At New York’s Webster Hall, aptly aglow with a red-lit atmosphere, fans and friends had gathered on an early March evening to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Cherrytree Records.
The evening’s scheduled headliner, Sting, who has worked with Cherrytree Music founder Martin Kierszenbaum since before the company’s inception, had canceled due to a bout with the flu. (Kierszenbaum’s relationship with Sting goes back to his days handling international publicity for A&M Records, the home label for the former Police frontman in the early years of his solo career.)
Regardless of the missing star, the crowd was still buzzing with anticipation, going quiet as singer-songwriter Feist took the stage with just an electric guitar on her shoulder and effects pedals at her feet, her signature voice floating out above the reverent silence.
The singer appeared much the same way when Kierszenbaum first saw her in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in 2005, the year after Jimmy Iovine, then-chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M, gave him the go-ahead to launch Cherrytree as a joint venture with Interscope.
“The task was to convince Feist to sign to a label that had no roster,” recalls Kierszenbaum, 47. “I was trying to explain [Cherrytree], and the best was, ‘artists that are progressive musically yet still traditional pop, but it’s inclusive.’ And she says, ‘I get it: Cherrytree is a mom-and-pop shop in a department store.’ I go, ‘Do you like that?’
“‘I love that! I’ll sign,’ ” he recalls Feist as saying.
This taste-fueled approach has worked well for Kierszenbaum. In 2006, Sting told the executive that he wanted to make an album based on 17th-century lute songs by Renaissance troubadour John Dowland.
Kierszenbaum had his hesitations. “With Sting,” he recalls, “you can suggest things, but he’s going to follow his own internal compass. And in the end, he usually turns out right.”
To sell what some might have seen as a niche album at best, Kierszenbaum struck a deal with Universal Music Classics, which helped market the disc, Songs from the Labyrinth, released on Cherrytree and Deutsche Grammophon. The album went on to sell 268,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music.
“We have one foot in indie-land and one foot in major-land,” says Kierszenbaum. “It’s the best of both worlds.” Adds Sting: “I’ve enjoyed taking risks in my career, and Martin has always encouraged me to do so. His unwavering support and dedication, along with his ability to foster creativity, are unrivaled.”
Kierszenbaum brought to Cherrytree a reputation for nurturing artists and an ear for talent, proven through a decade as a senior A&R executive at Interscope and a lifetime of making music. (He co-wrote four songs, including the title track, on Lady Gaga’s 2008 debut, The Fame, which was released on Streamline/KonLive/Cherrytree/Interscope. At Webster Hall, he played bass with Ivy Levan, a rising Cherrytree artist.)
Cherrytree occupies a unique niche as an -independent-minded label, management company (started in 2007) and publisher (launched with Kobalt Music in 2013) with a family-size staff and major-label backing.
“It took me 20 years to get to this situation,” says Kierszenbaum. At Cherrytree now, he says, “we’re nimble enough to work with artists that might need some more incubation or protection, but we have access to the sales team of a very powerful entity.”
Through releases by Gaga, LMFAO, Feist, Ellie Goulding, Calvin Harris and others, the label has 15 top 10 hits on the Hot 100 to its credit, five of them chart-toppers.
Cherrytree’s eclectic roster arguably began with the Russian female duo T.a.t.u., who had been signed in 2002 to Interscope by Kierszenbaum. The executive — who played in a bilingual rap act while majoring in music at the University of Michigan — stepped up to teach the pair English. When T.a.t.u’s single “All the Things She Said” went top 20 on the Hot 100, selling 415,000 copies in the United States alone (according to Nielsen Music), Iovine showed he had enough faith in Kierszenbaum’s taste to help him launch Cherrytree through Interscope.
Kierszenbaum says he took his cues from other famous labels. He admired the way that Stiff Records in the United Kingdom “fiercely defends” its acts, as well as how Sire Records worked within Warner Bros. and the community and culture of early Motown Records. He looked for artists with a point of view, a distinctive voice and an “extraordinary repertoire.” After releasing Feist’s Let It Die, he signed German outfit Tokio Hotel, the best new artist winner at MTV’s 2008 Video Music Awards. Later triumphs include getting “the trust and faith of an artist as autonomous as Robyn” in 2007 and La Roux in 2009, recalls Kierszenbaum.
Of Gaga, he says, “I couldn’t be prouder of the fact that I worked with her both as her producer and co-writer as well as label executive on The Fame and The Fame Monster. She’s a rare talent, and we had a blast working together.” Along with LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem,” which has sold 8 million downloads, her “Poker Face,” at 7.2 million downloads, gives Cherrytree two of the top 10 best-selling digital singles to date.
Given that Kierszenbaum admires the family culture of Motown in its early years, it’s a happy coincidence that Cherrytree is home to LMFAO, fronted by Redfoo, son of Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. Cherrytree’s “family” is a compact staff of seven, including GM Andrea Ruffalo, who has worked with Kierszenbaum since 2001.
The company operates out of the Universal Music Group offices in Santa Monica, with a recording studio just down the street, where releases -including Gaga’s EP The Cherrytree Sessions was recorded on some of Kierszenbaum’s own instruments.
Gordy, says Kierszenbaum, “was a musician, same as me. I want this to be a place where the most important thing at the center is always the musician.”
An edited version of this article first appeared in the April 18 issue of Billboard.