Hitmakers: MNEK reveals the secrets behind his hit with Zara Larsson, Never Forget You

When me, Zara and [co-writer Arron Davey] Astronomyy were writing, we did have a feeling that Never Forget You was going to be really big. Initially, it was a session that I’d come into that was just Zara and Astronomyy ...

Bob story: How the Dylan musical is taking his music to a new audience

The scene is a Depression-era guesthouse in Duluth, Minnesota, where the proprietor’s wife is succumbing to dementia and those passing through include a Bible salesman, an itinerant family and a boxer on the run. Amid this hardscrabble existence in the 1930s Midwest, characters burst into soulful, heartbreaking songs that are familiar, yet far from obvious source material for a West End show. Girl From The North Country, which runs at the Noel Coward Theatre until March 24, is inspired by the Bob Dylan songbook and falls somewhere between a play and a musical. Just don’t expect the feelgood fun of shows like Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You. “We couldn’t approach it like a jukebox musical, we had to get the story right,” says former Sony Music creative director Steven Lappin, who liaised with Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen on the original proposal. Lappin co-produced with Tristan Baker and Charlie Parsons of Runaway Entertainment, along with David Mirvish and Sony Music Entertainment UK. The major’s top execs, including CEO Rob Stringer, Sony Music UK CEO Jason Iley and Columbia UK president Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, have all shown their support. “The show has been well-received by audiences of all ages,” adds Phil Savill, MD, Commercial Music Group, Sony Music UK. “For those unfamiliar with Dylan, it’s a way into his catalogue, and for existing fans the choice of songs encourages them to dig deeper.” An unconnected 2006 Dylan-based musical, The Times They Are A-Changin’, flopped on Broadway. But Girl From The North Country is a hit that could run and run… “I said to Jeff, ‘You’ve got the greatest catalogue in the history of music, can I go and put a show together?’” recalls Lappin. The team had creative freedom and Sony/ATV approved full permission for use of the songs. While Dylan didn’t make it to see the original run at the Old Vic last year, The Girl From The North Country has his personal backing. Following a Royal Albert Hall performance in 2013, Dylan greenlit the story proposal by writer/director Conor McPherson.  “The challenges were really just making sure that we didn’t fuck it up,” says Lappin. “Because obviously there was such a responsibility, you’re dealing with such a legacy – he’s one of the most important artists in the history of music.” Praising the “genius” of McPherson and orchestrator Simon Hale, Lappin says the “unique” production has “been embraced by Dylanites and new fans”. He explains that recreating authentic 1930s instrumentation for these new arrangements “allowed the music the freedom to breathe and tell a story in its own right”. The mix of familiar and more obscure songs is shared between male and female cast members, including a “mind-blowing” interpretation of Like A Rolling Stone by Shirley Henderson. “People adore his music and adore his voice, but equally people recognise that – as with Adele’s cover [of Make You Feel My Love] – there’s such a melody to his music that when somebody else sings it, it just takes on a different life,” he adds. Unusually for a cast recording, Girl From The North Country made the Top 30 last October and has sales to date of 6,970, according to the OCC. Savill says that figure doesn’t include the “large volume” of CDs and vinyl sold during the Old Vic run. “The brilliance of the show is our strongest tool, and the marketing exercise was geared towards reaching theatre audiences who had seen the show,” he adds. For the West End transfer, Sony has issued compilation The Music Which Inspired Girl From The North Country, designed with the show’s branding. The Dylan catalogue is benefiting from numerous rave reviews from theatre critics and major promotion opportunities for the show, including appearances on The Andrew Marr Show, Radio 4’s Today and The Radio 2 Arts Show “It has definitely created interest in Dylan and his music,” says Savill. “We see this as something that will have an impact over the long term, as the show clearly has the potential to run in many countries for many years.” Lappin confirms plans for a New York production this year and believes Girl From The North Country can open the (stage) door for other classic artists. “It’s created a new world for his music to live in,” says Lappin. “It shows other artists that, if you get the story right and you get the right team around it, then you can create wonderful moments using the music.”

