One of the first trips Charlie Walk is taking in his new job as executive vice president of Republic Records is to Hollywood to talk soundtracks. The second “Hunger Games” is 10 months away but already deep into planning stages; “The Voice,” whose music Republic releases, goes into its fourth season in late March; and the label issued three of the five Best Original Song Oscar nominees.
“It’s a fact that we are the No. 1 motion picture soundtrack label — we’re serious about the soundtrack business,” says Walk, who started at Universal in late January. “We think it’s a big part of our future and it’s our intention to be known in Hollywood as the go-to music company. On the TV side, we will be continuing to develop some amazing relationships. The idea is to cover every bucket of entertainment that touches music. I don’t want us to feel bad about something that we didn’t get because we weren’t engaged. We have to embrace any entertainment form that touches music — make sure we are always in the room — and have the ability to say no.”
Walk, a Epic Records executive who was part of the team that broke Sean Kingston, the Fray and Sara Bareilles, is returning to the music business after spending the last four years at his own advertising and marketing company JWalk that, ironically, had offices across the street from the Sony building in New York.
In a lengthy conversation about all aspects of the music industry, Walk kept returning to idea of business partnerships that either exist now or are in their infancy but were either a tough or non-existent proposition when he stepped away at the end of 2008. Walk has been in the music business for nearly 20 years, and sees the department he will head – marketing, promotion and publicity — as integrated in a way that has not been done previously.
“It’s a hybrid approach that removes silos and allows ideas to flow,” he says. “I call it rainmaking. Everyone can go into a room and everyone can bring ideas to new signings and established artists. If you look at year-end charts and how every record broke, there is nor formula for how these artists broke. You have to move so much quicker and faster today so we have to be ahead of the curve when it comes to make marketing moves and in press and promotion. And it has to be cohesive.”
Walk explained his strategies, the appeal of Republic Records and why NBC’s “The Voice” is finally in a position to create a star.
What’s the key reason for returning to the music business?
I was once an employee who became an entrepreneur. Monte Lipman started as an entrepreneur and, within Universal, he became an ‘intrepreneur’. In my heart of hearts, I missed music, but I didn’t miss the music business when you were competing with free. I missed the breaking of artists and enhancing the flagship artists. What I saw happening as Monte was taking me through his label was, as a consumer, it’s the most enjoyable to be in music because of the way [you] listen to it. Whether it’s Sonos, Pandora, IHeartRadio, Spotify — it’s the all-you-can-eat world now and that’s interesting because you see where it’s going: paid subscription services. I think it will change the music business into, ultimately, being the most profitable form of entertainment in the years to come. Then you see partnerships developing at [commercial radio]: they appreciate the fact that we provide content and we appreciate that they actually expose it. The combination of a healthier music business, healthier music partners, people understanding the power of content and understanding the power of platform; it feels different.
With all the teams reporting to you, do you envision any restructuring or new hires?
The team here has done great work in 2012 and we’re going to use this team, and hopefully grow the team. The intention is to connect the dots internally and externally, acquire more partners who help us A to B and B to C. We’re here to enhance what they already have.
After doing it as an entrepreneur, why return to a major label?
I love the major label business and what it has the potential to do. [Today] you have to have a DIY feel, but [with] steroids in it to carry out a vision throughout the world. I’m fusing what I learned on the major label side and what I learned as an entrepreneur. If you’re interested in all areas of platform programming, and understand the trajectory an artist needs to take, you’re a triple threat. I think the future is partnerships.
Obviously, Republic has a good number of partnerships that rely on outside A&R. Anything specific about the way Republic is structured that makes it unique and appealing?
It’s got quite a substantial repertoire, and it’s diverse. What got me excited are these partners they have — whether it’s Rick Rubin or Tom Whalley or Scott Borchetta or Cash Money or Jason Flom — they’re all people who are consistently successful, and we get to work with them. That was just as big a factor for me coming here [as] the core team. They have really built up, over the last 12 months, the best team internally and the best partners externally. And you have Monte and Avery [Lipman], who started this thing 15 years ago. They’re honest and smart guys who know the difference between a hit and a stiff, good and great, and they’re very consistent in what they do.
