Round Hill Records buys more masters, makes new hires and opens Nashville HQ

Josh Gruss

For many in the music business, songs and publishing rights might be the first things that come to mind when they think about Round Hill.

Not only because of the company’s notable share of US radio hits in Q4 2020, but also because of its headline-grabbing song catalog acquisition deals announced in recent years.

But Round Hill Records, the company’s recorded music division, has been operational for a number of years.

Established in 2014 with the catalog acquisition of British rock band Bush, the company’s acquisition of the Offspring’s catalog from Sony followed in 2016.

More recently, Round Hill has been ramping up its recorded music operations, launching a new rock label called Black Hill Records last year, and acquiring a catalog of master recordings from Swedish independent label Telegram Studios last month.

Commenting on his company’s recorded music strategy since 2014, Round Hill CEO Josh Gruss tells MBW that “we were very bullish on recordings”, but adds, however, that the company “wanted to take it another step further”.

“Instead of just buying assets,” he says, “we wanted to actually create what a real record label division looks like, and no one else really has that in terms of private equity catalog buyers, like Hipgnosis, Primary Wave or Spirit.”

He adds: “Round Hill is really the only group that now looks and feels like a real record label behind the scenes.”

Round Hill Records’ front-line roster includes artists such as Blues Traveler, Lettuce, and Buckcherry, with Black Hill Records artists The Cult, Black Pistol Fire, Jared James Nichols and Tash Neal all releasing new music this year.

The company has also recently closed on two more recorded music deals. One of those deals was the acquisition of New York-based indie label Triple Crown Records, now an imprint of Round Hill Records, which counts artists such as Caspian, Free Throw, Kississippi and Foxing on its roster.

The other deal was the acquisition of a masters catalog from Los Angeles-based indie label Innovative Leisure, whose roster includes the likes of Hanni El Khatib and Grammy nominees BadBadNotGood.

Additionally, Round Hill Records is moving its HQ from Los Angeles to Nashville – where Round Hill already owns Sienna Studios on Music Row – and has made a number of key hires and promotions to bolster its recorded music division. [Parent company Round Hill Music‘s HQ remains in New York.]

“It’s [about] not being solely reliant on that one dimensional catalog acquisition model, but equally, to keep focusing on frontline releases and developing new artists.”

Joe Calitri, Round Hill Records

Two of those new hires include Brian Hay, former SVP Commerce, Consumption & New Business at Rhino Entertainment and SVP Digital Sales at Warner Music Group, who has joined Round Hill as Head of Catalog, and Jeffery Bensmiller who has joined as Merchandise & E-Commerce Manager (previously worked at Manhead LLC).

Commenting on Round Hill Records’ strategy, President Joe Calitri, who joined the company in 2019, tells MBW that his firm’s masters strategy is “about not being solely reliant on that one dimensional catalog acquisition model, but equally, to keep focusing on frontline releases and developing new artists and putting out new albums, [with] that foundation of the catalog pieces.”

Here, Josh Gruss and Joe Calitri tell MBW about how Round Hill’s frontline label activity and new releases are as much a part of its recordings strategy as buying masters…

Tell us about the progression of Round Hill’s recorded music strategy and how you want the record label to be perceived in the market?

Josh Gruss: We recognized back in 2015, that being invested in recordings was going to shift from something that we wanted to avoid completely, because it was a declining area, to something that had exciting growth potential.

That’s when we jumped in with the Offspring acquisition and the Bush acquisition. Ever since then, those acquisitions like Bush and The Offspring are some of our best performing ones, because they were fully exposed to the streaming growth that transpired thereafter.

We’ve now bought more labels and we have about 10 new people [at Round Hill Records], and we have a bunch of new signings. We’re putting out frontline records and another way that this connects the publishing is that a lot of times when we do a publishing deal, the artist that is selling to us is still viable and still putting out new material.

One of the things that helps us on the publishing side is to say to those artists, well, “You know, we’re set up so that we can buy a publishing catalog, but then put out your new record as well.”

Joe Calitri: When I came over and had been speaking with Josh for a number of months prior to joining in August of 2019, I recognized that there was this great commitment to recorded music with these excellent foundational pieces of catalog to build off. But how do you add on different brands and frontline vehicles and additional catalog vehicles? That’s what we’ve been working on for the last 18 months or so and fairly quietly behind the scenes.

We hired a bunch of great employees and promoted some stars of the team, we acquired great catalogs, put out new releases, and moved our headquarters from L.A. to Nashville on Music Row.

As Josh said, it’s all been based on building off the catalog that existed and really building a strong foundation, a very modern record label, built for 2021 and the future.

Publishing catalog acquisition deals are announced almost every week, sometimes more than once a week! Masters acquisitions less so. What’s the landscape like out there for masters availability?

JG: They’re definitely few and far between compared to publishing, because if you think about it, recordings are typically owned by record labels. And there’s many, many more songwriters than there are record labels.

Especially record labels that haven’t already been gobbled up – and we all know that the majors are never going to be selling anything.

You have to work a little bit harder and dig deeper to find these record labels, or in even more rare circumstances, artists that own their recordings that are worth buying. But they’re certainly out there.

Is there anything on the horizon either legally or otherwise, that you foresee taking place over the next few months or years that might make more masters available on the market?

JG: No. We’ve seen the acquisition machine of the labels come back to life, recently with Sony, and Universal making acquisitions, really for the first time in a long time.

You’ve seen Sony buy a Mexican label and a lot of [these deals] are more emerging market-type labels, but I think they’ll be even more scarcity going forward.

An article came out about Universal Music Group no longer accepting Letters of Direction for the sale of royalty streams. What impact does that have and what are your thoughts on that?

JG: The quick answer to that they’ve been doing that for a while, we’re used to it and we figured out a very elegant solution around it.

One point there is that the majors are definitely realizing they need to be in the game a little bit more, while all these independent groups like ourselves are out there [buying]. We’ve woken them up to do doing more on the acquisition front and doing more to stay on top of things.

Why Nashville for the new Roundhill Records HQ?

JG: Nashville is not the first place you think of when you think of record labels. It’s a songwriters town, there’s a lot of publishing activity, and it’s historically been country related, but it’s actually the perfect place to have a boutique label like this, because we have our own buildings that we own.

We have a recording studio, called Sienna Studios [formerly Quad Studios] that’s attached to the offices. This studio is legendary. It’s where Neil Young recorded his Harvest record and Jimmy Buffett accorded Margaritaville. Taylor Swift has [also] recorded there. Of course, we updated it and changed the carpets and put in new gear in.

It’s almost like a Motown Records feel that we have there. Our offices are there and our songwriters are in the same building. Our artists go in there and we can get our songwriters to pitch in or sometimes even help produce those records. A lot of creativity is happening right under our roof.Music Business Worldwide