Between his dual roles as president of urban music at RCA and CEO of ByStorm Entertainment, a joint venture with the label, Mark Pitts, 44, rode into 2015 with 10 Grammy nominations and a third consecutive Billboard 200 No. 1 album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, from ByStorm management client J. Cole. Now he's rolling the dice on multiple ByStorm acts, including Miguel and newcomer Luke Christopher, while overseeing an RCA slate spiked with new releases from Chris Brown and Tyga (Fan of a Fan 2), Charlie Wilson (Forever Charlie) and Usher.
"I'm trying to build my own LaFace," says Brooklyn native Pitts. "That's the era I come from and the thing I pay attention to: developing quality artists."
How did you react to the Grammy nods?
To be honest, it wasn't the number. It was the quality of the projects nominated. I'm blessed by all the nominations, but the one that struck a nerve with me was Mali Music. Known for his gospel work when I signed him, my goal was to bring him into the middle; make him more worldly and give him some edge. The fact that Mali was nominated for best urban contemporary album with Chris Brown, Pharrell Williams, Beyoncé and Jhené Aiko … What I set out to do is happening.
Mali recently performed on Late Night With Seth Meyers, and he's getting media write-ups as if his album just came out. The same thing happened with Miguel two years ago when he was on that Grammy stage and a lot of people didn't know him. It's still a road [for Mali], but I feel we've definitely put a dent in the process.
J. Cole had the biggest-selling week of any R&B/hip-hop album in 2014 without a formal single.
I have to give all credit to Cole. He always likes to think out of the box. He didn't want to put a single out but felt there was a way of making this happen. A lot of people were nervous, but he stood his ground and we supported him. There are a lot of things that come with not putting out a single. Then boom, lo and behold, wow that first week.
Cole and I are actually about to segue into another venture. He's now taking on more of a role in managing himself. I can't talk about it yet, but there's something else that he and I are partnering up to do.
What's the latest on Miguel's new album?
We're 90 percent done. Its working title is Wild Heart and we're talking second quarter. He's more confident, and it's going to show in the music, his look and in the videos. Miguel is ready to push the button. His first album was about trials and tribulations. The second was OK, we're here; I wasn't bugging. And now it's here we go. He wants people to understand who he is. He's tired of people asking who are you, what's that, do you like girls?" He tells me, "I want everyone to know I am wild, funny, edgy and love women. I need this album to connect."
And what's up with Usher's album?
It was just a matter of the direction in which we wanted to go. We started back up a couple of weeks ago, cutting a few more records. Now it's about putting the album together. We're 85 percent there.
Besides Mali Music, Miguel and J. Cole, who else is under the ByStorm umbrella?
On the label side there's Luke Christopher, who has a record that's bubbling, "Ms. Holy Water," and also Treasure Davis. I'm about to go outside my normal comfort zone with a band called Carter Park, whose lead singer is Zach Goyne, white with a big, soulful voice. [Songwriter/producer] Rodney Jerkins and I have also put together a guy group called History in the Making [HIM] with members Jawan, Dylan and Pryce. We're trying to recreate the whole Bell Biv DeVoe thing. I've been setting up everybody the last two years to have multiple releases this year.
Between your work at ByStorm and RCA, you have a strong foothold in R&B/hip-hop. What's your outlook for the genre in 2015?
I don't pay attention to that. I can't. I'm a fan of the music. Most of the artists I've signed haven't come with big followings. It's a process; you've got to build. I know folks are saying R&B is going this way, it's dying, not selling the same. But I'm a firm believer that when it's real music, it may take longer to get there. But when it gets there, it's going to stay. And based on what's been going on here so far, I'm not going to veer off that path. I just tell the artists to stay true to the music.
Race, unfortunately, is still a hot-button issue, and the industry continues to be criticized for its uneven playing field for urban acts. Is enough being done to engage artists and industry execs in smart dialogue about this issue?
Sam Smith is incredible and congratulations to him. But say if an Usher had done his record ["Stay With Me"]? Would it have gone pop? Those questions are definitely in your head. I try not to dig too much into it. It does make you want to work harder. It is what it is. You have to make your shit bulletproof.
One thing that bothers me: they should rename the Urban AC format. As soon as artists hear the name Urban AC, they think they're getting old. And if I say a record is No. 1 on there, someone will say that's records for old people. It's not old, dog. It's just real music. And we have to find other ways of getting the music heard.
With that in mind, how successful was the move to make Usher's "Clueless" an exclusive download in specially marked boxes of Cheerios?
It really depends on what you mean by success. There was the fact of getting more eyes on him. It definitely built his brand awareness even more as did The Voice. For the song itself, it was bigger in concert than what it actually did on the radio. But I looked at that as a chess play. That's what that song was.
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of Billboard.