Republic President Charlie Walk Explains How a Label's Role Needs Redefining In the Digital Era
Not many label executives find themselves trending on social media, but Republic Group president Charlie Walk has come close on several occasions. There was the time Ariana Grande debuted Nicki Minaj’s rap on “Side to Side,” or when Hailee Steinfeld introduced herself as a recording artist -- both through snippets on Walk’s Instagram (112,000 followers). His ability to get close to artists, sometimes taking them by the hand and leading them to previously uncharted chart success, has made him, at 49, a standout in the music biz.
During a career that dates back to 1989, Walk has played a role in promoting 50 Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hits -- starting with New Kids on the Block’s “Step by Step” in 1990 until, most recently, The Weeknd’s “Starboy” -- while working for Sony’s Columbia Records (from 1990 to 2005) and Epic (from 2005 to 2008) before joining Republic in 2013.
In between his major-label stints, Walk took a four-year sabbatical to start his own marketing firm and explore tech investments and content plays with the likes of Just Jared and Lacoste, and it was then that Walkisms still used today -- “We’re telling our story, not selling our story”; “We’re intrapreneurial” -- were born. The independence he experienced away from the label world turned out to be a major selling point in drawing him back to music and into the embrace of brothers Monte and Avery Lipman, co-founder, chairman & CEO and co-founder, president & COO, respectively, of Universal Music Group (UMG) imprint Republic Records.
It was a smart hire, as the label commands nearly a quarter of all songs played on pop radio. Walk also gets credit for breaking and signing several new acts, including Steinfeld, DNCE and, his latest discovery, Julia Michaels, co-writer of such hits as Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” and Selena Gomez’s “Good for You.” (Another feather in Walk's cap: He was the 11th subscriber to Spotify in the U.S.)
When Billboard sat down with Walk, the married father of four, who lives in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, claimed the top three streamed albums that day, with The Weeknd’s Starboy, Drake’s Views and new act Post Malone in successive positions, and was looking ahead to the Grammys, where Cash Money act Drake, Grande and The Avett Brothers are nominated.
You’re coming up on a year as president, what has the new position allowed you to do?
To dream more. It’s given me the license to explore, create, execute and to be more disruptive in redefining what a modern music company is today and tomorrow.
How do you define a label’s function these days?
The core business is music but it’s also about the things around the artists that we do can do. It's not just audio. We create content. And no one puts out more visual content than us -- snackable content, the stuff that plays out on Musical.ly, Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook.
How do you think music will factor into Snapchat’s future?
I love and use Snap. It's a modern pop culture communication platform where music content should be integrated appropriately. But someone has to pay for it. Michael Lynton understands the value of music so I'm bullish on its future there.
What do you think is missing from the user experience on streaming sites?
I still think repetition or frequency is key. There needs to be opportunity for the song to become familiar. I don't see that right now. People, for the most part, like to be told what to like -- they like to be curated to and don't want to think about it.
With nearly a quarter of all songs on Top 40 belonging to a Republic-affiliated artist, how many singles can you feasibly work at the same time?
It's a singles driven game, so at any given time, depending on the format, there could be eight to twelve songs. … But there’s not a set number. We work what's ready to work. What's important is the flow. Monte always says, “More is more” and to feed the marketplace with music. EVP of promotion Gary Spangler has done a tremendous job in managing that flow in the most modern and efficient way possible.
To what do you credit such a successful and consistent track record?
The way you win is having the best music. After that, it's a strategy. When you put a song out? What is the order in which you put certain songs out? Where do you start those songs that end up becoming big testing records at radio? The company that throws out records to see what sticks, if that ever was this label, it's certainly not today. We have a really smart, trained, sophisticated group that sit inside our company and also touch all the departments. Promotion is on the main floor and woven into the ethos and the culture of the company. So they can speak differently because they’re right next to marketing, or media or A&R. Also, one thing we do is have the staff go to the studio early on and be a part of the demo process, so they can hear music and meet the artists and make a game-plan. They're not given a bag of records and told, “Go on the road and get them played.”
