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Spotlight: Darkroom Founder Justin Lubliner on Billie Eilish’s Breakthrough & What’s Next

Justin Lubliner
Matty Vogel

Justin Lubliner

“I decided that I’m never going to rely on anybody besides myself to be successful.”

When Darkroom Records founder/CEO Justin Lubliner was trying to break into the industry in college -- interning at Def Jam Records, offering A&R consulting to Republic Records and running an electronic music blog in his spare time -- seasoned executives tended to give him the same advice.

“I would get, ‘You need to focus. You can’t excel in a bunch of different roles in the music industry at once,’” says Lubliner as he paces in the backyard of his West Hollywood home. “And I wholeheartedly disagree with that advice.”

Lubliner, 29, has since built a reputation for proving long-standing industry beliefs wrong. His second-ever signee to Darkroom, which he founded at age 24, was teenaged dark-pop superstar Billie Eilish -- who scored the second-largest sales week for a 2019 album with her March debut, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? In an industry where streaming and singles are considered the golden ticket, Eilish has landed hits across multiple radio formats and, along the way, defied every notion of what a pop star should wear, sound like and sing about.

At the Grammy Awards in January, Eilish became just the second artist in Grammys history (and the first woman) to take home the Big Four awards: album, record and song of the year, plus best new artist. “I was that kid in the crowd who was going absolutely nuts every time she was called,” Lubliner says.

Even at his young age, Lubliner has been chasing this kind of success for more than a decade. Growing up in New York City, he DJ’d at teen nights and retail stores to earn spending money for sneakers and vinyl records, and soon began managing local DJs himself. He sparked a friendship with the son of former Island Def Jam Music Group chairman/CEO L.A. Reid in high school, and spent many afternoons hanging out at the Def Jam office, where he once witnessed Jay-Z and Kanye West stop by, and where he later interned.

“My interest in music, business and DJing all came together when I saw L.A. Reid in his office with my favorite artists of all time,” Lubliner remembers. “I had this lightbulb moment of, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

He headed west to attend the University of Southern California’s music business program and launched a dance music blog called -- “don’t make fun of me for the name,” he jokes -- Chubby Beavers. As the blog took off, he built relationships with managers and agents, one of whom promised him a job after college and then offered the position to one of Lubliner's best friends instead. “I was super upset and depressed about it,” Lubliner says, but it taught him a lesson: “I decided that I’m never going to rely on anybody besides myself to be successful.”

He started by launching Darkroom from his college dorm, initially as a marketing and public relations firm for EDM artists. At the time, he was consulting for Republic’s A&R team led by Rob Stevenson and, eventually, his Universal Music Group industry contacts led him to Interscope Geffen A&M Records chairman/CEO John Janick. Janick offered Lubliner the opportunity to make Darkroom an Interscope label imprint and Lubliner signed their first client, DJ and producer Gryffin.

“I always wanted to work with a superstar,” Lubliner says, but not just for the glory. “I thought that if I could focus on a small roster, and talk about one or two things versus 20, I could do a really great job. And I wanted to work with an artist with a true vision.”

When Eilish’s ethereal, emotive breakthrough “ocean eyes” took off on SoundCloud in late 2015, Lubliner felt he had found his future star. “Billie is one of the first artists in a long time to be incredibly self-sufficient,” he says, noting that Eilish writes and records all of her music with just one collaborator: Her brother, fellow music artist Finneas O’Connell, who also produces all of her songs. “Because of that, [her music is] so uniquely her, and people really connect to that.”

Lubliner says that every decision over the past four years was part of a meticulous strategy for “making sure that people identified her as a real artist with a unique identity, putting out a body of work.” Instead of prioritizing singles, the team focused on helping establish an identity for each individual track off her debut album, forging crucial relationships with Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube Music along the way. For example, Spotify launched a Los Angeles pop-up for the album, which included a separate multi-sensory room for each song.

That’s when Lubliner’s early impulse to get involved in every facet of the music business, despite warnings from his peers, paid off. “I had 10 years of experience failing every which way, getting money stolen from me and trying five different businesses -- learning how to be a marketer, a publicist, how to oversee creative projects,” he says. “When I started with Billie, it really clicked in.”

It worked: Of the album’s 13 songs (plus its 14-second intro track), 12 landed on the Billboard Hot 100 chart simultaneously. The project moved 312,000 equivalent album units in its debut week, helping Eilish become the first artist born in the 21st century to score a No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

Lubliner is eager to give credit to the rest of Eilish’s core team: Interscope Geffen A&M’s Nick Miller (international marketing and promotion), Chelsea Dodson and Michelle An (creative), Spencer Moya (digital marketing) and Hannah Gold (marketing); publicist Alexandra Baker; co-managers Danny Rukasin and Brandon Goodman and day-to-day manager Laura Ramsay.

“People make fun of us, because we show up to events [as] a huge group,” he says. “It’s just because so many people love and appreciate the project, and want to be there.”

Now, Lubliner is getting back into early-stage artist development with the Santa Monica-based label’s newest signees: Swedish producer Oliver Malcolm, whose debut single “Switched Up” landed in the upper echelon of Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist last month and has now surpassed 1.5 million streams on the platform, and songwriter-producer Max Leone, who released his second single “Cautious” last month and is now working on a debut EP.

Lubliner plans to keep his roster small. “I really only like to do one or two artists at a time, because I put my all behind it,” he says. How does he know when it’s time to sign? “If I can’t stand on a rooftop with a megaphone and tell everybody in the world that an artist is my favorite artist ever, I don’t want to work with them.”

In the meantime, he’s continuing to chase opportunities for Eilish with the same hunger as he did four years ago. On Feb. 13, she released the brooding “No Time to Die,” which will serve as the theme song for the latest James Bond film of the same title.

“I went through my musical renaissance at 14, where music had the biggest impact on my life. I definitely saw a lot of that in Billie,” Lubliner says. “I believed in her identity and vision. We’re both kids, at the end of the day.”

SPOTLIGHT:

When you're coming up don't be afraid to reach out to someone to ask a question or look for opportunities. The worst outcome is they say no and you move on. The best result is they say yes. In life, you won't get anything you want without asking for it. On another note, if you say you're going to do something, you do it. People respect those who deliver on their promises.

The best advice I've received is that long-term success is much better than short-term success. You should make plans for three to five years down the line and base your decision-making on how it will affect your long-term future.

Something most people don't understand is it takes a long time to achieve your goals. Nothing of long-term value is built overnight and patience is a valuable skill you can develop (even though I'm terribly impatient). However, being patient does not mean being reactive and waiting for things to come to you. Always be proactive.

It's good to have mentors. If you don't, seek out someone who you admire and buy them a cup of coffee just to be able to ask them questions. There's always someone who is willing to offer advice. Great advice can be crucial to your growth and development in whatever you do.

A good idea is to identify your strengths and weaknesses. Once you've identified both sides, you should surround yourself with people that can complement your strengths and help lift up your weaknesses.

What's tough is there will never come a time where you have to stop pitching your artists. No matter how big your artists get or how small they start, you always need to be talking about them and convincing other people why they should work with them to proactively get opportunities.

Spotlight is a Billboard Business series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact spotlight@billboard.com.