Steve Rifkind & Former LINE CEO Jeanie Han Seek to Lead Artist Development Through Discovery With WAV
"Do we want to be Universal Music? I don't know, we could be but they don't have a platform."
Relatively early in Steve Rifkind's career, the Loud Records founder became known for pioneering street team marketing where he tapped into promoting his artists on the ground level among influencers and true music fans. This is how he helped build the careers of Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, Big Punisher and many others on Loud, as well just about every other big rap record in the '90s via his eponymous marketing and promotions company. Now, after nearly four decades in the industry, Rifkind is redefining this concept for the digital age as head of talent for the music-based video streaming startup WAV and its record label with the intent of leading artist development through artist discovery.
WAV is the brainchild of CEO Jeanie Han, former CEO of LINE Euro-Americas Corp, and she says after running the massively popular Korean-based messaging platform with more than 220 million monthly active users in 230 countries across the world, she began looking for new opportunities to expand the company. In short, this lead her to live video streaming, which lead her to music, which led her to Rifkind, one of rap music's most lauded execs.
With a focus specifically on hip-hop and dance music, WAV soft launched earlier this year as an interactive video platform for creative partnership with artists, labels and press outlets. A hard launch is planned for July, which it has been building towards with a pretty compelling proposition: WAV will help develop and produce exclusive video content about basically whatever its potential partners want, whether that may be a new series, a one-off concept or something else altogether. Early collaborators include Skrillex's OWSLA label, The Fader, HipHopDX, Joey Bada$$, BIA, Krewella and more. Meanwhile, Rifkind is leading a record label component as well, with full intent of using the budding WAV ecosystem to lead its A&R and promotion efforts.
Rifkind and Han spoke with Billboard to discuss how they came together and where they hope to go from here, which it turns out is someplace big -- like, Apple, Spotify and Universal Music big. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Can you explain how WAV works and how you've developed the idea?
Han: This is not a user-generated app. It's a closed, curated app and we're going to hand pick up-and-coming artists who we think are going to break, or are at the cusp of breaking. We wanted to give them a platform where they can really showcase themselves and not just through music, but also through video, where they can really just be creative and unleash without any restrictions. At the same time we're going to support them on the music side as well with an album deal, etcetera, etcetera. We wanted to create a platform where it's very artist friendly, sort of a new music company, if you will. Last year, we said we're going to create something really interesting where it sort of changes the paradigm of how music companies work. And, hence, with Steve we're going to find the best artists out there and incubate them. But do we want to be Universal Music? I don't know, we could be but they don't have a platform.
And then with our parent company, Naver that's the biggest tech company in Korea, we have this network of consumer-facing internet companies: From Naver, the search engine, to LINE. We have Snow, which is like a Snapchat of Asia, and we have the iTunes equivalent, we have Amazon equivalent, YouTube equivalent, all that in Asia. So for us to be able to incubate our artists and also help them get access to Asia and help them get introduced to the Asian market is a huge benefit that no one else can do. Literally, Facebook and Google can't even help you in Asia.
Why is the record label an important part of this business model? Why not just be a live music video streaming app start up?
Rifkind: I think the label business and the music business need to change.... [It's still] the same thing I was doing 25 years ago. But what Jeanie developed with what we have here, it just brought a smile to my face. So it's everything that I did but everything is online and it's on our own platform now.
These record companies aren't developing artists anymore. They haven't developed artists in years and the first thing that they cut is video budgets. So if we can become Travis Scott's content partner, let's do it. And if we can help blow him up, let's do it. Even though he may be signed to Epic, we're going to blow up because they know we've been by his side. It's like when Spotify broke Lorde. No one knew that Spotify was the one that was really championing Lorde. She knew but the world didn't. So from a Travis Scott to a Young M.A, whoever it is, we're going to be by their side, if we put out the record or they put out the record themselves, we're still going to be there.
What makes it so great to be here and out of the major label system?
Rifkind: Here, artists can be true to themselves. At a major level, the majors want to dictate on their image, on their marketing, on their branding. Here, I say we're the big brother or the older cousin where we're here to help them do what they want. And a lot of managers on the dance side are coming to me and saying hey can you A&R these records for us? We want to bridge the gap between dance music and hip-hop and we need some emcees. So I'm truly having the time of my life. I told Jeanie the day that we met that this could be the biggest company that I was ever involved with.
Han: And what Steve's been telling me is that on the label side you always bet on the one that's the sure thing, so you wait and wait and wait until you know that this person is going to pop -- they would rather spend more and invest a lot more into someone they know is going to pop or has already popped than to take a risk on someone. Here, we really value musicians and their talent and their potential. So rather than picking up people that are doing really well, we want to give these guys that love music a platform and a chance to really grow with us. And I think that's the big difference, that we're taking risks with them and we never have to really force them to do anything, they just hang out and say, "I have this idea," and we riff and they think that we're family.
Rifkind: So you have these two separate but inclusive elements where there's the label and then the platform and instead of worrying about, like, radio ads one week, the platform kind of is that. It will grow into being where the platform is our marketing reach. This is our street team.
The great thing is when I started each one of my companies it was very creative. Here, in the meetings that we have, if it's with an artist or it's just with staff, it's all very creative: How are we going to grow to the next level? So there's a huge creative process.
It's clear you guys are creative partners with artists, but how about business partners? What kind of revenue opportunities are there outside the label?
Han: The revenue opportunities are, first of all, digital gifting that's like an in-app purchase. The app is free and you can watch content for free right now, but if you love the content you can actually start digital gifting your artists and then we do rev share with artists on digital gifting. Down the line, if we have great content, we might put a paywall around it and do a pay-per-view. And then as our user base grows we might even do ads, but I'm not even thinking about that right now. So mostly digital gifting and then if we do merchandising inside the app, they'll get rev share on that as well.... Plus we fund their production and then we help them to get into Asia, those are three very strong value propositions.
Obviously the Asian music market is huge, the Korean music market is huge, does this go both ways? Are Korean artists involved too?
Han: They're already knocking on our door because they all want to come to the U.S., obviously, but it's not as easy as it sounds. So we will do that eventually, we will be the de facto conduit between Asia and Western markets, East-meets-West. We will be that company that will help them, but I think the way we should do that is to have collaborations like take a rapper here and a really strong artist on Korea and then they collaborate on a new piece of media together and we can distribute that globally, I think that would be really interesting. I'm not really interested in just bringing somebody from Asia; I'm not in the business of marketing Asian talent at the moment but if we're doing collaborations I think that crossover would be very natural.
So, what's your artist discovery process here?
Rifkind: I have a full A&R team and how I've always done A&R is the whole company can be A&R, there's just certain people who can go to the studio and get it done. But I'm taking a little old school, a little of what's going on today, I was never a big research guy but being here now the research automatically comes.
Han: We also have a portal where we take submissions. On our website wav.media, we have a submissions portal where you can submit your music as well as your video and then our team looks at it and it goes through its certain filters and if it goes all the way up to Steve and he likes it then we might sign that person.
As well, we are building our own proprietary algorithm. This is a tech-based music company so we are going to have an algorithm that's very data and science-driven, where we're taking the street data as well as internet and digital data and kind of predicting who the next star will be. And if it works really well, we can even license the algorithm out to other labels as well. It's for us to pick up the discovery talent as well as if they are on the platform who should get an album deal, so there are kind of two levels where we use it from the very beginning. But it's not just data that's out there, it's a very sophisticated algorithm, I actually have a few Ph.Ds working on this, so I'm very excited about that as well.