Follow The Money: From Katy Perry’s “Chained” to Republican SuperPACs (and Beyond…)
Reminder: Your favorite pop stars are working for billionaire industrialists.
Building on her public support of the Democratic campaign last year, Katy Perry has transitioned full-force into a style she’s calling “Purposeful Pop.” She kicked off this new phase with the release of Chained To The Rhythm in February.
Much of the discussion about this song has been focused on its lyrics and the “hidden messages” of its music video — but given Perry’s political views, this material should come as no surprise. Nor are these messages particularly “hidden,” they pop from the screen in a splash of vivid technicolor, awaiting your consideration and dissection.
What is not depicted in this video, however, is a clear picture of the song’s convoluted ownership/revenue splits…
OK, sure: this looks a little like your average, garden-variety conspiracy theory chart… but it’s important to note that nothing you see here is particularly unusual for a major label pop song in 2017.
Many of my non-musician friends have a mental image of the music industry as it’s caricatured in movies set in the ’70s: They imagine the buck stops with a powerful, sleazy fatcat record exec who spends all day yelling into a landline phone and popping antacids. This colorful image persists, in part, because general audience music writers still work in this idiom:
“Lana Del Rey… scored a record deal with Interscope”
“Justin Bieber set to launch record label to find his own superstar protégé”
“Fifth Harmony’s new deal: Quartet Re-Ups With Epic After Camila Cabello’s Exit”
This wording (and the image it propagates) bears little resemblance to the current state of things. Yes, Lana Del Rey is signed to Interscope… but Interscope is only 1/3 of IGA, which is owned by UMG, which is only one of the dozens of companies owned by Vivendi.
Casual readers are likely aware that the rise of online distribution (legal or otherwise) in the 2000s resulted in a harrowing decade for the music industry, as labels and publishers watched billions of dollars evaporate year-over-year.
But what has garnered significantly less attention is that these losses resulted in a massive reconfiguration of the industry through mergers and acquisitions. First, the smaller labels were gobbled up by the larger ones, then the larger labels were gobbled up by “The Big 3” (Universal, Warner, and Sony). Finally, two of these were gobbled up by enormous multinational conglomerates.
So, let’s take our rose-colored glasses off, break out of our bubble-bubble, and take a moment to meet some of the interesting companies and people who pocket a little cash every time you bop this sweet jam…
Owner of Warner Music Group
Access Industries is a privately-owned multinational conglomerate founded by Leonard Blavatnik in 1986. It is primarily a long-term holding company (meaning its acquires or invests in existing companies), and the four main industries Access focuses on are: Natural and Chemical Resources, Media and Telecommunications, Technology, and Real Estate.
Access owns “significant” stakes in LyondellBassell and EP Energy.
LyondellBasell is “one of the world’s largest plastics, chemicals, and refining companies.” Its Houston refinery (one of the largest in the US) processes approx. 268,000 barrels of crude oil per day, into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. It is the world’s largest producer of MTBE/ETBE (additives used in the production of gasoline from crude), and it has a market cap of $36.67b.
EP Energy is “one of North America’s leading domestic oil and natural gas producers.” It locates and develops oil and gas fields, including several major fracking and shale operations.
Access’ real estate holdings are focused primarily on luxury hotels and resorts. It owns the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat (the premier “Palace” on the French Riviera), and the One & Only Ocean Club (a luxury resort situated on 36 beachfront acres of Paradise Island in The Bahamas).
Access acquired Warner Music Group in July of 2011. WMG had been independent since 2004, after it had been cut loose from AOL/Time Warner as it hemorrhaged money in the wake of the Dot Com Crash and the Great Music Industry Contraction. Access paid $3.3b in cash for WMG — but to hammer home just how big a bite the Internet had taken from the music biz, this price was less than 70% of its value in 2007.
Under Access’ control, WMG has acquired various international record labels and rights management organizations, as well as other victims of The Contraction (most notably Parlophone in 2013). After racking up $737m in losses since the Access acquisition, WMG posted its first profitable year in 2016, with $30m in net income.
And Access is not shy about using its profits to engage with the political system. It came in at #20 on the New York Times’ list of largest campaign donors in 2016, with $2.8m split between Republicans Scott Walker, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio. These campaigns were gracious enough to refund the $1.2m they didn’t end up using. Thanks guys!
The Center for Responsive Politics [CRP] reports that Access’ largest 2016 PAC contributions included $2m to the Senate Leadership Fund PAC (“The Senate Leadership Fund has one goal: to protect and expand the Republican Senate Majority when Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer, together with their army of left-wing activists, try to take it back in 2018”), $1.25m to Conservative Solution PAC, $800k to Security is Strength PAC.
