does not grant licences for grand rights for theatres (but can for film performances, TV performances and documentaries), explains them as follows: “This term refers to ‘dramatico-musical’ works and ballet where we don’t control the live public performance right. A dramatico-musical work is an opera, musical play or show, revue or pantomime for which the music has been specially written. Licensing is undertaken by the appropriate rights holder.”
PRS can, however, arrange licences for small rights which it defines as: “[M]usic not specially written for a dramatic presentation. We control small rights where we recognise two categories of use: interpolated music and incidental music.”
In brief, small rights relate to songs that already exist and have (typically) been released commercially by recording artists and relate to jukebox musicals.
“In the case of Tina: The Tina Turner musical, those performance rights are vested in the PRS,” says Penny Duncanson, contracts administration manager at Sony/ATV. “A producer would approach us and we have, as the publisher, the option to contact the PRS and go through the 7(f) procedure where we request a notice pursuant article 7(f) which allows the publisher to license instead of the PRS.”
Producers can go direct to PRS for such licences or they can approach the publisher or publishers (if the music of multiple writers is being used). There are different reasons for going via PRS or going direct.
“It is the producer’s decision whether to apply for permission via PRS or to contact the publisher directly,” says Claire Osborne, musicals/standard repertoire administrator at Warner/Chappell UK. “For example, if there’s quite a long list of songs, the producer may choose to contact PRS to submit an application for dramatic right authorisation. PRS will collate all the performance information and details of all of the songs, before circulating an interpolated music request to the relevant publishers. PRS will then give the publishers the option of handling their songs directly – so issuing a direct licence for the use of their songs in the production – or it can handle the licence on their behalf. Alternatively, the producer can contact the publisher directly without getting PRS involved.”
Going direct to the publisher could mean the licence is processed more quickly; but this really only works if the producer already knows who controls the rights for the different songs they want to use. Going to PRS means that it would do most of the leg work here in terms of identifying which writers and publishers need to be approached for which songs.
This all leads to the next hurdle: no matter what route the producer takes, the songs and their use will have to be approved by the writer.
The approval process
Publishers and writers, when a licensing request for small rights comes in, will typically want more information about the production as well as both how and where their music will be used. This will shape the subsequent licensing decision.
“We’re generally given all the performance details – an outline of what the show’s about, a list of the songs to be included, the performance dates, the venue, the seating capacity, the ticket prices and so on,” says Osborne. “Some of our clients we go to for approval may request script excerpts – so we’ll ask the producers to provide us with them or scene descriptions outlining how the songs are to be used. It’s our clients’ decision as to whether or not it’s something they want to approve.”
There may be objections to the tone of the script – that may (in the writer’s mind) cast them or their work in a bad light. Or they may have issues if their music is played for laughs.
More frequently than not, however, the licensing request could be rejected simply for reasons of competition.
“Often it is because you might have a writer who is wanting to put together their own show,” says Duncanson. “They may not want it completing with another one.”
In that sense, then, it may work like an exclusivity clause in all but name.
Extending rights as the show grows
When looking to clear rights here, the initial request will come with very strict parameters. It will be for the initial incarnation of the production – be it in a small regional theatre or straight to the West End/Broadway. But if the show starts to build momentum and the producer wants to move to a bigger theatre, take it on tour or even develop multiple international incarnations, then a new licence will have to be agreed for each iteration here.
“Sometimes a show might start off in a provincial theatre and possibly do a UK tour and then it might come to the West End,” explains Duncanson. “There might be slightly separate licensing arrangements for a provincial tour and different commercial terms if it comes into the West End.”
While the bigger productions will normally work on a percentage of box office receipts (that will depend on the countries it is being performed in), there will be an element of flexibility for licensing for the smaller regional productions that could potentially grow in scale or may always be short-run local affairs.
Here a flat-fee arrangement can be arranged to ensure there is a balance between the writers/publishers getting paid and the production hopefully covering its costs or turning a profit.
There is, however, a slight trend now towards big productions seeking a flat-fee licence (instead of a percentage of box office agreement). Large-scale musical productions can generate enormous profits if successful, but they are incredibly costly and risky ventures – with enormous upfront casting, rehearsals and staging costs before it can even start to sell tickets. They will obviously wish to lower the risks involved and considering new licensing structures is one way they feel they can do that.
“Large-scale musical productions can generate enormous profits if successful, but they are incredibly costly and risky ventures – with enormous upfront casting, rehearsals and staging costs before it can even start to sell tickets. They will obviously wish to lower the risks involved and considering new licensing structures is one way they feel they can do that.”
This is more typical in the US, but in the UK it is not a route that publishers and writers are necessarily willing to go down.
“In the US and on Broadway, they have a formula based normally on a percentage of weekly operating profits,” explains Duncanson. “That is a formula that more producers are trying to introduce into the UK because it is a better model for their investors or the risk that they have to take on when they are launching a new production. However, as a music publisher, we feel it is better for our writers if we retain a formula that is based on the box office receipts. A formula based on weekly operating profits is going to be a lot less than if it was on a straight percentage of the box office.”
While rare, some major productions may seek a simulcast licence for broadcast into cinemas, for example. In the UK, such a broadcast would be covered under the PRS licensing agreements it would have in the relevant cinemas and would be relatively straightforward to arrange.
There will, however, be clauses that the simulcast will have to be live or near-live because a recording and re-broadcast at a later date would fall under a synchronisation licence.
While YouTube does live streaming from a multitude of music festivals, such as Coachella, this has yet to really enter the musical theatre world. One publisher said this is something they have not personally had to clear a licence for but agreed that it is “an avenue that could be explored” for them.
What next? The move for licensee to producer… maybe
Obviously the publishers are in a huge position of power here, controlling the rights to music that the producers of jukebox musicals need to clear in order to make their show work (or else they will have to drastically rewrite scripts if certain songs cannot be cleared).
So could a publisher start to change their business and become theatrical producers in their own right?
Well, no. And yes.
“It is quite a risky industry – I’ll put it that way!” say one publisher who has looked into this, weighed up the options and (for now) stepped back. “A lot of these ventures don’t reach profitability and they don’t recoup. The good ones do and they go on and have quite a long life. As an investor it is a big speculation. It is quite a speculative investment and a very specialist investment. The risk on your return is quite high. As a business venture for publishers, I don’t think that is necessarily on our radar at the moment.”
The Music Sales Group, however, is seeing a lot of opportunity here – albeit on the documentary side for now rather than the theatrical side.
“As of now we are beginning to create our own content,” reveals Graham. “We are creating a branch of Music Sales which will be to not just own the music rights but to own the audio-visual rights as well. So, for example, if you make a documentary about a legendary composer, we pay for the filming and then we own the master in the audio-visual as well as any music that might be represented by them within that documentary. That then puts us in the position of having more valuable rights in addition to the rights that we just get from the music. Then we can look at licensing that through international distribution networks or to streaming videos and on-demand services like Amazon Prime or Netflix. We would actually create our own content as a music publisher for audio-visual rights.”
“The costs and risks of going down the theatrical producer route for publishers are currently prohibitive, but the moves by some here to start to become content creators could lead into other ventures inspired by the money-generating power of Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys and Rock Of Ages.”
The costs and risks of going down the theatrical producer route for publishers are currently prohibitive, but the moves by some here to start to become content creators could lead into other ventures inspired by the money-generating power of Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys and Rock Of Ages.
Could we eventually see Warner/Chappell: The Musical or Sing-A-Long-A-Sony/ATV take Broadway by storm? Don’t rule it out.
Enjoyed this article? Why not check out: An interview with Andy Leighton, the man behind The Rocky Horror Show’s music publishing