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  Industry Profile

Industry Profile: Mat Vlasic

— By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess)

This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Mat Vlasic, CEO, Bravado.

In the current age of digital democracy, the fan has the power to tell artists what they want, and when they want it; however, new music distribution models, increased creative branding, and aggressive marketing combined are extending artist brands now.

Music is still centrally important to an artist’s career, but so is the merch through creatively strategic global programs, baby!

Hoodies, T-shirts, jackets, sneakers, water bottles, and hats--all emblazoned with logos, album art, and the artists’ faces—dominated music merch for decades.

These were largely one-dimensional event-driven products sold at concerts as a souvenir of the moment.

Today’s new era of merch lets fans step inside the style of their favorite artist, and shell out on designer bowling jackets, handbags, muscle tees, printed denim jackets, and layers of oversized flannel, and distressed denim with high-end American retailers like Barneys, Alchemist, and Vfiles along for the ride.

At the same time, there’s been the national break-out of pop-up stores from cultural trendsetter Kanye West as well as Justin Bieber, Drake, Future, the 1975, and the Strokes executing stores as well.

Since being acquired by Universal Music Group in 2007, Bravado has grown into being one of the leaders in the merch sector, representing more than 150 artists, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Kanye West, Justin Bieber, Prince, Guns N’ Roses, Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Drake, and Selena Gomez.

Founded in 1997 by brothers Keith and Barry Drinkwater (now group executive chairman of Global Merchandising Services), Bravado is a 360 degree, full-service merchandising company with a footprint in over 40 cities around the world.

Headquartered in New York City, Bravado designs, manufactures, and distributes their products. Its staff oversees the creation of merchandise lines and strategizes distribution rollouts, including via Internet sales, e-commerce sites, tour sales, and traditional retail around the globe.

Mat Vlasic was named CEO of Bravado in March 2016, after working his way up the corporate ladder at Sony Music Entertainment, where he went from the finance and operations department to VP/Merchandising.

Along the way, he founded Sony’s in-house consumer products and licensing division and struck merchandising agreements with such artists as Bob Dylan, A$AP Rocky, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Johnny Cash, Lamb of God, the Strokes, and others.

Prior to Sony, Vlasic worked in corporate development at , a digital media agency and business incubator which guided clients, including CBS, Sony and Viacom, on the development of their earliest digital initiatives.

Music and fashion have been alongside each other in the culture space for decades, but evolving types of music distribution have led to further ways to monetize artist popularity with affiliated merchandise ricocheting from being a handful of flashy T-shirts sold at events to a global lifestyle commodity.

It’s (merchandise is) a very important piece of the puzzle right now. To keep the fan connection, and keep them engaged

With changes in music distribution beyond retail stores, e-commerce and touring, merchandising can now extend an artist’s brand through a strategized and unified program of the artist’s product offerings around recordings, tours or other moments in their career.

Yeah. I think technology has innovated communication, and therefore the communication as it relates to what we do has changed too. Kanye (West) being able to tweet out his website, and then (fans) being able to go there, and Kanye being able to have all of the pop-up locations, or with the 1975 posting the night before that we are doing a pop-up here or there is great. It adds to the curiosity of the fan, and to the impact of when we do these things. In terms of distribution points, I would say two years ago you wouldn’t think that you were going to find music-focused product in Barneys or some of The Websters. Some of these higher-end (retail) stores. Those are becoming our top customers.

For merchandise, I imagine Bravado must approach each artist differently. There just can’t be a simple plug-and-play model that you can just plug the artist into a formula. When you and your team sit with an artist and their management for the first time what are the questions you ask the artist to figure out how to sell their merchandise?

Well, the number one question is what’s their vision? That question can have so many answers. That could be specific to creative. That could be specific to the overall product. That could be specific to roll-out. I think that the things that we need to know are what’s the goal, and then it’s about the kind of the strategic planning of it which is very much who, what, why, where, and how. How are we going to roll it out? Who are we trying to touch, and market to? How are we going to roll it out? Where are we going to roll it out? Those are the important things, particularly. It all starts with the creative, and the artist is the visionary and the creative. So that’s going to be number one.

Selecting distribution points would be a factor too; whether the roll-out includes e-commerce, touring, or commercial retail that unite all of the products on offer.

When I say roll-out plan and how, I definitely include distribution points. Yeah. Our main distribution points are retail, direct-to-consumer, tour licensing, and then is it global? is it local? Here, we really try to think on a global level and act on a local level. Empower our local marketing and sales team members to take our overall global strategic marketing plan for each artist, and activate those on a local level.

