David Massey Shares His Plans For Relaunching Arista Records and Returning to Sony: Exclusive

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David Massey

David Massey, the newly named president/CEO of the rejuvenated Arista Records, declares returning to Sony Music Entertainment feels like “coming home.”

“Being in the building with all these people that I still love, it’s an incredible feeling,” he says, calling from Sony’s New York headquarters on his fourth day in the office for his first interview about his new position. 

In June, Massey left his post as president/CEO of Universal Music Group’s Island Records to return to Sony, where he worked in various capacities from 1994 to 2007, including as EVP/GM of Epic Records and executive VP/A&R for Sony Music Label Group U.S. 

Massey, who ranked No. 60 on Billboard’s 2018 Power List, ran UMG’s Mercury Records from 2007 until he was named president of UMG’s Island Records in 2013. Over the past five years, he's shepherded the careers of Shawn Mendes, Demi Lovato, Nick Jonas and Bon Jovi, among others. 

Massey’s leadership of Arista, which was founded by Clive Davis in 1974 and closed in 2011, is part of a creative partnership between the industry vet and Sony Music that also includes a joint venture for artist management and music publishing companies run by Massey. 

Though he had no names to announce , Massey, who reports to SME CEO Rob Stringer, is starting to build his team for his stand-alone, full-service major label, starting with A&R and marketing. For his publishing and management companies, Work of Art Publishing will be led by Massey's daughter Clio, who spent four years at Sony/ATV. She's joined by Zach Felber, who will be based in Los Angeles. Work of Art Management will also be based in Los Angeles and headed by GM Ryan Chisholm. He brings with him existing management client Mike Posner, Wes Period and Milck. Also on the artist management team is Robert Dugan. 

Massey discussed label plans with Billboard, expressing clear delighted to be reunited with Stringer and his former home.

Billboard: Why did you decide to leave UMG? 

David Massey: I made up my mind that I wanted to branch out into something entrepreneurial that involved management and publishing, as well as a label, so I wanted to talk to investors and different people about options. I shared that desire with Universal openly. I think they responded very fairly because it was a conversation that was many months before the end of my contract and the relationship with everyone was strong. I promised that no matter what I would dedicate all my remaining months to the benefit of Island, which is exactly what happened. I wanted to make sure that Shawn Mendes had a third No. 1 album and that Demi had a big hit. The things that I wanted to achieve in my last months they all came to pass.

So UMG was not interested in what you ultimately devised with Sony—the label deal and joint venture for the publishing and management concerns? 

I didn’t get into it with [UMG] because from my 11 years there I did not feel that they would be open to the kind of ideas that I had because they were somewhat unconventional. I thought that it might not be a fit for Universal.

When did Sony come into the mix? 

Later, after I was already deciding that I was going to make a move. 

What were your first conversations with Rob Stringer like?

To be honest, we’d had this idea years ago before I left Sony initially that maybe we’d do something like this. I would say there was unfinished business with Rob, so it was the coming together of two friends and it was pretty natural. 

Why relaunch Arista instead of starting a new imprint? 

Arista has been one of the absolute dream labels creatively and when we started having conversations, it just occurred to me one weekend [to ask if] there would ever be a possibility of reforming that amazing label. For me, from a music standpoint and from the point of Clive Davis and the history of that label, it felt like an iconic label that could be completely reinvented. To my amazement, it turned out we could actually do it. 

What was Clive Davis’s reaction? 

Clive was amazing about it and I think we all just felt like it was a very natural, great opportunity to bring back a label that so many people respect and love and, certainly for me, embodies so many of the artists that I would love to discover today, whether it be Whitney [Houston], or TLC or OutKast. The list is endless. It felt like a real long term plan for Sony and for myself. 

I hope we can reflect some of the culture and history of the label, but the essence of this is really discovery of amazing talent and building something. The fact that it has this history and that it has a brand identity just enhances it for me, not only from a U.S. perspective, but from a global one. 

When you look at Arista’s history and your history, both your strengths have been primarily pop. Is that where you will continue to devote your A&R efforts? 

I think a broader, more cultural version of pop. If you refer back to my last four years at Island, signings like Jessie Reyez and Bishop Briggs and, obviously, Shawn or Skip Marley all very much reflect what I would like Arista to be, which is a fresh label focused on the new way of doing business [with] artists that want to be career artists and that we can really help develop.

You sign pop-oriented acts that generally need radio to break big even though we are in a hip-hop dominant time. Does that concern you? 

I believe in artists as opposed to the mood of the day and I also believe in the worldwide vision for music. Hip-hop is very dominant and when we are able to sign a hip-hop artist or urban artist that we understand and can contribute to we want to do that, but we are not going to be led by the fact that that is dominant right now because we have to think about the whole world. If you take a worldwide viewpoint on Shawn Mendes, I think 70 percent of his sales are outside of America. My strength is not following trends.

When will you announce your first signing? 

I hope by the beginning of September. I’m actively looking for new fresh talent now both in the U.S. and internationally.

How are you managing the talent discovery process? Are you fielding calls from lawyers representing acts? Scouring the Internet?  

It’s definitely a mix. I really do think that anyone I ever met in the past 25 years seems to have reached out (laughs), which is great. I spent six hours yesterday just going through the music that people are sending me.

Will you be bringing in artists from other Sony labels?

No, it is completely from scratch. I don’t any see movement across labels.

What is the key to running a start up in 2018 where streaming songs is dominant versus the past when album sales were the gauge of success?

When Island separated from Def Jam in April 2014, it felt a bit like a start up because Island had not been a big label and not been a stand-alone label. At that time, the DSPs were beginning to happen. I’ve had a lot of interaction with all the streaming services and it’s something that I’m very passionate about and has been invaluable in the development of Island. When you look at what’s happening with Shawn or some of the developing artists, there’s been a lot of activity in that area in the past [few] years. I feel like I’ve got a growing understanding  of how to develop talent in the new world order and one of the exciting things about Arista and starting from scratch is that I feel like we can build a label that is built for the new business. That is one of the exciting challenges.

Meaning you’ll be digital first?

Yes and that the people we will be bringing in, some of them will have a different set of experiences based on that.

What are your plans for the publishing company? 

Clio’s already functioning. We started together last week. We want to create a boutique publishing company that works with writers and young artists who write their own songs and urban artists. In today’s world, one wants to be able to work with artists in any way we can. Hopefully it’s Arista, sometimes it will be publishing or management, but the idea is to work with artists in any of those disciplines. 

Why a management company? 

 I started my career in management. We want to work with other managers and build a traditional management company. 

How do you avoid conflict of interest between the three ventures?  

There’s no concerns about that. We’re not trying to manage artists that are going to be on Arista. We’re not trying to link publishing to the label. That’s not what we’re thinking.

Finally, what kind of mandate has Rob given you? 

Think big!


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