As with conglomerates generally, each individual company Access owns also contributes to campaigns, PACs, and lobbying separately in order to support their own interests.
CRP reports LyondellBasil alone regularly spends over a million dollars a year on lobbying, primarily to congressmen involved with setting (or removing) regulations on the Oil and Gas industries. During the 2016 cycle, LyondellBasil’s PAC split $118k to 25% Democratic and 75% Republican candidates, and contributed to exclusively Republican PACs.
Founder, Chairman of Access Industries
In 2015, Leonard Blavatnik was the richest man in the UK, with a net worth of £17.1b (it’s since dropped to around £12b). His Wikipedia page helpfully links to “Russian Oligarchs” in the “See Also” section.
He was born in Odessa (Ukraine’s most populous city), and his family emigrated to the US when he was 21 years old, in 1978. He became a US citizen in 1984, and earned a Columbia CS masters and a Harvard MBA. He formed Access Industries in 1986, and began investing in newly-privatized Russian companies after the fall of the Soviet Union. Over the next few decades, he has steadily built an enormous collection of diversified assets.
In 2003, Blavatnik’s Access teamed up with two other Russian holding companies to form the AAR consortium, which oversaw the merging of these companies’ oil assets with the previously Russian state-owned oil giant TNK and British Petroleum. The resulting TNK-BP was acquired for $55b by Rosneft in 2013. This acquisition made Rosneft (which is majority-owned by the Russian government) the largest publicly traded oil company in the world — and gave AAR a near-20% stake in the process.
Funfact! You might be familiar with the name Rosneft from recent articles detailing the Trump cabinet’s connections with the company — most notably former Exxon-Mobile CEO and current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
After the housing crash, Blavantnik was awarded $50m (of the $100m he originally claimed) in a lawsuit against JPMorgan Chase, when it came to light that the bank had used some of the $1b Blavatnik had invested with them to buy subprime mortgage-backed securities.
Blatvanik is also a very active philanthropist, with a particular focus on the world of high art. He’s contributed to heavyweights such as the British Museum, Tate Modern, The Royal Opera House, National Portrait Gallery and Museum of Modern Art. In 2014, he purchased Damien Hirst’s “Gone (But) Not Forgotten” — a gilded woolly mammoth skeleton — for $15m, with the proceeds going to an AIDS charity.
He has also begun the process of donating £75m — £100m to the University of Oxford, the largest gift in the school’s history. Its School of government now bears his name. This enormous donation drew criticism by a group of notable alumni citing concerns over TNK-BP’s business practices and ties to the Kremlin.
Along with the donations from Access, during the 2016 campaign he contributed to the NRSC, and to influential Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen, who sits on the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.
President of Access Entertainment
Danny Cohen grew up in North London, and holds a degree in English Literature from Oxford. He’s had a whirlwind career moving up the ranks at the BBC, eventually being appointed Controller of BBC 1 between 2010 and 2013. He commissioned Call The Midwife, Happy Valley, and The Voice (among others), and brought the channel to record-breaking viewership.
In May of 2013, he was appointed to the Directorship of BBC Television. This role also included overseeing BBC Films, and BBC Productions (the largest television production group in Europe). He announced he was leaving the BBC in 2015, and formed Access Entertainment under Len Blavatnik the following year. He now manages Access’ various media holdings (including WMG).
Cohen is politically liberal, and receives occasional jabs from conservative British publications like The Daily Mail and The Independent (where he was once described as a “darling of the liberal elite”).
As Director, he mandated that “BBC panel shows must no longer feature all-male line-ups… and has pushed for wider diversity both in front of and behind the camera.” In 2015, Cohen wanted to fire notoriously ill-tempered Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson after an incident involving racial slurs, but was overruled by BBC Director General Tony Hall.
In an interview with The Times, he criticized the UK’s [left-center] Labour Party head Jeremy Corbyn for not taking a more active role to combat increasing instances of antisemitism:
“If you are Jewish, how can you vote for him? How could you? It would be like being a Muslim and voting for Donald Trump.”
Owner of Universal Music Group, Capitol Records
Vivendi traces its roots back to a water company named Compagnie Générale des Eaux, which was created by an Imperial Decree from Napoleon III in December of 1853. Over the next century, it grew steadily by gaining several key contracts to supply major cities.
