Look back and it's easy to connect the dots. It's easy to think you could have predicted cord-cutters would prefer the command and control provided by video-on-demand. Or that millennials wouldn't watch TV the way their parents do. 

Look forward and predict what's next for the entertainment business? That's a lot harder.

Unless you're a company like Super Deluxe, the fastest-growing premium entertainment channel targeted at creative youth that produces an ecosystem of content: Scripted and unscripted TV shows, short-form videos, interactive live programming, creative tech products, and branded content.

In a little over two years Super Deluxe has amassed billions of social views and millions of subscribers -- on average, its videos receive over 150 million views per month and reach over 50 million 14-to-34-year-old viewers. 

And now Super Deluxe just released its first album, Nightly Never Ending, by indie singer-songwriter Bill Baird. (Baird is a fascinating guy in his own right: In 2016, he released Summer Is Gone, an experimental online album in which the 10 tracks were rearranged into 250 separate mixes; each time a user logged on to listen, a unique sequence was generated based on time and location.)

To find out why the entertainment company branched out into music, I talked with Wolfgang Hammer, the founder and CEO of Super Deluxe. (We've spoken before.) 

Wolfgang is a TV and film veteran who launch House of Cards (Netflix's first scripted drama), a film executive at Lionsgate, and later the co-president of CBS' feature film division who shepherded movies like Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and Inside Llewyn Davis.

Super Deluxe has many fingers in many pies -- so while extending more formally into music makes perfect sense, I could also argue it's a bridge too far.

When we last spoke, the main gist of the conversation was how a creative company can keep from specializing and cross over different media. Music was the last thing we hadn't covered... yet from the beginning has been an integral part of what we do.

Our TV business has really taken off. We have a lot of shows in production. For example, Chambers, our show for Netflix, just started shooting today. 

The missing link we felt we should try, iof only as an experiment, was to make a record that fits within the creative direction of the company -- but would also lend itself to being used in television. We have all these shows that depend at times on music to create emotion, so I thought, " Well, if we make a concept album... maybe we could use it."

Then, of course the album could stand on its own as well. We have an audience, and a brand, and a great marketing and PR team -- so maybe we could get traction for the music alone.

So like many of the things you do, making music is intended to work on multiple levels.

Plus the artist, Bill Baird, is a friend of mine. He lives nearby in Oakland, a city that has been a very fertile source of collaborators.

So we conceived the album and officially released it this week. It's our first foray into records. If it's marketed well by our creative teams, if we can place the music on our shows... we might do more. 

Keep in mind that's just music in terms of an album. What is absolutely fascinating is the experiment we've done with Facebook Live. In essence we created a rapper, Lil Croix, from scratch.

We developed a very sophisticated and highly interactive system where fans have been part of the experience from the very beginning: They named him, they dress him, they picked out his tattoos, they help write his lyrics, they help direct his videos...

Music as a form of communication, and as a creative ethos, is a wonderful tool. 

Clearly you don't have a shortage of ideas. But how do you decide which ones to pursue? Even the biggest companies don't have unlimited assets -- especially in terms of talented people -- to allocate. 

We run the business in a decentralized way. Of course the creative understanding of what we want to be is well established. Ask a 23-year-old what Super Deluxe is; it stands for itself.

Then within that we have different units: TV units, short form, the Live unit... and each of those units have their own specialists.

At that level, they tend to be fairly autonomous. Teams work with an overall budget and within that they get to play. We have big picture boxes like monetization, staying on brand, pushing things creatively while still maintaining production values... but generally speaking as long as people stay within the framework, they have the freedom to do what they're good at.

Like on the record side. We made a single investment with a single show in mind. Bill Baird is incredibly versatile and able to adjust his work to our needs in terms of licensing those songs. That collaboration I personally put together because I wanted to make sure there was a good fit.

But overall, even the music unit is fairly decentralized. I'm involved as a leader but I also wear a hat as a member of the team. With creative companies, as long as the mission is clear you can decentralize "control."

I get the point of your question: When you do a variety of disparate things there is no way it can all go through one funnel. It's way too slow, way too cumbersome... and there's no way one person can be an expert in every creative field. 

So I don't try to be.

Super Deluxe has been extremely successful with Facebook Live. But that's another asset allocation decision, especially since the infrastructure extremely complicated to build and grow. 

You're right. We built our own software on top of the Facebook API. While it's a multiple-choice tool and not a totally open interactive system, it's still very complicated. 

The good news is we've been doing it for two years. Our Live audience knows what to do. They've become a large community of hundreds of thousands of people. Many of them know each other, and in a way they're "trained." That makes it fun for newcomers to play along because the main body of the audiences knows what to do. 

To me, that team invented an art form. People call it Dada-esque. It's definitely unique and has built a very interesting audience.

Speaking of audience: What is your goal for the album?

Of course it needs to work for the creators of the show. And I want to see how well the album integrates with the rest of the pieces. The Live team will work with Bill in a "Super Deluxe Live" kind of way. We're making music videos. We'll see how the monetization performs. We'll see if we can place it in commercials with brand partners. Then we'll add it all up and see if it makes sense to do another one.

Certainly we want to recoup our investment. The budget wasn't huge but we did give Bill the resources he needed. Within reason, that's what we do with creators.

We try to provide creative people with a good enough sandbox that they can do their thing, and do it well. 

That can be a difficult balance to strike.

Yes, but I like that way of working. Plus in a larger sense it takes away a lot of the fear for creators. If your aim is never specific... if only the mission is specific... then you can try things.

When one failure is not big enough to really hurt you, you can try a lot of things -- and some of them will break out. That's our business.

For creative people, a little pressure is good... but fear is a killer of creativity.

We tell people to stay within the mission they were given and then do what they do best. That makes a huge difference because it frees people up to do great work.

In a way that's the same thing you're doing on the music side of your business: You have an overall mission but you're flexible in how that mission gets accomplished.

The uniqueness of this company is our ability to extend the creative ethos into areas that you might not immediately think, "Oh, that's logical."

Just because we made an album, that doesn't mean we're now "in the music business." We're not approaching it like we've entered a new business. We're approaching it from the creative side: Making something new and then determining how we can use it commercially.

We focus on creativity, and then we focus on the various outlets.

Pretend it's next year and I ask you to recap what you did this year. What do you hope you would be able to say?

One thing I know is that we'll have a phenomenal TV business. The shows I can't talk about yet will be on the air, from Netflix to other streaming platforms.

Beyond that, I'd like to figure out how to be a preeminent entertainment brand in the AT&T ecosystem.

And I'd like to figure out a way to make high-quality, highly-effective advertisements on the Internet. We don't do short-form video any more; we really extend the videos quite a bit -- we make them meaty and meaningful, nearing the level of daytime unscripted television.

I'd like to take that skill set and make it available to advertisers to change what is currently being made on the Internet for brands.

Because what's currently being made could be a lot better. And a lot more effective.

Published on: Jun 27, 2018
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