You also work singles for Island Records. How does that division of labor play out?
It's a separate conversation. When [Island president] David Massey sits with our team, it's a separate meeting that's Island-driven and Island-branded. It's not stirred up in one big bowl. It's a very specific strategy. And one that has been phenomenal judging by the success of Shawn Mendes, Mike Posner, what we've done with Demi Lovato, Nick Jonas and Tove Lo and Bishop Briggs at alternative.
Republic has long been known for mining metrics to find a potential hit. Where do you land on gut versus data?
We have either data to support it or the gut side is telling us something. With data, when we see something that people don't like, we don't put it out. When we see something people like, we go hard and deep. Those efforts are the results that you see market share-wise at radio. It's not just putting your song up on a streaming service, throwing a Hail Mary and hoping and praying. We have a good sense of what works and what doesn't and also the wherewithal and expertise to make sure there are less mistakes. Also, we are the only ones that write a check at the beginning when no one cares. Think about that: managers don't do it, lawyers don’t, accountants don't, agents don't do it. So we're going with gut before data many times because we believe.
These days, what leads -- streaming or radio?
The “now” conversation is a mixture of both. I have yet to see a No. 1 song really become embedded in culture without it being a massive radio record. And as long as radio is free and local in every market, in every car and on an app across America, I think it's important. Spotify, or Apple Music, allows you to see things that grow and eventually affects the game of breaking new artists at a level that we've never seen before. Each provides something different. Radio is governed by Nielsen, streaming is governed by playlist positioning which comes from a gut [feeling]. But at the end of the day, the data can result in the expansion of playlisting. I can’t speak for tomorrow, but today, they both coexist and drive each other.
Marian Hill's "Down" is a great example. The tipping point was the Apple Airbuds commercial, and you see that it's driving this thing: iTunes, a top Shazam record, No. 1 in New York, San Francisco, Detroit and Denver. At those markets, it's due to airplay. Today, you can see the cause and effect of a pop culture moment like a commercial and how it drives radio play and immediate Shazam results.
And what does the future of the album look like in the streaming world?
Ten or twelve songs at once become old very quick in the streaming space so it changes what the album will be in the future. But I see a lot of opportunity. Ryan Tedder and I recently [discussed], do you put out four songs every quarter? Does that make sense? Because as a streamer, you want more and more from the act. Especially if you're developing an artist: more [means] you’re feeding the beast of that young brand. ... There is still a little bit of physical left, a little bit of single sales left, digital downloads... but eventually, as everyone understands what a great product streaming is, and it infiltrates middle America, it becomes the most important entertainment product in the world because of the price point.
What did you learn during your sabbatical from the music business?
That there's a whole other side to marketing, music, branding and entertainment you didn't get to see unless you left. Also, it turned on the entrepreneurial part of my brain. I learned that I can do it on my own and be successful. And it gave me a sense of security and self-awareness that I never had before. I wasn't relying on anyone but myself.
And from your time at Sony?
I learned what not to do. It was during the heyday so there was a lot of having to look behind your back. It was very competitive internally and also a less transparent time. But I ran a record company -- all of that experience got me my 10,000 hours and was really my Harvard education. I went to an Ivy League school called Sony Music Back In The Day, which allowed me to grow to where I am today.
What was it like competing with the Lipmans when you were at Sony?
Super annoying. With certain records, whether it was Nelly, Amy Winehouse, Florence + the Machine, even a Chumbawamba, I wanted to just knock Monte and Avery out. We were at Columbia doing massive, $700 million years and you'd say, “Those f---ing Lipman brothers, man.” I wanted those records.
UMG labels are also notoriously competitive with one another…
Lucian [Grainge, UMG chairman], Michele [Anthony, UMG EVP] and Boyd [Muir, UMG CFO and EVP] encourage us to be competitive, not just internally but everywhere. They want us to compete at the highest level. And then they support that. I love the people that I work with and I demand no politics at the office -- there's no bullshit, just complete transparency. I don't have to look behind my back. I want to look ahead.
Clearly transparency is important to Republic.
