Out With the ole: Anthem CEO Helen Murphy Talks New Name, a Rush Endorsement & Overpriced Catalogs

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May Truong
“Since I was CFO of PolyGram and CFO of Warner, there hasn’t been a female CFO of a major recorded-music company,” says Murphy, photographed June 4 at Anthem in Toronto. “I feel a responsibility to help advance female representation in senior management within my company, because that’s what I can control.”

And the former Warner Music exec answers the burning question: what the heck is a "audiovisual secondary-rights business"?

On June 5, ole media Management, a music publishing company owned by the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan, ceased to exist -- sort of. The 15-year-old firm changed its name to Anthem Entertainment as part of a rebranding that reflects its evolution into a music company with several distinct departments, as well as the vision of CEO Helen Murphy, a veteran music executive who took the helm last November. "Our roots are in music publishing," she says. But at this point, publishing accounts for only about half of Anthem's business -- which also now includes recordings, music production services and audiovisual royalties collection.

Murphy wants the rebranding to put more focus on these businesses and give the company a name that's more dynamic (and, incidentally, easier on copy editors). The name comes from the original Anthem Entertainment Group, the Canadian record label founded by Rush manager Ray Danniels, which ole acquired in 2015. "It's a joyous name," she says, speaking by phone from the company's headquarters in Toronto, where Murphy, who grew up in Canada but spent most of her adult life in New York, now keeps an apartment. "Everybody knows what an anthem is."

The name change also signals a new direction for The Company Formerly Known as ole, which was one of the first publishing companies funded by an institutional investor -- in its case, the Pension Plan. Ole initially grew mainly through acquisitions -- it now has publishing rights to about 50,000 songs by over 400 songwriters -- and several years ago was said to be looking to sell itself. A sale never happened, and in May 2018 former CEO Robert Ott sold his stake in the business to the Pension Plan, which now owns the enterprise. Going forward, Murphy's plan involves organic growth.

Murphy rose through the executive ranks at PolyGram Records to become CFO, then left when the company was sold to Universal Music Group and became CFO at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia -- "I recognized that food could be media," she says -- and then at Warner Music Group, which she left in 2004 after completing a major refinancing. For the next 14 years she consulted on acquisitions and restructurings for music giants like Ticketmaster and Sony/ATV Music Publishing, and advised marquee artists on business strategy, doing the same for several leading chefs.

This sounds like a pretty nice life: Why take a job in another country in a business that's only becoming more competitive? "I feel like government regulation is going to swing back more in favor of creators," says Murphy, "and I feel like the pendulum is swinging back to independents."

Now that you're changing the name, I have to ask how it was pronounced: "olé" like the Spanish expression, or "ole" as in Grand Ole Opry?

Well, now it's gone -- no more olé. We went from olé to nolé.

You got the rights to the new name when ole acquired Anthem, along with the Rush masters. Did you get Rush's permission to use the name in some kind of secret ceremony?

We own Anthem Entertainment, but the first thing I did -- before I said anything to anybody -- was to ask the permission of Ray Danniels. And he came back about three weeks later and gave me his blessing. Rush gave me their blessing, too, but no candles or ceremonies.

Most people thought of ole as a publisher, but you're rebranding the company to clarify the four divisions.

We grew primarily through acquisitions, starting with the company's founding in 2004. Our first major expansion was into recordings, with the acquisition of Anthem [in 2015]. We also have music production companies -- Jingle Punks, 5 Alarm Music and Cavendish Music -- and then [in 2016] we acquired Compact, which is an audiovisual secondary-rights business.

On behalf of non-lawyers: What is an audiovisual secondary-rights business?

When I first got here, I had no clue what it meant. It's essentially collecting neighboring rights for film and television -- for the [music] recordings. When a movie or show is licensed overseas and in different ways, a lot of times there's missing information, so money isn't collected. What our service does is make sure everything is matched. We're the second-largest collector of audiovisual secondary rights in the world, after the Motion Picture Association of America, which collects for the major studios.

How do these divisions work together?

In production music, we have three companies with distinct personalities: Jingle Punks are innovative and cheeky; 5 Alarm has been serving film and television for the past 30 years; and Cavendish is trendy, with a very British kind of sensibility. So companies can go to different shops within Anthem. That's a strength as the industry consolidates. And with Compact, I'm collecting money for rights holders that they otherwise might not have found, so I'm a welcome call -- and I offer other services as both an independent publisher and the owner of these music production companies.

A couple of years ago there was talk of a sale. Is that still the plan?

The Pension Plan has had an incredibly successful run -- they've owned the asset for 15 years, and it has grown into a powerhouse. So they looked at a sale but then decided to discontinue that process. No one knows where the broader business is going, but we have more secure ownership than almost any other independent, because a pension fund that's receiving stable earnings and dividends doesn't have to sell. Is it possible we could be sold in 10 years? Of course. But they brought me in to grow the company, and if I'm smart about strategic acquisitions -- meaning I don't participate in some of the stupidity that's going on -- I'm probably going to be the one that acquires versus being sold.

When you talk about "the stupidity that's going on," you're implying that people are overpaying for publishing catalogs, right?

I'm not calling people stupid. But there's a certain price where deals make no economic sense. When you're looking at deals that are north of 20 times net publisher's share, it's very difficult to earn an adequate return.

You have a background in corporate finance. Do you think outside investment is driving up publishing valuations?

Over the last 10 years, banks have become educated about music publishing and broadened their investment in it. That has brought a huge amount of capital into the business, and readily available low-cost debt has driven multiples [of net publisher's share] to historic highs. When the cost of debt gets higher and the propensity to lend goes down, this will contract. So if I look at the relative value of an acquisition versus organic growth right now, organic growth is more profitable. But I'm not owned by one of these private equity entities that want to grow fast by gobbling things up. And they're not actual publishers -- they're really custodians of assets.

A version of this article originally appeared in the June 15 issue of Billboard.


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