Take four high-flying, trendsetting titans and trail them for a full workday (and night… and morning). The result? Hundreds (nay, thousands) of text messages sent, bro-hugs exchanged, clients soothed, journalists schmoozed, naps snuck, deals struck and, on packed concert floors across the country, faces melted. Against the backdrop of an industry in upheaval, here’s how shit REALLY gets done in today’s snooze-you-lose music biz.
Ed Sheeran arrives at SiriusXM.
Ask Ed Sheeran how he’s doing, especially in the first half of the day, and you’re likely to get some variation on the same response. “Tired, man,” he says with a weary laugh as he rolls into SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s Manhattan HQ to kick off an extremely packed day of promos and performances all over the city. It’s hard to blame him. At just 24, armed with little more than an acoustic guitar, a closet full of flannel shirts and a head of hair so red it’s basically safety orange, the British singer-songwriter has come to rival his music-biz bestie, Taylor Swift, for global music domination. “It’s quite a weird thing for the No. 1 and No. 2 biggest-selling artists in the world to be close friends,” Sheeran says later, matter-of-factly. “I don’t think that happens a lot.”
This morning there are at least two specific reasons for his weariness. First, he hasn’t had coffee yet, so he waits in a greenroom while Kev, his affable, bear-sized sidekick/security guard, makes a Starbucks run. And second, even though he stayed in last night, Sheeran was up way later than he planned — having what he jokingly describes as a solo “Netflix and chill” night — watching the Amy Winehouse documentary in his pool-table-equipped hotel suite. He paired the experience with two bottles of his buddy Jay Z’s Armand de Brignac champagne, a case of which Beyoncé sent over after the pair dueted flirtatiously on “Drunk in Love” at the Global Citizen Festival in Central Park three days earlier. (She signed the card “A gangster’s wife.”)
It has been an almost unbelievable rise, from busking in his English hometown of Suffolk to getting gifts from Jay and Bey. His parents, art dealer dad John and jewelry designer mom Imogen, still live in Suffolk, and Sheeran recently bought a house nearby. (His older brother Matthew is also a musician; he composes classical music.) Now Sheeran is in town for a few days following the last stop on the U.S. leg of his blockbuster X Tour: a sold-out show at the 80,000-seat Gillette Stadium, outside Boston. Let that sink in. One smallish man, alone onstage in venues normally occupied by such franchises as the New England Patriots, generating Beatlemania-esque pandemonium along the way.
That’s what Kev is for. Sheeran finally realized the need for security after a tour stop in the Philippines. “We got off the plane in Manila, and there were like 500 people there waiting,” says Sheeran. “And that was just the airport. When we got to the actual fans, it was very, very intense.”
He’s at SiriusXM today to give a little of that shine to Jamie Lawson, a 39-year-old singer-songwriter friend from Sheeran’s club days who’s the first signing to his new Gingerbread Man label. “Without sounding weird, I don’t need the money,” Sheeran says of the venture. “It’s just me wanting to hear some cool music on the radio.” To that end, the pair blitz through three of SiriusXM’s studios; pose for photos; tape a quick performance of Lawson’s heartstring-yanking single “Wasn’t Expecting That,” which, a few days later, would hit No. 1 in the United Kingdom; cross paths with Ellen Page (neither star acknowledges the other); and, finally, make a quick dash through the midmorning sunshine, past a group of paparazzi, into a pair of waiting vans.
Sarah Stennett heads to Blavatnik HQ
“What time is it in Australia?”
Time zones are important to Sarah Stennett, who has 38 employees in three cities. Today the British lawyer and manager is in New York, a convenient pivot point to an extended workday: Before breakfast she can talk to the London office, and after dinner her Los Angeles staff is still available. In a moment, from the back seat of a town car, she’ll get on the phone to Sydney, where’s it’s already tomorrow.
Stennett exemplifies the 21st-century approach to music moguldom. Turn First, the company she launched in 2004 after managing U.K. act Sugababes, has grown to comprise two labels, a branding business and a publishing company, in addition to artist management. It’s well-rounded, diverse and -comprehensive — OK, fine, “vertically integrated” — as well as thriving and expanding. Stennett has the support of industry power brokers including Universal Music Group chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge, Columbia Records CEO Rob Stringer (who calls Turn First “the alpha female music company”) and Warner Music Group (WMG) owner Len Blavatnik, who has formed a joint venture with Stennett, a development she won’t yet discuss in detail because it hasn’t been officially announced. Stennett is on the brink of having her own empire, if she can guide her VIP acts — namely Australian pop-rapper Iggy Azalea, British singer Ellie Goulding and One Direction refugee Zayn Malik — through the controversies, pitfalls and other tremors that could knock them from the top of an increasingly unstable pyramid of pop stardom.
