In 2019, Disney acquired 20th Century Fox, ushering in a major shift for Hollywood. The imprint trimmed its artist roster by roughly 30% to around 20 artists, making way for a wealth of new musical releases associated with incoming franchises. “We expect our volume [of releases] is going to increase about four or five times over the next three to five years,” says Disney Music Group president Ken Bunt. “Our traditional theatrical and direct-to-streaming releases are ramping up dramatically.”
Disney does not disclose financials for its music business, but Bunt says 2020 was DMG’s most profitable year yet. Billboard estimates that its U.S. revenue last year (excluding synchronization) was between $125 million to $150 million, with significant additional revenue coming from outside the United States. (DMG has put out the music from Frozen, for instance, in 45 languages.)
Walt Disney Records and Hollywood — both of which are distributed in the United States by Universal Music Group, which licenses DMG releases around the rest of the world — had operated independently for a long time. But, since Bunt took over DMG in 2012, they’ve combined staffs and share most resources. “We have a dedicated artist marketing team [at Hollywood], but our digital sales team works everything,” says Bunt, noting that at digital service providers, for instance, soundtracks and artists alike are promoted by one team.
Each imprint has a unique focus, though. Walt Disney Records releases music related to Disney-branded properties including Walt Disney Animation, Disney+ and Pixar (whose Soul just won the Academy Award for best original score), as well as Lucasfilm. Hollywood’s roster includes individual artists, as well as the music from content produced by 20th Century Fox, National Geographic, Hulu, Marvel, ESPN, ABC and more. (After three years of awarding the winner of ABC’s American Idol a contract, Hollywood recently ended that affiliation; it is still home to season 20 winner Laine Hardy.)
Talented, young multihyphenates from Disney’s franchises like Sofia Carson, Olivia Holt and Latin sensation TINI still populate Hollywood’s roster, and Bunt describes Rodrigo’s Geffen signing as more disappointing than debilitating. “We wanted to sign her, to be honest,” he says, and typically, DMG has first option on signing artists from Disney Channel shows; Rodrigo, along with co-star Joshua Bassett, who signed with Warner Records, were rare exceptions to that rule. Still, DMG reaps some benefits of their sudden mainstream success. The new music they perform as part of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series’ second season, which premieres May 14, will arrive weekly on Walt Disney Records.
Hollywood already has lucrative long-term success stories. For two decades, DMG has owned Queen’s masters in North America. A perennial seller, the legendary band and Hollywood got a major boost in 2018 from the Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack, which has earned 2.55 million equivalent album units in the United States, according to MRC Data.
Its relationship with a younger rock act has also proved fruitful. Breaking Benjamin, which has landed eight albums on the Billboard 200 and 16 top 10s on the mainstream rock chart, signed to Hollywood 20 years ago and has repeatedly renewed its deal. “My experience [has been] nothing but great,” says frontman Benjamin Burnley. “They’ve never tried to change the music, never tried to change what we wanted to do.” As the label’s flagship rock act, he says, Hollywood has “really put in the work [at radio] and [understands] how we want to express our message. That’s really important to us.”
Since 2015, Hollywood has also partnered with S-Curve Records to work Andy Grammer, We the Kings and AJR to pop radio formats. (It has worked in tandem with S-Curve’s promo staff since 2018.) “We’re a really good fit,” says Steve Greenberg, S-Curve Records founder and AJR’s manager, noting that the relationship has yielded nine platinum singles. “They treated the records as their own.”
Walt Disney Records’ Disney-branded streaming playlists, which rely heavily on music from films like Moana, Frozen and The Lion King, have become a financial windfall for DMG, too: Worldwide, music from Disney TV and film averages 3 million streams per day, according to Bunt. But more significantly, Disney owns its master recordings and publishing. “We’re in a unique position,” says Bunt. “Other companies might not own all the publishing, or maybe it’s split across seven writers. We own everything 100%.” (As work-for-hires, composers’ works belong to Disney, which usually gives back the writers their royalty share.)
Now, Bunt and his team are looking to the next phase of expanding Disney’s musical universe. Hollywood’s roster will grow slightly to around 25 artists, including recent signee Area21, the duo of Dutch DJ-producer Martin Garrix and American producer Maejor. Bunt also emphasizes that while the Disney Channel is “still an important piece of the Disney company,” it’s far from the only one capable of producing music. “Look at what Disney+ is now,” he says. “There will be more talent that we will want to sign.”
In April, Hollywood artist Alt Bloom released a song in conjunction with NatGeo’s Disney+ series Planet Possible. Bunt sees opportunities for alt-rock band Joywave, whose vocalist, Daniel Armbruster, is a big hockey fan — fortuitous, considering Disney’s new rights deal with the NHL. Around Juneteenth, Hollywood will partner with ESPN and its sports/culture site The Undefeated to release Liberated — the third volume in its Music for the Movement series — as part of a Black music initiative. And toward the end of the year, the label will have another potential gold mine on its hands: the soundtrack to Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated remake of West Side Story.
For good reason, Bunt looks across the Disney spectrum and says he sees nothing but possibility: “Our playground is just so big.”
Additional reporting by Ed Christman.
This story originally appeared in the May 15, 2021, issue of Billboard.