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A new player shakes up the world of theatrical licensing

Concord used to play a bit part in theatrical licensing, but in just three years it’s emerged as a giant in the small but powerful industry.  Since 2017, the independent music company has snapped up Tams-Witmark, Samuel French and the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization (the latter through its acq...

A selection of the theatrical titles Concord encompasses.

Concord used to play a bit part in theatrical licensing, but in just three years it’s emerged as a giant in the small but powerful industry.

Since 2017, the independent music company has snapped up Tams-Witmark, Samuel French and the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization (the latter through its acquisition of Dutch publisher Imagem). Add in the works licensed by the Musical Company, the joint venture launched in 2016 by Concord and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group, and Concord’s theatrical division now encompasses everything from “A Chorus Line” to “Fences” to “Fun Home” to “Oklahoma!” to “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

It’s a massive shake-up that, in some ways, matches a broader trend in the entertainment industry as legacy brands consolidate to survive in a fast-changing world. But the execs involved in this speedy alignment cite a coincidence of timing, alongside the ripe investment opportunity, as two long-standing, family-owned companies — Tams-Witmark and Samuel French — perked up their ears at the wealth of resources and infrastructure that Concord could offer.

“We weren’t actively considering selling when Concord approached us,” said Abbie Van Nostrand, the veteran Samuel French exec whose father ran the 190-year-old company for almost 40 years. “Not that there was any serious writing on the wall, but looking at the whole picture of the industry, when Concord came knocking on our door we had started to contemplate the future of Samuel French standing independent versus the benefits of being part of something greater.”

Meanwhile, the Dutch pension fund that owned Imagem had lost interest in the high-maintenance business of music publishing, according to longtime Rodgers & Hammerstein chief Ted Chapin. That confluence, said Concord Theatricals president Sean Patrick Flahaven, was what allowed Concord to acquire three major licensors in rapid succession, bulking up to a catalog of a whopping 10,000 titles.

That number easily dwarfs the size of the catalog of the other big player in the theatrical licensing business, Music Theatre International, which weighs in at 525 titles. But as anyone in licensing will tell you, a company lives or dies not by the size of its stable but the appeal of its titles. MTI, owned by Cameron Mackintosh, boasts big-name properties that stretch from “Annie” to “Young Frankenstein” and include the Disney-branded shows that are in huge demand around the country. (In 2018-19, MTI licensed nine of the top 11 musicals performed in the US, and the third most-performed play.)

There are other theatrical licensing companies out there, including Dramatists Play Service with well over 3,000 titles. But among licensors of musicals, the new status quo is two big fish in one small pond.

“What Concord has done successfully is come into this relatively small world at exactly the right time,” Chapin said. “We’ll see if this is a kind of competition that this little world can take.”

MTI president and CEO Drew Cohen, for one, is confident the market is big enough for the two of them. “Concord’s interest is an endorsement that we’re in an industry that is healthy and thriving and growing,” he said.

Though it gets far less attention than the splashy world of Broadway, the licensing market is one of the most influential forces in the theater industry, and one of its most consistent revenue generators.

Licensing companies play a major role in seeding the audiences and creatives of the future, supplying scripts, scores and other essentials to stock, amateur and regional theaters, as well as educational programs — the organizations that make the small-scale theater where most fans first encounter and fall in love with the stage. For creators and working professionals, these licensors and publishers are vital partners in the enduring lives of their shows, and in sustaining the stream of royalties that can make up a significant chunk of a writer’s income.

“It’s so important because it’s about the life of your show beyond the initial run,” said songwriter and orchestrator Tom Kitt, a Pulitzer Prize winner for “Next to Normal” and composer of the upcoming “Flying Over Sunset.” “For something like ‘Next to Normal,’ there was a lot of interest, and the licensing agency can stoke those flames. And then for something like ‘High Fidelity,’ you really want to lean on the licensing entity to speak on behalf of a show that was not as successful in New York.”