I swear, we are the most transparent label. We tell the truth. If something isn't working, we are the first to tell the artist or manager and we don't play make-believe. I think that's why there's consistency and growth.
Republic scored numerous 2017 Grammy nominations for its artists. Do you feel the voting body is catching up with consumers?
I think the Grammys get more modern each year. They're evolving and reflecting an ever-changing marketplace more and more. It takes a minute to catch up to the marketplace, but they’re acknowledging it and you can see a positive natural evolution to the Grammys.
Pop music is so youth oriented, where does the adult market for music fit in?
When you look at Pandora or the demographic of who is buying at Amazon, where now something's flashing in your face with Prime that you can get music for $5 dollars a month, that becomes a very big part of the adult consumption marketplace. A republic artist like [The Voice winner] Jordan Smith fits right into that. And we want to explore having more acts in that space because they become forever artists and forever streamers. It's long-view, long-term consumption. Adult acts have bodies of work that tie into a tour. Like Lionel Ritchie and Mariah Carey are touring together and that also drives their streaming catalog. John Mellencamp is a great example of a brilliant artist with a catalogue, who has new music and tours.
And he has a lifetime deal with Republic?
Yes, that he did with Monte. He respects the guys here and we respect him. He's an icon and is embedded in our culture, so every day, we think about Mellencamp.
In a similar vein, you started working with the Jonas Bros. while still at Columbia some 13 years ago. And today, you play a key role in the careers of Nick and Joe Jonas. To what do they owe this devotion?
When you look at Nick Jonas, you have to throw in Justin Timberlake and Beyonce. These are kids that came out of their mother's womb ready to go -- trained assassins at eight, nine or ten years old; professional music stars that were born that way. Nick is one of them and so is Joe. Why can Joe go into a group called DNCE, sell a million albums worldwide, and become the ultimate frontman in his mid twenties? He's been doing it since he was ten. There's that chip inside you that makes you different. Abel [Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd] is one of the biggest competitors I've ever seen in my life. This guy slept in the studio for six months with a bed. He wants it. He doesn't want to miss a minute of not making music. Now he's breaking streaming records and on the cover of Billboard. He wants it. He's that guy. He’s earned it. It’s the same with Hailee Steinfeld -- here’s a kid that's been acting since she was 10 and got nominated for an Oscar with True Grit at 14. All I can do is enable her.
Between Twitter and Instagram, you have 150,000 followers on social media and have coined your own #VIPLife hashtag, often tagging your assistant with it. Not what you’d expect from a top executive, but clearly this is ok with your bosses?
My thing is, it's not a job -- it's a lifestyle. I want to enjoy it. I want to be in a place where I'm comfortable and free. And I want the people who work for us to feel like they are free to go do what they need to get the job done but also to dream and execute and believe and all that stuff that I say. Monte is the same way. And that's how you create a great environment.
Any members of your team you'd like to shout out here?
We have Wendy Goldstein, who I do want to mention because I work very closely with her on The Weeknd Ariana, Hailee and DNCE. She's an important part of the process of making damn sure these records get done, finished and are great. Jim Roppo keeps the train moving on time and is really the intersection of execution from a commerce and marketing perspective. Rob Stevenson fought very hard to bring in Post Malone and sign him. From the entertainment and Hollywood side of things, there's Tom Mackay our EVP/GM of the west coast. Fifty Shades Darker is coming out, with the Taylor Swift and Zayn track on it; Star TV show, The Voice ... The TV and film side is a component of our business that's growing. [Senior vp media relations] Joe Carozza -- he's not a f---ing publicist. It's a modern media approach, where we talk over overall positioning, virality and digital marketing.
You recently went on a talent expedition in Detroit, what can you tell us about it?
It was fascinating. We had this idea to go into the communities and the churches and the choirs and find some fine talent to create and help bring Detroit back through music. I believe the next biggest star could be right there on the ground, singing in his choir. We've gotta find him and let him know we're open for business. Motown changed American music forever. So why can't that happen again? Just get one -- get one thing right and it forever changes that city again.