The winner of the Strat at this year’s Music Week Awards is an industry legend who switched from music journalism to PR in the early ’80s and went on to revolutionise the way press campaigns are run. Ahead of the ...
Five years ago, SoundCloud seemed to be on the verge of collapse, set to fall by the wayside in the streaming gold rush. But now, under the leadership of CEO Michael Weissman, it is on an innovative new path. Following this year’s Music Week Awards win, we meet the New Yorker to find out how he’s rebuilding the company and to talk NFTs, the metaverse and why the industry needs to take a long, hard look at its relationships with artists and fans…
WORDS: JAMES HANLEY PHOTOS: ANDREW LIPOVSKY
Seven years before her anointment as Glastonbury’s youngest ever headliner this summer, a then 13-year-old Billie Eilish started recording songs with her brother Finneas and uploading them to SoundCloud “just for fun”. One of the tracks, Ocean Eyes, exploded and just like that, Generation Z’s first global superstar artist was born. But Eilish has never forgotten the digital platform’s role in her rise.
“SoundCloud is the GOAT,” she declared on Germany’s OMR podcast in 2019. “SoundCloud is the only reason I am anything – 100%. We are in a time where anyone can make music and SoundCloud is the only reason we can all do this.”
Eilish is one of the many future megastars to cut their teeth on the next gen streaming service and audio distribution platform – an ever-swelling list that includes the likes of Post Malone, Lorde, Bad Bunny, Juice Wrld, Marshmello, Sza, Khalid, Lewis Capaldi, Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion.
If success has many fathers, then SoundCloud CEO Michael Weissman must feel like a proud parent.
“Billie Eilish is an example of where it’s just a totally fresh new sound,” grins the personable New Yorker (who is about to become a father again IRL, as it happens, and is word perfect on Harry Styles hits thanks to his 10-year-old). “Then there was the SoundCloud rap era and, interestingly, there is a lot of incredible dance music coming out of the UK now. I was just in London and it’s got such great energy. I think that’s because the last two years have not had that kind of vibrant feel.”
Not all that long ago, you could have got good odds on SoundCloud surviving, let alone thriving, into 2022. Launched in Berlin in 2007, it hit hard times a decade later, leading to drastic cost-cutting and widespread layoffs as auditor KPMG cast doubts over the company’s “ability to continue as a going concern”.
Weissman was initially brought in as SoundCloud’s chief operating officer from the video platform Vimeo. He was part of a new team of executives tasked with turning the struggling service around in the summer of 2017 after it secured $169.5 million in funding from global merchant bank The Raine Group and Singapore-headquartered investment company Temasek.
Available in 190 countries and territories, SoundCloud houses more than 30 million artists and 300m tracks. Over 135,000 acts are now monetising their work directly via its distribution and services arm, Repost, while its consumer subscription and advertising businesses are established in 19 countries.
“We’re the next generation of what a music company should be,” says Weissman. “If I said today, ‘How do you build a music company in 2022?’ Well, I’d have connections with fans, a thriving community of emerging talent and the ability to work with those artists at all stages of their career. That’s essentially the ecosystem we’re trying to build.”
Weissman says that the fact that SoundCloud straddles streaming, social and services is ultimately a strength.
“While some people think of us as a streaming service and some people think of us as a creator, distribution and product set, there are actually multiple things [about our business] that allow an artist to stay with us from their bedroom, to emerging, to becoming a superstar,” he says.
Weissman – who has been in pursuit of the music business since he gave up acoustic guitar in high school and started managing bands – was elevated to president in 2019 before succeeding his ex-Vimeo colleague Kerry Trainor as CEO at the start of 2021. Last year, CFO Drew Wilson told The Wall Street Journal the business was “at the doorsteps of break-even” and anticipates a net profit by 2023.
“Trying to build a music company in 2022 requires the best talent across creative, music, business, product and technical,” Weissman asserts. “I like to think of myself as someone who leads through their team.”
Among a series of intriguing hires, the firm has welcomed ex-Twitch head of music Tracy Chan as SVP of creator, former UMPG veteran Jessica Rivera from Mass Appeal as global SVP & GM and Maurice Slade from Epic Records as head of marketing. Troy Carter also joined the board as strategic advisor last year.
