Interscope's Urban A&R Maestro Nicole Wyskoarko On Powerful Women, Morals Clauses and Last Year's Bidding War Frenzy
"The changes we've seen, in terms of more women being hired for or promoted to executive positions, is definitely an advance," says the veteran music attorney.
Nicole Wyskoarko knew one thing the moment she walked into Brooklyn Law School in 2001: She had to find a job as a music industry attorney.
"Otherwise, I wasn't going to practice law at all," recalls Wyskoarko, 40. "I couldn't envision doing anything else as a lawyer and being happy. It was do or die."
Nearly 20 years later, the Los Angeles native is celebrating her first anniversary as executive vp urban operations at Interscope Geffen A&M (IGA). She joined the company in March 2018 after a stint as a partner at Carroll Guido & Groffman, a law firm where she represented clients such as Meek Mill, DJ Mustard, H.E.R. and André 3000. Prior to that, she served as senior vp business and legal affairs for Universal Music Group (UMG) labels Island, Def Jam and Republic, working with Kanye West, Alessia Cara and Justin Bieber.
After getting her start as a Def Jam intern while in law school, Wyskoarko honed her negotiating skills by handling artist clearances and licensing on the side. "I'd find myself in class with my two-way pager," she says with a laugh, "getting messages from work asking, 'What's going on with this clearance?'"
After graduation, she joined UMG as a file clerk before an attorney position eventually opened up. She spent 14 years at the company before segueing into private practice. Now at Interscope, she's filling a role that didn't exist before her arrival. "My major duty is managing the A&R team and helping them manifest their visions for their signings and projects," she says. "I'm the person putting out the fires across the board, keeping the train moving to handle our huge volume of releases."
Coming off Grammy Award wins for Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock and Ella Mai, Wyskoarko -- a fervent Prince fan and avid traveler (Egypt is on her bucket list) -- sat down to talk about her first year at Interscope, inclusion in the industry and the hip-hop signing frenzy.
Why did you decide to leave private practice and return to a major label?
This was a new position, an opportunity to create something knowing that there aren't a lot of executive positions for women and persons of color in the business. I felt it was really important to take this on. The hardest part was leaving my clients. I felt like I owed them; how could I leave?
What does the industry need to do to further correct the lack of inclusion?
The changes we've seen, in terms of more women being hired for or promoted to executive positions, is definitely an advance. Seeing the hiring of women such as [Capitol Music Group senior vp global creative] Amber Grimes and [Columbia Records co-head of urban music] Phylicia Fant is exciting and important because it will have a huge impact on making long-term change. These women are now in the position to not only shape the perspectives and culture of their respective companies, but also hire based on their own experiences. But we still need more women and people of color, not only in executive positions at labels, but within all industry sectors -- and including awards show voters, nominees, performers and presenters. There just needs to be more representation across the board.
What has been your experience as a woman working in the male-dominated music-law field?
Sometimes I think people take my kindness for weakness. I've had situations where male colleagues felt they could talk to me in a disrespectful way because I seem so calm. I've had situations where I've needed to confront people face-to-face, and then how they talk to me changes. I don't feel the need to start any conversation from an aggressive standpoint. But when I'm approached that way, I always confront things head-on. And that usually changes how people communicate with you.
What are you proud of so far at IGA, and what are your goals moving forward?
I recently hired Caroline "Baroline" Diaz as Interscope Records' senior director of A&R. It's inspiring to see someone so young who has the fire and raw talent that simply needs to be cultivated. I see more women on the publishing side as A&R [reps] but I don't see as many on the label side. I don't know if we just got into this line of thinking within the studio culture that it's not a woman's place. But we can be in the studio just as much as the guys -- creatively and operationally.
I would like to also grow R&B more. We've started to tap the surface, and I think we've shown that we can make a mark. It began with Ella Mai. We're all proud of what she and DJ Mustard have done via his 10 Summers label. Now we have Summer Walker, who's on the LVRN team. Then there's Mereba with her left-of-center R&B and Dreamville's Ari Lennox. To take it to the next level, we really have to focus, hone in and grow it properly. I think we're doing a great job so far.
How vital are joint ventures now?
Joint ventures help create a certain lifestyle and culture around their rosters. And they play an incredibly helpful role in the artist-development process. They play an important part in a label's legacy as well. Interscope in particular has been built on that concept. These ventures give you a partner that can take on more risk creatively. It's hard for a broader label to really give the flavor of a movement going on somewhere. JVs are culture creators, in a sense.
In the wake of R. Kelly's legal issues, are there discussions about adding morals clauses to recording contracts?
When an artist does a branding deal, there is a morals clause that says if he or she does anything that is contrary to what the brand represents, they can drop you and there are ramifications to that financially. It's more loose in record deals. I don't want to speak on behalf of IGA, as that's not my role. But I think it's something that's being raised informally. It's popping up.
Has 2018's bidding-war frenzy for rap acts settled back down to reality?
It was pretty well documented that Juice WRLD was part of a bidding war. [Interscope signed him for $3 million last year.] I had just arrived at the label. But everyone felt strongly about his creative [talent], that something long-term was there. And [Juice WRLD's camp] believed in our team. Just by circumstance, it ended up being a bidding war. We might recognize we're paying more than we initially thought, but if we believe in it, we're going to take a chance. Maybe we pass on the next one if it might not make sense for us.
What do you wish you could change?
I really want women to feel comfortable with whatever age they are. In executive interviews with men, no one adds any meaning to their listed ages. But women tend to feel less comfortable sharing our age because we feel there's extra meaning attached. After a certain age, women don't share that. We shouldn't feel like we have to hide getting older, because what does that show to younger women? We have to learn to feel comfortable in ourselves if we want the next generation to feel that too.
This article originally appeared in the March 9 issue of Billboard.