If you’d like to know where One Direction will be a year from now — let alone next week — score yourself an invite to the weekly planning calls with the principals of Modest! Management, Sony International and Columbia Records, held every Monday for the last 18 months.
“What we set out to do is basically deconstruct things and say, ‘We’re in business together — this is a partnership,'” Sony U.K. International senior VP Mark Collen says. “There’s no dictation from one side to the other. It’s everyone agreeing on, ‘This is how it works.'”
Had you been privy to the calls held 10 months ago in mid-January, you’d have heard initial plans being mapped out for “Midnight Memories,” One Direction’s latest album (out Nov. 25) and third in two years’ time. As 2012 came to a close, Modest! partner Richard Griffiths was originally planning on a new album for first-quarter 2014, staring down a tour that would keep the group on the road from the spring of 2013 well into the fall.
“We knew it was going to be a bit difficult, but we managed to work out a system where we would set up studios in hotels because we were doing a series of shows in the same cities at one time,” Griffiths says. “In a way, that made it easier. But what we didn’t realize was we were also going to make a movie this year [documentary “This Is Us”], so it’s been quite a schedule having done 134 shows.”
The album is perhaps the most representative work of the group’s five members to date, with the band contributing lyrics to 12 of the 14 songs on the standard edition (and an additional three on the 18-track deluxe). It boasts more guitar work from member Niall Horan, and an abundance of references to ’80s rock, from the Joan Jett-esque title track to the Police-worthy “Diana” to a more overt rewriting of Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” on bonus cut “Does He Know.” There’s also a dual focus on a more mature, folk-pop sound, as evidenced by the Mumford & Sons-leaning opening of second single “Story of My Life,” and additional tracks like “Through the Dark” and “Happily,” which could go neck and neck with Avicii’s “Wake Me Up!” for the year’s most insanely catchy song to combine banjo and synths.
The bulk of the album’s tracks were co-penned and produced by Julian Bunetta, who contributed a pair of tracks to 2012’s “Take Me Home” and ended up shaping the sound of “Midnight Memories” through traveling with the band on the road across six stops in the United Kingdom and another half-dozen in the United States.
The Los Angeles-based Bunetta had few parameters heading into the album beyond a desire to create a more live sound. “We knew going into this album that they were going to do a stadium tour, so we wanted to make sure these songs felt at home when you play them for that many people live as well as when you put it on in your car,” Bunetta says. The hard-rocking “Little Black Dress” in particular was recorded in an entirely live setting with the members singing with guitarists, bassists and drummers.
Throughout the writing and recording, Bunetta played off the energy and enthusiasm of the band members, who were still newbies to songwriting. “They’re experiencing all this crazy stuff right now. It’s the prime, ripe moment,” he says. “They’ve been like sponges; now they want to express it and talk about it. They know who they are better than anyone and they also know what their fans want better than anyone.”
Speaking with Billboard from the United Kingdom after a brief 10-day vacation, the members seem refreshed and eager as ever to maintain the grueling pace of the last three years. “I’m a night owl, so the late-night recordings don’t really bother me — as long as I can sleep in late!” Zayn Malik says of the recording process. Harry Styles adds more succinctly, “I don’t think it’s that hard to stay focused. We get to go to amazing places and work with great people. It’s just really fun.”
Horan will admit to the occasional bout of homesickness, however, which plays out on album cut “Don’t Forget Where You Belong.” “Luckily, I have my four best mates on the road with me to keep me from getting lonely,” he says. “We all miss home at times. Who wouldn’t, being on the road all year long? Wouldn’t give it up for anything though.”
“Midnight Memories” is the next phase in a whirlwind two-year period, during which the group has sold more than 35 million records worldwide, many of them in the United States, the biggest market for the U.K. group. Debut album “Up All Night” has moved 1.9 million copies since its stateside release in March 2012, while last November’s “Take Me Home” has nearly matched it with 1.8 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Both albums debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, making One Direction the first British band to enter the top of the chart with its first two albums since the Beatles. The act has also sold 15.6 million singles in the States, led by debut hit “What Makes You Beautiful” (4.4 million copies), as well as “One Thing” (1.5 million), “Live While We’re Young” (1.2 million) and “Midnight Memories”‘ lead single “Best Song Ever” (1 million).
