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How Indies Are Boosting Their Music Through Docs & Biopics

Billboard's recent cover story on artist biopics and documentaries detailed the push by major labels and publishers to monetize their catalogs via film, TV and streaming. What about their independent…

Billboard’s May 25, 2019 cover story on music biopics and documentaries detailed the push by major labels and publishers to monetize their catalogs via film, TV and streaming – but the indies are getting in on the action, too.

To be sure, the major record companies have grabbed the spotlight lately: In addition to grossing more than $1.1 billion at the box office globally, according to IMDb Pro, the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody saw a sales and streaming bump that, Billboard estimates, generated another $18 million in revenues in the six months that followed it’s November 2018 release — good news for Sony/ATV Music Publishing, which licensed the publishing rights to the songs used in the film. Rocketman is also off to a promising start, and at least a dozen more are set to debut in cineplexes and on TV and streaming platforms before the year is out.

But not all of these projects are major-record-company-backed productions. Now that the advent of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime has ratcheted up demand for music-related films and documentaries, indie labels — which account for nearly 40% of the global music market —  and music publishers are also combing through their catalogs for artists with stories to tell, although finding a niche act with a hefty-enough legacy to carry a film or documentary can be a challenge.  

The current gold standard of indie success on screen is Netflix’s Mötley Crüe biopic The Dirt, which was co-produced by Allen Kovac, CEO of the band’s hard rock-focused indie label Eleven Seven. Although Netflix does not report on the performance of its programming, the film has sparked interest in Mötley Crüe’s catalog. Streams of the band’s music jumped 300% — from 37.6 million to 150.1 million — and its album plus track equivalent album sales rose 537.4% — from 13,670 to 87,135 — in the two months following the film’s release, according to Nielsen Music.  “We need to be storytellers today — we can’t just put our song out and believe radio is going to make it a hit,” says Kovac of the film, which has been 16 years in the making (and was originally slated to be released by Paramount.) 

Kovac says the streaming uptick was bolstered by a partnership with Spotify. Together, they targeted non-streaming Mötley Crüe fans with free 30-day trials through ticket buyer data from Ticketmaster and Live Nation, paid social media posts from the streaming service, and offers sent out to the band’s email database, as well as those of other major Eleven Seven artists like Five Finger Death Punch and Nothing More. According to Kovac, Mötley Crüe, which owns all of its masters, has seen a 600% increase in earnings since 2018, making the film’s long gestation period worth it. “We have time, we have patience,” says Kovac.  “We’re not on singles radio or, a “we gotta break it in a quarter” [mindset]. We’re not a record company, we’re a marketing company and we partner with content creators.”


Jedd Katrancha, the executive vp of Downtown Music Publishing, which handles publishing and synchs for Mötley Crüe, says, however, that a musical act must have a compelling story that translates to the screen. “If you’re doing a film because you want to make more money off your catalog, you’re going to run out of steam,” he says, adding that artists that symbolize a particular moment in culture (in the way that the Crüe exemplified the debauched hair-metal scene of the ’80s) are a good place to start.  “There are writers whose creations were made during really important parts of American or world history. ” Katrancha says. “And I think people enjoy watching movies about [that] creative process.”

In other words, indie labels with rosters that aren’t chock full of legacy artists will have to dig a little deeper,  says Kobalt vp of creative synch Chris Lakey, take a more creative approach to showcasing  the music they want to monetize. Instead of a biopic, the project could be “a music film on a landmark record store [see Other Music below], a documentary about a niche label or the making of a particular album.”  Kovac agrees that indie labels built around groundbreaking musical scenes or genres — Epitaph and Sub Pop, for example — would make good fodder for films or documentaries. “There are no brands at major labels anymore — like Motown the brand, or Island,” he says, referring to labels that, in their heyday, were synonymous with styles of music they released. 

As Katrancha sees it, a film built around an intriguing cult-level act can tell its story far more effectively than a standard press campaign. (K-12, which Melanie Martinez wrote, directed and stars in, will serve as the visual counterpart to her second album when both are released in August.)  “We’re working on a couple projects right now centered around the lives of our writers,” Katrancha says. “One in particular takes a newer artist and tells their story in a really interesting way.” 


In the meantime, here is a sampling of films and documentaries that feature indie music: 

Eleven Seven remains bullish on film projects. The label is prepping three seasons of a 10-part documentary series called Masters of Chaos, which it plans to take to multiple platforms. “It’s the independent promoters, independent record companies, and independent radio stations that made the music business, and what happened when it consolidated,” Kovac says. A documentary that looks at how Nikki Sixx’s 2007 memoir, The Heroin Diaries, about his battle with drug addiction, evolved into a musical is also in the works. 

BMG, which founded its film department in 2014, wholly financed a pair of notable 2019 music films: Echo in the Canyon, a documentary about the Laurel Canyon music scene released May 24 and David Crosby: Remember My Name — also produced by BMG — set to hit theaters July 24. “Our films are typically part of a broader partnership with an artist, rather than simply licensing out rights,” BMG’s senior director of films Kathy Rivkin-Daum tells Billboard. The pact with Crosby began as a publishing administration deal and progressed into a recordings partnership, with BMG releasing his last two studio albums, 2017’s Sky Trails and 2018’s Here If You Listen. Rivkin-Daum says further films from across BMG’s roster are imminent: “We have a number of film and television projects in development and expect to not only announce, but sell several of them this year.” 

SXSW 2019 saw the premiere of Everybody’s Everything, a documentary on the life of Lil Peep, the burgeoning emo-influenced rapper who died of an accidental overdose in Nov. 2017. The doc was produced by Benjamin Soley of First Access Entertainment, the management and publishing company Peep partnered with in 2016; it was financed by First Access and Liza Womack, Peep’s mother, who served as executive producer alongside Terrence Malick (of Badlands and Days of Heaven fame) and First Access’ Sarah Stennett. Following a warm reception at the festival, content studio Gunpowder & Sky acquired worldwide rights to the film in May.

Other Music, a documentary about the iconic, recently-shuttered East Village record store (and later, record label) premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Its soundtrack represents an array of indie labels — including Matador (Pavement, Barbara Manning), DFA (Black Dice), and Stone’s Throw (Dâm-Funk) — closely associated with Other Music’s two-decade run. Sales agents at Paradigm are currently negotiating distribution details, a rep from the film says. 

Inna De Yard: The Soul of Jamaica made its international premiere at Midem’s annual music business event last week in Cannes, France, after debuting in April at Tribeca. It follows iconic reggae musicians including Ken Boothe, Winston McAnuff, Kiddus I, and Cedric Myton as they convene in Kingston and rehearse for an international tour. The doc’s companion album was produced and released via Chapter Two Records, featuring outdoor acoustic recordings of seminal tracks. Licensing rights were obtained for most songs from a variety of publishers, dating back to their original release in the 1970s.

Released to select theaters on March 23, Stiv follows the colorful life of the late Stiv Bators, frontman of the seminal ’70s punk group The Dead Boys. The doc’s soundtrack, released through MVD Entertainment Group as a 2019 Record Store Day vinyl exclusive, features Bators solo tracks along with deep cuts from his contemporaries, licensed from various original publishers.