At record labels, catalogue and frontline used to be church and state – rarely mixing. But streaming is blurring the lines, and Tom Mullen’s role as VP of catalogue marketing for Atlantic Records is a further expansion of this trend.
In conversation with Music Ally, Mullen outlined what his (relatively new) role involves and why artists need to be keeping one eye on the future as well as one eye on their past. And also archiving as they go, avoiding seeing an emphasis on the old as a dereliction of their duty as progressive creators.
“The role is on-roster marketing of catalogue,” he said of where he fits within the company. “So, if the artist is on the label and they have a catalogue – if it’s one record or five or ten – that is what I am responsible for.”
Once the acts are off roster, that is when they will go to the catalogue label within Warner (namely Rhino). Mullen added that the ‘oldest’ artists he works with are Missy Elliott and Matchbox Twenty (acts still signed to the label and making new music). “That is what I work with – so it’s a different role within catalogue.”
There is still a lot of crossover with how Rhino works: it is just applying much of that thinking and many of those best practices to new music.
As an example, Mullen talked of Matchbox Twenty marking their 20th anniversary as a band (rather than the anniversary of a record on Atlantic or the build-up to a new album) and how the label could be involved in that.
“We started to figure out what things we could do and, after talking to management, I found out that they had a storage unit with 20 years’ worth of stuff that they hadn’t gone through,” he said.
“We thought that if no one had gone through it, there were probably things in there that we could use. We went up there with our archives team and we looked through it and said there was gold in there. We got it all and catalogued it all. So now for future anniversaries, everything is catalogue for them.”
This is the core thrust of Mullen’s role: helping acts prepare in advance for key anniversaries and having everything in place in advance, rather than retrospectively having to sift through assets and memorabilia hoping to find something relevant.
Artists, of course, can be precious about being seen as having their best years behind them if there is such a heavy focus on their catalogue. Labels have to tread carefully.
“It’s about changing the conversation with them and helping them understand that this helps them in their career overall,” he said, noting how the catalogue can be used to lure lapsed fans into new releases, rather than just celebrating the past.
In 2018, that is all about streaming and playlists. Anniversary box sets will still play a role for a certain subset of the fanbase, but streaming can unlock many more opportunities for the fanbase at large.
“It’s definitely streaming. Having someone learn about a new song they didn’t know and add it to their playlists [is key],” he said. “It’s definitely about having people learn more about the catalogue and streaming.”
These were tools Mullen honed when working at Columbia/Sony/Legacy and working with acts that were traditional catalogue names (like Jeff Buckley) and those with vast and hugely resonant catalogues but who were still making new music (like Bob Dylan).
To tell the story of Dylan leaving New York for the house affectionately known as Big Pink in upstate New York in 1967 to make what was to become The Basement Tapes with The Band, Mullen recounted the origins of what Sony did in 2015 for the From The Village To The Basement project.
“We were in a meeting with Dylan’s manager and they were talking about the record he made with The Band,” he said. “I was nervous the whole meeting; I had an idea in my head and I didn’t know if I wanted to say it […] I eventually blurted it out to his manager and he just said, ‘Do it!’ The idea was to do the same ride that Dylan did on his motorcycle from the West Village to go up to West Saugerties. I suggested sticking a GoPro on a car and driving up there.”
Mullen’s girlfriend (a copywriter) wrote the script and Jeff Bridges did the voiceover, the resulting video being posted on Facebook, with entertainment website Mashable getting the premiere.
“It was a new way to learn about that story than just having talking heads telling you about it,” said Mullen.
He also conceived the Jeff Buckley Record Collection campaign for Columbia, which used the late singer’s personal record collection as the hook rather than finding another way to mine his studio and live archives.
It was triggered by a photo of Buckley’s genuine record collection where you could see the spines of the LPs that shaped his songwriting. The campaign made deft use of the Spotify API to let you play any of the albums within the collection.
“There was a feeling in the label that his catalogue was just being mined and wasn’t true to what he would have wanted,” he said. “I told them I had an idea and the website popped in my head and I knew what it looked like instantly.”
Mullen felt it was a way to connect with a different audience, as this was the music that he turned to when he was learning to play guitar.
The site sees a traffic spike on the website on Buckley’s birthday every year as people are talking about him, and so this sits as a recurring discovery mechanism – even though it is technically pushing streams of his influences rather than his own music.
“That is telling the story for people in the future,” said Mullen. “If someone goes there 15 years from now, they can still learn about Jeff.”
Mullen is also currently working on a series of podcasts that tell the story of Atlantic Records itself, and this fits in with his mission to be archiving assets as you go along knowing they will have a function in the future.
“When I was searching in the archives for a lot of these [Atlantic] artists, yes there is video, yes there is audio, yes there are photos, but there are not any of those stories [you want to know about],” he said. “I thought this was a great opportunity to chronicle everyone in the building and get their stories at this moment.”
Atlantic is transcribing all the interviews to make them easily searchable for future use. “I think it tells a larger story. That is how it connects to catalogue; it is continuing their story,” said Mullen.
But it is not all about the distant past. He gave the example of Charlie Puth almost throwing a lyric sheet away, but being asked to archive it, as it could be important in the future.
“Those are the things that teaching a younger artist [are important] – treating their career as if it’s going to be that. That is something really important that I like to do,” he explained.
“There will be Bob Dylan box-sets long after we are gone. There is that much stuff chronicled. I want that for our artists. I want that for someone who is just starting to think of their career like that… Catalogue is something where people think of the older artists – but it can start right now for newer artists.”