Let It Grow: Inside the Fairy Tale Success of Disney Concerts

Moviestore/Shutterstock
Frozen (2013)

Once upon a time in late 2006, Walt Disney Co. business development then-newcomer Chip McLean approached then-head of Disney Music Bob Cavallo with an idea. It was the heady time of High School Musical, Hannah Montana and The Cheetah Girls, and the concerts associated with those properties were soaring. What if, posited McLean, the company could deliver the passion of a pop concert in an environment immersed in classic Disney fare?

As McLean recalls, Cavallo had an answer: "If you want to do this, fine. But you can't lose any money."

"I think he was kidding… but you never can tell," McLean chuckles as he recalls the conversation for Billboard. "I took it to heart. I can almost still here him saying it. It was a great thing to hear right at the beginning."

Disney Concerts, the concert production and licensing division of Disney Music Group that's been operating for eight years under McLean's leadership as SVP/GM, Disney Concerts Worldwide, thus far has been a fairy tale story. With more than 550 events on the books this year and 1,000 more scheduled through 2021 in 30 countries and counting, McLean says the division has seen more than 200% revenue growth since 2015.

Which isn't entirely surprising to McLean, who says he knew he was on to something back in spring 2006 when he was in Seattle for the Cheetah Girls tour opener at the (since shuttered) KeyArena, with Miley Cyrus as opening act. "That's the moment that still gives me goose bumps to think about," he says. "All the mothers and daughters were in the room. The lights went out and there was this mass, 120-decibel shriek. It was so shrill it was almost painful. And I remember thinking how lucky we were to have this moment."

Back home in Burbank, Calif., the company was trying to decide whether to move more aggressively into straight-up concert promotion. Its Disney Channel talent was cranking out pop hits, and the concert business remained a focus for several years while separately Disney rented sheet music of its classic tunes to orchestras on an individual basis. 

"Initially, when we started having crazy success on the pop side, there was talk of being in the business of producing pop tours for individual artists," McLean says, "But ultimately we didn't feel like we were adding the right kind of value to be involved in that."

McLean had another vision. Vibing off the multigenerational bonding he'd witnessed at shows and the timeless quality of the Disney archive, he imagined a live music universe steeped in the catalog of treasures that could both breathe new life into classics and enhance newer film releases.

"We refocused our efforts to look at things that have a shelf life, that we could scale and that could bring more value to the company globally as opposed to doing domestic tours," he recalls. "That led to our focus on the core Disney stuff, which now includes Pixar and Lucasfilm and Marvel."

The Disney machine mobilized quickly. The company's recorded music, music publishing and concert business were consolidated in 2011, one of Cavallo's last efforts before he exited and Ken Bunt stepped up to head the music division. "Since then it's increased by roughly seven-fold in terms of the number of concerts we do per year," McLean says.

"We've really amped up what we're doing," Bunt tells Billboard. "Most of it now is the U.S., European countries and Japan, with an eye to expanding Latin America. And it's paying of very well financially. It's an area we don't talk about a lot; most people, I think, would be surprised to learn we do that many shows."

The audiovisual immersion spans the Disney gamut, from the company's golden age of animation to the late 20th century renaissance with titles including Beauty & the Beast, The Lion King and The Little Mermaid to present-day animated and live-action fare. The shows offer an opportunity to both showcase new Disney talent and bring original talent to the stage, as it did with this year's 25th anniversary The Nightmare Before Christmas concerts at the Hollywood Bowl with composer Danny Elfman.

A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH

The Star Wars franchise, which Disney Concerts premiered last September with the force of four titles—A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, The Force Awakens and Return of the Jedi —has given rise to the division's biggest hits to date. The NY Philharmonic at Lincoln Center sold out nine concerts over three weeks. Four subsequent shows at the Hollywood Bowl with the LA Philharmonic drew 60,000 fans, McLean says, and the franchise since has seen an additional 140-plus concerts with symphony partners in 13 countries, with an additional 400 concerts either booked or in final planning stages through 2021.

The division holds its box-office receipts close to the vest, and since business is divided between in-house productions and licensed shows where the company collects a fee but not ticket revenue, McLean says "as a business unit we don't talk about box office as a whole because it's not relevant to the overall picture."

But he's quick to note the potency of the Disney Concerts effect. "We also see a big part of the value we bring is creating excitement in markets, where can create a bigger impact that transcends the show," he says. "There's something exciting about Disney being in town, and that benefits the company as a whole. We hear from local offices, especially internationally, about the perceived value and unique excitement."

IT'S A SMALL WORLD

Indeed, Disney Concerts is big business overseas, particularly in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, and in Japan, where the company stages about 100 shows per year—some licensed "concerts in a box," and others customized for the local market.

"When we have a Disney concert in that market, it's a direct touch point with the fans. Unlike television or film, with events fans show up and you actually see them. So it's an opportunity for reconnaissance and for talking with our team members in markets where we may not have as deep a business as we do in other markets. It's a way we can be there in physical form for a moment and do something special," McLean says.

"Different films are popular on different levels in different markets," he adds. The development a few years back of concerts around the Pirates of the Caribbean live-action franchise, he notes, may never have come to fruition if not for strong interest from a symphony in Switzerland. "They have a festival every summer there, and they wanted a sequence so we did four [films] in concert, the consequence of a geographically very focused interest. It made all the sense in the world, even if that was the only place where it played."

HOLDING ON TO LET IT GO

As Disney Concerts grows in span, the shows also are evolving beyond singular film plots and linear orchestral scores. "We're playing more with the idea of the experience, of being in the realm and having music and images but not necessarily adhering to full story lines," McLean says. "We're tapping into emotions and memories, and bringing something new to the way people react to the content."

What does that sound like? A cappella renditions of classic Disney songs. Musical variations on current live-action reboots of animated classics. A concept concert that takes fans on a musical journey through all Pixar films, to name a few. "A lot of tours we do now are journeys through the Disney songbook. We've been more focusing on songs and moments than a specific title," McLean says.

At this summer's Aspen Music Festival, Disney premiered A Decade in Concert, a compilation concert that spanned the past decade of Disney feature animation including Frozen, Moana, Tangled and Zootopia; it included curated film footage, a symphony of indigenous instruments and chorals. "The music was not your standard orchestral by any stretch," he says. 

Disney Concerts also is wading deeper into experiential waters. "One example is a Frozen concert experience that is in the context of essentially recreating the world of Frozen in ice," McLean says. To that end, the company is working with ice carvers in China to erect a frozen universe in which the concert would be staged. "That would operate for a minimum of two months and maybe longer," McLean says of the concept. "It's a blend of a concert experience inside this ice-sculpted animated world. We wouldn't only be trying to recreate [Frozen] but would also have fresh characters. "

McLean sees the experience as a year-round event, not necessarily tied to the winter holidays. "There are huge markets around the world that never have snow and ice, families who never had a chance to play in the snow. Imagine how great it would be to have animation and music combined with a visceral, tactile physical environment," he says.

The twinkle of the Disney wand is almost audible. "We present concentric circles of celebration: Celebrating the film, celebrating the music, coming as a fan and seeing who else is a fan. It's a multilayered experience for us."


THE BILLBOARD BIZ
SUBSCRIBER EXPERIENCE

The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.


To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.