Latin America is currently one of the most exciting territories in the world when it comes to generating new music stars, and Rebeca León (top photo), CEO of Lionfish Entertainment, is at the heart of it thanks to managing J. Balvin, Juanes and Rosalía. León was the first keynote on day three of Midem, interviewed by Billboard’s Leila Cobo.
She talked about Rosalía’s journey, since being spotted by Juanes, who is León’s partner in Lionfish. “He came across Rosalía in Spain playing in a room to about 50 people… he told me he’d seen the baby of Björk and Whitney Houston!” she said. “I loved her power. She projects herself with so much power and confidence. It’s absolutely magnetic.”
It’s also important that “she’s supported by a team of women… It’s really been incredible to build this team of women around her, and to see her meteoric rise. It makes me so proud that it’s a girls’ club! For the first time, we’ve got a girls’ club!”
León’s first move into management was with artist JD Natasha, which taught her an important lesson. “I learned that you can’t want it more than them. I think I wanted more for her than she wanted,” she said. “They have to not be able to sleep at night, that’s how bad they want it. The artists who make it: they’re the ones who can’t see themselves doing anything else.”
She talked about her experience as a woman in the industry. “Most of the jobs that you saw women in were marketing or PR jobs, and not necessarily the jobs that were around money,” she said. And the path to seniority was by making money for the company. “I come from marketing, but I was also really driven and wanted that seat at the table. I wanted my voice to be heard… If you are ambitious and you want to make money, you have to make other people money. That’s just the way it goes.”
The conversation turned to J.Balvin, who when she met him had never been played on the radio outside Colombia, and was struggling to secure collaborations. “We changed that… Jose has magic, right? There’s something about him,” she said. “And the music is f’king amazing! He’s got great music, he’s charismatic and he works hard. And it was all strategy. It will happen again many times, because the world is listening… Today it’s Latin music, tomorrow it’s going to be music from India.”
León also talked about what she learned from dealing with stars like Beyoncé and the Rolling Stones. “The biggest artists treat everybody with so much respect, and that’s important, to mark that kind of behaviour, so you don’t become an a-hole… When somebody shows up two hours late, it’s disrespectful to everybody there who’s waiting… People who are courteous to everybody around them, and who are gracious? That’s important.”
The day’s second keynote was Marsha Vlasic, president of Artist Group International and one of the most respected talent agents in the world. Elvis Costello, Neil Young, The Strokes, Norah Jones and Regina Spektor are among her clients. Vlasic was interviewed by Oak View Group’s Ray Waddell.
Vlasic said that she didn’t feel being a woman had been an obstacle to her rise in the music industry. “I never felt different. It wasn’t like “oh gee I’m a woman and he’s a guy and I have to do this differently”. It never entered my mind: I just ploughed along,” she said.
She talked about her move from working in a big agency, to going solo, and then to building her own agency. “I was always a rebel and couldn’t follow the rules. Being in the big agency was hard. It was hard to be part of the boy’s club and the team… Being independent worked for me up to a certain point, but then I started feeling very lonely. I felt like I wanted people around me… It was just me and an assistant doing it all.”
Vlasic also talked about Lou Reed. “He was so conflicted. He just wouldn’t enjoy his career. He wouldn’t enjoy performing. He did enjoy it, but he would always find something wrong. He was brutal on himself, he really was.”
What is the key to maintaining a long-term relationship with an artist, as an agent? “Once you earn the trust of an artist and you’re not faceless and you have an opinion, and you don’t just ‘yes’ the artist – and you listen to the artist… If an artist has a dream to do something, even if it’s unrealistic or crazy, it’s worth checking it out. And letting them know you’ve checked out the possibilities to do it… I really listen to what they have to say, and I go through the motions to see if I can make their dreams come true… It’s always crazy! But sometimes you can pull it off. And sometimes you can’t.”
Vlasic talked about how she decided that she wanted to work with an artist. “For me, the live show was always one of the most important things. I never claimed to be an A&R person, or a musician… for me it was instinct. Standing there and having my heart pound when I watched somebody perform, or I was moved by the songs,” she said.
A major highlight of the day was a Masterclass with Dave Rowntree, Blur’s drummer and board member of the International Artists’ Organisation (IAO). He began by explaining to Music Week’s Mark Sutherland how the drums became his instrument of choice: “I was made to do weekly music lessons, so I chose the most obnoxious instrument I could find: the bagpipes. I was 10; it sounded like a cat being swing by its tail! That didn’t work, so then I went for second most obnoxious – drums – and got totally obsessed.”
Then came Rowntree’s career-changing moment: meeting the band’s frontman, Damon Albarn. “It was immediately clear he had what it took: he could write songs. It was pretty much his life. He’d write two songs in a few hours! So I decided to hitch my star to his.”
After an unusually successful first album, the band’s manager ran off with the money, leaving them to tour the US to repay their debts. This tour gave them time to “think about what a truly British sound could be.” The result, eventually, was the album Parklife, 3 Brit Awards… and a much-publicised dispute with Oasis!
