Inside Elton John's five-year plan to reach a new generation of fans

Inside Elton John's five-year plan to reach a new generation of fans

Music Week’s latest cover story is a world exclusive with Elton John.

The interview with the superstar artist and management duo David Furnish and Rachael Paley follows their victory at the Music Week Awards. Furnish and Paley won in the Manager Of The Year category in recognition of Sir Elton’s achievements, including a No.1 album (The Lockdown Sessions) and single (the Pnau remix of Cold Heart with Dua Lipa).

Elton John's latest collaboration has been confirmed today - a reworking of 1971 single Tiny Dancer with Britney Spears called Hold Me Closer.

David Furnish became Elton John’s manager in 2015. Rachael Paley joined Rocket Entertainment soon afterwards, and the pair set in motion a five-year plan, including the landmark Diamonds hits collection in 2017. It is now approaching a million sales (988,297 - Official Charts Company), with 66.5% of consumption from streams.

David Furnish told Music Week that one of the keys to executing their plan was Elton’s openness to trying new things. 

“Once he understands the role it plays in his world, he’s happy to give it a try,” said Furnish, a former advertising executive at Ogilvy & Mather. “He doesn’t micromanage. You have to make Elton aware of the concept, then he buys into it and lets you get on with building it and he doesn’t lean over your shoulder. He trusts the process and trusts the collaborators. But then you better get it right. There is that expectation at the end – if it doesn’t turn out the way it should, he’s not happy.”

The mission statement that has guided Furnish, Paley and Rocket’s senior team (completed by COO Luke Lloyd Davies, CFO Mike Dawson, tour director Keith Bradley and general counsel Elanzo Burgess) has been to “elevate and celebrate” Elton John’s legacy and introduce his music to a new generation of fans. 

As well as a raft of reissues and box sets, there have been revamped social media profiles and curated playlists on DSPs. There was also the Rocketman biopic, the best-selling autobiography, and his Rocket Hour show on Apple Music. 

The Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, which took in BST Hyde Park and a string of UK stadiums in June and July, will conclude its outdoor run in LA in November before a Covid-postponed visit to UK and European arenas in 2023. 

But the current atmosphere of celebration and rejuvenation is a long way from the transition phase in 2015. In his cover story, Elton John recalls the “incredible anger and jealousy” that was prompted by the appointment of his husband as manager. 

But the decision soon paid off, with Universal Music Group and UMPG getting behind the five-year plan formulated for Sir Elton. “We got all the key people from the label on board and said, ‘This is our vision’” said Furnish.

In 2018, Elton signed a deal that means UMG’s global labels will “release all of Elton John’s new music for the rest of his career going forward.” His publishing, merchandise, brand management and licensing rights, plus five decades of catalogue, were also covered by the agreement.

The Lockdown Sessions (127,707 sales to date) delivered an eighth UK No.1 in October 2021 and spawned the No.1 hit Cold Heart (1,452,038 sales). Its success saw Elton become the first ever solo artist to score a UK Top 10 hit single in six consecutive decades. 

58% of Elton’s music is now consumed by 18-35 year-olds - that is absolutely what we wanted

David Furnish

Rachael Paley has become the team’s key conduit in dealing with the label. She was previously Elton’s marketing guru at Universal before the move to Rocket.

“I’ve always felt the approach to catalogue shouldn’t just be box sets,” said Paley. “It should be about, ‘You’ve got a catalogue there that people aren’t aware of.’ It’s about joining the dots, giving a little bit of narrative or background on the track in the description, so you’re exploring the music and falling down a rabbit hole.

“The housekeeping was really important from the start, from DSPs updating the bios to putting thumbnails on all the content. It really was the nuts and bolts of things. I was at the label before, so it’s a joy going in. Obviously, I’m on the other side of the fence now so sometimes you have to crack the whip a bit.” 

The strategy was to open up easy routes for people wishing to discover Elton John’s music. 

“When Rocketman played on Channel 4 in June, we had a Pride playlist [ready],” said Paley. “It’s making sure that when people are wanting to find out more, there are no barriers to entry.”

Furnish sees the Rocketman movie as “super-important” in introducing Elton’s music to a new audience. 

“I think a lot of younger fans know his music, but they didn’t have the understanding of the things Elton has had to overcome in his life, issues of self-love, family, acceptance, addiction, sexuality and sexual identity,” he saod. “Those are all things young people grapple with today and I think they connect with that.” 

“I think it did open the doors to the exploration of Elton’s catalogue,” added Paley. “Although our focus was the soundtrack at the time, we found that Diamonds then started to go up again. The fact that it’s been in the Top 100 for the last five years is testament to that.” 

All the while, Furnish was keeping an eye on streaming figures, watching the monthly listeners grow and seeing the demographic starting to shift. 

“It’s hard to get all the data you want from the streaming companies,” explained Furnish, “but Spotify in particular, 58% of Elton’s music is now consumed by 18-35 year-olds. That is absolutely what we wanted and what we hoped for. It’s why Elton always said he appreciated the opportunity with The Lion King, it’s why we did something like Gnomeo And Juliet 10 years ago, to keep the songs in his catalogue alive and introduce them to a new generation.” 

I’ve always felt the approach to catalogue shouldn’t just be box sets

Rachael Paley

By the end of 2021, Elton had 66 million monthly listeners on Spotify, a 100% increase year-on-year.

The five-year plan has yielded huge results, but Elton, Furnish and Paley are just as excited about the next phase. 

Most significantly, there’s a forthcoming Disney+ documentary titled Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It will delve into Elton’s rise to fame with unseen footage and will document his return to Dodger Stadium in LA this autumn. 

“Disney+ has 138 million subscribers, it gives you an opportunity to reach a wide audience and mark an important milestone for Elton and the industry,” said Furnish. “I don’t think there will ever be another Elton John. The closing of the narrative will be Elton walking off stage and saying farewell to touring in North America.” 

Furnish is also looking into opportunities to expand the Elton brand in the metaverse

“That’s going to be a big new market for music discovery,” he told Music Week. “We’re looking at it closely but carefully. Elton’s been a bit like an avatar his entire life, throwing things on and off, changing and moving forward.”

Subscribers can read the full Elton John world exclusive here.

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