Stennett was born and raised in Liverpool (she declines to divulge her age). In the tradition of Lauren Hutton, Elton John and Jane Birkin, her gapped front teeth connote self-possession and disregard for social norms. Wearing fashion-forward black and carrying a Chanel purse, she fields a call from her husband, George Astasio, a songwriter who co-wrote and co-produced Azalea’s 2014 No. 1 single “Fancy.” (The couple and their 7-year-old twins live in London.) “My very patient husband,” she chuckles. “He called three times last night, and I kept having to drop the call.”
Stennett’s car pulls up to a building in the Meatpacking District, and she goes to the penthouse, where she shares office space with Blavatnik’s Access Industries. Blavatnik, a Ukrainian-born businessman believed to be the richest person in England, bought WMG in 2011; his investments include film (AI and Icon Pictures) and music streaming (Deezer and Spotify). Museum-quality artwork lines the walls of his expansive, largely empty office, which has a startling view of the High Line park and the helicopters that travel up and down the Hudson River.
Stennett met Blavatnik in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where he co-chaired an amfAR Cinema Against AIDS fundraiser. He asked to talk with her. “He said a few things about streaming services that I’d never heard anybody say, and I quickly realized he’s a visionary,” she recalls. The joint venture “is about connections and access. Len can help us talk to key players across different industries, from Harvey Weinstein to luxury brands. The biggest problem artists have is investment — in their career, as opposed to in a record. Investment has to come outside the major-label system.”
Sheeran schmoozes Spotify
Following a second promo stop at Buzzfeed, Sheeran takes advantage of some downtime to recharge with a nap in the back of the van. An hour later, somewhat perked up, he appears onstage at Rockwood Music Hall, a small downtown club, to introduce Lawson, who’s playing a private afternoon showcase for Spotify. Sheeran sticks around afterward to take photos with the beaming members of the streaming service’s staff. He is friendly and unpretentious, but it’s clear that this kind of day, packed with strangers in need of glad-handing, doesn’t come naturally to him. With each photo, his face instantly snaps into an identical configuration: a pleasant, if slightly lobotomized, smile. “It’s funny — my ex-girlfriend, who the whole first album is about, was like, ‘I can tell when you’re not happy in pictures, because you do this fake smile,’ ” says Sheeran with a flash of his genuine smile. “If you can see my teeth, I’m happy.”
The showcase also is telling in another way. Sheeran is one of the first superstars whose career has entirely existed in the streaming era. In 2014 he was the most-streamed act on the planet, and it’s clear that the relationship with Spotify is important to him. “If my album is streamed by 2 billion people, which it was, you have maybe a billion that might check it out more online, and like 300,000 people that might buy a ticket. If 300,000 people buy a ticket in one country at 80 dollars a pop, that’s more money than you would ever make off any album or streaming or anything.” (That said, Sheeran also sells a lot of records. X is on its way to moving 12 million copies globally, which, he proudly notes, is about what U2 sold with The Joshua Tree.)
Despite his youth and digital evangelism, in some ways Sheeran is weirdly old-fashioned. “I don’t stream anything ever,” he says. “I don’t even really get it. I buy everything off iTunes or physically.” Which also explains how there’s lots of celebrated music that he still hasn’t encountered. “I’ve never listened to a Radiohead album, to be honest. I didn’t hear a Bruce Springsteen song until like two years ago, and now I f—ing love Springsteen. I didn’t hear Michael Jackson songs till I was 14. I like discovering things on my own. I want to have that moment of ‘holy shit,’ the moment of the epiphany.”
No I.D. creates a “hashtag moment”
At Def Jam Recordings’ Santa Monica offices, a dozen young, stylish executives encircle a table in the John Coltrane conference room, tossing a basketball, cracking jokes about Empire and spitballing remix ideas. The mood is somewhere between after-hours barbershop and rap game show-and-tell.