After our interview, however, following similar moves by others in the tech sector, SoundCloud revealed plans to reduce its global workforce by around 20%, due to the “challenging economic climate”. Weissman made a point of praising staff in the announcement, reinforcing his commitment to push SoundCloud forward.
The ground-breaking work of its global teams was underlined by victory in the Music Consumer Innovation category at the Music Week Awards, in recognition of its user-centric fan-powered royalties (FPR) initiative launched in 2021.
SoundCloud says the “transformative” approach has created a “more equitable and transparent” system for its 135,000 independent monetising artists. It reports that, on average, independent artists earn 60% more through FPR compared to the traditional pro-rata model and five times more month-by-month since launch.
The claims have been backed up by recent analysis from MIDiA, based on real-world data generated from 118,000 artists who have used the model for almost a year. It concluded that FPR has enabled more artists to move up into higher income brackets, with a 9.2% increase in artists earning between $1,000-$10,000 from April 2021 to February 2022, and 63% of acts with 100 to 100,000 fans earning more from their fans than pro-rata.
“We don’t do it for the awards, but it was a nice surprise,” smiles Weissman. “We try to lead what’s next, and that means pushing and experimenting – trying to find the thing that’s going to lead the business for the next 10 years. That is just built into our ethos and getting recognition for things like FPR, in that context, was spot on to everything we try to do. I know the team there had a fun night as well.”
A further milestone arrived in mid-July, as SoundCloud and Warner Music Group announced a global licensing deal that saw the major become the first to adopt FPR. WMG’s chief digital officer & EVP, business development, Oana Ruxandra, emphasised the major’s desire to “experiment and advance”, and described SoundCloud as “an amazing partner in connecting artists and fans”. Today, Weissman hints that other companies may follow suit, suggesting that FPR can “bring new products and commercial opportunities to all majors and independents”.
Previously, SoundCloud announced Portishead’s 2021 cover of ABBA’s SOS garnered six times more royalties than it would have under pro-rata, with 3% of their most dedicated fans contributing 91% of that total.
“We’re going to be sharing more case studies, but overall, independent artists make more money with FPR and that is because they have dedicated fans; it’s less about passive listeners,” stresses Weissman.
The success of FPR, suggests Weissman, is indicative of the culture at SoundCloud, which announced the acquisition of Singapore-based AI music tech company Musiio in May. Weissman says they snapped up the business because it “hit the sweet spot” between music and tech.
“We try to take risks and be brave with every decision,” says Weissman. “If we’re not taking risks, we’re losing steam. FPR, overall, is risky, but we have a lot of confidence that it’s the right move to shift our model forward.”
SoundCloud moved into Tileyard Studios in London this spring, although Weissman remains based in the firm’s New York office.
“I was born and raised in New York, and somehow I never left,” he laughs. “New York is such an inherently culturally important city. We have teams in LA and we’re starting to hire a lot of people in Atlanta, which is the centre of hip-hop culture. We’ve got folks in London and in Germany as well, so New York sits at the intersection of all that.”
Joining Music Week over Zoom from the Big Apple, Weissman engages in a frank discussion on improving the streaming ecosystem, monitoring the metaverse and how to shore up SoundCloud’s future…
You arrived at SoundCloud during a tumultuous period. What had gone wrong exactly?
“I think what had gone wrong before was growing too fast ahead of the company’s pace of growth. It’s always about balancing where you’re putting your bets and investments today with when you’re going to get a return on those investments. And I think the company may have made a few mistakes on that.”
How did you set about rebuilding the business?
“It was difficult financially, but one of the things that struck me was there were very few companies in technology that had a vibrant feel and community, and SoundCloud was one of those. If SoundCloud were to go away, music at large would be harmed and it’s rare to say that about other streaming services in the market. The community was vibrant, the fanbase was growing, SoundCloud rap was just hitting its growth curve and those are things that you can’t replicate and you don’t need to fix. Some of the financials needed fixing, but that core culture community and platform was inherently strong. What we’ve done over the last four or five years at SoundCloud is hone the business model to what it should be, which is about artists and fans connecting directly. That is the core. Unlike labels who licence music to streaming services, but have no real connection directly to a fan, – and streaming services that licence music from labels – we’re trying to bridge that gap between the creative side and the consumer distribution side.”
