Def Jam Bets On Paul Rosenberg, Music Execs (and Brian Grazer) Weigh In
Jimmy Iovine, Cara Lewis, Ron Laffitte, Brian Grazer and others weigh in on Eminem's manager's ascension to the Def Jam throne.
"Lucian did a great thing, and I bet it wasn't easy," says Apple Music executive Jimmy Iovine of Universal Music Group chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge's hiring of Eminem's manager Paul Rosenberg to replace Def Jam Records CEO Steve Bartels in January 2018. The Aug. 3 announcement surprised the industry -- not only because of Bartels' unexpected departure, but also because Rosenberg's history as a maverick entrepreneur does not necessarily translate to running a music label within a global entertainment corporation operating in over 60 international territories with some 7,500 employees.
Yet that's exactly why Iovine is applauding the appointment of the 46-year-old attorney, who in addition to managing Eminem oversees the careers of Danny Brown and The Alchemist among others as CEO of Goliath Artists. Rosenberg also co-runs Shady Records (D12, Slaughterhouse, Yelawolf, Bad Meets Evil) and SiriusXM’s Shade 45 channel with Eminem; produces films (8 Mile, Get Rich or Die Tryin,’ Southpaw) and TV (The Next Episode, Gone Too Far, A Different Spin); and co-founded RapRadar.com among other business endeavors
“He’s a full fledged entrepreneur and takes risk and that’s a great thing for the record industry,” says Iovine, “The industry has too many people who are terrified of losing their jobs and behave that way. People with Paul’s talents have been avoiding working at record companies. Lucian wants him to take risks or he wouldn’t have brought him in.”
None of which necessarily means transitioning to working for the storied Def Jam label within the world’s largest music group will come easy. “You’re dealing with a lot more people reporting to you every day,” says John Janick, chairman/CEO of UMG-owned Interscope Geffen A&M, who himself leap-frogged from running the indie label Fueled by Ramen to Elektra Records in 2009 and to the IGA throne in 2012. “It’s about adapting without losing what got you there in the first place.”
The manager-major label executive turntable is certainly not without precedent (see Irving Azoff, Steve Barnett and Guy Oseary among many others), as running the day-to-day business of an artist can give managers a holistic perspective others may lack—it’s just that there's a lot to ramp up to.
“The biggest shock when I went from being a manager to joining a label,” says Ron Laffitte, “is that you’re accustomed to doing everything yourself all the time and doing whatever it takes and then you come into a label where there’s structure, departments and people are primarily focused on their one area.” Laffitte, who manages Pharrell, One Republic, Charlie Puth and Backstreet Boys and formerly worked at Elektra and Capitol, says he was “shocked by the lack of knowledge” he saw at record companies and "how little they knew about the "day-to-day life of an artist.”
But those who have known and worked closely with Rosenberg have little doubt he’ll thrive in his new role. “I’ve known Paul for almost 20 years,” says power agent Cara Lewis, who first met the manager when she worked at William Morris. “After getting a tip on Eminem, I requested a meeting with Paul at my office,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what to expect from a fairly new manager—especially in this genre of music. But I was surprised to meet this smart, articulate businessman who I later found out was also an attorney. He played his cards very close to his vest and for weeks I was on edge hoping to sign Eminem and work with Paul."
Lewis notes that Rosenberg's ability to take Def Jam to the next level is predicated on the fact that he developed one of the biggest artists ever and has "touched every facet of the music industry over his career."
To wit, film producer Brian Grazer who who worked closely with Rosenberg on 2002’s 8 Mile at at a time when there seemed endless amounts of hype and controversy swirling about the rap superstar, fondly recalls Rosenberg's sangfroid. “There were lots and lots of dramas and psychodramas that could have created endless chaos,” Grazer says. “Thousands of times this movie could have fallen off track for a variety of reasons. But Paul was always there not panicking when everybody else was panicking and making sure that it came together the way it was supposed to. He is a fearless and steadfast leader. No one is going to intimidate him, he is solid as a rock. He’s got tremendous instinct and is not going to get f***ed by people.”
Indeed, insiders tell Billboard that Grainge even had to do a bit of wooing to convince Rosenberg to take the gig. Despite successes like Justin Bieber and Big Sean, Def Jam's market share -- including streaming data -- is 2.6 percent, down from 2.8 percent in 2016 but up from 2.5 percent in 2015, according to Nielsen Music.
“The business is changing,” says Steve Berman, Interscope vice chairman who has worked with Rosenberg on every Eminem album. “Paul’s got a big job in front of him in managing that legacy and taking Def Jam to the next place,” he says. “But of all the managers and labels I’ve worked with in my 25-plus years of being there, Paul is absolutely the top of the pyramid."
"Without a doubt," he adds, "this is great for Def Jam and for the music industry.”
A condensed version of this story originally appeared in the Aug. 19 issue of Billboard.