Want to level up in the music business? Don’t just keep pace with the industry -- forge your own path within it, like these drag queen-managing, luxury cannabis-delivering, playlist-piloting innovators making the future look bright.
On the 64th floor of 4 World Trade Center, at Spotify’s Manhattan offices, Nick Holmstén is holding court in the Orchestra of Bubbles conference room. Seated on a comfy blue couch, Holmstén -- the streaming service’s global head of music since October 2018 -- introduces the company’s latest hire. “I can’t tell you how happy I am that we finally have this guy on our team,” he says to the seven staffers attending the company’s weekly direct reports meeting, three of them via video conference from Stockholm. Holmstén -- who oversees 100-plus employees responsible for the operation of Spotify’s more than 5,000 owned and operated playlists, as well as label and artist relations -- is referring to former Interscope CFO Jeremy Erlich, who is also in the room and earlier that June day was announced as Spotify’s new head of music strategy.
It’s Erlich’s first day on the job, and Holmstén, 52 -- dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, cream-colored Yeezys and a silver medallion inscribed with “Carpe Diem” on a chain around his neck -- tells his team that he’s already getting good feedback for hiring an executive from a label. “It’s interesting to see how positive the reaction from the music industry has been, because you’re so respected on both sides,” says Holmstén in Swedish-inflected English. He is speaking about Erlich but clearly directing his comments at this reporter sitting in on the meeting. Erlich’s appointment, Holmstén continues, is a move toward “bridging the conversation” between the streaming platform and the music business, which has suffered in the 18 months since Spotify went public. “There’s a lot of paranoia, a lot of uncertainty, in the music industry, but at the same time there have never been more amazing opportunities,” he says. “When everybody comes together, it is going to grow even bigger.”
Thanks to the meteoric success of the Emmy Award-winning RuPaul’s Drag Race, the drag industry is closer to the pop culture mainstream than ever, with its splashiest players popping up on Broadway, in A Star Is Born -- and of course, most recently, in a Taylor Swift video. That means retroactive attention for the TV show’s alumni, as well as more opportunities for them to explore careers in the pop sphere.
Enter Andre Morris, founder and CEO of Varran Media, a one-stop shop for drag performers seeking management, PR representation and overall career-strategy advice. Morris, 40, launched Varran in 2010 after 11 years at Sony Music, where he worked under PR powerhouse Yvette Noel-Schure. For a while, he continued to work with her Schure Media Group and with 50 Cent’s G-Unit. But in 2015 -- the same year DragCon, the biannual event RuPaul’s Drag Race launched, first took place in Los Angeles -- Morris made a drastic shift.
As the mother of two young children, Nicole St. Jean doesn’t go out like she once did as a club kid in New York’s early-aughts house music scene. But in her current role as head of content and partnerships at the virtual reality company Wave, she has found a way to experience dance music without leaving the house -- and to allow anyone with a computer, an internet connection and a desire for social adventure to do the same.
St. Jean, 43, produces live concerts in VR. With the help of five full-time artists in Los Angeles and an engineering team in Austin -- where Wave was founded three years ago -- she has made it rain magic mushrooms during a T-Pain show and simulated flying for headset-strapped South by Southwest attendees watching actor Tye Sheridan DJ as part of a collaboration with Warner Bros. for Steven Spielberg’s 2018 film, Ready Player One. She has also staged virtual performances for The Glitch Mob, Imogen Heap, Jean-Michel Jarre and REZZ -- innately tech-savvy electronic artists who recognize VR’s crossover potential -- most of whom wore motion-capture technology at the company’s Culver City office to deliver their shows.
When J. Cole wanted to bring 1,000 superfans onto the basketball court for his NBA All-Star halftime show performance in Charlotte, N.C., in February, the league, concerned over safety, didn’t immediately warm to his idea. But David Nieman -- the head of licensing and marketing for sports and video games at Interscope Records, which distributes Cole’s Dreamville imprint -- urged it to trust Cole’s vision. The results benefited both the NBA and Cole: a thrilling performance by the artist in his home state and an unforgettable national TV moment for the NBA.
“We really had to get the NBA outside their comfort zone and get them to buy into the fact that [the fans are] where the energy is,” says Nieman, 31. “That’s where it translates.”
At a moment when the sports and music worlds are linked more closely than ever before, Nieman seized the chance to create his own job while opening up new opportunities for his label’s artists. He started his career at Interscope in 2009 as a marketing intern after graduating from Fort Lewis College in Colorado, then joined the label’s sales department three years later. “I got to know the building and the end goals when it came to sales and how to develop artists,” says Nieman. In 2011, he joined Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency as a “jack-of-all-trades,” setting up backstage interviews with artists and selling merchandise.
Lisa Melamed has spent 30 years as a writer and producer for classic TV series such as Sisters, Party of Five and Mad About You. But it’s safe to say her latest project is unlike any in her long list of credits. Melamed is a co-executive producer and writer for Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, an eight-part Netflix anthology series set to debut later in 2019, in which each segment is based on a different song by the country legend.
