Where are all the Kate Bush T-shirts?

Welcome to the latest episode of Talking Trends from Music Business Worldwide (MBW) – where we go deep behind the headlines of news stories affecting the entertainment industry. Talking Trends is supported by Voly Music.

According to Spotify, Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) was officially its biggest ‘Song Of The Summer’ in the United States.

In the three months from the end of May to the end of August, it racked up more streams in the States than even Harry Styles’ As It Was (the biggest track globally in the period).

Over in the UK, Running Up That Hill was also crowned ‘Song Of The Summer’ by the Official Charts Company, which said it was streamed and downloaded more than any other track during the season.

But now we’re in autumn, the music industry seems to have failed to meaningfully capitalize on Kate Bush’s resurgence, suggests Tim Ingham, founder of Music Business Worldwide on MBW’s latest Talking Trends podcast.

Could basic economics be the reason behind for this inability to keep the commercial fires of Kate Bush’s re-ignited brand burning?

You can read an abridged transcript of this episode of MBW’s Talking Trends below, and/or listen through here:

Over the past few weeks I’ve done a bit of traveling for business, including spending some time in Berlin, New York, and obviously enough, in London.

And in each of these cities I’ve noticed something that all young people seem to have in common: I haven’t seen a single one of them wearing a Kate Bush T-shirt.

When you think about it, this is a bit of a surprise.

Following that sync in Stranger Things which premiered on May 27, Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) spent the next few weeks laying waste to streaming charts.

According to Chartmetric data, on Spotify, Running Up That Hill has secured 360.3 million plays in the past three months – that’s obviously 120 million plays per month.

It’s the same trend on TikTok, where videos featuring the track have now been played a phenomenal 11.9 billion times. Again, that’s according to ChartMetric data. 

So enduring was Running Up That Hill’s success following the Stranger Things sync, Spotify officially crowned it as its ‘Song Of The Summer’ in the United States – meaning it was the biggest song on the platform, in the biggest market in the world, in the three months to the end of August.

So Running Up That Hil’s enduring success is not in doubt. As expected there’s been a ‘decay curve’ in the track’s popularity on streaming services as Stranger Things’ place at the center of the zeitgeist has inevitably waned.

Yet Running Up That Hill is still pulling in comfortably over 2 million plays a day on Spotify globally. 

But what’s weird about Running Up That Hill’s soaring performance this summer is that it doesn’t seem to have translated into any significant re-ignition of interest in Kate Bush’s catalog, or indeed in the mythology surrounding one of the most iconic and fascinating artists of the past few decades.

This idea isn’t just borne out by my anecdotal gawping at the T-shirts worn by teenagers in major cities.

There’s a really interesting piece in the Guardian this week by Alexis Petridis, in which he questions how our modern media diet – particularly TikTok – is affecting not only the discovery of new artists, but fandom itself.

What really caught my eye in that piece is where Petridis notes that Running Up That Hill “was a huge hit, but the rest of Kate Bush’s oeuvre went largely unexplored by the people who listened to it”.

He cites the fact that other than a brief appearance in the Top 20 of the Billboard 200 for Hounds Of Love – the album that spawned Running Up That Hill – there hasn’t really been any kind of notable ‘follow-up’ success for Kate Bush from her 2022 Stranger Things-inspired moment. 

The stat that underlines all of this is that Wuthering Heights, Kate Bush’s next most popular track on Spotify, currently has 550 million fewer plays than Running Up That Hill. Half a billion fewer plays!

And I’m starting to wonder: Is it that the rest of Kate Bush’s “ouevre” doesn’t have the mainstream legs of her biggest hit? Is it that you simply cannot follow Running Up That Hill?

Or is it, in fact, something more basic and economic: Is this what happens when Kate Bush’s record company isn’t getting enough of a commercial taste from her modern-day success to throw the full weight of its marketing machine behind her brand?

Back in June, when the Running Up That Hill phenomenon was starting to kick off, Music Business Worldwide ran a piece highlighting the fact that Kate Bush fully owned her recorded music copyright for the song and for her catalog.

That catalog continues to be distributed by Warner Music Group, but on a distribution agreement basis for which you’d expect she’s sharing perhaps a 15% commission on revenue with the record company. Possibly even smaller than that if we’re just talking about streaming royalties.

Remember, Running Up That Hill, did an average this summer of around 120 million streams per month globally on Spotify. Rough industry estimations suggest that would be worth somewhere close to $500,000 per month in collected recorded music royalties.

Let’s then factor in the fact that Spotify has a market share of around a third of all music subscriptions globally – while accepting that Kate Bush’s and Stranger Things’ popularity will differ in various regions worldwide.

So to get a very rough total audio streaming income tally, it’s probably fair to double that Spotify figure. That brings us out at a million dollars in recorded music royalties per month.