“We had a habit of criticising our rivals,” said Rowntree. “Most were too scared to reply; not Oasis! So we shifted release dates to match theirs, and Blur vs Oasis became front page news! The good side for both bands was it pushed us up to the bottom rung of the top ladder.” The downside, however, was that the two bands were artistically “joined at the hip”, whereas their sounds couldn’t be more different.
Today, whilst Blur remains active, Rowntree is also what he calls a “music activist”, with the IAO. Why? “The music industry is run by old men who don’t understand technology at all. History is littered with tech disasters. They even resisted LPs vs 78s! Not to mention mp3s. Technology happens regardless; if the industry can’t keep up, artists are going to suffer. I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet in terms of technological change,” he continued. “This is why I’ve become a music activist, with people like Sandie Shaw (also present at Midem) or Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien; that’s why we all fight for artists’ rights.”
The day started with a session as part of the second edition of the Live Summit, in association with Pollstar, looking at Diversity & Inclusion in the Global Touring Marketplace, with transgender artist Mykki Blanco, former Arcade member Plus1’s Marika Anthony-Shaw, WK Entertainment’s Claudia Arcay & Asterios’ Etienne Ziller. IEBA’s Pam Matthews moderated, and offered a telling stat: “Studies show that every 1% increase in diversity will increase productivity 6-8%.”
As a queer artist in the not-always queer-friendly world of rap, “social media has made all the difference for me” in terms of finding his audience, said Blanco; “queer kids now know who and where I am,” and hence come to his concerts. Once at said concerts, the panel agreed, onsite staff must be briefed to optimise fan experience. “I recently did a show in Seattle,” said Blanco. “The venue briefed security to let people use whichever bathroom they want, or to be careful with pronouns; that makes the whole experience safer and avoids any potential scandals.”
“We’ve gender-neutered bathrooms for entire tours,” said Anthony-Shaw. “It’s good to see a couple of brave folks taking that leap, from otherling to togetherling.” Whence Plus1, which she co-founded as “lots of managers told us they care about diversity, but didn’t know how to address issues. So we bring tools, around climate, around the LGBT community. For example, for CHVRCHES, we reinvested tour funds from into local Girls Rock programmes,” which support women in music, she said.
The afternoon saw a new strand for Midem focusing on the intersection of music and esports: the fast-rising sector of professional gaming. It began with an introduction by Reed Midem’s Jérôme Delhaye, who explained the crossover between the company’s Esports BAR event and Midem.
“The origin of esports is the young generation: the 20-30 mainly male, but now also a little more women too,” he said, noting that this makes the esports audience particularly attractive to brands. Delhaye quoted stats from research firm Newzoo predicting that in 2019 the audience for esports will be 453.8 million people, with $1.1bn of global revenues – “small, but growing rapidly”.
He also stressed that “music and esports is something that works very well together”, citing examples like dance star Marshmello playing a concert in the game Fortnite, attracting more than 10 million visitors; Universal Music Group forming a joint label with esports organisation ESL; and the creation of virtual pop band K/DA by Riot Games, the publisher of esports hit League of Legends. “Gamers are a huge opportunity for the music industry, and there is a lot of potential for cross-promotional activity, and for deals between esports players and the music industry.”
The afternoon continued with a session featuring dance artist and producer Christian Büttner (aka TheFatRat), who recently became the first signing to Enter Records – that joint venture between Universal Music Group and ESL. He was interviewed by Midia Research’s Karol Severin.
“I signed with Universal first, after my music blew up – especially in the gaming community – I got a lot of offers from labels,” he said. “And then during my time at Universal, who was thinking ‘what are we doing to do with this gaming artist?’ and because of me they branched more and more into the gaming and esports community. And that was how Enter Records developed.”
“The gaming community is so huge – esports and gaming – that for me at the moment it’s still totally fine to stay laser-focused on that community. When you have that community, it’s possible to break the charts, because the community is so big.”
Does it being a joint venture mean he has to please two companies instead of one? “I don’t see that I have to please two companies. I see that two companies have to please me! Which I think is a great thing. I see the record company as my customer, not the other way around… I don’t see any pressure or anything like that.” He praised the expertise of the Enter Records team, including the fact that it has drawn deeply from the gaming community.
Where are the future opportunities? “Especially for game developers, it makes a lot of sense to have title songs for their games. I’m trying to convince a couple of them at the moment,” he said. “That could be a great step forward for games. I think movies do it a lot nowadays. Almost every big movie has its title song, and I’m sure in five or ten years, every game will do the same.”
Why should music companies actively strive to get into gaming and esports? “I don’t think everybody should. It’s so important that it fits. But I would strongly recommend to check the possibilities you have there… There is a lot of space left and a lot of opportunities.”