How many artists do you currently work with?

I would say 150 plus.

What indicators do you look for with a new client? An artist might be exploding with social media online or with music streaming or download sales, but they might not be able to sell merch.

My gauge when I am looking at an artist is always do they have, or can they have true fans? The most successful artists in this business all have true fans. When I say success, I mean artists who have robust music merchandising, touring, and an overall business. They have to have real fans who will consume the different types of products we put out. Whether that is music, merchandise, branding, whatever it is. They (the artists) are real. They are authentic. They have that relationship with their fan. And when you have that, you have success. It doesn’t mean that you can have an artist who has breakout pop songs and has hundreds of millions of listeners. That’s great, but that will not always translate to sales in our world.

At one time merchandising, including T-shirts and posters, was viewed by artists and managers as a “cash cow” on the road when music sales were still growing, Then the merch business expanded with Brockum, Signature, Bravado and the major labels coming onboard. With first the innumerable music piracy sites, and then since with reduced revenues derived from streaming, merchandise sales suddenly took on a new importance. Today merchandising is far more than just being “cash cow,” it’s a lucrative sector for those artists seeking to expand their brand. An artist can probably now do more with a global program offering different consumer products than anything else in their portfolio, including music.

Not do I answer that question? There’s a ton of opportunity, I don’t necessarily think that one is greater than the other for recorded music. There’s tons of opportunity for recorded music as well. I think the two...they are an extension of each other in a way. The merchandising is a brand extension of the artist’s music or the artist’s music is an extension of the artist overall. You could debate that, but there’s definitely a focus, unlike before, that I have found with artists that I work with, paying much closer attention to all of their brand extensions with merchandising products being one of those things.

This includes a greater focus on music copyrights and so on.

Yeah. There is a heightened awareness that it’s all part of their ecosystem, and all of those things need to be given thought and time to build them, and (to work with) the best partners. That’s why a lot of our artists come to us because we are the leader in this space. Time and time again, we have proven that with our unbelievable artist roster.

Rap, hip hop, and pop musics tend to be genres that lend themselves more to merchandising opportunities for their artists.

I don’t know if I agree. There are artists that we work with in all different genres that are successful in this business whether that is heritage rock acts, female singer/songwriters, pop stars, or urban stars. We’ve got very successful artists in all of those.

There’s not a lot of (classical artists) Joshua Bell or Glenn Gould merchandising in the marketplace.

Fair enough. I am not saying that all genres are equal.

Country acts seem to lag behind in merchandising.

Yeah. I think that the country merchandising from what I have seen has been really tour focused and event driven. There’s not a lot of retail penetration that I’ve seen. But it is something that I am definitely very interested in, and curious about, and really want to learn about it.

Taylor Swift's successful entry into the European market a decade ago, as well as Toby Keith’s success afterward in the UK, Norway, and Sweden, led to Europe embracing mainstream American country acts like Kenny Chesney, and Jason Aldean more recently.

I’ve heard about that. They are pretty legendary there.

Country is becoming huge again in the UK.

I know. One of our businesses is being in the concession business in the UK. There’s a country festival at the O2, (Country 2 Country), and it does gangbuster business. Gangbusters. It’s a great venue.

Certainly, an act being played heavily on radio would have a leg up in being successful with its merchandise?

I think that there are two things to it. One is sheer market penetration. So, yes if your song is getting played hands-down more than anyone else, and you have a smash hit, and it’s infectious, yeah it’s going to get into peoples’ heads, but it is not necessarily going to see you a lot of merchandise at all. I have worked with artists who have had the biggest selling hits in the world, and I haven’t sold a lot of merchandise.

Why do you think they didn’t sell?

They didn’t have real fans. You can start building a fan base on one hit song. This is a question to you as much as it is to me. When does a fan become a real fan? Is it on single two? Is it after show one? I don’t know.

How did Justin Bieber transfer from being a YouTube and Facebook sensation to being a superstar merchandising dynamo?

If you look at his career he has crisscrossed the world doing the shows. He spent the time at radio. He’s done all of those things, right? He built those fans, and he speaks to his fans, and he nurtures his fans, and he has real fans.

