Jukebox Heroes? How Broadway Musicals Add Up for Sony/ATV

The music publisher behind Carole King's" Beautiful," "Motown: The Musical" and "Jersey Boys" finds new revenue on the Great White Way

Music publishing giant Sony/ATV, which in the past licensed rights to songs in two of Broadway's top-grossing hits, "Mamma Mia!" and "Jersey Boys," is exploring a potentially more lucrative, albeit riskier, role on the Great White Way: producer and backer of jukebox musicals, the stage productions where scores are based on previously released songs instead of original material.

The publishing company, which is co-owned by Sony Corp. and the estate of Michael Jackson, already has taken the first steps. It is one of two top-billed producers for "Beautiful," a show featuring songs from the early career of singer-songwriter Carole King that opened in January. The company also is a financial backer of "Motown: The Musical," the story of Motown founder Berry Gordy. Doug Morris, CEO of sister company Sony Music Entertainment, also is one of three lead producers on the show, which opened in March. Sony/ATV chairman and CEO Martin Bandier declines to specify the size of the company's investment in either property but says he has begun seeking partners to get other Sony/ATV material into Broadway jukeboxes and has four projects in development.

There are risks in moving into live theater, but given the current music landscape, Sony/ATV needs to think outside of the box, says Bandier, whose company controls publishing catalogs that generate about $1.2?billion annually. In the past decade, CD sales have fallen precipitously, and more recently, digital music has faltered as well.

"You need to be able to find other opportunities to exploit and promote and market the great music that you have," says Bandier, noting that Sony/ATV is such a large company, fees for licensing music for shows is "another one of those things that adds up."

Broadway long has been an alluring but fickle business partner even for seasoned producers, whose responsibilities can involve marshaling talent, shaping a show's plot or contributing or raising money. It can take $10?million or more to capitalize a Broadway musical, and investors typically put in a minimum of about $25,000. They only begin to see a return once the show goes into the black, at which time producers and investors begin to split profits.

An industry rule of thumb holds that three-quarters of all productions lose money, and the economics can be hard to parse. There are times when plays get a tepid reaction on Broadway but earn back their investment with a touring company. Conversely, a show that is successful in road tryouts can bomb in New York.

Jukebox productions face the same financial realities. The 2005 musical "Good Vibrations," built around the music of The Beach Boys, lost its entire $7?million investment. Similarly, "Lennon," a 2005 showcase for the songs of John Lennon, lost $7.5?million. More recently, "A Night With Janis Joplin," about the legendary rocker who died in 1970, lasted only 144 performances after its September?opening.

"I didn't think it was disappointing in the slightest," says Jeff Jampol, who administers Joplin's estate and co-produced the musical. He points out the show sold-out performances in regional theaters and that it will reopen off-Broadway in April.

While traditional musicals like "Phantom of the Opera" go after a general audience, the jukeboxes that Sony/ATV is embracing target aging baby boomers nostalgic for the sounds of the past.

"It's basically in that sweet spot of the 45- to 60-year-old bringing their families, their teenage children," says Kevin McCollum, a top producer on "Motown."

For Sony/ATV, one of the advantages of producing is the ability to represent its catalog. When "Beautiful" was in development, it initially only used King's Brill Building songs; nothing from her 1971 megahit "Tapestry," one of the best-selling albums of all time. Bandier was among the voices who felt it was important for the show to use those tunes as well.

For the artists featured in a jukebox show, the exposure can lead to a bump in sales. In the four months since Beautiful started previews, Tapestry's sales nearly have doubled. The cast album for "Motown" has been driving sales for several of the individual artists such as Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, says Bandier.

The jukebox initiative is part of what Bandier refers to as the "collecting crumbs" approach to music publishing. He says, "You take all those crumbs and put them together, and before you know it, you have a loaf of bread."