Launched in 2010, WaterTower Music is the in-house music label of Warner Bros., creating music assets for WB films, TV shows and games. Formerly known as New Line Records, between 2000-2009, WaterTower Music is headed up by music industry veteran Jason Linn, who created the original label in 2000 at New Line Cinema. The enormous growth of the label in the past five years alone has been astonishing, resulting in four Grammy nominations and two Academy Award nominations this year alone. We recently sat down with Linn in his office on the Warner Bros. Lot to discuss the past, present and future of WaterTower Music.
First off, with the Grammy Awards only a few days away, just want to say congratulations on the four Grammy nominations. What does that mean to you and the label?
JL: I’m so excited about it. For us, with a staff of only six people, to have four Grammy nominations and two Oscar nominations for music associated with our label in one year is just unimaginably exciting. I mean that’s more than some major labels have, so we’re really, really proud of that. It’s very exciting for us. I would be lying to you if I said, “Oh, it’s no big deal.” Whether we actually win an award or not is immaterial, just the recognition that comes with the nominations is a major win for us.
Click for videos of all three Grammy nominated songs and Steven Price's nominated score for Gravity
Looking at a brief history of the label, it started as New Line Records for about ten years, and then was re-branded as WaterTower Records in 2010. But when you look at the growth and diversity of releases since that time, it seems it was much more than just a name change.
JL: Definitely, you’re exactly right. As the music business was evolving, it was clear to me that our efforts and resources would be much better spent connecting with all the other Warner Bros. brands, rather than trying to break new artists which has become a harder and harder world to exist in. So we refocused on areas of the music business that can be monetized by aggressively promoting the movies, the various shows from HBO and WB Television, and the games market with WBIE [Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment].
The biggest change over the past four or five years is that we now have a much bigger pool to fish from with all the various Time-Warner divisions. Just physically moving here to the Warner Bros. Lot made it become a whole new game for us, and made our outlook on what we can do so much broader.
What's amazing is that there’s been roughly a 50% growth year-to-year in the number of releases over the past four years, with more than 50 releases last year alone.
JL: I’d say that’s about right. We’re aggressively looking to do more and more each year, we’re even working on projects outside the company when we have relationships with the creative people at other companies. And I’m really grateful that, corporately, we can do that and pick up outside projects when they make sense. We’re even looking more and more into the indie film world where you can find some undiscovered gems that have potential. It’s not easy to find them, but we’re always looking.
So how have you managed to achieve that kind of growth with only six employees?
JL: Well, I wasn’t going to point out that despite a 50% growth in releases our staff size has remained the same [laughs], but such is the reality we all live in. So even though the workload exploded here for everybody, we are sincerely so grateful that we get to work in an area of music with a non-traditional model that can work, and can be successful and can continue to grow. Even though we’re all working longer hours to get the job done, we’re really psyched to be doing it. We all worked in the traditional music business back in the day, so we all have similar backgrounds and share the same vocabulary. And we all saw what the previous music industry model did well and what it didn’t do so well, so we all have a similar prism that we can transpose into this model.
Here’s the thing, the corporate culture that I come from and what I feel is the appropriate corporate culture here is that our expansion should be justified by our growth. Without naming names, other studios over the past several decades have tried doing what we’re doing and have gone about it in very different ways than we did, with huge amounts of money and staffing up to compete with the major labels, and that’s not the approach I wanted here at all. We’ve done the opposite of that where it can be an organic growth, and we were much better equipped to adapt to what was clearly becoming a rapidly changing music business fifteen years ago. Plus, in my experience at major labels, it was very hard to be nimble and to improvise on your plans. With a staff of six people, we’re able to do a lot of improv and that’s what we’re doing.
As the music business has shifted over the years, it has changed to our benefit, to where we can have a new song from superstars like Alicia Keys, Ed Sheeran, Fergie, Shakirah and Taylor Swift on our releases."
- Jason Linn
Let’s talk about the film score and soundtrack business. When you’re working with the Warner Bros. theatrical division, where is the line between what a film’s music supervisor does and what your label does, in terms of song selection or even artist choices?
JL: That’s a great question, and it really varies from production to production. There’s such a wide variance. Generally, we follow the lead of what is ultimately mixed into whatever picture it is that we’re dealing with. Sometimes our ideas of what we think the soundtrack album should be is strongly considered and sometimes those ideas are not so strongly considered. You have to realize that experiencing music in pictures, for example, is a very different experience than listening to music on your headphones or in your car. Those are just two very different experiences. Plus, there can be a big difference in how a song is mixed for a picture versus how it should be mixed for a record.
