During his years in the record business, Cohen evinced an unusual rapport with artists in no small measure because he can speak frankly and focus on helping them achieve fame and fortune. His opening message to YouTube reflects that experience: He wants the people who design the service to start looking at it the way performers and music companies do, as a tool for their commercial success. He notes, for example, that while Google and YouTube have touted their transparency and ability to provide instructive data, the company needs to recognize that artists have a different set of priorities. “Transparency is great,” he told them. “But numbers one through 10, an artist wants to be rich and famous. Then, 11, they want transparency.”
Being rich and famous is clearly within Cohen’s own comfort zone. Born in New York but raised in a Los Angeles mansion once owned by Chico Marx, he recently bought a 24-foot Greek revival townhouse in New York’s West Village from Chipotle founder Steve Ells for $11.4 million, which is less than what he made five years ago when he sold the Upper East Side townhouse where he raised his son and daughter, Az and Bea, for just under $25 million. Cohen is particularly pleased that the West Village house is within walking distance of YouTube’s new Chelsea offices. He doesn’t have a typical day and says he has yet to do much music industry outreach, having spent about 90 percent of his time since joining YouTube on internal issues. Focused on getting an intimate feel for the operation — with 70 Google offices in 50 countries, he has no idea how many people are in YouTube’s global music operation — he spent the week that we met bouncing between the Los Angeles and San Bruno, Calif., offices and recently made the Zurich and London hubs his first international stops. The Swiss office, home to 1,600 engineers, is where YouTube manages its Content ID program, which identifies copyrighted material, and is also working on ticketing and merchandising initiatives. “The majority of my effort is to work with the product and engineering team to help design products that are going to be useful for the artists, labels and creative community,” he says.
Cohen wants to develop promotional systems that allow labels to test viewer reactions to records and allow for promotion. Indeed, he knows how hard it is for a new artist to get noticed in a world of unlimited noise, and he sounds more like he’s working for a music label than YouTube when he suggests, “We could help them determine if they have a hit or a stiff if we could jack the system.”
“You have to talk to the labels,” says Cohen, “and give them the data that allows them to be well informed. Does a video get dragged into a person’s list? Does it get listened to in its entirety? We’d like them to think of us as a valuable tool in developing and breaking artists.”
While Cohen is busy trying to get his hands around a worldwide, tech-driven operation, his new co-workers are going to have to adjust to a boss who operates on a separate wavelength. YouTube is dominated by engineers. “I think people want the authentic Lyor,” he says, but finds the company’s style “significantly different” from the music industry. When one of his marketing executives jokingly refers to the office as a “back-to-back culture” (as in back-to-back meetings), Cohen admits that’s not how he likes to do things. “I prefer the mutant mistakes,” he says. How that shakes out after the honeymoon period remains to be seen: This is a company where virtually no one communicates by telephone; Cohen, by comparison, has found that it is really difficult to yell at someone for 45 minutes in an email.
There aren’t any rough edges evident as Cohen — unfailingly complimentary and enthusiastic — leads a video conference with a half-dozen YouTube employees in four offices to review marketing, promotion and performance lineups for South by Southwest in March. He is already familiar with each of the dozen artists who will be performing at the YouTube space at the Copper Tank Event Center. “I’m looking forward to being there,” he tells them.