When J. Cole wanted to bring 1,000 superfans onto the basketball court for his NBA All-Star halftime show performance in Charlotte, N.C., in February, the league, concerned over safety, didn’t immediately warm to his idea. But David Nieman — the head of licensing and marketing for sports and video games at Interscope Records, which distributes Cole’s Dreamville imprint — urged it to trust Cole’s vision. The results benefited both the NBA and Cole: a thrilling performance by the artist in his home state and an unforgettable national TV moment for the NBA.
“We really had to get the NBA outside their comfort zone and get them to buy into the fact that [the fans are] where the energy is,” says Nieman, 31. “That’s where it translates.”
At a moment when the sports and music worlds are linked more closely than ever before, Nieman seized the chance to create his own job while opening up new opportunities for his label’s artists. He started his career at Interscope in 2009 as a marketing intern after graduating from Fort Lewis College in Colorado, then joined the label’s sales department three years later. “I got to know the building and the end goals when it came to sales and how to develop artists,” says Nieman. In 2011, he joined Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency as a “jack-of-all-trades,” setting up backstage interviews with artists and selling merchandise.
Three years later, he returned to Interscope as manager of marketing and sales, but Nieman knew he really wanted to find a way to combine his passions for sports and music. During a discussion with Interscope Geffen A&M vice chairman Steve Berman, he pitched creating a division for sports marketing and video games. “We both realized that there’s so much more to be done in the [sports] space and how aggressive we need to be,” says Nieman. “It was a no-brainer for us.”
In the past year, Nieman has racked up enough prominent sports-event spotlights for Interscope artists to prove that his instincts were spot on. Along with getting Cole to the NBA All-Star Game, Nieman arranged Maroon 5’s halftime Super Bowl slot, placed Imagine Dragons’ “Natural” as last season’s college football anthem at ESPN, secured Kendrick Lamar’s performance at the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship Game and nabbed a headlining spot for Sheck Wes at St. John’s University’s annual Midnight Madness event.
His day-to-day is less glamorous: pitching and taking meetings for new sports campaigns and exploring new opportunities for the label’s diverse roster. Next up: a collaboration with Bleacher Report to create custom Women’s World Cup jerseys featuring Interscope acts Billie Eilish and Summer Walker.
To anyone looking to follow his path, Nieman emphasizes that despite his accomplishments thus far, there’s still plenty of potential for growth in music and sports. “There’s so much you can do in sports and music before you ever get to the point where you’re capitalizing on what you’ve been working so hard on,” he says. “Don’t get distracted. Keep your nose down. Don’t expect anything until things come to fruition.”