Having begun his career as a record label talent scout and artist manager in the early to mid-1980s, Simon Fuller rapidly rose through the ranks to become one of the biggest names in music and global entertainment, most famously taking The Spice Girls from five unknowns to the biggest pop band on the planet. A few years later, he launched American Idol based on the Pop Idol format he created and sold around the world. Other artists Fuller has managed include Annie Lennox, Kelly Clarkson, Amy Winehouse and Carrie Underwood, as well as sporting superstars Lewis Hamilton, Andy Murray and David Beckham, whose wife, Victoria, he also represents.
Fuller’s latest music project is Now United, a global pop group made up of 14 teenagers, each from a different country, that has followed in The Spice Girls’ footsteps by signing a global sponsorship deal with Pepsi. As part of that announcement, Billboard spoke with the British-born executive about the power of brand partnerships, the return of ABBA and The Spice Girls and why he “couldn’t give a monkey’s [ass]” about streaming numbers.
Billboard: How did the deal between Now United and Pepsi come about?
Fuller: Historically, I’ve had a very good, strong and ongoing relationship with Pepsi, starting of course with The Spice Girls where Pepsi were absolutely central to our launch. They were there before anybody in the world even knew The Spice Girls and the power and reach of Pepsi is a big part of The Spice Girls story. When it came to Now United, they were literally the first company we spoke to. This project is very ambitious and my vision for it is to do things differently. Pepsi as a company is also very ambitious and looks to do things differently. They want to empower performers and that’s what Now United is all about. The synchronicity and the symbiotic nature of this relationship really is as good as you could imagine.
As part of the sponsorship deal, Now United has recorded a new Pepsi jingle based around the marketing slogan “For the Love of It.” What else will the deal involve?
We’re in discussion about doing more recordings that will be specific for Pepsi and used worldwide. The Spice Girls did an amazing jingle [1997’s “Move Over”], which became one of the biggest commercials of that year and was seen in every country. I’ve always had a very global perspective – whether that’s for my TV shows like Pop Idol or the sports stars I work with, and music, because of lots of reasons, has become more global than ever. Now United embodies this global spirit, so the intention is that we will create unique and extraordinary events or recordings that will come from different countries around the world. We’ve only just started our relationship, but already Pepsi introduced us to this amazing rapper in India called Badshah. We did a video [“How We Do It”] just before Christmas just for India and it’s had more than 10 million views in less than two weeks. That’s pretty powerful. Now United, come the end of 2019, will be one of the biggest international acts in India. And as we look around for new members from other countries, which is our focus right now, we will do it with Pepsi by our side and in ways that nobody has done before.
Assembling Now United was an 18 month process that involved you auditioning thousands of people all around the world. Is it the most expensive music project you have ever been involved in?
On every level it is far and away the most complicated project I have ever done. But without doubt, it’s also the most exciting, heart-warming and positive thing I have ever done. It feels absolutely on the pulse of what’s going on. We’re tapping into the globalization of music. Yes, America is still very important. So is the U.K., Germany and Japan, but we will also be looking to other countries — Brazil, India, Russia, China. We’ll be doing collaborations with sensational artists from all over the planet. We’ll be singing in their languages. So, yeah, it’s very complicated, extremely ambitious, but also the most exciting thing I have ever done.
Now United is not signed to a major label. Why did you decide to go it alone?
A lot of my best mates run those labels. They’re my friends, so it’s nothing personal. At the moment my vision is to do things that they couldn’t help me with. Without being arrogant, I know more than they do and they wouldn’t in a million years put the resources into Now United in its first year that I have because they are risk-averse. [Their] business model is: look at the analytics from Spotify or Apple or YouTube, figure out what’s going to fly and chuck some money behind it. My model is: I’m coming up with a crazy idea that no one has ever done; that is almost impossible and unwieldy. And I’m going to bring in the best partners in the world to back my vision and we will begin this journey from a very basic organic start point and build it up. All of that I can do on my own.
There might be a moment where I might say, “Let’s do something with a major.” Maybe not. But I’m very focused on my vision and I don’t want to be working off pre-ordained thought. I don’t want to crack the code on how to be streamed more than somebody else or how to be on more playlists. If they want to playlist Now United when we decide to go through streaming services, I’ll be thrilled and happy. But it’s not really going to change my plans. It’s just icing on the cake. I’m busy making the cake right now.
What is the thinking behind keeping Now United off streaming services and making the group’s music available for free on its website?
I wanted a very soft launch for Now United. [Today’s] music industry is all about: “My song has had a billion views or X gazillion streams.” I genuinely don’t care about that because — one, they’re not making very much money out of it. No one is getting rich — or not how I define rich. And secondly, the engagement is so thin. That is not the [correct] path. The [correct] path is to create legitimate meaningful engagement with people that discover you and love you and it has to be an authentic connection. The engagement is where all the value comes. They’ll be the ones that want to learn our dances. They’ll be the ones who want to come to our concerts and buy our merchandise or do the other thousand exciting ideas that we have to interact with our fans. I couldn’t really give a monkey’s [ass] if we have a gazillion streams on Spotify because it doesn’t actually mean anything. I want to engage on every conceivable level — not just streaming.