[American manager Scooter Braun discovered Canadian Justin Bieber in 2007 through videos that he and his mother had posted on YouTube. When Braun found Bieber, he had a handful of videos on his account with a few thousand views each. Braun then tracked down Bieber's mother in Stratford, Ontario, and convinced her to fly with her son to Atlanta for a meeting. Braun then signed Bieber, who had just turned 13, to a management deal. After creating further YouTube videos, and building up an online presence, Braun scheduled meetings with numerous labels. All turned Bieber down, saying he was too young and didn’t have Nickelodeon or Disney behind him. Around the same time, Usher's road manager asked Braun if he had signed any new artists. Braun showed him Bieber's YouTube clips, and Usher called to set up a meeting which quickly put things in motion.

Bieber then signed a multi-rights deal with Raymond Braun Music Group which was created for him. L.A. Reid, then CEO of Island Def Jam Music Group, inked Bieber to a 50/50 joint venture in late 2008.

Bieber's debut album, "My World” in 2009 debuted at #6 on the Billboard 200. Four tracks—"One Time," "One Less Lonely Girl," "Favorite Girl" and "Love Me"—were released prior to the album's street date. All charted, making Bieber the first solo artist to have four top 40 singles before the release of his debut album.]

Justin nurtured his fans as has Lady Gaga.

Much like Lady Gaga. And there are different artists in different genres. Much like the Rolling Stones. Much like Bob Marley. Much like the 1975. All of those artists that I just mentioned are quite successful in their music careers, in their touring careers, and in their merchandising careers, and that’s because they have real fans.

Do artists in specific music genres adapt better to merchandise marketing? Hip hop, rap and pop artists seem to have it together.

Yeah. I think that success is measured in different ways. From a sales standpoint right now, urban and hip hop are doing really well. They are also are very much leading in terms of sales and streaming when you look at the charts today, right? So we are definitely in a pop music cycle it feels like. But yeah, you are going to have breakout artists in every genre; whether that’s metal or singer/songwriter or Latin or hip hop or pop. You are going to have breakouts in all of them. Just because you are an urban artist doesn’t mean that you are going to sell a lot of merch. Because you are a rock artist doesn’t mean that you are going to sell a lot of tour merch. You have to be mindful of it (merchandise). Pay attention to it. Build it as an important part of your brand like the music. Focus on it, sometimes as much as you are focused on the music because at the end of the day it a natural brand extension, and it’s one that your consumers are going to consume in a physical way. When they wear your T-shirt walking around the street, it’s the best marketing billboard that you can have.

As a global, 360-degree full-service merchandising company, Bravado designs, manufactures and distributes its products. What infrastructure does an artist need in place to work with your team, and be successful with their merchandise?

They don’t need anything. We are the infrastructure. They just need the vision and the fans.

Not every artist is a Beyoncé or Kanye West or Justin Bieber. There has to be something happening in their careers, and they should have some in-built support system to take advantage of merchandising opportunities that arise.

Do you mean a tent-pole marketing thing (which is expected to support the sale of tied-in merchandise)?

There has to be momentum in their career. Some artists now have gaps of three, four years or more in releasing albums.

Yeah. I’m not sure if I agree with that (losing momentum) today. I think particularly in the long tail music model now, the (album) cycle can last 18 or 24 months. It almost feels like that there is no downtime. There’s constantly something going on, and we are constantly finding things to do with the marketing of artists. If you look at a fashion brand or a clothing brand, for example, they are going to have their seasons, and they are going to market against those. There will be a new look or a new product, and you are going to cycle through that quarterly; almost like Spring, Summer, and Fall. We are trying to take cues from that as we try to build our artists’ brands.

One of my issues with how the merchandising business was run for so long was that it was really based upon kind of riding the coattails of artists, and not being proactive. It is was, “Okay, they are going to do a show, we will set up a tent, and sell some T-shirts.” Or, “There’s an album coming out, great, we will refresh the web store.” What we are thinking about and doing is much more proactive. Okay, we are going to refresh the web store once every quarter, and we are going to do something unique twice within that quarter. We are not only going to have amazing merchandise line at the tour, but across town we are going to have an experiential shop where the fan can come in, and experience what the artist intends them to see, and have all those different activations firing in a way that complements each other and builds out a much more robust plan than just riding the coattails.

[Pop-up shops staged miles from the venue and, in some cases, opened weeks from the local show date, have become a key component of successful merch sales.]

