Lava Records' CEO Jason Flom on His New Children's Book 'Lulu Is a Rhinoceros' & the Future of Rock 'n' Roll

Jason Flom
Greg Hogue

Jason Flom, Allison Flom and Lulu.

"I've always been someone who believes in standing up for the underdog."

From Katy Perry to Lorde to Stone Temple Pilots, Jason Flom, CEO and founder of Lava Records, has made a career out of minting pop and rock stars. His latest sensation? A bulldog named Lulu who thinks she's a rhino. 

In Flom's just-released children's book, Lulu Is a Rhinoceros, written with his daughter Allison Flom, he used his own bulldog, Lulu, as the inspiration for a tale of self-acceptance and a celebration of difference, identity,and the personal freedom to be whoever you feel yourself to be. 

Billboard spoke with the music mogul, 57, about living with a dog who "gives off rhino vibes," his passion for social justice and making the world safe for rock 'n' roll again at Lava.

Lulu, the title character of your new children's book, Lulu Is a Rhinoceros, seems to be a bit of a rock star. Moby's even called her his "spirit animal." Why do you think this story resonates with people?

Well, people love bulldogs. They love rhinos without even necessarily realizing it, but rhinos are sort of a major force in pop culture too from Marc Ecko to... They're a symbol for a lot of things and kids have stuffed rhino animals. Also, Lulu is a little creature that thinks it's big and has a very strong spirit. All of that is a recipe for... Well, apparently it's working because people are responding to it.

What do rhinos symbolize?

Rhinos symbolize strength and there's something very ethereal about them because they've been around for about 50 million years. They really haven't had to evolve very much. They're basically dinosaurs; they're relics.... I was very lucky to go to Africa and spend time with the rhinos because of my work with VETPAW, which is Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife, and I'm also on the advisory board of the African Wildlife Foundation, who have named Lulu as an honorary advisory board member as well.

Where were you?

I got to be up close and personal with them in the wild in South Africa and it was just an unbelievable experience. It's transformative.

How close were you to a rhino?

In the wild I got to be within about 40-50 feet of them. They were eating and they're actually not aggressive animals, which is one of the things that make them so vulnerable to poachers. They're sort of trusting and I don't think they attack unless attacked first. They don't have any natural enemies. So they're strong and powerful and calm and confident and then I was lucky to meet a couple of orphan rhinos at a sanctuary and got to get very up close and personal with them. I kissed them, I played with them and I got to scratch their bellies. They were babies, but one was about 1,000 pounds and the other was about 2,000 pounds, so they're big babies. It was just a magical, magical experience.

Rhinos are very nearly extinct, correct?

Yes, they're critically endangered and that's one of the things I wanted to bring to people's attention as part of the campaign for the book. At the moment, we're losing three a day on the continent of Africa, which is down because of all the anti-poaching efforts that are being done, but three a day when there's only 2,500-3,000 of them left in the wild, is not a sustainable number. There's more that are being killed than are being born. They're being killed for their horn, which is one of the most valuable if not the most valuable substance on Earth and it actually is worthless at the same time. It has no magical properties, it has no medicinal properties, it has no anything. It's only useful for a rhino and it's really tragic because it's basically Eastern superstitions that are driving these gorgeous beings into extinction. It's heartbreaking.

The book has an important social message as well, beyond the conservation of rhinos. What else compelled you to write this book?

I've always been someone who believes in standing up for the underdog and rooting for the underdog and empowering people who are struggling and who are put upon and so to me. The idea of being able to create a character who would teach those lessons to young impressionable minds and also give a sense of hope and strength to young people who are struggling with bullying or with identity or with discrimination based on their particular circumstance, whatever that might be, that's just something that appeals to me greatly. And something I taught my kids from the time they were little and one of them is sitting right here and they've taken it to heart, which is again, to never be on the side of the oppressor and to do whatever you can without necessarily putting yourself in harm's way to help the oppressed. And I've seen it in terms of online and also in messages I've received from friends whose children have gotten some benefit from the book already, which really is so gratifying.

How has working in the music business informed the story, if at all?

Well, there's a Lulu song that nobody knows yet. [Laughs] But that's not the answer to the question. I contributed to the writing of a wonderful children's song called "Lulu, the Rhinoceros," which was written primarily by my best friend J. Ralph, who is a three-time Oscar-nominated composer. We've just found out that Ladysmith Black Mambazo has agreed to sing it. Super exciting. That's probably the only crossover I can think of for the music industry, because Lulu herself is not very musical.

Are you a songwriter as well, or was this a new endeavor for you?

When I was a teenager, which is eons ago, I was a guitar player and songwriter, but I haven't written a song in a long time as you can imagine. I'll write a poem occasionally, but they're usually very short. One of them led to my firing as chairman and CEO of Atlantic Records. [Laughs] But that's beside the point, so yeah, that's probably the only crossover.

The music industry itself can be kind of a boy's club. As a culture, how far has the music industry come in terms of trans-awareness and support and acceptance of difference, of the full range of human experience with gender?