Now, put yourself in Warner Music Group’s shoes. You’re getting a 15% cut of that million dollars a month – $150,000 a month – but you’re also paying 85% of the money you’ve collected back out to the artist.

Now on the one hand, this is a great story for the ’emancipation of major label artists’ narrative. Kate Bush owns her own rights and she’s leapfrogged to the top of the global music streaming charts, for a sustained period.

But it’s what comes after that moment that suggests something’s askew here.

Because it could it be argued that, for the purposes of maximizing the return on this extraordinary moment – and of maximizing and elongating the interest in Kate Bush and her legacy – some blockbuster marketing was required from her record company.

In my view, in the wake of Running Up That Hill’s second coming, Kate Bush’s catalog should have been being pushed to streaming and to radio, and direct to consumers, in the same way that if a Lizzo or a Harry Styles was having a ginormous global streaming hit, their record company would take a huge swing at making sure that wasn’t the only hit from their current record.

And, in that sense, perhaps Warner Music Group and the artist, in this case, weren’t particualrly well aligned.

If Kate Bush is a on a 15% distribution agreement – and that number is my guess, to be clear – it would obviously be commercially more prosperous for Warner to put its marketing dollars into an artist/music from which it earned a 50% or 60% or 70% royalty share, especially if it owned the recording copyright.

And this is where the rubber meets the road: The Stranger Things phenomenon has shown that any independent artist, particularly one with a proven hit from decades ago, can – with the right sync, or the right TikTok moment – suddenly find themselves with hundreds of millions of streams and a certified modern-day smash hit.

In this example, I think the record company can take relatively little credit for that. Presumably Warner took the phone call requesting the use of Running Up That Hill from Netflix, or the Stranger Things music supervisor, and said “yes please”. And it’s been collecting its 15% or whatever ever since. Easy money. 

But I also wonder if this low distribution margin ultimately dissuaded Warner from pumping more marketing dollars into Kate Bush’s next most popular track, or Kate Bush’s potential biopic, or Kate Bush’s fully remastered concert series etc. etc.

Millions of teenagers just discovered, for the very first time, Kate Bush; this colossal, iconic, incredibly creative and mysterious artist. And then? This hugely valuable captive audience of potential hardcore fans have been allowed to be distracted back to whatever modern ephemera catches their eye.

You can see this in the data. When you look at the worldwide Google search trends for Kate Bush’s name (see below), there’s a huge spike in interest from May 27 for the next week or two. And then interest really begins to drop off.

I suggest it represents something of an industry failing that by early September interest in “Kate Bush” is nearly back down to what is was before the Stranger Things moment exploded around the world.

I don’t want to be misconstrued here: I”m certainly not saying that Warner deserved a bigger margin on Kate Bush’s biggest record in 2022. After all, she wrote, and produced, and made, and sung, and as far as I’m concerned, rightly owns that record.

But has there been a breakdown in the incentive for her recorded music partner to make the most of an absolutely extraordinary moment in pop culture here? Yes, I think there has been.

Is there another way this could have gone down? Yes, I think there is – and I think it’s an interesting model for major music companies and established superstar artists who own their own rights to consider in future.

That model is Taylor Swift and Universal Music Group.

The outgoing CEO of Warner Music Group, Steve Cooper, recently criticized this business relationship, suggesting that Taylor Swift had a “skinny, skinny distribution deal” with Universal that, in his view, couldn’t be commercially prosperous.

It’s true that Taylor Swift owns her recent masters, and they’re distributed by Universal for a relatively thin margin, especially when it comes to streaming. In that sense, the model has direct parallels to the Kate Bush scenario I’ve mapped out here.

But what was missing in Steve Cooper’s description of the Taylor Swift deal is that for the past few years Universal Music Group has followed up that distribution agreement by also signing a global music publishing administration deal and a multi-territory merchandise agreement with Taylor Swift.

What that means: if Taylor Swift now has a Stranger Things moment, a Running Up That Hill moment, even though the artist owns her copyrights, Universal is economically incentivized to spend money to keep the momentum of that moment going.

Yes, Universal is taking a small margin of Taylor Swift’s business. But in fact it’s doing so in multiple Taylor Swift businesses. It’s getting a small piece, but of a bigger pie.

It doesn’t need as big a margin in her recorded music if it can pick up a portion of her merch, and her publishing.

(The dream, presumably, for Universal is also to be in Taylor Swift’s ‘name & likeness’ business – giving UMG a slice of any Taylor Swift TV show or biopic that may come to pass.)

A global music services company, operating across multiple lines of a superstar’s business, while enabling that superstar to keep their recorded music rights… and benefit from a “skinny” distribution margin?

That’s a recipe that incentivizes all parties towards success. And, dare I say it, it’s a model that sells a lot of T-shirts in Berlin.

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