In 1976, an ambitious new CEO began to diversify the company into waste management, energy, property, construction, and eventually further afield. By the 2000s, CGE had rebranded itself to Vivendi, spun off its water companies, and transitioned primarily into the media sector. It quickly acquired and invested in several major media players, at first across Europe, then internationally. Funfact! They acquired Houghton Mifflin, the US textbook juggernaut, in 2001.
However, these expansions left the company overextended. This led to a frantic decade of restructuring, M&A, and negotiating deals with its various assets. It was during this period that Vivendi acquired Universal Music Group through a complex series of business relationships with GE / NBC (Shoutout to 30 Rock).
Having weathered the storm, the Vivendi Conglomerate now owns or holds shares in an impressive portfolio of major international media companies, several notable AAA game studios, and France’s largest domestic media producer, the Canal+ Group.
They have a market cap of €22.7b. They also own Paddington Bear.
Chairman of Vivendi’s supervisory board
Vincent Bolloré is the Chairman and CEO of the Bolloré conglomerate, Vivendi’s largest shareholder (representing around 14% ownership).
The Bolloré conglomerate is an outgrowth of a company named Papeteries d’Odet, which was founded in Ergué-Gabéric (on the North-West coast of France) in 1822, as a manufacturer of cigarette and bible paper. Vincent took over the company from his uncle in 1981, and began expanding the business, gaining a formidable reputation as a corporate raider in the process.
“No boss in French business can match Vincent Bolloré for swagger and aggression. Variously described by the press in France as a stubborn Breton, a ruthless profiteer and a smiling killer…”
-The Economist, Dec 15th 2016
Throughout the 80s and 90s, he oversaw the acquisition of several other holding groups (Rivaud Group, SCAC, Rihn-Rhône, Delmas-Vieljeux, etc.), and towards the late 90s, Bolloré began acquiring and consolidating shipping, ports, and logistics companies in Gabon, The Ivory Coast, D.R. Congo, Sierra Leone, and other African countries.
In many former African colonies, French multinationals have come to control large percentages of the economy, often with the aid of state-owned or head-of-state-owned business — a relationship referred to as Françafrique (or, by its detractors, neocolonialism). The Bolloré conglomerate is a major player in Gabon’s oil industry, and was implicated in recent leaks detailing the ruling family’s questionable appropriation of funds from large portions of the Gabonese economy.
The Bolloré group has also faced criticism over land acquisitions in Sierra Leone, and Human Rights watchdog group Facing Finance reported that Bolleré’s multinational plantation subsidiary Socfin came under UN investigation in 2006 for “instances of child labor, forced evictions of peasant farmers within the plantation’s expansion area, trade union suppression… a lack of protection from carcinogenic substances, and the use of paramilitary forces for security purposes.”
As the head of Vivendi’s supervisory board, Vincent Bolloré isn’t shy about exerting direct control over its subsidiaries. A Financial Times article about his boardroom shakeups at Canal ended on this ominous note:
“But his meddling at Canal Plus is unsettling insiders, board members, analysts and regulators — some of whom say the interference could be a taste of things to come at Vivendi’s Universal Music Group…”
Parent of Sony Music, Sony/ATV, etc
Beginning as a manufacturer of transistor radios in postwar Japan, by the end of the 1980s, Sony had grown into one of the world’s largest and most diversified electronics manufacturers. But its meteoric rise in the world of music (and later, film and television) really began when it purchased CBS records for $2b in 1987.
The timing of this acquisition both coincided to the mass adoption of CDs — which Sony had co-developed and was building players for — and was also an incredibly prescient long-term bet that the “software” and “hardware” sides of the music industry would converge some time in the next few decades.
Things were looking great in the 90s, but trouble began to brew in the 2000s. Sony found its hardware undercut by budget brands like Samsung, they failed to gain traction in the mp3 player and smartphone markets, and by the end of the decade, people had basically stopped paying for music altogether.
Sony’s enormous size and diversification also meant that the 2009 recession hit the company across the board, and made pivoting a herculean task. The company posted net losses in 6 of the 7 years between 2009 and 2015 — including a $4.5b loss in 2012. That year, in a Hail Mary to save the company, Sony replaced their struggling CEO with a fiery young exec from the gaming division (more on him in a minute).
As for political contributions, CRP reports that from 1990 onward, Sony had divided its money about evenly between Republicans and Democrats; but in 2008 they tripled the previous cycle’s contributions, with the majority of the increased funds going to Obama. In 2016, they backed Clinton and Sanders to the tune of $172k and $29k, respectively. Sony’s support of the TPP seems a likely driver of this spending — along with Trump’s unpredictable attitude towards Asian foreign affairs.
