Corner Office: Martin Kierszenbaum, Chairman of Cherrytree, on Working with Lady Gaga, A&R'ing Sting and the Streaming Debate

Martin Kierszenbaum, BB39 2014.
Christopher Patey

Martin Kierszenbaum photographed in his office by Christopher Patey in Santa Monica, California on October 30, 2014.

On his label's 10th anniversary, the man behind breakouts by Lady Gaga, Ellie Goulding and Dislosure on juggling two titles, A&R'ing Sting and the streaming debate: "The equation has to be fair."

For Martin Kierszenbaum -- Cherrytree Records founder, Interscope senior A&R executive, songwriter-musician-producer and father of four -- there is little separation between work and home life. “My wife [Heather, whom he met at a Monster Magnet/Danzig show when they both worked at A&M Records in the early 1990s] and kids are all piano players, and my son’s a producer, my daughter’s a singer-songwriter,” he says. “I bring them to shows. At the dinner table, we’ll be discussing a tour or a remix.”

That passion for music has been a constant for the 47-year-old multi-­instrumentalist throughout his career, which started in the mailroom at PolyGram Music Group in 1989. In the 25 years that followed, he has played a key role in such mega-selling acts as Lady Gaga (Cherrytree released her first two studio albums, which have sold 6.2 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan), Disclosure, Ellie Goulding, Feist, Robyn and LMFAO, among others. He also signed Keane and T.A.T.U., headed up international operations for Jimmy Iovine’s Interscope for more than 10 years (he worked with everyone from Eminem to No Doubt) and has done A&R for the likes of Enrique Iglesias, Marilyn Manson, and Sting (the lattermost artist consistently since 2001).

Sting is among the many acts who have recorded on the performance stage in Kierszenbaum’s spacious office, based out of Universal Music Group’s Santa Monica, Calif., headquarters. Cherrytree HQ also serves as the hub of Kierszenbaum’s mini branding empire, which includes Cherrytree Publishing (in partnership with Kobalt), Martin Kierszenbaum Management/Cherrytree Management (he manages IncubusMichael Einziger, among others) and even a Cherrytree Cola (produced by specialty beverage company Fentimans).

Christopher Patey
A signed limited edition Disclosure hat box with the duo's stencil-face logo photographed by Christopher Patey in Santa Monica, California on October 30, 2014.

The La Jolla, Calif., native, born to Argentine scientists, talks about his imprint’s 10th anniversary and its impressive run of hits: 15 top 10 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 -- including five No. 1s and two of the best-selling digital singles ever (LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” at 8 million downloads and Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” at 7.2 million) -- and nearly 40 albums on the Billboard 200.

Is running Cherrytree separate from your job at Interscope?

It’s a joint venture, a partnership between my label and Interscope. [Although] the agreement could be with anybody, it’s very happily with Interscope. I will A&R whatever they need me to do at ­Interscope.

You do a lot with a staff of seven.

And this is the biggest it has been! But we have very close relationships with Interscope and work in tandem with their staff on each project from the very ­beginning -- which is [different from] a lot of indies or joint ventures, where they reach a certain threshold, then the larger label uplifts.

What were the early acts you signed?

One of the first was [Russian female duo] T.A.T.U. I’d gotten a CD from David Junk, the then-head of Universal Russia, and I was just mesmerized -- their voices were very high and controlled, almost like ABBA -- but they hadn’t tried singing in English. Jimmy said, “I don’t know if I get it, but I see that crazy look in your eye, and I know that look, so go ahead.” I’d written lyrics for other languages before -- I did Bryan Adams’ “Todo Lo Que Hago Lo Hago por Ti,” which is “Everything I Do I Do It for You” in Spanish, which went No. 1 in Mexico -- and I ended up coaching [T.A.T.U. singers Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova] on singing in English.

Sting’s a very particular artist. What’s involved with A&R’ing a Sting album?

I’ll tell you a funny story. He came to me, I think it must have been 2007, and he said, “My guitar player Dominic Miller gave me a gift. It’s a lute, and I’ve been playing it, and I want to make a lute album.” And I said, “A lute album? No. Please don’t do that.” And he said, “Oh no, I want to make a lute album. I want to use [John] ­Dowland music from the 17th century.” And I said, “Please, let’s do something maybe a little bit more accessible.” And he said, “I’m doing a lute album!” And I said, “OK.” When Sting tells you three times he wants to do a lute album, he really means it. And that album [Songs From the Labyrinth] ended up selling a million records [268,000 in the United States]. So that’s what it’s like A&R’ing Sting. I really just support him and trust his instincts.

Christopher Patey
Martin Kierszenbaum's in-office performance stage, featuring his prized CP70 Yamaha piano photographed by Christopher Patey in Santa Monica, California on October 30, 2014.

As a musician, you’ve notched two hits on Billboard’s Dance/Club chart as Cherry Cherry Boom Boom. How do you think artists will make a living, say, 10 years from now?

A lot of people say that recorded music should be a loss leader, to sell other things, whether they be T-shirts or live tickets. I vehemently disagree with that. I’m a musician who took piano lessons, who studied, who rehearsed, and I think that when you create intellectual property, you should be compensated for it. You need to make money on your recorded material and your songs, not just performing live. It’s like saying, “I made this table, you could just steal it.” It’s craftsmanship, skill, art -- all that should derive income. I really believe in the value of recorded music. I’m not ready to give that up.

As an artist and executive, do you see a solution to the streaming debate?

Streaming could be a viable way of consuming music, but the equation has to be fair. Musicians need to get paid for what they make. Does it worry me that some people don’t respect that? Yes, of course it does. Do I spend every day making sure that musicians are celebrated, protected, respected, understood? Yes. That’s what I do. I think it’s noble and I’m very happy doing it.

What’s the situation with Lady Gaga? Her first two albums were released through your label as well as Streamline, KonLive and Interscope, but not the two albums since.

She decided to be on Interscope proper, with Streamline. That was it, really. We were very proud to issue and worked very hard on The Fame and The Fame Monster, and after that, the way the deals were structured, she was able to do that.

How’s your relationship now?

She’s so talented. You’ve got to understand, we cut a third of The Fame literally in my garage, which is where I had my studio at the time. I love her and wish her all the best, always.

What about being a musician has helped you run a label?

Play well with others. A musician is in an ensemble, and they have to push and pull, observe dynamics, be loud and soft and sensitive to the musician next to them. That’s how I approach the staff at Cherrytree, our artists, the managers and the people we work with at Interscope. It’s so much more fun playing in a band and having a great show when you’ve rehearsed together, traveled together, gone through the hurdles together and you’re triumphant together.

This article first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of Billboard.