Under a portrait of the room’s namesake, an A&R rep in a flannel shirt presses play for his boss, Dion “No I.D.” Wilson, the super-producer-turned-executive vp of Def Jam. It’s a new song tabbed for a potential album from protean singer-rapper Dej Loaf and her boyfriend, Def Jam drill artist Lil Durk. “Shawty my Beyoncé,” the Auto-Tuned hook bellows. This raises a red flag: Is it wise to name-check Beyoncé on your chorus, especially when Drake already did a song called “Girls Like Beyoncé”?
“What about if we change it to ‘My Yoncé’?” asks No I.D., 44. “Once you say Beyoncé’s name on a record, it gets into … a whole other level of intrusion.” Someone counters with altering it to “fiancé,” but everyone agrees it would change the context of the record. “My Yoncé” has the opportunity to create what No I.D. calls a “hashtag moment”: Think what Ariana Grande did with “on fleek” earlier this year, or what Kanye West did with “cray.” “Hit records create slang, and if you create slang you get into a broader conversation level,” says No I.D. “People are going to use it, and if [others] don’t know the song, people are going to be like, ‘What? Did you not hear that record?’ ”
Let’s be clear: No I.D. (that’s “Dion” spelled backward) could silence the A&R meeting with a single eye roll. This is the alchemist who produced Jay Z’s “Run This Town,” West’s “Heartless” and Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” But that isn’t how the Chicago South Side native operates. He doesn’t give commands, just well-reasoned suggestions.
The other big news in today’s meeting is that mercurial lothario Jeremih has finally turned in his much-delayed album. Previously unheard collaborations from the Chicago R&B singer with Migos, Future and Big Sean win the approval of the chief, who bobs his head more like a fan than an executive calculating potential sales.
He’s not averse to a pop smash. After all, Justin Bieber’s comeback occurred under his aegis, and he mentored West. But No I.D. is here to represent the culture at its most street level — to be a kind of Trojan horse of the underground. He just might become the new Quincy Jones. So when he tells you to change it to “My Yoncé,” that’s what you do.
A long phone call with Iggy
While in New York this week, Stennett has had “extensive meetings” with RCA Records president Tom Corson about Malik, who’s working on his label debut with Frank Ocean producer Malay. Yesterday she had a long phone conversation with Azalea, who has had a tumultuous year: postponing and then canceling a tour (she called it a “creative change of heart,” but advance ticket sales were lackluster), discarding six months of recording sessions and, on Twitter, clashing with rappers Azealia Banks and Q-Tip, who both accused her of exploiting black culture without understanding it. (Banks memorably referred to Azalea as “Satan in the form of mayonnaise.”)
Azalea often seemed imperious on Twitter, especially last December, when she called Q-Tip “patronizing” after the legendary MC schooled her on the history of hip-hop. Stennett advised her client to log off.
“When you suddenly become very famous, it’s a lot for any young person to deal with,” she says. “Especially nowadays, when it’s hard to put your phone away. Social media is amazing, but I think there’s a lot of miscommunication by artists because of the speed of the online environment. My advice is, stay off social media.” In February, Azalea put management in charge of her social media accounts and largely remained quiet while the multiple controversies died down. “Iggy was very sensible — eventually. She was like, ‘I’m off. I’m off.’ Sometimes you have to learn the hard way.”
More schmoozing, in an H&M store window
Sheeran and Lawson are taping an interview for the TV show Extra in what turns out to be a studio built into a window of a vast H&M store in Times Square. “Everything is surreal when you’re with Ed,” Lawson says dryly. So as not to cause pandemonium in the crowded store, Sheeran hides out before the segment in a closed-off section of dressing rooms, reflecting on the difference between his entourage (Kev, his road manager Mark, a few label people, Lawson’s manager) and rappers’ squads. “I haven’t got a weed guy,” he says with a laugh. “They always have a weed guy. A jewelry guy, too.”
Sheeran is a major fan of hip-hop, and the feeling is mutual. He has appeared on the cover of Vibe, recorded an entire album with The Game that he still needs to tinker with and is tight with some of the biggest names in the genre — including Pharrell Williams, who co-produced his smash “Sing,” and Jay Z, who got to hear a track from Sheeran’s third album during an intimate hang at Jay and Beyoncé’s place after Global Citizen. “He made me play it four times in a row and called me an alien,” says Sheeran. “That was promising.”
