There is a healthy debate to be held regarding what the following statement tells us about the modern music industry: the world’s biggest-selling album of last year did not come from a recording artist, but instead from Hollywood actors pretending to be recording artists.
But let’s park that discussion for another day.
The soundtrack to movie phenomenon The Greatest Showman, whose brassy, colourful anthems are mostly fronted by Hugh Jackman, has officially been anointed as 2018’s largest global album, in money-spinning terms.
According to IFPI stats, the original soundtrack – originally released in December 2017 – sold the equivalent of 3.5 million copies in the calendar year of 2018. That was enough to outsell two albums from K-Pop superstars BTS (LOVE YOURSELF 結 ‘Answer’ released in August 2018, and LOVE YOURSELF 轉 ‘Tear’, released in May 2018), as well as the Lady Gaga-fronted soundtrack to A Star Is Born.
The Greatest Showman’s 2018 sales were spread across both physical and digital purchases. This doesn’t even take into account the blockbuster streaming numbers: according to Spotify stats, the original Greatest Showman album now has more than a billion streams on its platform, with standout track This Is Me racking up over 300m alone.
The Greatest Showman soundtrack was released and marketed worldwide by Warner Music Group’s Atlantic Records – which explains why WMG’s global CEO of recorded music, Max Lousada, was so pleased by the album’s performance in the year.
Lousada says: “This phenomenon was ignited by unique voices and beautifully crafted songs, then amplified by our amazing marketing teams and the power of super passionate fans. It’s been fantastic for everyone at Warner and Atlantic to help The Greatest Showman’s message of tolerance and acceptance cascade across the world.”
“It’s been fantastic for everyone at Warner and Atlantic to help The Greatest Showman’s message of tolerance and acceptance cascade across the world.”
Max Lousada, Warner Music Group
Warner was a very early believer in The Greatest Showman, backed by Atlantic’s President on the west coast, Kevin Weaver, and his partner on the project Pete Ganbarg, President of A&R for Atlantic.
Weaver (pictured, main), who won a Grammy in 2010 for his work on the soundtrack to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, certainly has form with soundtracks: he got his hands dirty on successful movie music projects in the past few years for movies like Suicide Squad and Furious 7 (featuring Wiz Khalifa smash See you Again) – two OST albums which both went Platinum in the US.
Here, MBW asks Weaver all about Warner’s success with The Greatest Showman, and the industry conditions which have led to soundtracks to play quite such a major role in modern artist development…
How did the Greatest Showman project come into your world?
We had been tracking early press announcements about Hugh Jackman and Michael Gracey developing a musical project based on the life of P.T Barnum. I remember reading about it in The Hollywood Reporter or Variety and I immediately had a light bulb moment.
We made a very aggressive early approach with my close friends at Fox who I had done a ton of projects with previously. We had just come off The Fault in our Stars together – where we worked with Charli XCX [and her hit Boom Clap] – and we’d shared massive global success on that project.
Basically, I went back to those guys and said, “I love the idea of The Greatest Showman. I want to get in a room with [director] Michael Gracey and understand his vision.”
Frankly, if I were in your position there’d be one danger sign: ‘This is going to be actors singing songs, so we can’t really break any artists through it.’ Why did you see more opportunity there?
Honestly, it was a gut instinct. I was like, ‘This thing feels like it’s going to be something and I want to be a part of it.’ My instincts have gotten me to where I am today, so I trusted it. It was really based largely, if not solely, on a feeling.
We had our first meeting with Michael Gracey when the project was still in development; it hadn’t been green lit yet, and it hadn’t been cast yet. There were some very rough demos from Pasek and Paul [composer duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote TGS’s songs] at that point. Michael gave me his pitch and it was one of the most compelling, if not the most compelling pitch I’ve ever heard in my 26 years in the music business.
“We had very in-depth conversations with Michael about his vision, his needs for music, and how we could support that. We were super involved.”
I said to myself at that point, “If Michael Gracey makes half the movie he’s describing in this room, it’s going to be tremendous.” He went on to make all of the movie that he described – and needless to say, it was beyond tremendous.
That was a big part of what took me to the next place, as far as being incredibly aggressive and making sure Atlantic got it. We had very in-depth conversations with Michael about his vision, his needs for music, and how we could support that. We were super involved. We helped them meet with dozens and dozens of producers to help [refine] with what the final versions of the songs ended up being.
The soundtrack was a tremendous undertaking, a massive amount of work, but at the end of the day, it all paid off – delivering songs that have changed people’s lives.
Is there a particular story around how This is Me came together?
We heard an early songwriter demo of that from Benj and Justin – and Michael Gracey was obviously a very important part of that. It was a song which, to us, had already raised its hand [as a standout], speaking to these themes of inclusion and uniqueness and individuality.
Because of that, we really embraced that song in marketing materials, in our social media push, and our influencer campaigns. I did a big deal with the Olympics where [This Is Me] became a real theme for the Winter Olympics. We really made that song a focal point and a priority, and spent the money needed to do so.
Was there a moment when perhaps even you started to become surprised by the level of opportunity and success of The Greatest Showman?
That moment arrived during the last week of December  – the Holiday week going into New Year. I was on a vacation and, as you know, those Holiday vacations are very precious because [it’s a time of year when] you don’t have people chasing you and blowing up your email and your phone – everyone is pretty much shut down.
The soundtrack was taking off in such a massive way, I couldn’t put my phone down; I was refreshing the iTunes charts globally every 10 minutes. I was in a text message chain with Justin and Benj, [Atlantic’s President of A&R] Pete Ganbarg, Michael Gracey, plus Stacey Snider and Emma Watts – who are [senior executives] at Fox – and Danielle Diego who is the head of music at Fox, as well as our marketing people at Atlantic. We were constantly updating each other with new information from Spotify, from Apple, from physical retail etc.
