At Vevo's "NewFront" Wednesday, Left to right: Vevo's David Kohl, John Legend, Vevo's Rio Caraeff and Michael Cerda (Photo: Neilson Barnard, Getty Images/WireImage)
NEW YORK -- Upfronts -- the annual presentations at which TV networks present their upcoming series to potential sponsors - are usually a barrage of hypespeak-heavy speeches, flashy visuals and a dizzying array of statistics. For its first-ever formal upfront -- actually a "Digital Content NewFront," at which it announced six new original series -- Vevo had plenty of the above, but also a brief solo performance from John Legend and a panel discussion featuring LA Reid, Pepsi's Frank Cooper and MagnaGlobal CEO Tim Spengler that was actually quite thought-provoking. Equally impressive, Vevo CEO Rio Caraeff told Billboard.biz afterward that not only had he never been to an upfront before, the entire presentation had been put together in just three-and-a-half weeks.
The upfront comes at a pivotal time for Vevo, as it looks to expand its distribution beyond YouTube, although Caraeff told Billboard.biz in an interview earlier this week that despite reports, it has "no intention to leave YouTube."
After a series of flashy videos extolling music and videos, the event began in earnest with remarks from Caraeff, who touted the company's striking growth in just two-and-a-half years (more on that below) and used photographs of himself as a child with stars like Carly Simon and Olivia Newton-John (his father is legendary rock photographer Ed Caraeff) to amplify one of the presentation's themes: the personal connection to music, which Caraeff said "transcends all borders" and is a "pipeline to the soul." "We are all still striving for that experience through a digital lens - and that is the magic of Vevo.
"Vevo is the number one music platform on the Web, period," he said.
A series of speeches along similar lines followed from Vevo VPs David Kohl, Michael Cerda and Scott Reich, who rolled out a series of statistics both impressive -- Vevo is the No. 1 most-watched YouTube channel and No. 3 most-watched U.S. video platform on the web; it reaches 250 million unique visitors globally every month and its viewers watch a monthly average of 60+ minutes of programming, all according to comScore; it has run ads for more than 700 clients since it launched in 2009; 90% of ads are viewed to completion; it has an archive of videos from more than 11,000 artists -- and puzzling (considered in terms of population, those 250 million monthly visitors "would be the fourth-largest country in the world").
The panel discussion during Vevo's "NewFront," left to right: moderator Wenda Harris Millard, PepsiCo's Frank Cooper, MagnaGlobal's Tim Spengler, Epic's Antonio "L.A." Reid. (Photo: Neilson Barnard, Getty Images/WireImage)
They also spoke at length about the engagement of the younger segment of the audience, which Kohl said has "largely abandoned traditional television" and is continually "sharing, saving and exploring" Vevo content-- increasingly on mobile platforms -- and how the content "lives where the viewer lives: on Yahoo, Facebook, YouTube" and elsewhere. Throughout, energetic music and imagery pumped in the background, with a strong emphasis on the expected stars (Eminem, Bieber, Gaga, Beyonce, Black Eyed Peas, Usher) and at least one unexpected one (Sleigh Bells).
Details and clips from the new original programming followed, which are:
* Busk or Bust (in partnership with Shine America, formerly Reveille), a reality competition show in which contestants literally sing for their suppers;
* Cover Stories (co-produced with Amos Content Group), featuring comic, fictional stories behind iconic album covers;
* Hear Me Out (co-produced with Principato-Young Entertainment), a dating show where participants' criteria is based on musical taste;
* Sound + City (co-produced with Show Cobra), a look various cities' music scenes and what influences them (first six episodes: Nashville, Miami, Brooklyn, San Francisco, Portland (Oregon), Atlanta);
* You Play Like a Girl (co-produced with Mike Welch), a look at young girls who are pursuing music as a career, hosted by ex-Hole/Motley Crue drummer Sam Maloney;
* Strange Island (co-produced with Weird Logic, Hello! And Company), a truly bizarre scripted musical comedy series involving Yo Gabba Gabba co-creator Scott Schultz that was accurately described as "Flight of the Conchords meets Glee, living somewhere between Gilligan's Island and Fantasy Island." (Older viewers might throw in a little H.R. Pufnstuf as well.)
The chat that ensued was essentially a round table with Cooper, Reid and Spengler, ably moderated by Media Link President/COO Wenda Harris Millard. It went far beyond Vevo and looked at the larger connections between music, branding and audiences.
Cooper said that music is so valuable to brands because it is "deeply personal … any significant moment in peoples' lives, music is there," and now technology not only enables people to share that music and those moments but also participate in them, which in turn enables brands to create a more meaningful connection with audiences. In the past, he said, "brands were on the outside, hoping for a halo effect" from an artist "holding up a product" in a photograph. Now, "consumers want brands to be active members of the community."
Cooper cited PepsiCo company Mountain Dew's Green Label Sound label as an example of that initiative, in which they seek out artists "with a DIY ethic" largely looking to operate outside of the mainstream, and "give them a boost": he spoke of how successful the platform has been for Matt & Kim, Chromeo, Theophilius London (all of whom have released material on the label) and others and added, "Now we get the calls!"
"They're trying to put us outta work!" Reid quipped.
Reid echoed Cooper's sentiments in characteristic terms - "Music people shape culture more than maybe any other art form" -- and claimed that "Vevo is more impactful than MTV" was because it's voluntary and interactive.
John Legend performing at Vevo's "NewFront" on Wednesday (Photo: Neilson Barnard, Getty Images/WireImage)
Spengler spoke of music's "relevance and universal appeal," and said he believes that "for today's youth, music and sports are most important."
The conversation then moved to the timing of artists and brands joining forces. Reid said "It's case by case -- hip-hop artists often incorporate brands into their music and lifestyle -- but I encourage artists to get involved with brands early and develop a lifelong relationship and grow with them. That way it's a more honest role. Rihanna was with Cover Girl before she became so explosive, and she's beautiful, so there's an integration - with Nivea too."
Cooper and Reid then began speaking about the importance of having "like-minded executives" at labels and brands - with Cooper making a comical comment about brands being perceived as a "walking check," with artists "coming to meetings with a [burglar's] ski mask, like 'What can I get?' " -- before Spengler chimed in, "I hope there's a role for [ad agencies]!" He then started backing up his chair so he'd no longer be between Reid and Cooper -- "Notice how we're sitting!"
Spengler later compared today's digital music/video scenario to "1989 and the evolution of cable: you had a few brands that were recognized and could deliver scale, and a whole lot of startups. It's similar now: You can see it coming, you can see the audience moving there, and who would say that it's not going to be 10 times bigger in 10 years?"
Cooper deftly summed up the situation by saying, "Digital video is where all the action is -- and we have to find ways to integrate into it in a way that's meaningful to a fan, where the fans says, 'I know that wouldn't have happened without the brand.' "
The presentation concluded with three songs from Legend, who began with George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun," followed by "Save Room" and then "Ordinary People," which concludes with the words "Baby, we'll take it slow" -- a rather curious note to close on, since Vevo, the people in the room and the culture clearly have no intention of doing that.