Peloton’s Head of Music Gwen Bethel Riley — Future 25
This story appears in Rolling Stone‘s 2021 Future of Music issue, a special project delving into the next era of the multibillion-dollar hitmaking business. Read the other stories here.
Fitness classes are the new music festivals. When Covid-19 trapped people at home for a year, the exercise-bike company Peloton thrived, more than doubling its yearly revenue — in part due to its virtual content and aggressively invigorating workout playlists.
Fans of those workouts have Gwen Bethel Riley, Peloton’s head of music, to thank. Riley joined Peloton in 2019 after a decade of handling music-business affairs for Disney, and she quickly went to work scaling up Peloton’s now-cult-favorite “Artist Series,” in which instructors lead entire classes themed around specific artists’ catalogs or albums. But her role covers much ground: Riley oversees the team that built the engine that houses all of Peloton’s music, which she says is being updated so instructors can search for music and program with more ease; the Boston College law school graduate also advises the legal team; and perhaps most significantly, she comes up with activation and partnership ideas, and spearheads the negotiations around various types of artist deals.
When the pandemic hit, interest in Peloton skyrocketed from the music industry as well as from gym enthusiasts. Beyoncé, the Beatles, and Justin Bieber lent music to custom classes; Dillon Francis, Outkast’s Big Boi, and electro-funk duo Chromeo remixed Elvis Presley hits; the company announced “Peloton Verzuz,” a collab with Timbaland and Swizz Beatz’s popular rap-battle series Verzuz, in which participants could exercise on behalf of different artists’ teams, tallying up badges in a monthly competition for fanbase enthusiasm.
“Peloton Verzuz” was something that “completely evolved out of Covid,” Riley says. She describes “the Verzuz effect” as a “positive ripple effect” that has led to streaming revenue upticks for catalogues, boosting numbers by “sometimes 80 percent,” as well as Instagram Live clips viewed by millions. “A lot of artists who had lost touring opportunities started to come to us, suddenly looking for new ways to speak to their audience on a digital platform or distribute their music on alternative platforms,” Riley recalls. “Covid was the year of the workaround.”
Riley also used Peloton’s annual homecoming event, which is essentially an excuse to celebrate the platform’s community, to premiere the Peloton Original Series campaign, which applies a docuseries approach to video content, with help from Usher.
While lockdown drew more artists to partner with the platform, Riley believes that Peloton will still have a place in the music industry when touring opportunities return. She points to social media challenges, like the one that Miley Cyrus started when she belted lyrics while running on a Peloton treadmill, reminding onlookers of the incredible shape singers have to be in while performing. ”You have to have the diaphragm and the lung power of a long-distance runner to be able to put on shows,” Riley says.
Now, Riley’s eager to get more celebs into Peloton as guest instructors — and to play around with BPMs, expand the diversity of class offerings, and find more ways of introducing younger Peloton users to legacy artists through workout materials. A fast pop song might be slowed down for a nice yoga flow, for example, or a ballad adapted into a cardio hit. Peloton — which expects to pull in $4 billion in total company revenue by the end of the fiscal year, according to a recent investor report — is also plotting some off-platform entertainment initiatives involving events, behind-the-scenes content, and apparel.
As long as sweat and sound are involved, Riley’s game. “The intersection of fitness and music is a wide-open space,” Riley says. “It’s a playground right now.”