Artists and merchandisers used to be satisfied that merch was 100% event-driven. Put a band photo and logo on a T-shirt, “Thank you.” Fans bought a memorabilia item to indicate that they were at this specific show at this specific time. There were few eye-popping, explosive product lines. Today, merchandising is being specifically styled for each artist, and based on who they are. Merch has evolved to being a fashion and cultural statement

Yeah. We’ve have had to step up the game. When you step up the game on the production, and the manufacturing and the design, you also step up the game on the marketing and distribution, and the activations. All around you are creating this cycle where you constantly stepping up the cycle of stepping up the game or you are getting out of the game.

Bravado and Kanye West have been working together on merch since his Glow in the Dark tour in 2007. As an exemplary intersection of music, fashion, style, and artistic expression, Kanye has set the pace for merchandising. He’s a leader.

Very much so. He’s an innovator. That’s all I can say. He’s an innovator. It’s amazing to work with him.

Does Kanye get heavily immersed with planning merchandising designs and rollouts?

Yeah. To be able to innovate, you have to get really involved.

[The pop-up store concept was conceived by Kanye West. In October 2013, West opened a Yeezus temporary store on Hollywood’s Melrose Avenue, next door to the Kardashians’ Dash boutique. All of the merchandise sold on tour, including the '80s rock-themed shirts, were available for purchase, and fans lined up for hours. West’s subsequent pop-ups for his The Life of Pablo merch were also highly successful.]

Considering the success of the pop-up store concept would you consider opening up Bravado stores?

Unclear. Unclear at this point, but definitely we are always looking to what is next. If I knew...

What would be the challenges of opening a Bravado retail store?

Stagnation is a problem. That is something that I fear. Part of what we have done with the temporary and moments in time (marketing) is created excitement. If it lives forever, it’s not as exciting.

Plus you don’t want to be trapped into long-time store leases or costs of running a retail outlet either.

Yeah, there’s a reason why a lot of those stores close, right? So we’d really need to figure out the right model, and the right application. The right way to do it. I don’t know. That is like the 4th or 5th time that I have been asked that questions in the last couple of weeks, and the reality is that I don’t really have an answer.

How quickly can you put up a pop-up or a temporary store?

We love as much time as we can, but we have been nimble, and have had to work under excruciatingly short timetables, but that’s the nature of the business today. There’s not a specific...I can say 36 hours, but we’ve have turned them in a couple of days here and there when necessary when circumstances presented themselves.

How much time will an artist give Bravado that they’d like to do a pop-up store? Artists like Beyoncé are known for having merchandising in place virtually overnight for her surprise releases.

That’s the trick. With an artist’s ability to release music at any time, right now is how music is being consumed. We have to be nimble enough to react to that. There’s not a dead set answer to some of these questions. If an artist of ours called us right now, and said, “I’m releasing a record on Thursday, and we want to do a pop-up,” we will try to make it happen. I don’t know if we can. There are so many variables. What does it look like? Is it just a white box (a white box gallery)? Is there just a simple product line? It’s hard to give you broad answers to these questions because there are so many nuances.

[Surprise releases have been part of the Beyoncé brand since the 2013 roll-out of her self-titled visual album. Fans quickly had the opportunity to buy crew neck sweatshirts and T-shirts in black with pink text, replicating the album cover. As Beyoncé released the single "Formation" from her 2016 album “Lemonade,” exploded with offers for song-specific merch. The next day Beyoncé unleashed "Formation" during the Super Bowl half-time show accompanied by a group of dancers dressed in militaristic black leather reminiscent of Black Panther garb. The Queen Bey also announced a world tour via a commercial spot.]

At the beginning of 2017, it was announced that Bravado had signed an agreement with the Estate of Prince Rogers Nelson to serve as the exclusive branding and licensing partner worldwide. In the past, the merchandising of such iconic figures as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix and others became of paramount importance to contemporary culture. Can the same thing happen with artists like Prince through merchandising? What’s the challenge in dealing with his merch in the marketplace without tours, and newly recorded music unavailable?

The challenge is to create a product offering that is consistent with the Prince plan and to keep that resonating for an indefinite amount of time without having the obvious tent-poles of albums, touring etc. To do that we have to be clever, and we have to be strategic, and we have to think as if we were launching a fashion brand or another consumer product brand. To do that, and much of what I have done here over the past 15 months now, is to bring in people who don’t come from the merch business, but come from brand building businesses, from consumer product companies. Who come from the fashion world. Who come from places where the focus was building brands and not just flipping transactional T-shirts. So that’s how we do it. And yeah, it is 100% a challenge, but it’s a rewarding one.