He has been writing and recording the album (which, following the pattern of his first two math-symbol-titled discs, will have either a subtraction or division mark) while on the road with Dr. Luke protege Benny Blanco, who joined the tour with a mobile studio. Their pace is prodigious. “We’ll do one song at midday, one song at 5 p.m. and then one song after the show, usually,” he says. “If I didn’t have Benny forcing me to write a song, or three songs, a day, I’d just watch DVDs. But because he’s there and paid money for his tour bus and taken time out of his schedule — he could be working with f—ing Rihanna or whoever! — you feel obliged. So it proves really beneficial.”
According to Sheeran, his label, Atlantic, would prefer the album to come out next September, before the Grammy cutoff, but he’s not sure if it wouldn’t be better to wait a month. “Adele is releasing her album in the same Grammy category,” he says with a little awed laugh. “I don’t know if I’m brave enough to go up against her.” In the run-up to the release, though, he has a seriously packed year. First up is Jumpers for Goalposts, a concert film documenting his three-night run at Wembley Stadium — an experience Sheeran immortalized, in a nod to the English national football team’s logo, with the giant lion tattoo that covers his chest. In January he’ll return to New York for sessions with Blanco. Then he hopes to travel in a way that doesn’t seem possible for one of the planet’s biggest stars: visiting places like Ghana and Kenya and South Africa by himself, without “a proper phone,” moving so light and fast that fans and the press can’t keep up. “I’ll go to places for, like, an afternoon or an evening. By the time they realize I’m there, I’m already gone.”
Tommy Trash checks into Wynn.
Fresh from a nap and a double espresso, Thomas Matthew Olsen, known to the world as Tommy Trash, rides his black Converse high-tops across the marble floor of the reception area of Wynn Hotel’s exclusive Encore Towers in Las Vegas. His trademark mane of natural curls is tied into a haphazard man-bun, his elfin green-blue eyes blaze with energy and mischief, and his all-black outfit bears the remnants of an earlier snack.
For the past decade, the 35-year-old, Grammy-nominated DJ/producer/remixer has toured the world and drawn tens of thousands at outdoor festivals; two years ago he had a club hit with “Reload,” a collab with Sebastian Ingrosso (co-founder of Swedish House Mafia). Typically he’ll play three to four shows a week.
The night before, in Miami, he had played the first date of an eight-week, 28-city tour in support of his new EP, a somewhat experimental effort called Luv U Give. Tonight, from 1 a.m. until 3, he will be in residence at the Wynn’s high-end XS Nightclub, a 40,000-square-foot temple of hedonism (with an outdoor patio and pool deck) that has become a top showcase for DJs in a leading town for club-based EDM, with such artists as Skrillex, Kaskade and Diplo booking residencies.
XS is the top-grossing nightclub in the United States for five years running, and Trash has appeared there an average of once every three weeks in the past year. With all the travel, his life has been a little unsettled lately. He has a girlfriend who lives in Montreal and owns a house in Silver Lake, in East Los Angeles. “Someday I’ll even stay there,” he says with mock longing.
Though he has circled the globe numerous times and released dozens of singles and remixes, the classically trained trumpeter and former piano teacher from a farming district in northeastern Australia maintains a refreshing sort of aw-shucks wonderment. “I just love this place, don’t you?” asks Trash, indicating the plush and leafy surroundings of the Encore Towers’ private lobby. “Every time I come back I ask myself, ‘Am I really here?’ ”
No. I.D. has no worries
On a chalkboard in No I.D.’s corner office there’s a printed list of every artist on Def Jam’s roster, from label meal tickets (West, Bieber, Ocean) to legacy artists (The Roots, Q-Tip, Nas) to obscure aspiring stars. Beside each name is a best-case-scenario sales number. It’s something No I.D. confronts every day when he walks into this room, then immediately tries to forget.
“There’s this concept in urban music and lifestyle that money is everything, and I’m just not with it,” he says. “If it makes money, it doesn’t make it good. If it’s good, it’s good. I don’t care whether something makes one dollar or a trillion because guess what? I don’t know many happy rich people. And I know a lot of rich people.”
In the world of major-label urban music, this is about as radical as Martin Luther tacking a litany of complaints to the door of a medieval German church. No I.D. has made millions and lives in Beverly Hills, but you’d never know it. Still as no-frills as he was during his early days as a house music DJ, dressed in an olive T-shirt, jeans and boots, the only visible accoutrements from rap money are a 24-karat watch and a skinny gold chain.
