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Pophouse advisor and music industry veteran Steve Barnett on building iconic artist legacies

Barnett has been at the helm of two of the most legendary record labels in the United States. He is a native Briton and dedicated Wolves supporter in the Premier League – an enthusiasm he shares with Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant. For more than three decades, Barnett has lived in the US and worked in various music industry roles. He started as a manager for acts such as AC/DC.

He became Chairman of Columbia Records in 2005, where he subsequently guided the label to the No. 1 U.S. label market share position for three years in a row, between 2010 and 2012. He then landed, in Billboard’s words, ‘the most coveted job in the US music industry’, as Chairman and CEO of Capitol Music Group, a legacy label then struggling in the industry cellar.

As Barnett entered Capitol, it quickly became the fastest-growing among established labels in the US and doubled its market share over the next eight years. He decided to step down in 2020, ending a nearly 50-year illustrious career.

At least, that was the plan. A year later, Barnett accepted an advisory role at Pophouse. As a member of the investment advisory committee, which oversees the company’s music catalogue investments, Barnett is specifically charged with establishing US and UK partnerships.

You have worked with many of the world’s greatest artists. What sets the iconic legacy artists apart from ones who are widely popular, but not iconic?

“You zeroed in on the most manageable question of all… [smiles] Everybody can recognise if an artist is iconic here and now. You can just look and tell. But it’s hard to identify who is going to become iconic. There are exceptions to the rule – Bob Dylan wrote Blowin’ in the Wind at 21! Another example: I went to see was Bob Marley very early in his career, and it was clear you were seeing an artist who would have lasting impact. But in the streaming environment, it’s even harder to predict.”

What are some common challenges that artists who have the potential to become iconic face?

“Maintaining longevity. In many ways today, it’s easier for an artist to gain traction and become an international superstar more quickly than ever, certainly faster than in previous generations. The demand is much stronger in today’s environment than it ever was. I can remember with AC/DC, a band that I managed, at one time they went eight years between albums. But they were always iconic, it didn’t matter. I think about Sade, who I worked with when I was at Epic [Records], sometimes she didn’t make an album for eight or ten years!  But she was incredibly iconic, and when her album would come out, it would be very successful. That’s much more complicated now; there’s almost an insatiable appetite for constant new material.”

“As an amendment to that, Queen was such an important English band, one of the most important ever. Maybe up to a decade after Freddie died [in 1991] their popularity was sustained. But then it started to lax, and it was really when the Bohemian Rhapsody film came [in 2018], that their incredible music was embraced by a whole new generation of fans. Their iconic stature was so effectively reinforced. They were always iconic to me, but to a younger generation of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds, they probably didn’t even know any of those songs. But a brilliant film and a great performance by the actor playing Freddie came, and then all of a sudden, the band is bigger than it ever was.”

Steve Barnett Pophouse advisor

So, being iconic is also something cyclical and an elevated position can appear with some latency, do you mean that?

“Yes, in some cases. You know, the Rolling Stones have always been iconic, The Beatles were always iconic. I think Pink Floyd was always iconic. I can think of other examples, but I can also think of examples where people lost interest and the artist’s stature declined. What we always had with AC/DC was a young fourteen-year-old at high school who would listen to a certain song, then others would say ”what is that?”, creating a self-perpetuation in that audience. It continued to grow, cycle after cycle, generation after generation. But it goes back to answer that first question, because the songs are great. The songs stood the test of time. Again, it’s a good question because there’s no easy answer to it. And even if there is an answer, there are exceptions to the answer.”

You point out that those songs stood the test of time. The production value of music develops differently over time compared to film or TV. How a TV series or film is produced often feels remarkably obsolete when you look at it later. Will the production value of music continue to maintain longevity?

“You know, I come from a different generation. So, for me, it was always about the songs. What happened with Kate Bush happened because a brilliant song was placed in a Netflix TV series and it became huge again [listen to the song here]. I don’t think that was because of the production value, I think it was because the song was great.”

The catalogue market has exploded in the past few years. What is behind that?

“Catalogue used to be the experience of listening to classic rock radio, or downloading songs from the iTunes Store. Now everything is instantly available via the streaming services. One example from when I was at Capitol, was Motown’s very incredible catalogue. But, it had really lost that new generation. The thing that I talked about with AC/DC was not happening with Motown. Then Fulwell [73, a production company] did a really fantastic film called Hitsville, about Berry Gordy and Detroit and the improbable story of this incredible and hugely influential label. It also included Smokey Robinson and discussions of how he and the other great Motown writers, such as Holland–Dozier– Holland, wrote those amazing songs. Concurrent with that film, a new campaign was created together with Johan Lagerlöf at Spotify [then Spotify’s Head of Catalogue, now at Pophouse]. We really leaned in, and there was a huge increase in listenership, which has largely stayed.” (Steve Barnett was himself one of the executive producers of Hitsville: The Making of Motown)

This shows that films can have an incredible impact on listening.