In interviews talking about pop-up stores, you have emphasized that they are like traditional music stores. That may be so, but with merchandising, instead of having to wait 18 months for a piece of product from my favorite artist, I can now have something from them right now. And more to come too.

Yes. That’s what we are trying to do and that is where I talk about it from a 365-day sampling. It’s about that. It’s not just about the album. Is the temporary store the kind of experience of being the new record store? It‘s as close to it as we can get.

You are too young to truly remember local music stores. You are just 38.

I was in record stores.

C’mon, you weren’t really?

Of course, I was.

While living in Brunswick, Maine while attending university?

Bull Moose Music. I was in there every day. The one in Brunswick. One hundred percent.

[When DeOrsey's Record Store in Brunswick, Maine closed, leaving Bowdoin College students without a music source, Bowdoin student Brett Wickard, with a $7,000 nest egg and a $30,000 loan, launched Bull Moose Music in 1989. His business plan consisted of looking up record distributors in the Yellow Pages and ordering one album by every act that had released at least two albums. Wickard opened Bull Moose Music on out of the way Middle Street. He soon moved Bull Moose Music to its present location at the corner of Maine St. and School St. The 12 Bull Moose Music outlets in Maine and New Hampshire continue to have the grungy look and feel of a college town underground record shop.]

Today, fans don’t have to wait 18 months for new artist product with merchandise being continually introduced or updated. But how do you control oversaturation?

You have a plan, and you execute your plan to perfection. That’s the only way to do it. I think every product line or artist is going to have a different level of saturation they will reach, and you have to be smart about the way you approach retail, direct-to-consumer, tour and licensing (merchandise). There has to be a nice harmony between all of them so you just don’t blast out product into the marketplace and cannibalize yourself.

How do you determine what quantity of product to put into the marketplace?

There’s not an algorithm for that. It’s a test and repeat kind of process.

Do you test in individual markets?

Yeah. You look at any kind of indicators that you might be able to. First off, there’s data. We look at analytics. We look at demographics. We look at where their (an artist’s) products or other things are selling, and how they are doing, and where they are doing well and with who they are doing well with. We analyze all that, and then we come up with a plan. We work very closely with our analytics team and deep dive into that. We look at Spotify charts and global music charts and follow that action, and radio. All of that is information is there for us to plan our strategic rollout.

Bravado has a presence in 40 cities around the world? Offices or affiliated distributors?

It can be an office like our headquarters in New York City where there are 70 people or it can be a UMG (Universal Music Group) office in a territory where we have two or three people focused on Bravado that sits within the broader Universal Group company in that territory.

Universal Music Group bought into Bravado in 2007. While you aren’t restricted to working with UMG artists, what is your relationship to Universal Music Enterprises president, and CEO Bruce Resnikoff? What would you work on with him?

Well, we have quite a few clients in common. Artists that we work with in common. We’ll sit down at the table when he is planning when I am planning, and we will loop each other in. He might have a relationship, I might have a relationship that we can help each other with. We are very effective. We pitch for new business together. We put ideas together. So there’s quite a lot. In fact, Bruce is someone that I speak to on a regular basis.

Why did you jump over to Bravado last year? Did it have anything to do Sony Music Entertainment’s 2013 strategic partnership agreement with BandMerch, the merchandising division of AEG Live, to expand and develop Sony’s merchandising programs in the North American retail market in conjunction with the Sony-affiliated Thread Shop which you oversaw? Any friction there?

No. I just...the opportunity presented itself to me. It was the right time to make a change. It really is as simple as that. Sometimes you just need to make a change.

Bravado was the big footprint in the merchandising marketplace.

Yep, and that’s why when the opportunity presented itself I jumped at it.

You attended Bowdoin College Brunswick in Maine. That’s a small school. You graduated with B.A. in International relations and affairs.

I majored in international resolution and conflict which is a government major. It was a minor in architecture.

Was it your ambition to go into the diplomatic corp?

There was no idea. There was no forethought. I went to college, and I liked studying international law.

Why did you decide to attend Bowdoin?

One, I really wanted to play college football. I had played football in high school. Two, my parents said that if I wanted to do that that I had to go to the best school that I got accepted into, and I got accepted into Bowdoin. At the time, it was either the 3rd or 4th ranked liberal arts college in America. A lot of successful people went to Bowdoin. It’s a great place. There were rough adjustments coming from New York City where you could get a bagel and cream cheese at four o’clock in the morning on the way home to not being able to get a slice of pizza at seven o’clock at night.

Not sure you can easily get a good bagel in many places in Maine.

