Former A&M/Octone Execs Launch Hybrid Company Freesolo; Gavin DeGraw, Hunter Hunted Among First Signings
Just over a year ago, James Diener found himself at a crossroads common to many record-label executives who've essentially "cashed out" of the music industry. A&M/Octone, the label where he served as president and CEO for 13 years, had just sold its 50% share to Interscope Geffen A&M in October 2013, leaving Diener and his longtime evp and head of promotion Ben Berkman to pursue their next moves with fresh eyes. Not only did the executives share a decade-plus history at the same label, but their mutual passion for action sports (snowboarding for Berkman, adventure travel for Diener) presented a metaphor worth mining for potential new ventures.
The result is Freesolo, a reference to harness-free rock climbing that could also apply to the leap of faith new artists take everyday. The company quietly rolled out earlier this year as a hybrid label, publishing and management company founded with three different partners. There's Freesolo Music, a record label joint venture with RCA/Sony Music Entertainment, whose first signings include alt-rock band Hunter Hunted; Freesolo Publishing, a joint venture with Sony/ATV Publishing; and Freesolo Management, a joint venture with Vector Management, part of Live Nation, whose first singings include Gavin DeGraw, U.K. rock group The Struts and New York pop band The Heydaze. In addition to Diener and Berkman, Rome Thomas will be the third executive on the core Freesolo team.
"We're delighted to welcome James Diener and Ben Berkman back into the RCA fold and look forward to once again enjoying multiple successes together," RCA Music Group chairman Peter Edge and president/CEP Tom Corson said in a joint statement.
For Diener, FreeSolo represents a bid for renewed focus on old-school artist development -- something he championed from his early days with A&M/Octone's biggest signing, Maroon 5. "When we first signed them, none of their first three singles -- 'Harder To Breathe,' 'This Love,' 'She Will Be Loved' -- had been written." (Other A&M/Octone acts included Hollywood Undead, K'Naan and Flyleaf.)
"Think about that in today's age," Diener continues. "You're talking about three records that brought the band to 10 million copies around the world, but at the time we only had the sense that they could write songs like that. Even though the internet provides a remarkable amount of information about which artists are developing a natural, organic buzz out there, being an online marketer is not the same as being a great talent."
Berkman is currently working on an EP with The Heydaze to groom the group for future label and publishing deals, as well as a North American release for The Struts, bringing in Gregg Alexander (New Radicals, Begin Again) as a producer. "Artist development is a phrase that's tossed around, but what does it mean?" Berkman says. "It's not being afraid to exact quality control, because to glad-hand an artist all the time means you're really not really helping them. There's not much benefit to being 'fan-agers.'"
Though FreeSolo operates in three different sectors, the deals for artists are not an all-or-nothing proposition. "The reality is that very rarely do you come across an act that isn't coming with some relationship," says Diener. "But when an act comes in, not only do we focus on what's best for then, we don't let the existing business affairs or relationships preclude our ability to work with them."