Taking flight: Concord Music's Jake Wisely on the making of a new publishing powerhouse

Jake Wisely’s life changed on June 2, 2017. Until that day, the American executive had been running a well-respected boutique music publishing company, Bicycle Music, part of Concord Bicycle Music Group, one of America’s biggest independent music companies. Overnight, through the acquisition of Imagem, one of the largest independently-owned music publishing catalogues, Wisely found himself in charge of a new publishing giant, with over 300,000 copyrights on its books. Two days after the transaction was made public, Wisely flew to Cannes for MIDEM and was literally mobbed on the Croisette by people either thanking him or wanting to meet with him, or both. “We could not have planned that,” he laughs. “That was just a well-timed closing. I think we all enjoyed it. The seller and us, as buyers. We all relished what was a hard-fought, but successful closing. “We really do have gravity now,” he adds. “We get a lot of calls from [catalogue] sellers, administration clients, distribution clients, executive talent. It’s nice to be in demand...” Funded by Dutch pension fund Stichting Pensioenfonds ABP in 2008, and managed by André de Raaff, Imagem had grown to become the self-proclaimed “world’s largest independent music publisher” through acquisitions, especially in the classical field with Boosey & Hawkes, and in the musical/theatrical genre with Rodgers & Hammerstein. It had also developed a pop frontline unit, Imagem Music, run in London by MD Kim Frankiewicz, which incorporated some assets from the Rondor and Zomba catalogues as well as 19 Music, Phil Collins’ Genesis catalogue, Mark Ronson’s works and tracks by Nick Murphy (aka Chet Faker), French Montana and Allison Pierce. The company had been on the block for a while, and in 2014, it failed to sell to the highest bidder (BMG) during an auction process. At the time, the sellers expected to cash in at least €650 million (£577m at today’s exchange rate). In the wake of the failed process, Imagem’s team regrouped while de Raaff was still entertaining potential buyers, among them Concord Music Group, a well-funded Los Angeles-based music company. Concord had been aggressively buying recorded music catalogues (Fantasy, Stax, Telarc, Vanguard, Vee-Jay, Savoy, among others), but had a relatively small, 60,000 compositions-strong publishing catalogue. It includes works by Roy Ayers, Marty Balin, Glen Ballard, The Fixx, John Fogerty, Foghat, Marvin Hamlisch, Billie Holiday, Robert Johnson, Montell Jordan, Cyndi Lauper, Marilyn Manson, Night Ranger, Nine Inch Nails, Plain White T’s, Sonny Rollins, Pete Seeger and Third Eye Blind, among others. Concord is owned by Barings Alternative Investments, Sound Investors and 70 institutional and individual partners. Wisely, who was an equity partner in Concord Bicycle Music, was part of the negotiating team, alongside Steve Smith, chairman of Concord Music, and Scott Pascucci, CEO of Concord Bicycle Music, with Concord Bicycle Music’s chief business development officer Steven Salm acting as transaction team leader. Wisely declined to provide a specific figure for the transaction other than confirming that it was “south of $600 million (£436m)”. “It wasn’t an acrimonious negotiation,” Wisely says. “With the history of Imagem, the potential sale to BMG and years of uncertainty for them, they found the right buyer and we found the right acquisition. It really is a great place to start from.” And, in a feverish marketplace for publishing acquisitions, this one makes a lot of sense. Concord operated as a very US-centric company while Imagem was more European, allowing Concord to gain a significant footprint on this side of the Atlantic. Imagem also brings in genres in which Concord had limited catalogues and experience, such as classical and theatrical. A lot of work will be put in synergising the publishing catalogues with Concord’s label groups, as well as developing initiatives in film and TV, in order to “truly maximise the return on these companies”, according to Wisely. Since June, the company has also streamlined its brand. The moniker Concord Bicycle, which came about in 2015 after the merger of the two companies, has been retired in favour of simply Concord Music. “Bicycle Music Company, Concord Music Group Inc, Imagem, are all going to take a back seat to Concord Music, which has its music publishing division and its recorded music division,” explains Wisely, who has been appointed chief publishing executive of the new company. Wisely, who is 47 but looks 10 years younger, hails from Minneapolis, in the Midwest state of Minnesota, where he made his dent as a teenager in the music business through internships at local label Twin/Tone in the 1980s. He ran a punk music fanzine, and also edited a metal magazine, before setting up his own label, Red Decibel in 