January 24, 2017:Universal Music talks brands: ‘If you’re listening to the Rolling Stones, you’re drinking Coca-Cola not Pepsi’

In 2017 there is much more to brands and music than lucrative endorsement deals for top-tier artists. In some emerging markets, some labels now make more money from brand partnerships than from sales or streams.

How are those partnerships evolving? A session at the NY:LON Connect conference we organised with the Music Business Association in London this week explored the changing nature of brand-music connections. It saw Universal Music’s global head of new business Olivier Robert-Murphy chatting to Synergy Group head of entertainment Arnon Woolfson.

“15 years ago, the music industry saw the brands space as the scrap-metal business. It just wasn’t cool, it wasn’t sexy,” said Woolfson by way of introduction. That has since changed, with brands playing a bigger role in the growing businesses of the labels.

How has Universal’s brand business changed? “It started in France with the telco industry. If you were switching from a telco to another, you couldn’t keep your mobile number. And suddenly they removed that, so the telcos were seeing massive churn,” he said. That spurred a significant investment in marketing, and openings for music partnerships.

Robert-Murphy went on to compare the past struggles of the recorded-music industry with some of the challenges currently facing brands, with consumers blocking ads and – according to some research – not that worried if their favourite brands will disappear.

“Brands need to drive constantly new audiences – and it just so happens that music artists are the ones with the biggest audiences – and two, they need to create loyalty,” he said. Robert-Murphy went on to talk about how Universal is using data to understand which of its artists have the best fit with which brands, and then seeking out partnerships accordingly.

Robert-Murphy said he is excited about this new way of working. “Product placement in music videos. So what? It’s boring, actually. The new new business, it’s about you can match the right talent with the right brands. You can create a story. You create content, branded content that is shareable, which you can measure very well.”

He added that it’s natural today for artists to work with brands, especially in countries where the legal recorded-music market is still small or even non-existent. Being able to put on a concert for 25,000 fans in partnership with a brand in a country like Cambodia “where the piracy rate is 100%” appeals strongly to a company like UMG.

Robert-Murphy warned of the dangers of putting off brands with the complexity of the music market, but also of alienating artists with the wrong approach.

“When you work with a talent, they are human beings. Artists are human beings. And you’re not going to ask a talent to represent a burger brand if he is a veggie. That doesn’t work. It’s a real example, by the way,” he said. “You should not consider an artist as a walking billboard.”

He also said it’s vital for labels to listen to brands. “If you listen, they’re always telling you their problems. We don’t always have the solutions, but if you identify the real issues, you could come up with solutions for them.”

Robert-Murphy said he does not see himself as working for a label, but rather for an agency that serves a number of labels (within the Universal Group). What value does it bring to artist/brand partnerships though? He said that “the glocal approach” is part of this: for a brand that wants a global campaign tuned to individual local markets, Universal can supply a range of artists to fulfil that brief, rather than focusing on a single star.

Robert-Murphy also talked data. “Data is absolutely key. When you talk to brands today, they want proof,” he said. UMG has developed a proprietary tool for matching brands and talent. “If you’re listening to the Rolling Stones, I’m telling you, you’re drinking Coca-Cola not Pepsi… the data tells you this, and you can bring that data to brands and explain this is why that talent is relevant to your audience.”

Why are brands investing more in sport than in music, wondered Woolfson. How can music companies make it easier for chief marketing officers at brands to send money their way? “I disagree with you,” said Robert-Murphy, of the suggestion that it’s harder for brands to work with music than with sport.

“40% of the business we have with brands is repeat business. That proves that if you deliver what they want, they come back. The only reason is that I do believe there was a period when you were delivering the talent and that’s it. Run, and hope you’ll talk to me again,” he said. Now UMG has staff to manage key accounts to stoke those ongoing relationships, which he sees as a key change.

I think brands should start thinking a bit more strategically than just tactically,” he continued. “Not just booking one thing and then the next… I quite often prefer for a brand to come up with solutions that have 10 smaller activations: where you reach an audience and repeat it, rather than one big 25,000 gig and the day after, everyone has forgotten… It doesn’t have the same brand equity that a repetition could have.”

Woolfson suggested that in 2017, millennials expect brands to be attached to artists. How have we reached that point? “The millennials, if there is a brand attached to a talent, they’re happy. For us old music people, that’s a big change!” said Robert-Murphy.

His parting shot: “On one side, you have the talent, the artist, the creativity. On the other side you have the data, the insight, and the technology. They could live well individually together, but if you merge them together, that’s when it’s really becoming interesting, and that’s what we’re seeing today in the music industry.”

Are musicians facing competition from other kinds of influencers: vloggers and gamers on YouTube, and emerging social stars on Instagram, Snapchat and other platforms?

“Shawn Mendes started on those platforms, and now he is a superstar with us! I think it’s a good thing. I have delivered sports stars when I have needed to, and influencers when I have needed to. If a brand wants to have more experience and more reach, we absolutely do that. I think it’s great. The more people who do this, it becomes even more relevant to brands,” said Robert-Murphy.

Finally, Woolfson was asked what happens when a brand wants a piece of the publishing for the music used in a campaign. For example, when the creatives from a brand’s agency have had input into a lyric, then handed it over to professional songwriters.

“In that situation I see potentially a legitimate reason for the brand to earn from the publishing,” said Woolfson. “You could question the validity of someone earning from publishing when there’s been no input. That said, there are brands arguing that the might of the media they’re throwing at the project will deliver the success of the track. So it’s a good question… the last thing we want is songwriters being pushed aside.”

The NY:LON Connect conference was co-organised by Music Ally and the Music Business Association, in association with Armonia.

Stuart Dredge
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One response
  • Rob Dickinson says:

    This was a great and inspiring session. Very impressive panelists who clearly know their thing. An interesting and generally quite misunderstood subject matter so good to have Music Ally helping introduce us to people that get it and can shed light on what is clearly no longer scrap metal!

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