For example, with the movie Rock of Ages, the mixes of the songs were very different for our soundtrack album than they were for the picture. For the album, we had the very specific intent of having those songs live as great sounding rock tracks that didn’t necessarily have to rely on the strength of the picture. For us, we just wanted to make a great record and we tried to mix it with that ear, and make a great rock album. So the process and choices of sonics and mixing with Rock of Ages, and some of the other musicals that we’ve tackled as well, that’s where there’s sometimes a pretty big difference between the picture and the album.
What about with the film scores? Are you able to add additional music not ultimately used in the film to the albums you release?
JL: It’s kind of similar to the approach we take with the “song-oriented” records, in that we’re trying to make the best possible record, while still remaining consistent with the tone and the feeling of the film. Most of our most successful score records have contained music that was not featured in the film; pieces of music that were written for the film but ultimately not used for whatever reason. We’ve even included demos in some of our expanded editions, because we find that a lot of fans of these film scores are equally as interested in hearing the process that goes into these works.
How much time do you spend on the legal side of music clearances, which can be daunting when you’re dealing with classic rock tracks or past hits.
JL: We spend a fair amount of time on that, sure. But it’s not as cumbersome as it could be, because the film or the TV show has already worked on the clearances, so we already know where to go and we probably have a good shot of getting the clearance for our records as well.
In fact, we’re right in the middle of that for some projects coming out this summer—Magic Mike XXL and Entourage. Without going into specifics, both of those projects I see as having the potential of what the Project X soundtrack did for us a few years ago. That was a breakout hit record for us because it became a sort of “one-stop-shopping” collection for hip-hop fans who might not buy a lot of records, because the music and those songs were used so well in that movie that they created a whole world and that world represented what was happening in that moment in time.
Kind of like what The Big Chill did for the movie soundtrack business back in the Eighties…
JL: Great analogy, very much like that. So, yeah, we do have to spend time getting those clearances, but I’d guess that maybe 25% of our time goes into that.
With the change in listening habits of the music consumer, where digital downloads or streaming services are outpacing the sales of physical media like CDs, how do you decide which WaterTower releases will be digital-only versus others that will also be available on CD or even vinyl?
JL: It comes down to a practical business decision really. With so few existing music retailers and so few options to actually ship records to, it’s really not like the old days where you would just make a decision to ship product and all you had to really decide was how many go out. That was how it used to work. Nowadays to ship for a mainstream outlet, you essentially have to apply in order to be accepted into the racks in physical stores. Essentially, you have to fill out the application and explain why your release should occupy that rack space. I’m barely exaggerating here, by the way.
The fact of the matter is that as proud as we are of everything we put out, there are different levels of mass appeal. The nice option we have for releases that are primarily digital is that there are solutions out there like disc-on-demand for the consumer who still wants that physical media. And this is not just something that we’re doing, because the digital revolution has minimized a lot of the financial risk that is associated with the manufacturing, shipping and returns that the previous business model had to deal with. I mean, today, record stores are open 24 hours a day online and you can buy music on your phone, so that does eliminate a lot of the liabilities we had in the past.
Another interesting thing that your label has been doing over the past few years is releasing soundtracks and scores from some of the classic films that reside in the Warner Bros. film library, like The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Singin’ in the Rain and Show Boat. Are there plans to open the vaults even more for some of this timeless music?
JL: Oh yeah, definitely. In the second half of this year, we’re working on reissuing several dozen titles from the MGM catalog and the Turner catalog. There’s really so many, as you said, “timeless” scores and soundtracks in there. Initially, I would have thought these would be definitely for a smaller niche audience, but then I see my young kids’ reaction to the Singin’ in the Rain soundtrack and it was so profound of a positive reaction that it immediately reminded me just how timeless and how genius those songs are. And maybe it isn’t as niche as I may have originally thought and I think there is a way to expand that appeal to a new generation. I don’t know what that is yet, but we feel it is definitely an area really worth exploring. In fact, one idea we’ve been thinking about is a satellite radio channel dedicated to this classic film music.
We’re also working on issuing some of those titles on vinyl, because vinyl has become a really big part of our business in the last two years. The thing about vinyl is that in the industry as a whole, vinyl sales were up like 55%, and even if the aggregate number isn’t huge, for us, within the niche part of our business, it’s really significant; especially for our catalog titles, our animated titles and our superhero-related product line. Vinyl is essential in limited runs and we sell-out fast.
I know all your projects are like your children in a sense, but, on a personal level, what are some of the things you’ve been involved in that really standout for you?
