With Major Grammy Nominations, Def Jam's Steve Bartels Is Leaving On a High Note

Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images
Steve Bartels attends New York Magazine's 50th Anniversary Celebration at Katz's Delicatessen on Oct. 24, 2017 in New York City.  

Def Jam CEO Steve Bartels may be leaving the label at the end of the year, but he is going out on a high note. Four Def Jam artists -- Justin Bieber, Logic, Alessia Cara and Big Sean -- picked up eight nominations in key categories and that’s not even counting the nominations of Roc Nation artists such as JAY-Z and Rapsody on records that Def Jam helps market.

But does the outgoing success help Bartels as a free agent in the marketplace when he goes for his next job?

With Bartels handing over the reins at Def Jam to incoming CEO Paul Rosenberg, he is leaving the label in fine shape, with the Grammy clout likely to boost more sales and streaming activity to the Def Jam artists nominated. Logic and Alessia Cara received nominations for the song of the year and best music video for Logic’s “1-800-273-8255,” featuring Alessia Cara and Khalid; while Cara also was nominated for best pop duo/group performance on Zedd’s “Stay” and picked up a coveted best new artist nomination. Meanwhile, Big Sean got a best rap performance nomination for “Bounce Back,” while the Justin Bieber remix of Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” picked nominations for record of the year, song of the year and best pop duo/group performance.

While Bartels inherited star Justin Bieber when he took over Def Jam in 2014, the commercial breakthrough of the other three artists -- Cara, Logic and Big Sean -- all happened under Bartels' watch. He is leaving behind a seasoned staff and a market share of 2.53 percent, according to Nielsen Music.

Once upon a time in the U.S music industry, when CD sales were soaring and label presidents flowed between six majors, such Grammy buzz might have been a ticket to a new top label gig. But nowadays, major label presidents seem to get one bite out of the apple: the last major label presidents to enjoy a prolonged stay at that level are L.A. Reid, who exited as chairman/CEO of Epic Records earlier this year after sexual harassment allegations -- prior to Epic, Reid had been chairman/CEO of Island Def Jam; and before that president and CEO of Arista -- and Sylvia Rhone, who’s been president of Epic since March 2014, following earlier presidencies at Universal Motown and Elektra Entertainment Group. The CEO job at Epic is still open, though Rhone is a contender, while the top job at Columbia has been vacant as well since former CEO Rob Stringer was bumped up to run Sony Music Entertainment.

“If Bartels was going off on that note 15 years ago, he would certainly get another shot at being a label president,” says one veteran industry executive. But “most label presidents nowadays go on to become consultants for other parts of the music industry or venture capital firms.”

Moreover, while Grammy nominations and wins can boost sales and streaming, they don’t necessarily translate into profitability, a bigger priority for labels in today’s leaner industry.

“You have to follow the money,” says another industry executive. “Nowadays most company chairmen value the bottom line over market share, but they always want to see more of both.”

While sources suggest that Def Jam has been profitable, considering the ascendency of hip-hop and rap in the U.S. marketplace, they also say UMG executives expected Def Jam’s fortunes to similarly rise and wanted to see more profit and market share coming out of Def Jam. Also, while the trains ran better than they did when Reid helmed Def Jam, the label has struggled to meet deadlines before anticipated release dates, sources say.

And Def Jam has seen some high-profile departures under Bartels, as well, including executives like Chris Atlas (Warner Bros.), No I.D. (Capitol) and The-Dream and artists like Rihanna and Rick Ross, while Frank Ocean's much-publicized exit and subsequent independent release of Blond remains a blot on his resume.

Still, some label presidents are strong in A&R while others have strong business acumen and good leadership skills, and Bartels is known for being in the latter category. Those strong business chops and industry knowledge, combined with his outgoing success, likely will serve him well in the marketplace for the next stage of his career in the industry, even if he doesn’t land another gig as a major label president.

In Rosenberg, Def Jam is getting a seasoned executive who is both fluent in the rap business and comes with a diverse industry background, having served as Eminem's lawyer as well as co-founder of both Shady Records (Eminem, Slaughterhouse, Yelawolf, Boogie; formerly 50 Cent) and Goliath Management (Eminem, Danny Brown, Action Bronson). While he's never run a major label, he shepherded Eminem's career from the very beginning, which has included 47.5 million album sales in the U.S. -- the sixth-best-selling albums artist in the Nielsen era (1991-present) -- as well as two diamond-selling albums (The Marshall Mathers LP, 11.1 million; The Eminem Show, 10.9 million), 15 Grammy Awards and an Academy Award in 2003 for "Lose Yourself" from the 8 Mile soundtrack. With hip-hop heavyweights like Kanye West, Nas, 2 Chainz, Jeezy, Sean, Fabolous and Pusha T on the Def Jam roster, as well as promising young guns like Logic, YG, Dave East and Desiigner, Rosenberg will have plenty to work with.

Bartels deserves applause for handling the transition admirably, sources say. “Bartels has kept everybody at Def Jam focused on the records they are working and the label was rewarded with the Grammy nominations,” says one industry executive. “All in all, he proved his dedication to the job by staying in place and keeping his team motivated.”

Additional reporting by Dan Rys

2018 Grammy Awards