“Yes, definitely. When we made the Bee Gees film and told that story about the brothers and their incredible songwriting, we saw a massive increase in their listenership. Millions of people started listening to these songs. And The Beatles, led by Jeff Jones at Apple [Corps], always did such a great job of telling that story through reissues of albums and films.  Certainly, Peter Jackson’s Get Back has had huge global impact.  For Frank Sinatra, Frank Marshall made a brilliant film that went back and retold that story to a new generation.”

What can we learn from these examples?

“The competition in the catalogue market is really fierce. It’s just imperative that you find the stories to tell. If you do that and the songs are incredible, you can introduce that music to a new generation. Even a sync, like with Kate Bush, is a great example of that. It’s just a huge thing. The world we live in now with the streaming services makes it more complicated and difficult to cut through because you’re competing with literally almost every song ever released. But if you have a campaign that really resonates, led by a great film or other event, then you can do that. I always thought that they should make every high school kid watch Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan film, No Direction Home because it was such an interesting time that Dylan emerged in. It’s one of the greatest music films of all time. But a great story about bad songs? I don’t think that’s going to work.”

Comparing the time before and after this transformational shift to streaming, would you say that legacies are created and protected in other ways today?

“I think that the concept behind creating legacies is the same as it has always been with one notable exception: in the past many artists were purists. They would say no to everything. I worked with some of the biggest artists in the world, that would never do a duet and very rarely agree to anything outside of what they were used to doing. Because they felt that saying ‘yes’ could hurt them. It’s the reverse now, it’s so much more important to say yes. But you never know what opportunity will advance your legacy. Also, the audience is much more forgiving now than they were in the past when artists I take chances.”

It might also be easier for artists to experiment because the high volume of releases means everyone’s memories are shorter.

“Yeah, definitely. Definitely. But experimentation can also take time. How they define catalogue in the US is still eighteen months after original release, which I always thought was ridiculous. At CMG, we doubled it to three years, because it can easily take you two years to break an artist.

What about other markets than the US and UK?

“Obviously there are numerous markets that are now very important and were not commercially significant in the past. Now, it’s really a global market. For a long time, it was really the English-speaking markets that dominated strategy for the majors. It was the US, the UK, and then you added Canada and Australia to the mix, but that’s changed now. It has really, really become global.”

How has technology contributed to that shift?

“Take your mind back and think about catalogue now as a physical product. It was priced very aggressively and that’s how you conducted catalogue campaigns. Downloading, such as at the iTunes Store, started to change that. At the same time, the market became more global. Before, some markets, like Sweden, were basically almost dead. I can remember when Per [Sundin] told me ‘I think it’s over’, because piracy was hampering sales and made it very difficult to prioritise things. Spotify changed everything, and Sweden was obviously the first market. Per played a huge role in embracing Spotify and streaming, of course.  If you go back to the physical market, you could only interact with an album if you saw it in a store where it was priced.  And, once that was over, there was no access to the product. Before the download store started, people in Sweden didn’t even care about that because they would just go to Pirate Bay and get it for nothing. So, through this healthy evolution, you see so many global markets now that are important. That has just changed it for everybody.”

What about platforms other than the streaming services?

“Now you’ve got TikTok, which is arguably more important in breaking any new artist than anything else. Curated playlists are probably less important now than they used to be. When Capitol signed the Bee Gees, they had maybe a million monthly listeners on Spotify. Since the documentary came out, they now have 20 million. Not too long ago, we saw these incredible numbers that were coming out of Latin America. That was because there was a resurgence of dance music and there were some great TikTok videos with their songs. Think back thirty years, how could music from those countries have any influence beyond their borders? It could have been a cultural influence indirectly but not in the same practical sense as we’re seeing now. I think there are lots of examples of that all around the world.”

How did you first get to know the people at Pophouse?

“I’ve known Per for decades, from when I managed AC/DC in the 1980s, then at Sony and then at Universal. He was always one of my favourite people. I knew Johan from when he joined Spotify, because a lot of those catalogue campaigns were done with his team – very successfully I might add.”

And more recently, you have met with several other members of the Pophouse team.

“I got to know the rest of the Pophouse team when I came to Stockholm, and I was very, very impressed with the quality of the people, their thoughts and their propositions – which are quite different than those of a lot of their competitors. When I look at the competition, it’s like they are simply doing financial transactions.

