Def Jam's Steve Bartels Talks A&R, Artistry & The Ultimate '80s DJ Tracks in Midem Keynote Address

JimĀ Spellman/WireImage
Steve Bartels attends the Pencils Of Promise Gala 2015 at Cipriani Wall Street on Oct. 21, 2015 in New York City. 

The very essence of the artist, more so than the intricacies of the inner-workings of a record label, were at the heart of the Midem keynote with Def Jam Recordings CEO Steve Bartels.

Interviewed by music writer and former Billboard editor Joe Levy, Bartels spoke at length about what drew him to sign artists like Alessia Cara and Logic and the ties between Def Jam’s classic back catalog and its current acts as a binding glue that in large part continues to define the label.

The keynote, which closed day 2 of Midem in Cannes, began with a conversation on A&R where Bartels gave plentiful credit to a young team of A&R executives with “new ideas” before going into detail on Cara, whom he described first and foremost as an artist with “a remarkable point of view.”

“I remember a very small showcase in New York and one of the [TV show] bookers saw her and went crazy over her. It really starts with her.” 

When signing an act, Bartels said, the label looks at data in terms of reaction to specific actions: Shazam information, what streaming services provide, traditional radio, reaction to TV performances and online success. 
And then, he said, there’s also gut -- “which is what I believe in at the end of the day.”

Gut was also the factor in signing rapper Logic, another artist with a very clear point of view. “The starting point is believing in the artist you sign,” said Bartels. 

However, he noted later in the conversation, “The best day shouldn't be the day we sign the deal, but the day we deliver what we said we were going to deliver. Does it always happen? No.”

Bartels also touched upon the increasing spirit of partnership, noting multi-label collaborations such as Alessia Cara’s with Zedd on “Stay” (Interscope). And of course the ubiquitous Justin Bieber, whose “Despacito” remix propelled the track to the top of the charts, and who also has a new record with David Guetta coming out this week titled “2U.”

“We don’t always get a warning,” laughed Bartels, admitting that when it comes to Bieber he doesn’t always know where or when the next collab is coming from. “Sometimes I get a call at midnight saying he wants to put a song up in ITunes. ... But that’s what we do.”

Bartels' keynote, at a succinct 30 minutes, managed to cover broad ground, including the surge of interest in hip-hop thanks to streaming, which has brought new interest in the genre’s catalog.

And, to cap things off, there were memories of Bartels' days as a DJ in the '80s. His go-to record back in the day? He rattled off a handful, including Patrick Hernandez’s “Born to Be Alive” and Herman Kelly’s “Let’s Dance to the Drummer’s Beat.”