Will you make the band’s music available on streaming services in the near future?
Absolutely. This is a soft building process. We will embrace everything. Streaming is the future, but it’s just not our priority right now. When we are ready to do it, we will do it. I want to reverse out of the programed way of breaking artists and try to basically define new ways to engage with your fans.
How will you look to maximize and exploit fan engagement in ways that were not possible five or ten years ago?
The challenge is that a lot of our social media platforms don’t really allow for the most direct engagement that I personally would love to have because you are working off their platform and their analytics, so it’s a fairly thin relationship. One of our other partners is a [B2B tech] company called SAP. They are working with us to create ways to engage with our fans that are far beyond anything that anybody else is doing. With SAP we’re going to create a platform which – without overstating things – will be globally leading. Above and beyond even what Google or Apple or Spotify are thinking. I’m fully focused on whatever tech can provide for us to be so close to our fans, to understand what they want, what they like and how we can do more together. It’s a five year strategy. Very deep. Very complicated. Very futuristic and it’s purely based on fan engagement.
Where do you envisage Now United being in five years’ time?
Now United is more than a group. It’s not a pure music proposition. It’s a celebration of music and singing and dancing and is an open platform where anyone can be involved. So it’s not just about the chosen 14 or 15 or 18 [members] – because the intention is also to add [people from] different countries along the way. This is an open entertainment platform where everybody in the world can come along. I want to transcend the concept of a group being X number of people who evolve as individuals and age appropriately. I want it to be a phenomenon that transcends those rules. Now United should be a pop culture phenomenon that is relevant to kids around the world in different countries in different ways. We’re going to create so many points of connection and interaction I can’t even define it. I will have to invent terminology for what it is.
Moving on to The Spice Girls, who you also manage, did demand for their upcoming UK reunion tour exceed your expectations and what else can we expect from the group in the year ahead?
To be honest with you, while it was clearly phenomenal, they are such an awesome phenomenon I expected it. The last tour we did seven or eight years ago the demand was equal, if not maybe even more. It’s a global phenomenon. They’re more timely now than ever and it’s fantastic. I’m so happy for the girls. They deserve it. What’s coming next is that we are going to be doing lots of exciting things. We’ll be making an animated movie and there’s lots of exciting plans to come.
You’re also behind this year’s ABBA virtual live experience. What more can you tell us about that?
Without giving anything away, you have a group that is one of the all-time great groups. They’re all alive and well and as talented as ever, if not more so. Through an innovative idea we have enlivened the creativity in that extraordinary group and those extraordinary individuals to come back and do some stuff. That’s using innovation to create a new lease of life in one of the greatest groups of all time because there are no rules. They are very, very smart individuals. They can do whatever they want, however they want — if they are excited enough and they are excited. So with technology, their intelligence and with their extraordinary creative output, exciting things are coming. If you take away the limitations and preconceived notion of: “Is it a live tour?” which no one of heightened intelligence is going to want to deal with… When you swipe away all that and look forward to the future and say: “Why can’t we do this?” Then anything is possible and this proves it.
What’s your view of the music industry in 2019?
The music industry, as it stands right now is feast or famine. You’re either sitting there high-fiving because you’ve got a billion streams, you own the master and life is great. Or you’re a songwriter that’s just written a song that has a billion streams, sung by an artist that may or may not be that great and you’re making not a lot and left thinking: “What happened?” Bernie Taupin would not be very happy right now if he was writing hits with Elton John because he would be getting nothing and no one would even particularly care. The way that the dollar is divided right now is, in my opinion, an utter mess. But the opportunity going forward for talented artists — whether you are in basement in Stockholm or in Nigeria — if you think carefully, life will be great. So I could not be more optimistic about music.
What do you think has to change in order for the music industry to maximize its potential?
One of the biggest problems for the music industry to fully embrace is that the rights issues are an utter disaster. Even with major record companies that control so much it’s very hard to really innovate. With all due respect to my friends, I don’t think [record companies] are very innovative at all, so frankly I give them two out of 10 for innovation. But what stymies a lot of it is the rights issues are too complicated. Nowadays songs can have ten different writers and eight different publishers, so how do you get alignment? You can’t innovate with that chaos going on and consequently there is no innovation. With Now United we can do anything we want. We can do something for free. I can wake up in the middle of the night with some crazy idea and we can do it. I don’t have to ask anybody. I don’t have to haggle with lawyers and say: “Can you waive your rights to allow us to do this?” The reason why a record contract is 10,000 pages long is because they are trying to protect deals that they did in 1961 and also try to innovate going forward and not shoot themselves in the foot. The industry is weighted down with baggage of deal making and rights issues and that’s a real problem.