Johnny Wright, Tom Corson on Making Justin Timberlake the Year's Best-Selling Artist (Q&A)

Justin Timberlake

Tom Munro/RCA Records

Johnny Wright estimates he was the first partner of Justin Timberlake to learn that his star management client had finally recorded new music, in mid-2012. Gary Tobey, CEO of Target’s media buying firm Haworth, was “probably the third or fourth,” Wright says.

“We’d been talking for five years now, in anticipation of when Justin would come back to music,” Wright says. “For a while it was, ‘no bonuses this year, guys.’ But the conversation would always end with, ‘Let’s do something big when Justin’s ready to come back.’”

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Announced via a splashy commercial that aired after Timberlake’s performance during the Grammys in early February, Target’s deluxe edition of “The 20/20 Experience” immediately became a best seller.

“The 20/20 Experience” is the top-selling album of 2013, with more than 2.5 million sold in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Timberlake is also the year's top selling artist by album sales. So far this year, he has moved 2.85 million albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan. 2.3 million of that sum is owed to his first "The 20/20 Experience." 

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Target has moved 663,000 copies of its deluxe edition of “The 20/20 Experience” to date, according to knowledgeable sources, becoming “one of our top three best-selling albums of the past decade,” says Anne Stanchfield, Target’s lead music buyer and divisional merchandise manager of entertainment.

The retailer spent an estimated $7 to $10 million in media dollars behind the ad campaign for the first album, and this week will likely shell out another $7 million for the “The 20.20 Experience, 2 of 2,” filmed at Maxwell’s in New Jersey, based on Billboard estimates of previous Target album campaigns.

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The Target deal was part of a flurry of activity that marked Timberlake -- whose celebrity and recordings are able to cross genre, gender and demographic lines -- as one of the most brand friendly artists in music. Within a month of announcing his return to music, Timberlake would appear in national ad campaigns for Target and Bud Light Platinum, where he picked up another creative director title, and in March added a third brand partner in MasterCard, who hosted a private show in New York for card-members in April and prepped a sponsorship of his world tour.

RCA Records president/COO Tom Corson worked with Wright and Timberlake’s team to build a release schedule for the two albums, which at one point were thrown around as a series of five four-track EPs. Once they decided upon two albums -- one more major-chord for the spring and summer, one a bit darker for the fall and winter -- the label and management started locking in brand partners, with a Sept. 30 deadline to qualify the combined album for Grammy consideration.

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“He’s challenging all of us to sell albums -- it’s a demand question. Is it risky? Sure. But high risk, high reward,” Corson says. “In this day and age, the brands are delivering really state-of-the-art, fully-integrated marketing.”

The promo blitz for “2 of 2,” which debuts at No. 1 on this week’s Billboard 200, was led by an equally large onslaught. On Sept. 21, Timberlake closed the iHeartRadio with a triumphant hour-long set, during which he premiered three brand-new songs from the album -- second single “TKO,” Middle Eastern-tinged banger “True Blood” and emotional ballad “Only When I Walk Away.” Three days later, he shut down Hollywood Boulevard with a performance for “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” sponsored by Lexus. That same day, he appeared in the second installment of a two-part “Today” interview, and a viral clip aired that night with Jimmy Fallon in which the two buddies spoke largely in hashtags, part of a month-long partnership where Timberlake has appeared on “Fallon” every Tuesday in September. On Sept. 29, eve of release, he played the iTunes Festival in London and released an EP of his performances shortly afterward. And on the Sept. 30 album release day, “Ellen Degeneres” aired an hour-long album-release episode featuring interviews and performances.

In a pair of exclusive Q&As extended and combined for Billboard.Biz, Wright and Corson detail how the two albums were planned simultaneously, the different roles of Timberlake’s marketing partners and the challenge of suddenly having too much Justin music in the marketplace (“I haven’t experienced any fatigue,” Wright says.)

Billboard: When did you know you would have two albums’ worth of music from Timberlake, and how did you decide when to release the two halves?
Johnny Wright: At the beginning, Justin had all this music and it was a conversation just about doing a double album. But there were multiple factors to the configuration of what it would be from a physical standpoint. Basically, a lot of Justin’s songs are not a minute-long, it’s like how much music time-wise will be comprised on one CD? The original concept was maybe to put it in five different installments of four or five songs. We had gone though a bunch of different conversations -- let’s just put two albums out in one year. He was feeling that some of the music was like a different season for him -- some was fall and winter, some was spring and summer. So as he started to go through the music, part one of two became what he felt was the earlier part of the year. And “2 of 2” is a little bit darker moving you into fall and winter.

Tom Corson: Justin’s vision was all one piece of work. So for him, it wasn’t a question of, would it all come out? It was all done at the same time a while ago, it was how do we release this? Because it was always contemplated as a double album, it will all be one album, and therefore from a Grammy standpoint it will qualify as the Complete Experience. That will be the album that everyone votes on. We snuck under the deadline.