You can’t get a bagel in Maine. That’s a good point. But you get a great lobster there, and it is a beautiful state once you get to know it. Yeah, it was good. In retrospect, I’m really happy that I went there.

You played college football. Do still do CrossFit training?

I still do. I was there at six thirty this morning. Every day.

When you started working at Sony in 2003 you began as part of a three-person finance and operations team responsible for the overall financial performance and development of Epic Records, and its affiliated labels.

Yeah, I started in finance, exactly. Before I went to work at Sony, I worked at a small company that was really a hybrid of digital services and venture capital company called . It was run by Mark Patricof. I had some training in corporate development and business development. Then the opportunity presented itself (at Sony) after a meeting that I had with (Epic Records president) Polly Anthony who is no longer with us (passing away in 2013). There was a job opening in finance working for Adam Granite, and I took it.

[Long-serving Sony Music executive Adam Granite joined the company in 1996, and spent time within the company’s finance and operations division before being named GM of Epic Records in 2007. In 2011, he became president, Northern & Eastern Europe, and Africa at Sony Music Entertainment International as part of Sony’s efforts to expand overseas. He retired from the company this month (June 2017) after serving 21 years.]

Just to get your foot into the door of a record company?

Not just or because. Epic Records was a top label at the time. It was a great position. I was very excited.

You were at the company from 2003 to 2015 in different positions.

Yep. Twelve years.

When you became director, artist development and merchandising in 2007, the role of merchandising within the record industry broadened with major labels introducing 360 deals that included merch rights.

Yeah, that kind of started at Epic. We started to acquire some of those rights and I got of look around, and I said to Adam, “We should start monetizing these rights. We are doing nothing with them.”

By the time you became VP of global products at Sony Music Entertainment in 2009, significant global opportunities for merchandising initiatives were becoming more evident.

What happened is that we started small. Sean Kingston, who was a pop sensation, had a hit song with Epic called “Beautiful Girls” (in 2007). We had the merch rights. I was at the time in the artist development department working for Harvey Leeds (who developed Sony’s first video promotion department, as well as Sony’s first artist development/touring department). I love him. We had this opportunity with Sean, and we started doing it (marketing). There was some success. We built another case study with another label within the Sony family, and that was a success. We did a third and a fourth. It became clear that we had a little business there. And at that point it made sense to spin the business out of Epic, and make it a central organization within the broader Sony Music Group. It kind of lived on its own for a moment, reporting to each one of the music groups. Ultimately, it ended up in the commercial music group under Richard Story.

This is The Thread Shop?


Such a cool name for a merch company. Who came up with it?

It was a consortium of people including myself, Charlie Walk, Lee Stimmel, and Adam Granite at the time

You had access to artists signed to Epic, Columbia, Zomba, RED. and the Commercial Music Group?

Yes, but having access. Define access. We had rights to everything our artists were signed for. Was I able to call Bob Morelli (pres., Sony BMG’s indie-oriented distribution unit, RED)? Sure, but I could have called him from anywhere, right? You really have to define access.

Still, those artists and their managers were within a family and you had relationships with them. They sat at the same Sony table. You could get a meeting with any one of them without any trouble.

Yes. That is correct.

If merch rights were negotiated with newly-signed artists by Sony—which happened about 85% of the time--you would have had access to their merch rights as well.


How did you convince Bob Dylan to license merch for retail for the first time? Of course, he had been doing traditional tour merch. Artists from his generation tend to frown on merchandising as a form of unwanted commercialization. What was the argument you used? As with most cases involving Bob Dylan, all roads lead to Jeff Rosen, his manager since 1989 who acts as his gatekeeper.

I am trying to think of my first meeting with Jeff Rosen. If I recall correctly, the pitch was focused on how one plus one in this scenario could equal three. How being able to have everything in one place under one roof—the marketing department from the merch talking to the marketing department of the music and executing this like a film studio would execute a release of a motion picture. Where there was a complementary product line that you could tell the story in the way that you wanted to, almost playing defense to deter copyright infringement product and all that. I think that was the overall conversation to Jeff, and Jeff bought it. It made sense particularly as the T-shirt or whatever the product was starting to take the place of—from a physical standpoint—of the physical aspect of music and become kind of that last physical product that you wanted that would still be in the market. That would still be out there at distribution points.

And convincing another complicated legend, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, to license merch, same level of challenge?

(Laughing) Ahh, every artist is going to present a different type of challenge.

Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”

Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.

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