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How Record Labels Are Selling Old Music for (Lots of) New Money

A Warner Music Group executive explains why, and how, record labels are suddenly revisiting their staid back catalogs

Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac perform on stage, New York, 1977. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

A Warner Music Group executive explains why, and how, record labels are suddenly revisiting back catalogs like Fleetwood Mac.

Michael Putland/Getty Images

Ask someone in the music industry how to sell a new single, and you’ll get rambling answers that go on for days — but ask them how to sell a single that was released 25 years ago, from an artist who’s only ever put out one five-track LP and since faded deep into obscurity, and you’ll get far fewer ideas. Thanks to the discovery-led nature of music streaming, however, older music is, for the first time, ripe with new opportunities. Record companies just have to be nimble enough to find them.

Tim Fraser-Harding oversees such out-of-the-ordinary initiatives as Warner Music’s president of global catalog of recorded music, where he’s helped shape new marketing strategies for legacy artists like Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac. Fraser-Harding spoke with Rolling Stone about the trials and rewards of reviving old hits.

How do you view your role relative to the music industry at large?
I’ve been in the music industry for 30 years and it’s a really fascinating time to be in catalog right now, because you have to figure out the balance. Streaming continues to build and build, which is helping our overall business grow — but you have heritage acts who are strong in physical sales. In addition, you’ve got such a broad range of consumers: hardcore fans who’ve always supported particular acts, and people who’ve just discovered them.

I think the catalog team has also got a very distinct job from the rest of Warner because so many of our key artists are no longer with us or have split up, moved on or are simply not interested or available. A lot of the time we’re figuring out ways to create a marketing buzz without the artist. We have to have other people talk on their behalf or share exciting new pieces of them that aren’t just rehashing the same things people have seen time and time again. Sometimes, it’s a question of how we make something out of nothing.

How has catalog changed over the years? It’s no longer just straightforwardly selling box sets on anniversaries.
We now have to ensure we’re devoting our marketing and product development time evenly: We have to maximize the repertoire most amenable to streaming, which tends to have a younger audience, but also know that our heritage acts may have had 40 years of making music and are continuing to push the dials. Take Fleetwood Mac. They’re one of the fastest-growing streaming artists, but still selling physical on the road. They’re appealing to a more diverse audience than they ever have done, in terms of age. They’ve figured out how to educate a younger demographic and continue engaging their older consumers.

The younger demographic poses a better opportunity in terms of revenue, right?
What we’ve effectively got is a streaming environment where you can have a younger person fixated on whatever today’s hot track is and needing to listen to that 30 times a day — but their parents might have “Hotel California” as their favorite song of all time, yet only need to listen to it three or four times a year to get the same sort of fix. We know that younger demographic is out there, so we have to get them to access all our music.

Warner’s back catalog is immense. How do you tailor your strategy for different genres or types of music?
It’s common sense for us to play to our strengths and support our major artists who we know are going to be listened to, day in and day out. But at the same time there are other artists from the 1990s or 2000s who may not have ever had, let’s say, an iconic career — but might’ve had two or three enormous tracks that still stream very strongly. It’s important we’re focusing on those tracks and getting them noticed on streaming services, figuring out where to remind consumers about those songs again. We end up with a track strategy and an artist strategy, depending on the breadth and strength of that catalog.

How do you translate physical marketing to digital marketing?
We’re moving with the market, but we also have to keep one foot ahead of the market. We have to make sure we’re staffing up the right way — hiring people who understand creative marketing and today’s consumer, and how to engage people in different ways than before. If we’re making a vinyl box set, it doesn’t mean just moving that music onto streaming is going to work. We’ve got to think about how the consumer will react, we’ve got to be smart about how we sequence our products. The Led Zeppelin playlist generator we made this year was a recent success.

That include working on faster schedules than before, I imagine.
We have to react very quickly to events now. Tracks can suddenly pop up in a movie trailer or globally successful advertisement, or be linked to something culturally relevant. It’s our job to be able to amplify that noise and then be able to educate about it. For instance, if there’s a Ramones track in an ad going viral and getting millions of YouTube views, it’s important to then work with that brand to figure out how to communicate to their consumers what music they are listening to. So much of what we do is track-based now. It can apply to some of our biggest heritage acts — or to an artist who’s only had one hit.

There was a time last year when we discovered the Spinners’ “Rubberband Man” in Avengers: Infinity War on a Sunday night, and by Monday lunchtime, we had a brand new playlist of that artist ready to go. We were then able to work with the movie company and get them to promote the artist’s name. It was a fairly obscure artist and song. We would not have been able to do that in the purely physical age. In this day and age, so much more is happening. Moments can last for a much shorter period than they would’ve done before, and if you don’t react quickly, you’ve missed it and you’ve got to move on.

What are some other ways you’re working creativity to promote older music?
We’ve been bringing other artists in. Sometimes you’ll see an artist who’ll say their biggest influence is Joni Mitchell or Aretha Franklin. In the old days it was like, “Okay, that’s quite interesting, I wonder if people will read that and go down to their record shop and buy an Aretha LP.” These days it’s, “Let’s get the artist to elaborate on that!” If Green Day opens up their shows playing “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones and everybody in the auditorium is singing “Hey, ho, let’s go” but doesn’t know the band name, we have to create the right tools to educate them. It’s great to have somebody who’s genuinely enthusiastic about an artist who has influenced them to talk to their fans about it. Because that’s the way we’re going to be able to transcend generations and speak to a wider group of people.

Something else that might be fairly obvious: We’ve got incredible music and we’re so lucky in what it is we’re trying to transact that we just have to figure out the best ways to get it out. Whether it’s creating a new video, remixing a track, finding a track nobody knew existed like we did last year with a Prince song, these are the moments where people gasp and we feel we’re opening up to a broader base.

Do you feel renewed catalog discovery is leading to a change in modern music as well?
Certainly when you look at listening habits, the younger generation seems more open to consuming music they like. In the 80s, I was an absolute music snob. If it was the wrong genre, some people wouldn’t listen. Nowadays people say: “Do I like it? I like it. I want to hear it again.” That’s why you can have some particularly weird things discovered from films or games that will appear out of kilter with what other genres that person listens to. And if they become musicians, they will sample a broader range of music than done in the past.

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