“Julie Greenwald, Max Lousada and I started to talk about how we could throw the global muscle of Warner Music Group behind this thing in the most massive way possible.”
It ended up being one of the best Holidays of my life. Not only was I on a beach somewhere, but I was also watching my baby that I had put years of work into explode throughout the world. It was at that moment that Julie [Greenwald, pictured inset], Max [Lousada], and I really started to talk about how we could throw the global muscle of Warner Music Group behind this thing in the most massive way possible.
We had just activated our global priority system [at WMG], which allows us to disseminate priorities throughout the world to all the territories. This was one of the first, if not the first true global priority release that Max highlighted to every head of every company [via this system].
Immediately, we had the bandwidth of the whole global organization throwing all of the muscle of the Warner machine behind it.
Do you give specific credit to Max and Julie for seeing the opportunity?
Warner is a very good company globally in how we immediately chase things and activate the resources of the organization when we see things starting to raise their hand.
Without question, Julie and Max saw this thing happening and they pulled the trigger on it – and the fact that they pulled the trigger on it helped lead to everything else that happened thereafter.
What about the marketing of the album. how is it done differently when you’re working with the movie guys as opposed to your typical artist project?
When we’re working with the movie partners, we have the ability to tap into their partnerships. Fox had a giant partnership with Amazon where we were able to get major visibility on [the retailer’s site]. The week of the release of the picture, they had skinned hundreds of thousands of delivery boxes with The Greatest Showman and so we had the visibility of that, which drove people back to Amazon, which then had other activations including a music activation.
We were able to tap into multiple partners by way of the Fox partnership, which really helped amplify the traditional stuff that we do around co-op advertising and being out there with tracks in front of the release of the picture.
When it comes to locking down the soundtrack in those early stages, was it a particularly competitive deal?
I’ll tell you something: nobody else was on this project. Basically, nobody else even knew it existed.
I had done multiple meetings with Michael Gracey; Craig [Kallman] and Julie [Greenwald] had dinner with him in New York; Michael has even done the pitch for the whole Atlantic marketing staff.
“Nobody else was on this project. Basically, no [other record company] even knew it existed.”
Myself and Pete Ganbarg, who was my partner on the A&R on this, had multiple meetings with Michael and with the Fox folks as well. I probably had 100 plus conversations and had an offer out – all before anybody else even caught wind of this thing.
Fortunately for us, we were just so far ahead of the curve on it that nobody else had a real standing chance of taking it away from us at that point.
Let’s talk about soundtracks generally. The Greatest Showman and A Star is Born have been one of the big stories for the music industry in the past year. Why are soundtracks becoming so prevalent in pop culture right now?
We live in a world when new original music is used in media – whether it be film or television – in a meaningful way that helps tell the story and paint a picture, so long as the songs are compelling, it matters.
A big part of what I try to do on these [movie] projects is come up with a general body of work which has a taste and a tone and a sensibility that is unique to the IP that we’ve partnered on.
It seems like all of those factors combined are creating a compelling enough experience for the consumer to want to be connected to that – across physical retail, download and streaming.
How important is the soundtrack becoming as a vehicle for artist development in your view in the modern streaming age?
Massively important. These soundtrack opportunities give us huge ability [to break artists]. We had Kehlani on Fast and Furious 8 [Fate Of The Furious]; we broke Charli XCX off Fault In Our Stars. We look for these opportunities to be vehicles for artist development without question.
“The most important thing to me is to serve the creative objectives of the project first and foremost.”
But, honestly, the most important thing to me is to serve the creative objectives of the project first and foremost – and [therefore] I’m honoring my partners as film makers and enhancing their vision. Wherever I can do that by way of inserting some developing artists in there, I’ll always look to accomplish that.
What about your own role at Atlantic and the standout ways that that has evolved in the past few years?
The soundtrack business is obviously of huge focus to me. I still oversee our sync business here, which is very robust; we’re up significant number on sync year on year. That’s because of the growth of the roster, as well as the fact that there are so many places to place music in sync now because of all of the different content, creators and buyer and distributors.
Then I’m also very, very focused in my new role as the president of Atlantic Records West Coast, which I’ve been in for a little over a year now. Julie, Craig, and I conceptualized this position because of the importance of the west coast in music right now. [California] is a hub of where new music is being created.
“It was very important to Atlantic to become a true bi-coastal organization, not just a satellite office on the west coast.”
It was very important to us to become a true bi-coastal organization, not just a satellite office – to take the experience that I’ve been able to create in overseeing A&R and marketing and international and digital and publicity and all the stuff where I’ve learned an expertise by way of these soundtrack projects, and to apply that to the growth of our business as a whole.
Our intent for the west coast for Atlantic is to be as autonomous as possible. To always be very connected to the mothership in New York, but also be as self-sufficient as possible.
What is it that you enjoy the most about your current role?
That I get to inspire other people. That I get to give other people opportunity, that I get to support their goals and objectives and really understand what their hopes and dreams are for themselves and for the artists that they work with. That’s the single most rewarding thing of my whole entire career in the music business, to be honest with you.
How does The Greatest Showman rank as a career highlight for you?
It’s definitely up there, but I continue to try to raise the bar for myself. I have extremely high standards for myself. I want to do important work; I want to do things that I’m passionate about and believe in.
Between Fast and Furious, Suicide Squad and Showman and the list of [other] projects that we’ve been a part of over the last handful of years, we continue to raise the bar. Each project has its unique merits, but this one ranks up there very, very high.Music Business Worldwide