L-R: Grammy winning songwriter Tim Nichols with Robin and Robert Ott
Aug 23, 2020 by David Farrell (fyi music news)
What does one do when one is in the prime of one’s life with more money than most can ever dream of having, and a future that is as wide and open as a prairie landscape?
If your name is Robert Ott, you sit back and smell the roses.
After 14 years building one of the most profitable music IP companies in Canada, the still youthful music publishing magnate cut himself free from ole Media Management after acquiring the intellectual property assets of Anthem Entertainment, after having spent a billion dollars buying a variety of music-related IP rights, after having travelled the world more times than he cares to count, and after having given up years of family vacations to create an independent music company that became one of the biggest and best on the global stage. A company that had him continually pivoting between pitches to billion-dollar investment fund managers and creatives who wanted to know that their dreams could become real. It was a juggling act in a game of thrones, with a growing list of contenders splashing the cash for acquisitions like there was no tomorrow.
What he offered investors were multiples that blew traditional investment products out of the water – and creators a chance of obtaining the golden fleece.
Behind it all was a bloody-minded entrepreneur with a razor-sharp mind that can calculate numbers to a fraction of a dollar in less time than it takes to make a sandwich, and a complex algorithmic brain that was concealed in a computer war room that whirred and pulsed in a temperature-controlled environment that was as secure as if it were Fort Knox. More than anything, Ott knew where the money was in music publishing. Better than most in that business.
He gave this up a little over two years ago, and today he’s talking to me by phone as he looks out over a rustic setting in BC’s wine country. His family, and in particular his wife Robin, close at hand, savouring the fruits of freedom and an agenda that is free of obligations other than those he chooses to make.
Robert Ott is a man who made his dreams come true, which leads us to the story he wants to tell me.
The reason behind this call.
Last week, Penticton, BC storefronts and vineyards took possession of a new book extolling the dream that this arid “Napa Valley North” holds. The 60-plus page four-colour gloss book, available in softback and hardcover, is called Storytellers, written and researched by Martin Melhuish. It is the first of two books that Ott has commissioned with Melhuish, the second a co-authorship called Mission Possible (but more on this later in the story).
Storytellers chronicles stories told by artisans and entrepreneurs, including celebrated songwriter Tim Nichols, luthier William Okos and Stingray Radio exec Steve Jones. Not all the stories are centred around people in music. There are other stories about a local chef, a filmmaker, photographer, those behind the vineyards, and a history of the Okanagan Valley. The book is festooned with photographs and, as to be expected with Melhuish’s imprimatur, filled with detail, both historical and current, about an area that is fast becoming an economic hub for tourism.
Ott has maintained a summer home in the area for the past ten years, and he’s grown fond of the lifestyle there. “I think a lot of people don’t know this place exists,“ he tells me over the phone. “They are used to overflying it (on route to Vancouver) and so they miss the wholly different interior."
"I call it the Napa North because it is. There are probably 100 wineries in this region. To come here, you might think you were in California. It has the same ‘look and ‘feel’ of much of California, except for the fact that there is the Okanagan Lake, which is 90-miles long right the middle of it, and is in itself quite spectacular."
The book’s title also plays into a songwriter festival he and Robin established last year called 97 South Song Sessions that is named after the major highway that connects the Okanagan Valley wine region in BC. It’s a business, but one to which he speaks with great affection, and it helps promote the North American country and rock artists playing acoustic sets in wineries and other destination spots in the area. This year the event has been furloughed, but he is using the time to build a better model for it in 2021.
“I’ve been privileged to go around the world and see songwriters perform in their native locales, and we (Robin and Robert) thought it was a perfect fit for this valley to have them tell their stories in this little bit of heaven we have here. It’s an international wine destination and a place where people get to enjoy great food and wine, and beautiful geography.
“There are a lot of 50-plus year-olds who have settled here. These people have worked hard to enjoy the fruits of their labour. That’s a group of people here who we are addressing. It’s our plan to have people fly in and enjoy all that is on offer, and listen to some great artists telling their own stories in song.”
Storytellers, the book, helps promote this grand plan, but what about his past and future plans? He’s direct, doesn’t avoid answering questions and as ever is clear cut about his future intentions.
With all the time in the world, he tells me that 50 percent of his time is going to be spent on “the investment side of the fence but not as an operator, but offering a route to entrepreneurs as an investor and adviser” through RJO Enterprises. Then there’s the festival, and the next book called Mission Possible that will see its release in 2021.
“Mission Possible is aimed at young and intermediate stage entrepreneurs, to show them some of the things they may encounter in the early stages of starting an enterprise or in growing it. Hopefully, I can help shorten that learning curve from my own experiences. The book is also going to include a few fun anecdotes that should be of interest.”
Getting it right has bonded him with Melhuish who has over a dozen books published under his name. Ott mentions one particular incident that provides high hilarity but at the time was a deadly serious affair involving a shoot-out in a hotel. He credits Melhuish with digging out the details on who was involved and how the fracas started. It’s that kind of diligence that has made the partnership earn respect on both sides.
Asked about the huge multiples being made to acquire music publishing assets these days, Ott suggests we are and have been in a bubble for some time–but he also ventures that the music publishing business can still offer great investment returns. “There’s a lot of money out there and it’s hard to find safe returns on the capital. I do get concerned when I see the valuations and multiples rise to the level they have, but money is cheap right now with the interest rates what they are, and these things go in cycles. It’s my view that low interest rates across the board right now are fueling the trend (in acquisitions).”
Asked for advice for entrepreneurs and people in the music business, he offers clarity. “My advice is to be consistent regardless of the times. Perseverance is a highly prized mindset and asset and can never be underestimated. It certainly was when I was coming up in the business. If I had a nickel for every time I was told ‘it won’t work’ and ‘you can’t do that’ …. Nobody has all the answers but a piece of advice I can pass on is never to take advice from someone who isn’t willing to take risks themselves. It doesn’t mean don’t listen, but instead listen and qualify what is being said.”