Elektra Music Group Co-President Mike Easterlin on Label Plans, Being Honored by T.J. Martell

Mike Easterlin
Jimmy Fontaine

Mike Easterlin 

On Nov. 17, the T.J. Martell Foundation will honor Elektra Music Group co-president Mike Easterlin at its Nov. 17 Harvest Dinner in Montclair, N.J. 

On Oct. 1, Easterlin became co-president of EMG — with Gregg Nadel —after serving as Fueled By Ramen/Roadrunner president. The new 60-person EMG includes Elektra Records, FBR, Roadrunner, Low Country Sound and Black Cement Records and marks the first time in 15 years that Elektra has operated independently. Its roster includes twenty one pilots, Zac Brown Band, Brandi Carlile, Fitz and the Tantrums, Sturgill Simpson, Paramore, Slipknot, Panic! At The Disco, Coheed and Cambria, Kaleo and Gojira.

Easterlin talked to Billboard about his relief that the T.J. Martell event, which will raise funds to support cancer research, has already sold out — “Now I can just worry about my speech”— he says, as well as gave an update on EMG and what’s to come. 

What made you decide to say yes to the T.J. Martell Foundation? 

Over the course of a few years I’ve been involved with T.J. Martell [and] I just see so much good. It’s such an amazing foundation with its roots deep in the music industry. The industry can be very competitive, but it seems like whenever we’re at these events, it’s the one night where we all come together and we hug it out and have a great time. You realize you’re there for a much bigger thing than some of the silliness that we get into on a daily basis, competing for signing artists and all the other stuff. It just gives you a really, really good feeling at the end of the day.

Young the Giant, an act you’ve worked with for a long time, is playing an acoustic set at the event. Why did you pick them?

I started working with them at Roadrunner and then when I took over Fueled by Ramen, I felt like they were better suited for FBR. Then, when we made the transition into Elektra, I offered them the option of Elektra. So, I feel like my career journey has been marked by a lot of great moments with this particular band. They were ending their tour in Washington, D.C. the night before [the Harvest Dinner], and I called [their manager] and asked and he was back to me within about four minutes and said they would love to do it. I was honored that they answered so quickly and that they were willing to do it. I think it’s going to be really, really special for the event.

It’s been six weeks since you and Gregg Nadal reactivated Elektra Music Group. What have you learned so far? 

I’ve learned how to have a partner that I have to, in some ways, answer to every day, but at the same time, I get to bounce amazing ideas off of. This journey actually started a year ago in October when [Atlantic Records chairman/COO] Julie Greenwald approached the two of us, and said, “I have this idea of relaunching Elektra Music Group and taking the labels that you guys are overseeing so we’ll launch it with an amazing roster of artists.” We’ve been very fortunate that at Atlantic we haven’t had a lot of turnover. What that has meant is that a lot of people have been in their same roles for a very long time. So, the other benefit of doing it was the ability to give people the opportunity to step up and take leadership roles. And I can’t even tell you the amount of energy and excitement that there is, even though we’ve all been working together for a very long time. The fact that we’re rebuilding this legendary label, it’s just been really amazing.

As you say, it’s a legendary label with a name that stood for excellence. What inspiration do you draw from that?

[On Nov. 15] we’re doing a talk here in the office and [Elektra founder] Jac [Holzman] is going to come in and join us.  We’ll have an amazing conversation with Jac and talk about the history, [as well as] the responsibility [we feel] and how much we have this desire to take this legacy and then build what the new Elektra will look like and, hopefully, build our own legacy moving forward. So it’s very much on our minds daily about the relationship, not only with Jac, but with the way that Jac built the company, which was artist development and artist first.

What is the division of duties between you and Gregg?

Gregg’s role is more in the signing the acts — the A&R side of it. But he also has an amazing marketing mind. While I do some A&R, it’s mostly that I’m overseeing the radio promotion and and a lot of the other day-to-day things and marketing. Marketing is kind of in the middle where both of us are overseeing that.

You report to [Atlantic Records chairman/CEO] Craig [Kallman] and Julie, but you aren’t part of the Atlantic Group. How does that work?

It was basically the idea of — for lack of a better way of putting it — not throwing us all the way into the deep end and continuing to have our stuff stream up toward Julie and Craig for the time being. Then in a couple of years [we’ll report] more directly into [Warner Music Group CEO of Recorded Music] Max [Lousada]. It was just a way of letting us get our feet under us and establish the brand. That’s why Julie and Craig are amazing at what [they] do because a lot of people would say, “Okay, you guys go do this now.” And they didn’t. They were very much about, “We want you to win and we want this to be successful, so we want to make sure that we’re getting everything set first before we throw you into the fire.” It’s setting us up to succeed.

Your first release was Trench by twenty one pilots. How does that set the tone for the label?

The timing was amazing. We also did 30,000 records on Coheed and Cambria that week on the Roadrunner side. So to launch with both of those and to put up 250,000 album equivalents, I think it was the statement that we wanted to make. Obviously, we’re not that much of a startup because we have Panic! At the Disco and twenty one pilots and Sturgill Simpson -- there are so many great artists. And we have an amazing ‘19 carved out with a bunch of new music coming. We’re not starting from nowhere. [For] an artist that’s thinking about signing, we can say, “Yes, we’re new at what we’re doing here, and we have a new staff. Obviously, we’re building and we’re growing, but look at what we’re starting with. We already have a stable of amazing artists, and we’d love for you to join that stable of amazing artists.”

When you look at the combined roster, it’s primarily rock and alternative rock. Are you expanding into other genres?

We’re not in a rush to sign a million things because I think we want this to feel very much like a smaller major and we want to be able to do the kind of things that we both believe in, which is take it slow, do the proper artist development and really focus on how we’re going to grow them…We do want to expand more into the pop world. The urban world is something that we thought long and hard about early on, and I think it came down to why don’t we establish what we’re really good at and get our feet on the ground and get settled first? I think we felt like doing too much, too fast would just be overwhelming. We have a great release schedule for the next year or year and a half. So, there was no reason to try to do everything all at once. But [urban] is a world that we want to get into sooner than later.