Record Labels

Classic Songs Are Providing Comfort to Fans (and Opportunity for Labels) During Pandemic

Bruce Springsteen
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Bruce Springsteen performs at the 7th annual "Stand Up For Heroes" event at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 6, 2013 in New York City.

Labels are experiencing a boost in niche genres, as well as classic artists' catalogs.

As much of the world shelters in place during the coronavirus pandemic, people are turning to music for comfort -- specifically older music. That's good news for catalog divisions at record companies.

"Familiarity and comfort are what people are seeking now and there’s a sense of safety in what you know and were raised on," says Bruce Resnikoff, president/CEO of Universal Music Enterprises.

As the pandemic spread and touring came to a crashing halt last month, artists with current releases quickly took to social media to livestream home concerts to communicate with fans and keep their projects front of mind. Meanwhile, labels have been forced to make hard choices about whether to hold front-line releases until artists can promote them outside their homes.

Catalog is a different proposition with promotion less dependent on artists’ ability to visit radio or tour to support a project. "Since we don’t rely on singles and artists touring, we not only have the opportunity to do what we were already doing, we started getting engagement of artists who felt they had the time and desire to work with us and through social media to connect with fans,” Resnikoff says.

For example, with the fireplace brightly burning behind him, on March 23, Neil Diamond serenaded fans from his home, humorously adapting the classic "Sweet Caroline" lyrics "Hands, touching hands, reaching out, touching me, touching you" to "Hands, washing hands, reaching out, don’t touch me, I won’t touch you." On March 27, Elvis Costello performed a home concert to benefit England’s National Health Service.

For BMG, which controls John Fogerty’s solo catalog, new content by the Creedence Clearwater Revival rocker has provided a boost, says Thomas Scherer, BMG’s executive vp, repertoire and marketing, Los Angeles. Between Fogerty’s online appearances and the music he and his family have recreated as "Fogerty’s Factory," video views have topped 4 million with overall streaming up 17% over the past month. A new NPR Tiny Desk (Home) Concert goes live on April 24 and he’s recorded a live performance for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.

After initially dipping in March, over the last two weeks overall streaming numbers have begun to rise, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data: Audio streams grew 1.5% to 15.03 billion for the week ending April 2 and then 1.7% to 15.3 billion for the week ending April 9.

Specifically, over the last four weeks, catalog streams account for 62.5% of all streaming, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data. The increase over the last month is miniscule -- catalog’s market share has grown by 0.1%, while current market share has dropped by 0.1% -- but catalog execs say they are seeing increased activity around a number of niche genres, including jazz, children’s music, classical and even holiday music.

BMG has seen a significant spike in streaming and downloading of children’s music since schools closed. “Our Golden Records catalog previously had 25 titles available at streaming platforms. Since, we’ve added 20 further titles to the collection that are now available in the digital realm,” Scherer says. “We’ve been working directly with streaming platforms as they want to begin highlighting the genre more through their promotions and we’ve created four brand new themed compilations -- 'Comic Book Heroes,' 'Cartoon Classics,' 'Classic Children’s Tales,' 'Classic Children’s Stories & Songs' -- that will all go live by May 15.”

Kevin Gore, Warner Music Group’s president of global catalog, has witnessed the classical music spike around the globe -- traveling with the coronavirus’ spread. "We saw the rise in engagement with classical music in Italy before we saw it in the U.S.," he says. "We’re seeing strong performances on classically-curated work-from-home playlists."

Gore and his counterparts have gotten creative amid the pandemic. While catalog promotion has typically relied on mobility -- people listening in their cars on the way to work or at their gyms -- now the focus is how to capture people’s attention in their homes. For this, the companies are creating and pushing their own playlists, and looking for adds on popular existing curated playlists. That means creating playlists for at-home workouts, as well as playlists devoted to upbeat, feel-good music to lift people’s spirits and ones meant to calm frayed nerves. Some companies have even created playlists specifically for lunch-time breaks.

The idea, no matter what the genre, is to lift spirits says Gore, whose company has created playlists in six different languages.

BMG has utilized the data from Bandsintown to help promote catalog of acts in markets where they would have been performing, prior to tour postponements. “Artists have been able to connect directly with localized fan bases and share unique, curated, handpicked playlists -- until they can return to the road,” Scherer says. “We’re all very active as a team in creative social marketing, live streaming concerts and developing new doc-style ‘making ofs’ and ‘behind-the-scenes’ featuring intimate access and peeks inside the creative process.”

With video consumption also increasing slightly, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data, companies are investing in more music video content. The shutdown has occurred amid UMe’s yearlong campaign heralding Bob Marley’s 75th birthday, forcing the company to adjust its plans to release a video every month. “We were supposed to be in Jamaica, but we had to shift that," Resnikoff says. "The content team is creating computer-generated and animated content to keep a steady flow. We're doing that for a number of artists. It's still about storytelling. We can do it safely and still expand our presence on video channels." As proof of the campaign’s success and Marley’s universal global appeal, on-demand audio and video streams of Marley’s catalog actually grew by 7.1% in the four weeks between March 13 and April 9, compared to the four-week period prior, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data.

Other companies have released new visuals too or made them available in a different way: Sony Music Entertainment released Bruce Springsteen’s 2009 London Calling concert on Apple Music and YouTube in its entirety for the first time. A number of acts are delving into the vault to provide video as people have more time to view: The National releases live shows and rare footage every Monday on YouTube as part of its “An Exciting Communal Event” series; Radiohead is uploading weekly vintage live shows on its YouTube channel; and the Grateful Dead launched Shakedown Stream, a weekly series featuring past shows. BMG is in discussions for broadcast opportunities for  The Clash  co-founder Joe Strummer's 2001  Live at Brixton concert after seeing streaming of Strummer's solo works increase more than 25% in the past month.

Companies are also on the lookout for how to amplify organic moments captured on social media. Gore cites the example of a father and daughter dancing joyously to Jess Glynne's 2015 hit "Hold My Hand" that was posted March 30 as they sheltered at home. As the Facebook video went viral and downloads of the song lifted, the catalog division and Atlantic Records, which originally released the song, "made sure people saw it," Gore says. That meant promoting the video through its sites, as well as getting the song re-added to streaming services.

"Our job as marketers, as people who care for a catalog, we want to make sure we create broader awareness in a tasteful way," Gore says.

Warner Music Group did the same after a couple created a fun simulation of riding a horse with the woman's hair as the horse's tail to America's "A Horse With No Name." The video spawned more than 1,300 imitators, many of which Warner’s global catalog team helped spread via social media.

In normal times, the company might suggest streaming or buying the song. Instead, Gore says the message is softer, "Like, 'Here’s something to take your mind off what’s going on.' Let's find those moments of joy. Monetization is happening on its own. You don't have to hit people on the head."

Reacting to the authentic moments instead of trying to create them is key, Gore says. When a DJ in Holland arranged for stations across Europe to simultaneously play Gerry and the Pacemakers' 1963 remake of Carousel's "You'll Never Walk Alone" as a sign of solidarity, Gore and his team followed by servicing the song to radio stations across the globe. "We’re continuing to encourage radio play across many markets as a song for hope. We're also amplifying the song with marketing support where we’re seeing increased streams and downloads in connection with the radio play," he says.

While his and other companies are seeking to promote the catalog when appropriate, Gore stresses that right now, “It’s not about commercializing our challenges. It’s about providing comfort, joy and solace."

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