Women in Music 2018
Kevin Liles Talks the Past, Present and Future of 300 Entertainment: Exclusive
The veteran label executive and manager on D'Angelo, data and C-suite shakeups.
Few things make a record executive happier than kicking off a new year by landing the No. 1 single in the country. Doubling up with a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200, as Migos did with their lead single "Bad and Boujee" and sophomore release Culture already in 2017, was welcome vindication for 300 Entertainment co-founder/CEO Kevin Liles.
The one-two punch couldn't have come at a better time for the 3-year-old independent company, founded in November 2013 by Liles, Lyor Cohen, Todd Moscowitz and Roger Gold as a forward-thinking, data-driven music company. Born in Baltimore, the 49-year-old Liles joined Def Jam as an intern in 1991, rose to president in 1998 and, alongside Cohen and Moscowitz, built the label into a global powerhouse with stars like Jay Z, DMX and Ja Rule. In 2004, all three left for Warner Music Group, where Liles served as executive vp until 2009, when he left to form KWL Management, representing such artists as D'Angelo, Trey Songz and Mariah Carey.
The launch of 300 served as a reunion for the trio, and by 2015, the company was on a run of success with rappers like Fetty Wap and Young Thug and rock band Highly Suspect. But last September, Cohen abruptly announced he was leaving the company, in which he remains the largest individual investor, to become the global head of music at YouTube; six weeks later, Moscowitz followed him out the door to launch his own label, Alamo Records, in a joint venture with Universal Music Group.
The departures sowed uncertainty about 300's future, with rumors of an artist exodus or a potential sale making the rounds. But Liles weathered the storm, strategizing the Migos rollout while focusing on a year ahead that should include releases from Young Thug, Fetty Wap, Meg Mac, Bailey Bryan, Coast Modern and Cheat Codes, to name an eclectic few.
"The machine is focused and refined; we're nimble and independent but have the muscle of a major, and we're ready for what the world has to offer," Liles says confidently. As for the rumors surrounding the future of the company, Liles is emphatic. "You're hearing it from the CEO: 300 is not for sale."
Did you know Cohen and Moscowitz were going to leave 300?
I think what we prided ourselves on is that foremost, we're all individuals, and at certain times people might feel different ways. But I call it evolution. When I started at Def Jam, Rick Rubin was leaving. When I was president and CEO of Def Jam, Lyor was leaving to go to Warner. From Warner, I left first. We're going to continue to bring other pieces to the puzzle. It's all clear where the buck stops now. I sit here more confident than ever saying everything happened for a reason. But I wish anyone who takes the solo road of entrepreneurship the best of luck. I don't fault anybody from doing anything. You know, Lyor still owns a part of the company. What better position could I have one of my best friends in the world in?
Is Cohen still involved in 300?
Lyor can't be involved with any day-to-day. He's just an investor. Google and YouTube are our biggest investors. I can't say I knew everything, but I knew enough that the move was the best for our venture partner and the best for 300. We have a great relationship [at YouTube now] because the boss is a friend. But just like any other label, to have a seat at the table, you still got to fight your way to get what you want based on your music and your products.
As the head of both 300 and KWL, how do you juggle the two responsibilities?
At the end of the day, are you managing talent on both? The answer is yes to me. You're making the best decisions for their career. I have a staff of people at KWL that I'm very proud of; I let them mainly run the day to day and I've dedicated wholeheartedly everything to building 300.
Why did you leave WMG and then launch KWL?
Honestly, our industry had gotten to a point where I felt we were making decisions not based on the new consumption model, we were making decisions based off of just records and not culture, and I needed to tear myself down. You know, when you're executive vice president of the company, you get to see a lot of things. My boss at the time was Lyor, and I took a lot of knowledge and took some time to myself. And then everybody started knocking at my door and I chose the path of being in the pit again instead of going back in the ivory tower.
You managed some difficult artists at KWL, one being D'Angelo. What was that experience like?
I don't use the term "difficult." I use "determined." Determined to make his album a classic one, determined to have his point of view at the time he wants to speak. So it's not difficult to me -- it's my job. My job is to make sure true art is able to be shared with the world. And I believe D'Angelo is art.
How crucial is data to driving the every day decisions of how you run the business?
Everything. If we put out a piece of product, I want to know what the analytics are. I want to know every day who consumed it, how they consumed it, what was the ratio of growth, what was the ratio of decline, what are the comparisons to what happened the last project, what time did we put it out? I'm asking all these questions to make better decisions going forward. I'm a big believer in data, I'm a big believer, first, in telling the right story, having the right soundtrack and the right narrative to the story. Once you do that, I feel you can go and measure your work and your storytelling capabilities based on the information that's given.
And everything is not going to be a blockbuster. And every blockbuster isn't going to cost $100 million dollars to make. Look at Get Out, made for 4 or 5 million dollars, made $100 million so far. So our job is to tell great stories -- at different costs -- but it has to be a great story. At the end of the day, at 300, we're storytellers. And if you listen to every single one of our artists, there's a narrative that brings you back to, "That sounds like some 300 shit." And that's what we do.
Why did you expand into pop and country?
I've been doing that my whole life -- what were the Beastie Boys? (Laughs.) You know, we want to be the great American record label, not just the great American rap or country or pop label. We want to be a house for artists that want to have a voice and tell a great story with an edge.
With all the changes happening in the music industry, how do you adapt?
By continuing to be nimble and well-financed and understanding we're in a high-volume, low-margin business and making decisions based on that. Some people say, "Build the pipes and then get the artists." I say, "Get the artists and then build the pipes." Because once you have art, everything else will come.