RECORDS Founder Barry Weiss on Being a 'Major-Label Refugee,' Adele Surpassing 'N Sync and the 'Emotional' Closing of Jive
Barry Weiss' roots in the music business run deep. His father, Hy Weiss, was among the industry's more colorful early players, producing and releasing hit records in the 1950s and 1960s and eventually selling his Old Town label to Atlantic in 1970. Son Barry also saw a music company grow firsthand, joining Zomba Publishing founder Clive Calder in launching recording powerhouse Jive Records in 1982 at the age of 23. Some 15 years into Weiss' tenure there, the BMG-backed label would see off-the-charts successes with such acts as Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Chris Brown, even breaking the album sales record with NSync's 2000 album No Strings Attached -- a feat that held until 2015.
BMG and Sony merged in 2004 and in 2011, Weiss, 56, exited the Sony system and moved to Universal where he headed up east coast operations for the Island and Def Jam labels. But three years after taking the job, he left a free agent or, in his words, "a major label refugee." Newly independent, the married father of two grown sons (the youngest, Michael, currently working for Spears' manager Adam Leber at Maverick) decided to start over with RECORDS, a joint venture with New York-based SONGS Publishing (Lorde, The Weeknd) announced in Feb. 2015 that has already scored hits with Nelly's gold-certified "The Fix" and ILoveMemphis' "Hit the Quan," which reached No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100.
A small, but nimble operation of six full-time staffers with the distribution might of Sony RED, RECORDS has no titles ("David Geffen-style -- politics pollute the creative process," Weiss explains) and work-in-progress offices shared with SONGS. Growth, says Weiss, will "In 10 months, we've done more than a lot of ventures do in three years, but we consider ourselves still in beta. I'm in the game and feel optimistic but I won't be gratified until we have real critical mass with a great artist roster. And I'm not that easy to please."
In figuring out your next steps after leaving Universal, what was your thinking?
That I wanted to get back to the music and the artists. I realized that this is my passion, but it's also my hobby -- I don't play golf, and how much can you exercise? I love this, for better or for worse. I took a lot of meetings and was thinking about how do I reenter in a somewhat unconventional manner so I'm not just another record guy? And frankly, be with people who could help me progress to the next stage of my career. I never feel like I'm beyond learning, you always have to evolve.
What did you see in SONGS?
Matt Pincus and Ron Perry. Matt is super smart and strategic and Ron is a great creative guy -- they're young, fresh and doing things differently. Also, SONGS is the closest thing I've seen to what Zomba was, but they didn't have a recorded music component, like Jive was. Still there's a very active publishing company with strong A&R there that really adds value.
Today's music industry is more data-driven than ever before. How does that affect the way you do business?
Data is being used for A&R purposes -- both preemptively, in terms of what to sign, and as a post-mortem evaluation of a project -- but it doesn't change the fact that you have to apply gut instincts and ears in the process. It's fascinating, even in the time since I left Universal, I've noticed a dramatic change in data analysis reading the market and reading records. The basics are still there, like radio and downloads, but you have to look at Shazam, you have to look at Spotify. Still, it cuts both ways. Signing purely based on data is the wrong approach-- it should be used as part of your analysis.
How is RECORDS' approach to A&R different than the majors?
There's over-signing and over-marketing at the major label level and it's hard to focus on that amount [of acts]. I don't know how much can really fit in the pipeline. It's an inventory approach and we're trying to avoid that here. Our goal is quality over quantity -- work fewer records record with longer-term tenacity.
One such smash is "Hit the Quan," which was just certified platinum. How did RECORDS end up with it?
Everybody in the industry was going after it -- the user-generated videos and sales were through the roof -- and I guess by virtue of many years of experience in rap music and deal-making, I was able to get out there [to Oakland, Calif.] with our legal team and figure out a creative solution to a complicated deal. It killed a few weekends but was well worth it. The kid is a star.
Adele's 25 broke the record for first-week album sales, a feat previously held by 'NSync while you were running Jive. Did you ever think that record would be broken?
Absolutely not. It's a miracle, an otherworldly scenario. She is touching people that haven't bought music in probably ten years. It's like Barbra Streisand reinvented overnight on steroids. But it's an amazing thing to see -- that people still love music and want to buy it, but it's not the norm. I wish we could say rising tide lifts all boats, but I don't know where it goes from here.
Did it hurt when RCA shuttered Jive six months after your exit in 2011?
It was somewhat emotional but not, like, dark days. Jive was a great brand because of its legacy of artists -- like R. Kelly, A Tribe Called Quest, Chris Brown, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake. It moved a needle from a cultural point of view and it's not often that a brand has the cachet to do that. But you can't get too attached to these things. I would have loved for Jive to continue, but it is what it is: a moment in history that was great. You take it in stride, life goes on.
Your father was a key figure in the music industry's formative years, what pointers has he passed down that you still apply?
Lots of things: Don't have the ego, let the artist be front and center; A hit record is like a tennis ball in water, you can't keep it down; Stay close to the music and close to the artists.
What do you miss of the major labels?
The infrastructure. [How] you pressed a button and everything moved. But I never had a problem doing heavy lifting or rolling up my sleeves. I could be macro or micro. I'm finding this cathartic, challenging and energizing at the same time.
A version of this article was originally published in the Jan. 16 issue of Billboard.