HITS Daily Double


Read Part 1 here.

You’ve prioritized tech in the last couple of years, right?
Looking at Spotify, YouTube, Apple, Amazon and Pandora, I think there are massive opportunities. Even though those are now the revenue drivers, there’s a marketing element to what they do. There are companies starting every day that are helping build relationships with influencers or helping collect the money that we’re not getting from YouTube. I recently sat down for a fireside chat at [B2B cloud service] Box with [co-founder/CEO] Aaron Levie. We talked about how we can work better with them to make our company more efficient.

Are you fearful that the streaming companies may turn into labels?
I don’t know if fearful is the right word, but I’m paranoid about everything [laughs]. When I started my label out of a dorm room in 1996, those were good times in the music business, but I didn’t really get any traction until 2003-2004, so I’ve only experienced everything going down. The last two years is the first time I could go, “Oh wow!” It’s pretty insane. I always operate as if the world will fall out from underneath me [laughs].

Are you finding that what YouTube is doing is effective?
Actually, it’s been really good. The last year and a half, they’ve been more engaged, doing more with us.

Does YouTube move the needle?
With YouTube, we did the On the Rise program, which was great for Ella Mai, and we launched DJ Snake’s “Taki Taki,” with Selena and Cardi B and Ozuna with a commercial for the AMAs; it was a YouTube-subscription advertisement, and it drove people to the video.

Did Spotify play a role in introducing the record?
When the record came out, we launched a new playlist on Spotify called Global X, which is made up of global hits, because they’re looking at the borders between countries coming down. It doesn’t matter anymore where a record is from, it could be a hit. When you have Selena, Snake from France, Ozuna from Puerto Rico and Cardi B from the U.S. with Dominican roots, it made perfect sense.

With Apple and Amazon specifically, we thought A Star Is Born would be massive on those two platforms because of the sound and the type of project it is. They came out swinging, and they both crushed it. But with Spotify, I called Nick Holmstén and said, “Hey, this is not a normal thing for Spotify, but I’d like you to check it out.” He said, “We don’t ever want it to feel that some things make sense for us and some things don’t.” He saw the film, and they were super-supportive. We talked about making vertical videos and doing more with them, and of course you can see the proof in how well the track is doing for them.

Since there’s no Jimmy or David Dorn at Apple—people who were the most label-friendly—I wonder if it’s going to be more difficult over the next year.
Eddy Cue is there and still running all of it, and he’s always been very artist-friendly and a great partner.

Is Nick Holmstén playing a larger role at Spotify now that Troy Carter’s gone?
Yes. They announced they were combining the two teams under Nick, so we work even more closely with him now.

And Dawn Ostroff?
Yes, she’s great. She was already really close with Interscope because she ran The CW when the network was red-hot and the label had a great working relationship across a lot of their programming.

What about Amazon?
Amazon’s been great. Obviously, there’s a ton of opportunity there, and globally they are massive. At the conference, they were talking about the U.K., and they’re one of the dominant players. What’s interesting about Amazon is that they have physical, digital downloads, streaming and merchandise, since they have the store. There’s so much opportunity there. We do a lot with them and they’ve been amazing to deal with. Steve Boom is a really good guy.

What we spend a lot of time thinking about in terms of our relationships with the streaming services is, how do you impact culture across all four? There can sometimes be different objectives—and audiences— with each of them. It all starts with the music and the artist. But I think there’s more opportunity to position records and artists with each of these different services, and what we do on the marketing side through each of the services can really impact culture in different ways.

What do you want Interscope’s culture to be?
The vision aligns with what Interscope’s always been. When I was running my label, and even before I ran a label, I was always interested in things that were left of center and more underground. Before I started a label, it was, “How do I turn people on to this new style of music?” Because I got a kick out of finding things first, being a tastemaker and seeing something break and go to the masses. That’s why I started Fueled by Ramen—because I love music, and I love the feeling of developing and breaking new artists. Interscope was always that; it wasn’t something that was down the middle. Interscope wasn’t chasing things; it was always starting trends by finding those right artists.

We’re continuing to try and do that; that’s the mission statement everyone here shares: How do we super-serve the superstar acts we already have and continue to help them develop their careers? You have to continue to reinvent and be smart about how you market and keep the fans you have while expanding to new people—and beyond that, how are we developing that next crop of superstars?

Every six to 12 months, it feels like we’ve taken another step forward in that momentum. I came in Oct. 1, 2012, and that was a tough year financially and musically for the company. At first, I was very impatient with myself. We restructured the company in the first three months, and then 2013 was one of the best years the company ever had. Things just fell into place. Imagine Dragons came out right before I came into the company, and when I got here, we set up the long-term plan, saying, “We’re just going to have to grind it out as we continue to position them.” Kendrick [good kid, m.A.A.d city] came out three weeks after I started and, with everything Kendrick, Top and TDE did, it just kept growing every week. Then, in 2013, Eminem [The Marshall Mathers LP 2] and Gaga [ARTPOP] came out. The crazy thing is, I’d never run a big company before. I understood some things, being an entrepreneur and understanding the P&L and the financial side of it, but before I came here I also signed all the acts and did all the marketing. Watching everyone at the company do such incredible work on all these projects was inspiring, and it also made me realize that maybe I didn’t need to be as deep in the weeds as I had been in the past. The truth is, I couldn’t be. Letting go was part of my learning curve.

