Archive for the ‘music executives’ Category

Last of the record men: Seymour Stein looks back on 50 years of Sire Records

April 24, 2018

By Mikael Wood 4/13/18

Seymour Stein tried to executive produce this article.

“Don’t put it like that,” the cofounder of Sire Records told me in his gruff New York accent on a recent afternoon.

“I’m talking too much. If this appears, I’ll kill you.”

Stein, 74, was sitting in a cushioned chair at his daughter Mandy’s spacious Spanish-style home in the Hollywood Hills. Grandfatherly in looks (if not in language), the veteran record executive — he prefers the term “record man,” for its artistic flavor — had agreed to discuss his long career, in which he’s helped launch artists such as Madonna and Talking Heads, shepherded wayward luminaries like Brian Wilson and served as the inspiration for at least one pop song: “Seymour Stein” by the Scottish indie group Belle and Sebastian, in which the singer blows his chance to impress the powerful tastemaker.

But the frank, unexpectedly intimate conversation came with repeated caveats — suggestions, he might call them — about how the interview should be presented so as to jibe with Stein’s public persona.

It was, of course, that flair for managing an image — for understanding, and controlling, how things look and sound — that made Stein one of the defining record men of our time, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee who established his reputation by consistently selling listeners on the next idea of cool.

The Ramones, Soft Cell, Everything But the Girl, Ice-T — in the case of each of these diverse Sire acts, Stein knew what people wanted before they knew for themselves.

“Seymour goes with his gut,” said Clive Davis, a fellow music macher who’s known (and competed with) Stein since the late 1960s. “And he’s always been right there, sniffing out who’ll be stars in the many years to come.”

Now, after decades of looking ahead, Stein is turning his careful gaze behind him. On April 22, Sire will mark the label’s 50th anniversary with the release of a limited-edition box set featuring classic cuts by Madonna, Depeche Mode and the Smiths; Stein is scheduled to sign copies that afternoon at Amoeba Music in Hollywood as part of the shop’s festivities for Record Store Day.

Mandy Stein, a filmmaker who directed a 2009 movie about the New York punk club CBGB (where Stein first saw Talking Heads), is working on a documentary about her father. And Stein himself has almost completed a memoir due to be published next year.

“I’ve had a great life, and I’m still here — I’m still going,” he said, his arms folded across his barrel chest. “There have been a few strange incidents that happened. Nothing terrible.”
“I’ve had a great life,” Stein says, “and I’m still here — I’m still going.”

Born in Brooklyn, Stein entered the music business as a teenager when he convinced a couple of editors at Billboard to let him work on the magazine’s charts. He reveled in the data, in the way the numbers revealed patterns in popularity. But it wasn’t enough.

“I realized, What am I doing here? Everything is happening outside! Rock and roll was being born,” he said, and Stein wanted in.

Jobs followed with independent labels including King (known for records by James Brown) and Red Bird (the Shangri-Las) before Stein founded Sire in 1967 with Richard Gottehrer, who’d found success a few years before as one of the writers and producers behind the Angels’ No. 1 hit, “My Boyfriend’s Back.”

In its early days Sire licensed records by British and European rock acts for release in America; “Hocus Pocus,” by the Dutch group Focus, took off in 1973. But two years later, Stein caught a Ramones gig and signed the hugely influential New York punk band, which released its self-titled debut on Sire in 1976.

After that came a hot streak in which Stein seemed to predict where music was headed, from punk to new wave to synth-pop to metal. By the late ’80s, flush with cash from having sold Sire to Warner Bros., Stein was in a position to coax a comeback record out of the Beach Boys’ Wilson, who’d receded from music while under the questionable care of therapist Eugene Landy.

“It wasn’t easy, I’ll tell you,” Stein said of making the self-titled “Brian Wilson,” which came out to warm reviews in 1988. “I would have to say that [Landy] was the most evil person that I ever met.” He turned to Mandy, who was filming our talk. “Can I get sued for that?”

“No, he’s dead,” Mandy replied. (Landy died in 2006.)

Asked why he went through with the project given those challenges, Stein scoffed. “This guy’s a genius,” he said, referring to Wilson.

Sure, but even geniuses run out of steam.

“There are some people, less than a handful maybe, that are worth the effort even if you’re going to lose,” Stein said. “And I didn’t think I was going to lose. But even if I had, I think it would’ve been what they say in Jewish — a mitzvah [good deed] — to have done this.”

Pulling off feats like “Brian Wilson” — and continuing to make new stars out of Seal and k.d. lang — transformed Stein into something of a celebrity himself, one capable of creating a stir every time he entered a crowded club.

Deven Ivy, the singer of a young Sire band called Residual Kid, said he thinks of Stein as Mr. Big from “Wayne’s World” — a cigar-chomping cartoon of an industry titan played in that 1992 movie by Michael Jackson’s former manager, the late Frank Dileo.

Stein admits he enjoyed being photographed in glamorous locales with the famous artists on his roster, even if his constant work kept him from seeing his family. (Stein’s ex-wife was the Ramones’ co-manager, Linda Stein, who was murdered in 2007.)

“I did a terrible thing,” he said, describing how he sent a limousine to take Linda home from the hospital after she’d given birth to Mandy instead of driving her himself. Or was it Mandy’s sister? he wondered.

“How would I know?” Mandy asked.

“Your mother would’ve told you,” Stein replied. “She hated me!”

“She didn’t hate you,” Mandy said.

“I know she didn’t,” Stein said, suddenly tender. “And I didn’t hate her.”

At that, Mandy asked her father, “What do you think of being selfish?”

Stein thought for a few seconds. “It’s certainly not a positive, but I don’t think it’s as big a negative as people think,” he said. “I kind of did it for you guys, you know. I mean, I wanted to be successful.

“And look,” he added, gesturing toward the vaulted ceiling of Mandy’s living room. “This is not shabby.”

Today, larger-than-life record men like Stein and Davis have given way to lower-key executives better suited to the industry’s corporate structure.

“The thrilling years are gone,” Stein said. “There are people in the music business that are experts, but not experts in music.” According to Davis, technology is now where the excitement is. Yet Stein appears to care little about the latest evolution in streaming.

“Seymour’s not that worried about how people are going to listen to the music,” said Warner Bros. Records chief Cameron Strang. “He’s lived through many, many different formats and changes in the way music is distributed.” What still drives Stein, said Strang, is the search for great artists and great songs.

Indeed, though Sire is a smaller concern than it used to be, Stein hasn’t stopped signing fresh talent. Last year the label put out Residual Kid’s grungy but tuneful “Salsa” EP, and in March it released “Slowmotionary,” the striking solo debut by Ethan Gruska of L.A.’s Belle Brigade.

And then there’s his book, in which he can tell his story the way he sees fit. Not that he hasn’t had to compromise his vision a little.

Stein’s original title for the memoir was “Shellac in His Veins,” after a phrase King Records’ Syd Nathan once used to describe Stein. (Before vinyl came into use, records were made of shellac.) But for some reason, Stein said, his publisher didn’t go for it.

“We wound up calling it something I’ve come to terms with,” he said, without offering the new title. “These people, it’s a big firm.” He sighed. “I’m smart enough to defer sometimes. But I don’t think what we came up with is much better.

“But don’t print any of that. I don’t want to piss them off. They’ll throw everything in the garbage.”


Record Labels Are (Kind Of) Dead. Long Live Label Services!

October 11, 2017

Glenn Peoples 10/10/17

Early on a Sunday morning, at a Waffle House across I-40 from Nashville International Airport, Jay Gilbert and Jeff Moskow are talking all things music. They’re amazed by the craziness of the streaming world. They recount some of the living room concerts Gilbert hosts in Los Angeles — some are popular, as in “I just saw his band in an arena” popular. The two rewind to the conversations they had at the just-completed Music Biz, the annual gathering of record labels, distributors, digital service providers, and miscellaneous detritus from the conference’s heyday. Most of all, they talked about the uncertainty in the business. “We’re all trying to figure out where things are headed,” says Gilbert

Fast forward a year. Gilbert and Moskow are finding opportunities in confusion, helping a range of music clients with the label services company they co-founded, Label Logic. “When you’re dealing with artists and release strategies, there are no rules,” says Moskow, a former executive for catalog and special markets division of Universal Music Enterprises. An artist might want to release a couple of EPs before releasing a full album; everybody from Blake Shelton to Nine Inch Nails has experimented with the EP format once digital music fragmented the album. Another artist might want to release only singles. Northern Irish band Ash released one new track every two weeks for 13 months in 2009 and 2010; then, ironically, Ash compiled the singles into an album. In years past, artists seeded albums to peer-to-peer networks to find an audience they couldn’t get at brick-and-mortar retail. Today, hip-hop artists and EDM producers seeking career momentum post their music online. “It’s the wild west,” remarks Moskow.

Label Logic is a product of environment and circumstances. At labels and management companies, lean and fast is the new big and slow. Gilbert and Moskow opened shop to complement capabilities, letting clients — labels, managers, and artists—outsource duties rather than use whatever in-house resources exist. In today’s music business climate, it’s often better to rent than own. Let two “hyper-responsive and responsible” guys, as they say about their approach, take on some of the heavy lifting.

The record business of 10 years ago seems quaint by today’s standards. Back then, people were grappling with consumers’ embrace of single track downloads. Audio streaming services were small players that attracted few customers. Record labels were not yet thinned by painful downsizings and pruning of their rosters. Digital marketing was less essential. Former major-label artists were becoming aware of the independence and freedom digital distribution provided— Radiohead broke the levee by distributing In Rainbows to fans as a pay-what-you-want digital download. Those days are long over. Depending on your perspective, the new music industry either necessitated the hiring of a company like Label Logic or provided the opportunity to hire a Label Logic.

