In just 10 years—the time that Jose Cuello has been with MTV’s Music Group—the company has reshaped its musical platform. With a proliferation of offerings on the market, fans are challenged to sift through all the choices. Artists are challenged to get their work in front of a wide audience. And both fans and artists struggle to find meaningful ways to connect with one another. In response to these issues precisely, Cuello’s team has taken MTV’s music business model in a new direction: upstream.
Getting behind nearly-undiscovered artists, Cuello and company offer a nectar-sweet chance for international recognition on MTV Music Groups three music properties—MTV, VH1, and CMT—which are still considered, by their respective markets, the authority in music, he says.
“My team is about ‘preemerging’ artists—before they register on anyone’s radar. For many bands, we’re that first step,” says Cuello, senior vice president of Artist Platform/Music Services, a division of MTV Music Group created in 2012.
Since its inception, Cuello’s group has turned out innovative products and services to help musicians promote their music and connect with fans while creating new revenue streams for the brand. Perhaps the most notable project is Hype Music, a licensing platform cocreated by Extreme Music and MTV Music Group. “We’re not a record label,” Cuello says, “but we’re a distribution partner and music library business molded together.”
Hype lets artists physical rights. “We don’t take royalties on anything but digital for album distributions. We let them keep the rights so that they can sell their albums themselves when they’re on the road.”
In its first two years of operation, Hype Music released more than 80 albums. The distributor has scored prime spots across MTV’s platform for some of the most promising artists.
Most fans would be pleased to know that musical integration across the properties is purely an editorial decision; all of the music played on the networks must compete for any of the 200 song slots of airtime. As a testimony to Hype’s prowess as a music curator, 40 percent of the tracks on Jersey Shore—MTV’s most watched show to date—were put forth by Cuello and company.
One of Hype’s greatest hits is the hip-hop/pop band Wallpaper., which Cuello’s group served up to audiences as a featured artist during Jersey Shore’s highest-rated season. Cuello’s group vied to get the band in the spotlight. Its videos aired in prime spots, coming in and out of Jersey Shore commercials. (Hype sold 100,000 Wallpaper. singles that season.) Hype also scored Wallpaper. a marketing partnership with Taco Bell for cross-promotion. Soon after, the band cut a record deal with Epic Records and climbed the charts.
“To me, it was the best example of the power of MTV in my area—partnering with bands, going into business with them, giving them a platform, seeing the industry acknowledge and accept them, and becoming a Top 40 single,” Cuello recalls.
Aside from Hype, one of the biggest tasks on Cuello’s plate is productizing the multimedia world (“connected content”) to democratize the musical experience. The goal for Artist Platform is twofold: “We wanted to power artists as small businesses and be a facilitator to connect ‘music-crazy’ fans with artists in meaningful ways,” Cuello says.
Through artists.mtv.com, artists.vh1.com, and artists.cmt.com, musicians can create a profile and upload content to share with fans. Artists can own their ticketing for shows, merchandise sales, and use the platform for trading—things like a free music download in exchange for fans’ e-mails, Facebook “likes,” or tweets, Cuello adds.
“We realized we had well-trafficked websites—with 60 million unique [hits] a month across our brands (digital content on MTV, VH1, and CMT)—so we figured it would be commensurate with our mission to turn the reigns over to artists, rather
than controlling their presence online,” Cuello says.
Popular artists’ pages are auto-populated with ample content from their rich history with MTV, VH1, and CMT. But virtually every musician on the Internet has a template page ready to be claimed. Once the artists claim their page, they can drill down and customize at different fee levels. The result, which Cuello’s team is banking on, is that the platform will become the ultimate go-to for music aficionados.
All of these initiatives offer new ways for musicians to thrive in an era that has sent some industry veterans into a tailspin of disillusionment. “People bemoan the olden days, but in the current business climate there’s an opportunity to reenter into the middle class of musicians,” he says.
To be profitable, Cuello says, artists must be entrepreneurs at heart.
Cuello himself is the definition of a self-starter. The son of a Mexican-born mother and Cuban-born father, he was raised in Garland, Texas. He navigated a few careers before finding his sweet spot—ranging from special education (a field in which he received his master’s degree and worked for several years) to eyewear design, more aligned with his artistic side. The power of music was instrumental in his journey, he recalls. While teaching mentally handicapped students, he secured a job program for them to work at Tower Records. While with the eyewear company in Milan, Italy, he devised a marketing promotion to distribute mixed CDs.
To be profitable between jobs and recently married, that a friend referred Cuello for a freelance position at MTV networks. Cuello landed the job as music supervisor, working with shows such as Pimp My Ride and Newlyweds. “I was hired really to shape the sound of the show by picking and licensing music that went into the productions. At the time, music supervision was something even I had a vague understanding of,” he recalls. “Since then, there is a real appreciation for the skill set now. Shows like The O.C. have made music really integral to the show.”
To be sure, Cuello was a member of the crew that turned music supervision into a broadcast phenomenon. He spent a couple of years perfecting the art of the televised soundtrack—the magic that happens when music can take a scene in a show to its fullest expression. But, he always saw beyond the viewing experience. “I quickly realized the opportunity to clarify the strategic role that music in shows could play,” he says. “So I put together a proposal and was hired to build a team with those strategic goals in mind.”
Since then, Cuello’s tenure at MTV edged toward his current frontier: monetizing relationships with musicians, and enabling artists to build their own brands through MTV’s gargantuan platform. It’s a virtually uncharted territory—and a day in age that Cuello says is “truly phenomenal.”
“There is an emerging landscape where people can make money through licensing, direct to fan sales, and brand relationships,” he says. “There are people who can really own a small business with their music.”