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NEAR TRUTHS:
YEAR-END GIFTS

STARS (NOT OF BETHLEHEM): In 2020 Taylor Swift once again reminded the biz that she’s a force of nature, unveiling a rootsy smash of an album that was a million miles from the glossy pop she’d pursued the last half decade—and scoring the top-tier Grammy love she’d lately been denied. Then, mere months later, she dropped a similarly acclaimed “sister” set. With big streams and a clear grasp of the new ecosystem’s never-off-cycle content-delivery model, Taylor bucked the inertia that dogged many of her superstar peers.

Though he was cruelly underappreciated at Grammy time, Columbia’s Harry Styles staked his claim in 2020 as the world’s biggest star. His Fine Line set delivered on his long-smoldering promise and then some, yielding two smash singles, ruling the airwaves and streaming up a storm. Few artists have the carriage associated with the prior era’s rock royalty—Jagger, Bowie, et al.—but Prince Harry was to the manner born. The way he elegantly modeled dresses in Vogue and then sailed above the manufactured outrage of right-wing culture warriors was a master class in savoir faire.

But what of Styles’ labelmate Adele? Will she at last favor us with new music early in the new year? Could her return coincide with Music’s Biggest Night?

THEIR TURN: Hip-hop continued to rule both the charts and the culture in 2020, and Black music became an even more crucial voice of protest as the year progressed. Lil Baby (on Coach K and P’s Quality Control) had the biggest album of the year, not to mention the most pointed and accessible song about BLM with “The Bigger Picture.”

Victor Victor’s Pop Smoke became a one-of-a-kind phenomenon after his tragic death at a shockingly young age; his music resonated far beyond mere posthumous tributes. Imagining where he might’ve gone as an artist only deepens the sense of loss. Drake, for his part, even without a big 2020 release, remains the most-streamed act of the last two years.

Meanwhile, in an era where artist development was seriously hampered by the touring shutdown, TikTok became a key component of big-label pop A&R. With radio on board, we saw a string of giant hits from unknown artists rack up streams and spins.

But without all the usual tools to build the brands of these acts, a great many of the bedroom-pop comers—despite their meteoric highs—were one-and-done wonders. 

Country music fully entered the streaming era in 2020 as a class of young artists (including Luke Combs, Morgan Wallen, Dan + Shay, Maren Morris, Kane Brown and Gabby Barrett) moved the needle at the DSPs.

This in marked contrast to rock, which has thus far failed to launch any new stars up the streaming charts and appears in suspended animation without touring.

Combs finished the year with two albums in the Top 25 for Randy Goodman’s Sony Music Nashville (2.1%), while Mike Dungan is having continued success with Chris Stapleton and Sam Hunt at UMG Nashville (2.1%). WMN’s Espo enjoyed big numbers with Dan + Shay, Barrett and Blake Shelton, among others.

CATALOG SHOPPING: While home confinement drove up streaming numbers and confirmed the underlying health of the recorded-music business, the skyrocketing price of song catalogs underscored a bull market for songwriters.

The disruption unleashed by Hipgnosis founder/boss Merck Mercuriadis lit the match, and now multiple players are driving the run on hit catalogs, with Larry Mestel’s Primary Wave, in particular, among the players shaping the field outside the majors. Justin Kalifowitz-led Downtown, another frequent bidder, just did a deal for the catalog of Motown tunesmith William “Mickey” Stevenson; Round Hill has also consistently anted up in contests for coveted copyrights.

But the bigs, too, have their heads very much in this game; UMPG chief Jody Gerson’s gigantic deal for Bob Dylan’s work was a tidy year-ending example. Gerson’s 2020 also included inking Taylor Swift, Luke Combs, DaBaby and Kendrick Lamar and co-producing the stunning Bee Gees documentary for HBO.

And alongside UMG’s task force and other initiatives, the House of Gerson has raised its voice against systemic racism and for greater inclusion, within and without the industry.

Sony/ATV’s Jon Platt has inked a stellar array of hitmakers while continuing his expansive, inclusive reboot of company culture, building out his global team and serving as a clear and persuasive voice for justice and change amid the tumult.

Beyoncé, who was reunited with Platt at the top of the year, was the top-nominated artist by Grammy; big looks for the likes of BTS, Cardi B, Lady Gaga and Megan Thee Stallion were joined by signings of breakouts such as Gabby Barrett and BENEE.

As for Warner Chappell tandem Guy Moot and Carianne Marshall (and A&R head Ryan Press), they kicked off the year by rolling up the Grateful Dead’s catalog, brought Quincy Jones and Duran Duran into the fold and racked up successes by writers ranging from Pop Smoke to Chris Stapleton and the co-composers of monsters like “Blinding Lights,” “ROCKSTAR” and “The Box.”

Along with the other major publishers, WC lent its platform to both social justice and humanitarian-aid outreach during this very trying year. 

Their songwriters, like creators across the biz, not only seized the extended confinement of the pandemic to create but also networked impressively on behalf of social and political change. There is little question that the voices and mobilization tactics of the music community contributed to the outcome of the election and to the ongoing momentum for social change.

Indie publishers like Pulse, meanwhile, focused largely on cultivating and shepherding their songwriter communities amid the pandemic. Pubcos large and small have reported that virtual collaboration has increased both volume and depth in the creation of new material.

Is this year finally ending? Please stay safe, healthy and, to the extent possible, sane. We’ll see you on the other side.

NEAR TRUTHS:
DEVELOPING STORIES
The kids are almighty. (8/3a)
LEADING OFF:
RON’S BIG RUN
Not your father's Columbia (8/3a)
ON THE COVER
Happier days are here again. (8/3a)
AN AUGUST HITS LIST
Look at the guns on these giants. (8/3a)
GRAMMY CHEW: SEEING BIEBER
It's high time for Justice in the Academy. (8/3a)
NEW & DEVELOPING ARTISTS
From tender shoots to mighty oaks.
MARKETSHARE MANIA
Let's do the numbers.
DELTA VARIANT
It is not the name of a Henry Miller novel.
IS IT TIME FOR ANOTHER ROCK STORY?
Could be. Dunno.
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