Not that turbulence has battered the music business beyond recognition. Music is still recorded, distributed and marketed to hungry fans. Radio play is great if you get it. A team, whatever its shape and size, must foster a connection between fans and an artist. Some version of a playbook still exists, although a few outdated chapters have been excised. The section titled “The Strategic Importance of Placing Physical Distribution Offices in Every Major Market” went out the window in the early ’00s. “The Art of the Spending Half of a Marketing Budget on a Retail Store’s Endcap” and “How to Negotiate a Huge Record Deal That Will Never Recoup” don’t jibe with the financial realities of today. The ash heap of history also contains a few chapters on music formats: “slotMusic and the Super Audio CD: The Formats of the Future;” “The Undying Album Format, and Why Singles Are Only For Radio;” and “Why You Shouldn’t Bother Releasing Vinyl Records).” A decade ago, few people would have thought people would pay over $30 for a double-LP, 180-gram release of The Eagles’ Their Greatest Volumes 1 and 2.

In shorthand, Label Logic could be called a label services company. But in 2017 the term ‘label services’ begs the question: what the hell is a label? The traditional record label still exists, although staffs are smaller and managers often assume many marketing and e-commerce duties. Some managers play the role of a record label. Artists, too, can create record labels, partner with a mid-sized distribution company, or assemble a team to handle PR, marketing, and project management. Back in the “music should be free” era there were some out-of-left-field varieties of a record label. Mountain Dew created a record label, Green Label, and offered downloads at its logo-emblazoned website. In the 00s, a blog, RCRD LBL, provided free downloads of tracks while generating ad revenue and paying the artist.

Some of the biggest names in the music business have entrusted their artists to Gilbert and Moskow. Renowned artist manager Doc McGhee started working with Label Logic this year. His artist management firm, McGhee Entertainment, has a roster stretching from legends like KISS and Ted Nugent to younger bands A Thousand Horses and Vintage Trouble. McGhee, speaking with a folksy charm, calls Gilbert and Moskow “dedicated” and “smart,” and appreciates how they share their knowledge with his staff . “That’s why I took them in right away. I said, ‘You get all my acts, fuck everybody else.’”

The September release of RSO, a McGhee-repped collaboration of guitarists Richie Sambora and Orianthi, spans every layer of Label Logic’s services. The guys work with all stakeholders — artist, management, and any social agencies, publicist or label involved — to create a campaign and get it to market. Both Gilbert and Moskow recall the many times they’ve sat across a table from an artist with stature and said in plain English, “This is what you need to do.” Peter Frampton, Rick Springfield, and The Temptations might intimidate a less experienced person. While developing catalog campaigns and greatest hits projects, the two have worked with the likes of U2, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the Bee Gees. Moskow had the pleasure of shepherding Universal’s product and marketing campaign for Motown’s 50th anniversary. (Motown ran with precision timing, and Moskow insists he would drive up to meetings with Motown founder Berry Gordy an hour early—and then sit in his car until the meeting started .) Gilbert sees that experience as a differentiator for Label Logic. “We’ve been at the table with some of the top artists in the industry. With that experience, we speak their language.”

Rick Springfield’s relationship with Moskow and Gilbert preceded the creation of Label Logic. The indefatigable rocker — he’s a 68-year-old who looks two decades younger — worked with the duo when all three were at Universal. Springfield remembers Moskow coming to him as a fan and saying, “I think I can help you.” Three of Springfield’s last four albums debuted in the top 100 of the Billboard 200 album chart. Two of them, Venus in Overdrive in 2008 and Songs for the End of the World in 2012, landed inside the top 50. That’s a big deal, explains Moskow. “If you look at artists in his generation, a lot of them don’t debut in the top 50.” To be fair, he adds, Rick had a vision. “He knew he would get new TV and movie roles. He had Californication and True Detective, [the 2015 motion picture, Jonathan Demme-produced] Ricki and the Flash with Meryl Streep, and a couple of best-selling books.”

Springfield, who released Rocket Science last year and is nearing completion on his next album, doesn’t hesitate to give them credit. “They both have great ideas, plus Gilbert’s a great photographer. He’s done the photo for last four albums,” he lauds. Gilbert shoots album covers for many clients. Growing up in Salem, Oregon, Gilbert would sneak a camera into venues — in the decades before smartphones existed, hoisting a camera at a concert could get you thrown out — to photograph rock bands that passed through town. He would never have thought he’d someday be a professional photographer shooting some well-known musician-clients. Nor would he have believed he’s one day who received requests for a snake and a monkey for photo shoots, but that’s another story (the clients’ wishes were met, by the way). Moskow, who since 1999 has been head of A&R for the massively successful compilation series, Now That’s What I Call Music, has a knack for sequencing an album’s songs. “He’s been invaluable in structuring an album and getting it heard,” says Springfield.

Today’s music business is noisy. Many artists don’t get heard in today’s market because an artist needs new ways to reach fans. “You take advantage of the new stuff because the old stuff has disappeared,” he says. Today, the “new stuff” is streaming. Streaming will dominate the visible future — and streaming has people confused. After digital downloads changed the retail landscape, streaming has blown retail into shards. Gilbert helps clients see through the smoking remnants. He cut his teeth by creating the majors’ first all-digital label, UMe Digital. Without a staff, Gilbert signed artists, oversaw the artwork, shepherded projects from production to marketing, and navigated the legal maze to obtain necessary contracts, all of which preceded digital music and required a revision for a digital product. A Peter Frampton album packaged with a sheet music download was “more challenging than you would imagine getting publishing clearances.” It won a Grammy.

Working at a record label wasn’t for the faint of heart. “You take the hits, and you keep going,” says Gilbert. Consider it boot camp for being independent and helping clients navigate numberless pitfalls. They both worked long hours at Universal, but now it’s different, he says. “It’s a labor of love.”

Lighting The Way: Red Light Management Coran Capshaw speaks

August 10, 2017

by Mark Sutherland 8/8/17

Coran Capshaw is the founder of Red Light Management – and the manager of Dave Matthews Band, Lady Antebellum and Phish, who recently played a record-breaking 13-night residency at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

He also follows the likes of Sir Lucian Grainge and Irving Azoff in winning the 2017 City Of Hope Spirit Of Life Award. In an exclusive Q&A, he talks about the business’ biggest opportunities, most testing challenges – and the future of artist management…

How have you grown the UK business?

Well, one thing we do at Red Light – and it’s happening in the UK – is, we’re into developing talent. We’re putting resources against it, and we’re trying to grow artists.

When an established artist becomes available or is looking to make a change, obviously we’re interested in those opportunities, but we’re also interested – for the sake of our company – in developing talent, and that’s working well over there.

What plans do you have for the affiliated businesses in the UK?

We’re promoters over here [in the US] – we haven’t done any promoting over there. But here, we are in the festival business and we do some regional and at times national promoting.

One thing we would like to do is expand the ancillary business opportunities over there, so we are certainly looking at and open to doing more things.

Do those businesses increase the options you can offer to artists?

It goes back to that knowledge. We see a lot of different things and we see a lot of different perspectives. If we’re in business with a label, we want to be good partners to them because we appreciate what they’re doing and we put out records ourselves.

If we’re in a situation where, for whatever reason, we want to put out the record, we know how to do it. So there’s a lot of different perspectives here: Red Light was created with people coming out of the label world, the
promoter world, the sponsorship world, the touring world – all different aspects of the business comprised by the people who are working here. It’s all helpful and all serves a common purpose.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the 25-odd years you’ve been a manager?

We’ve gone through the challenges [around] not selling bodies of work of 10–12 songs the way that we used to… That’s the bad news.

The good news is, the access to and interest in music is higher than in any of our lifetimes. As the tide starts to turn in the recorded music area, we’ve got healthy touring, we’re talking about the global business… This is an exciting time to be here.

And so I don’t really think much about the challenges, I think about the opportunities. That’s where our focus is.

The one thing that we’ve all got to figure out how to crack the code on, is that live music is probably the most inefficiently priced industry in the world.

We all set out with good intentions of being friendly and fair to our fans with pricing, but we’ve got third parties getting their hands on the tickets.

So I think it’s going to cause a shift in primary pricing. It is about creating programmes so we can start getting the artist and the fans more in that equation rather than the third parties.

That’s a challenge and an opportunity at the same time, when you look at the income and revenue that’s headed out the door in the wrong hands.

Where do you see the future of Red Light?

We’re on a very good path now to continue doing what we do. If we wind up in more ancillary businesses that are helpful to our acts, that would be a goal.

The manager and their teams are the most important part of the artist world and it’ll become more and more important in the future.

We have the primary role, we have great label partners, great touring partners, festivalpartners, brand partners but the manager is the hub of all that.

Our work is harder; we have to do more and more with the changes out there, but our role is going to grow and the company’s going to continue what it has been doing in a balanced way.

There’s going to be more and more creative ways of bringing attention to music and a career and that leads to a wide array of opportunity.

These are exciting times and we should all be grateful that we get to do what we do.

‘We sign music we love. We’re not sniffing around to find the new thing all the time’

February 7, 2017

Kenny Gates 1/24/17

You can’t always derive much about a record label’s identity from its name.

Matador founder Chris Lombardi, for example, pinched his company’s brand from a Pedro Almodóvar movie in a snap decision spurred on by design deadlines.

Yet there are certainly characteristics of the bullfighter which rather suit the history of Matador, which turns 28 this year – particularly a penchant for the powerful and provocative, and a fearlessness in the face of peril.

Since Matador was created in Lombardi’s Tribeca apartment in 1989, it’s gone on to introduce audiences to the likes of Superchunk, Teenage Fanclub, Guided By Voices, Pavement, The New Pornographers, Yo La Tengo and Interpol.

More recent successful signings have included Kurt Vile, Savages, Cat Power and Queens Of The Stone Age – who scored their first ever US No.1 album in 2013 with Like Clockwork… on Matador after years signed to a major label.

Lombardi met his Matador colleagues Gerard Cosloy and Patrick Amory before the label existed, when the trio worked at indie Dutch East India Trading.

He says that he initially started his record company “as a hobby – to document some bands playing in New York at the time”.

[PIAS]’s Kenny Gates sat down with Lombardi to get the story of Matador’s origins – and gauge his view of the music industry today…

Am I right that the first record you put out on Matador was by an Austrian band?

Yes, a band called H.P Zinker. Gerard recommended I go see them. It was supposed to be a 7″ deal – just a song, but they recorded a mini-album, six tracks. That was more than I expected.

