I have genuinely lost count of the number of high-ranking Sony Music executives over the past decade who have sold me the “One Sony” dream.
If that phrase is news to you, allow me to enlighten: In a bid to differentiate itself from its key competition (Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group), Sony’s recorded music division has long tried to spin the idea that it is uniquely connected to Sony Corp’s other powerful owned-media divisions – most particularly Sony Pictures (movies and TV) and Sony Game & Network Services (including PlayStation).
By and large, however, “One Sony” has wound up as a nice idea on paper – and a glitzy prospect to dangle in front of artists who might sign to Sony labels like Columbia, RCA or Epic – but has never meaningfully pushed the envelope.
It’s been a particularly cheery tale for Sony to tell following the painful hangover of Apple’s iPod usurping and ultimately cannibalizing Sony’s Walkman – the last time that the Japanese corporation’s credentials in both music and technology coalesced to dominant effect. Yet, in recent years, the most significant outcome of “One Sony” has tended to be smaller scale, namely Sony Music artists soundtracking the advertising efforts of other Sony properties – for example, a global Sony Bravia OLED TV ad from last year which propelled the career of Brit singer/songwriter breakthrough Tom Walker.
Right now, however, there is evidence that “One Sony” may finally be showing signs of delivering on its huge potential for Sony artists.
Part of that is down to a fresh corporate structure. For many years, New York-based Sony Music sat under the umbrella of Sony Entertainment – a now-dissolved division which housed Sony Corp’s recorded music activities alongside its film and TV companies. Things have changed: following the departure of Sony Entertainment boss Michael Lynton in 2017, in August this year, Sony Corp switched up its hierarchy by creating Sony Music Group.
Housing both records and publishing at Sony worldwide (ex-Japan), and led by CEO & Chairman (and ex-Columbia Records boss) Rob Stringer, SMG reports directly into Sony Corp HQ in Tokyo – finally, for the first time, putting Sony’s artists and songwriters on the same corporate level as the likes of Sony PlayStation and Sony Home Entertainment and Sound.
Already, collaborations between these divisions look more consequential. For starters, there’s Sony’s “360 Reality Audio” format, which promises to revolutionize the audio quality of mainstream digital services, and has already been adopted by platforms including Amazon Music, TIDAL and Deezer. The “immersive” audio format will launch in late fall this year across 1,000 songs – amongst which, it was announced last week, you’ll find classics from Bruce Springsteen, Mark Ronson, Billy Joel and Pharrell Williams… artists who also happen to be signed to Sony Music. (That being said, others in the music industry are impressed by the format, including Sony rival Warner Music Group, which has signed up to support the launch.)
Pharrell is a particularly interesting case study for “One Sony”: As well as joining Rob Stringer and Sony Corp CEO Kenichiro Yoshida on stage in Las Vegas at CES in January to announce “360 Reality Audio,” the Neptunes star is also working in partnership with Sony Corp on a number of other yet-to-be revealed devices and tech innovations that Stringer says will “bring together music and the other platforms at Sony.”
Another major new non-music project in which Sony Music Group has played an active role is Death Stranding, a much-hyped “open world” action-adventure video game due for launch on PlayStation 4 in November. Built by a team led by legendary game developer Hideo Kojima (creator of the classic Metal Gear Solid series), the Sony-published Death Stranding is an ambitious, filmic title which stars acting talents such as The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus and Saturn Award-winning Hannibal star Mads Mikkelsen. It has been dubbed “frighteningly beautiful” by Forbes.
Sony Music is working on the official soundtrack to Death Stranding, which will be released as a standalone album, Death Stranding: Timefall, by RCA Records on November 7. Major league Sony-signed artists such as Khalid, Alan Walker and Bring Me The Horizon have contributed original recordings to Death Stranding – many of which are integrated into the game’s standout moments as you play.
Sony Music Group CEO & Chairman, Rob Stringer, told an audience at Goldman Sachs’ Communacopia event in New York last month that Death Stranding will “innovate for the first time on how music is embedded in a game,” and that SMG will be working closely with PlayStation to promote the Timefall album. It’s a project that Sony insiders tell me is being seen as an important benchmark of increased creative collaboration between PlayStation and Sony Music Group, ahead of the launch of the PlayStation 5 console in 2020.
Elsewhere, Epic-signed Camila Cabello is set to play the lead role in a movie retelling of Cinderella from Sony Pictures, for which she will also be involved in the soundtrack. Additionally starring Idina Menzel and Billy Porter, and co-produced by James Corden, it’s slated for release in early 2021.
Tom Mackay, who spent 19 years in senior roles at Republic Records, quit that label two years ago to join Rob Stringer and Sony Music in the newly-created position of President, Sony Music Film and Television A&R. Mackay therefore plays a vital role in the fortunes of “One Sony,” by ensuring that artists signed to the company benefit from opportunities presented by movies, TV shows and video games being developed across the wider Sony corporation.
In addition to Death Stranding, Mackay is currently working on a TV show devised and executive-produced by Sony-signed country superstar Brad Paisley, due to air on ABC later this year. Brad Paisley Thinks He’s Special is being developed by Sony Pictures Television, and stars Paisley himself alongside the likes of Hootie & The Blowfish, Kelsea Ballerini and the Jonas Brothers. Mackay, who is based on the Sony Pictures lot in Los Angeles and whose remit also covers Sony Music’s fast-growing podcast portfolio, says: “Most artists we work with have ideas for film, TV or gaming. Because of the Sony family, we have the unique ability to give them opportunities across every creative platform they can imagine.”
As for the prospects of “One Sony” in the years ahead, he adds: “Thanks to how collaborative the other Sony companies have been, we’ve made significant strides – it’s just the beginning of what we can create together.”
Tim Ingham is the founder and publisher of Music Business Worldwide, which has serviced the global industry with news, analysis, and jobs since 2015. He writes a weekly column for “Rolling Stone.”