In an industry teeming with tenacious characters, Jason Flom’s track record speaks for itself. During the past three decades, he has signed Katy Perry, Tori Amos and Lorde, and held top posts at Atlantic, Virgin, Capitol and Lava, the label he founded in 1995 as a joint venture through Atlantic. Lava currently operates via Republic, although its term expires in April and a bidding war is underway. Flom, 53, declined to discuss numbers due to an ongoing divorce from his wife of 20 years, Wendy Berry. But imprints with buzzy artists tend to be hot commodities: Big Machine Records is also on the block, at a valuation insiders have placed between $200 million-$250 million.
It’s a long way from the lifelong New Yorker’s early career ambitions, which were “to smoke pot and play guitar all day,” Flom laughs. In 1979, his father, Joseph — a top-flight corporate lawyer who was the subject of a chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers — got him a job at Atlantic hanging concert posters in record stores. He soon joined the A&R department and signed such hair bands as Twisted Sister and White Lion in the 1980s. After being crowned head of A&R in 1990, he scored hits with Stone Temple Pilots, Jewel and, after Lava launched, Matchbox Twenty, Sugar Ray and arguably his biggest discovery to date: Kid Rock, whose 1998 breakthrough album, Devil Without a Cause, has sold 9.3 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Flom, who posts Instagram photos from concerts with his kids, Allison, 20, and Michael, 15, disputes reports that his net worth is $100 million (“I wish”). However, the view is great from his penthouse apartment 67 stories above Central Park (Diddy is a neighbor), which is located across the street from the three-person Lava office — for now, at least. “It’ll be interesting,” he says of the coming sale of his company, whose roster includes Jessie J, as well as forthcoming projects from singer Noyes and Andy Black, vocalist of metal band Black Veil Brides. “The heat is on.”
What’s the key to A&R — beyond having good ears?
It’s also good instincts, and not taking “no” for an answer. As an A&R guy at Atlantic, we were supposed to make a record, turn it over to the marketing and promotion staff, and then go back and make another record. But I knew Twisted Sister wasn’t a priority for the company, so I started calling promotion guys around the country, trying to make them love the record as much as I did. I was getting yelled at once a week because I wasn’t supposed to be doing that, but it was like, “How else is this going to get anywhere?”
Shortly after you took over Virgin in 2005, you discovered Katy Perry but were hesitant to sign her. Why?
When I first met her, I was smitten. But when I played her music in the office, everyone was like, “No! Don’t sign this shit.” I totally second-guessed myself. A month or two later, I was listening to her on my iPod and stopped dead, like, “I’m an idiot. She’s great.” I called her. She was making $10 an hour at a demo-listening service, and we basically shook hands over the phone. I invited her to our Grammy party a few weeks later and she walked in with Dr. Luke. I was like, “That’s f–ing perfect.” They hit the studio and wrote “Hot and Cold” and “I Kissed a Girl.”
Do you feel like you have gotten enough credit for finding her?
Um, maybe not. But in this business, ?success starts to grow new fathers.
What quality does Lorde possess that’s missing in other young artists?
She’s very much her own master and has a vision for everything. When she told me that Pure Heroine was going to be her album title, it took me a full day to recover. I was awestruck — it’s the most genius title since, I don’t know, Sticky Fingers or something.
She worked closely with Songs Music Publishing president Ron Perry on the soundtrack to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1. Do you feel like he was on your turf?
No, I’m thrilled. I just want to see the best possible results. Ron has the right sensibility for The Hunger Games because he’s very plugged into that world, and he’s probably seen more of Lorde’s shows than anyone. The soundtrack will be a great bridge to her next record, that’s for sure.
Given your success relaunching a label, do you have any advice for your peers, namely Lyor Cohen?
Hmm. Stay out of airports. [In 2005, then-Warner Music chief Cohen summoned Flom to Los Angeles International Airport for a meeting, where Flom was handed ?a press release announcing his dismissal from Atlantic.]
Lava’s contract with Universal is up in a few months. What happens next?
Early next year, there’s a buy-sell. I set a price for my half of the company, and they have the option to either buy my half for that price or sell me their half for the same price. Someone from outside the company might think it’s worth more, Warner or Sony being the obvious ones, and make a new deal with me. On the other hand, [Republic chiefs] Monte and Avery Lipman can’t sleep unless all of the records on the Billboard 200 are theirs — I love that.
Republic looks at all records equally, they just want them to kick up dust. They’ve brought in a remarkable team of people over the last five years. Charlie Walk knows how to create heat, and his promotion team is the best. As I saw recently with Jessie J, it’s a team effort. Rob Stevenson did a masterful job A&R’ing that record with Wendy Goldstein. Those two people had a huge amount to do with this amazing run Jessie J is on now.
So, who knows? I’m super-excited about the next phase, and I’ll be happy to get a check.
Are you optimistic about the future of the music industry?
Music won’t go away, because people need it. When I was at Atlantic, the head of Coca-Cola showed us case studies they’d done about the hierarchy of needs, and the top two were music and sex. I feel like the Internet has only increased those needs because it’s all porn and music, seriously. And maybe WebMD.
This article first appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of Billboard.