How did you manage the overlapping singles from the two albums? The video for “Tunnel Vision” came out the week before “Take Back The Night” was released in the States, for example.
Corson: It happens sometimes, if you’re heading in one direction and something comes in that you get super excited about. And that was “Take Back the Night.” We were so excited about “Tunnel Vision,” obviously we shot a video, but what really happened was there were certain territories that move much quicker than the U.S. -- like the U.K. and Australia -- that needed a single to bridge the projects. So everyone was very excited about “Tunnel Vision,” but when “Take Back The Night” came in a few weeks later we were so thrilled with how it sounded and the general vibe behind it that we decided on the eve of the Jay Z/Justin tour to take advantage of a really great new record that came in and to start moving the direction of the messaging to “2 of 2.”

Wright: Being out of it for such a long time, we didn’t want to leave any stone unturned. With Justin, he’s a visual performer, so when we had those opportunities to do visual platforms we wanted to make sure we were presenting new music -- almost leaking it ourselves before it got leaked online. When we started “Take Back the Night,” it was live-performed on the VMAs, and then we had the visual platform with the iHeartRadio Festival, where we did three new songs -- “TKO,” “True Blood” and Only When I Walk Away.” Even though they weren’t broadcast to television, the 15,000 fans were all on their cell phones, so the buzz from that all aligned to getting great content from that. We also did “TKO” for the first time on live television with Kimmel and did two songs for Ellen as well.

The album has an exceptionally large amount of support and media spend from brands behind it. How have they helped accelerate some of your rollout for these releases?
Wright: When we got to the point where we knew we were gonna put two halves out in one year, the conversation that we had with all of our brand partners was about how our relationship would stay as long as possible. We took a lot at the creative product we could do, whether it was TV commercials, online campaigns, and made sure there were plans in place as far as tying to the release of the record. Target, Bud Light and MasterCard were in agreement with that and it worked out great. We’ve been collaborative on the creative side of everything we’ve done with everyone -- it’s not just a commercial for Bud Light, it has to connect to the feel of what we’re trying to release too.

We’ll do more with MasterCard that will come into play as the album is still active and we move into the fourth quarter. I can’t say much, but what we did at the end of the Legends of Summer tour is a good example. We did what’s called these Priceless Moments, where he had an after-party in Miami with cardholders. So after spending almost three hours on stage with Jay, he went and did a very intimate concert for certain MasterCard winners. There will be a series of other Priceless moments and things over the next two years -- it’s a 2015 deal.

Corson: They’ve been great partners, all three of them. I’m particularly pleased with the way Target continues to step up and deliver great campaigns, media buys and creative. Bud Light as well -- they’ve been right on time with their spots and music beds. MasterCard has been there for other integrations, like the Clear Channel promotion. In this day and age it really is state of the art, fully integrated brand marketing. They took the mantle on that one.

Justin’s put out two albums, five singles and several major features with Jay Z and Juicy J since January -- and many of those songs last well past the five-minute mark. Are either of you worried about a saturation point?
Wright: Each thing he puts out is unique in itself, so I’m not so worried about it. Obviously putting out two albums in the same year means you have to release singles, because that’s still the way you do it in the music business. In a good way, certain singles you put out might be at a certain place, so when you go with the next single and people resonate with it, it’s just a fact that they stay longer than you anticipate. You still have your first three singles either recurring or coming off the charts, still strong at radio. While some perceive that as a lot of product, it’s just based on fan demand. The only reason people are keeping records playing is because people want to hear ‘em. Ultimately it’s a good thing for me. It’s been six-and-a-half, almost seven years since Justin released music, so it’s not like we’ve been doing this every year. It’s only overkill if people don’t like the music.

Corson: This is a legitimate question. But there’s plenty of room in the marketplace for great records -- it all enhances Justin’s brand. From that standpoint, “Holy Grail” is a wonderful record, and it’s obviously a big hit, and there’s room for both that and our singles. It’s all been great for Justin and the overall brand. [As for the song lengths], that’s just day-to-day business stuff. The fact that he’s taken this on, it’s really something that no one else has done when you really get into it. Yeah, there was a time when there were seven-minute rock songs, but in the realm Justin plays in, it’s sort of awe-inspiring. He was the first one in this era to put R&B back into pop radio, and he used his position to take great R&B and make it mainstream again. The lengthy songs really take you on a musical journey and bring them to people. And it’s being accepted at the rate of 2.5 million in sales, almost four million worldwide. He’s got the best-selling album of the year. Whatever he’s doing, it’s jaw dropping, awe-inspiring and it’s great for music, great for consumers and just great for artists. All of this would be moot if the songs weren’t amazing. But they really are A+ songs.


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