At the same time I was friends with some other bands in New York. I quickly had four or five albums coming out – including The Dustdevils, Railroad Jerk and Superchunk.

All of a sudden I had a number of releases to responsibly promote, press and distribute.

You had to pay bills, then?

Yeah – and it wasn’t easy to get paid in those days. A Lot of the indie distributors weren’t the quickest to write a cheque, especially if you didn’t have a hot record.

Did you have startup capital to get going?

I borrowed some money from my dad. Not very much. Probably $40,000 over two years. That helped keep the lights on.

The Railroad Jerk record did pretty well and the Superchunk record did pretty well, and Gerard had also gotten this cassette from the guys in a band called Teenage Fanclub. He had been shopping that around to a few different major labels at the time, but between [Cosloy’s label] Homestead and Matador we said: ‘Let’s put that out together.’

That’s when we started working together. We signed Teenage Fanclub and things really started to take off.

So that was your breakthrough record?

Yeah. It was also a time where things were starting to change with the mainstream for the indie music business. There were a number of different labels cropping up – Sup-Pop, Matador, Merge. And then in 1991, Nirvana really started to heat up.

During that frenzy of alternative rock, the major labels were trying to grab a piece of something they didn’t quite understand. At the time there was a lot of LA hair metal bands, Guns’N’Roses and Poison, and pop music.

The bands we were signing were starting to sell real records and we did a distribution deal with Atlantic at the start of 1993.

Why did you do that? You needed the cash?

One thing we’ve always been able to do, which is a pretty amazing luxury, is that somehow we found a way to put out whatever we wanted while never really having to concern ourselves with the commercial viability of it – because we’ve had partners who’ve allowed us to do what we wanted.

We’ve been able to do these joint venture deals, grow the company and hold onto our artists while not compromising on our artistic taste.

How does it work with you and Gerard?

We’re both the A&R guys. We sign the bands that we like and the music we want to hear. It’s really about the music that we love.

The thing that’s been great is for the past 27 years we’ve only worked with artists we like. We’re not sniffing around to find the ‘new’ thing all the time or meeting every band that comes to town.

Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?

Probably in the pure sense that I work for myself and do what I want.

In terms of being a businessman, no. I never thought of myself as a businessman first.

How did you deal with the company expanding? Did you go to business school?

No I only went to college for three months, and Gerard also went to college for a few months. So… instinct!

We had business managers to deal with royalties and the more complicated aspects of a larger roster with 30 employees, but [the growth in the business] was mostly us just figuring it out.

It’s hard to become a ‘boss’ all of a sudden. We really just employed our friends for a long time. Our oldest employee, Rusty Clarke, is Director Of Sales at Beggars [US]. At the time, the only requirement of people we hired was to love the music we loved and be able to talk knowledgeably about it.

Previous history in the music business was actually considered a downside. If you’d worked for a record company, it probably meant you’d been influenced by someone else.

Rusty was a waitress, but she went to every show we were at. It was hand-to-mouth for quite a while.

How long did it take before you were able to actually make a salary out of the business?

Well, we didn’t really work like we had salaries. We’d just about pay our rent and buy pizza. We lived with the label.

I had thousands of H.P Zinker records at my loft. You kind of forget how much space that many boxes, 3,000 sleeves, inserts and pieces of vinyl fill up. They don’t come assembled!

We’d invite friends and the bands over, get some beers in and some drugs and stuff the records for a few hours. It was great. It felt home-made, which it was.

Let’s go back to your time with Atlantic Records – in hindsight, was it a good or bad era?

I won’t say those experiences were ideal relationship-wise. I don’t think we got much from it really. But we did get capital, and with their investment we were able to grow the company further.

We had a pretty liberal arrangement with them. We were a fairly in-demand company at the time. And we weren’t super-greedy; we weren’t trying to sell ourselves.

It ended at the end of 1995, which was kind of the beginning of our first-hand experience of the major label revolving door. We saw record company executives we’d begun our relationship with go away. The guys we did our deals with, first at Atlantic and then Capitol, they moved on.

These executives are really there for themselves, they’re dictated to by a corporation, sales goals and publicly-traded companies. They come and go, and they go to the next place that gives them the best deal.

The next guy wants to get rid of the other guy’s [ideas] as soon as he can. He doesn’t want someone else to get the credit, and certainly he doesn’t want someone else’s failure on his hands.

You signed to EMI/Capitol after Atlantic. Why?

Our guy from Atlantic, Danny Goldberg, moved on and so it was time for us to find someone else who was sympathetic to what we do.

That ended up being Gary Gersch at Capitol – the guy who signed Nirvana to Geffen. He was at Capitol for about two years, and then he left. And so we were getting used to this major label situation.

You sold 49% of your business to EMI? How do you get past that?

We did. The Capitol deal bought us out of the Atlantic deal, then when we finished up with the Capitol deal we did a distribution agreement with DNA, part of Valley, and we were fully an independent company again.

You got an advance for your distribution and paid back Capitol?

Yes. Then Valley/DNA went bankrupt. We were able to get our stock out. And, of course, we owed them money – but they were bankrupt. So we walked free and clear and did a deal with ADA.

And finally, you found the ideal suitor…

By 2001, we wanted a more engaged partner; a partner who was more established outside of the United States where we’d struggled for a long time.

We had various distribution deals [around the world] at that point. We contacted Martin Mills and talked to him about partnering up. And by the end of that year we sold 50% of Matador to the Beggars Group. And it’s been a tremendous period of stability and growth ever since.

Martin and the Beggars Group have really allowed Gerard, Patrick and I to do what we do best and not worry about…

All the shit.

Exactly. All the shit.

Being able to represent ourselves as a truly global company is remarkable. It’s been amazing.

Beggars has given us excellent stability as well as great insight – they’re a cutting edge entertainment company. They’re at the forefront of all the new media stuff.

You made a comment when Queens OF The Stone Age went to No.1 in the US that you felt “numb”. Why?

It’s hard to go up from No.1. When Queens went to No.1, I wasn’t looking for it – it wasn’t our goal. We’ve never felt competitive in that kind of way.

It’s never been about volume of sales or being a commercial market leader for us. It’s just been about putting out the best music. We want our records in as many people’s pockets as possible, but we’re not about having hit records.

So was it scary?

No. It didn’t feel like it wasn’t ‘us’ at any point; we’d been fans and friends of Queens since the very beginning. That didn’t feel weird.

We’ve gotten pretty good at what we do, and it’s not every day you get one of those achievements. But that’s not our focus.

Were you proud?

Yes, but I was more happy for the staff and the band; they deserve to experience having a No.1 record. I was proud to say an independent label like Matador was able to give a giant rock band like Queens Of The Stone Age their first No.1 record – that was a satisfying moment for sure.

If the Chris Lombardi from 1989 could see the Chris Lombardi of today, what would he think?

He probably wouldn’t believe it. But with hindsight, I probably would have done a few less drugs. [Laughs].

I think we’ve done good. I love coming to work every day and working with the folks in this office. My days are spent having meals with unbelievably talented musicians – people who are musicians because they have to be. They’re not trying to score a hit record; they have to express themselves in a unique way.

I’m pretty emotional about my business. It’s all about caring about and believing in the people you’re working with – and convincing people to take the time to check out something you believe is truly special.

Did you ever get up in the morning, look in the mirror and think: ‘I’m not up to this. I can’t do this?’

No. I’m a fairly optimistic person. I’m certain there were some times where we were flying by the seat of our pants. But those are kind of the funnest times – when all of your senses are at their rawest and you’re just trying to figure it out.

What’s the worst moment in your career?

I don’t think I have one! I honestly haven’t really had any shitty moments.

I guess my worst moment was we had a much too large staff after our various major label partnerships. We had staffed up to resist their involvement.

When we became fully independent our cash was a lot tighter and we had to be more responsible with our overhead. We had to slim down and let go of some staff that weren’t necessary. [Getting too big] wasn’t the best decision my part, and that was hard.

Who are your mentors; people who inspired you to do what you do?

It’s the bands. They’re who inspire me. There’s no executive who inspires me.

Are you a romantic?

I’m a pretty romantic guy. But I’m romantic about now. I don’t romance the past. I like what I’m doing right now – I’m enjoying talking to you. I’m talking about myself, though, which is…

You’re a bit uncomfortable talking about yourself?

I don’t feel great about it.

Streaming. What do you think of it?

It’s great. I meet kids who are more knowledgeable about my artists than I am, and that’s because of streaming. They have entire catalogues at the tips of their fingers.

When we were growing up, it was like if they were out of stock, they were out of stock.

What about an industry that’s 90% streaming? You think we’ll still be able to break bands?

Yeah. If it’s good, it’ll float to the top. I don’t really beat the dead horse of physical. I actually always think there will be a physical aspect.

But the fact is, many, many more people will be able to listen to our music and we’ll get paid for it. That’s exiting for us and our artists.

Why do you still get up in the morning and do this? What’s your purpose?

To help support and spread the message of people I feel are hugely talented.

I have the best job in the world. I really do. And I’m very lucky it fell into place the way it did


December 8, 2016

Richard Griffiths has worked in the music business for more than four decades. After breaking in as a London-based booking agent, he founded Headline Artists and became the first international agent for AC/DC. He went on to hold a series of senior executive positions on both sides of the pond, including Epic, CBS Records, BMG, Virgin Music and Sony Music. Griffiths and Harry Magee set up U.K. offices for The Firm in 2001, forming Modest! Management two years later. The company took off seven years later when Simon Cowell chose Griffiths and Magee to manage fledgling boy band One Direction, which he had assembled from contestants on the original U.K. edition of his show The X Factor. Griffiths and his partner haven’t looked back since, playing key roles in the development and breaking of clients 5 Seconds of Summer worldwide, as well as Olly Murs and Little Mix in the U.K. In the summer of 2015, Modest! simultaneously had #1 singles on 5SOS, Little Mix and L.A. teen quartet Hey Violet. Griffiths and Magee are now in the initial stages of guiding the career of 1D alumnus Niall Horan.

At what point did you know you wanted to leave the label sector and go into management?
I didn’t want to leave the label. That fucking idiot Rolf Schmidt-Holtz fired me and Harry Magee. We almost immediately decided to go in to management business together. Jeff Kwatinetz got in touch and we set up a London office for The Firm. Unfortunately, that fell apart soon after we started, so we set up Modest!

