Business Musings: Here It Comes

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I didn’t mean to go down the rabbit hole this afternoon. I blame Led Zeppelin.

Seriously. I blame them.

In mid-May, I flagged an article on titled “The Eternal Revenue Stream of Led Zeppelin.” I had no real idea what the article was about, but I figured it might be important for writers, because the music business is always way ahead of the next trends in entertainment business.

This afternoon, as I was prepping to do a completely different blog post, I decided to see if this article was relevant. And then, about two hours later, I looked up from a music business terms website where I had gone to learn what “sync licensing” was.

(For those of you who don’t know, as I didn’t, “sync licensing” is when your song (if you’re a songwriter who still owns your own copyright) is paired with a visual medium. Hence sync as in synchronization. It can apply to any video pairing—from blockbuster movies to commercials to (as one article mentioned) wedding videos.)

Okay, this stuff fascinates me, and it fascinates me even more this week, as I plan to attend the Licensing Expo in Las Vegas. Patreon supporters are reading this ahead of the expo. The rest of you are reading it during the expo, because I’m not sure if my prep for the expo was the proper prep. You’ll see more blogs about licensing after the expo than before.

Even though today’s post mentions synch licensing, this is not a licensing post. Nope, this is a cautionary tale and yet something entirely fascinating.

Thank you, Led Zeppelin.

You see, for years, I’ve been wondering why big traditional publishing companies aren’t licensing their backlist. There’s a million ways to make money off copyright licenses, and the most obvious is to keep books in print. Yet so many big traditional publishing companies don’t keep their books in print.

Or, worse, in my opinion, those companies don’t publish ebook versions of their catalog. All of their backlist in their catalogs. Realize that this isn’t thousands of titles for them. In the case of some of the larger companies, the title list has to be closer to a million.

But the companies have no idea which books they still can license, whether or not the old contracts have clauses in them that allow ebooks, or even who handles the estate of those old books. I had just read a Daphne Du Maurier novel, My Cousin Rachel,  which had recently been made into a movie, and it took me a lot of scrolling to find that book. I want to read more of her work, but I’m going slowly in ordering it or buying it. Because I want a new copy. Old books ordered off the internet have been known to set off my allergies. I don’t like reading fiction ebooks, mostly because I tend to read nonfiction on my devices. (And I just love the feel of books.)

I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants an old book in my preferred format. More and more, I see comments on social media about someone wanting some book or another in a preferred format, and being unable to find it.

We’ve hit the point in the ebook revolution—the online revolution really—where we expect everything (and I do mean everything) to be at our fingertips.

So back to Led Zeppelin. The band is fifty years old this year. And yeah, jeez, that hurts. Because I remember when they were the epitome of cool (and being young and not being understood by the old fogies). Anyway, the folks at Warner Music Group which apparently owns or licensed most of Zeppelin’s catalog, were planning some kind of celebration of the band.

Instead of issuing a retrospective album, they set up a website with a logo name generator. You plug in your name, and it comes up in the Zeppelin iconic font. That’s not the coolest thing about the website, though. The coolest thing is the playlist generator, which allows users to compile their own playlist of Zeppelin songs or covers of Led Zeppelin songs, and then share those playlists on social media.

Think about that for a moment: the website, if set up properly, will help Warner Music Group know what songs from the Led Zeppelin catalog (and related catalogs, like Jack White’s, are the most beloved). That information can be used in marketing later.

This little landing page, with its logo generator and its playlist generator, will then direct users to the Zeppelin website, where you’ll find all the fiftieth anniversary goodies, including the ubiquitous best-of collection and an authorized book about the band.

According to Rolling Stone:

The [logo] site received more than 200,000 unique visitors in its first 10 days, with users making 230,000 logos and 20,000 custom playlists. The “biggest uplift” was from White’s playlist, branded as “Led Zeppelin x Jack White,” which drew thousands of users each day — which translates to hundreds of thousands of streams, which translates to a steady stream of cash to Warner and Led Zeppelin without the band lifting a finger.

Hundreds of thousands of streams, “without the band lifting a finger.” Passive income, based on one idea. Yes, streaming services don’t pay a large amount for streams, but they pay. And even a small amount of money adds up when it is multiplied by hundreds of thousands. Not counting the visibility, discoverability, and all those other “abilities” that come from the social media shares, and the links between the various playlist generators. They all play into the streaming services algorithms, which results in even more recognition, and more plays.

Once upon a time (maybe as recently as three years ago) working with what we call the backlist and what the recording industry calls “catalog marketing” was the unlit basement of the industry. No one wanted that job. It wasn’t glamorous, and it barely earned its way.

But that’s changing, and changing rapidly. Apparently, consumers no longer care about the latest and greatest thing. They want what’s new to them. More than that, they want something that they like.

This is where sync marketing comes in. A lot of younger consumers buy music because they heard it on their favorite TV show or in an important scene in a blockbuster movie. From the Rolling Stone article:

Tiffany’s 1987 cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” has seen 42 percent of its all-time Shazams come after it appeared in Netflix’s 2019 series The Umbrella Academy, and several tracks from the 1940s to 1970s climbed up the company’s global charts after floating into people’s ears from the background of Avengers: Endgame.

All of this change, not just with sync marketing, but other discoverability tools, have made the catalog marketing department in major companies into “hubs of innovation and fresh creativity.”

Rolling Stone writes:

In the case of a renowned band like Led Zeppelin, the task was to create a simple but not-too-gimmicky-looking way to expand the audience. For more obscure acts, catalog departments are trying different strategies, including asking contemporary artists to publicly discuss their older sources of inspiration — which could yield a significant new wave of streams from curious teens.

