As a kid, I was a DC Comics fan. Yes, I was a Superman P1. For a couple days in the third grade, I actually wore a cape under my school clothes. (As I learned, even using the restroom required super powers).
I got especially psyched up when there were comic collaborations. The Justice League could be a bit overwhelming, but when Superman hooked up with Batman, it brought out the best in both characters. It was like they both wanted to optimize their skills and good deed-doing when they were together.
Nowadays, we'd call this a “collab.” Or it might read like Superman ft. Batman.
You may have noticed the growing appearance of “ft.” next to musical artists. Music lovers know it's short for “featuring,” and it means a favorite artist sought out the skills and talents of another performer.
Of course, these collaborations – or “collabs” – have been going on forever. Whether it was Queen and David Bowie mashing up their brilliance on “Under Pressure” or the famous get-together between Run-DMC and Aerosmith on “Walk This Way,” these studio pairings often bring out the best in both artists.
For me, a favorite has always been the blending of voices and emotional desperation by Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks on “Stop Dragging My Heart Around.” Each is immensely talented, of course, but it's their blending together that makes these mergers so remarkable.
(Wouldn't this make a great “10 At 10” theme, Bob Stroud?)
The modern indication of a musical collab is seeing that “ft.” in between two great artists. It stands for “featuring” another artist, and if you suspect these unions are becoming more common, you are correct.
Luminate's 2022 “Midyear Music Report” for the U.S. tracks a number of themes in the music and media industries. One that jumped out at me was “Collaboration Generation.” Their data shows more than seven in ten music listeners like when a favorite artist “fts.” another artist to create a song.
And remarkably, collabs are becoming more common in every music genre – with the exception of Pop. (Note to producers of Pop music struggling to make big hits.)
I don't mean to get all Sean Ross on you, but it struck me that one of the most famous artists of our era, Sir Elton John, has been especially brilliant when it comes to collaboration.
Throughout his career, Elton has been the poster boy for “fts.” before we even referred to it that way. Some artists – and businesspeople – are born collaborators. As we say, they play well with other children.
Elton's body of work with Bernie Taupin, of course, vaulted the former Reg Dwight to his initial fame – and fortune – in the early 1970's. It wasn't long before Elton hooked up with singer, Kiki Dee, and recorded “Don't Go Breaking My Heart” in '76. It shot up to #1 on both in the UK and in the States.
That same year, it was the famous collab with John Lennon on “Whatever Gets You Through The Night.” Once again, it was a #1 hit on both country's charts.
Of course, Elton teamed up with Tim Rice for the fabulous “Lion King” soundtrack, writing and recording some of his best work ever. That's when Elton broke through, becoming a Broadway star.
In recent years, it was Elton's collab with the brilliant Taron Edgerton in “Rocket Man” that propelled him to the silver screen. There are music biopics and then there's “Rocket Man,” a special creation born out of the merger between Elton and Edgerton.
Back to the music, there with others – many other “fts.” – with Rod Stewart, Lady Gaga, George Michael, Kanye West, Ozzy Osbourne, and Luciano Pavarotti.
And during the pandemic, Elton created and performed on “The Lockdown Sessions” featuring collabs with artists that included Steve Wonder, Lil Nax X, and Steve Nicks (yes, she gets it, too).
And as Luminate reports, Elton's collab with Dua Lipa on “Cold Heart” is one of the most streamed songs so far in 2022.
The common thread is that while Elton John is one of the iconic artists over the last two centuries, his greatness blossoms when he shares the stage, the mic, the credit, and the creativity with other stars.
And that dovetails into the business side of collabs. When we look back at the past several years of societal and business chaos, a key trend emerges:
Mergers mushroomed during COVID after the initial shock of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns wore off.
Things were understandably slow in that infamous second quarter of 2020. While the pace of deals and acquisitions cooled off a bit last year, the pace of business “collabs” shouldn't be lost on us:
Even in the face of a coming recession, the Wall Street Journal reports a slowdown in mergers and acquisitions. But remarkably, deals in the marketing sector have actually grown by 38% from a year ago, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.
Analysts believe COVID was an accelerant, explaining this hyperactivity in marketing as companies hustle to establish and grow their e-commerce capabilities.
Michael Nyman, CEO of Acceleration LLC, a marketing network, explains the growth spurt this way:
“You've got lots of uncertainty creating lots of opportunity.”
Let that one marinate for a moment.
As a result of these trend arrows, Paul and I have identified collabs, better known as mergers and acquisitions, as a megatrend in the strategic planning activity we're engaged in on behalf of media brands.
In the radio sector, some of the more interesting collabs have taken place in the public radio sphere. The acquisitions of Gothamist news websites Gothamist, LAist, and DCist by WNYC, KPCC, and WAMU respectively have diversified coverage and the journalists themselves.
These NPR news stations have extensive news gathering assets, but when combined with these news sites become exponentially larger and more agile, able to cover more local and regional stories that escape other media players in their markets.
And in Chicago, WBEZ's Matt Moog has pulled off one of the more noteworthy collabs with Chicago Public Media's purchase of the Chicago Sun Times last year.
At the recent PMDMC conference, Moog explained the growth of WBEZ as a news media player in Chicago was ultimately limited. With the Sun Times, top-of-mind awareness mushroomes, creating a stronger, bigger news organization.
Do these collabs have their downsides? We know that when you bring together creative, Type A personalities and brands, the sparks may fly.
We can all think of collabs in the radio broadcasting industry that did not go as planned. Sometimes, it's those competitive cultures that mix like sushi and chopped liver.
And as we've seen, when the company doing the acquiring thinks it's better and smarter, that's usually when things go awry. Elton John's collabs with the aforementioned artists weren't just about hitching a big star onto a project. It was about being generous and respectful with the “collaboree,” something often lost in the world of business.
It is the combined innovative energy that holds the potential for greatness – and #1 hits – something we could use a lot more of these days.
We may not be see it expressed this way anytime soon:
WBEZ ft. the Chicago Sun Times
Jacobs Media ft. jacapps
It's the sum of the parts.
Download Luminate's 2022 U.S. MidYear Report here.
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