Def Jam established its place in popular music by making “outlaw music” — at least that’s what Rick Rubin told No I.D. when the latter joined the label’s executive team in 2011, not long after moving to Los Angeles from Hawaii. In 2014, the label split off from Island to become its own independent entity again. This places even more pressure on Def Jam to deliver results, which means more sales, more streams, more money.
But if No I.D. feels any pressure, he doesn’t show it. For the fourth quarter, the label has albums lined up from Bieber, Logic and Jeezy. A surprise record from either West or Ocean would inevitably trigger some nice Christmas bonuses, but the executive seems to be looking three years ahead, not three months.
You can see this in his investment in Vince Staples, whose brilliant double-album Summertime ’06 figures to place highly on most year-end critics’ polls. With first-week sales of 14,000, many sniped that it was too early for the 22-year-old -rapper from Long Beach, Calif., to be putting out a commercial album.
“A lot of my favorite artists didn’t sell much out the gate. I didn’t with Common at first. Neither did first albums from Outkast, Nas or Jay Z,” says No I.D. “It doesn’t scare me. Either you go out and release free albums to hide the numbers because you’re afraid — or you go in the system and build from there.”
Zayn Malik has a new song, and that’s all we can say
After lunch with a music lawyer at midtown red-sauce joint Patsy’s, Stennett is off to see her band Lion Babe rehearse in a midtown studio. En route, she starts raving about Zayn Malik, who set Twitter aflame in March by quitting One Direction, saying he wanted “to relax and have some private time.” Stennett now manages him. “The environment he was in was all about compromise,” she says. “My job is simple: Make sure nobody gets in the way of him becoming an important artist.”
Malik sometimes calls Stennett to play songs in progress over the phone, and now she plugs her device into the car’s stereo to do the same for Billboard. But first, she insists that we say nothing about the song, except that it exists. “You can’t write about it. Do you promise?” she asks forcefully. We nod our agreement.
“Turn it up,” she tells the driver. Billboard can now exclusively report that Zayn Malik has recorded a song that Sarah Stennett has on her phone. But that’s all anyone can say. Double-crossing a lawyer is a bad idea.
Team Def Jam hits the gym
For a team-building exercise, No I.D. gathers the A&R staff to play hoops at the local Equinox gym’s basketball courts. It’s an off shooting day for the leader, but you can see a veteran’s savviness in his play. He sets screens and moves off the ball. “If I were a basketball coach, I’d either be a college coach or like Phil Jackson,” he says.
Jackson is probably the more accurate analogy. No I.D. is usually the smartest person in the room, but you’d only know if you paid close attention. He’s a Zen-master type who never breaks a sweat or raises his voice. Of course, if anyone questions his taste, ear or ability to nurture talent, he can shut them down by reminding them that he mentored West — perhaps the closest thing music has to a Michael Jordan right now.
This was during the early ’90s, while No I.D. was producing Common’s first three albums. West’s mom got No I.D.’s phone number, so her teenage son popped up at his Chicago basement studio wearing M.C. Hammer pants and carrying a laptop with his song “Green Eggs & Ham.”
“The music wasn’t good and he was only 14 or 15,” remembers No I.D. “But [West] took the advice I gave him and it multiplied with a new perspective. That’s why I’m betting on the new generation — I can teach them everything I know and they can expand on it.”
Stennett checks in on a breaking act
“How’s the dog?” Stennett asks Lion Babe singer Jillian Hervey, daughter of actress Vanessa Williams and owner of Dewey, her beloved terrier/bulldog mix she hasn’t seen in weeks. Hervey and bandmate Lucas Goodman, wearing a J. Dilla T-shirt, have a track on the new Disclosure album and are rehearsing today, with four other musicians, for a show in Atlanta and a tour of Japan.
“Amazing! You’re all f—ing hot,” Stennett says after the first song, “Where Do You Go.” “Brilliant!” she cheers after a second.
Unguarded enthusiasm is part of Stennett’s gift. She is one of only a few women in a field that has always been dominated by men, and advocates what she calls “a maternal approach” to management. Acts on her roster range from very young to very, very young, and she believes novice artists “fulfill their potential when they’re not scared and feel supported.” Stennett leaves much of the day-to-day decision-making and hand-holding to her team (three of the four directors at Turn First are women), and steps in for big-picture strategizing and authoritative pep talks or chiding, as needed. She has had good management training as the mother of a headstrong 19-year-old, Rose (daughter from a previous relationship), who’s enrolled at New York University, where she often skips class.