The esports track then ended with a panel called Music & Esports: Gaining Momentum MusicAlly’s Stuart Dredge moderated Napster/Rhapsody’sVanessa Hoffmann, FUGA’s Pieter van Rijn and Capitol Records’ Josh Remsberg, who admitted his label is not the only one that has sought to partner with Riot Games, one of esports’ biggest actors as the developer of League of Legends. That opportunity remains to be taken…
Digital marketing was a big theme today at Midem, including a session exploring the claim that ‘flexibility is everything’ in modern music-marketing campaigns. Spinnin’ Records’ Susanne Hazendonk; Crowd Surf’s Cassie Petrey; Playground Music Scandinavia’s Patrik Larsson; I Am Pop’s Tim Heineke and Create Music Group’s Jonathan Strauss gave their opinions, moderated by Reed MIDEM’s James Martin.
Heineke talked about the shift from social media ‘one-to-many’ communication to messaging’s ‘one-to-one’ dynamic. “A one-to-one relationship is where it’s moving to. Even Facebook is saying that… And it’s private. A lot of record labels have no idea what happens on WhatsApp,” he said. “This year is definitely going to be the year when people will move more to private, end-to-end, encrypted relationships.”
The panel also talked about the challenges of trying to cater for every social platform. “What we’re trying to do more and more is to start at the right end”, said Larsson. “We need to decide what the narrative should be. Who is this artist? The artist is getting stressed about all these platforms that pop up all the time. All this pressure on them.”
That’s why Playground won’t force artists to be on a new platform like, for example, TikTok. Hazendonk agreed. “We have a lot of DJs who feel uncomfortable being on TikTok and doing some crazy dance. So we don’t force them!” she said. “If the artist doesn’t feel that it suits them, then we work with influencers who make use of our music. The music still gets promoted… but without the use of the artist.”
Create Music bought popular TikTok channel Flighthouse for exactly this reason. “Lots of people don’t want to make these dancing videos on TikTok, but they still want to be discovered. So that’s a perfect account for us to be the curator,” said Strauss.
Ariana Grande is another example: Create Music mixed two of her songs and sped them up, especially for the platform’s young audience. “It actually got used by 1.2 million people who took that remix and reposted their own creative dance with it. So instead of her doing the dance, you had 1.2 million people doing it… Lots of artists have a certain feeling towards sped-up music or manipulating their songs. But you’ve really got to understand the usage of the platform is different… Definitely some artists are against it, but I think that’s a mistake.”
“If somebody doesn’t want to be on TikTok they shouldn’t be on TikTok”, said Petrey. “But I think everybody should figure out how to utilise TikTok – by figuring out how your music is ingested on there so that anybody who wants to can make a video to your song.” There are also music-editorial spots to pitch for, and influencers to work with. “You should have the music on there,” agreed Larsson. “It creates, hopefully, a couple of million trailers for your song. I don’t see anything bad in that!”
The following session explored the need for ‘multi-channel strategies’ for music marketing, at a time when people are regularly using their smartphones while watching TV, or blending devices in other ways. What does this mean for music? Interscope Geffen A&M’s Nicole Bilzerian; VK.com’s Konstantin Sidorkov; Ananey Communications Group’s Elad Sonego; and PIAS’ Damien Waselle spoke, moderated by Music Ally’s Isabelle Ljungqvist.
“In its simplest form it’s just connecting the dots. Everybody has several different devices… it’s finding out who your target audience is, and what they like to do,” said Bilzerian. And then, as a marketer, figuring out how to serve them in those contexts.
Forster agreed. “It’s finding the core demographic and using the proper platform to reach them,” she said. Both stressed the need to have campaigns go from offline to online: billboards in Los Angeles can spawn digital content that fans can see around the world, for example.
Sonego, who has a TV background, sees a major challenge with linear TV channels, where the number of viewers are in decline. “We’ve noticed that people are no longer just watching television, especially with the younger generations. And we need to try to tap in to that.”
That involves “creating layers between the different platforms which would combine them, which involves creating new technologies that allow these different platforms to speak to each other – but also to be in sync.”
Bilzerian said that an artist getting a big TV booking, like Saturday Night Live, will generally now come with an online aspect too. “The component that lives on afterwards and the pre-promotion that goes into that performance is really what it’s about for us… that content that might be generated in the United States or another country can then live globally,” she said.
Sidorkov offered a blunt appraisal of television’s longer-term value – among younger Russian viewers, at least.
“Television in general is totally dead! It’s popular only between the audience of my grandmother etc,” he said. “All the younger ones are starting to watch their television content on YouTube and other platforms. It’s coming: a really big era of YouTube content.”
The panel also agreed that multiple-screen behaviour is now a fact of life. “Culturally we’ve all just become multi-taskers. There’s only 24 hours in a day, and we’re all trying to get so much done. So it’s natural to be watching TV while shopping online, or listening to music while working out,” said Bilzerian. But this means music is competing with lots of other possible digital activities. “So it’s very important to have visibility in as many places as you possibly can.”