“You would be amazed by how many people at some very high levels who are managing some very good acts who really don’t know shit,” said president and COO of RCA Records Tom Corson Monday at a freewheeling New Music Seminar panel entitled “Label Heads: The Gambler.”
Corson, Republic Records president and co-founder Avery Lipman, Atlantic Records chairman and COO Julie Greenwald, Entertainment One Music president Alan Grunblatt, and spark plug of a moderator and Lava Records president Jason Flom gathered ostensibly to discuss the high-risk game of artist investment. Instead, the power panel spent most of the hour in a raucous and candid discussion talking shop, their approaches to a changing industry and bigggest regrets.
“There were two back-to-back,” said a rueful Lipman about artists he had failed to sign. “Ludacris and Lil Jon. It’s so obvious after the fact. But when you’re in it in real time, and he’s some unknown artist, and it’s a huge amount of money . . . it’s challenging. That experience stays with me, but the defeat of that failure helps me focus.”
Flom recalled losing a bidding war for Chumbawumba to Lipman and his brother Monte. Even though he now says the band “sucked,” he knew the song “Tubthumping” would be a smash hit. At issue was Atlantic’s refusal to give the group reversion rights, whereby they would own their masters after 15 years. “I said to the powers that be, ‘This record’s not going to be worth shit in about 15 minutes. It’s not “Stairway to Heaven” — it’s ‘Tubthumping.””
A subject that should have brought solace to the many aspiring young artists, songwriters and producers on hand for the NMS conference at the Wyndham New Yorker Hotel was major artists getting dropped by labels before breaking through. “We had great success with Bruno [Mars], who got dropped, fun. — or rather the Format [fun.’s Nate Ruess’ band] — who got dropped, and DMX, who got dropped,” said Greenwald. “I had a lot of success picking up artists that someone else didn’t have success with.”
The head honchos proceeded to make a spontaneous list of superstars dropped by labels that included Lady Gaga, Kid Rock, Alicia Keys, 50 Cent, Ryan Tedder ‘s OneRepublic, and even the Beatles (who weren’t dropped as much as passed on by EMI before Parlophone, an EMI subsidiary, signed them). “We let go of Baja Men, who then went across the street and sold three million singles,” Greenwald lamented.
While the entire panel acknowledged the competition for signing artists in recent years has only gotten fiercer, Lipman brought up a new, surprising adversary. “There is one more competitor that really didn’t exist before,” he said, “and that is no one. An artist can do it themselves.” But he also noted that to achieve a certain scale, like what happened with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis — who hired Warner Bros. to help with promotion — a major is essential.
Grunblatt added it was necessary to have a label for radio airplay, while Corson said it’s important to have a record company’s “international army” to break outside the U.S. “It’s a big-ass job,” he said.
Flom asked the panel about disconnect that can exist between social and sales; that is, artists with strong digital metrics and social media presences who fail to sell records, which elicited a frank response from Lipman.
The Republic exec brought up the example of Austin Mahone, whose sales are less than expected. “The kid can close down any mall in America,” Lipman said, “but we are struggling to sell a meaningful amount of records.” Mahone’s new EP, “The Secret,” sold 46,000 copies this past week, according to Nielsen SoundScan, debuting at No. 5 on the Billboard 200. Lipman used a golf metaphor to explain what happened: “It sounds good, looks good; goes right in the weeds.”
When an audience member asked why albums by contestants on “The Voice” are not selling well, Lipman was similarly forthright. “Is that from Simon Cowell?” he at first joked. “We’ve struggled with ‘The Voice’ winner,’ he admitted. “The same type of winners have won three times. I also think there’s fatigue out there with singing competition shows. We have four coaches who choose the artists and I’m not 100% certain they’re picking the very best ones. But I don’ t have a good answer other than the fundamentals we’ve done after the fact just are not connecting.”
“We were fortunate to have the first nine years of ‘American Idol,’” Corson said with an edge of schadenfreude. “We had tremendous success, but our research tells us there’s enormous fatigue with these shows. They’ve been overdone, overplayed and talent pool is different. The weeding out process is not efficient. There’s just too many of them and you’re going to get a dilution of talent.” He, of course, went on to cite the smash success of Kelly Clarkson, which he doesn’t believe can be replicated today.
“But you know who will sell records?” Grunblatt asked. “That [singing] nun from Italy. I don’t know what kind of deals she’ll sign but people will love her.”
Interestigly, Corson and Lipman both name-checked international artists, the Netherlands’ Mr. Probz and Germany’s Milky Chance, respectively, when asked about new signings they’re most excited about.
When the topic of increased data for signing and developing artists was raised, RCA’s Corson was blunt. “It’s everything,” he said. “There are so many data points to look at. it’s become a toolbox for every A&R person, every creative person.” He went on to commend Republic’s use of data, which he said they had “perfected” the research game, and “which is why they have had a nice run of hits.”
Atlantic’s Greenwald also called data “fantastic,” referencing Shazam (which Warner Music Group has a deal with) and Spotify. Still, she said, at the end of the day “you still need your heart and your gut” to make decisions.