A heavy rotation of Hot 100 No. 1s proved it’s possible to have success amidst a pandemic — but how are label and publishing A&R execs helping talent create, market and profit off so much new music?
At the beginning of May, the Travis Scott and Kid Cudi collaboration "The Scotts" debuted atop the Billboard Hot 100, kicking off a six-week run in which different songs reached No. 1 on the chart each week. But all those tracks had something in common: They were released amidst a pandemic-enforced shutdown, in which live music -- a primary revenue driver and promotional tool for most artists -- has been on pause.
As a result, the six songs -- which also included "Say So" by Doja Cat featuring Nicki Minaj, "Stuck With U" by Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber, "Savage" by Megan Thee Stallion featuring Beyoncé, "Rain on Me" by Lady Gaga and Grande, and "Rockstar" by DaBaby featuring Roddy Ricch -- proved it's not only possible to release and promote music while following stay-at-home orders, but to also get ahead doing so.
"There are opportunities to really have some success [right now] if you dig in and focus, and that’s what we stressed pretty early on,” says Jeremy Yohai, senior vp A&R (New York) at Concord Music Publishing; through its partnership with Pulse, clients include songwriters Starrah ("Savage Remix"), BloodPop ("Rain On Me") and Oz ("Toosie Slide" by Drake, which topped the Hot 100 back in April). "The A&R team is pushing, so we expect [our roster] to be doing the same thing."
And high-profile artists aren’t the only ones who can cash in; labels and publishers are signing and developing plenty of new talent over Zoom. But as new releases and deals have proceeded as usual, A&R reps have worked to make sure their artists and songwriters -- new and old -- can efficiently work from home, while also exploring alternative revenue streams for clients who would normally be out on the road earning.
A&R execs at various labels and publishing companies who spoke to Billboard identified a few new trends during the pandemic: the further dismantling of the traditional album-tour-album-tour cycle, resulting in an even more singles-based market; the rise of remote collaborations and features, both locally and globally and outside of just hip-hop, which can lead to a quick payday and cross-promotional exposure; and the prioritization of publishing deals, which have become more important than ever as a reliable revenue stream.
A SURPLUS OF SINGLES
In a world without the pandemic, singer-songwriter Ingrid Andress -- who released her debut album, Lady Like, at the end of March -- would have just finished opening Dan + Shay’s arena trek and been gearing up to tour stadiums with Tim McGraw. Instead, she’s now virtually promoting a new single, "Waste of Lime," which she wrote about a year ago and recorded in February, right before parts of the country went into lockdown. Her co-writer and producer, Sam Ellis, continued to build the track remotely, working with Andress on various versions over phone, email and text, but as Warner Music Nashville A&R Rohan Kohli says, "The two biggest obstacles with this song were figuring out the right timing to release it, given our current situation, and then of course shooting a music video," which they ended up filming outdoors with a limited crew as Lauren Dunn directed over FaceTime.
Kohli helped plan a livestream two days before the song’s release, during which Andress live debuted the track; Andress has also partnered with the Community app, which allows registered fans to receive direct messages from artists. "We are 100% missing that opportunity to promote the song live, but here we are," says Kohli. "People still crave new music, and we need to continue on."
That line of thought is echoed among A&R execs across the board: The demand is there, arguably stronger than ever, and artists are more than willing to deliver. "Usually while A&Ring, there's a natural flow of who's on the road and who aggressively is working in the studio," says Gina Tucci, senior vp/GM of Big Beat Records. "Now, with everyone home, all our artists are working aggressively in the studio, so a lot more records are being made. It’s been nonstop." Joshua Berkman, Republic’s vp A&R, agrees: "Records are popping up every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and we’re aware of what’s coming, but we’re constantly being challenged to think quicker and act faster."
PICKING UP THE PACE
At the same time, artists and songwriters are also working at an unusually fast pace to write, record and release new music due to the unexpected extra time at home; case in point, Taylor Swift’s Folklore came together within months and abandoned her traditional months-long rollout process. Plus, most have been equipped with the proper gear for makeshift at-home studios, courtesy of their labels. "We set [our artists] up so they were able to keep working and have those days where Thursday, Friday, Saturday and even Sunday when they may have been on tour, they’re home recording," says Selim Bouab, 300 Entertainment's senior vp A&R. "Setting them up in their homes has been one of the best things we've done during this time, because it makes the artist feel appreciated as well," adds 300's head of A&R operations Leesa Brunson-Boland. "They're not on hold."
Similarly at Epic, when the pandemic first hit, Ezekiel "Zeke" Lewis, the label's executive vp A&R, says he and his team "went through our roster and determined which artists were in need of that type of assistance, because we wanted to make sure we filled the gap to keep productivity up." He says the label bought equipment for "a number of artists on the roster," which is now theirs to keep (the label did not respond by deadline whether the costs will be charged against artist advances), adding that it resulted in an unexpected benefit: engineering skills. "Some artists have picked up [the basics], and they'll be able to carry that with them through the rest of their career, and that’s valuable," he says. "Those [skills] pay dividends that you can't even quantify."
Lewis believes that the absence of touring has created more urgency for new music, and that “the single is more important than ever." Publishing A&R execs agree, with Brad Kennard, senior vp A&R (Nashville) at Concord Music Publishing, noting that while they used to focus on fitting albums into a cycle that supports a tour, that’s obviously less of a concern now. Which, Kennard says, has led him to see "producers and pure topline writers" -- creative roles that don’t typically hit the road -- "as more valuable" clients than ever.
That's especially true considering that label and publishing A&R reps have been able to mine producer and songwriter catalogues for previously unused material they could now record, capitalizing on the fact artists have more time now and are able to record from home. Bouab says several producers have messaged him looking for placements for older songs, while Yohai says one of his first projects in the pandemic was to compile with his team a list of their 50 favorite available songs that had been sent around in the past, but had never been picked up. They recirculated the options, which "started a lot of conversations for us," he says. "The wheels are in motion on a few."
