Inside Steve Bartels' Def Jam Reign: Bieber Hits and Market Share Misses

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

Last week’s announcement that Eminem's longtime manager and business partner Paul Rosenberg will helm Def Jam Recordings and replace current CEO Steve Bartels starting at the end of this year may have taken many in the industry by surprise, but the storied label's numbers suggest a leadership change may have been in the cards.

Born in Ohio but raised in Spring Valley, N.Y., Bartels, 54, entered the music business as a DJ around the time Def Jam was being hatched by Russel Simmons and Rick Rubin in an NYU dorm room. A job in dance promotion at A&M Records, where he was hired by the late legendary executive Charlie Minor, led to a decade each at Arista and Island Def Jam, working with Clive Davis and Antonio “L.A.” Reid, who, along with Minor, are the three executives that Bartels considers his music business mentors.

Bartels, who had been Reid’s GM at IDJ, ran the label day-to-day as president and chief operating officer after Reid left the label to run Epic in 2011 and Barry Weiss entered to oversee Universal's East Coast labels, Republic and Island Def Jam. Bartels was rewarded in 2014 with sole stewardship of Def Jam when Weiss left the company and IDJ was split up. 

While Def Jam found some success on the charts during Bartels' reign, especially with Justin Bieber and Big Sean, the label’s market share albums plus TEA (track equivalent albums) during the Bartels era rose slightly from 2.04 percent in 2014 to 2.19 percent in 2015, but dropped to 1.92 percent in 2016 and is currently down to 1.61 percent. With streaming data (SEA) added into the mix (which only dates back to 2015), Def Jam’s market share improved, growing from 2.5 percent market share in 2015 to 2.82 percent in 2016 and down slightly in 2017 to 2.6 percent.

In comparison to the other labels, Def Jam’s market share puts it roughly in ninth place behind, in no particular order, Interscope, Republic, Capitol, RCA, Epic, Warner Bros, and Atlantic.

During Bartels’ reign, Def Jam had some 84 songs on the Billboard Hot 100, including twelve top ten tracks. This included three Bieber No. 1s (“Love Yourself,” “Sorry” and “What Do You Mean”) as well as chart toppers by Desiigner (“Panda”), Iggy Azalea featuring Charli XCX (“Fancy”) and most recently DJ Khaled featuring Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance the Rapper & Lil Wayne (“I’m the One’). 

On the Billboard 200, some 74 Def Jam albums made the weekly survey since 2014, with sixteen topping the chart, including two Big Sean albums (Dark Sky Paradise, I Decided), one by Kanye West (The Life Of Pablo), Rick Ross (Mastermind) Bieber (Purpose), Logic (Everybody) and Jeezy (Trap Or Die 3).

Not helping matters were a number of high profile artist and exec Def Jam departures, including Rihanna, Frank Ocean, Big K.R.I.T., The-Dream (who was brought in as an evp of A&R) No I.D. (head of A&R) as well as former EVP of marketing Chris Atlas.

In an internal memo to his team, the outgoing Bartels (who will stay on until the end of the year) wrote: “We have done what we set out to do: break records both on the charts and on the spreadsheets, and we have done that together. We have won on the charts and on the books.”  It's certainly true the label broke records on "charts and spreadsheets," but in the end, they may have needed to break more.

Additional reporting by Ed Christman.