“She says, ‘Mom, I only skip the lectures.’ I don’t care! Those lectures cost money.”
Appointment with a hairdresser to the stars
Accompanied by a hotel PR woman, the manager of XS, a photographer, a road manager and Trash’s personal manager from Los Angeles, Anders Borge — a 29-year-old employee of Control Music Group, whose grandfather was the wildly popular pianist-entertainer Victor Borge, known in his day as The Clown Prince of Denmark — Trash is being led through the back of the house. He’s on his way to the Claude Baruk Salon at the Wynn, where he has an appointment for a trim with Baruk himself, an acclaimed French colorist-hairdresser to the stars.
As he trudges along the serpentine and garishly lit linoleum corridors, he passes carts full of ice and liquor, servers in low-cut mini-dresses, plainclothes security guys with earbuds snaking out of their shirt collars. “I feel like I’m backstage at the Brisbane Convention Center getting ready to play for a company party,” says Trash. “It’s like everyone is getting off their rocks — and I’m here to play with my band.”
The son of fruit shop and grocery store owners from the town of Bundaberg, four hours up the sunny Gold Coast of Australia from Brisbane, Trash played in cover bands and worked a day job at the Bureau of Statistics before getting into the DJ scene. When he produced his first solo stuff, he needed a DJ moniker. “I was like, ‘I don’t have a name. How about Tommy Trash?’ My mom hates it. She’s always like, ‘Why don’t you use your real name? Trash is not your real name. People are going to think you’re trash.’ ”
Though it’s not exactly clear why the hair appointment has been set up in the first place — something about publicity photos — Trash admits he hasn’t had a trim in some time. “It’s weird,” he says in his broad Aussie accent. “My hairdresser called me the other day and reminded me I needed a haircut. And I was like, ‘I’m way too busy.’ And now I’m here getting my haircut.”
“You feel like you’re cheating?” chides Borge.
“Yeah! I’m cheating on my hairdresser … in Vegas!” Trash laughs with delight. The sound echoes off the skin-colored corridor walls.
No. I.D.’s second home: the studio
Jhene Aiko has a cold. Maybe it’s the dust that got into the singer’s lungs at a festival in September. Or maybe it’s just stress, the R&B incense goddess tells No I.D. and his frequent production partner DJ Dahi inside Hollywood’s United Recording Studio. “Who isn’t stressed out?” the wavy-haired singer says with a smile.
“Me?” counters No I.D., digging into his vegan tacos and salad from slow-food chain Tender Greens. Married with no children, he has been a vegetarian for the last half-decade — he’s planning on having kids and wants to make sure he lives long for them. “Stress? I just smile at it, like, ‘Really? That’s a nice try.’ ”
Aiko is signed to No I.D.’s Artium imprint — aligned with Def Jam through a joint-venture deal. He executive-produced her official debut, 2014’s Souled Out, which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. She also is a frequent guest in his Cocaine 80s collective, a genre-mashing fusion of soul, pop, hip-hop and rock that he produces. It’s unclear whether what the trio will work on tonight will be part of that project or Aiko’s new release, which figures to be one of Def Jam’s biggest priorities in 2016.
The conversation pinballs from healthy eating to farmer’s markets (they’re good places to meet women) to the semantic differences of “slut,” “ho” and “whore.”
“Someone told me that I was slutty, but that I wasn’t a ho because I don’t have sex with a lot of people,” says Aiko. “I looked it up in the dictionary and a ‘slut’ is not the same thing as a ‘ho.’ A ‘slut’ doesn’t go by the rules.”
“Is that Webster’s or Urban Dictionary?” says Dahi, cracking up the room.
“If a whore is a whore, and no one knows she’s a whore, is she still a whore?” Aiko riddles.
No I.D. has a theory. “You can’t be a whore unless you’re actually accepting money for sex.”
After about an hour, the engineer queues a beat. Everyone who isn’t recording is asked to leave. It might be the end of most people’s days, but for No I.D., it’s time to work.
Sarah Stennett will beat your ass.
“Once you get signed, the real struggle begins,” says Leon Else, a handsome Brit and former professional dancer who’s living in Los Angeles while he makes an album for Interscope. He’s an excitable guy who writes lonely R&B songs about drugs and sex, and struggles with depression. Stennett checks in with him through Skype to see how his record is proceeding, and how he’s feeling.
