During the pandemic, Josh Deutsch let the lease for his 4-year-old music supervision and strategy shop, Premier Music Group, run out. When he was ready to start working somewhere other than home again earlier this year, he found space at The National Arts Club, a 137-year-old Gothic Revival landmark building in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park, a short walk from his apartment. The club has over 600 paintings and sculptures in its permanent collection, so the place is like a lived-in museum. Randall Poster — the music supervisor known for his work with Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese, and a friend of Deutsch’s since grade school — took an office down the hall after Premier acquired his firm, Search Party. Poster says it’s like working inside an Anderson movie.
Deutsch is best known for Downtown Music, the label he co-founded 15 years ago, that signed an array of artists who helped define the freewheeling indie aesthetics of the 2000s: Gnarls Barkley, Santigold, Major Lazer, Eagles of Death Metal and Cold War Kids. The label brought about Downtown Music Publishing and harnessed its startup mentality to a series of digitally focused side businesses.
He founded Premier in 2017 with the idea of bringing scale to music supervision. A 2019 investment from Primary Wave allowed him to acquire Wool & Tusk, a boutique firm with expertise on the advertising side of synch, to which Poster’s Search Party adds depth and prestige in the worlds of film, TV, original composition and music production.
Poster is currently overseeing the recording of period music for Scorsese’s upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon, set in 1920s Oklahoma, and also worked on Questlove’s soon-to-be-released Summer of Soul documentary. Last year, Premier’s supervision business grew 60% and the company added podcasting to its work with brand clients such as Coca-Cola, Google and Samsung. Premier’s podcast projects includes work with Malcolm Gladwell’s Pushkin (such as Gladwell’s Revisionist History and Rick Rubin’s Broken Record) and the Obama’s Higher Ground (such as the Barack Obama-Bruce Springsteen conversation series Renegades).
“Podcast production budgets are not huge,” says Deutsch, who believes the format will better grow audience with licensed tracks rather than the library music many podcasts rely on. He compares the conversation around licensing to the early days of streaming, when rights holders were concerned about streams paying a fraction of a penny while digital service providers were hemorrhaging money. “They were both right. But over time we’re at scale and it’s now returning significant value to the publishing community and the recorded-music community.” He sees the podcast universe expanding and wants to figure out licensing fees that make sense for both podcast producers and rights holders. “We don’t find that uncomfortable,” he says. “We want to lead in that role.”
You’ve said that when you started Downtown Records you were also interested in starting a publishing company, but that would have taken more money than you had at the time.
I was a songwriter before becoming an A&R person and had been the veteran of a couple of publishing deals, so I understood the intrinsic value of that kind of intellectual property. Gnarls Barkley was the first act we signed, and I would have liked to acquire the publishing rights. But we didn’t have enough money. We’d raised just enough, hat in hand, from friends and family. “Crazy” topped every chart. It was the first record to go to No. 1 [in the United Kingdom] on the back of digital sales. And when I saw what happened, the next thing we did was start a publishing company.
But you were also conscious of building out other areas than recorded music and publishing.
We made some investments — pre-streaming — in the discovery landscape to solve specific problems or frustrations that we had. We launched the first ad-supported legal download site, RCRD LBL, and we started an offshoot with Ian Rogers from Topspin called RCRD DLS to try and crack the direct-to-consumer space. We bought We Are Hunted, which scraped SoundCloud. Twitter acquired that business in 2012.
What problem was Premier built to solve?
I had a side hustle as a music supervisor over the years, and I saw a hole in the market. There wasn’t really a scalable solution to music supervision, or even a full service offering strategy, supervision or [administration] on an integrated basis. So we built up a full music-strategy stack. The idea is to help our clients make more considered decisions. It’s not just about the good taste of the people that work here. It’s about showing the client why they should use this music and how they will get a better return.
Give me an example.
I’ll give you a micro example and a macro example. We did a project with an agency called R/GA for Lifewtr, which is a Pepsi product. The brief was multicultural positivity. The music is usually an afterthought in advertising — an editor falls in love with a track that the budget doesn’t allow, and then we come in to put out a fire. This was not that. We were brought in early, and our strategy team leveraged data and cultural insights to say, “This aligns with your brand value, with this campaign and with the audience you want to reach.” We advocated hard for the dancehall artist Koffee. We knew that there was a lot of love for her track “Toast,” and it was reacting with the right market segment. This was right before [the 2020] Grammys, and we had a pretty good feeling she was going to win [for best reggae album]. The client went with it, and it was very successful. Koffee won the Grammy, and there was all this earned media love around the use of the track.
What’s the macro example?
We’ve done some brand musical-identity work. You see so many brands investing heavily in visual identity and then not thinking about music from a strategic perspective: “What am I trying to sound like? What does that actually mean for my brand?” We worked with ESPN where we were brought on by McKinney to help craft a music strategy for ESPN’s SEC and ACC networks and to give each property a distinct music identity. For the SEC Network, working closely with ESPN music director Kevin Wilson, we covered a wide base of established and emerging artists with roots in SEC territory, from the southern soul of Wilson Pickett to Terrell Hines’ hip-hop to alternative and Americana acts like Thad Cockrell and Moon Taxi. It culminated with Big Loud artist HARDY customizing his song “Where Ya At” to call out specific SEC teams and towns.
How does what you offer big-brand clients differ from the way they work with an ad agency?
A lot of those clients come to us through their agencies. With T-Mobile, we sit across six agencies, and we work very nicely with all of them. We’re not trying to do what they do. I’m not trying to be a full-service creative agency.
Besides the Super Bowl, what are some other big opportunities for advertising synchs?
The Olympics are always big. Back to school is big. We were already starting to see holiday in April and May, which is early for us. You’re months ahead, so you’re thinking about things two quarters early. It’s always holiday season around here. But the calendar is a little bit more dynamic than it was a decade or two ago. There’s all sorts of new and important cultural moments. Black History Month, now more than ever, is taking on cultural and commercial significance. Same thing with Women’s History Month and women’s movement issues. Pride as well. We did an amazing Juneteenth activation last year with Chika and [ad agency] R/GA. It was very moving and last year took on an unusual amount of significance.
You were in the publishing business. What’s your take on the prices that publishing assets are commanding these days?
It makes sense to me, because coming from the publishing world I understand the return profile. The right assets behave like annuities. For a certain type of investor, it’s a very reasonable return. There’s a reason why Anthem is funded by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. You have a lot of institutional money because the return profile of music publishing assets is very consistent. The explosion of the streaming ecosystem has only accelerated that growth, and at a time of uncertainty it’s nice to know that you can get a reasonable return out of this asset class. I’ve been drinking that Kool-Aid for a long time. It’s hard for me to see anything about this that isn’t great.
Sometimes investors and creativity aren’t a great mix.
There’s always a risk that reckless capital is going to have a deleterious effect on the creative process. Maybe that will impact the front-line business a little bit more than the catalog business. However, I would say that the biggest players in the space are people coming from the music industry. Primary Wave, full disclosure, is a partner. But Merck Mercuriadis has built a team of veteran folks. The multiples can seem incredibly aggressive, but by and large you have a lot of very talented music industry veterans helping to guide that investment. It’s returning value to the artist community, it’s returning value to the rights holders. It’s hard for me to see someone who is suffering as a result.