Its spending on congressional races was split more evenly, 59% D — 41% R for the House, and 69% D — 31% R for the Senate. As with Access, many of Sony’s subsidiaries separately contribute to campaigns on both sides of the aisle.
Sony also puts quite a bit of money into lobbying, which started to ratchet up around 2005. From 2006 to 2012, they averaged around $3.5m per year, with the main focus of their lobbying relating to legislation about “Copyright, Patent & Trademark.” Since 2012, they’ve cut this yearly figure in half — perhaps as part of the new CEO’s belt-tightening measures?
President and CEO of Sony Corporation
As the son of a wealthy banker, Hirai credits his early experiences traveling between global cities as preparation for his later forays in multinational business. He has spent his entire career with Sony, starting out in the marketing department of the music branch in 1984.
His interest in video games led him to transfer to SCEA in 1995, and he oversaw the division’s financial success with the launch of the Playstation, and the market dominance of Sony’s 2nd party franchises through the PS2 era. In 2006, he began to steadily rise through executive positions and worked with various branches of the company.
In 2012, Hirai was appointed to replace longtime President and CEO Sir Howard Stringer. Saddled with the unenviable task of pulling Sony back from the brink and updating the company’s aging structure, his extensive downsizing and spinning off of subsidiaries was met with public criticism by old guard execs.
However, by most accounts Hirai’s lateral thinking and proactiveness is well-suited for this task. He took a 24% pay cut (to a paltry $1.45m) when he became CEO, and in 2013, he and 40 other senior execs gave up their bonuses. In 2016, Sony inched back to profitability with a net gain of $1.3b.
Chairman and CEO of Sony/ATV music
Bandier is kind of a living legend in the music industry, though he doesn’t have the name recognition of more public-facing figures like Jimmy Iovine or Russell Simmons. Over the last four decades, he’s navigated the shifting tides of pop styles, physical formats, several decades of M&A, and finally streaming, all with a keen eye for the right move at the right time.
Originally beginning in the field of law, Bandier transitioned into the music publishing business in 1975, when he co-founded a company with two other principals from the construction firm for which he was serving as Senior VP. This first company fielded a few notable hits, and his second company (SBK Entertainment) purchased the entire CBS catalog for “a then-record $125m,” before SBK’s catalog was bought by EMI in 1989.
He was appointed head of publishing, a position which he held for 17 years, overseeing EMI’s rise to the world’s leading publisher. After moving to Sony/ATV in 2007, he was “instrumental in negotiating” Sony’s acquisition of EMI in 2011. Oh, and in case this article has left you pining for a good old 1970s cigar-chomping record exec… Bandier is your man.
Bandier is a frequent campaign donor, mostly to Democrats, but occasionally to Republicans. He’s made several donations to Chuck Schumer since 2002. Although his presidential donations have been mostly to Democrats (Edwards, Kerry, Biden), he donated to Kasich during the recent election.
However, his most consistent contributions have been to the ASCAP Legislative Fund, and the National Music Publishers’ Association PAC (which supports candidates almost equally from both parties). This cycle, the NMPA PAC split a relatively modest $43k between 55% Republican and 45% Democratic candidates, with around $15k going to exclusively Republican PACs such as Good Fund.
This preference for engaging in politics primarily as it relates to his industry was reinforced by a recent Billboard magazine interview, where he was ranked #7 on the 2016 “Power 100” list:
How Trump Will Affect the Industry: “The number of acts that turned down playing the inauguration concerned me. With Trump — who I feel is a great music fan — we might be losing an opportunity to befriend someone who would help in our push for legislation. You can be sure the tech companies are putting the politics to the side.”
Are we tone deaf?
Keep sweeping it under the mat…
Thought we could do better than that,
I hope we can.
- Chained to the Rhythm
If Katy Perry is truly serious about tackling the subjects she references in Chained to the Rhythm, like the energy industry’s deleterious effects on the environment, the financial sector’s manipulation of the markets, restrictive immigration policies, or the systemic reinforcement of regressive gender concepts… then why is she allowing her artwork to generate money for companies and individuals who contribute to exactly these things?
The argument for her continuing to work from within this system is that the resources it provides (writing/production from hitmakers, lavish video budgets, distribution channels, etc) imbue her art with an otherwise-unattainable level of “hookiness” and visibility, allowing her messages to reach the broadest possible audience.