What’s to stop the company failing again in the future?
“At this stage, what could stop our momentum would be... A lot of it is about our internal execution. We have healthy relationships with rights-holders, labels, publishers, we have really strong relationships with the artist community and we’ve always had great relationships with music fans around the world. Now, obviously, we’re not immune to economic trends, but we’re in a good spot overall.”
How does SoundCloud actually help break talent? Walk us through that process…
“There’s some magic, some special sauce, some technology, some human interaction. There are a few ways in which we do it. One, is that it happens entirely organically. Someone uploads a song, it gets into our algorithms, they share it on socials, people pick it up and it starts virally going out into the audience. Two, is we comb through lots of music on SoundCloud to find talent and then put in place ways in which that talent can work with partners. We have a partnership with Quality Control, a hip-hop label based in Atlanta. We help spot and identify talent early and then put the creative energy and resources in place to continue those artists’ careers.”
Where does SoundCloud fit into the streaming ecosystem overall?
“SoundCloud is a unique place where independent artists and superstar artists can live together. We have such an incredible breadth of music on the service from all parts of the world, from all levels of artists. It’s where emerging independent talent can come, thrive, and then build to become a superstar – and I don’t think you see that on any other service.”
Is there a level playing field in the streaming sector?
“It’s a playing field that needs to change. The paid streaming model has given us the playing field we have which, candidly, has been unbelievable for the industry. The industry is back to growth after years of decline and you can’t refute that. But I think the playing field definitely needs to evolve from one that rewards massive amounts of passive listening, to [finding] ways in which artists and fans can interact, transact and build relationships together.”
So, how do we get there?
“If you think about how music has evolved, CDs were around for about 20 years, the download market for 10 to 15 years and the streaming model is about a decade old since Spotify first got licensed. It’s always those 15 to 20 year increments, and what that means is that we’re at the point in which a new model needs to emerge. To do that, you have to experiment with the way in which revenue is built out and the ways in which artists and fans can then grab data and find insights together. And then, ultimately, it’s the way in which fans and artists interact and drive commerce. Now is the time to experiment. You shouldn’t be experimenting when things are going down, you should be experimenting when things are even better. It’s a better time to take those risks.”
What compels someone to become a SoundCloud subscriber?
“People who listen to music on SoundCloud are typically deeper music fans. They want to find new things, experiment and discover – to dig through crates of music to find what’s next and be there before everyone else. They also listen to music on other streaming services – we’re typically one of the only streaming services that’s used with something else. So music, discovery and also community – we have a large number of communities that have been formed [on the platform].”
Do you get the sense that Spotify cares about SoundCloud?
“I think so. We’ve run a lot of music through Spotify and a lot of artists who started on SoundCloud make it to the top of the Spotify charts. We have good relationships with the team there. I think they’re headed in a slightly different direction. We’re squarely focused on the music space, whereas they’re broadening their offering much more as they try to capture more subscribers.”
How can you grow your own subscription base?
“Through better products, better services, new business models and getting closer to the artist. I think a lot of streaming services have started to stray away from the artist and focus on volume of plays, when that fan and artist connection at the end of it is really the key.”
What is the perception of the company within the wider industry?
“We’re definitely changing the perception to more of a core part of the music ecosystem versus a smaller streaming service. Also, we are trying to do more to educate artists around what we can offer: from uploading music to SoundCloud, to the ability for artists to now distribute through our services, to providing more services for artists as they grow in their career. So while there is a consumer and fan-facing part of SoundCloud, there is a big artist-facing part of SoundCloud as well.”
In what other ways can you help artists?
“There is so much: education on how to use different platforms, what to watch out for when you’re starting a music career, what to look out for in a contract, how to build a fanbase... Mental health support is something else we’re very focused on. In today’s world, burnout is a big thing and we’re always making sure that artists have a healthy balance of growing their craft, but also not burning out early like a lot of others have.”
Who do you consider your competitors to be right now?