Any specific projects they’re starting out with in their new jobs?
Coming out of the gate I walked into Youngblood Hawke and you see this thing building. Its a smart band, and when you listen to the body of work from this record, there are songs that will be worked over the next 24 months. The Weeknd is positioned to be best new artist of 2014. He is that guy. Then you have an amazing kid like Austin Mahone who has millions and millions of fans on social, you see this 17-year-old growing. We can go on and on, but I don’t think anyone is signed here today where the intention isn’t to have a longterm career. I think that’s the goal, right? Look at Florence and the Machine and what she’s done, and the potential for her next record. Of Monsters and Men is on fire right now after spending the last year building their base. They’re a real act with real music.
Of Monsters and Men came along when pop radio was open to that particular sound. As a shift is made toward subscription services, what becomes the marketing-promotion role in creating stars?
Stars come from different places. There’s DIY and then there’s the hole in the market, looking for the opportunity where something may not exist — which I love. If I were in a rainmaker think tank meeting, I might say ‘L.A teenagers are 80 percent Hispanic and what act, what new act, do we see covering that part of the market? Figure out who our partner would be, what’s the A-Team?’ If we want to think about putting together a concept or finding talent we can build a brand around, you go to the best manager, the best producers you have a relationship with, and you create ‘great’ that plays into the hole that you see is empty. I’m going to try to figure out some of that stuff. Then you have the TV platform, which is so very important today.
For breaking stars from scratch?
Think about ‘The Voice,’ how successful that show has been. I think it’s because it has a heart and soul, and then this girl Cassadee Pope wins. She’s a real artist and she’s now with Scott Borchetta in Nashville and she’s managed by Irving Azoff now. She’s going to start in Nashville, but she’s probably going to be the pop star she deserves to be. We’re being smart and thoughtful about a girl that America picked — now we go and carry out her vision with a handpicked team that fits her and her brand.
Cassadee Pope, obviously a wonderful talent, was the first winner of “The Voice” who America responded to musically. I think the stories of the others helped get them their crowns. Plus, America got a good sense of who Pope is artistically, something that only Chris Mann achieved — and he came in fourth place. Still, why is it now possible “The Voice” may create a star?
When we talk about Cassadee — we’ve all seen her on television and she’s the real deal. This is going to sound corny, but if you can be an artist and go on a platform that’s done elegantly and properly, you also help fulfill the idea of the American dream. I know from chatting with [NBC executives] that they want a star to come out of their platform because it validates their platform. It continues to sell the American Dream to the masses when it’s less about the judges and more about the talent. With Chris Mann, he came from the show but he’s on his own and there’s no one like him. We, as the label and the managers around him, have to make sure there’s not the pressure to sell a million somethings right now, but over time, sell millions of somethings. They key now is to focus on the winners, the people America picks.
Cassadee was tweeting a week or so after the show ended that she was in the studio working. Is it crucial to get music out quickly, because that has not been the case lately.
Let me give a shout out to our EVP in L.A. Tom Mackay, who got the music from the show selling. That’s engagement that helps build the brand. But if you’re talking original music, from this kid who just won, they need to become an artist again and go through that process and now make those records. Maybe those songs have been written and maybe they’re in their head; you cannot mess with that process. Some acts are ready to go [immediately], but I think we find that the real acts that have vision want to have a team put around them and go in and do the right thing. I think what you want to do as you talk about ‘The Voice,” you want to make sure the promos and on air and media buys include the artist who won last season and somehow you include that new song. The way I look at this is, how do you continue to platform the winning artist through the next season, with the all the assets “The Voice” has? It’s in their best interest I think you will see and feel [Pope’s] presence during the next season.