Heartstrings is one in a growing number of TV and film projects inspired directly by songs: Recently, The Chainsmokers revealed that a film adaptation of their 2017 single “Paris” was in the works, and John Mayer’s “The Heart of Life” (from 2006 album Continuum) is the basis for Heart of Life, an upcoming ABC drama Mayer himself will executive-produce.
After graduating from Princeton and then earning a joint law degree from Columbia and University College London in 2012, Temi Adeniji naturally went to work at a law firm. Nearly three years in, however, she realized it wasn’t her passion. In 2016, she stumbled across a Warner Music Group job posting for director of international and global commercial strategy and operations -- not an obvious fit, but she had always loved music, so she applied with her husband’s encouragement. She got the job. Adeniji, 31, who is based in New York, has most recently helped the label group intensify its focus on emerging markets, arranging a partnership with Nigerian indie Chocolate City and launching Warner Music Middle East. “I consider myself an outsider,” she says. “It gives me a different perspective than most who have been in the music industry their entire careers.”
What’s next in music and tech? Just ask Vanja Primorac, the 29-year-old UTA hired in November as head of music innovation, a newly formed division. “The idea is to be the resident expert in all things related to digital platforms,” says the Los Angeles native.
Primorac began her career developing content at Sean Combs’ Revolt TV (“a speed course into the entertainment industry”) before joining Spotify’s artist marketing team. Eventually craving more direct creative involvement, she reached out to her friend Milana Rabkin, the CEO of Stem, about potential freelance opportunities. Rabkin directed her to longtime UTA agent Brent Weinstein. “He and [UTA chief] Jeremy Zimmer were looking for someone to fill this gap in music,” says Primorac -- specifically, someone who could help the agency venture beyond the streaming and social media giants and find unusual opportunities for its music clients with high-tech entertainment startups.
Primorac’s out-of-the-box outlook -- she cites UTA’s recent team-up with Marshmello and Fortnite as an illustrative win for the agency -- fit the bill. “Streaming is valuable,” she says, “but you’re only going to find success if you have everything else going on at the same time and understand the innovation space.”
“I’m not the guy who shows up with a pound of weed and rolling papers,” says Mario Guzman, 42, founder and chief executive grower of the luxury lifestyle-weed brand Sherbinskis. Forbes has called it the “Louis Vuitton of marijuana” for good reason: The cannabis concierge service for artists -- whether they’re at studio sessions or backstage at major festivals like Rolling Loud -- is a bit like a master sommelier when it comes to getting high. “We preselect strains that heighten awareness and creativity,” says Guzman. “I’m there to educate and understand the artist’s needs.”
Cannabis has been legal in California for two years, but visiting artists aren’t often in town long enough to hit dispensaries -- which also don’t always stock the highest-quality bud. Enter Guzman, who worked in San Francisco real estate until the late-2000s market crash convinced him to turn his home-grow hobby into a business. Operating under the quasi-legal framework of the state’s medical marijuana laws and using the pseudonym Mr. Sherbinski, Guzman developed a reputation among local rappers and studio heads, who’d stock up on his much-vaunted product before sessions. When the market went legit, no one was better suited to service music industry creatives.
When JJ Corsini and Chris Hovsepian left their artist relations gigs at Apple Music to become Universal Music Group’s first-ever senior vps of artist development in April, Corsini called the new role “the most critical, yet overlooked and underserved ... in the music industry.” But what exactly is it?
By Dewayne Ector’s own admission, explaining his job is “difficult and boring.” He isn’t wrong -- not on the first point, anyway. As Songtrust’s global head of society relations, a newly created position, Ector has one of the least glamorous but most crucial roles in the music industry. Since March, he has managed the Downtown-owned digital rights company’s relationships with over 40 collection societies around the world on behalf of its more than 200,000 songwriters and 26,000 publishers. His focus: getting creators paid for every use of their work, no matter how small or obscure. “It’s data and trying to get money out of people and having conversations that no one really wants to have,” he explains. “I get some travel. Other than that I’m in meeting rooms, sometimes without windows. But I believe in what I do.”
London-based Ector, 40, has extensive experience in the royalty-collection realm. He joined Songtrust after nearly four years at Kobalt’s AMRA Music running the global digital-music collection society’s international operations, with eight years at PRS for Music before that -- during which time he also earned a law degree from Birkbeck, University of London. Ector’s move to Songtrust was inspired, in part, by his desire to support independent artists like those he grew up with in Trinidad and Tobago. (His father, Eman Ector, was the bandleader for local group Massive Chandelier and an arranger-producer.) Now he’s on the other side of the negotiating table, “flying around the world and shaking down societies for money,” he says. “But I do it in a nice way.” Despite his demanding schedule, Ector insists he doesn’t “really like to work hard at all. I prefer to work smart and make the best of every opportunity.” Here, his musts for getting it all done.
Artists: They’re just like us, whether binge-watching the latest comic epic or obsessing over sports stats. And as an ever-growing number of acts compete for ears in today’s saturated streaming market, a new breed of in-house digital content strategists has emerged within labels, helping them tap into those personal interests through partnerships with film studios, fashion vloggers and more -- all in the service of pulling back the curtain on their own celebrity and introducing them to potential new fans.
Cover by Graham Hutchings @sinelab