Antonio “L.A.” Reid has been perched atop the label food chain for more than 25 years, so it’s not entirely surprising the music industry vet has succession on the brain. The only problem: “I can’t find enough people who want my job,” cracks the 58-year-old from his West Coast office at Sony Music’s Beverly Hills headquarters, bemoaning the bygone days of “great record men,” as he aspired to be.
To be sure, Reid came up during a time when music business profits were ballooning — his in particular, as co-founder of Atlanta’s LaFace Records (with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds), and on the strength of multiplatinum smashes by TLC, Usher and Pink. BMG acquired the label and folded it into Sony in 2000, after which Reid would ascend to run Arista, the record company synonymous with Clive Davis, whose corporate blessing was key in Reid’s evolution from drummer (his band The Deele was signed to Solar Records in 1983) to songwriter (among his hits: Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road and Whitney Houston’s “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” both No. 1s), producer, Grammy winner and finally to CEO.
In certain respects, from where Reid sits, some things never change. Now chairman of Sony-owned Epic, Reid still works steps away from Davis (when in New York, where he maintains a residence with his second wife, Erica), and remains incredibly loyal to artists he has shepherded to great heights and through ego-crushing lows (chief among them: Mariah Carey, whom he signed to Epic in March).
Reid too has not been immune from the blowback of success. Following a run at Island Def Jam from 2004 to 2011, where he was instrumental in breaking Rihanna and Justin Bieber and leading Carey back to relevance, Reid left to resurrect the battered Epic label while also committing to a two-season judging job on Fox’s The X Factor. Although the TV gig resulted in one promising act, Fifth Harmony, whose “Worth It” rises 32-21 on the May 23 Billboard Hot 100, it took three more years for Reid to finally see a No. 1 from the Epic roster: Meghan Trainor.
“L.A. Reid is one of the most brilliant people, and he’s so authentic. That’s an overused word, but it’s true for him,” says Pink. “He’s so passionate. He’s a star finder. This guy used to give me gas money. He would yell at me like my dad. He really cared about me. And he gave me a lot of opportunities to fail. Most people in that position, it’s their way or the highway. For him, he was like a family, a partner. I miss music being like that. He’s been shit on a lot, but I will always have his back. I think he always takes the high road, and he’ll do this forever. Good dude.”
The father of five — son Aaron is an A&R director at Epic, one of 100 employees Reid oversees — takes a deserved victory lap on the eve of Trainor and Carey performing at the Billboard Music Awards.
You signed Carey to IDJ and now Epic. Six years since her last top 10 song, what do you expect from her new single, “Infinity”?
Mariah Carey made her first hit record in 1991. To even be on the radio at this point in her career is a huge accomplishment, because radio doesn’t cater to veteran artists or legends. Radio caters to in-the-moment stars. … Nobody that put out records 25 years ago is going to have a No. 1. Not Paul, Stevie, Bruce, Mick or Keith. Not Prince, not anyone. So if she can get on the radio, we’ve done damn good. Would we like to have a No. 1? F– yeah, I’m greedy. But it’s not realistic.
Will you put her back in the studio?
Absolutely, but I don’t believe in asking artists to go back and be who they once were. I like concept records, I like the idea of thematic, storytelling records. I love duets and the Great American Songbook. I think a great vocalist should un-cage themselves and think about things like that sometimes. I mean, Frank Sinatra did it. It’s fun to sing songs you love. And let’s not forget that one of Mariah’s biggest hits, “I’ll Be There,” was a cover. There are many things that Mariah can still do.
In a way, do you have to position Carey as a new artist?
No. I’m not under any illusion that Mariah should compete with, say, Taylor Swift or Ariana Grande. Our job is to make sure the quality is there. Every artist is one great song away from massive success.
You were in attendance for the first show of her residency at Caesars in Las Vegas on May 6. How was it for you?
I had a great time. In all of the years that we spent as friends and working together, I have never been in the audience when Mariah Carey sang all of her hits! She was having fun, she was comfortable and made us comfortable. We didn’t have that sitting-on-the-edge-of-the-chair anxiety as we watched the show. It was like we were in Mariah Carey’s home.