How did working at CBS/Sony prepare you for becoming an effective manager?
Working for Tommy Mottola changed my life. I was running Virgin Publishing in L.A., signing all the hit CBS acts. Tommy was getting pissed off, so we met and he offered me a job running Epic. Working directly with Tommy taught me so much, as well as dealing with Sharon Osbourne, Roger Davies and others. Even though we were rivals at Columbia and Epic, Donnie Ienner and I had a great working relationship.

Back in the Sony days with Ozzy Osbourne and band, Sharon Osbourne, Dave Glew, Michele Anthony and Tony Martell.

Who was your first client?
Lemar, who came third in a talent show called Fame Academy. He had three double-platinum albums, but we could never break him outside of the U.K.

Which label execs have you worked with most closely and effectively?
Steve Barnett and I have worked together both at Epic, where I brought him in to run international, and subsequently when he was at Columbia and now Capitol. We’ve shared huge success together over the years. I love working with Rob Stringer, who was the Epic label manager in London when we first met. Nick Raphael and Jo Charrington at Capitol U.K.—we had massive success with JLS, Olly Murs and now 5SOS. We have had a great working partnership with Sonny Takhar at SYCO. His influence on the career of 1D and Little Mix has been huge. We will miss him.

What role did Simon Cowell play in the evolution of your company?
Simon worked for me when I was President of BMG Europe. When he wasn’t sure about going on TV, I encouraged him. We have a strong personal friendship. He came to Harry and me when the first two series of The X Factor failed to produce an artist of merit. The first year together, we got Leona Lewis and broke her around the world. There followed five years of unparalleled success, JLS, Olly, Little Mix and, of course, One Direction. Working with Simon established Modest!, but at the same time we helped The X Factor break worldwide artists. I’m sure it’s a coincidence, but that hasn’t happened since we stopped five years ago!

What are your plans for 5SOS?
They are on a well-deserved break after finishing their tour last week. They did 102 arena shows and have sold over 750,000 tickets and 1.3 million albums. They are in a great place. The band will be around for a long time.

Do you have a strategy for breaking Little Mix in the U.S.?
I really believe we are going to break Little Mix big time with this album—not only in America but around the world. We’ve been close before but never quite got there. My good friend Scooter Braun has given us the Ariana Grande tour in the first quarter of 2017. I think this is going to be the perfect platform. No one works harder than those girls.

How does managing Niall differ from managing 1D?
Less cars for a start! Obviously, the guys were very young when we started so that was always a major consideration. Niall is now a young man with six years-plus experience at the coalface of the business, having had phenomenal success, so the approach is different. With 1D, for example, the writing was condensed and recording was mainly done in hotel rooms whilst on tour. Niall is writing and recoding at his own pace, which he is loving, and the results are a testament to his growth and emergence as a world-class solo artist.

Do you think 1D will ever reunite?
Not in the foreseeable future. They are all out there enjoying being themselves. I’m sure Harry and Liam will make records and have great success. Louis has some interesting projects he’s developing. But never say never to a reunion.

What are the biggest challenges for breaking a new act right now? How do you attack those challenges?
The new world that we inhabit evolves and changes on a weekly basis. Having a hit has become harder and harder due to the dominance of the major players that the streaming model favors. New acts need a mobilized fan base before going full-throttle. They need more time than ever to grow and develop.

Where did you get the name Modest! from?
When England beat Germany 5-1 in Munich, we registered FiveOne as a company. Then Ged Doherty, who was Chairman of Sony U.K., called me and asked me what name we were going to use. I told him, and he said, laughing “Why don’t you call it ‘modest’?” We loved the idea, but added the exclamation point to make it clear it’s ironic.

Who’s in your pantheon of great managers?
Irving Azoff, Sharon Osbourne, Roger Davies, Scooter Braun, Simon Fuller, Jeff Kwatinetz, Louis Walsh (that’s a joke!), Bill Curbishley, Cliff & Peter.

What can you depend on the major labels for today?
Well, it’s a very different world. Gone are the days when you could just hand a record over to a major and get them to spend too much money and you’d get a hit. It’s a far more collaborative process now. One big change is the labels are under-resourced and management must supplement their deficiencies. Modest! has a bigger digital department than any U.K. label; probably the same with branding. We have to do that because the labels are so understaffed. Also, so many of their people have no understanding of how hard an artist works. They sit in their offices coming up with stupid schedules because they have never experienced what an artist is going through.

What are some of the most difficult issues facing managers today?
The basic and most challenging issue is that it now takes much longer to break new acts. That obviously means more investment both financial and in terms of time. The other issue, which is also obviously both a gift and curse, is that campaigns now need to be thought through from a global perspective from the outset.

Is the impact of streaming on the branding process mitigating the impact of radio?
Not so much mitigating but providing another lane. The long tail theory hasn’t really materialized in the streaming world, however, so the same rules still apply—the big artists and songs dominate. There is no doubt that radio is going to have to revaluate its playlist strategies in the streaming world.

What are the most enjoyable and most gratifying parts of your job?
I still get a thrill from breaking a new artist. I love having #1 records and sold-out shows. Bill Curbishley once said the definition of management is doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful! That is true by and large, but we’ve been fortunate to work with some wonderful artists who work really hard, do a great job and say thank you. And then there’s the management rider. We say promoters have to provide two bottles of fine red wine. Simon Moran and David Zedeck know more about wine now than they ever thought possible.

What changes do you foresee taking place during the next five years, for the business and for yourself?
It is much harder and is taking much longer to break new artists. This makes our job even more challenging, but never has the role of the manager been more important. On a personal note, I’d love to find and break a great rock band. That’s where I came from, and while I love that we are the Princes of Pop, I miss a bit of headbanging!

Peter Rudge: ‘The greatest asset a manager can give an artist is honesty’

July 17, 2016

By Tim Ingham 6/07/16

MBW’s Manager Of The Month celebrates some of the artist managers doing great things in the global business. This month, we’re delighted to sit down with Peter Rudge (pictured) – a key player at Vector Management and a man whose career has seen him look after The Who, The Rolling Stones and Diana Ross.

Rolling Stones“Everything’s groundhog day in this business. There’s no situation you can throw at me that I haven’t, at some point or another, dealt with in the past.”

Peter Rudge holds a pedigree of working with true rock’n’roll royalty.

A Cambridge graduate with a degree in history, British veteran Rudge has combined a sharp intellect with shrewd deal-making across more than four decades in the music biz – earning the loyalty of some of the biggest acts on earth.

After leaving university in 1968, Rudge joined the London-based Track label, whose roster included Jimi Hendrix and Marc Bolan.

From there, he built relationships with two huge artists as tour manager for the Rolling Stones and The Who – going on to manage both groups outright for most of the ’70s, while also working with Roger Waters, Duran Duran and Madness.

“With The Stones and The Who I was lucky,” says Rudge. “In that instance, I managed to work with bands that could have done it without me.”

This was a heady time for the young exec, who also worked with Diana Ross and even produced Andy Warhol’s US cable TV show.

However, Rudge‘s career hasn’t been without its sadness.

In 1977, he was managing an on-the-rise Lynyrd Skynyrd. Just as the Southern rock band stood on the verge of a worldwide breakthrough, they were involved in a tragic plane crash in Mississippi, killing three members of the group.

Understandably, it’s the moment Rudge marks as the toughest of his professional and personal life to date.

In the modern era, Rudge has shown himself to be a smart operator – and, crucially, one who knows his limits.

“I Was lucky with the stones and the who – they could have done it without me.”

In the late ’90s, he merged his own management roster with marketing giant Octagon, where he began working with the likes of record-breaking operatic group Il Divo – whom he continues to represent today.

He went on to launch Proper Artist Management in conjunction with Live Nation – before Proper itself merged with Vector Management (The Kings Of Leon, Kesha, Emmylou Harris) in 2014.

These days, Rudge looks after the likes of Imelda May, currently working on a new record with T Bone Burnett, and Nick Mulvey – the Fiction-signed, Mercury-nominated singer/songwriter who, we’re told, is tinkering in the studio with Brian Eno.

Then there’s also Il Divo, who recently sold out five dates at the Budokan in Tokyo, and Alfie Boe – currently starring on Broadway in Finding Neverland, and readying a new project with Michael Ball signed up by Universal/Decca.

Yet the artist with whom Rudge is most closely associated today is a band he’s worked with for 30 years: Tim Booth-fronted Manchester heroes James.

The reason for Rudge‘s status as MBW’s Manager Of the Month becomes clear: James are currently romping around Europe on a sold-out tour, following the successful release of latest album Girl At The End Of The World, which recently hit No.2 on the Official UK chart – a smidgen behind Adele’s 25.

The release was put together on an ‘artist services’ basis with BMG, whose Korda Marshall says: “Peter’s experience has been a real benefit to the strategy and planning of the campaign. I think our respective teams have learned a lot from each other.

“Peter combines experience with a freshness and enthusiasm to get things done.”

“He combines that experience with a freshness and enthusiasm and desire to get things done.

“I think what he likes at BMG is that its a very honest and open working relationship. And you have to remember he has managed the band for 30 years – his standards are high.”

MBW sat down with Peter to grab some insight into these high standards – and to discover what the best part of half a century in management has taught him…

You’ve been with James for over three decades. That’s a long time to work with any rock star…

I know – you get less for murder! I’ve worked with James from 1992 and it’s been one of my career’s great privileges.

I was brought in to look after America because I was spending most of my time there back then.

As luck would have it, that was during the time they were recording Laid, which of course was a seminal record in America – at one point we’d shipped over a million albums.

“As sit down has become a rite of passage for young people in the UK, Laid has become in America.”

As Sit Down has become a rite of passage for young people in the UK, Laid [the track] has become in America, helped by the fact it’s used in the American Pie films.

For the past 11 years, Meredith Plant’s been my co-manager on James and she should take much of the credit.

We’ve managed the live thing very well over the years. It helps that we’ve had one promoter forever: Simon Moran.

