Columbia's Joel Klaiman Looks Ahead to Sony's Future and Back at the Eliot Spitzer Payola Probe: 'The Industry Knew I Was Scapegoated'

Guerin Blask
“Working here these past four years has been the ultimate graduate school,” says Klaiman, photographed Oct. 18 at Columbia Records in New York.

Sony Music's resident survivor on Rob Stringer's ascension, radio's evolution and why Amazon is poised to win.

On an unseasonably warm October afternoon in New York, the mood in the offices of Columbia Records is more jovial than usual. Thanks to landmark best-seller Adele (10.1 ­million album equivalent units of 25 moved in the United States, ­according to Nielsen Music); Beyoncé's latest, Lemonade (2.1 million); and, more recently, out-of-the-gate successes by Solange and The Chainsmokers, the 128-year-old ­company is having a market-share-­leading 2016. But just as vital to its future is the ­promotion of one of its own, ­chairman/CEO Rob Stringer, to Sony Music CEO, announced minutes before executive vp/GM Joel Klaiman posed for his first Billboard photo, with "massive applause" still ringing from the midday staff ­meeting where the news was revealed. "It was a ­wonderful moment for Rob and our team," says Klaiman, 48. And now what? "As Rob and I discussed, business as usual."

Klaiman's role in a re-energized Columbia is multifaceted. Running day-to-day and overseeing some 100 staffers in marketing, promotion, digital, sales, video content, publicity and branding, the Sharon, Mass., native brings with him decades of promotion ­experience, having worked his way up in the 1990s from Elektra Records to Sony's 550 imprint, where he learned the ins and outs of alternative and modern rock radio, to Epic Records, where he took on a broader position overseeing multiple genres. It was also at Epic that Klaiman got embroiled in a 2005 payola scandal resulting from then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's investigation of radio practices. Among the allegations: that illegal payoffs by way of expensive gifts were continuing to be used as a way to influence programmers. Klaiman, one of many whose email exchanges were used as evidence, took the fall.

What followed was a brief break from music, after which Klaiman landed at Republic Records just in time to help launch Taylor Swift and Amy Winehouse and drive the label to the top spot in market share and airplay. Six years later, he moved to the house of Bruce, Bob and Barbra at Stringer's invitation and added smash singles by Hozier, Pharrell Williams and John Legend to his résumé. The avid golfer and ­married father of two teenagers, whom he ­regularly calls upon for their ears and tech know-how, recently toasted ­multiple nominations for Adele and Beyoncé at the American Music Awards (they will be held Nov. 21). Next up: The Grammys. "I hope they are both recognized," he says with a laugh.

Your boss just got promoted to Sony Music CEO. How is Rob equipped to transition from a "record guy" to someone who has to deal with ­financials and corporate matters?

At Columbia, Rob has done an ­unbelievable job of building the best team of music executives in the business. I am sure he will continue that leadership. But you're right in that Rob has a way with ­artists. He is the best artist relations ­person I've ever seen or experienced. He has a handle on the smallest detail of a video for a brand-new act or the overall timeline for a superstar artist. Artists don't just want to be around him, they want to talk to him, they want his opinion. "For better or worse: What does Rob think?"

Can you recall when you first met him, presumably during your first jobs at 550 and Epic when he was heading Sony UK?

I'll tell you what I saw: that Rob was always at the shows. It was always about the music. He was in the mix with the artists -- the first one talking to them after the show, giving them commentary on their performance, the visuals, what could be done better, what was great about it  with an incredible ability to tell the truth.

You have worked for some of the ­music industry's most storied ­executives, starting with Frank DiLeo, Michael Jackson's longtime ­manager, and including Sony Music's Tommy Motolla, Columbia chief Donnie Ienner, Republic Records CEO Monte Lipman and current Capitol Music Group chairman Steve Barnett. What have you learned from each?

Frank, who was lovable and warm, taught me to treat everybody the same; Tommy: the “Godfather” -- a man of few words [who's] obsessed with sound and greatness; Donnie: intensity and competitive drive; Monte is about being fair and competitive as hell. He gave me an opportunity when I needed it most, and I'll never forget that; Steve was meticulous and a quick decision-maker. Also at Epic, I worked under Polly Anthony [who died in 2013], who gave me great advice, like when you're at a ­cocktail party, don't just stand there -- look around, meet everybody in the room and try every hors d'oeuvre. And Rob is all of those things: competitive, driven, intense, genius -- keeps me on my toes.

Do you prepare mentally for the idea that in 2017 you might be down a little because you won't have an Adele or a Beyoncé record?

