Business

Executive of the Week: Darkroom Founder/CEO Justin Lubliner

Justin Lubliner
Koury Angelo

Justin Lubliner

“I [recently] had this moment where I was like, 'I went so hard the last five years,'” says Justin Lubliner, founder/CEO of Darkroom, a partnership with Interscope. So far, it’s paid off.

While helping launch the career of superstar Billie Eilish -- alongside Interscope CEO John Janick, managers Danny Rukasin and Brandon Goodman, and others -- the team has reached a slew of milestones, from a record-breaking debut album with When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? to a record-breaking Grammy night (Eilish became the youngest, and first woman, to sweep the Big Four categories) to, most recently, a record-breaking Alternative Airplay chart feat.

On Billboard's Alternative Airplay chart dated Feb. 6, Eilish scored her fourth No. 1 with the bouncy kiss-off “Therefore I Am.” In doing so, she now claims the most No. 1s among soloists in the chart’s 32-year history, surpassing previous leaders Beck and Alanis Morissette. Eilish previously topped the chart with “Bury a Friend,” “Bad Guy” and “Everything I Wanted.”

Up ahead, the documentary Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, which Lubliner executive produced, arrives this month; the pair are also in talks to executive produce the upcoming Peggy Lee film Fever; and Eilish is nearing the completion of her second album. Beyond Billie, Lubliner is just as fixated on growing Darkroom’s roster and bolstering his team.

“I’ve really been focusing on empowering and building a staff of the next generation of like-minded individuals who can bring the company forward and also be incredibly successful in their own right,” says Lubliner. “I want my guys to have a shot at the feeling I got when Billie became a star.”

Helping Eilish maintain her hot streak, and continue to dominate radio, even amid a pandemic, has helped Lubliner earn the title of Billboard's Executive of the Week. Here, he discusses his team's "the more the merrier" singles strategy, the concept of artistic eras and why an overnight success often takes five years.

What are the key decisions you and your team made that helped Billie score four No. 1s on the Alternative Airplay chart?

With Billie, a lot of the influences that we took into radio came from our new way of marketing where we released a bunch of records at streaming. You don’t have to prioritize one particular song. We looked at the marketplace and where songs were reacting and understood there are multiple songs that can work in multiple formats.

We always leaned into Alternative at the beginning because that’s where we felt that her genre-defying style made the most sense and, eventually, pop radio happened. I like to think that Billie’s music was three steps ahead of pop music. So when you talk about her breaking records at radio with alternative music, I think that’s just our confidence and “you take risks to get rewards'' mentality.

Who on the team was instrumental in this record-breaking run?

It goes without saying that [Interscope Records president of promotion] Brenda Romano is a rockstar in the radio world. I didn’t come from a label background, so my knowledge of what works at radio wasn’t based on something that I learned, it’s just based on instinct and how I felt music was being responded to in other contexts. She took a very open-minded approach with me and my conversations. She’s definitely been a mentor in a radio capacity.

I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t try and go to radio with every single song immediately, so it was a balance of Janick and Brenda being patient and meticulous about timing, with being proactive and doing things that could potentially defy what would normally be pushed to radio. And then also, giving a lot of credit to the radio programmers at the stations who stepped out on Billie very early and gave her the opportunity to shine. And another bone to Danny [Rukasin] and Brandon [Goodman] for really supporting all of the requests that the radio programmers had for Billie and making sure that she was doing the interviews at the right time, making sure she was there for the performances and that opportunities were said yes to instead of no as early as possible.

Two of Billie’s most recent No. 1s, “Everything I Wanted” and “Therefore I Am,” are non-album singles that also arrived amid the pandemic. How did that force a shift in marketing and promotion?

One of the biggest strategies that we have with Billie specifically is being very conscientious about exposure and time off, but also never making anything feel like it’s in limbo, and also that Billie felt like she had the time to focus on making her next album. Drake has done an incredible job at building anticipation for albums and slowing things down at perfect times, but also maintaining consistency and having his name and visibility out there.

[The team] talks every day about rollout strategies and marketing and all that stuff and you can really feel and sense when the right time is to keep the momentum brewing. With When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, that’s what our entire year was focused on. It would have made sense to not put out “Everything I Wanted,” but it also made a lot of sense to put out that song in November because it satisfied that craving for new Billie material with an incredible song that didn’t conflict with the album and gave her something new to perform. And I personally am obsessed with that song -- it’s one of my favorite songs ever made.

“My Future” felt like an incredible quarantine record. It was used in the Democratic National Convention, which was unbelievably cool, and was a bit of a slower record. And then “Therefore I Am,” we like to balance slower records with more uptempo ones and that felt like it was Billie coming back strong with a banger at the end of the year. It felt like a full circle moment for us, where her video that she directed made her feel very attainable, with her running around the mall [after her] Grammys and Oscars moments.

Billie said she’s going to give fans a new era. As a label head, what’s Darkroom’s approach to its artists entering new eras to usher in new projects?

There’s a quote that Kanye West says in “Good Life,” “Go ahead and switch the style up, and if they hate then let ‘em hate.” Corny quote, but to me it’s all about evolving as an artist. In the same way that Kanye did, you felt a real progression stylistically, creatively and musically through his album evolution and it’s something to admire in a long-term career, because it’s not about album one or album two, it’s about 10-15 years down the line doing your best to help artists have a stable career and making fans excited for more. That all comes from Billie and Finneas musically, Billie creatively, but all I can say is I share that sentiment with her and I’m excited she’s going in that direction.

At the same time that Billie is breaking records, Darkroom is developing and breaking new talent, too. How do you manage expectations?

An overnight success takes four to five years. I’m the first person to be guilty of forgetting that constantly. You always want things to happen overnight, but Billie was a four-to-five-year “overnight” success. It was meticulous, and I constantly remind myself that in order to help build long-term careers and have sustainable artists, you have to take your time. I read a book by Richard Russell [Liberation Through Hearing] that was basically a reminder that trends are overnight and culture stays.

When I look at an artist like Gryffin, I’ve been working with him for over five years and he’s been on an amazing growth trajectory and we’ve taken our time. We’ve never had an official "hit," but he’s doing 10,000 tickets in major markets and playing nighttime slots at festivals and has over 2 billion streams on Spotify. It’s a fantastic career, and there’s still more to grow. For [new signee] Cian [Ducrot], step one is getting him in the view of listeners, step two is people connecting and then step three is giving him a platform to grow. I’m 30 right now. If Cian breaks when I’m 35, then I did my job correctly.

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