Kevin Liles calls himself an entrepreneur, and it's hard to imagine a more accurate catch-all term for the items in his overstuffed portfolio.
The former Def Jam president and Warner Music executive VP runs KWL Enterprises, which includes a management company that oversees the careers of musicians, athletes and models including D'Angelo, Trey Songz, Estelle, Nelly, model Selita Ebanks, co-management of Ty Dolla $ign, and others.
Late last year he was announced as a partner with his former Warner colleagues Lyor Cohen and Todd Moscowitz in 300, an Atlantic-distributed label that's seeking to work a new model in the music business (more on that below). KWL also includes brand consulting, a philanthropic wing and more.
And along with Walgreens, Mariah Carey and Jay-Z's 40/40, he's launching Go 'N Syde, a new beverage line that, via augmented reality technology, provides exclusive content — a "network," as he calls it — to fans who download the Go 'N Syde app and then scan the labels of Carey's Butterfly (pink lemonade) or 40/40 (Arnold Palmer tea) with their phones.
Billboard caught up with Liles after a hectic day announcing Butterfly with Mariah Carey.
Billboard: How did the Butterfly and 40/40 deals come about?
Kevin Liles: We constantly have conversations around Fortune 500 companies because of my marketing expertise, whether it's how to bring more 15-to-34-year-old traffic into stores or to harness the purchasing power of young America. I've done it so many different ways that I do a lot of advising. My partner and I were having discussion with Walgreens about their "Happy and Healthy" [campaign] and where they wanted to go. They wanted to skew a little bit younger, and they wanted to come up with some ideas about how they could bring more product lines inside Walgreens. So we said what would be best would be to find a product, and then find brands, that we could attach to the product that would bring a certain core demographic, while never getting away from your main objective around the campaign.
We decided the beverage business would be a good place to enter: it sounds like with 40/40 we could [reach young males] and with Mariah, we could cater to the female 34-to-60-year-olds who are the core consumers at Walgreens. I called my friends and said, "Hey, I know this might sound crazy, but I want you guys to start beverage businesses — one around Butterfly and one around 40/40. Let's give them a two-for-one: a great-tasting drink, but also, I have technology that I want to put on every bottle [to provide exclusive content] and disrupt the consumer package goods market. To make a long story short, we launched the beverages and there will be many other line extensions, whether you add another flavor, like a Butterfly Light, coming out in 2014.
What content can fans expect from this?
The reason we were at the [green-screen studios the previous day] was because we wanted to provide Mariah with an opportunity to record things she's never done before. It's her own network and we just started programming, so now she's the owner of her own beverage company, and she's now programmer of her own network. So what would Mariah fans want to see? They want behind-the-scenes access, they want special shout-outs, they want contesting, they want things that normally you would do on your traditional social media platforms. This is her own network, and because it's virtual, anything could pop up — like last night we shot her singing with butterflies; she sang something you've never heard Mariah sing live before.
Again, it's another medium for her to engage her fans, and Mariah's one of the young ladies who's always engaged her fans in that manner, so this is just another extension to help her communicate and engage with them. Eventually we'll have a head of programming. The great thing about the device and application is, when you download the Go 'N Syde app, you can go inside the worlds of 40/40 and Butterfly. I would also say that if we don't continue to innovate around what true behind-the-scenes content is, then we lose the opportunity to do something special. We've got green-screens in New York and L.A. where we can constantly [create new content], but we also can take partners' video footage and upload it. We've hired camera crews to follow them and get exclusive footage that they might have shot before and put it on the site.
This is not behind the scenes backstage: this is behind the scenes of my life, of my world. So it'll be all kinds of things. When you have the opportunity to curate your own channel and it's only based off of what you put up — not stuff that somebody caught you doing or saying — this is stuff that you're proud about — family moments, friend moments, events. Right now we've got a lot of placeholders, but we just launched this week.
And what content will 40/40 have?