“There is no one who is really a direct competitor. We look at the ecosystem and it’s a combination of streaming services, social properties and artists and label services businesses at large. But when you start to unpack our strategy, you see it’s a unique offering. We punch above our weight in a lot of ways and operate in a very unique part of the ecosystem. Whereas YouTube is more user-generated, high volume, SoundCloud is the place where you put your best new assets.”
Do you need the support of the majors? Or is SoundCloud’s attention fixed on the indies?
“No, we need the support of the majors because the majors are great partners. We obviously have major label music on SoundCloud and it’s been a thriving part of our business. We continue to find ways in which we can work directly with majors to promote and help artists at early stages in their career and help build those artists up. It’s a very symbiotic relationship because, at the end of the day, we both have the same goal. We continue to power and fuel that new music coming into the ecosystem. Without that, the industry loses its lifeblood.”
Can you elaborate on how fan-powered royalties can change the music business?
“It’s clear that as an artist, building that dedicated fanbase – whether it’s 30 people, 100 people or 100,000 people – is the key to the whole thing. In a lot of other places, you could see 10 million people listening to your music a month, but it’s really about the 10,000 true fans that are there to listen specifically to you. And building those relationships is inherently key to becoming a musician. We’re just putting the economics in place for that to happen. Nothing necessarily needs to change, it just provides more clarity on how to find and build out your fanbase.”
Are you really being fair to artists though? Or could it be argued that they are still inadequately compensated?
“One of the biggest challenges in music right now is that there’s a cap on how much a fan can actually provide to an artist, right? So if I pay $10 or £100 a month [for a streaming subscription], that’s essentially the ceiling on how much I can put back into the music ecosystem. What happens is that fans’ revenues are capped, they go into a pooled ecosystem and are basically spread out to artists based on their market share of plays. What we’re ultimately trying to do is say, ‘I’m a fan and I want to support this artist directly... I’m willing to pay £1, £2, £5, £100 a month for that artist and I should be able to.’ Ultimately, we’re putting the pieces in place to get to that point where there’s variability in the amount of fan money going into the system.”
So why do you think that model hasn’t been adopted more widely across the industry?
“It’s hard for me to say. We see how it works directly on SoundCloud and it makes a lot of sense. We’re inherently more social, more directly fan-oriented via things like chat, messaging and offering ways in which artists can contact their fanbases more directly, so SoundCloud works really well. I’d love to see others try to experiment with the model. It may not work on all services and I'm not necessarily saying it needs to be a one-size-fits-all. Actually, I think that is one of the problems in the market today – we’re trying to apply a singular streaming model across all services, but not all services are built the same.”
What was your reaction to last year’s DCMS report calling for a complete reset of music streaming?
“I think it’s the right intention and the right focus area. There should be more discussions directly between streaming platforms, rights-holders and policymakers, and I do think that we need to find ways to work together to experiment more on new models, features and tools for artists to make more money. That’s where the conversation needs to go.”
With that in mind, what’s the next phase of fan-powered royalties?
“It is really about building two things: providing artists with the data and insights to speak and connect with their fans, and finding new revenue opportunities so that fans and artists can directly transact. It can be extended. What we’ve done so far is the earliest phase. There are multiple ways and examples in other media that provide a lot more revenue opportunity for the music industry at large.”
You have previously discussed the importance of the metaverse and NFTs, is that the direction SoundCloud is heading in?
“I’m definitely keeping my eye on what’s happening in Web3, blockchain and crypto. That market’s had some real challenging months with the drop in Bitcoin and crypto prices, but we’re looking at how those markets evolve. When I was growing up and buying CDs or cassettes, I owned those and it was my collection. In streaming, we access music in a different way. Web3 is a way for that ownership feeling to come back into music and I think that’s a powerful thing. Now, whether it changes the royalty model and the way publishing is paid out, maybe – it might be a better version of it. But it’s really about that ability for people to actually have a stake in the artists they’re trying to support.”
What makes you sure that NFTs are what fans want?
“It’s like Steve Jobs said, our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I don’t think a lot of people can define what the metaverse really is. It’s a multi-dimensional digital world in some capacity, but until it’s there, you don’t really know. Thirty years ago, if someone said, ‘Do you want an electric car?’ You’d probably be like, ‘No, those things are ugly and slow.’ And then Tesla came along and you could see why electric cars can be powerful, so you almost have to build it before people realise what they’re interacting with.”