I won’t kid you — I was a spoiled brat because I had so many years of successes, and I never, honestly, hit a cold patch quite like that, and I didn’t like it. [But] this is a cyclical business, and right after hot is cold, and hopefully after cold, there’s hot. And I’ve had to live with that and adjust my expectations based on it.
You signed Meghan Trainor on the spot and released the demo of “All About That Bass” to radio?
I said “yes,” then, “Don’t mix it. Don’t touch it. Let’s put it out as it is.” A song like that is lightning in a bottle. And as arrogant as it sounds, I knew Meghan was going to explode at that moment when I met her.
Now that Meghan Trainor has notched two top 5 hits (“All About That Bass” was No. 1 for eight weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, while “Lips Are Movin” peaked at No. 4), along with Kongos and and A Great Big World, have you seen the tide turn in terms of signings?
We’ve caught the attention of the creative community and people are starting to bring better things to us, so the quality of the auditions that I see is better than it was, the quality of the demos that I hear, the songs that people submit for the artists on the roster, all are better than they were.
In the past, you’ve really emphasized the need for an artist to have the right look. Does Trainor fit the L.A. Reid bill?
Today, artists look like artists. As record company people, we all claim that we can make stars, but we can’t put a coat of paint on anybody; it doesn’t work. I’ve had people say to me, “Yeah, that’s just another cookie-cutter pop star.” I’m like, “Really? Where is that mold? Because if there is a mold, then I’m going to churn them out like f—ing Big Macs!” What we can do is open up our door and allow people to come in, and if the special one arrives, we know how to not let them leave the office.
What’s your take on Tidal?
I don’t think any of us can afford to announce something dead on arrival. It’s naive, unfair, shortsighted and just dead wrong. People are only now starting to relate to the idea of streaming, and a rising tide floats all boats. Streaming is the holy grail for our industry, and a race that hasn’t been won yet. So I want all of them — Spotify, Beats, et cetera — to be great successes.
What about the per stream value as paid out to artists — do you agree with Sony CEO Doug Morris that the tech industry is short-changing labels?
It’s a new frontier. And the truth is that there just aren’t enough subscribers yet. If we see millions of subscribers then we’ll see the per-stream rate go up and see a huge change in the landscape. I think tech and music or tech and entertainment are only starting to realize that they need each other. And so while they may not have fallen in love instantly, it’s the perfect arranged marriage. [Laughs]
Sylvia Rhone was named president of Epic in 2014. Can you explain her role and how you work together?
Sylvia runs all of operations, she’s the marketing guru, the chief strategist, and she cracks the whip and she makes sure that these trains run on time — no matter who it is, even if it’s me. Sylvia really runs the show [from New York]. I prefer being in L.A. because the songwriters, producers and artists are here as well as television and film studios and tech companies. It’s the intersection and I love being here so I come out weekly.
You’re writing a book for HarperCollins, to be released in February 2016. What prompted that project?
I thought there was some unique things about my crazy career. I’ve had lots of ups and downs and I’m proud of them. I’ve been able to get back up off the canvas a few times and I think that’s a story worth telling.
You have a reputation as a big spender, but the industry has shrunk. Have you gotten thriftier?
Ask Doug Morris! The thing is, and I’ll say this at the risk of sounding like an asshole, I’m the only one that’s famous. So we don’t know what everyone else spends because we don’t know who the hell they are.
You lament the lack of grooming when it comes to future generations of music business executives, but who does impress you?
I just met Adam Alpert, who has Disruptor Records, and I could tell he’s a future player. He’s got the curiosity and the talent — it’s just a matter of time. Scooter Braun could do anything. His vision is maybe a lot bigger than being a record executive, but had he chosen that path, he’d be one of the greats. Like, he could possibly outrun everybody. But I can’t find 10 guys who aspire to do it.
What does that mean for the future?
I hope it means us old motherf–ers can stay in our jobs a little longer. (Laughs.)
A version of this article first appeared in the May 23 issue of Billboard.