Now that Concord has reached a critical mass, Flahaven envisions a number of potential advantages: leveling up on author advances, customer and artist services, and global reach in order to compete for the biggest new musicals; implementing efficiencies based on the best-practices drawn from each individual company; and drawing on a combined data pool that can, in theory, help in recommending shows to theaters based on knowing more about what they’ve done previously.

On the consumer-facing side, the strategy focuses on preserving the personality of each subsidiary.

“The idea is, we’re going to maintain the branding of those separate entities, sort of like record labels,” said Flahaven. The plan for the breakdown sees R&H covering all the titles written by Rodgers and Hammerstein (“Oklahoma!,” “South Pacific,” etc.); the newly christened Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection encompassing the composer’s work; Samuel French focusing on plays; and everything else living under the Concord Theatricals umbrella.

“As a music company with different music labels, Concord made it very clear it appreciates the value of our brands and understood their historical relevance,” Van Nostrand said. “That was very comforting. And now, all together, Concord Theatricals has a staff that has depth no one else has. I feel like together we have leapfrogged over other companies.”

Still, potential pitfalls remain as these companies consolidate, according to Derek Miller, a Harvard professor who studies the intersection of law, economics and art. Among those perils is an overreliance on data to drive consumer recommendation: “The risk is that they lean more heavily into putting a smaller subset of works out to the community, based on what the data’s telling them, and creating a further divide between top and bottom. What will they be doing to feature new work of various kinds?”

Cohen, who said his company was committed to remaining entirely independent, noted he would be wary of joining any larger entity that might subsume a subsidiary’s primary agenda. “If decisions need to be driven by return on investment as opposed to maximizing the value of the art of it, and of each of the properties, over the long term, you risk not being aligned with the artists you’re representing,” he noted.

Flahaven is confident that kind of conflict is not an issue at Concord, pointing out that the company is headed by music executives — like chairman and Clear Channel alum Stephen Smith — who have a longstanding love and understanding of the business. (Concord operates as a private company “funded by long-term institutional capital and members of Concord’s management team,” according to reps for the company.)

Concord also hopes the company’s international reach – with offices in New York, London and Berlin, and affiliates in Australia/New Zealand, Asia, South America and Africa — sets it up to take advantage of the global growth in the market. China is regularly cited as a major region of growth for licensing, but one that experts say must be closely shepherded lest one bad production turn off international audiences from pursuing future musical fare.

Thinking more broadly about long-term rights, the company has recently begun to invest in Broadway productions that so far include Tony winner “Hadestown” and the upcoming “Jagged Little Pill.” It also has a hand in publishing and cast recordings, all the while actively looking for new shows to sign.

Looking ahead, licensing companies also expect to see further growth in the market for pared-down versions of full-scale musicals, tailored to young adults or kids, along the lines of MTI’s Broadway Junior offerings. There are opportunities, as well, in bolstering the support that licensors give to licensees at every level of experience — such as the kits that Disney and MTI provide to many of its customers. “It’s basically a show in a box,” said David Scott, the director of licensing at Disney Theatrical Group.

Meanwhile, companies are exploring ways to expand digital distribution without opening their artists up to new piracy risks. With older titles, they’re keeping aware of which shows include content that now seems problematic, and, where appropriate, working with authors and estates to make the changes that might keep those works in circulation.

In navigating all that, Concord Theatricals aims to draw on the experience of the industry veterans who make up its staff. “This isn’t something where a company that isn’t in theater takes over these legacy brands,” Flahaven said. “Everyone who works here is a dedicated theater person.”

Main image photo credits, from top left to right: Oklahoma!: Little Fang Photo; Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat: Tristram Kenton; Our Town: Evgenia Eliseeva; Fences: Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times; The Phantom of the Opera: Matthew Murphy; A Chorus Line: Jack Mitchell; Fun Home: Theo Wargo; The Odd Couple: Mark Kauffman; The King and I: Theo Wargo.