But what makes you an authority on the metaverse?
“I’m always curious at seeing trends, learning and finding experts in the space to create a dialogue with. I’ve been trying it out myself: I purchase things in crypto, I’ve minted NFTs, I’ve tried to see how all the technology works. We tend to be a tech business as well as a music business, and we’re always trying to modernise.”
Does the industry think about fans enough?
“Probably not – I think the industry thinks about streams too much. The industry should start thinking about different levels of fandom and fans in different stages of their discovery life cycle. Finding a new artist for the first time is different to saying, ‘This is my favourite artist.’ We have to think about those behaviours and modes of fandom differently and find ways we can enhance it and allow fans and artists to connect at different points. People always ask, ‘Does the industry worry about artists enough?’ But you rarely hear the other side of it.”
Lastly, where do you see the music business going from here?
“You’ll see more direct fan-artist tools, features and revenue models from SoundCloud. I think the next cycle will be more about the artists and figuring out how to get the consumer model to work. And then finally, [is the question of] how we all figure out how to navigate an ever-changing world that, for the last two years, has been moving in different directions. It’s time that we all start looking at what’s next and get ahead of it.”
This September, Moonage Daydream will hit cinemas as the first official David Bowie film since his death in 2016. In a special preview with director Brett Morgen, alongside Warner Chappell Music’s Guy Moot and BMG’s Fred Casimir, Music Week explores the thrilling story of a documentary that shows Bowie as never before, and hears their plans to build on the legacy of a music industry innovator from another dimension…
WORDS: ANDRE PAINE
In the six years since David Bowie’s passing, we’ve heard opinions on the otherworldly music icon from fellow artists, broadcasters, writers, celebrities and even political leaders. But now it’s Bowie’s turn to have his say.
Written, directed and edited by Brett Morgen, Moonage Daydream (released September 16) puts Bowie on the big screen in a dazzling, archive–rich documentary film narrated in the artist’s own words based on interviews recorded across the decades. Forget the usual talking heads trying to recall the lyrics to Life On Mars? Here, you get to spend more than two hours inside David Jones’ head, accompanied by an astonishing soundtrack of dozens of tracks mixed from original stems with the assistance of longtime producer Tony Visconti.
As the first official Bowie documentary, it’s a significant moment for several key industry connections, including RZO (representing his estate), Sony Music and Warner Music (label licensees), Warner Chappell Music (who signed a catalogue deal reportedly worth more than $250 million this year), and BMG, who developed the film with Live Nation Productions.
BMG has been building up its movie division with recent documentary projects on Lewis Capaldi, Joan Jett, David Crosby, Ronnie James Dio and Trojan Records.
“This is the biggest film project BMG has initiated so far,” says BMG’s EVP global repertoire, Fred Casimir, who highlights the “groundbreaking narrative and unique storytelling”.
“The film and the partnership with Brett Morgen and Live Nation started about five years ago,” he adds. “It was clear that such a comprehensive film about such a complex subject was asking for partners, especially when you do something new in an area that is not your core business.”
BMG represents a 25% interest in the publishing of David Bowie’s songs from 1970 to 1977, including classics such as Starman, Ziggy Stardust and Young Americans.
The film does cover the bulk of his career apart from some of the creative misfires in the 1980s and early ’90s (so no Tin Machine). It can only contribute further to Bowie’s success as a catalogue artist: 16.6 million monthly Spotify listeners and No.1 in the UK for vinyl sales this century.
For Morgen – whose catalogue includes 2015 film Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck – it was a labour of love that dates back to a 2007 meeting with Bowie and RZO’s Bill Zysblat.
“We were provided with access to all of the content in the Bowie archive, which amounted to roughly five million assets,” explains the director in an early morning Zoom call from LA. “That was everything from music video out-takes to complete concerts, journals, artwork, diaries, everything that the estate had.”
An archivist spent five years building up a complete Bowie media library alongside material from the warehouse containing the creative life of David Bowie, an artist who never seemed to discard anything judging by the fascinating ephemera on show at the 2013 V&A exhibition.
“I’m a collector,” muses Bowie in the documentary at one point. “I’ve always seemed to collect personalities and ideas.”