What Pophouse is trying to achieve is fundamentally very different to me. Sometimes you see press releases from people, announcing their acquisitions of catalogues and it’s like a bank buying something. That’s strange to me. Because you never ever see ‘this is what we did with it’, or ‘are going to do with it’ or ‘this is the experience that we created’

Steve Barnett

I was happily retired for a year before Per and Johan came to Palm Beach to see me, and I agreed to come aboard because I really believe in what they are trying to do. We are not the first to enter the game, but I think we have a tremendous advantage because of the quality of the people involved at Pophouse and our approach to further legacies.”

What is your impression of Stockholm and the ecosystem in Pophouse’s home city?

“I must have been in Stockholm 50 times during my career. I always loved Swedish people. It’s interesting for me culturally, just how society operates in Sweden is so interesting and so different for me. It was interesting to sit next to and talk to Björn or Conni — two giants in their fields — and they come across as so down-to-earth and genuine. Very different than it would have been with such successful people in America. It’s just a different perspective on life. So I was always a big fan of Sweden and the Swedish people. My bands used to love playing in the Nordic region. And the fans were great. I even like their soccer teams. I think they’re good teams, I really do. So, I like the people, I like the region. Wouldn’t want to be there in the winter, though!”

Even though Pophouse is not a first-mover in the catalogue space, you see that the company has some strong competitive edges. Where do you see that Pophouse can contribute in the market, and in building great artist legacies?

“ABBA Voyage is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. Per talked to me about it when he originally came to see me and then, when the show premiered, it was the best reviewed show I’ve ever seen. And in such a tough critical market as the UK!  A very famous English journalist called Caitlin Moran who writes for the London Times is from Wolverhampton and she’s a Wolves fan. And she can be very hard… The review that she wrote was one of the greatest reviews I’ve seen for anything ever, so I sent it to everyone that I knew in America. Even down to the pre-mixed drinks in the lobby bar. It’s simply one of the most successful and impactful shows in the live arena. Everybody that is involved with that show deserves so much credit.”

What has made ABBA Voyage so successful?

“It has been embraced by all demographics; everybody loves it. I heard from the really hip people, fashion designers, writers, they also love it. And it was interesting when I was there.  I could tell from the accents that there were people from Northern Ireland, there were people from Manchester, there were people from Liverpool. And I think it’s even more impressive because the venue is not necessarily the easiest place to get to.  It’s not like you’re in the West End. That’s just one example of what they did and how they got it right, and went through such a detailed and arduous process to get it right. It really speaks to Pophouse’s ability to build and enhance legacies. I think that’s a key distinguisher for Pophouse.”

In the past few months, you have been charged with meeting with US- and UK-based legacy artists for Pophouse to invest in. What exactly are you looking for when you are scanning the market?

“It’s going to be a long process, but we have really smart people. I think we have the best approach and a track record that differentiates us from the rest of the market. Like I said before, catalogue deals often feel like it’s merely a financial transaction. With Pophouse, the idea is not just to make an acquisition, but to find those iconic legacies that have been undeveloped or could be further developed. That list is long, but the competition is fierce. And now seemingly everybody wants to do that. So, I think one has to be patient. With Avicii, Per had such a long association with the family, and people really took note of that agreement here in America. People really understand what a great talent Tim was. And the way the agreement and announcement were handled, I thought it was all very respectful. For us, we just have to stay true to what the company and its leadership stands for. And I think it’s going to work, or I wouldn’t devote this amount of time to try and help Pophouse and introduce them to the key people. Hopefully a small part of my track record helps to open some doors for us. I believe very strongly in this process.”

How is Pophouse and its offering being perceived by the people you talk to?

“As I’ve said, Pophouse’s approach is fundamentally different from that of its competitors.  But it’s natural for those who don’t know the differences to want to lump everybody into the same basket. ‘Well you know, Hipgnosis is the same as Pophouse, and Primary Wave too.” But they’re not the same, and it’s taken more than a minute for people to understand that. There’s no doubt that the incredible success of ABBA Voyage has been very beneficial in our discussions with various stakeholders. Then the Avicii deal was handled so well and was so appreciated on the outside. So now I think that the differentiation between us and the competition is clearer than it was when Johan and Per first came to the US for meetings. ABBA Voyage hadn’t debuted and we hadn’t made agreements with anybody. I preach that we must have patience, but we have to be very proactive, as well. At the end of the day, we’re not here to make bad deals to secure headlines. We’re here to make good deals and build and enhance legacies.”

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