2020 Grammys

Elektra Co-Presidents Gregg Nadel & Mike Easterlin On the Label's Indie Side: 'There's This Underdog Mentality'

ISSUE 30 2019 - DO NOT USE - NOT OUT YET
Allison Michael Orenstein
Gregg Nadel (left) and Mike Easterlin photographed on Dec. 10, 2019 at Elektra Music Group in New York.

When Gregg Nadel was helping to break O.A.R. at Lava Records in 2008, he met Mike Easterlin, then Lava's senior vp promotions, for the first time. Easterlin took the band's "Shattered (Turn the Car Around)" to radio and promoted the record for Nadel — and they've been friends ever since.

Over a decade later, Nadel and Easterlin are still working together, now as co-presidents of Elektra Music Group, which was revived as a separate company by Warner Music Group in October 2018. Elektra had been a subsidiary of Atlantic from 2004 until then, and an innovative major for decades before that. Nadel and Easterlin report to Atlantic chairman/CEO Craig Kallman and chairman/COO Julie Greenwald.

EMG's first release as its own company was relatively low-risk: twenty one pilots' Trench, which hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200. That proved the label could hold its own, and the August signing of Tones and I and her subsequent success — the Australian alternative-pop artist's hit "Dance Monkey" sits at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 — positioned EMG as a serious competitor. "After accomplishing what we have with her," says Nadel, "everyone is going, ‘Wow, we can do this.'"

The new EMG that Nadel and Easterlin oversee includes the old Elektra division as well as Fueled by Ramen, Roadrunner Records, Low Country Sound and Black Cement, featuring a select artist roster that includes Brandi Carlile, The Highwomen, twenty one pilots and Fitz & The Tantrums.

Nadel and Easterlin credit their first-year wins to the larger team involved, which comprises just over 70 employees; when EMG launched, its staff of 57 were all brought over from Atlantic.

"We went through the process of interviewing everyone moving over from Atlantic, sharing what our mentality was going to be for running a smaller version of that label, how we wanted to develop artists and our staff," says Easterlin. "A lot of them had been No. 2s or 3s in departments for many, many years. Now they'd be running [them]."

What's your strategy for breaking more unknown artists like Tones and I — a singer who unexpectedly took off and went to No. 1 in over 30 countries — in 2020?

GREGG NADEL: Not skipping steps.

MIKE EASTERLIN: Here's a great example — we almost moved Tones and I out of the Mercury Lounge when she played in New York for the first time, but we were like, "You know what? We promised we wouldn't skip steps." [As a result], her song "Dance Monkey" was running faster than we were.

NADEL: It's one of those rare songs that can hit across all formats, but we wanted to make sure that we didn't skip over the alternative crowds and smaller venues and just go to pop. What's important is having a foundation before you build.

How did you learn that?

EASTERLIN: Sometimes, it's what you don't do. We didn't cross the first twenty one pilots album, we didn't cross the first Panic! at the Disco album. We left them in modern-rock land, established them there and made modern rock feel like we really wanted to remain and have a home there, even if we had [Panic!'s] "High Hopes" or [twenty one pilots'] "Stressed Out." Those songs were massive, but we didn't want to turn our backs on the genres that made these songs cross over.

EMG pledged to uphold an "independent spirit" in its initial memo. How do you do that when you're working with viral crossover acts?

EASTERLIN: I think it's important that we keep that one-on-one relationship with the artist. [We don't want to] grow too fast, whether it be the artist roster or the staff.

NADEL: We also have department heads who are doing this for the first time, so there's this underdog mentality at EMG. And I think Mike and I know what that's like, having run Elektra inside the bigger company. We weren't just happy to be there — we wanted to bring the Elektra brand back to prominence. That's the chip on our shoulder.

It's arguably easier than ever for an artist to remain independent now. So as a label group with an indie mentality, how do you level with a potential signee?

NADEL: There's nothing wrong with an artist staying independent. We want to work with artists who want to be a part of what we're doing, and it only works when everyone is on the same page and we're all holding hands together — because it's really, really hard to break an artist.

EASTERLIN: We also have a global footprint to offer. As an independent artist, that seems to be the No. 1 problem that they have: cracking other territories. Meanwhile, EMG has offices in 40 countries. If you look at the Tones and I record that we just started with a few months ago, that was exploding in Australia and New Zealand, but they came in and asked, "Can you get us as big everywhere else?"

You knew each other for years prior to the EMG launch. Can you describe what the other person does on a day-to-day basis?

EASTERLIN: You definitely have to go first — I'm interested to hear what you think I do every day.

NADEL: I have no idea. (Laughs.) There's a lot of stuff we do together. Mike spends Monday mornings at the radio meeting, talking to the staff. A lot of the day-to-day operational things, with Cathy [Donovan], who runs our marketing operations, Mike is dialed in on that as well. There's a trust there, so we don't feel like we have to be in every conversation or every meeting. We talk on the way in, on the way home, and so it's funny when somebody says, "Well, I spoke to Mike," and it's like, yes, I know. (Laughs.) We catch each other up if we're not together.

EASTERLIN: Listen, Gregg is out trying to find the next thing, and he's with the A&R staff a lot, and we have a very young A&R staff, so he spends a good portion of his time training people who are coming in with new perspectives and new ideas on how we find artists now. All of them are coming from either independent labels or, in a couple of cases, they're coming in straight out of college. He spends a lot of time molding and shaping, listening, going through the research. Early on, we tried to be involved in everything, and [in the end], nothing was getting done. We were literally sitting in meetings all day. As we've grown over the last year, we've realized it's OK for us to have our separate things that we're working on.

NADEL: Every four or five weeks, we carve out a day where we'll sit with each of the product managers for an hour each so we can brainstorm. Those are some of the best days — because so much comes out of them.

In the last year, artist discovery has moved to new apps like TikTok. How much of your conversations about finding talent come from new technology platforms like that?

NADEL: I think it's a little bit of everything, to be honest with you. We're definitely trying to be aware of everything that moves. We sit and go through all that stuff. Sometimes we hear a song and we're like, "Wow, what is this? Let's go see it," meet the person or whatever it is. And then there are other things, like we were talking about this artist Livingston, where I got a text from one of our A&R guys on a Sunday night of this 16-year-old kid singing in a studio on his own. He never had put out a song. We flew him in. The next day, he sang in my office, and we signed him right away, just because we were so in love with his songwriting, with his voice, and...

EASTERLIN: Him.

NADEL: Yes, him. Just a voice we love and an artist we believe in. 

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of Billboard.


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