The loosely chronological, kaleidoscopic approach of the film perhaps mirrors the cut–up method Bowie sometimes employed for lyrics.
‘I’m the space invader,’ bawls Bowie on the track that gave the documentary its name. The film itself is a dizzying experience, interweaving the life and work with footage from his films, including Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and Labyrinth, and the Elephant Man stage play, as well as cinematic classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Red Shoes and A Clockwork Orange to heighten the impact of the songs.
It’s a film in which the departed singer seems to come back to life through the archive interviews and his search for meaning in the endless universe.
Alan Edwards, founder of the Outside Organisation and Bowie’s publicist since the early 1980s (see p57), describes the documentary as “visually beautiful” with an “almost spiritual dynamic to the narrative”.
“It provides a wonderful insight into David’s creative thinking process and highlights what an extraordinary imagination he possessed,” he says. “One of the many interesting things Moonage Daydream illustrates is what a supreme creative risk taker David was.”
For Guy Moot, CEO and co–chair of Warner Chappell Music, the film is a global showcase for Bowie’s songs.
“You’re talking to the man who co–runs the company that just spent a lot of money on the David Bowie catalogue,” he laughs.
Moot confirms that the publishing deal earlier this year was a full acquisition including the writer’s share of classics spanning six decades, including Heroes, Changes, Space Oddity, Rebel Rebel, Golden Years and Ziggy Stardust.
“I think he’s absolutely the gem of all gems,” adds Moot. “The thing is, you keep having to think about Bowie – the creativity, the interpretation of his music. That was the great thing about the man, he was always on the move. There is no one–size–fits–all for David Bowie. With the catalogue, it’s culture, it’s fashion and of course incredible songs – such a diversity of great songs as well.”
The Warner Chappell boss offers high praise for the documentary, too.
“I think what stunned me was that I’ve never really experienced that hysteria for David Bowie,” he says. “And those performances, the footage they got was incredible and the interviews – just being able to watch the fans’ reactions... And then he was talking about his creative process, how he constantly challenged himself. It was to paint, it was to write, it was to travel, it was to put yourself in uncomfortable positions – the German year was pretty intense. The whole thing was fascinating to me.”
Even for diehard fans, Moonage Daydream will feature unfamiliar material, as well as landmark performances such as the Ziggy Stardust tour in 1973, and a soundtrack blasting out in Dolby Atmos.
“The reaction has been extraordinary,” says Casimir. “To be honest, I was not sure whether such a different approach would be consumed easily – let’s not forget it’s a two-and-a-half-hour long rollercoaster ride – but we are very pleased about the enthusiastic reactions everywhere. It’s a testament to the artistry both of David Bowie and Brett Morgen.”
The film, which will be screened in IMAX for its initial week of global release, attempts to capture the power of Bowie’s music and immerse audiences in his creative output rather than biographical detail.
“I had this epiphany that theatres [cinemas] are the best possible place to hear [recorded] music and particularly to experience music in a collective setting,” explains Morgen.
“From the get–go, it was critical that we were working with stems, reimagining and taking music from a stereo environment and putting it into a more immersive, 360 [audio] environment.”
For the music executives on the project, it’s an approach that’s paid off.
“It blew my mind and ears!” says BMG’s Casimir.
The story of how Morgen actually got this project approved goes back to May 2007, which was coincidentally the same month he met Courtney Love to discuss the plan for Montage Of Heck.
“In 2007, a friend of mine was working at Sony BMG and she wanted to do a film with David’s music, but he wasn’t interested in doing a documentary,” recalls Morgen. “So she asked me to come up with a pitch that wouldn’t feel like a documentary. I met David and Bill Zysblat at their office in New York, and we spoke for a couple of hours.”
While Bowie apparently responded favourably to that idea, he was in semi–retirement and not about to consider a project with 50 days of shooting. When he died in 2016, the film collaboration was then revived but in a completely different form.
“Bill [Zysblat] said that David had saved everything and wasn’t sure what to do with all this stuff – he never wanted to make a traditional documentary,” says Morgen. “So when I told him what I was interested in doing, he warmed to it immediately and said, ‘This seems like a perfect synergy’. If I hadn’t met with David in 2007, I don’t think it would have happened.
