Thursday, 10 September 2009

Major Music Labels: Great Power, Great Responsibility

At the start of the summer, Billboard magazine published an opinion piece by me on Marvel Entertainment - that company's remarkable turnaround and the potential lessons for major record labels. You may have seen that in recent days, Disney has also seen the value in Marvel, acquiring the company for $4 billion.

This being a music blog, I won't go into the why's & wherefore's of Disney-Marvel, but it's one to watch as to whether Disney will get its return, without compromising Marvel's brand too much. Anyhow, with kind courtesy of Billboard, my op-ed is published here in full for anyone who missed it. For similar food for thought, you might also want to re-visit my very first blog post on HBO - Music Lessons from a Content Powerhouse. For the true believers then...

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Music is being consumed by more people in more ways than ever before—we just have to figure out how to monetize it.

How many people have said that now? More people in more places than ever before, basically. Yet all is not well with the way the music industry is adapting to the new paradigm. Digital delivery may be changing the game for consumers and artists, but the bit in the middle—the industry—hasn’t yet figured out where the real money is going to come from. Meanwhile core product sales are in structural decline. What’s an industry to do?

Well, back in the late 1990s, another great entertainment business was dying on its back—comic book publishing—and specifically a great American cultural icon, Marvel Comics. In 1997, Marvel Entertainment escaped bankruptcy by a thread thinner than one of Spiderman’s. The company had failed to diversify its publishing business and flooded the market with comic book lines, effectively commoditizing its core business and leaving the company with a stock value of under $1. Yet today, Marvel is transformed with a stock value of $32 and a market capitalization of $2.5 billion. It is currently piling on the growth, riding roughshod over the global recession.

In order to rebuild, Marvel was forced to transform itself from a products business to a licensing business. With its “superstar” characters bringing in consistently lower yields, it needed to find a way to make money from its entire catalog of characters—not just the big names.

Three strategies began to turn Marvel’s fortunes around:
  1. Licensing. After the success of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” Marvel had hot IP once again. Other studios took a renewed interest in its characters and there was a rush to license other major characters from the portfolio.
  2. Product development. Nothing impacts on the culture like blockbuster movies, enabling Marvel’s characters to become hugely popular toys, video games, clothing and party accessories.
  3. Character development. With a library of over 4,000 characters, Marvel went to work on strategies for commercializing the mid-tail brands, including Daredevil, Elektra, X-Men and Ghost Rider.

By 2003 Marvel was rejuvenated, with steadily increasing revenues and profits. One key insight that helped drive this new phase of growth was the Marvel brand itself. Marvel had created a universe where characters not only had their own compelling stories, but where those stories were carefully and complexly interwoven with other characters. That universe is what drew many fans (including me) to Marvel comic books in the first place and still does, to its increasing stable of movies and related products. Now, the Marvel Universe concept is integrated throughout the company’s strategy.

The potential is there for record companies to use their labels in a similar way. Not easy, but it could be essential to long-term success. Island’s 50th Anniversary celebrations couldn’t be achieved without focusing on its identity. Nonesuch has created a wonderfully eclectic but somehow cohesive community of artists—and loyal fans. Indie labels might argue their identity is their lifeblood, even if not directly recognized by every music consumer. The music business needs to organize communities of music lovers and buyers, not just social networks with music tacked on.

Marvel’s turnaround isn’t complete. The company made nice profits from licensing (which involves no capital outlay) but could only take a small cut of overall box office. To really scale revenues it moved directly into distribution—risky for a company so focused on content creation—forming Marvel Studios to produce “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk,” a move that paid off handsomely.

Most music majors now have in-house production companies but not the strategic purpose and budgets to be equivalent to the commitment made by Marvel. But music companies should be making documentary films and session content for their artists—highly attractive to sponsors and licensable to all the digital networks increasingly desperate for quality content. [iTunes LP, announced yesterday, is a step in the right direction for example].

Direct-to-consumer is a key part of Marvel’s digital strategy—in 2007 it launched Digital Comics Unlimited—a subscription-based service with thousands of comic books available in digital format. Like another successful subscription provider in TV, HBO, Marvel realized that to offer a compelling subscription service didn’t mean having to make everything available—few subscribers want that. But they will subscribe to a service if that service contains something they do want that’s exclusive to them as subscribers.

From a successful licensing model, Marvel evolved its strategy into bigger plays: harnessing brand power, building on insight, diversifying its product and making major moves into distribution. Subsequently Marvel Entertainment now controls its destiny, when all looked hopelessly out of control a mere decade ago.


Anonymous said...

hi, seems to me Marvel got its chance when the movie industry began licensing its characters... Or did it push the Spiderman idea to Sam Raimi ?

Anonymous said...

Spidey was locked up in rights hell for a long, long time. They used a brand that wasn't (X-men) followed the model of Superman The Movie (serious director directing it straight not camped) and then made everyone realise the value of the property; remember the thing about the movies is that they drive the high margin licensing, product, books, pj's etc etc ... the use of a high profile, well made product (an artist) to push a high margin collectible/product is the future for the biz. Just need to realise the value, sort out the rights and count the cash ...

Andy said...

Seems like what your suggesting is a further push towards the 360 deals where labels effectively 'own' an artist the same as they would a comic character and can try and monetize them in any way possible. For the big pop acts who rely on have a ubiquitous presence in our culture it makes some sense but for the smaller artists and for the sake of the music side of things I'm afraid we'll see the art sacrificed in the name of blockbuster commerce.

Keith Jopling said...

I guess I am saying that, because that's really the only long-term solution for labels. I agree it's a sensitive issue. It's one of patronage, sponsorship, support and shared goals & revenues. So it take a transparent, genuine, fair and frank relationship. Something labels need to work on and in doing so, leave their patchy history behind them. It's the only way.

Keith Jopling said...

Btw, thanks to all three of you for the comments and for reading, as ever.