But with so much available music being revisited, as well as more being actively written and produced, some A&R execs predict a looming bottleneck of artists playing catchup to record -- and labels hustling to release and market projects. Sue Drew, Kobalt’s GM, creative, says while labels are definitely looking for pitches, not all artists are set up to record themselves, "so they were stockpiling songs." Kennard believes that’s even more true of Nashville artists, "because it's very studio-based. The logjam is happening with the song process where they’re being created and then put on hold by the labels if they’re pitches, and it’s just waiting for the artist to get in the freaking studio. It definitely has been a difficult scenario. We’re one company and we think, 'Wow, we've got more holds than ever,' and all we can imagine is that our competitors also have that many.”
Still, some country music has arrived, from Andress and more, including an unexpected hit from Zac Brown Band (whose The Owl Tour, which kicked off last fall, was supposed to extend through July). Two of Kobalt's Nashville writers, Ben Simonetti and Adam James, wrote a song that Brown recorded and debuted live on John Krasinski's web series, Some Good News, performing it as a couple virtually tied the knot. Since, Drew says the track, titled "The Man Who Loves You the Most," became an official single, shipped to country radio and reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Digital Song Sales chart, even scoring 25 ad opportunities (synchs are still a viable means for revenue, though production has understandably slowed). "We think it's going to be massive for him," says Drew.
For such songs that have been released -- and proven themselves hits -- Lewis predicts that "we're going to see an unprecedented amount of people going to shows when [the live industry] opens back up safely," citing Epic act Black Eyed Peas in particular. "Imagine the worldwide global opportunity that exists right now for them, given the success of 'RITMO' and 'Mamacita,'" he says. "Imagine the bottleneck of demand that’s being created by having these hit songs on the radio. When we come out of this, they can tour the world on those."
THE MORE THE MERRIER (AND PROFITABLE)
The key to keeping momentum until that time comes, especially for emerging acts like Epic's Tyla Yaweh -- who made his Hot 100 debut mid-pandemic with his Post Malone-featuring single "Tommy Lee," which reached No. 65 -- and U.K. rap duo Young T and Bugsey -- whose "Don't Rush" went viral on TikTok and received a remix from DaBaby -- is to “become part of the cultural consciousness through the internet," says Lewis. "Right now, the way to stay top of mind is to continue to put out good music, and because you have hit records in the marketplace, you will be much more likely to have more tour opportunities [waiting for you]."
Until then, A&R execs have been tasked with finding other revenue-generating lanes for their talent, leading to an increase in collaborations and features; Lewis says he's helped facilitate many, including securing YG (with whom Epic has a label deal) on Lil Loaded's "Gang Unit Remix" and landing DaBaby on Tyla Yaweh's "Stuntin' On You." Artists now have "the space to actually listen and go, 'Oh, I do like this kid, I'll give him a shot,'" says Lewis. Berkman agrees, adding that the additional time at home has not only increased artist-to-artist collaboration, but also "created an opening for younger developing artists that wouldn’t normally catch the eye of more established writers and producers whose schedules are usually filled for months in advance.” And it goes both ways, with developing writers and producers also having the chance to score time with a higher profile artist because, as Drew says, they’re all "stuck," -- and therefore more available to take chances (she says Kobalt writer Jennifer Decilveo, whose credits include Anne-Marie, Ben Platt and Caitlyn Smith, "has absolutely nailed it on Zoom").
Plus, the general acceptance -- born out of necessity -- to use Zoom or FaceTime for a session has also allowed for more collaboration on a global scale. "The barriers of geographic nature are down," says Kennard. "As we speak, we have writers and producers in London who are working on sessions for us in Nashville with no intention of coming here," he adds, noting that pre-pandemic "we would not have set this up."
THE RACE FOR RENEWALS
Ramping up collaborations isn’t the only revenue stream that A&Rs are tapping into, as publishing deals have become more important than ever in wake of canceled tours.
"At first we weren't quite sure what the long-term effects of COVID would be on Kobalt, so we needed to be smart about how we were spending our money," says Drew, adding that the company was "definitely prioritizing renewals." Over the past few months, Kobalt has finalized "dozens of new signing and extension publishing deals" including with Lil Dicky, Bryce Vine, Sampa the Great and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard -- all of which were executed and celebrated over Zoom. Kennard even managed to close a deal with veteran singer-songwriter Hillary Lindsey during the pandemic, though was admittedly nervous that it could fall through. "The day we decided to close the office was the same day we had our very first meeting scheduled with Hillary and our entire Nashville-based executive team," he recalls. "The deal persisted without her physically meeting any of them. For a deal of that magnitude, with a catalog acquisition and other elements, that’s highly unusual."
"It's been very competitive," says Yohai -- and it's far from the only adjustment A&Rs have had to make, one of which also includes COVID-related contract amendments. Drew recently noticed in a new contract, where the language would normally read, "Here's your advance, and when you release your album you get the second part of your advance if it’s released within 12 months," that a lawyer put "24 months, due to COVID." Kobalt agreed to the terms. "This was a band," says Drew, "and they need to tour to support their record."
Label and publishing A&Rs agree that even though they are busier than ever, no matter how their clients write, record, release and promote music right now, the most important thing of all is for artists to be heard during a time of so much anxiety and unrest. "People are driven to put out more music," says Bouab, "but it's also getting smarter, and [artists are] saying what they really feel to the world -- especially with everything going on and George Floyd, you really want to have a voice out there right now."
As Lewis says: "We're providing an essential service. Music is a welcome distraction, and can really serve as a therapeutic to some people. I like the idea of being a part of that."