JL: That’s a tough one to answer without having time to think more about it. Let me say that what’s been most rewarding—in addition to working with such brilliant composers like Hans Zimmer or Alexandre Desplat or Steven Price who are just genius classical musicians—is having the chance to work with mega-watt superstars and have their music on our records.
That’s something that would never have happened in the old days of the music industry, where it was hard to justify one of your label artists being on some other label’s record. It was just inconceivable and unimaginable, but as the music business has shifted over the years, it has changed to our benefit, to where we can have a new song from superstars like Alicia Keys, Ed Sheeran, Fergie, Shakirah and Taylor Swift on our releases. We’re in a position now, in association with our Warner Bros. brand, that we have the trust of some of the biggest music artists in the world.
You mentioned some of the film composers you’ve had the opportunity to work with and release on the label. The film scores are a different animal than the soundtracks, so what is the market for those as you see it? In some ways, it’s almost like they have become the classical music of this generation?
JL: I think you’re right. I feel that the film score has become the vessel of exposure for a lot of contemporary classical composition, for sure. Our global score business is sometimes as big or bigger than our compilation business. It depends on the composer and it depends on the project, but we’ve been able to sell hundreds of thousands of film score records; everything from Harry Potter and The Hobbit to Inception, Interstellar and The Dark Knight. I mean really big numbers on what is essentially a classical music album, not to mention the number of streams on various services.
Personally, I feel that the streaming culture we’re in now has really benefited the classical music realm because of the “playlist” phenomenon, where people can get easily turned on to something like “No Time for Caution”—which is really an unbelievable piece that Hans Zimmer did for Interstellar—because someone included it with other songs in a playlist. And I think that ability to discover this kind of music was previously lacking in the score world.
Enjoy WaterTower Music's behind-the-scenes video of legendary composer Hans Zimmer working on the Man of Steel film score a few years ago.
It has been a pleasure working with the WaterTower team. They have a resourceful, aggressive and thoroughly modern approach to marketing music."
- Hans Zimmer
What about other areas that WaterTower has gotten into lately?
JL: Well, one of the most exciting things we got involved in recently is with Ellen [DeGeneres] and her team, and coming up with a line of record releases; an Ellen-branded music line. The first one was Ellen’s I’m Gonna Make You Dance Jams and last year we did Ellen’s The Only Holiday Album You’ll Ever Need, Vol. 1, which was a great album title. They come up with the actual titles and they’re always funny.
We did that exclusively through Target, so it’s really an exciting project where we’re working with the show and the retailer, and creating a product line for an audience that still likes buying physical CDs and as a result the sales for those have been almost 90% physical versus digital, which is amazing in this day and age. They know their audience so well and Target is a great destination for that viewer, so we were able to make a deal for everybody that made sense and that record debuted in the Top 20 during the holiday season, which was great. That’s just another example of the opportunities that exist for us on the Lot here.
Looking at the television side, it’s got to be difficult to make plans because it seems really difficult for new shows to get past that first season and build an audience.
JL: You’re absolutely right, and that’s why we’ve been able to work with True Blood and Game of Thrones on the HBO side. We’ve always released those records at the time of a given season’s finale, and then you get the benefit of the Home Entertainment window and then there’s the opportunity when the next season debuts. So you really get three bites of the apple. And with WBTV, we’re working on Gotham now so there’s a lot going on and we’re always looking to do more.
We’ve been here physically for six years and people within the company are still discovering who we are, so we’re still trying to educate people about how we can help them by using music as an effective marketing element for their various projects and products.
Last question has to do with the continued confusion of people thinking that the Warner Music Group is still part of the Time-Warner family, even though it was sold off more than ten years ago. Heading up the one remaining music label within the Warner Bros. unit, do you still run into that issue today?
JL: Yeah. Like you said, Time-Warner sold off the Warner Music Group in 2004, so it’s been 11 years. And at that time we were existing within the New Line solar system, so when WMG was sold, we were the lone remaining music division within this giant corporation, which was the luckiest break we ever could have had. But, in answer to your question, yes, there is still a tremendous amount of confusion and it’s probably not helped by the fact that there’s a “WB” inside of a watertower in our logo and there’s a “WB” inside of a shield in their logo, and my email address has “warnerbros.com” in it, so none of it is easy. But, hey, they spent a lot of money on obtaining and keeping that brand name.
So we’re just working hard to distinguish our businesses and our agendas, and we’re making progress. On a personal note, I still have to clarify it with my parents from time to time [laughs].