But you also had a focus on profits as well as artist development.
Yes. That’s part of it. I wanted Interscope to be a creative company and break artists, but being an entrepreneur, it was always, “Eat what you kill.” So if I wasn’t profitable, I was going to be doing a different job, because I didn’t grow up in the business. If I failed at that, I figured I’d try to be an A&R or work for someone else.

You had a certain neutrality, because you got to leave a lot of politics behind.
Totally. When I came in, it worked well because Jimmy and Lucian were so supportive. Jimmy was able to help me home in on things that I should be more sensitive to. I had a little bit of an instinct about those things too, so it worked out well.

It’s sort of like being a rookie quarterback and learning from Tom Brady.
Yes. The best veterans. The beauty of it was that they were giving me the ball.

Had he sold Beats yet?
No, that was in 2014, and the timing was perfect, because I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next in my life. Jimmy told me when he was first talking to me that he was going to start a streaming service, a year and half before he started Beats. I thought, “This makes sense. He really should find somebody strong”—whereas most people try to protect themselves and don’t want somebody strong in that spot, because they’d rather the company burn down after they leave. Jimmy wasn’t that way.

The first meeting I was in, we walked into the conference room, I sat in the chair to the right of Jimmy, and we started the meeting as if Jimmy and I had worked together for 15 years. He didn’t even mention me, and then at the end of the meeting, he was like “So, John…”

After 2013, I really started to make sure we were thinking about the future and investing more in this and that. I was learning on the job, but getting stronger and more experienced each year.

How do you feel about the escalating prices for hip-hop acts?
I always tell artists, “You’ve got to think about the long term and find the best partners to be with, because if you find the right partners, you’re going to make a lot more money in the long term than this upfront check.” In some cases, I don’t mind cutting the big check—we’ve done it. But we try to be really measured in the ones we do, because some deals get so out of hand that it just doesn’t make sense. If you’re really passionate about an artist but the deal doesn’t make sense, it sucks, but sometimes it’s not the best place for them. So I totally get it, the market is what it is; it’s just that people are doing some really crazy things that are disrupting the market. They’re not thinking long-term.

You look at other labels in hip-hop, and even though the market has moved, there aren’t many who have as much as we do. But we’re also lucky to have really great label partners who take the time to build careers from the ground up, and that has really benefited us. Like Top and TDE running their own ship—we’re lucky to have that relationship, and it helped us early on. And having Mike Will, Mustard, LVRN, Benny Blanco, J. Cole with Dreamville/Roc Nation… All those things have taken time to develop, and what they all do is really based around the truest definition of A&R.

Speaking of A&R, you found out over a year ago that Aaron Bay-Schuck, who was your President of A&R, was going to be leaving. How did that impact that area of the company?
As I said earlier, the people at the company are one of the most important assets that we have, and if someone doesn’t fit in the company or doesn’t want to be in the company, we certainly don’t want to have an unhappy situation. In this case, I think that it ultimately made the team stronger. Sam Riback has stepped in to run the pop-rock side, building out the A&R team. What’s great about Sam is that, like me, he’s very focused on artist development.

Sam totally deserved the slot. His rebuilding of some of the team and bringing in some great A&R people has been really good for the company, and I think the whole company got it and rallied around making sure that we’re strong.

I think Sam wants to be a coach and believes in the team around him and wants the team to win. He’s not focused on the shine for himself, which I think is really important in that role. The business has been not great about mentoring people and bringing up the next generation. Sam’s really good at figuring out who our next superstars are.

And what Neil Jacobson and the team are doing with Geffen is certainly strengthening us for the long term, whether it’s someone like DJ Snake, who really stands at the crossroads of everything happening in popular music right now yet has a sound that’s just so uniquely his, or Yungblud, who was basically born a rock star—and even everything Neil does on the producer side. We’re very focused on restoring the legacy of Geffen Records, which is, of course, so important to the overall legacy of our company.

Who would you say is in your kitchen cabinet?
I really make an effort to say to the company at every meeting, “My door is always open.” I know it’s a cliché, but it really is. I want everyone to have a voice, and I really do want to know what they’re all thinking and feeling on a project. A great idea can come from anywhere, and I think every opinion has value. Of course, [Vice Chairman Steve] Berman—being here for more than 25 years just being a rock at the company—has been amazing, and he’s a great partner. And it goes without saying that Brenda is one of the best. She runs an incredible team, and what’s great about her is, when it comes time to drop the hammer, she can really drive a record home. Sam and Joie with everything A&R-related, and on the operations part of the rap and R&B side of the company, Joie has been incredible. I brought him in soon after I came here, and we’ve had to rebuild a lot of things—new staff, signing new artists. About two years ago, it began to feel like we were starting to get some heat, and it just keeps compounding.

