Independent rights organization Merlin is kicking off 2021 with what CEO Jeremy Sirota calls “a refresh of what is already an extraordinary company,” with a new logo, an updated website and an event called “Celebrate Music,” taking place today (Jan. 13).
The rebrand caps off a significant year of changes for the non-profit, even beyond those caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In January, Sirota took over as CEO from Charles Caldas, who retired after leading the organization for its entire 12-year existence to that point, and set about nearly doubling the size of the Merlin team, particularly in its deals, analytics and technology teams. More than 80 new members also joined the organization from around the globe, including first-time members from Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.
And Merlin became the first organization to license Snap, while also striking licensing deals with Triller and renewing deals with Tencent in Asia and expanding its relationship with Apple to include a commercial deal that its members can opt into, as well as working with the company on its $50 million COVID relief fund that benefited indie labels and distributors, both Merlin members and those who are unaffiliated with the organization. In all, Merlin now has more than 30 licensing deals with a variety of companies and services from which it can extract value for its more than 800 independent label and distributor members.
“2020 was a challenging year for so many people, but for our mission and what we do in the marketplace, I feel like we did everything we could in that environment to deliver on behalf of our members,” says Sirota, who arrived at Merlin after a two-year spell on Facebook’s music team and a nine-year stint at the Warner Music Group. “That makes me feel good about the role Merlin plays in our members’ lives, and makes me excited for what’s coming this year as well.”
One year after taking the helm of the organization, Sirota spoke to Billboard about an unexpected beginning to his tenure, the challenges and opportunities facing the indie sector and how Merlin is planning to continue to deliver for its members moving forward.
Billboard: It’s been a year since you took over, a year that nobody could have predicted or planned for. How would you say things have gone and how have you been able to shift your priorities and adapt?
Jeremy Sirota: When I showed up the thing that struck me first about Merlin was that this company was foundationally strong, well-respected within the music industry and by its partners, trusted by its members. So my question was, “How do I build on that?” I felt support from the team, from the board, from members. Not only was this my first year as CEO of Merlin, it was my first time as a CEO. And less than two months in, global pandemic. Last year we had 14 people who started [working at Merlin], and all 14 of them started working remotely. So it definitely wasn’t the year I expected, but you do your best to plan and then you adapt as things come along. So I walk away and I think about two things in terms of what is success to me. Did I deliver to my members what they needed, and did I support my team and allow them to feel like they can be proud of what they accomplished? And I feel like we checked both those boxes.
What were some of those bigger challenges, and when you say you were able to deliver what your members needed, what did they need the most?
Our role in the ecosystem is to guide, enable, work tirelessly on behalf of our members, and be the partner that our members want on their side both in good and in bad times. One of the things we did was double the size of our deals team, which just allowed us to get more deals done. The more deals we can get done, the more value we can drive to our members. So we were the first to sign a deal with Snap, we got our Triller deal done, we evolved our relationship with Facebook to include gaming, we now have our Apple deal done and in place, we deepened our relationship and partnership with YouTube to drive more value to our members there and lean into the tools they have. I’ll give you a good example with Snap: even before we started talking about a deal with them in commercial terms, we were already leaning into their artist verification program, which included their e-commerce integrations. We were looking at an opportunity for our members and their artists to get value from this platform — how can we help to deliver that to them and create a lane there? So, more deals, better deals, leaning into those partnerships.
Some of the other things we did are sort of nuts and bolts, but our members come to us asking how we can pay them faster, how we can report to them faster. Those were a couple things we really focused on, in terms of modernizing our financial processes, we started doing more communications about what was happening in the marketplace, we started doing benchmark reports when COVID hit so that they had a sense of what was happening in the market. We worked and strategized with Apple on their $50 million COVID fund. Those are some of the ways we really focused on driving value for our members in 2020.
You spent time at Warner and then Facebook — what have you been able to bring from your time at a major label and from tech to your role at Merlin?
