More Signings Fail to Produce More Stars
The majors have been on a signing spree, leaving product managers and marketers overworked.
From 2001 to 2004, the music industry produced a steady stream of new artists with big hits: At least 30 first-timers landed in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 each year. In 2022, only 12 new acts managed the feat (plus a pair of songs from the Encanto cast). “This is the hardest time to break through and market music,” one manager tells Billboard.
It’s not for lack of trying: In recent years, labels have been signing acts at whirlwind speed, yet this surge of new signings hasn’t yet amounted to a surge of new stars. And some executives worry that the dry spell is partly due to the recent wave of signings, claiming that the majors have inked deals at a rate beyond their ability to provide service.
“The over-signing of [the] COVID [era] is now a pain point at every label,” says one manager with multiple acts on majors. If staff growth doesn’t keep up with roster growth, artists don’t necessarily get the care they need to level up. “No one has enough product managers. So they’re all getting crushed.”
“It is not humanly possible for a product manager — the person responsible for the story of the artists, the story of the music — to creatively, strategically and efficiently implement marketing for 20 artists at one time,” says Craig Baylis, a former major-label product manager who runs the boutique publishing company Eighth & Groove. Record companies often “aren’t getting the best out of [their staff] because they are ramming them with all of these artists that they’re not even getting the chance to know.”
All the major-label groups have broken new artists in the last few years, of course, whether it’s Olivia Rodrigo (Universal Music Group), Steve Lacy (Sony Music) or Zach Bryan (Warner Music Group). In a January letter to staff, UMG chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge reaffirmed the company’s commitment to this task, writing, “We diligently work, day in and day out, to break our artists and songwriters.” While speaking with investors last year, Sony Music chairman Rob Stringer said “creative staff,” which encompasses A&R, marketing, product managers and artist relations, had increased at a faster rate than artist roster size, helping launch new acts onto the streaming charts.
Roster size numbers are difficult to come by, but in 2017, a study organized by the RIAA found that major labels had signed 658 artists that year, up from 589 in 2014. Although the RIAA hasn’t released a follow-up, many lawyers and executives say the rate of signings has climbed since that report. Two senior executives believe the number of deals is now as high or higher than it has ever been; Sony Music told investors that new signings rose 32.4% between 2017 and 2021.
The recent wave of signings is in part a byproduct of streaming becoming the main revenue source at the majors. The biggest streaming services pay rights holders according to their share of total plays on the platform. But low-cost distribution has brought a “vast and unnavigable number of tracks” into the music ecosystem, as Grainge put it in his staff memo. Streams for those tracks eat into big record companies’ piece of the pie. If tens of thousands of new tracks are added to streaming services daily, “then [major-label] market share is going to be diluted by default,” Stringer explained last year.
Signing more is a way of fighting back. “For major labels, independents and distributors, it’s all about volume of signings now,” says Andreas Katsambas, who was a senior vp at BMG before joining the analytics company Chartmetric as president/COO.
This puts major labels in a bind: They need to sign and release more to keep market share up, but this makes it harder for each artist signed to get the attention they need to break through.
“Intelligent marketing is not going to be a facet of developing artists today if record companies are going to continue doling out artists, singles and projects at the frequency that they do,” says Baylis. “There is a high level of fatigue that product managers are experiencing.”
A former major-label employee who left to go into management agrees that product managers and marketers tend to be “completely overworked.” “A digital person may have 60 projects,” he adds. “It’s crazy.”
Mike Caren, founder of the publishing company and independent label APG (and former president of global A&R at WMG), points out that “even the best marketer is limited by the number of hours in the day and days in the week.” He adds: “Executing an artist’s vision is time-intensive, and the best artists challenge their teams with unique ideas that take a lot of time to properly deliver. Capacity is a key metric to determine when choosing a label or team.”
This may be especially true today, when the ability to grow audiences seems increasingly like the most important service a label can offer. Artists no longer need to turn to majors for national and international distribution or studio-quality recording equipment; now, anyone can get those things from their laptop while sprawled on the couch. Instead, “gaining awareness is the most challenging thing for anyone that releases music,” Katsambas says. “Awareness more than anything else, and then engagement and retention.”
Are those goals compatible with high-volume signing? “It’s hard creating a game plan for longevity for some of these artists that are really talented and deserving,” Baylis says, “because executives are charged with just feeding the beast called the DSPs.”