James were one of the first bands Simon ever promoted when he started, and we all think a lot of him – he’s been as much as partner as anybody.

We also work with John Giddings at Solo, who’s done a great job.

Why have you signed James to BMG – and on an artist services deal – for their past two albums?

We’ve been playing at this ‘artist services’ thing for some time. Funnily enough, James’s Hey Ma album, which came out on Mercury [in 2008], was actually released on a similar model.

We realised that a band which has managed to have a lifespan this long eventually hits a glass ceiling. As we all know, it’s a very fickle industry.

When that happens at the major labels, you’re consigned almost immediately to the commercial marketing divisions – repackaging this and that, budget pricing…

We went to Mercury for Hey Ma, who had our catalogue, and tried to design something similar we have with the BMG Rights thing now.

We did a joint venture deal with Mercury; [Universal’s] Adam Barker was really good, as was Jason Iley [now Sony Music UK boss], who was in charge of the label back then.

“Like many bands, James usually won’t allow an A&R into the parking lot, let alone the studio!”

The model we picked was a little bit of a hybrid – it felt like the runt of the litter within the Universal system. However, it showed us that this may be the way to go. We took a rest, and then started talking to BMG.

It was pretty apparent from the beginning that BMG’s ambition was right, the model was interesting, but they didn’t quite have the resources they do today [for the release of previous James album, La Petite Morte in 2014)]. That’s why we partnered with Cooking Vinyl – with Martin [Goldschmidt].

That album was pretty successful. We liked it, James were allowed creative input [into the campaign]; it was a very respectful relationship.

Then, to BMG’s credit, they brought Korda Marshall in. Also, Thomas Haimovici had been there a while and, I have to say, immediately related to the group well.

James, like many bands, usually won’t allow an A&R guy in the parking lot, let alone in the studio! But Thomas got their trust and respect – he was very helpful and didn’t undermine anything.

Then Korda, coming from Infectious, arrived at BMG with a philosophy that was very akin to James’s own. And that also brought in Pat Carr and Jo Power, who are both great marketing people.

We’ve now signed a new deal, including options. Most [services] deals are on a one album basis, but we’ve established a long-term relationship.

Let’s talk about your business experiences. Why did you merge your company Proper with Live Nation?

In the late ’90s, I’d teamed up with Octagon, an IPG company. I thought then, and I was right, that you could see the writing was on the wall for small management companies.

As the labels imploded, management companies would have to take up much of the slack and smaller ones without resource wouldn’t be able to survive.

I looked at Octagon, and thought, ‘That’s the new landscape.’ I needed to be in bed with someone that had access to [ad agencies] Deutsch, McCann Erickson etc.

In the end, it didn’t really work because [advertising] operates on a totally different timeline to music; it’s a very different world – and a different culture. It was a great learning experience for me, though.

I hooked up with Il Divo during that time, which frankly I probably wouldn’t have got without the promise of McCann Erickson and [ad] companies investing in them.

“irving Azoff is a great manager – a fantastic manager.”

One of my oldest friends in the business, Irving Azoff, was then Live Nation’s management division.

We bumped into each other and he said: ‘Why don’t you come and be with us?’ And I knew that was where I wanted to go.

There are a lot of stories and a lot of opinions about Irving, but he’s a great manager – a fantastic manager. Always has been.

Then Irving left [Live Nation in late 2012] and [Michael] Rapino took over the management side. Although I was operating as Proper, Live Nation still owned a chunk of my business.

After Irving went, Rapino re-calibrated the artist management platform and built it around three central parts: Roc Nation, Maverick and Vector.

I’d been a friend of [Vector President] Jack Rovner for years since when I used to manage Roger Waters. We decided to go into partnership together, and I set up Vector over here in Europe.
How do you find being part of Live Nation – both before the Vector move and now – when you’ve been an independent force for much of your career?

To be honest, I get the best of both worlds. It’s essentially given me what any manager now needs: a larger footprint internationally, and a much larger bandwidth.

I can access resources that I would never have been able to use before – in the digital world, in the branding world, in the sync world. I’m lucky.

I’ve been a manager for 40 years in this business. I’ve got my own relationships; people know me.

“It’s funny: I must have lived through 25 presidents of Columbia during my career, while dealing with the same promoters in the UK and US.”

My track record means I’m usually seen as a safe pair of hands.

My Rolodex is big; I’m two or three calls away from anybody. That’s the only good thing about getting old – you grow up with everybody else!

It’s funny: I must have lived through 25 Presidents of Columbia Records during my career, while dealing with the same promoters in the UK and US for pretty much the entire time.

That tells you something about the live business; it’s just a different DNA.

Management’s very lonely.

Success has many fathers, and failure none. Before you put every album out the artist thinks it’s going to be No.1, or go down brilliantly.

After a record has collapsed when you’ve had high expectations, when the phone stops ringing and everyone moves on to the next release, it’s hard.

Sometimes it feels like labels sell products, while managers try to develop careers. There’s been some lows because of that.

The first thing I ever did in the music business of any substance was The Who with Tommy – and the first gig I ever did in America was The Who at Metropolitan Opera House.

I was 23 years old, looking through the Yellow Pages to find the Met. I got through to the General Manager, and talked him into allowing me to see Rudolph Bing who was running the Met in those days. I completely blagged it.

Rudolph agreed for The Who to play [the Met] on July 7, 1970. Pete Townshend smashed his guitar on stage that night, leaving a room full of people gasping.

That to me was my greatest achievement – but then it was my first one and I’ve tried to live up to it ever since.

“Sometimes it feels like labels sell products, while managers try to develop careers.”

A perfect bookend to that story is that we are now in negotiations to stage the classical version of Quadrophenia at the Met next year; the version of the show which opened with the fantastic Alfie Boe playing Jimmy at the Royal Albert Hall last year, a show featuring Pete Townshend, Phil Daniels, Billy Idol and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

I’m also very proud of Il Divo – we’ve sold over 30 million albums across the world with barely a spin at radio or a single bit of positive press. Working with them has taught me more about selling records than any other project I’ve done. We’re into our 13th year together and they’ve remained on Syco the entire time.

And of course I’m very proud of being part of keeping James in the game for 30 years. Most of their contemporaries from that Manchester scene have either disappeared or are just going around and around [on reunion tours].

James still push themselves to be contemporary and relevant – and that’s something which has been authenticated with this album.

My saddest moment was obviously the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash. I’d been part of taking them from a club band up and up – I put them on The Who tour and it was a big moment.

We did really well; Southern Rock was still pretty parochial at that stage.

Two weeks after that plane crash they were due to headline the Madison Square Garden in front of 18,000 people. It was never to be.

On a personal level, that plane crash is the worst thing I’ve ever experienced, period.You have worked with some strong characters! How do you deal with it when things go wrong?

I always say to any prospective client that my greatest value to an artist is honesty and objectivity.

People will tell me things they’ll never tell you, as an artist, and it’s my job to be straight with you.

Just as in life, a relationship is never tested until you disagree.

“Just as in life, A [Management] relationship is never tested until you disagree.”

For me to disagree with you as an artist doesn’t mean to say I don’t believe in you. I understand what you’re saying, but I recommend another course of action.

I’m in the industry 24/7. I have been for 40 years. I know how this business works. As an artist, you come in and out of it – sometimes every two or three years.

When you explain that, artists tend to respect you. They don’t always like you, but there are too many people in this business who say yes, yes, yes – and it comes back to bite you on the ass.

What advice would you give young managers today?

Don’t kid yourself that you have all the answers – no-one does.

You should find an ally, and if it’s necessary for you to partner with someone who you feel has more experience or relationship that will help your artist, it will only help you in the long run.

There’s no doubt that young guys who were there at a start of a success often get removed [by bigger or more experienced players] so you need to try and neutralize that before it has a chance of happening.

“Don’t kid yourself you have all the answers – no-one does.”

That’s why finding a home or a nest is not a bad idea. No-one’s going to take all the money so long as you deal with the right people.

But the first port of call with all young managers is: go find a lawyer who’s going to protect you, advise you and make sure the paperwork is right.

Don’t be adamant to do it all yourself if you don’t feel qualified.

You were 70 a few weeks ago. I’m sure you could spend your life on a beach if you liked. Why do you still keep doing what you do in music?

I’m still really enjoying it. A month like the past month with James is everything I ever wanted to do.

30 years with a great band like that, and still seeing them get a nod, it means a lot to me.

That’s all I ask for as a manager – for my artists to get the shot they deserve.

Lyor Cohen On Launching His New Label, Surviving Failure and “Bumping Into Genius”

June 28, 2016

by Abby Schreiber 6/2/16

After getting his start as a road manager for rap greats Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys, Lyor Cohen has gone on to have one of the most storied careers in the music industry. Having previously served as the president of Def Jam and the CEO and president of recorded music at Warner Music Group, Cohen has gone on to co- found 300 Entertainment, an independent record label and self-described “music- based content company” that represents artists like Young Thug, Fetty Wap, Highly Suspect, ASTR, Coheed and Cambria, Migos and more.

Have you ever had a mentor?

My mentor was the game, the hustle. Russell [Simmons] and I had the unique ability to learn from our mistakes. Because for seven years, the majors thought rap music was a fad — simply a fad. We made every possible mistake there was to make. And yet, we survived. But as for a human mentor, I would say Russell [Simmons] and Ahmet Ertegun. Russell [taught me] about the spirit of light and curiosity. Ahmet [taught me] the importance of song. He had a very special saying that when someone asked him, “how are you successful in the music business?” he would say, “well, you put your head down and you keep walking until you bump into genius.”

What would you consider your biggest mistake or your biggest failure, and what did you end up learning from that experience?

My biggest mistake was staying at [’80s and ’90s era after hours club] Save the Robots too late.

Tell me more about when you were launching 300; what were some of the things that you wanted to make sure you were doing differently this time around from any of the other positions or labels or companies you had worked with?

Discipline! Discipline. Discipline.

In what sense? In every sense?

In all senses. But primarily, discipline not to get caught in the noise, but still get caught in the music.

300 has so many different kinds of artists — hip-hop, rock, electronic, R&B. When you’re scouting new talent, what do you look for? Is it all instinctual?