When I joined Facebook’s music team there were only five of us and it quickly expanded while I was there. My role was basically heading up our global efforts to license independents. I had an opportunity to meet with independents from all around the world in that role. So number one was really just understanding the needs of independents around the world and seeing the differences — Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America. Number two is, to work in tech is to understand tech. I had spent my entire career working with tech — I was a tech lawyer, I did tech deals when I was at Warner — but that’s so different from working inside of a tech company. And I think that gave me a view of how to better straddle the needs of our members but also understanding what drives technology companies, even just their process, how things are approved there, how things are thought through, how they interact with engineers and product managers. And the more you understand tech and the more you speak their language, then the more you can relate to them and drive behavior. Technology is so critical to every business, and that applies equally to Merlin. So I leaned hard into our tech team, which is why it’s grown so much. We’ve
I was at Warner Music nine years, and what I can say is I had an opportunity to do virtually everything. I supported our artist and label services division, I worked at ADA, I helped launch a DIY distributor called Level, I did biz-dev with digital deals and worked with some of our biggest partners, so I just had the opportunity to see so many different facets of the music industry. I worked with our operations team very closely and also ran an operations division. What Warner afforded me was the ability to see so many different sides of the music industry. The only two things I didn’t do was A&R and digital marketing. So just having that experience really helped when I came to Merlin because Merlin isn’t a label, but I understand the needs of labels and distributors and other rights holders.
In June, as part of Billboard’s Indie Power Players feature, you said the most urgent indie issues were the control of data coming from Facebook and TikTok; more access to capital for the indie sector; and the growth of user-generated content and social platforms in the music space. Are those still the biggest issues now?
Control of data applies to more than just TikTok and Facebook, and I don’t know if I would say control is the right word. I think it would be more along the lines of, how do we make use of this data? How do you empower your business to make better decisions with data? Some of that just comes down to understanding the signals out of the noise. I think it’s increasingly important in all of our deals that we continue to focus on any access to data that our members can receive so that they can continue to empower their businesses with that data. And that’s a key part of all the dealmaking that we do, is accessing data and additional data streams. And it’s valuable — and it’s not just valuable to our members, which it is, but it’s valuable for them to get more out of the partnerships. It really empowers the ecosystem by having access to data.
There is capital within the independent sector. What I want folks in the industry to understand is that if they need access to capital — whether for growth, or if they’re looking to sell; not everyone can do this forever and maybe they want to sell — there is capital within the independent sector, where you can leave your legacy with someone you trust who better understands your needs. So that would be my message to the marketplace. If you are an independent, look to the independent sector for opportunities.
In terms of growth of UGC and social platforms — it’s a new and still nascent form that’s still evolving. You see numerous players coming into this space and looking to explore it, and I think what’s so interesting with social platforms and music is, No. 1, it’s all about storytelling, and that’s just a natural human need, to tell stories. And one of the best ways to tell stories is through music. I love the idea of our members and their artists being able to power storytelling. And I’m excited for where this is heading because I think we’re still at the beginning of this journey and there’s still so much more to come. It’s an area that we’re very focused on being a big part of for our members.
What’s behind this rebrand?
We’re calling it our Celebrate Music event. The way I always think about us as a company, as an entity, in terms of our role in the ecosystem, is as a member-led, music-focused company. In challenging times, it’s important to also focus on what’s beautiful, that there are still good things in life. Even as we’re in these challenging times I’m optimistic about the future, about the future for our members and independents. So this is a refresh of what is already an extraordinary company. It’s a new website, it’s a new logo, and it’s a new way of telling our story through our members. I just wanted us to have a modern look that reflects who we are as a company. So what we’re going to be doing now is continue to focus publicly on our members and showcasing them and their accomplishments, because there’s so much greatness coming from them and I want to really lean into that mantra of, our members’ success is our success. I’m really excited to share it with the world.
Looking forward, what are the areas of opportunities you’re focused on and what are some of the trends you’re keeping an eye on this year?
We had phenomenal growth last year in our membership. The vast majority of our members that joined Merlin originally in 2008 are still participating members today, and to me that’s such a great sign that we’re doing the right thing on their behalf, and I just want to continue to make that available to the rest of the world. We just want to continue to make sure that people understand who and what Merlin is and the value proposition. So growing our membership is definitely one of the key things. Growing the deals that we have is another one. We have over 30 deals now and we’re going to see that continue to grow in 2021. And then I’m also excited about a lot more that we have coming on the technology side, where we can continue to provide better tools for the company and for our members. So membership growth, more deals, better tools and we’re going to continue to lean into our partnerships. It’s one of the key things that I do, beyond talking to our members, is talking to our digital partners about how we can drive more value for each other. Those are the four key things I’m focused on next year.