Music Industry 'Upfronts' Gain Popularity as Way to Showcase Priority Acts

Capitol Congress 2015 H
Eric Charbonneau – AP/Invision

Capitol Music Group, Epic Records and iHeartRadio each hosted August confabs for staff, influencers and potential business partners.

Fifty-plus years after ABC introduced the concept, upfronts are sweeping the music industry.

In an effort to streamline the decades-old practice of “face-to-face combat,” as one high-ranking music executive described the act of inpidual meetings laying out a label’s priorities to key tastemakers, programmers and potential business partners, savvy, if not tardy, music companies have adopted something akin to the TV networks’ annual programming pageants. Witness the iHeartSummit, a two-day showcase by record companies, managers and artists (from Leon Bridges to Justin Bieber) to some 100 key influencers working for the radio giant, which took place in Burbank on Aug. 4-6 (a winter session was held in January).

There's also the yearly Capitol Congress, a curated daylong presentation of the Universal Music Group’s current projects, interspersed with Q&As (Apple Beats 1 DJ Zane Lowe interviewed the Beastie Boys; KCRW’s Jason Bentley sat with Disclosure; Nashville musicologist Beverly Keel with Don Henley) and star appearances (Katy Perry, Tori Kelly), which took place on Aug. 5 and 6; and the forthcoming Epicfest, an afternoon session hosted by the Sony Music label on Aug. 29 and featuring acts from its roster, including Future and Ozzy Osbourne.

In a way, the idea is not entirely novel. Back in the 1990s, majors like Columbia Records hosted their own so-called “roadshows,” where new records would be played for staffers and field reps as a sort of annual pep-rally. In the Clive Davis era, BMG would also schedule elaborate listening sessions during a yearly three-day conference attended by anywhere from 125 to 1,000 employees and typically held in New York, Los Angeles or Miami .

"One day would be devoted to L.A. Reid and Babyface playing the new music of LaFace Records, the next day to Puffy, who would be playing new music from Bad Boy Records, then Arista," Davis recalls. "The days would be punctuated by artists appearing live, so it was not unusual to hear and see TLC, Usher and OutKast on the same stage as Biggie, Mase, Puffy and Faith Evans. And everyone remembers first hearing music from The Bodyguard or Waiting to Exhale or being introduced to the unlikely comeback of Carlos Santana." 

Indeed, the purpose in many ways has remained the same. “It’s to share music,” says Reid, now chairman of Epic Records. “And provide a snapshot of our roster, which we're really proud of.”

But what has changed is the audience. What were once private events, closed off to the press and pretty much anybody not working with or for the company, are now open to any and all potential partners. “We're showcasing our goods for everyone who we could possibly do business with in the future, whether it be a brand, a television booker or a journalist,” says Reid, noting that executives from Apple and Google have already RSVP’d for Epicfest, whose capacity is 1,000.

In the case of Capitol, chairman and CEO Steve Barnett saw his first annual Congress in 2013 as “crucial — to get the entire company together and engage our progress from the outset.” He also notes that “coming out of some dark days,” namely, the 2012 absorption of the floundering EMI into UMG, “the idea was: a fresh start, and now it’s grown organically.”

To be sure, the 2015 edition, which was held at the ArcLight movie theater in Hollywood and followed by a party outside the Capitol Tower complete with food trucks and a (limited) open bar, drew some 500 insiders and influencers who got to mingle with the likes of Blue Note chairman Don Was, musician Ryan Adams and manager Scooter Braun. The following night, Capitol took over the 400-capacity Troubadour to showcase such acts as Motown's BJ the Chicago Kid and Blue Note's Vintage Trouble.

Costs for such an event vary but are generally thought to be affordable — certainly compared to one-on-one meetings in multiple markets. The iHeartSummit, for example, takes place at the iHeart theater in Burbank, which the company owns, while Epicfest will be staged on the Sony Pictures lot. Renting out a movie theater, club and four food trucks, meanwhile, prices out at around $50,000 and sponsors brought in by the labels’ in-house branding agencies help offset that cost (Epicfest’s primary sponsor is Budweiser, but it’s also partnered with Patron and Red Bull, while Capitol hooked up with Citi and audio company DTS along with the Boulevard Brewery).

Even with flights and accommodations covered by the company for staffers, execs seem to agree the expenditure is worth it. Says Charlie Walk, EVP at Republic Records of iHeart: “It's a very strategic approach because in that room you have a highly sophisticated group of the top 100 programmers in the United States and you have their attention.” Offers Barnett: “It’s the best investment we make all year."

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