So, we’re always looking for an artist that when they walk in the room, they change the molecules of that room. And that goes to the discipline. But we are a modern music business that also has to recognize data and the will of the people. We have two masters: the fans and our mission statement.

When you look back on your career so far, is there one moment or one person that you think launched everything?

I rarely look back. I’m not interested in history at all — I’m only interested in how I can contribute today — but there are three significant moments in my career. During one period, I signed every bad act there was to sign and that didn’t sell anything. The artist that saved me from going under was Redman. The next [significant moment] was when I was being tossed out of Sony, I had this little record called “Regulate” by Warren G that ended up selling 4 million albums and gave PolyGram the confidence in Def Jam. And the last one was when I invented December. Before my releases, the traditional record industry refused to release big albums in December because the retailers were too busy stocking and unstocking. I broke that pattern by dropping Ja Rule, Jay Z, DMX and Method Man all in the same month.

What do you do to relax and clear your head after you’ve had a busy day?

I don’t feel like I need to relax, because I’m so fully passionate about the process of building a modern-day music-based media business. I love bumping into the people that I work alongside, and I adore the challenges and the creativity that my artists offer me every day. So I don’t feel [anxious], or tense or a need to relax. But I love being a parent. I love hiking, sailing, golfing and reading. I read primarily nonfiction, historical characters…

Are you reading anything good right now?

I’m adoring reading Hamilton. My last book before that was Stalin. And I’m just so fascinated by different periods of time. Before that, it was the Medici family.

What were you like as a child?

I’m from the first batch of [kids from the] Ritalin case study. It’s very fashionable now, ADHD or whatever they call it, but I was part of that original batch of Ritalin kids. I’ve always, always, always, as far as I can remember in time, had a profound understanding of time. And I remember that being an incredibly advanced and mature thing that I had and the other little kids didn’t. I understood that we have a beginning, middle and an end. And I’m never not on time; if I’m not on time, I will let people know. The essence of who I am is that I want to know what lies beneath. I have zero interest in seeing or understanding what everybody’s able to see. I’m not interested in the veneer, but I’m interested in why and how come.

What would you consider your greatest achievement, or the thing that makes you proudest?

Well, my son is about to graduate college, and I can’t think of a more proud moment. Also, my daughter was born deaf, profoundly deaf, so that means the deafest of the deaf. There’s no one deafer than her, and you could actually play with those words, as in D-E-F, because that’s what I call her, the deffest of the def. And I found a miracle device called the cochlear implant, and now she’s an auditory girl, so that was a really remarkable thing that I wake up to every day — I’m just blown away that I wake up to a miracle every day. So it’s between those two things and my capacity to love — I’m in love with [my fiancée] Xin Li.

What has been your biggest career obstacle?

I don’t see obstacles.

Have you always been like that, or is that sort of a philosophy that developed over time?

No, no. I don’t see obstacles.

Since your interview is part of our ‘Sexy Issue,’ what qualities do you find sexiest in a person, or in a romantic partner?

Their laugh, confidence and outlook on the world.

Have you ever been driven to succeed by the desire to impress a potential romantic partner?

No, I never pull [that card] … that card is not interesting because if I go to a club and they don’t recognize me, I’ll stand at the back of the line. I’m never going to say, “hey, my name is Lyor Cohen.” Even if I’m throwing the party.

How is it that you don’t worry about those kinds of things or don’t have an ego about that?

I think I’m so souped up that I don’t need any additional reminders or acknowledgement. I am so personally souped up that if someone recognizes me, cool; if someone doesn’t, cool…

What do you think is the sexiest quality about yourself?

The fact that it doesn’t take long to see the truthfulness of who I am.

You’re authentic.

Thank you — that’s a good word. Authenticity.

Scooter Braun: On his Career

June 28, 2016

interview by Abby Schreiber 6/27/16

As the founder of SB Projects, Scooter Braun has launched and managed the careers of clients like Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen, Psy, Karlie Kloss, Black Eyed Peas, Steve Angello, CL, Martin Garrix, Tori Kelly, The Knocks and, most recently, Kanye West. Along with music management, SB Projects also includes a record label (Schoolboy Records), a music publishing division (Sheba Publishing) and several film/TV and technology ventures.

Is there any singular moment or experience for you that you credit with launching your career?

I would say Jermaine Dupri’s mother firing me. The story always goes that me and Jermaine parted ways, that I sort of left, so that’s for the best. But the truth is that I had talked with him a couple of months earlier about [the fact that] I was thinking about leaving, and I had all of these ideas and I didn’t think that they were listening to me. We were like brothers, and it was a really easy conversation, and he said, “No, I don’t think you need to [leave], we’ll figure it out.” So I was already kind of planning to depart, and one day his mom was in the office — his mom ran it — and she was saying how we all just take advantage of her son, [she was] just joking around. But it got to a place where it became insulting. And something was said that was incredibly insulting, and I told her that it wasn’t appropriate. And I was very kind and cordial about it, but I was like, “I’m not going to be OK with what you said.” It was extremely inappropriate, and it [wasn’t] OK. And the next day I came in and she put a letter in my mailbox saying that I was fired. Jermaine told me, “Oh, I’ll be here in a couple of weeks,” but he wasn’t going to stand up for me. And I looked at the letter again, and I realized that he had signed it. And he was like, “Oh, give it a couple of weeks, Mom’s just upset,” you know, and I just said to myself, “This is why I need to start my own thing again, and I need to believe in myself.”

I was very confused, and my brother happened to be backpacking in South America, living in $5-per-night hostels and taking 15-hour bus rides across South America, and I wrote him an email that he got in a café, and he said that I really needed to backpack. So I went to the store, bought the stuff, and got a one-way ticket to Chilé, and I didn’t return for 5 weeks. And that was my reset button. I came back a new man, and that was a very big turning point. And within three months of coming back I discovered Asher Roth, and four months after that, Justin Bieber.

Do you or did you have a mentor?

You know, coming up in Atlanta, I didn’t really have a mentor. My mentor was my father. I’ve always turned to my father for advice, but he knew nothing about my business, and he had no friends in that business. So my mentor was reading a lot. I read books about David Geffen and Richard Branson. I read interviews with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Lucian Grainge and Doug Morris. And what ended up happening was [that] my career continued to grow, and I had people like Chaka Zulu, who managed Ludacris, he helped put me in the business, and I had friends like Shakir Stewart, rest in peace, who really looked out for me. I had people like Steve Rifkind, who gave me my first record deal for Asher Roth and who I became very close with. But what ended up happening was that when I became successful, I started to meet the people I studied. So I met Lucian Grainge, and we became very, very close. I met Jeffery Katzenberg, I met Richard Branson, and then one day my phone rang and my assistant said, “You know, you have lunch with David Geffen next week.” He was one of those people who was like, “Yeah, we should get together,” and I was like, “Well that’s never going to happen.” And then it turned out that he had his assistant set it up. And I would say that Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen and Lucian Grainge, these are all guys that I talk to at least once a month now. It’s come full circle. I studied them, and now I have them in my life and they’ve become mentors. But still, to this day, I would say my father is the person I speak to the most.

What do you consider your biggest accomplishment to date?

My son.

What would you say is the biggest motivator for you in terms of achievement or success?

Now? My son [laughs].

What about before you had him?

I just think that before I had a child, my motivation was [that] I wanted to leave an impact on the world, because David Geffen told me, “You know, in a hundred years no one’s going to remember me, so they sure as hell won’t remember you, so don’t have an ego.” And that was great advice. But the thing that I disagreed [on] with David was that I believe in legacy, and yeah, they may not remember me, but they can feel my impact. And that’s good enough [for] me. Because when I die, I die. I’m not here to see if they remember my name. But I want to leave an impact on the world that is worthwhile, that’s significant and makes a difference. And I want to close my eyes on that last day of life and know I did that. And when I had my child, you know, I was actually able to feel my mortality for the first time. Because I thought to myself, “Here I am, holding this person in my arms. I’ve never met them, I don’t know them, I don’t know their personality, they don’t know me. And for 33 years I’ve worked so hard to be a man in this world, and this person doesn’t know me, yet I love them more than anyone I’ve ever met in my life.” For the first time in my life since I was 22 years old, I have an employer. I work for my kid. I wake up every morning with a purpose of trying to be somebody in this world that he can look up to.

What do you do to relax and clear your head?

I play basketball to clear my head, I meditate and also … my wife taught me the difference between micro and macro time, and sometimes people think, “Oh, that person’s successful because they’re so busy.” Just packs the schedule, boom boom boom. But I like to plan more in the macro time, where I tell myself, “Look, this block of time, plan nothing.” And that’s like an hour or two where I don’t make any plans and I’ll just sit around. I might go on Instagram or Facebook or read something or watch a game or FaceTime with a friend or literally just sit and put my head down to think. And it’s those moments when I have real innovation. It’s those moments when I have moments of clarity, where I come up with something. Because when you’re going back to back to back, you don’t have time to think…

What has been your biggest career obstacle?

My biggest career obstacle … That year and a half with Justin [Bieber] was very hard. You know, I love that kid, and I had never been through anything like that before with someone. And for a year and a half, I felt like a failure. Every single day was a battle. That was the hardest moment in my career, because it was also very personal. I learned a lot about life, about success, about people. And I’m really proud that he came out on the other side, and I’m really proud of the people on our team — we were all really like family [to] him. And no one gave up, no one budged. And when you look at who’s around him now when we’re having this huge success, it’s the same people that were around from the very beginning. And, you know, the people that came in between, they’re all gone. And I think it’s because we held firm by our values and our integrity, that we were not OK with it. And when he needed to turn somewhere, when he was ready, we were the people that he turned to. And you know, I actually received a lot of credit for the turnaround, but I would like to repeat what I said to you, which is that for a year and a half, I failed. The reason why things have turned around and why Justin is having the success that he is now is because he made the decision to change. And the person who deserves the credit is him.

He made the decision to be ready to change.

Yeah, something happened. He woke up one day, and he called me, and he said, “Can you come see me?” And we were not on great terms, because we were fighting every day. And he looked at me and said, “I don’t want to be like this.” And we figured it out, but I had been trying to figure it out for a year and a half. The change happened when he decided he was going to change.