Dig into the article. You’ll see some varying points of innovation there.

What does all of this mean for fiction writers?

Well, it depends on where you are in the industry. I’ve noted for years now that traditional publishers have become reluctant to let go of a license once they receive it. In other words, books don’t go out of print anymore, no matter how badly the publisher is mismanaging the book. (In the past, if the book wasn’t in stores, the writer could get her rights back. Not anymore.)

Someone in that megaconglomerate knows that these rights are worth money. They’re worth a lot as assets on a balance sheet, but in the music industry, anyway, they’re also being turned into active revenue streams.

When this starts happening to books—and it will—writers are going to have to be vigilant about their contracts. They’re going to have to see if the contract’s vague 1997 language covers things like streaming rights or omnibus rights or any one of a dozen other ways to license that print book into something new.

What will probably happen is that publishing companies will do what they always do—figure it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to ask for permission. They’ll also not want to make payments, so writers are going to have to start auditing their publishers (which no traditionally published writer will do for fear of being blacklisted—because that’s what agents tell them to do. Sigh. Agents. A whole other topic I stumbled upon yet again when it comes to sync licensing).

What I foresee, at least for traditionally published writers, is this is a whole new area for publishers to rip them off. Because no writer will see what’s going on until too late, and by then, the money will have been spent by someone else.

But…for those of us who are being published indie, and who control our own rights and licenses, this fresh burst of creativity that will eventually hit the back catalog department of a traditional publisher (once traditional publishers realize they need a back catalog department)—that burst of creativity will leak into our sphere. The things those departments are trying with their millions of dollars will become things we can do on our much smaller budgets, innovations that we might want to crib from or get inspired by.

I already wrote a post about inventory, and how I used mine on the very successful Kickstarter for Diving. (Thank you, everyone who supported it!) That inventory is a gold mine, that can be used in ways we can’t even imagine right now.

So as I said, today’s post is both a warning and something totally cool. The innovation is coming and it will trample writers who are not business savvy. Or…the innovation is coming, and we can crib from it. Or actually, both.

I love how Tim Fraser-Harding, President of Warner Music Group’s global catalog of recorded music, put it to Rolling Stone:

“It’s a really interesting time at the moment in catalog. When I look at my job, it’s a little like that old Jean-Claude Van Damme piece where he’s stuck between two trucks. You’re not in a position at the moment to be able to jump off one truck and onto the other. You’ve got to balance your heritage acts who have immense importance in physical with your much more modern acts who stream better.”

Yeah. You do. If you’re indie, you have to balance your old stuff with your new stuff. If you’re a traditional publisher, you have to figure out what old stuff will result in hundreds of thousands of revenue streams, while continuing to put out new stuff.

And you’ll have to keep it all fresh.

Yes, it’s overwhelming, but it’s nifty at the same time.

So…be warned. Changes are coming, traditionally published writers. Within five years or so, expect a department of back catalog management in your publisher’s offices (if that department doesn’t already exist now). Expect to have every inch of your contract exploited by that department—and maybe some rights you didn’t license as well.

The rest of us will get inspired by some of those marketing techniques, because so many of them can be done on a small budget. Because that’s what back catalog marketing is: spending as little money as possible to market older stuff and keep it (or make it) profitable.

See? That’s why Led Zeppelin stole my afternoon. And they didn’t even realize they had done it.


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“Business Musings: Here It Comes,” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog from the Led Zeppelin Logo Generator, 2019.




7 thoughts on “Business Musings: Here It Comes

  1. Thank you for a fun and awareness-making post! FYI, I had the Led Zeppelin song list sent to my Spotify 🙂 It asks you to do that automatically. What fun!

  2. I suspect the traditional publishers have already started to make a move, if only with exploratory actions. Bookbub’s newsletter has been showing more and more “discounts” for SF/Fantasy books that are not new, and come from tradpubs. I have been very puzzled why they would want to spend that kind of money for backlist item promotion, but it would make sense if it was a trial balloon for a general IP blitz. The books I’ve seen are from well-known authors but the dates of publication are ten years or more in the past.

  3. Saw an article today on Bustle where 24 fantasy writers, newer ones, listed their inspiration for writing in the field. There were links for the older books. Some enterprising publisher could easily do the same thing, over and over and over again. Or make an entire website revolve around it. It was a great read and I added several books to my reading list. The Led Zeppelin thing reminded me of it.

  4. You set off an AH-HA! for me. I read a Facebook post from a company called TaleFlick ( and blew it off as a scam. Now I realize it’s a variation on the theme of what you explained is brewing in the music industry. From TaleFlick’s website: “…story curation company with an online platform…where authors and screenwriters can share their books and scripts. Studios. production companies, and producers from all over the world can search for stories to adapt into a film or TV show…”

  5. I’ve been expecting this for at least five years, though I didn’t have the data to go with it. I noticed that my nephew and his late teen friends listened as much to music from my youth and before as to new work. They watched movies on Netflix based not on how new the movies were but on recommendations from others (including Netflix), so they watched old films as much as new. And I realized that because of instant online access, something old could easily become popular today. In my youth, if someone said, “Hey, you’d like Casablanca,” I would have to remember that recommendation if I happened to see it was on TV or in a revival theater. Today they can react to the recommendation immediately; and if they like it they can immediately pass it along.

    I didn’t see the licensing side of this, but I saw the creative implications: a creator is no longer competing against the best new work, you’re competing against the best work of the past century.

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