When Mark Jowett, Terry McBride and their original partners formed Nettwerk Productions in the mid-‘80s, they had no real plan, no long-term aspirations.
“We just got together to release a few bands,” says Jowett. “We loved Skinny Puppy and Grapes of Wrath. We were really inspired by the cool music that was being released in the 1980s, like The Cure and Joy Division, so we were just happy to be involved in the scene. And then it just kind of exploded and it’s been exploding in one sense or another ever since.”
The company pioneered “collapsed copyright,” which allows artists to release music under their own labels, retaining their own copyright.
What started as a small, Vancouver-based indie label has since grown into a respected international music publisher, label and management company with offices in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Germany.
It’s been a long, wild ride, with many highlights along the way. From 1997 to 1999, Sarah McLachlan’s Lilith Fair tours, staged under Nettwerk’s auspices, grossed $16 million – a large portion of which was donated women’s charities. Nettwerk were crucial in establishing Barenaked Ladies in the U.S., and the band has now sold more than 10 million albums. They also established Avirl Lavigne worldwide. Nettwerk released Coldplay’s first album Parachutes – after EMI rejected it – throughout North America. The company pioneered “collapsed copyright,” which allows artists to release music under their own labels, retaining their own copyright, while still be marketed and promoted through Nettwerk.
To celebrate its 30-year milestone, Nettwerk invited its current roster to plunder its catalogue: the result is an inventive marriage of past and present called From Cover To Cover: 30 Years At Nettwerk. The label is also re-releasing several of its classic albums on vinyl for a new generation of music aficionados.
In 2014, Nettwerk raised more than $10 million in equity growth financing to boost artist development and catalogue acquisition. The company has since acquired the rights to Robot of the Century Music (Roadrunner’s rock catalogue), and to Maxi Records, a U.S. disco label; Nettwerk One Music has also entered a partnership with Nashville-based Ten Ten Music Group, which gives the Vancouver company a solid foothold in Music City.
“Our goal now,” says Jowett, “is to maximize those partnerships, to breathe new life into those catalogues, find new uses for those songs. And of course, we’re interested in finding great new writers. We want to focus on quality, and if we get that right, then we have a strong infrastructure that can really maximize the potential of those songs.”
The music business, of course, has undergone a few sea changes since the 1980s, and Nettwerk continues to adapt.
“Download sales are down and album sales are down,” acknowledges Jowett, “but streaming income is rising, quite phenomenally. The difference is that it’s much more of a singles market now. Most people, when they’re streaming music, are listening to it in the context of playlists rather than albums. So we’ve had to make a paradigm shift to really focus on playlists and how to get our artists included on those lists. That’s very different from trying to sell albums at physical retail.
“We’re optimistic that in the next two or three years we’ll all have a different perspective on revenue streams. And I say that mostly with my label hat on. The master side is looking more rewarding, whereas on the publishing side we have to really fight to increase the writers’ and publishers’ shares of streaming royalties. It’s a crucial battle that’s going on right now.”