“I received unconditional support from the estate and their archivist from our first meeting. Bill said, ‘David’s not here to authorise the film, so it’s never going to be David Bowie on David Bowie; it needs to be Brett Morgen on David Bowie, you need to make it your own’. So that was liberating.”
Morgen was always looking at something experimental rather than a jukebox musical like Bohemian Rhapsody.
“The answer was always there in front of me,” he says. “I would have to employ Bowie techniques, because if I did the movie in the manner and fashion of some other more traditional biopics, it wouldn’t be authentic to him.”
Despite its official status, Moonage Daydream doesn’t drift into hagiography. When Bowie goes off the boil in the 1980s, the documentary captures the artist’s increasing ambivalence after moving from RCA to EMI in 1983 in a deal reportedly worth $17.5 million.
While the Let’s Dance album was a global smash, including a UK No.1 with the title track (826,414 post-1994 sales, according to the Official Charts Company), it was the beginning of a creative dip later acknowledged by the artist (“there was no growth going on at all”). A brash 1987 Pepsi commercial with Tina Turner, included in the documentary, typifies this troubling era for Bowie fans.
“He really very quickly changed his thinking about that period,” says Morgen. “That was the only time in his career where he reflected back with any sense of regret, and the regret was not in the music he was creating per se, it was in how he was creating. It was that he succumbed to the fortune, fame and celebrity, and he lost his way for a moment.”
For Morgen, there was little point revisiting the music from that era.
“I ultimately arrived at the idea of using Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide as a commentary on what was happening in that period, and that was a great way to get another Ziggy track in there,” he smiles. “It was also part of the language of the film, which was David having a conversation with himself across time.”
Despite a few dodgy albums in that period, though, Bowie found his way back in the ’90s.
Moot believes it’s an area ripe for exploring under the new Warner Chappell agreement.
“On Team Bowie, as we call it, we have a lot of people who are very passionate about that second half of the catalogue,” he says. “I think there is so much to come out of that.”
Following the substantial investment by Warner Chappell, Moot outlined the Team Bowie strategy for the catalogue to perform for the publisher.
“Ultimately, we would never do something against RZO’s wishes or the estate of David Bowie,” he says. “I think you’re going for a higher calibre of sync client, a high calibre of film script.”
At the same time, Moot says there’s “a myriad of opportunities” in the digital space.
“We had one with Adobe which was a very immersive experience,” he notes. “So we look at the value not just in terms of how much or how long, we look at how it connects to that next generation, how it connects geographically to a wider audience. So value is not just in the present, it is in the long term.”
Moot identifies Latin America and Asia as markets where there’s an opportunity to fully embed Bowie’s songs. And when it comes to sync, Warner Chappell is not just waiting for the right offers.
“We’re not just being a clearing house,” he explains. “Some will naturally come in, but we’re also looking at the right type of high–end brands and having conversations with them about a deeper, meaningful relationship rather than just a one–time [usage].”
A recent UK sync for a B&Q commercial using Sound & Vision might slightly contradict that high–end mission, but Moot praises the creative.
“It was a beautiful ad actually,” he smiles. “I was very impressed [with it].”
Ahead of the Warner Chappell deal bringing Bowie into the publisher, the major’s recordings division cemented its relationship with a worldwide deal for the entire catalogue (post–2000 releases move from Sony to Warner next year).
“We’re very excited by the thought of uniting the post–2000 albums with the catalogue we already control and working on career–spanning campaigns,” says Tom Gallacher, senior director, digital & marketing, Rhino UK.
A comprehensive reissues campaign alongside a birthday celebration in January each year has helped Bowie top UK vinyl sales for the past two years.
Bowie’s vinyl sales for the 2000s of 582,704 (up to the end of 2021) made him the only act other than The Beatles to pass half a million units on the format.
“The Bowie catalogue is one of our strongest physical performers, so we will be working with our commercial team and retail partners on ways we can boost sales,” says Gallacher. “We’ve seen significant lifts in the catalogue of other artists around the release of new documentaries, such as the Biggie doc on Netflix and Tina on Sky/HBO, and we expect this trend to continue with Moonage Daydream.”
Gallacher adds that digital opportunities will be “obvious and immediate” as fans that watch the film then seek out the tracks on DSPs.