Now that you’re working with Kanye, what things would you say you’ve learned from him, and what things do you think he’s learned from you?

I would say that one of the big misconceptions about him is that people think he’s selfish, but he is one of the most giving human beings I’ve ever met in my entire life. That guy would give you the shirt off his back. My job in this relationship is to be a balance for him, and to push him, because he pushes me like nothing else and also to help with the politics of things, and to protect him. To be someone that can say “no,” especially to a lot of people who take advantage of him. Because he’s a true artist, a true genius, and he is the ambassador to creativity. If someone is creative and has an idea, he will stop at nothing to have that idea see the light, because he loves it, but sometimes, because the stuff costs money, that’s my job to help in that category — to help run it like a real business, because the upside is just tremendous. It was something I wasn’t sure if I was going to do at first, and I’m very, very glad that I decided to do it, because I can tell you: He truly is a genius, and it’s inspiring every single time you’re around him and talk to him. And I talk to him a lot now [laughs], but I also can tell you that he’s literally all heart, and he’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met … I think my help with Kanye is that he likes honesty and I’m brutally honest. And I think that he appreciates that, and because I have no problem challenging him, he has no problem challenging me. That’s why we respect each other. I can tell you, he is a very, very, very special person, and culturally so incredibly important. And I feel like one of the things I want to do in my time working with him is to make sure people get to see the guy that I get to see.

What were you like as a child? Was there anything about your personality or interests growing up that could have predicted the path you ended up taking?

I was a little bit rebellious and I was very social, but I was also a homebody. I never really changed. I mean, I’m 34 and I still call myself “Scooter,” right? But when I’m home, I kind of like to be alone for a little while, and I like to think about things by myself. When I’m out, I’m very social, and I’ve kind of always been that way since I was a kid. But I always do things my own way, which when I was a kid would always get me in trouble. You know, I remember when I was a kid and the teacher thought I was cheating because I had the answer on the math test, but when she looked at my work it didn’t make any sense to her. And I said, “No, I didn’t [cheat], let me show you,” and I showed her, like, this roundabout way that I solved the equation. And she said, “Why would you ever do it like that?” and I said, “Why wouldn’t I?” I’ve always wanted to do things the way I want to do them.

Is there anything you regret?

It’s funny, I just spoke at a school last week and they asked me this question, and there’s one thing I regret, yeah. And it literally was a very defining moment in my life. I was probably in 8th grade and I was at basketball camp — it was like one of those 5-day sleepaway camps where you go to play basketball, and these three guys were really cool at the camp, and they were a year older than me. And they befriended me because I was good and I was going to play in the all-star game at the end of the week, and they liked me because I could play. And I thought it was so cool that these older guys [liked me]. And I went to their dorm and they were talking shit about this kid in the dorm who was my age who I hadn’t met yet, because, I don’t know, he was quiet. And they were like, “Let’s break into his dorm and fuck with him.” And I was like, “Really?” So they kind of pushed in his door, and then they threw all of his shorts in a pile, and they were like, “Yo Braun, pee on it!” And I knew it was wrong, and it was completely out of my character. I had never allowed bullies [to peer pressure me] as a young kid, but for some reason that day I succumbed to peer pressure and I peed on the kid’s shorts. And I was ashamed of myself. And, you know, the kid had to wear a bathing suit, and the camp basically was like, “Who did this?” And I felt so guilty, I just couldn’t live with myself, so I turned myself in. But I wouldn’t name the other boys, I wouldn’t turn them in, I wouldn’t rat them out. I only turned myself in. And the camp said because I turned myself in they would let me stay, but I would no longer be allowed to participate in the all-star game at the end of the week. And turns out, I stopped being friends with those guys instantly, because I no longer thought they were cool, and I became friends with the kid [whose shorts I peed on] because I apologized to him, and I told him how sorry I was.


And we became friends. And at the end of the week, even though we were friends, his mother came up to me and started yelling at me that I was disgusting. And my dad came over and said, “Why are you talking to my son like this?” And she said, “He peed on [my son’s shorts],” and my dad said, “My son would never do anything like this,” and he turned to me, and he said, “Right, Scott?” And I just looked at him and he knew instantly, “Holy shit, my son is guilty.” And he was not pleased, obviously, but that moment I have never, ever, ever forgotten. And that’s the only moment of my life that I’ve ever regretted. Because I think being embarrassed and having regret is only when you do something malicious. You know, I’ve made mistakes, but [except for that] they were never malicious. I don’t regret those [kinds of mistakes] because I learned from them. I regret this one because I knew better. And it was malicious, and I knew what I was doing was wrong. And I just promised myself from that point on that no one would ever peer pressure me into feeling like that again … [Since then, in my career,] the amount of drugs I saw, the amount of offers I’d been given, I had never ever [accepted] … I take pride in telling someone, “That’s not me.” And, you know, the one regret I have is that I was weak in that moment, and that was the one time in my life I gave in — that moment.

You’ve never forgotten it.

I’ve never put myself in that position since. And I regret it, but at the same time it was a very defining moment in my life that helped me become a man.

Lastly, since we’re interviewing you for the ‘Sexy’ issue, have you ever been driven to succeed by the desire to impress a romantic partner?

Hell yeah! [Laughs] My wife. I’ve been driven to convince her to marry me! My wife is out of my league, she’s spectacular, she’s smart, she’s beautiful, she’s wonderful, like, she’s such a better person than me. So when I looked at her, I was like, “That’s it, I’m done.” I was not trying to get married, I was not even trying to be in a relationship. I was out of a relationship, and I was going to take the next couple of years to just be single — and by the way, I was living the single life — but I met my wife and I told her on the first date, “I think I’m done. I think you’re it.” And I canceled all the other dates. And yeah, I was driven to have a real life because I met the person I could finally have it with.

The Guy Who Signed Slick Rick and Jay Z Is Still Killing It

October 23, 2015

Hot off signing Fetty Wap, hip-hop mogul Lyor Cohen has something to prove.
Devin Leonard 10/22/15

“Does anybody need anything?” asks Lyor Cohen. “A martini?” On a private plane flying from Newark to Kansas City, Mo., Cohen, one of America’s best-known record company executives, isn’t serving drinks. But the flight attendants are ready to take orders—even though it’s early afternoon and nobody’s ready for cocktails just yet. 300 Entertainment, a startup record label that Cohen co-founded almost two years ago, is flying a group of executives, journalists, and assorted hangers-on to see its biggest act, Fetty Wap, an amiable rapper whose effervescent hit, Trap Queen, a drug dealer’s ode to his girlfriend, broke out this summer. In a few hours, Fetty Wap will open for R&B star Chris Brown. Cohen wants to be there, along with everybody he can fit on the plane.

Cohen, who is 6-foot-5 and looks as if he were born to play an assassin in a Hollywood thriller, is also trying to show that 300 is for real. In November 2013 he announced that he and his partners were creating a new kind of record company, one that would challenge its larger rivals by melding the talent-scouting skills of industry veterans with technology that mines the Internet for undiscovered acts. They raised $15 million, including $5 million from Google, as reported by Billboard. Once a highly paid executive at Warner Music Group, Cohen says he’s content to sit in a cubicle in a small office and use the same bathroom as his employees. “I know this doesn’t look like we adjusted the cost structure,” he concedes, glancing around at the jet’s white-leather interior. “But if I told you how much I got this plane for, you would be very impressed.”

Without a large team of marketing people and a back catalog of old hits, some wonder if Cohen’s company can survive. “A lot of longtime observers have been watching 300 Entertainment to see if he can get traction,” says Larry Miller, director of the music business program at New York University. Surely, Cohen’s competitors would like to have signed Fetty Wap, whose sing-song melodies stood out in a summer of formulaic anthems. Fetty Wap doesn’t look like anybody else either; he’s missing an eye because of childhood glaucoma. “The Fetty Wap thing was great,” Miller says. “But people want to see if it can really blow up and become a real business.”

Cohen came up at a time when the industry was dominated by self-styled A&R executives proud of their ability to recognize and schmooze talent. If you could do that, the rest was easy. “The way to get rich is to keep walking around until you bump into a genius,” said the late Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records. As streaming music took off, technology companies claimed they could do a better job finding artists that people liked by using data. But anybody who’s used these services knows there is something unsatisfying about computer-driven recommendations; that’s why some of streaming music’s biggest players like Spotify and Apple play up the humans involved in their offerings.

Sipping tea on the jet, Cohen, 56, says he’s trying to blend old and new school approaches. Born in New York City, he grew up in a household he describes as “a hippie Jewish think tank,” and he got into the music business by promoting concerts for Red Hot Chili Peppers and the seminal rap group Run DMC. Cohen became the latter group’s road manager and eventually head of Def Jam Recordings in 1987. “We came in as a disruptive force with rap music,” he says. “ ‘Disruption’ is not a bad word but a word we embrace.”

At Def Jam, Cohen had a tendency to be the loudest person in the room, even around the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and Slayer. “He used to be a screamer,” says Bill Adler, Def Jam’s publicity director from 1984 to 1990. “He’s a more seasoned individual now.” Yet Cohen could also be nurturing. Jay Z calls him his “mentor.” Other rappers affectionately nicknamed him “Lansky.”

When Edgar Bronfman Jr. took over Warner Music Group in 2004, he put Cohen in charge of the company’s U.S. recorded music division. There he nurtured acts such as Bruno Mars and Death Cab for Cutie and persuaded many of them to sign so-called 360 deals, which entitled the company to a cut of touring and merchandise income. “I was the architect of that,” Cohen says.

Cohen, in turn, made an annual salary as high as $3 million along with big bonuses. He lived in a town house on the Upper East Side and dated fashion designer Tory Burch. But in 2011, Russian-born billionaire Len Blavatnik bought Warner Music. In little more than a year, Cohen was gone.

