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How music licensing is hitting the high notes

‘A music brand is a more emotional, even visceral, experience than most other brands’.

There’s a line from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity that reads “sentimental music has this great way of taking you back somewhere at the same time that it takes you forward, so you feel nostalgic and hopeful all at the same time”.

A song doesn’t necessarily need to be sentimental to get that kind of reaction – a rock or indie anthem can illicit the same kind of response in one person as a slow smoochy number can in someone else, for example – but it’s the passion that links arm in arm with music which gives it power. And it’s that power which the licensing industry is looking to harness.

“A music brand is a more emotional – even visceral – experience than most other properties,” says Caroline Mickler, who handles the licensing for The Beatles. “It engenders highly personal memories and associations that are very different from an entertainment or character brand.”

It’s been a busy year for The Beatles brand (see separate box out) and this shows no signs of slowing, with the 50th anniversary of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band being followed by Yellow Submarine hitting the same milestone next year. The fact that the band transcends generations has helped opened up numerous categories and really grow the licensing programme.


Kelvyn Gardner, LIMA UK md, agrees that the sector is growing: “Music is growing from a very small base, accounting for 1% of worldwide licensing revenue at retail. Although 1% is not a big slice, I can see the category continuing to grow strongly. But, there needs to be something special for merch to work in the mass market. New bands can be risky but, conversely, classic bands like The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and KISS enjoy long-term sales.”

Global Merchandising Services handles the licensing for a number of artists ranging from Little Mix and Mariah Carey through to Iron Maiden and Motörhead. Jens Drinkwater, licensing manager, tells us that the past few years have been a tremendous time for music licensing: “We’ve seen the phenomenon of the likes of One Direction, smashing sales records and market expectations, along with exciting growth with iconic rock bands, whose careers have developed worldwide over decades.”

Global has worked closely with high street fashion chains, says Jens, including the likes of H&M, Topshop, Pull & Bear and Primark to name a few, to offer on trend collections that appeal to all demographics. The key thing to remember, he says, is that it’s the passion and loyalty of fans that makes a music property licensable.

“Music crosses so many boundaries and it’s not only fashionable but also a lifestyle. Whether you’ve had a career as long as Iron Maiden or had such dedicated fans as One Direction. This is such a key part,” he continues, “as to licence music, you have to be very respectful of who the core fan base and consumer is, balancing this with great partnerships.”


Bravado – which won the award for Best Music or Celebrity Licensed Property at The Licensing Awards this year for its work with Justin Bieber – agrees that the intensity of the artist and their fan relationship is important.

“Music licensing has evolved rapidly over the past few years, from a more traditional black t-shirt tour business to an essential and perennial apparel statement that sits with retailers globally,” Laird Adamson, head of international at Bravado, explains. “Retailers are recognising the powerful impact that comes from the connection between artists and their fans. I think the Justin Bieber Purpose Tour line is a great example of what we’ve done over the past year. For the first time ever to my knowledge, a tour line did not just live at the venue, bookended by the opening and closing concerts.”

Retailers included Selfridges in the UK and Barneys in the US – which had exclusive capsule collections – while H&M has also been a great partner, says Laird. “Despite the tour ending earlier this summer, orders are not showing signs of slowing down. With retailers around the world, the collection has taken on the status of a brand in its own right.”


Outside of the apparel space, there has also been growth, as Bruce New, synch and licensing manager at Sony ATV explains: “As a music publisher we have to be open to all forms of product category developers who want to use music and, subject to the songwriter agreeing with the financial terms, have licensed music and song lyrics into apparel, children’s toys, musical boxes, board games, posters and wall art, homewares and adult gift to name just a few sectors.”

Bruce says that while Sony ATV has been licensing traditional sync rights into the standard forms of TV ads and programmes, films, trailers and video games for decades, he is also seeing growing interest from digital designers and developers for music, as well as physical consumer products.

So could this be a bigger part of the future? “Being open to new sectors and media formats will be key in ensuring the growth of music-related products in the retail space,” Bruce confirms.

Nell Mulderry Santos, senior director, client development at Greenlight, agrees: “The future of music licensing is bright and advertising has certainly become an exciting platform to discover new music. And with the explosion of mobile apps, there are ready mechanisms to identify songs.”

Global’s Jens also believes that an upsurge in investment in streaming services is making music even more accessible to more people. “This has meant that the live business is performing extremely well which has a knock on effect with merchandising,” he says.

While we’re not sure how the vinyl loving Rob Gordon – the protagonist in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity – would feel about the likes of Spotify, it seems there are still plenty of high notes for the music licensing sector to hit.

‘The Beatles goes beyond music’

It’s been a bumper year for licensing activity around The Beatles, with the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band dominating.

A series of special events marked the anniversary including a BBC documentary and a remixed and repackaged edition of the LP.

“For us, the enormously successful opening of a Sgt Pepper pop-up store – spearheaded by licensee From Me to You/Rock Off – in Liverpool’s Matthew Street and the 50 Years of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band capsule collection from Bravado [launched exclusively at Selfridges] were highlights,” Caroline Mickler tells us.

In addition, Liam Gallagher’s fashion label Pretty Green launched a special collection to mark the anniversary.

Looking ahead, The Yellow Submarine name has already attracted licensees for categories such as games, toys, footwear, artwork prints, homeware, luggage and bags, apparel and babywear. This is likely to be further extended with next year’s 50th anniversary of the album and film.

“The Beatles is a brand that goes beyond music to encompass fashion and popular culture,” says Caroline. “That wide appeal makes it a wonderful property to licence. The programme is carefully managed and tiered to appeal to all ages and price ranges, and has succeeded in doing so.”

This feature originally appeared in the autumn 2017 edition of Licensing Source Book. Click here to read the full publication.

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