I think I’ve said this before, but I really value the mix we have of the veteran executives, the people we’ve hired since I arrived and the people we’ve brought up through the ranks to take on larger roles. Honestly, there are so many super-talented executives that, to me, are the heart and soul of this company, and I look to them all for things that wouldn’t necessarily lie within their standard job description. It would take a whole separate interview to really answer the question.

Your artist-development story in the last 18 months has to be a great hook. “You should be with us; we’re going to make your career meaningful.”
We’re hyper-focused in trying to find different ways to break artists. It could be on a sync, it could be from building touring, it could be something happening internationally, it could be that break we got on Ella Mai at KMEL, it could be this platform or that platform. Everybody used to be like, “How do I get my radio date?” We want radio—I want the pipeline full—but let’s pull from every different area and build a story.

We’ve built a culture, and the culture is really three things: the history of the company and how important the brand is, the artists we’ve signed and the people who are inside this company. We have over 200 people, and everybody plays a role in making it happen for each of our artists, as well as extending the life of the brand. But we know who our superstars are, and we want to develop the next ones. That’s how important the younger people that work at this company are. The key is identifying them early and making sure they have a path to be successful here.

There are so many records we’re going after because of the success we’re having in all these other places. What I think is great too is the amount of releases we have coming out that started at the end of September through the rest of the year; we’re putting out, low-end, one album a week and high-side four or five. I put this number out and the amount of singles on top of that, there’s 10 to 15 singles a week, and they’re all different genres. Each of those albums for the most part do anywhere from 15,000 to 150,000. Three weeks ago, we put out A Star Is Born, which did 230k; Sheck Wes, who did 30k; and LANY, who did 12-15k. Two weeks ago, we had Ella Mai; last week, Lil Mosey—we’re dropping records. For the rest of the year, we have Tory Lanez coming out, which feels great. We have Lil Durk coming out, which should do really well; we have albums coming from Imagine Dragons, The 1975 and Benny Blanco. There’s so much in every different genre, and then, on top of that, the singles, whether it’s ‘Taki Taki’ that we’re dropping or Ellie Goulding featuring Swae Lee, or the Benny project, with a massive record. We’re trying to look at it like we have these albums and projects coming but making these event singles on top of it as well.

So the global streaming platform is enabling your release schedule to expand dramatically.
Yes, I look at radio charts every day, but I go on the global charts of all the services and count how many records we have every morning. I only do it when it’s good [laughs].

How do you balance the creative and business sides of the company?
I say it all the time—I want Interscope to be the most creative company in the business, but operationally I want to make it run like a well-oiled machine, which is not always easy. I tell Lucian, “It’s like you’re trying to fix a fast-moving train that has parts that constantly need to be changed because it’s just the business we’re in.” Something that we plan today and want to implement in three months will change because the business will have changed in three months. What we’re doing on the marketing and revenue side all together is constantly shifting, and I think the team has done a really good job on the revenue side, with [Chief Revenue Officer] Gary Kelly overseeing it and putting a lot of young people in place. I’m really excited about what he’s done with his team. We were one of the first companies to merge digital and revenue, because we saw that there were both marketing and revenue opportunities on the digital side. On top of that, we were one of the first companies to build out a playlisting team, where we actually had people going out and working the editors. That was years ago; now it seems obvious.

Let’s talk about Kamikaze, which came out of nowhere.
Obviously, putting out Revival and then Kamikaze within nine months of each other has been an amazing experience. Paul Rosenberg and Marshall had Berman, myself, Dennis Dennehy and Jason Sangerman, who works on the marketing side, come out to Detroit to hear the album; Marshall came in, talked about it and hit PLAY. We’re fortunate that Marshall, who’s one of the greatest artists in the world, was so focused on continuing to put out great music—and he’s super-competitive. It was Paul and Marshall’s idea to make the record a surprise, but then executing and getting that record out without anybody knowing was unbelievable. I felt horrible, because I always talk about transparency in this company, and only seven or eight people knew it was coming. People were like, “This is ours?” I had to say, “I’m sorry, but this is how Paul and Marshall wanted it.” That’s what I think is exciting about Interscope: We have all these great new acts that we’re breaking, but then being able to work with artists like Eminem—who I’ve been a fan of for such a long time, and who’s still one of the most important, culturally potent artists—Gaga, U2 and these other great acts.

So we look around the cosmos, so to speak, and see there’s a new head of Island, a new head of Def Jam, a new head at Columbia, a new head at Warner Bros.—there are all these new teams on the field. Not too long ago, you were in a similar situation. Do you have any advice?
I think the biggest thing is, you have to believe in what you’re doing, but you also have to know that things don’t come over-night. One of the things I told myself coming in is that I have to be a more patient person and not be a control freak. I’m still impatient and still a control freak, but I’m definitely not as bad as I was.