“Our job is to use the buzz around the film to make sure that even people who don’t make it to the cinema are thinking about Bowie and exploring his catalogue,” he says.
Rhino plans a combination of social media content, joint marketing with the film company and partnerships with DSPs. Gallacher confirmed the label is working with Morgen on a soundtrack including physical and digital releases.
“We see the film being an important cultural moment which will have appeal beyond the existing fanbase,” he explains. “The joy of tools like Shazam is that they aid discovery and the jump from seeing something on screen – at cinema or at home – to searching for something on your phone is a lot easier than it used to be.”
Rhino has had some major releases this year, including the appearance of the lost Toy album from 2000, in the form of a multi-disc edition (11,790 sales) with a £120 price tag on vinyl.
Two new editions of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, marking its 50th anniversary, helped the LP return to the chart at No.12 in June with 4,331 weekly sales.
“We were very pleased with the Ziggy campaign,” says Gallacher. “We’ve done 5,000 copies of the new vinyl editions and streams of the album are up 30% worldwide following the anniversary due to the way that we were able to engage with DSPs around the date.”
Partnerships included a co–producer commentary by Ken Scott via Spotify’s Music & Talk function, which included a billboard promotion in London’s Leicester Square, and there are plans for an Amazon campaign.
“We are now into the cycle of 50th anniversaries, so all of these key albums will be celebrated,” says Gallacher. “The beauty of working on such an amazing and extensive catalogue is that there are always key dates to be marked, so the Bowie team are always working on the best ways to make sure that everything gets its moment but that the catalogue is managed in a respectful way.”
Twenty years ago, Bowie himself was prophetic on the subject of streaming.
“Music is going to become like running water or electricity,” he said, although even he didn’t foresee TikTok. A Bowie channel launched last year on the video app.
“We’re in this wonderful world of catalogue and discovery like Kate Bush on Stranger Things,” says Moot. “We work closely with TikTok and other platforms to stimulate those moments in an organic way. We take TikTok very seriously.”
In terms of future film projects, there is no Bohemian Rhapsody–style biopic on the cards. But the Warner Chappell boss does tease future film and IP projects based on the catalogue.
“We’re very involved at the Warner Music Group level, where there are film ideas, animation ideas and potential investments following on from this,” he says. “There are two or three things on the horizon that we are already looking to develop between records, publishing and Warner Music Group film investment.”
The metaverse could also be the next stage for Ziggy Stardust.
“The roles and the various stages of Bowie are open to so much creative interpretation, none of this is just a finite story, it has to be reimagined,” adds Moot.
Several decades after his breakthrough, Bowie is arguably as popular as ever.
“A big part of us working with this catalogue is always going to be about introducing new generations to his work,” agrees Moot. “When we looked at this catalogue, we felt it was really something that was timeless, that everybody could find an angle into because of this kind of creative catalyst that is David Bowie’s work – and it’s a global phenomenon as well.”
For BMG’s Casimir, the documentary will tap into those new audiences.
“David Bowie was – and his work still is – a big part of younger people’s search for identity,” he says. “His brave and uncompromising approach to art, his incredible drive for change, and the fact that he challenged us until his last recording tells you how significant this man’s work is. Yes, I am convinced this film will become a classic.
“Anyone who watches it for a few minutes won’t stop watching until the end. I think you will leave the cinema and start digging into the world of David Bowie – so people should be prepared for a wild ride.”
Moonage Daydream doesn’t dwell on the later years and the outpouring of grief in 2016, preferring to focus on Bowie in his pomp.
As the director, Morgen is reluctant to claim that any portrait of this singular artist will be definitive.
“He’s for all time and all ages, and every generation will probably create their own portrait of Bowie, just like any great mythology,” he says. “This will be a story that gets passed down from generation to generation.”
For Guy Moot, the film is a timely reminder of the endless possibilities for the classic songs that Warner Chappell now represents.
“I think you have to stay humble and feel honoured to represent this catalogue, and treat it with the integrity that it deserves, but realise that there is so much more to come out of it,” he smiles in conclusion.
“I don’t think there’s any end. I don’t think there’s any finish line. Bowie’s creativity is an infinite responsibility really.”