1990, which had a production deal with Sony. He then joined rights society ASCAP in charge of the Midwest membership based in Chicago, before being hired by then MCA Music Publishing boss David Renzer, who offered him an A&R job in Los Angeles. Then, after a brief stint at digital platform eMusic, he joined EMI Music Publishing, working for Jody Gerson, currently chairman/CEO of Universal Music Publishing, under the then leadership of Marty Bandier, now Sony/ATV chief. “I have a great respect for all these people,” he smiles. “What a privilege working with them. David taught me a lot about this business, as did Jody. I have perhaps too much of an entrepreneurial spirit to work in a major music corporation. At the end of the day it was Jody who said, ‘You should go do your own thing’. That’s when I drafted the business plan and got the option to acquire this boutique publisher and that became the cornerstone copyright catalogue to what has become Concord Music Publishing.” When asked about the implications of the acquisition for him, Wisely smiles and points out his totally empty office in Concord’s Beverly Hills HQ. As a consequence of the expanded footprint of the company, with Imagem’s offices in London and Berlin, Wisely decided to relocate to Nashville, to be closer to operations in New York and in Europe. “My life changed six months ago,” he says matter-of-factly. “We’ll be using the London and Berlin offices as a base to grow our recorded music presence in Europe. Universal Music remains our distribution partner around the world, but we will rely more on ourselves to manage the marketing and sales aspect of that business.” Concord will lease office space adjacent to Imagem’s offices in London to bring in some executives to work on the recorded music side. As revealed last week, John Minch, former chief executive of Imagem UK, and Bill Gaden, former CEO of Imagem USA, have been appointed European and North American presidents of Concord Music Publishing, respectively. Imagem CFO Kent Hoskins has become CFO of Concord Music Publishing. Frankiewicz will look after the frontline roster and sign contemporary songwriters and producers. “The people who came to us from Imagem are amazing,” enthuses Wisely. “It was a very streamlined company, with an excellent array of executives who frankly had a deeper bench of executive talent than Concord and Bicycle had before.” Wisely says one of the priorities in the merging process was to ensure that Imagem management and staff would stay on board. “So far, there has been a new excitement that comes from this acquisition,” he says.   To strengthen the sense of belonging to one single company, some 90 of Concord’s senior executives gathered in Nashville for an executive retreat in November. “We had people from Boosey & Hawkes in Berlin, Imagem in London, Loma Vista in LA, Rounder in Nashville, and so on,” says Wisely. “We were all cast in the same place and had presentations from all the distinct divisions, label groups, publishing companies, regional offices, departments. It was really amazing to see the light bulbs going off over people’s heads, realising what they are now part of and realising ways that we can synergise and find opportunities. We now really have a full service company.” Wisely and his top team are overseeing the integration process of the two entities. “We are still getting the systems and infrastructure to align,” he says. “But we are right on schedule.” One of the key issues that Wisely and his team will have to sort out quickly is the network of sub-publishers, since both companies had their own representatives around the world. In the UK, Concord Bicycle was represented by Bucks and that agreement ended at the end of 2017. “There will be some winners and some losers, from both sides of the equation,” warns Wisely, who adds that by January 1, 2019, Concord will have “aligned” all its international collection partners. Wisely will also look at the most appropriate digital licensing schemes. In Europe, both Concord and Imagem were going through Independent Music Publishers’ E-Licensing (IMPEL), the collective of independent music publishers licensing Anglo-American mechanical digital rights. “There’s a number of situations that we could pursue on our own or collectively with others,” says Wisely. “We believe that we will have a good scheme that we will enact through 2018.” Looking forward, Wisely wants to focus on building an independent music powerhouse. “We are entering 2018 and the best has yet to come,” he says enthusiastically. “It’s amazing. It is pretty unreal to get to this scale and understand that we have investors that have no timeline, no horizon by which they want out. We are with the same investors that we met almost 12 years ago. We will have no shortage of opportunities to continue to grow and grow.”

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