It's a tough question, but no, because you always think you can break ­something else. There's always something around the ­corner, and Rob cultivates this with the A&R -- be aggressive, be out there ­looking. Also, I've noticed that the ­industry is inspired by recent reports about growth and streaming and how ubiquitous music is. A few years back, remember, people were scratching their heads. We'd sit in finance meetings and talk about, "We have to cut this or that." We rode out a tough couple of years, and it's a new frontier now.

Has radio's influence waned?

I wouldn't say that. Certainly it's a huge part of what we do here. I think it can be used in different ways. It's not always at the forefront. Some of our other partners like Apple Music and Spotify can show us things first, and then we start the process at radio. And sometimes we will slow it down, when maybe other labels wouldn't.

What's the wisdom behind that?

We may want to let the social numbers build a little bit, have a foundation. Because we don't sign acts for one song.

Does streaming lead now?

Often it does. It's a great selling point to be able to walk in and say "Look, 20 ­million streams," or 30 or 100 ­million streams, before we've actually got a full-fledged radio hit. But it's still just one metric that works and doesn't always scale. You have to build a full arsenal of information.

Chainsmokers had a hit single on Republic, were dropped, then moved to Columbia and scored three more. What did Columbia do that Republic didn’t?

I think when the guys were dropped, they had something to prove -- they wanted to show the world that “Selfie” wasn't who they are. And they matured in that time. They didn't stop, they just kept plowing forward and making new music. We're just trying to match their efforts. With every success they have, more artists are reaching out to work with them, including some multiplatinum acts who are [currently] in the mix.

What frustrates you about radio these days?

How all formats have become hit-driven. I’m frustrated by alternative projects not crossing over. It’s disappointing that you can have a No. 1 alternative record and nothing really goes from there, That's something that's missing: the kids these days don't love guitars. On the other hand, I played [Sony Music Nashville artist] Maren Morris for my daughter recently because I was curious what she thought. The song was “80s Mercedes” and she loved it. [She has] no concept that Maren is country. It's just great.

What are your thoughts on ­streaming exclusives in the wake of Lucian Grainge's edict against them at ­Universal?

We do very few. We've been approached, we've discussed it, and we want the music to go to everybody. Why withhold? And we're hearing from a lot of our partners that they are OK with that. Select artists want exclusives. It has been successful with Beyoncé [and Tidal]. They helped with budgets for videos -- Juicy J, most recently -- and we like the aggressive approach to wanting to help create content. But for us it has served us best to go wide.

Is there a service or product that you can point to that's the future of the music business?

Not one particular thing. “It’s exciting to see Amazon now getting in the game in a big way, with a distribution system and the Echo; it's Apple continuing to work on their platform and making it better; Spotify investing in great executives and growing their teams to be in constant contact with the music companies.

And YouTube?

I’ll say this: it's going to be very interesting to see how everything plays out over the next three to six months.

You handled Big Machine's pop crossovers at Republic and were there for Taylor Swift's first pop singles. Did you know then that she would be among the biggest pop acts ever? 

I would be lying if I said yes. During the first meeting with Monte and [Big Machine Label Group CEO] Scott Borchetta, it was about, could this 16-year-old girl compete at pop radio? It was a discussion and a potential opportunity. As we moved forward and had success, I realized this is one-of-a-kind stuff: hit after hit and then seeing the tour and the fans singing every word to songs that weren't singles -- that dedication and that communication she had with them -- that's when I realized this can go on as long as she wants. It wasn’t a flash; it was something really special.

What was her view forward at the time?

She was up for the challenge. I remember specific meetings where she outright said what she wanted. Specifically: that she didn't just want to be the best country artist, she wanted to be the best and biggest artist. And it was purely about us staying out of the way sometimes, letting her be creative and following. But in doing the promotion, there was a time where we had to fight like hell to get people to take off their country blinders and filters. [We’d say], “Yes, It's got a twang to it, but it doesn't matter. It sells like crazy and your audience doesn't think about it. Just watch what happens when you put her on the radio.” And the rest is history. But listen, she can do anything. If she wanted to make a country record tomorrow, she'd succeed. I don't think she will, but she could. She's just a great songwriter.

Eliot Spitzer's antipayola crackdown was 10 years ago. Looking back, do you feel you were scapegoated?

One hundred percent. And the industry knew I was scapegoated [judging by] the amount of people who reached out to me and told me as much. So that made me feel OK about it. And coming back to Sony, that's really great. But in ­having something that you loved taken away from you, you come back with new energy and spirit. And I was given that chance and worked my ass off at Republic. It sucked at the moment. It was shocking, like, "How can this be?" But knowing all the players that were in the mix [and] how it came about, I still work with people that were some of those players -- it's all water under the bridge. Everybody knew ... I've seen him at random events, and I've obviously never said a word, but it's just bizarre.

Was there a takeaway from the ­experience?

It made me appreciate each of the positions I’ve had, and I worked that much harder.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 5 issue of Billboard.


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