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NEAR TRUTHS: JUICE, STREAMS AND BUNDLES

HOW MANY MORE? With the Black Lives Matter movement profoundly influencing our moment, we find ourselves hailing culture-shifting music by two more young black men who were taken from us at a shockingly young age. Pop Smoke, who was murdered at the age of 20 earlier this year, didn’t live to see his debut album (on Steven Victor’s Victor Victor label via Republic) become a phenomenon. Grade A/Interscope’s Juice WRLD, who died a few days after his 21st birthday in 2019, didn’t get to experience his Legends Never Die becoming the biggest chart bow YTD with 508k total activity and 390m+ streams, though he was at least able to savor the massive success of his single “Lucid Dreams.” Juice’s new album, shepherded by John Janick and Joie Manda’s IGA crew in tandem with Bibby and the Grade A team, looks to be the biggest streaming phenomenon of the year so far, accompanied by a strong D2C package. Lyrically, it’s a somber look at the tragic end of a young and brilliant poet of our moment—who may achieve legendary status with this posthumous body of work.

But these two artists should be with us now, to connect with their fans and make more music. So should Marlo, a widely admired Quality Control rapper who was gunned down in Atlanta on 7/11, and so many other young creators. All the police reform in the world, however imperative, will not absolve us of our responsibility to make the systemic changes we need to value and protect the lives of these and so many other young black people. Will the new generation that led nationwide protests—the largest in U.S. history, by some accounts—be the ones to lead us to greater equality? How long must we wait to level the playing field?

MUSIC CITY LEANS ON THE BUTTON: As this issue surveys the state of Nashville—which, like other places, is having to confront historic and present racism, the roiling debate over Confederate monuments, how to function amid a surging pandemic and other challenges—we find that the young, as usual, are leading the movement for change. Young artists and songwriters are pushing for a more inclusive and harmonious vision with respect to race, gender and sexual orientation, and they are, however gradually, pulling an often-hidebound establishment along with them.

Meanwhile, a handful of young country artists have soared into the mainstream with massive streams and crossover singles, as country shows signs of turning a corner in the new marketplace. Warner Music Nashville’s Gabby Barrett is the latest of these to go supernova, as her blockbuster song “I Hope” sits in the Top 50 streaming songs in any genre YTD. Her success follows that of breakouts like labelmates Dan + Shay and Ingrid Andress, Sony artists Luke Combs, Maren Morris and Kane Brown, Big Loud’s Morgan Wallen and UMGN’s Sam Hunt, all of whom have fans leaning on the button. These successes further underscore young country’s gains in pop culture and the fact that the streaming audience is ready to embrace any music it finds meaningful, regardless of genre.

OVER AND OUT: With the relevance of Billboard at an all-time-low ebb, the Bible’s brain trust has offered a further slap in the face to artists and the rest of the biz with its abrupt and wildly ill-timed decision to cut off bundles for charts in early October, making 2020 the first year ever to have different metrics during one calendar year—and creating an uneven playing field once again by wiping out historical comparative data.

This shows such an utter lack of respect for—and understanding of—the business by civilians Deanna Brown and Modi Wiczyk that major labels are already threatening to stop doing business with the Bible. This move on bundling, which will make their charts so much less meaningful, exemplifies just how out of touch they are.

It’s pretty clear that nobody cares about the Bible anymore; while its own charts once ruled the biz, they’ve been eclipsed by the only ones that really matter now: the Spotify streaming charts and the Mediabase airplay charts. While getting a Top 10 or Top 20 record on a Billboard chart used to be significant, now it’s meaningless—they made themselves irrelevant with their own methodology. Ask yourself: When was the last time you heard someone say, “We’re Top 20?”

Removing these bundles is an anti-rock and anti-country move and means that a #1 chart debut—the only meaningful spot on a Billboard chart, make no mistake—is now out of reach for all but the top-streaming artists. What’s more, the revenue from merch bundles has been offsetting lost touring revenue for these acts, whose income has overwhelmingly come from the live side.

The branding opportunity that merch bundles offer artists has been a real career booster for more than a handful of acts. Having appealing merch associated with an album can significantly spike its cool factor.

Looking beyond the present squeeze, marketing dollars fronted by labels are dwarfed by the monies spent promoting tours. Tour marketing money is massively important in creating awareness and interest around new releases. Ticket bundles enable labels to benefit from that sizzle—now taken away by the Bible cabal. An opt-in model would let these acts compete for top chart positions, get their new music more easily to fans and maintain these revenue streams more effectively.

Instead of starting these big changes in October, why not wait 60 more days for the start of 2021, so everyone gets to reset with a level playing field? Their awful handling of this incredibly sensitive issue is just one more middle finger flashed at the biz—causing many observers to wonder aloud: if Billboard disappeared tomorrow, would anyone care?

PRIME ASSETS: Most of the giant country stars of the last 20 years have joined the rock stars of the same era, locked into a business model that derives 90% of its revenue from live appearances—formerly an impeccable career template that netted the top earners tens or even hundreds of millions per annum, but now not so much. With 2020 a debacle and 2021 still unknown, quite a few artists are considering a move that might’ve been hard to fathom a few years ago: selling or mortgaging their catalogs to subsidize the lifestyles to which they’ve become accustomed. (Some of those catalogs, though revered, don’t earn big streams because the older fans who cherish the songs don’t lean on the button.)

This has naturally created some big opportunities in the catalog purchasing/brokering space, and even many younger artists, songwriters and producers are attempting to leverage their work against a decidedly uncertain future. How long before the center of gravity shifts from the seller’s market of the last few years to a buyer’s market?

STREAMING AHEAD: The Top 50 streaming songs chart covering the first half of 2020 provides a quick index of who’s been hot, and clearly Interscope’s Janick and Joie-led team, with an assist from Alamo’s Mosco, is crushing it—even before dropping the recent Juice WRLD giant, which owned 22% of the Top 50 in YTD. Atlantic (18%) and Republic (17%) enjoyed a strong six months as well, while Columbia, Capitol, Epic and Warner Nashville all had hot runs. We note that the Top 50 represents only 3% of total streams YTD, but it’s useful as an at-a-glance indicator of who’s really hot at the moment—and BTW, the Top 200 accounts for 8%; to put this all into perspective, we’re talking about 360 billion U.S. streams in the first six months of 2020.

AUTO TUNE: With so much dreary news about the pandemic economy’s devastation of the live market, reports of three creative, socially distanced drive-in concerts in the U.S. heartland could not have been more welcome. Organized under the auspices of Live Nation’s Tom See, the three shows in St. Louis, Indianapolis (1k cars each) and Nashville (600 cars) showed healthy receipts—an average of $250k per show—and demonstrated once again how necessity can be the mother of invention. Audiences members, charged by the car (with four passengers max) got enough space to spread out, enjoyed their own snacks and booze and rocked out—safely. Most importantly, artists (including Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker, Jon Pardi and Nelly) reconnected with fans, imparting not only joy but hope. There’s no question that these thoughtfully managed events will have a halo effect for the entire biz—and attendees will be telling their grandkids about it.

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On your home-office desk now. (11/23a)
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Answers include Peloton and "the democratization of music creation." (11/23a)
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Bring your umbrella.
GRAMMY OUTLIERS
Mulling possible surprises.
ZOOM THANKSGIVING
We're virtually stuffing ourselves.
TRUMP'S LAWSUITS
He's lost 25 out of 26, and so tired of winning!
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