If you think about 40/40, you think about sports, you think about great events, you think about having fun, you think about, "Hey, when Jay's going on tour with Beyonce, how do I get VIP access?" We have video, galleries, contesting, all sorts of things. Some of the content up there now is just stuff that happened at the club, and we're in the process of uploading video from Jay. They're committed to releasing exclusive things: sometimes you might have a world premiere, go to a 40/40 bottle and check out this new song from Jay-Z. Mariah, too. I'm working with all the partners to come up with experiences that are unparalleled on any other network.
What are some other branding moves that have impressed you lately?
I think Samsung continues to push the marketplace with their advertising about being the "next big thing." I love the holograms that people have used lately, Michael Jackson and Tupac, and Mariah did one a long time ago around a Christmas album. I think what Vice has done to create their own point of view, similar to the transformation of CNN under Jeff Zucker, I think they've been doing exciting things. With CNN, their curated content is more than news but it's still news, what they did with "Blackfish" — you wouldn't expect to see that on CNN. A lot of people are critical based off of it being different and it takes time to go from being different to being innovative.
What's going on with 300?
When we started 300 this year, we said that we wanted to be an organization that was nimble and available to have a [variety] of deals — every deal should fit one particular artist. We should be able to be partners with them and not have them just look at us as the record company — we're your partner, we're willing to do deals that work for everybody, and on top of that, this is the first time, at least for me, that we have a direct connection to our fans. Normally radio or video or promoters would have the relationship and we would just be the entertainment. Now with technology we have become chief consumer officers and learn more and more through our partnerships with Twitter around analytics and with YouTube and Google being one of our main investors, we want data-miners next to A&R and do what we do best find talent, nurture it and bring it to market. I think we're up to eight artists, and we've got a couple of deals out that I can't speak about.
Trey Songz's album is coming soon.
July 1st. He's bigger than he's ever been around the world, so we'll be touring starting in October here in the U.S., then Europe with holiday dates in December, and then we kick off 2015. Every Valentine's Day he does a big show, and next year we're doing [London's] Wembley Arena. We did four nights at Hammersmith [Apollo], 20,000 tickets, but we wanted to do something special at Wembley for Valentine's Day 2015.
So what's going on with D'Angelo?
Here's the thing: with D'Angelo was a process. He didn't perform for 10 years and he's been working on an album for the past 12 years. I actually got him to go out and do 30 shows [in 2011-2012], and then we did some "Brothers in Arms" shows [with ?uestlove last year]. I said, "We have to get motivated around what people want to hear from you, and what does it mean to come back to that space?" He very bluntly put it, "Kev, the studio and the stage: that's my lifeblood. Now that I've touched it again, now that I see it again, I wanna be sure that the baby I'm about to have — the album — that I take it to the point where it's all it can be."
There'll be an album this year: there's 14 records so far, we might have a couple of bonus records, but all the recording is basically done we're mixing and mastering now. Definitely, he'll be back. We'll probably start an international tour in October, we'll come back [to the States]. We're doing a James Brown tribute in August [at the Hollywood Bowl] and some one-off things. But the touring will probably start in October and 2015.
What's the album like?
To limit it to soul is not the case, because there is a rock influence. But at the same time, it's very melodic and there's an influence of all the things he loves: there's James Brown, there's Prince, and everything people grew up loving D'Angelo for, from "Brown Sugar" to "Voodoo." It's a mixture and an evolution of where he is right now. And you have to think that when you have the opportunity to work 10 years on an album, that album's truly gonna be what you want it to be. Is it limited to the kind of sound that he did with the earlier records? No, it's not.
Does it have a name yet?
There is a potential name, but I don't wanna give you a potential name and then change it.
And it's definitely coming in 2014?
Yep. Sooner than later!
Anything else you'd like to talk about?
I just wanted to share my condolences to my mentor, [former radio personality and label exec] Wes "Party" Johnson, who passed [on May 11]. Not only was he involved with my life prior to Def Jam, but he was the senior VP of marketing and promotion that I was working for at Def Jam. Life is just too short, so I always tell people, make sure that people not only see you and hear you, but that they feel you. Sometimes this industry is so harsh that we don't take time to enjoy the moment.