HITS Daily Double


TURN AND FACE THE STRANGE CHANGES: “Nobody really knows anything.” That old maxim has been an intermittent refrain in the biz over the years, and the uncertainty of the present has brought it back to the fore. Perhaps it should be amended to “Nobody really knows anything except for Taylor Swift, who has redefined fan engagement beyond anything we’ve ever seen.”

Change is the only constant. In virtually every meaningful respect, the business is a different beast from what it was a short time ago. The streaming and social-media revolutions transformed the marketplace, and the AI revolution is preparing to do the same. Data and analytics have permanently altered the way the poker is played. Global audiences have redrawn the maps. What is required to run a successful music company today is an entirely different proposition from what it once was. All of which has the biz in a state of agitation. We may be feeling the birth pangs of something entirely new.

METAMORPHOSIS, THE REMIX : Distribution is changing the face of A&R, and as everyone looks for what might be next, the field appears radically different from the way it did as recently as two years ago. Hip-hop no longer dominates pop-sounding music, though Capitol broke through with rap rookie of the year and BNA nominee Ice Spice. The new country (led by Morgan Wallen and Zach Bryan) is at the top of the heap, while singer-songwriters with guitars are making a decided comeback; Latin music (paced by acts like Bad Bunny, Peso Pluma and KAROL G) and K-pop have amassed huge followings and continue to move the needle. The Grammy noms and Coachella lineup, meanwhile, acknowledge that female energy has invigorated pop; Tay, SZA, Billie, Olivia, Miley, Dua, Lana and more have been making noise for the last year.

The aforementioned singer-songwriter renaissance is led by Mercury/Republic’s Noah Kahan (nurtured by Mercury co-heads Ben Adelson and Tyler Arnold), adding another major artist to Republic’s superstar roster, and Warner’s Zach Bryan, both of whom are huge and likely to stick around for a while. Aaron Bay-Schuck and Tom Corson, having made a canny bet on Zach, are now seeing heat on Teddy Swims and Benson Boone as well, with a few others showing real promise. Bay-Schuck’s A&R vision is paying off as songwriters and storytelling enjoy a real moment on the streaming charts from North America to Europe to Australia. John Janick’s IGA is exemplary as regards artist development and is seeing the fruits of its far-sightedness after investing in (and patiently developing) artists like Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo and pursuing global partnerships that are putting significant points on the board.

While Warner definitely seems to be turning a corner, the biggest winners in 2023, in terms of streaming, Grammys and pop-cultural visibility were Republic, Interscope and RCA. Columbia and Atlantic were largely off-cycle. Sylvia Rhone’s Epic now has some real heat thanks to Travis Scott, 21 Savage and Tyla, with Future (whose last album was a monster) on deck.

CHANGE AGENTS: What’s the next frontier? The biz is betting strongly on global markets, including territories in Africa, Asian countries beyond South Korea and India. Though these and other international potentialities have yet to burst forth, the majors are investing considerable resources in their cultivation.

Economic conditions are making the landscape more challenging, and all three majors are re-evaluating not only their business models but the people leading their teams. If you’re running a company that can be likened, in size and scope, to an aircraft carrier, you just hope you have sufficient—and sufficiently varied—A&R-driven labels and/or distribution centers. Then, when something breaks, you’ll already be in it. The majors are by necessity betting on the come: picking talented people, implementing sophisticated systems (yes, including AI), drilling oil wells and hoping for the proverbial gusher.

Patience is said to be a virtue, but it can be in short supply when changes come so quickly; something new seems to be driving the marketplace every six months. That trend, we can be pretty certain, will continue.

WINNING: The game is on and the teams are set; it’s time to put together a winning season for 2024, particularly if you had a less-than-stellar 2023. The smart money is on the teams that have been consistently strong over the last decade. The very competitive nature of their leadership is the formula for renewed success. (If you can’t compete at the highest level, there’s surely someone waiting to replace you.)

This burning desire to prevail is in these execs’ DNA—whether it’s the charts, artist development, analytics, market share, radio airplay, SNL, the Grammys, the CMAs, the ABCs or the LSMFTs. Betting against them seems like an arbitrageur’s play.