A utilitarian reading of this dynamic is that Perry is betting the sociopolitical effects of her art and public presence will outweigh the effects of her parent companies’ commercial practices and political spending — a sort of pop culture carbon offset.
This is, perhaps, optimistic. For one, her parent companies are multinational, and many of their subsidiaries operate in parts of the world with varying levels of democratic control over government or industry. Secondly, I think it underestimates the influence of money on elections and the formation of legislation in a post-Citizens United America.
But most critically for an artist / activist now dedicated to sending a political message: what kind of message is she sending by continuing to work for these companies — particularly when she has very real alternatives?
In a sense, she has already received the greatest benefit of the music industry’s promotional resources: celebrity. The very same flighty social media habits she criticizes in Chained ensure that pop culture outlets will continue to report on her as long as she continues to produce interesting work or stay socially engaged, regardless of her parent companies’ promotional efforts. Case-in-point: between the writing and publishing of this article, she kicked off two short news cycles by googling herself, and getting a haircut.
Katy Perry’s position as an extremely successful public figure presents her with options far beyond what the average person has available — and recently, she’s begun to embrace the economic aspects of this dynamic. As she commented in this 2015 Forbes cover story (with her trademark off-the-cuff panache):
“I’m an entrepreneur. … I don’t want to shy away from it. I actually want to kind of grab it by its balls.”
In 2016, Forbes estimated Katy Perry’s net worth at $125m. And while that’s only 1/100th of what Blavatnik or Bolloré have in the bank, surely that’s enough to cut these exceedingly incongruous financial ties, bring her means of production into alignment with her political perspectives, and independently release an album or two (or twenty… you know, whatevs) — or really grab it by the balls and form a media company which could scale with input from politically-likeminded investors.
And imagine the media coverage which would result from doing so in a public way: “Katy Perry breaks multimillion-dollar contracts with Capitol and Warner citing concerns over Access Industries and the Bolloré Group.”
Now that’s a political message.
Should Katy Perry continue to work from within this system, it means that she is content to continue profiting from selling her audience some sweet jams packaged with political views she knows they already broadly agree with… after handing over a cut to the boys upstairs, naturally.
The prospect of rallying an entire fan base behind an anthem decrying political complacency while simultaneously assuming this very same complacency will prevent them from noticing or caring about these financial connections is a move I might even consider artistically daring in its arch subversion of the audience…
If the end result wasn’t 350 million combined streams (and counting) on YouTube and Spotify, 108,000 downloads in the first week alone, and nonstop radio play resulting in Top-10 charting positions worldwide — each one slipping a little cash into the pockets of billionaire industrialists, lobbying firms, Republican SuperPACs, and legislators who want to dismantle healthcare for the most vulnerable, strip basic rights from people with any element of intersectional identity, and remove environmental and economic regulations from the world’s most destructive industries.
Welcome to Oblivia.
Graphic Data Sources
See Below for resources relating to specific publishing companies.
Graphic Photo Sources / Credits
via Katy Perry’s Google+, Credit: Olivia Bee
via Nirvana Magazine, image uncredited
via Conde Nast, Bride Magazine, Image credit: PA
Credit: Chris Pizzello / Invision / Associated Press
via Warner/Chappell Scandinavia, uncredited
Via Vivendi’s “Media Room” page
Vivendi Photo Credits:
© Bernard Sidler
© Philippe Mazzoni / Canal+
via Wharton University, uncredited
via Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, uncredited
via the Japan Times, Bloomberg
via the Observer, Commons
via Billboard, Courtesy of Rick Krim
via Grammy, Gary Gershoff/WireImage.com
Blue Mountains Music Ltd
MXM/Wolf Cousins music:
101 on the “Big 3”: (details on label v pub subcompanies)
Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org
FEC individual Contribution Database:
New [Beta] FEC individual Contribution Database:
Note: They’re still working on this interface, so the date ranges are restricted to 1-year increments. The older database is more complete, but this one allows you to copy URLs to specific searches.
Resolution of a 15-year lawsuit over mergers:
CEO Arnaud de Puyfontaine:
Gen. Council Herve philippe
Coms VP Simon Gilham:
[Bought One&Only from Brookefield asset mgmt in 2014… “Oodles of liquidity” lol]
Companies which Access holds:
Lyondell Chemical PACS:
Access’ PAC contributions
Sony political contributions:
This parody twitter acct is pretty good
“Instrumental in negotiating”: https://www.sonyatv.com/en/about
National Music Publisher’s Association PAC: