One Direction proves that licensing is now a key part of pop music success

Posted by Kelvyn Gardner on September 17, 2013

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In the years preceding the 2012 London Olympics there was much speculation as to the content of the opening and closing ceremonies.  The debate was enlivened by the obvious fact that the UK could not afford the expenditure associated with the Beijing ceremonies from four years before.  I was not the only one who called for a concentration on British music. It seemed logical, given that the country has produced more popular music since the 1950s than any other nation outside of the USA – and we’ve even given them a run for their money. 

And thus it came to pass, with Albion fielding numerous giants of the modern music era to strut their stuff in both opening and closing events. Among the great and the good of the previous half-century, there appeared one shiny new outfit that was only just coming into mass public view – One Direction. Now, there were many who questioned how a group so new, so ‘un-establishment’ could merit a place alongside euphonious Brit icons like The Who or even The Arctic Monkeys.  What a triumphant year they’ve had since, however. Indeed, it’s an irony relevant to our business that the licensing programme for London 2012, immense though it undoubtedly was, has now been dwarfed by the international success  of 1D merchandise.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times. Until even ten years ago, the music industry was not greatly interested in licensing – outside of the lucrative tour merchandise business. It was too much hard work, scraping together dozens of small-medium deals to realise a six-figure return, when record sales brought in millions for comparatively little effort.  In my early consulting days, I was tasked by an ‘outsider’ shall we say, whose business commissioned paintings of pop stars and sold t-shirts bearing copies of the paintings, entirely legitimate under UK law, but mightily annoying to the record labels and band management.  This company wanted to go legit, and sent me to negotiate some rights. The biggest music agent at the time told me that, without an MG of $1m, they didn’t want to know. They preferred to keep this guy as an annoyance rather than embrace his business on reasonable terms. Digital downloads illegal and legal, and the rise of consumers who ‘watch’ their music online without ever buying it at all, have killed that attitude. Everyone is into licensed merch now, even the greats of the sixties and seventies.

One Direction, as a music act, was born into this new world, where merchandise is a key part of a band’s strategy for bringing in revenue, and for connecting with fans. Old schoolers like me, steeped in the heady days of Chicago Blues, the Brit Blues invasion of the sixties, and the rise to power of rock music, sometimes struggle to come to terms with the popularity of One Direction and their slightly-less-successful peers. More enlightened folk see their talent for what it is.

My own daughter – in no way typical of their fan base –  is the archetypal  ‘struggling musician’ trying to establish  her band , Ryker Sear, and to sell her music in this difficult era, but she ‘gets’ 1D , understands what it is they have, and she declares their songs to be excellent. What do I know, eh? In any case, they seem to be a genuine bunch of lads, and I do rejoice that they and their management have embraced licensing with such gusto. In any event, both One Direction and your correspondent picked up gongs at The Licensing Awards last week in London, so we’re definitely in the same club. I predict a big future for music licensing, and for One Direction’s continuing part in it.