“I text Sarah every day and ask, ‘Is any part of this easy?’ And she texts back, ‘No.’ ” Else laughs. “She’s like a mother. She’ll nurture you, but she also holds a big whip in her hand, and she’ll beat your ass. She’s not scared to tell you the truth. People don’t tell you the truth very often.”
What Else says recalls the way Stennett client Rita Ora once described her: “She’s got balls.”
Jumping onstage with Rudimental
The main room at the historic New York club Webster Hall is fully rocking with the drum’n’bass sound of Rudimental — buddies of Sheeran’s and collaborators on two tracks: the X hit “Bloodstream” (about an MDMA experience Sheeran had in Ibiza) and the new “Lay It on Me,” which is racing up the charts. There’s intense buzz among the fans that Sheeran might make an appearance, and two-thirds of the way through their set, he emerges from an incense-scented VIP bathroom, heads down a flight of stairs and explodes onto the stage. The 1,500-strong crowd elevates as one. For Sheeran, who normally performs alone, the experience of having a large band behind him is a rush. “I liken [Rudimental] to a carnival,” he says. “Not your kind of carnival, but like Notting Hill Carnival, sound systems. Wherever they go they bring the carnival with them.”
Atlantic Records Group chairman/COO Julie Greenwald (who had Lawson play a party at her apartment the night before) is in the house with at least a dozen staffers — a sign of Sheeran’s importance to the label. One of the day’s stops was a visit to the label’s new headquarters, where Sheeran spotted a huge mural of founder Ahmet Ertegun composed out of classic lyrics by Atlantic artists. Noticing that he wasn’t represented, Sheeran crouched down with a marker and added the “Thinking Out Loud” lyric, “People fall in love in mysterious ways/Maybe just a touch of the hand,” in small neat letters. Partly because Sheeran’s lyrics nearly all mine his own experiences, his love life is a topic intensely scrutinized by fans, to the point that the otherwise relatively unfiltered star will only talk about it in the most vague generalities. Asked if he’s seeing anyone now, he seems about to answer, then says, “I just never want to be public. It always, always backfires. I really wish I could disappear at moments that I’m with a significant other. It’s none of anyone’s f—ing business.”
Dinner and a quickie Justin Bieber remix
His hair still wet and smelling of Moroccan oil, Trash and company are escorted to a basement recording studio in the Wynn. Given the speed of the Internet and the fickleness of the fan base, Trash is always working to stay ahead.
His first big breaks came around 2012: Trash was nominated for a Grammy for his remix of Deadmau5’s “The Veldt”; the music video for his 2012 collaboration track “Tuna Melt” with A-Trak was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award; and he released “Reload” with Ingrosso. The track was rereleased in May 2013 with a vocal by John Martin; it charted in 15 countries, reaching No. 4 on the Dance Club Songs chart.
For the next two-and-a-half hours, Trash works intensely on a remix of “Where Are U Now,” the Skrillex and Diplo track featuring Bieber that hit No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and positioned Bieber as the new EDM-pop crossover king. Skrillex sent Trash the song. Using Bieber’s a cappella vocals, the prolific DJ creates a whole new track for tonight’s set.
Now, over a dinner of baked chicken and mashed potatoes, Trash talks about his new Luv U Give EP. “The whole EDM thing is wrapping up a bit and people are looking for different kinds of sounds in dance music,” he says. “They’re really ready for other forms of dance music rather than just being pounded away. I’ve been wanting to move away from the big-room stuff for a long time. This next EP is the first step.”
The record will arrive in early November, on Fool’s Gold Records in collaboration with Ministry of Sound Australia. According to Borge, Trash “spent a ton of time in the studio exploring, experimenting with new sounds and referencing some of his musical heroes, like Giorgio Moroder.” Luv U Give channels electronic and disco influences — the kind of stuff he first showed in his collaboration with Fool’s Gold label owner A-Trak — and pairs them with his signature electro style.
Taking a sip of another double espresso — he doesn’t drink alcohol when he’s working, although he’ll sometimes unwind at a bar or a strip club after a set — Trash regards the table sheepishly. “So this is my little baby,” he says in a vulnerable tone, one mate to another in the neighborhood pub. “Normally I don’t care much about what people think of my music. If you love it, awesome; if you don’t, go and listen to something else.’ But this time is different. This project is a lot more dear to me. I’m nervous about how it’s going to be received.”
Last meeting of the day, but still plenty to do
“What’s up, gorgeous?!”
