RCA is the second-oldest record label in the United States, after Sony Music sister Columbia, and its legacy is celebrated with pride at the company’s New York headquarters. The walls are decorated with variations on its iconic logos and photos of heritage artists like Elvis Presley, David Bowie and Count Basie, and seemingly everywhere is “Nipper,” the label’s terrier mascot, which dates back to the late 1800s and has been associated with RCA since the 1920s.
That diversity bears the distinct fingerprints of Edge and Corson. Edge, 54, was raised in Coventry, England, on his older sister’s R&B singles, and later roomed with Jerry Dammers of legendary ska band The Specials. While working at Chrysalis Records in the mid-’80s, he formed its pioneering hip-hop/R&B label CoolTempo (Doug E. Fresh, Paul Hardcastle) before moving to Warner Bros.-- and, later, the States -- in 1991. He joined Arista in 1996 and segued to J Records (where he played a key role in Keys’ success) and finally RCA in 2007.
Seattle native Corson (55, married with two grown children) got his start as an intern at IRS Records (R.E.M., the English Beat) in Los Angeles in the early ’80s before joining A&M, where he was involved in launching Soundgarden. Stints at Capitol, Columbia, Arista and J followed, as did a move to New York.
Corson and Edge first met at Arista in the late ’90s. Today, the longtime partners frequently completed and amplified each other’s thoughts as they spoke with Billboard in Edge’s sleek, sparsely decorated corner office at Sony’s headquarters.
What do you see as the role of the record company in the next 10 or 20 years? Some people feel a label is something an artist doesn’t necessarily need.
Peter Edge: We completely disagree with that. In fact, we would argue that we’re probably more necessary than ever. We’re the only people who really invest in artists. These people with lots of money, for the most part they’re staying out of the [record] business. They realize, “These people kind of do that well.”
Tom Corson: To make a record requires a strategy; it’s not just throwing somebody in the studio and seeing how it goes. Some artists are self-contained, but they still need advice about producers and collaborations and single choice. They need an army and a perspective and creative friction, because nobody has all the ideas. Dave Grohl has a lot of 'em, he's really great at that, but where does he get his sponsorships? Where does he get his global scale? Where does he make sure that Radio One drives his record all the way home? How does he make sure that his tour is properly looked after overseas in addition to what the promoter is doing, and integrate the third, fourth and fifth singles off the album? Let alone new artists who have never done this before, and often neither have their managers.
With so many digital music services, how do you parse out exclusives, and has streaming taken away from sales?
Corson: We haven’t seen streaming eat into sales yet -- maybe in some genres more than others, but right now the download market hasn’t really eroded. It probably will, and it certainly may spell the end of physical at some point, but strangely, physical just continues its very gentle fall. Anyway, each of those services has personalities. We know that hip-hop is thriving at Spotify, singer-songwriters less so. Apple Music is brand-new, but early indications are that both hip-hop and singer-songwriters are thriving there.
Edge: [Syco Entertainment founder] Simon Cowell and [Syco managing director] Sonny Takhar called us and said there was an opportunity to work with him, and we met with him and really hit it off. It was ultimately Zayn’s decision, but the kind of music he’s making really fits RCA. He’s a big fan of soul music — D’Angelo, Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown, Usher, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd; those are his favorite artists. I would not say that it’s like any of those artists in particular, but it’s influenced by them. It’s different from what you’d think.
Edge: [Sony Latin chief] Afo Verde deserves the credit for being at the front of that deal, because he and Enrique have a relationship that goes back some time. But when we met with Enrique, we were amazed at how much he knew about the business: songwriters, what records worked and why. He actually went through our roster: “This one should have been more like this; you did great with that one.”
What do you think you can bring that he hasn't had already?
Edge: A different A&R perspective, that's one thing.
Corson: We're really known for finding and crafting songs in almost an old-fashioned sense. There's a lot of musical conversations here that, candidly, I think are at a higher level than most labels.
How do you manage such a large roster that is so deep in so many different genres?
Edge: We decided when we took over the new RCA that we wanted to be in all areas of music, because in order to have a successful American record company you have to. Rock is a very significant area where we have shown big growth, with Walk the Moon and Bleachers, as well as reenergizing the Foo Fighters and some of the acts we've worked with for a while.
Corson: … Like Kings of Leon, Dave Matthews Band. We have just extended our deals with most of those bands. Also, the roster reflects our very eclectic tastes, and of our A&R talent, like Keith Naftaly and Dave Wolter, and Mark Pitts with Miguel and Brian Leach with A$AP Rocky -- [the latter of which] is a venture, we have a number of ventures that fill in some [genre] gaps or opportunities. We have to run a business so it's gotta have a commercial edge, but we also want to reflect and champion the culture and take chances and be ahead of things.
Peter, how do you have time to A&R records and also run the company?
Edge: That’s a good question, isn’t it? I don’t really have an answer.
Corson: He is a tireless worker. I'd like him to A&R a few less things because it would free him up to do other things, but we're best served by him doing that. Actually, Clive ran Arista and was also deeply involved in the A&R.
Edge: He found a way to be both. I learned a lot from Clive, actually. It was a lot of hours and late evenings when we worked on Whitney Houston and Santana and all those records in the late ’90s, and his methods and process are extremely rigorous. He could sense when there was something better to do with a song or an act. Not everybody has that perspective.
After almost 15 years, how did you get D’Angelo to finish Black Messiah, let alone get physical copies manufactured in time for the surprise release without it leaking?
Corson: [Marketing SVP] Carolyn Williams deserves a lot of credit. And Darren Stupak, who runs distribution/sales, was very critical in managing the supply chain and the relationships with retail, because obviously all those accounts had to be in on it. The real feat is that Peter got D'Angelo to deliver the record. The other shit was easy — nerve-wracking, but easy.
So how did you do that?
Edge: Umm… [laughter] That’s another interview in and of itself. It was persistence and believing in him and encouraging him that it was great.
He said there’s another album coming soon -- is there?
Edge: Yes, he has lots more music, and now that he's put one out after years and years, perhaps he can get another one done quicker. We'll see.
How do you deal with an artist like Chris Brown?
Corson: Day by day.
Edge: Yeah, he is very of-the-moment kind of guy, which is actually one of the reasons why he is so closely in touch with culture and street culture, he lives inside of that world and he is true to it. I think that's a lot of what drives him, so we try to stay side-by-side with him and move with him. His talent is enormous.
Miguel did not make the record that fans were expecting. How do you roll with that?
Edge: He was very, very clear that he wanted to make the record that he's made. We, and Mark Pitts in particular, worked with him to get this record as good as it could be. I think he has a career strategy and as he sees it, this was the next move for him to make. The next one will be different again.
Kelly Clarkson’s deal is up. Are you going to re-sign her, despite her past disagreements with 19 Records and Clive Davis?
Corson: Absolutely. The various nuances to that relationship that precede us ... more emotionally for her than anything else, needed to be [addressed]. We’ve been talking about renewing a deal with her for a couple of albums, and we have every confidence it will work out. We love Kelly and she loves us, we think.
Corson: In a way, I’m glad we don’t know. Peter and I sat together at [the 2013] VMAs and we knew some of what she was going to do, but the Robin Thicke thing was like, “Oh, shit. How is this going to work? I don’t know, but it’s going to make some noise.”