He took some time to think about his next move. In the fall of 2013 he spoke at MIT, telling students that when he was at Def Jam, he found acts to sign by monitoring radio stations. Now, Cohen said, he planned to use the Internet to do that more efficiently, but following online traffic alone couldn’t generate hits: “All you smart people, you could come up with an algorithm, but somebody still has to show up and say, ‘Yeah, I feel that.’ ”

“All you smart people, you could come up with an algorithm, but somebody still has to show up and say, ‘Yeah, I feel that’ ”

In November of that year, Cohen unveiled 300, which he founded with former Def Jam colleagues Kevin Liles and Todd Moscowitz. (They took the name from the Hollywood blockbuster about a small band of Spartan warriors who held off an invading Persian army.) At the time, 300 had a deal with Twitter giving it exclusive access to music-related data. Cohen says the arrangement hasn’t worked out. “We’ve suspended the deal until they get more engineers in place,” he says. (Matthew Plotnik, who runs music partnerships at Twitter, says the company looks forward to continuing to work with 300, which he calls “an innovative label.”)

300 has created what Cohen describes as “a dashboard,” a proprietary computer program that monitors the Internet for songs that generate an unusual amount of activity—which could mean shared links, “likes,” Twitter raves, or iTunes sales. “It blips,” Cohen says. “It trips a wire, and then we listen to it.”

Last year, Fetty Wap lit up the dashboard. He’d already recorded Trap Queen in a New Jersey studio and uploaded it onto SoundCloud in March 2014. The song spread virally, attracting the attention of bloggers. Cohen and his staff sampled Fetty Wap’s songs, sized him up in person, and quickly signed him. “We don’t have to go through a whole process to sign them,” Cohen says. “We’re trigger pullers.” He and his colleagues also helped Fetty Wap craft his image as a likeable up-and-comer from Paterson, N.J., who’s humbled by his improbable rise. “He is a pretty soft-spoken guy,” says Naomi Zeichner, editor-in-chief of the Fader, a music magazine. “They really helped create a narrative around what he is doing.” The label’s deals with artists vary but often let them keep the rights to their music—something that was rare in the old days. “Are they better deals for the artists?” Moscowitz says. “They are better in that we pay the artists on time.”

In Kansas City, Cohen disembarks from the plane accompanied by Xin Li, his tall fiancée, who works as an executive at Christie’s. Everyone boards a bus for a preconcert dinner at Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, a touristy place. “How’s everybody doing?” Cohen asks. “Have you had the prime rib? It’s great.”

After about an hour, Cohen, loaded down with several shopping bags of barbecue sauce and whatever else he’s found in the restaurant’s gift shop, herds his entourage to the Sprint Center. He guides the bus driver around traffic cones into a backstage parking lot, then spirits everybody past the guards to Fetty Wap’s crowded dressing room. Cohen may not be running a big record label, but he still knows how to pull strings.

Members of Zoo Gang, Fetty Wap’s crew, pass weed rolled in the wrappers of Backwoods Honey Berry cigars and share a bottle of Rémy Martin 1738 cognac. One Zoo Gang member rides in and out of the room on a Hovertrax. Two young women dressed for a party sit on the couch looking bored. Fetty Wap, who’s wearing olive-green shorts and what looks like a long white nightshirt, appears distracted; he’s been having voice troubles, but he brightens up when the 300 Entertainment people arrive.

“How are you doing, Fetty?” Cohen asks. “Are you feeling better?”

“A lot better,” Fetty Wap says. “We’ve been rehearsing.”

“Well, you promised us a lot, and look what you’ve done,” Cohen says.

A photographer tries to gather everyone for a group shot. “OK, everybody, put that weed down,” Fetty Wap orders his crew. Then he changes into a Kansas City Royals T-shirt, puts on some gold jewelry, and heads out to perform before an audience that knows every word of his songs. His first album, released in September, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart. As long as Fetty Wap keeps delivering, 300’s future looks good. “Having hits solves a lot of problems,” NYU’s Miller says.

To find the next Fetty Wap, Cohen had 300’s interns scour the Internet throughout the summer. Sun-Ui Yum, an 18-year-old economics major at Harvard, says he and his fellow interns found a lot of promising acts. Yum sat 5 feet away from Cohen at 300’s offices. “I’ll just say that there’s nothing quite like Lyor shouting random things across the office at random intervals,” Yum wrote in an e-mail.

300’s next star may be the Atlanta rapper Young Thug. For a while, Young Thug wore dresses, which got some attention online. Since 300 signed him last year, his profile has only risen. “He’s become one of hip-hop’s most ubiquitous artists, and easily its most challenging and thrilling,” the New York Times wrote in September.

Recently, Cohen invited Gus Wenner, head of digital at Wenner Media, publisher of Rolling Stone (which his father, Jann, founded) to see Young Thug in New York. This time the rapper came out in a poncho. Wenner says he was mesmerized by an artist whom he suspects might redefine rap music. “Is this the cutting edge?” he recalls Cohen asked him. “Or is this the cutting edge?”

Cohen qualifies the exchange slightly. “When talking to anybody, I’m saying, ‘Yeah, this motherf—er is the cutting edge and amazing and is the new thing,’ ” he says. “I’m promoting them. But when I actually get an artist in front of people? It’s right there.”

Martin Mills: shaping global music tastes from an indie stronghold

May 21, 2015

Robert Cookson  5/20/15

Martin Mills may have built one of the world’s largest independent record companies — launching artists from Adele to Vampire Weekend — but he still runs Beggars Group from a quiet residential street in Wandsworth, southwest London.

Boiling a kettle in a kitchen that doubles as the office reception, Mr Mills explains that he had no idea how big his business would grow when he acquired the property in 1984. So over the years, he bought four adjacent houses and connected them into a rabbit warren of rooms — including a basement overflowing with crates of vinyl, a boardroom where meetings take place around a ping-pong table, and two dormitory-style apartments for visiting artists.

“It’s nice when you have artists staying upstairs who come down for a beer at lunch time in their pyjamas,” he says.

That the Beggars headquarters is a series of houses rather than a conventional office suits the personality of the company well. Its business culture is starkly different to those of the world’s three major record companies — Universal, Sony and Warner — which all occupy flashy offices in Kensington.

“It sounds incredibly clichéd but we’re in it for the music. We’re not really in it for the money,” he says.

Yet a focus on nurturing original artists rather than chasing pop hits has not stopped Beggars becoming the largest and most influential independent record label network in Europe. Through its five labels — XL, 4AD, Matador, Rough Trade and Young Turks — the company has consistently been at the forefront of the global music scene. Its past and present artists include The Pixies, The Prodigy, The White Stripes and The xx, and in recent years it has struck gold with Adele, who has sold more than 35m copies of her two albums and is currently working on her third.

Mugs of tea in hand, Mr Mills leads the way up a small spiral staircase to a meeting room known as the Green Room. His green T-shirt blends into the sofa and wallpaper.

This is going to be a “big, big summer” for the record industry, he says. Apple is set to launch its new music subscription service, he explains, while YouTube is rolling out its own paid-for music offering and Spotify is locked in crucial licensing negotiations with the majors.

“All of those big digital players and their relationship with the industry are in play at the moment,” he says.

When Mr Mills founded Beggars in 1976, recorded music was all about vinyl. He was running a small chain of record stores in west London when an English punk band called The Lurkers, who had been rehearsing in the basement of the Fulham shop, asked for help putting out their music.
We’re big supporters of what Spotify has brought to the market

“It just grew from there,” says Mr Mills, an Oxford graduate with closely-cropped white hair and stubble. “For many, many years we were just putting one foot in front of the other without any kind of idea of where we were heading to. There was never any grand plan or grand ambition, it just happened.”

Yet the fact that Beggars has survived for four decades, even as hundreds of other indies folded or were snapped up by the majors, is not the result of sheer luck and blind wandering. It has grown even as spending on recorded music halved since 2000 and as the majors came to control about three-quarters of the sector’s $15bn annual sales.

One reason for survival is strict financial management. Even now, the 66-year-old still reviews every single payment made by the business and says he makes it very clear to employees when they have made a mistake.

“There’s a level of financial micromanagement that I think works really well, allied with a general very, very loose-touch management,” he says.

Though the Bob Dylan fan visits several live gigs a week, he leaves decisions about which artists to bring into the Beggars “family” to specialists in each of the group’s five labels.

The other big part of his job is making broad, strategic decisions for the future of the business. One of the most prescient of these was to set up offices in a dozen of the world’s major music markets, from New York to Tokyo. That gave Beggars control of its own global distribution network and differentiated it from most indie labels, which must rely on third parties.

“We work in a global market these days and you have to set up records globally,” he says.

Though rooted in vinyl and CDs, the company has skilfully navigated the consumer shift to digital and is consistently profitable. In an average year Beggars chalks up sales of £50m, generating about two-thirds from downloads and streaming, and the remainder from CDs and vinyl. Half of the money that flows in relates to its extensive back catalogue, and half to new releases.

Mr Mills is broadly confident that the rise of streaming will be good for the future of the music sector, though he cautions that “it’s hard to get perspective when you’re in the eye of the storm”.

“We’re big supporters of what Spotify has brought to the market,” he says, referring to its model of giving people access to millions of songs for $10 a month, in parallel with a free version of its service that includes advertising. Spotify is doing a good job of converting its rapidly growing base of free users into paying subscribers, he argues, and so rights owners should give it a “substantial degree of freedom” to develop in the way that it thinks will work.

But he warns that this “freemium” model is now under threat. Universal, the world’s largest record company, has this year become resistant towards free streaming and is putting pressure on Spotify to change the nature of its
service as it negotiates a new licensing agreement.

“They’ve swung 180 degrees in a short period of time and that’s proving disruptive,” Mr Mills says. “The problem is that we live in an oligopolistic world, and Universal very much drives the market.”

Yet, while Beggars is only a fraction of the size of even the smallest major, Mr Mills does wield power. He played an instrumental role in setting up the trade body Aim in 1999, which for the first time brought together hundreds of independent labels to speak with a single voice. He is also chairman of Merlin, a rights licensing body, which last year forced YouTube to back down in a bruising fight over the terms that it offered small record companies.

Mostly, however, Mr Mills operates out of the limelight. “I’m doing my best when I’m invisible,” he says. “People sometimes ask me what I do all day for a job these days, and my answer is I maintain the balance. There’s an awful lot of seesawing going on in this modern cottage industry that I preside over, and maintaining the balance is what I do.”