Playing a transition game with both new artists like Avicii and superstars like Kanye
Steve Bartels has been the glue holding together Island Def Jam Music Group. Calming both budgets and staff during a transition period after Antonio “L.A.” Reid’s departure in 2011, he’s helped return the label to stability and laid the groundwork in establishing Island Def Jam (IDJ) as a home for new artists, as well as a place where established artists can pursue their vision.
“In 2013, the energy of the company was about repopulating the roster and establishing ourselves as an artist development company,” Bartels says. “During the year we saw the resurgence of Fall Out Boy, we worked with the Jay Z album, and we have a great cross-section of developing artists.”
Fall Out Boy’s "Save Rock and Roll" was a No. 1 Billboard 200 debut and has sold 514,000 copies (according to Nielsen SoundScan), but chief among those developing artists was Avicii, the superstar DJ brought in through David Massey’s Island. His first album, "True," yielded two massive singles out of the gate, “Wake Me Up!” and “Hey Brother,” both top five Billboard Hot 100 hits that crosswire EDM and country for maximum exposure. "True" has sold 177,000 copies, good enough to be the No. 152nd best-selling title of 2013, but track sales powered it to No. 63 on the 2013 tally for track-equivalent albums (557,000).
That’s a starting point for what Bartels thinks IDJ can accomplish. “We are going to have real stories to talk about this year,” he says. That would mean one (or more) of the other IDJ artists who are bubbling under—Jhené Aiko, Jake Bugg, YG and American Authors—blowing up in order to cement IDJ’s stake in new artists.
“Artist development takes much longer,” Bartels says. “The marketplace used to be much faster to react, but now it’s about patience and strategy and then the delivery.”
And it takes patience and dedication with established artists as well. Kanye West’s "Yeezus" arrived with almost no setup and no lead-up single, but built steadily as both a critical and commercial success, selling 633,000 copies in 2013.
“We supported Kanye West’s vision to do 'Yeezus,'” Bartels says. “We want to be perceived as a destination for artist development, and this project shows the artists that they can achieve what they want.”