Devontée, a 22-year-old rapper-producer from Toronto, warmly greets Stennett at Quad Studios, just above Times Square. This is Stennett’s last scheduled meeting, but her day isn’t nearly over. She’ll go back to her hotel, look at her emails, call Malik and get an update about Azalea, who has been recording.
She also wants to see her daughter Rose for a late dinner, and she needs to check on her mother, who got “paralytic drunk” at a wedding on Martha’s Vineyard a few days earlier, then fell over, broke a rib and, after delaying her return to England, is staying with Stennett.
“I’m so glad to see you!” Stennett smiles back to her artist. Devontée has 2,400 followers on SoundCloud and a new mixtape, District Vibe, that includes a Joey Badass feature. His songs are sparse and rugged, with slow tempos and odd, sustained bass lines — not obvious pop material, but a smart diversification move for Turn First. “This is called ‘Shawn Michaels’ — he’s a wrestler. It’s my raunchy song. Don’t judge me!” he says with a laugh.
Devontée explains that he made these records at home in Toronto, in a small bedroom. “My engineer sat on my bed.” Stennett listens to a few more songs, and Devontée shows her the videos and photos he has made to match the music. She has kept her enthusiasm at a high level throughout the day, and every time, artists and executives have responded excitedly to having her ear and support. Like many of her meetings, this one wraps almost exactly at the half-hour mark.
“I love what you’re doing!” she assures him.
A few drinks with friends
After the show, Sheeran invites the whole crew over to the Houndstooth, a favorite New York pub that happens to be owned by the band Snow Patrol. (The band’s guitarist-songwriter Johnny McDaid is a longtime collaborator of Sheeran’s.) “Whenever I’m in town they let me have the basement,” says Sheeran.
Sheeran cherishes the rare opportunities to spend time with those close to him. A couple of days later, his parents will be coming to visit him in New York, and he already has made plans to meet them at the cult Brooklyn pizza spot Lucali, to which he was introduced by Beyoncé and Jay Z. In addition to his old school friends — who join Sheeran in wearing masks at Glastonbury so he can hang out at the festival anonymously — he also has a wide range of celebrity pals, from Courteney Cox to his mentor Elton John. And then, of course, there’s Swift, who helped break Sheeran in America by bringing him on as a high-profile opening act in 2013. They speak or text nearly every day, but one wonders: Does Sheeran get invited to hang out with her famous girl squad? “Of course,” he says, cracking up. “It’s not a vaginas-only club.”
Finally, 15 hours after he arrived at SiriusXM, Sheeran heads back to his hotel to crash. Tomorrow will be another insanely busy day. Because no matter how much he has accomplished, Ed Sheeran is nowhere near done. It’s the reason his new movie is called Jumpers for Goalposts, which was also briefly in contention for the next album’s title. “In England a ‘sweater’ is a ‘jumper,’ ” explains Sheeran, “and when you play football you put your jumpers on the ground and use them as goalposts. I never started off saying, ‘I want to play Wembley Stadium.’ I said, ‘I want to play Shepherd’s Bush Empire,’ which is like 1,500 capacity. After you play there, you move the goalposts and you play Brixton Academy, and when you’ve done that, you move them again. And again, and again. That’s the whole ethos of the career.”
Red Bulls and fist pumps
After a nap and another double espresso, Trash enters the DJ booth at XS at precisely 12:59 a.m. As soon as the first beat drops, the house goes crazy — all laser lights and smoke cannons and confetti. It’s as if everyone in Vegas is starring in their own blue movie. All in attendance appear to be giving it a little something extra, feeling fabulous just for being here. For two straight hours — fueled by two Red Bulls and two large glasses of water — Trash headbangs and pumps the crowd, his knees pistoning up and down in a sort of strange Aussie dance march; there is not a moment when he is still. His new Bieber mix brings a crescendo and more smoke.
As the set nears its conclusion, a hard rain begins to fall on the open-air section of the club, the drops making concentric circles in the pool, nature adding its own special effects to the mix. Trash and his party leave the club and head back toward the Encore Tower. Trash has to be in a cab on the way to the airport by 4:15 a.m. His tour resumes tonight in Orlando. But before that, he must have food — and another espresso.
Hurrying down the hallway toward the restaurant, someone asks Trash how he thought his set went. Without pause, he checks the Fitbit on his right wrist. “I did eight-and-a-half-thousand steps. Pretty good, I’d say.”