Sony/ATV Relaunches Hickory Records to Support Synch Superstar Lenka

Kristin Burns
Lenka

On June 16, Sony/ATV Music Publishing will take the unusual step of releasing an album for one of its songwriters.

The world's largest music publisher will dust off dormant Hickory Records -- a label that it has owned since its 2002 acquisition of publishing firm, Acuff-Rose Music − to put out The Bright Side, by 37-year-old Australian singer-songwriter Lenka in conjunction with her own label, Skipalong Records.

Although the former Epic Records artist has cracked the lower reaches of the Billboard 200 only twice, she is a superstar in the lucrative world of TV, film and commercial synchs -- getting a song placed on the soundtrack of a movie or TV series, or for a commercial. Sony/ATV has secured more than 200 synchs for Lenka's songs, nearly 70 of them for "The Show," the first single off her eponymous 2008 debut album. The song has been used in Old Navy and Crate & Barrel commercials, a promo for the ABC sitcom Ugly Betty and the 2011 film Moneyball, which starred Brad Pitt.  

"She's a stand-out artist in the synch world, a point reflected by the huge number and wide range of synchronization deals we have struck for her music over the past few years," says John Campanelli, Sony/ATV vp, commercial music.

Lenka (full name: Lenka Kripac) had fronted the Sydney-based electronic rock band Decoder Ring before moving to Los Angeles in 2007 to embark on a solo career. Upon arriving in the states, she signed with Sony/ATV and shortly thereafter Epic, but ultimately had very different experiences with the two Sony-owned companies. Her manager Ron Shapiro tells Billboard, "Over the course of two album cycles, Epic effectively had five label-head changes -- an impossible environment for a developing artist, and hugely frustrating for us, as this roller coaster was juxtaposed with amazing synch and international success."

Her relationship with the music publishing company was such that when her relationship with Epic ended in 2011, Lenka continued to submit songs she'd written to Sony/ATV, which continued to secure synchs for her.  "She kept sending me masters that she was doing that were unrepresented, we pitched them and had instant success," says Campanelli. (Lenka and Sony/ATV share ownership of these masters.) The company secured a Dr. Pepper ad for "Unique;" a Wendy's ad for "It Gets Better," and a JC Penney commercial for "We Are Powerful."

Shapiro says Lenka was working on The Bright Side and concluded that "'Unique' and 'We Are Powerful' worked in the concept of her album."  When the record was finished, Shapiro says, "I thought, before we go shop this or release it ourselves, who has been the most supportive of us?" 

I didn't want to sign another deal with a major label, particularly if it was a worldwide deal because of my experience with Epic, which was great for a while but then it wasn't great," says Lenka, whose record will be distributed by Modern Sky in China, and by Sony Music in other Asian territories, Germany, Austria and the Benelux countries. (Red and Hickory will release the album in all remaining territories.)  

Shapiro remembered that Hickory, which was founded in 1954 and once distributed records for folk singer Donovan in the United States in the 1960s, had been used to release American Idol finalist Elliott Yamin's self-titled debut in 2007 and Idol winner Ruben Studdard's fourth album Love Is in 2009. (Yamin was a Sony/ATV artist; Studdard was not.)

The label has been dormant since then, and Shapiro says he approached Sony/ATV co-president Danny Strick with the idea of reviving Hickory to release The Bright Side in North America and engaging Red to distribute the album and to provide marketing and radio support. "Danny jumped at the idea," he says.

"We've had such luck with synch over the years that we felt this would be a really good opportunity to help Lenka break a single in radio and do the marketing that's required to bring her to a wider audience," says Strick.  

The Sony/ATV co-president adds that the music publishing company "is not getting into the record business," in the way, for instance that music publisher SONGS recently did by hiring former Jive/Zomba Records CEO Barry Weiss to start a label.  But Strick does say that "Hickory will continue to release artists on an occasional basis where we see an opportunity."  

For Lenka, who managed to thrive in an industry decimated by Napster and consolidation, the deal represents peace of mind. "I don't have to feel that sort of fear of everything falling apart or people changing guard and then losing interest in me because I know that we've got a great thing going on," she says of her relationship with Sony/ATV.  The artist has released the first single and music video from the album, "Blue Skies." The track was produced by Damian Taylor (Arcade Fire, Bjork, The Killers) and will go Hot AC radio in June. Lenka also recently premiered another song, "Go Deeper" on Nylon.  She will begin a 20-city U.S. tour in San Diego on June 13.