I would say that the music industry is probably more forward-thinking and more progressive than many other businesses. I can't prove that, but I'd like to think that it's true and it would be logical if it is. A lot of people who populate the music industry are people who are progressive-minded. I mean I don't encounter people in the industry who express any prejudice, not outwardly, at least not around me. I can't say it's never happened, but I mean it's an industry that's based in New York and California, at least as far as the U.S. is concerned, which are progressive places, so you would expect that it would be on the right side of history as far as that stuff goes.

That's valid. You worked with your daughter on this book. What was her involvement? How you guys did it together?

The book started with this idea I had after I came back from Africa. Lulu is a real dog. She's a rhinoceros as we know, but Lulu is my bulldog, so it's based on a real character. She started giving off these rhino vibes to me and I started seeing a parallel, and she and I are very connected. Seven years ago she convinced me to stop eating meat because I just started to look at her and see in her every other kind of animal and I thought it would be hypocritical for me to spoil her as I do and yet support an industry that tortures and slaughters other animals who are essentially the same as she is. So anyway, she started putting off these rhino vibes and I started noticing yeah they do have certain similarities. She has short legs and a thick body and their eyes are on the sides and what she doesn't have is a horn and so then I had this vision of the cover of the book that I thought it should be her looking in the mirror and a rhino looking back at her.

I had a pretty general idea of what the story would look like. I knew it was about her struggle for acceptance and love in a world where she's judged by the other animals: the dogs, the pigeons, her human. Judged by her outward appearance as opposed to what's in her heart. I'm not a writer. My daughter is. She's getting her master's degree now in playwriting and she's always been a fantastic writer, so I thought I would enlist her help. She's also someone who's been very deeply involved in social causes--she's worked with United Nations women's groups and a theater company in New York called Girl Be Heard. She has a very keen understanding of the issues and so it was a perfect combination.

Lulu of course now has her own Instagram, @luluisarhino and mine is @itsjasonflom and I post pictures of Lulu from time to time.

And your son works with you at Lava?

Michael's 18 and he's about to start college, but he's already signed some young artists, including an artist called Stanaj who's made some waves in the music industry already and has a new single out called "Dirty Mind." And he has a young artist called Ariaa who's also starting to make some waves.

What are your current priorities at Lava?

Its very exciting times at Lava right now. Greta Van Fleet has become a phenomenon and I'm very excited to be a part of bringing rock 'n' roll back, making the world safe for rock 'n' roll. Greta does it right. I mean you probably saw the Robert Plant interview where he said they are Led Zeppelin. That's the music I grew up on, so it's a thrill to be involved. They're young kids, they're really smart, they work their asses off and they've got it. The new record is getting ready to come out so that's super exciting. 

Of course Lava's a very small company. I don't know if people realize that. We have Lorde and Jessie J -- two brilliant, brilliant artists and there will be more music to come from them -- and then we have some young artists that are about to go into the cycle, which I'm very excited about. One is Maty Noyes -- a brilliant songwriter and singer who has some really exciting things going on, including a cut she wrote that's going to be on the new Celine Dion record. And we have a couple other young artists including The Blancos who have a song which is a proper protest song called "We're Tired." It is the song that's needed right now and it covers a lot of the topics that are in the news. I think it's going to make a real impact.

Can you also talk about your work on behalf of the Innocence Project and how your podcast Wrongful Conviction came about?

I am the founding board member of the Innocence Project. I've been there almost since the beginning and it's become a huge part of my life. I spend a significant amount of time working to free people who are innocent and to share their stories through my podcast, Wrongful Conviction, which is almost up to 5 million series listens now. I think it's hitting a nerve with people and hopefully changing hearts and minds. People have reached out to me and said that it changed their mind about the death penalty. I encourage everyone to serve on jury duty if given the opportunity and when you do so, to really pay careful attention because you may be being fed a line of bullshit and someone's life is in your hands.

The Innocence Project has been a huge part of my life. I did a TedX talk inside a maximum-security prison in Uganda in March, which is about to go online. I do a lot of public speaking on the subject. If anyone is reading this and wants to book me, they should because I love talking about it. I typically bring an exoneree with me. I've got a very large family of exonerees now and I love these people. There's something so incredible about being around anyone of these exonerees who have been through these unimaginable nightmares. It's really hard to think of anything worse than being locked up and sentenced to death or life in prison for something you didn't do. And then sent to a maximum security prison, which America's prisons are among the most brutal in the world and our justice system is among, sadly, one of the more backwards ones in the world even though it's based on a system of laws that's good, but the system itself is broken. The idea that I get to spend time on almost a daily basis with all sorts of different people who have come through 10, 20, 30 or more years in prison and come out with a smile on their face, people who you can't get them to say a bad thing. They're just optimistic and joyous and they exist in what I can only say a state of grace. It puts so much gratitude in my attitude and it really keeps everything in perspective in terms of the daily life issues that come up.

THE BILLBOARD BIZ
SUBSCRIBER EXPERIENCE

The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.


To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.