On the touring front, One Direction has grossed $78.3 million from 81 of the 134 shows the band has reported to Billboard Boxscore thus far, with an attendance of 1.2 million to the group’s first global arena tour. The act took home the Breakthrough Award at Billboard’s Touring Awards this month, and is set to embark on an even bigger tour of stadiums in 2014 that starts April 26 in Colombia. Plus, the group’s concert documentary, “This Is Us,” took in a worldwide gross of $68 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
No wonder Sony Music U.K. CEO Nick Gatfield said in a 2012 interview, “What you might not know about One Direction is that they already represent a $50 million business-and that’s a figure we expect to double next year.” Of course, $100 million isn’t a figure a label arrives at based on recorded-music sales alone. But senior executives of One Direction’s team confirm Gatfield’s quote, and indicate that Sony has participation in everything from touring revenue, merchandise and the documentary, which was released by Sony Pictures.
“I hate the word ‘synergies,'” says Simon Cowell, founder of One Direction’s label Syco Entertainment, who helped assemble the group on the U.K. version of “The X Factor” in 2010. “But there’s a lot of ways we’ve worked together between myself and Sony and ‘The X Factor’ — obviously their touring and merch generate a lot of money. I don’t like thinking of them as a brand, to be honest. They’re just five guys doing incredibly well, and if the money comes in, even better.”
“It would be an exaggeration to say it’s a 360 deal,” Griffiths adds. “But it’s no secret in today’s world that the labels are involved in ancillary income as well as recorded income. So I suspect we’re a very important act for [Sony] in many senses, and we make sure that we get suitably compensated by them.”
Part of building that empire is brand deals with Mondelez International and Office Depot, which sponsored the 2013 tour and are expected to continue their relationship with the act in 2014; a global fragrance licensed to Elizabeth Arden in the United States called Our Moment; and a book (“One Direction: Forever Young”) published by HarperCollins. Griffiths is open to further brand partnerships, but within certain criteria. “They’ve got to work with us from our scheduling point of view-there’s a limit to how much we can do on the road. And we won’t get involved with alcohol or fast food.”
But the real opportunities for growth in the 1D empire lie with the music itself. “Midnight Memories” strategically features a more grown-up sound, and “Story of My Life” has a shot at unseating “What Makes You Beautiful” as the group’s signature song, particularly at radio. On Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40 airplay chart, the song became 1D’s highest-charting debut in November, entering at No. 28, and rising to No. 26 the following week, according to Nielsen BDS. Of One Direction’s previous hits, only “Beautiful” has gone top 10 at Mainstream Top 40 (peaking at No. 3), though the band has charted five other singles in the top 20.
“We’ve got a chance to get a radio perspective on ‘Story of My Life’ that differs from the last record,” Columbia Records chairman Rob Stringer says. “With some of that demographic it tends to hit a wall at a certain point, and we don’t think that’s the case with this song. We’ve seen a little bit of that in the U.K. as well — [BBC] Radio 2 has really jumped onboard and played this, and we’ve never been played on that station before.”
Columbia executive VP/GM Joel Klaiman adds, “A few tracks on the album open up new formats for us — [adult top 40], AC — which should help us reach different fans. The music falls somewhere between Mumford and Phillip Phillips and pays homage to another sound or something the boys may have grown up listening to.”
“Story of My Life” is also the central theme to the first 1D Day, a global fan event held Nov. 23 in Los Angeles accompanied by a seven-hour live stream on YouTube sponsored by Google. In an age when Lady Gaga can tap Vevo and Clear Channel for a live stream of a multimillion-dollar album release event, One Direction seized the opportunity to uniquely leverage its combined Twitter following of 88 million (for @onedirection and the members’ individual accounts) and 22 million Facebook fans to host a truly global event with little involvement from traditional media.
