Verve Label Group Head Danny Bennett on Bocelli, Coltrane & Managing His Legendary Dad's Legacy
The steward of Universal’s jazz and classical catalogs talks the digital age and his father’s legacy.
Three years ago, when Universal Music Group CEO/Chairman Lucian Grainge and Executive Vice President Michele Anthony approached Danny Bennett about helming the newly-formed jazz and classical hub, Verve Label Group, he flashed back to such iconic Verve artists as Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald and Stan Getz. "I'm thinking, literally, these were my aunts and uncles," Bennett says. "Dizzy would freak out if he knew that I'd be the keeper of the flame of his works."
The son of Tony Bennett -- and his father's manager since 1979 -- grew up surrounded by the late legends whose legacies he now protects. Since taking over from David Foster in May 2016, Bennett oversees Verve, Decca Broadway and UMG's U.S. classical music labels, including Decca Gold and Universal Music Classics -- the U.S. home to European imprints such as Deutsche Grammophon and ECM -- as VLG's president/CEO.
More recently, Bennett relaunched the seminal imprints Impulse! and Forecast and stocked them and Verve with developing artists like New Orleans' Tank and the Bangas, highly-touted Kenyan artist J.S. Ondara, saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and genre-bending group The Comet is Coming, all while supporting iconic jazz and classical artists such as Diana Krall, Keith Jarrett, Jon Batiste, Renee Fleming, Lang Lang, Sarah Brightman and Cecilia Bartoli, and signing acclaimed artists such as Lyle Lovett, T Bone Burnett and Cynthia Erivo "I don't want to do something that's not moving the needle," Bennett says.
Bennett also relocated the company from Los Angeles to New York and increased the combined staffs from 23 to 52, which now includes creative director Josh Cheuse, senior vp international marketing and label development Jamie Krents and former WQXR GM Graham Parker as president of Universal Music Classics U.S.
VLG's success has been undeniable: In November, classical crossover artist Andrea Bocelli scored his first No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with his 26th charting album, Si (Sugar/Decca Records/VLG), his first in 14 years. The album, which features duets with Ed Sheeran, Dua Lipa and others, marks Decca's first chart-topper since 2008, and through the week ending Dec. 27 it earned 252,000 equivalent album units in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music. The milestone followed July's achievement, when jazz icon John Coltrane earned his first top 40 album on the Billboard 200, 51 years after his death, with the newly discovered set Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album (Impulse!/Verve Label Group). The album has moved 68,000 equivalent album units in the U.S., including 16,000 in vinyl album sales.
Bennett, 64, has looked ahead technologically as well as musically, having focused on making the venerated music in VLG's vault digitally accessible to new generations of jazz and classical fans. Here he talks Verve in the age of streaming, connecting the past to the present and managing his father's legacy.
What was your first step after taking the job?
I looked at our catalog: 23 percent of Charlie Parker's catalog was available digitally or physically. Then I started going through the list: Same thing, 45 percent here... "Wait a minute," I said to my team. "My first mission, I want everything available digitally." Then physically we can go in and do the special projects and make sure that where there's demand, we're going to meet that, because physical is really important for us.
You've also made significant moves into voice recognition.
That's about metadata: "Alexa, please play Stan Getz." That's easy. "Alexa, please play Beethoven's 9th Symphony by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan." Whoa! I asked Graham, "What's your database of tracks [at classical station WQXR]?" He said around 35,000. I said, "What percentage of that 35,000 do you attribute to the success of WQXR?" He said, "Maybe one percent." We drilled down and prioritized that one percent of the 35,000 tracks. We're basically able to go to the DSPs and say not only will this be optimized for voice recognition, but we are going to now show you the tracks that give you the quality you need and they're the most popular.
You introduced Bocelli to a younger audience, pairing him with Ed Sheeran, John Groban, Dua Lipa and his son, Mateo. How did that come about?
We found Bocelli's audience wants him to sing in Italian, wants him to sing opera and wants meaningful duets. Andrea is signed through Decca [in the U.K.] and Sugar [in Italy] and then the whole team, [including producer] Bob Ezrin and Graham's influence on the classical side, we all contributed to that. This is 40 percent of the market for Bocelli. Everybody played to their strengths on this one and we showed how a global team can really work. That's another aspect as an artist manager [that] was frustrating for me: You sign a deal to a domestic company and then you have to go to every territory. Since I've gotten here it was very important for me now to have monthly A&R video meetings and share what we're doing worldwide. We're breaking artists globally.
You also delivered John Coltrane his first album to hit the Billboard 200 more than half a century after his death. What was it like when you and your team first heard Coltrane's Both Directions at Once?
His sons came walking in [with the] tapes [from 1963]. We thought, "Okay, outtakes." We put it on and we were just like, "Whoa! What is this?" We were freaking out. I said, "This is like finding another Sgt. Pepper." I said, we're going to release this record like it's a frontline record. We had advertising on Today and a full page ad in the New York Times. It was very, very rewarding. Globally, we're over 220,000 units, which is crazy. In September, for the first time, our digital revenue surpassed our physical revenue for the Coltrane [album]. I don't care how we get it to people. We want to be pliant. We want to make sure if a tank is emptying, another one is filling up and we're doing a very good job of that.
Overall, where is the Verve Label Group on streaming?
Around 45 percent of jazz is now streamed and then classical is close to 50 percent. You ask me how many records we're going to sell. I'm like, "That's not the point. How many people are we going to reach with great music?" That's why I'm excited about streaming because it really is now in the hands of the public. Those metrics are all changing. On one DSP alone, we were able to increase our revenues 150 percent.
For the most part, Verve's releases are not reliant on radio. What freedom does that give you?
If you look at the streaming numbers of the Lady Gaga/Tony Bennett record [2014's Cheek to Cheek (Interscope/Columbia], it's just the gift that keeps giving. Once that music is embedded, it doesn't go anywhere. We are now truly in the long-tail business. When we're looking and defining success, it's no longer the first week. It can't be.
Interscope distributes VLG releases. How closely do you work with them?
There are certain artists that [Interscope Geffen A&M chairman/CEO John Janick's] team gets excited about and will take care of. What's great is the conversations [with] label heads. This is not a siloed place. It's competitive, but friendly in terms of competition. Everyone wants to help everyone out, particularly where we are because I don't think we're perceived as a threat. John and I can talk all the time. [Def Jam CEO] Paul Rosenberg and I are friends. He saw J.S. Ondara and was like, "What can we do with him? We're going to do stuff together." [Republic Records CEO] Monte Lipman and I are working on a Seth MacFarlane record. It's great. This is old school.
How do you define jazz?
I have a T-shirt in my office that says, "Jazz is a four-letter word." Just a reminder. Disruptive. And I've always been disruptive.
With Tony Bennett, you've said you're not just managing a career, you're managing a legacy. What is the difference and what have you've learned from managing your dad that you applied to Verve?
The difference is that if you think of the short-term, you will reap the rewards, but Tony always said to me, "I never wanted a hit record, I wanted a hit catalog." He taught me that. Also, don't limit your own expectations and meet opportunity with preparedness. [Make] great music and then listen to the fans. This is what I've done with Tony my whole life and it has worked. I'm just applying the same attitude here.