Earlier this month on a #ThrowbackThursday, I republished a post showcasing the “Mt. Rushmore of Classic Rock.” Although it was several years old, it sparked a strong response from many of you. Many of you took the time to “vote” for your all-time favorites.
And a couple weeks later, I posted the results: while scores of great artists drew support, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, and Robert Plant earned their place as the four heads on the Black Hills of South Dakota. (And as the format veers away from the 60's and 70's, while leaning into the 80's and 90's, the most impactful era of the music is obvious – and ironic).
To someone who's been in the backroom of the Classic Rock format since it launched nearly four decades ago, none of this is a surprise to me. The format's original home was AOR – or Album Oriented Rock. From its beginnings, the artists drove everything – the music, the concerts, the culture. Here we are in 2023, and we're celebrating a week when both the Beatles and the Stones will be looking for “adds.”
For fans, the Mt. Rushmore exercise is a natural – the kind of conversation that might take place over beers. When it comes to music, we all have our unique favorites, but there's a shared belief that a handful of brilliant, creative musicians made much of what we all call Classic Rock possible. From this elite group, many disciples have followed, spreading the power of the music to generation after generation.
All this took on an even more fascinating perspective last week when Universal Music Group released their Q3 results. Without taking a deep dive into UMG's financials, which are complex considering they generated revenue of nearly $3 billion for the quarter, nearly two-thirds of which was comprised of recorded music (physical and streaming).
UMG's artist-centric approach to running a vast multimedia entertainment company has sparked criticism from music makers who feel most of the available slots are taken up by UMG's “Mt. Rushmore artists,” among them, Taylor Swift, Morgan Wallen, Olivia Rodrigo, and the aforementioned Beatles and the Stones. Critics feel “the usual suspects” get the lion's share of the love and attention from the label making it different for fledgling artists to break through.
The fireworks on the call came from none other than UMG CEO Lucian Grainge who defended the company's artist-centric business model:
“I have a reputation for being blunt, so I’ll be blunt, Those peer groups who have expressed the concern about artist centric are unsurprisingly those whose business model is based on being merchants of garbage. Sorry, I can’t really think of another word for content that no one really actually wants to listen to.”
Sir Lucian's entire career has been spent in the music business, including A&R (his first signing was the Psychedelic Furs). After holding down other executive positions with UMG, he was named CEO in 2011. So, he's seen it all. To that point, he adds this perspective:
“I’ve been in this business my entire career, and if you like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones (which are two critical releases for us this week), or if you think that Taylor Swift is one of the most significant generational artists of the last 40 or 50 years, or you believe that the performance of Olivia Rodrigo – is one of the artists that we’ve signed recently and delivered worldwide.
“If you like listening to Eminem, if you believe in Elton John, if you enjoy Queen, then these are professional artists. And they are not vacuum-cleaner sounds or rain on a pane of glass, gaming the system.”
This is obviously a music icon who has an intrinsic belief in the talent and star power that moves the needle in the increasingly complex musical ecosystem.
In recent years, many stations from multiple formats have struggled during “sorts” of music tests to find enough music from the past decade or two that is worthy of airplay. Yet, catalog material, often from a limited group of core artists continues to comes through with flying colors. These music reshuffles often cause me to think a great deal about the power of artist brands, and how most up-and-coming artists can possibly compete.
In “rock world,” once you get beyond Metallica (not exactly a 2000's band), there are few current-ish artists with the pull to land multiple newer titles on the front page of the best-testing songs.
Very few new bands (on the rock side) have established themselves as sustainable brands capable of generating repeat music sales, racking up consistent arena sellouts, and becoming merch monsters. As Grainge notes, labels are always going to put their chips down on artists with the ability to establish the best track records for sales, live performances, and merch.
So, have we evolved into a Mt. Rushmore world for music in most formats, often dominated these days by a handful of artists? Do new performers have the same ability to get signed and promoted in 2023 as they did a half century ago in 1973?
Grainge's diatribe appeared in a Digital Music News story from last week that didn't include reader comments. But ours are open below (and on my socials), so fire away.
The “merchants of garbage” comment from Grainge is sure to generate strong opinions, and obviously, Sir Lucian knew the hornet's next he was kicking when he opined on his earning call.
Meantime, the conversation about new music – and how it is supported – continues in tomorrow's JacoBLOG post – as we look at the world of Country.
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