World's Biggest Label Invests in Cartoon Creatures, Soccer, and Sweat - Rolling Stone
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The Biggest Label in the World Invests in Cartoon Creatures, Soccer Balls, and Sweat

Universal Music Group is starting 2021 with a branding boom, calling on Katy Perry and Liam Payne to help announce partnerships with Pokémon, FIFA, and Equinox

katy perry pokemon

Christine Hahn*

Katy Perry isn’t known for being a Pikachu whisperer. Nor did Liam Payne make his millions as a sports aficionado. However, Universal Music Group (UMG) sees the value in both of these alter-egos.

On Wednesday, the company announced three separate partnerships with big names in the games, sports, and fitness industries — the majority of which were spearheaded by an internal division called Universal Music Group for Brands (UMGB).

In celebration of Pokémon’s 25th anniversary, Katy Perry will serve as the face of a new program called P25 Music. A press release describes P25 Music as a yearlong campaign that will involve a series of global activations and “some of the biggest names in music, from rising artists to award-winning global superstars.” UMGB will announce further details surrounding the extent of Perry’s involvement and “additional artist surprises” in the coming months.

Meanwhile, FIFA is adding “musical influencer” to its list of titles, which already includes being the world’s governing body of soccer and creator of a wildly popular video game series. The organization unveiled a new strategic arm called FIFA Sound, which was “designed to create innovative and meaningful connections between football fans, music enthusiasts, players, artists, and the game and songs they all love.” FIFA Sound will house many initiatives, but the first is the UMGB-assisted PlayOn, an eight-episode podcast series hosted by pop solo artist and former One Direction member Liam Payne, alongside sports broadcaster Jaydee Dyer.

“FIFA’s vision is to make football [i.e. soccer to Americans] truly global, accessible and inclusive,” said Jean-François Pathy, FIFA’s Director of Marketing in a release. “The crossover between football and music underscores this wider cultural relevance. Both are universal languages and have the power to create unrivaled emotions. It’s a natural fit to bring them together.”

Last but certainly not least is UMG’s content-licensing deal with Variis, an app for at-home fitness that Equinox launched in 2020. Variis is similar to Peloton, in that it offers classes for different types of exercise like cycling, yoga, and running. While all Peloton classes belong to the one brand, though, Variis enlists instructors from different Equinox-owned companies, including SoulCycle, PureYoga, and Precision Run. Unlike Peloton, Variis has also done deals with Netflix and Disney+, so users can stream movies and TV shows during “free rides.”

Most workouts aren’t complete without music, though. And if Variis was willing to shell out whatever big bucks were required by Netflix and Disney+, it’s likely that partnerships with Sony and Warner Music are around the corner. UMG being the biggest of three and the first to align with Variis is significant, though. (SoulCyclers, say hello to the likes of Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, and Drake.)

Brand partnerships, some of which have been quite eyebrow-raising, are not new — particularly in the realms of fashion and food. But with most people sheltering at home, driving less, and attending very few to no concerts during the COVID-19 pandemic, record labels have had to get creative with their listening opportunities.

It seems that UMG is particularly focused on avenues geared towards grabbing new listeners: If you’re passively listening to a musical playlist, you expect to hear songs, and if you’re buying Crocs touted by Post Malone, it’s probably because you’re already a Post Malone fan — but if you’re chasing Pokémon, engaging in impassioned sports recaps, or boosting your adrenaline levels with exercise, the company is betting that the soundtracks to those experiences are more likely to stand out and leave a memorable impact.

UMG representatives did not respond to Rolling Stone‘s request to discuss specific goals in this arena. But 2021 is only two weeks old, so if you think UMG doesn’t have more up its sleeve, you may also think that Pokémon are real and that Gideon is to blame for coronavirus.

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