Though the band fielded offers from top TV networks in both the United Kingdom and the States to broadcast the event, “we turned it down because this had to be a free, interactive event,” says Ben Winston, executive producer of 1D Day and co-director of “This Is Us.” “Doing a seven-hour love letter to those fans, only available online for free, is a nice, completing-the-circle moment for a band who gained such a following online. We wanted people to be able to watch this on their phones or their laptops and feel like the band was with them in their homes.”
Part of the broadcast will include segments from each territory, including “Story of My 1D Life,” in which some of the act’s biggest American fans will discuss their favorite 1D concert experiences. “They’ve always been fans-first, and we wanted to come up with innovative ways of making them accessible to their fans,” Columbia senior VP of marketing Doneen Lombardi says.
Leading into 1D Day and album release, Columbia has been tracking three key hashtags — #storyofmylife, which has had more than 11 million mentions on social media (50% from the United States), #midnightmemories (7.5 million, 45% of which were U.S.-based) and #1dday (1.5 million mentions, 45% from the States). “Even though the U.S. is leading the pack, we’re starting to see major growth across the globe with our fan base,” Columbia VP of digital media and marketing Kathy Baker says. “What we realized with 1D Day was we can only be in one place at a time, so even though there were huge demands for them globally, we decided to make this one big fan event where everyone could watch and participate from their respective countries.”
One Direction also performed on the U.S. version of “The X Factor” on Nov. 21, and taped an iHeartRadio album-release concert at Clear Channel’s new Burbank, Calif., concert venue that will air Dec. 7 on the CW. The band will also make the switch from longtime morning TV partner “Today” to “Good Morning America” on Nov. 26 for a live concert in New York’s Central Park that will air across multiple days. In the United Kingdom, the act returned to the “X Factor” stage on Nov. 16, and sat on the couch for “Live With Jonathan Ross” amid a lineup that included Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and Eminem.
Speaking with Billboard just after the “Ross” taping, Will Bloomfield, the band’s day-to-day manager at Modest!, says “Midnight Memories” is a “seminal moment” for a band he believes will be together for a long time. “We’re very focused on the next couple of years,” he says. “They’ve been incredibly excited to make this record, even though it was difficult logistically. They’ve learned a lot from the other two records, and wanted to put that into practice.”
Sony is banking on a future for the band, too. The company just re-upped its contract with 1D and Modest! for another three albums, the first of which Griffiths hopes will arrive by late 2014. Cowell adds, “Eventually they probably will split up and maybe want to have their own careers. The choice is theirs, and we’ve got the opportunity to do both. But from what I hear, they’re really enjoying what they’re doing and we don’t feel there’s anything seriously wrong here. They’re getting more time off and I hope they stay a band for a long time.”
The members have even less perspective on the future. “We just love what we’re doing right now. We’ve got no intention to change that,” Liam Payne says. “Who knew we would be here three years ago?” Louis Tomlinson adds. “We’re just going to focus on tomorrow and go from there.”
In the meantime, Sony is seeing a halo effect from the British pop resurgence One Direction ushered in. Fellow U.K. “X Factor” signing Little Mix saw its Syco/Columbia debut reach the top five on the Billboard 200 earlier this year, and the act is readying follow-up “Salute” for a domestic release in February. U.S. “X Factor” alums Fifth Harmony and Emblem3 are also starting to make dents on the charts for Epic and Syco/Columbia, respectively. “I can see a sea change in the influence of social media on mainstream media — the entry point of discovery has changed forever,” Syco Music president Sonny Takhar says. “One Direction led the charge in this respect, where there was a huge movement of teenage girls that had discovered the band prior to traditional media.”
Sony International’s Collen says the partnership model with Modest! and Syco for One Direction has also started to replicate itself in the way the company works with artists like Calvin Harris, whose management company Three Six Zero/Roc Nation, imprint Fly Eye and U.K. label Ultra all work with Columbia and Sony on his current singles and album “18 Months.”
“We want to use our frequent dialogue with each other to turn acts into global artists,” Collen says. “We understand the artist now is in control and has oversight of a lot more of the pie than they did 10 years ago. We want to be the best-in-class partner, and we have to think holistically. We can’t just think from the perspective of how record companies look at things. We have to think of how music companies look at things, and understand the needs and wants of the artist compared to ours.”