Skip to main content

Where’s That Damned Button?! Warner Bros. Records Former Co-President on Artist Development in a New Age: Op-Ed

Livia Tortella, founder and CEO of Black Box and former co-president and COO of Warner Bros. Records, explains where "the button" of artist development is in a vastly changed music industry.

I remember when I first got to Los Angeles, I found myself having dinner with Jeff Ayeroff, a well-known music executive, at The Ivy in Santa Monica. At the time, I was co-president & COO of Warner Bros Records, and since Jeff had executed some of the most memorable creative while at WBR, I was looking forward to picking his brain.  

This was the man who helped architect the visual brands of My Chemical Romance and Green Day in later years, but as head of creative at WBR in the early eighties, had made videos and art for Madonna, Prince, Paul Simon, Don Henley, Talking Heads, ZZ Top, Dire Straits and others. 

Jeff has a smooth, elegant and enthusiastic way of approaching all subjects relating to our business. In conversation, he had me yearning for a time in the business that I had no actual connection to; an industry with money that embraced risk.

I asked him about his approach and wondered how he was enjoying running his own label imprint, Shangri-La Music. Jeff told me that although he loved running his label, he missed “pushing the button.”

And I contemplated the button, wondering where it fit in today’s music business. I mean, where the hell is that button? Sure, labels still have powerful media relationships, leverage in their artists, and money to fund them. But in the old industry model, even if they pushed the button and nothing happened, you knew that someone had spent some money on you — and you got a shot.  

Back in the day, one video on MTV could change your life — and an audience could be waiting for you on the next one. 

Today, it’s hard to know how and where to push. Artist Development used to be a coordinated series of calculated pushes from publicity to lifestyle marketing, that lead to real momentum. 

Even though radio remains a real lever in the process of breaking an artist, these days, it’s more about pull rather than push. You get further by using social and media platforms really well to support an artists’ brand than any positioning a label can ask for.

Getting fans to like and follow, is only the first step.  How passionate are they about you? Do they really care?  How do you maintain a lasting connection with them?

There is a real art about this process.  You need to tell your story, and weave it through the various aspects of your album campaign, in a personal and dynamic way.  Artists who distance themselves from their fans by not engaging beyond the music, risk fulfilling a real need for those experiencing media today.

The good news is that if you are an artist, this is in your control. The bad news? You are going to need to want to get uncomfortable. You are not only going to be talking with strangers — you will be going on blind dates. Channel your inner creative: Why should they be interested in you? Once you have that figured out, they are going to have to believe in you. 

The button is in you. Matrix-like, but true. Its circuitry is part inspiration, but mostly sweat and creative chutzpah.

Well, did you think I was going to say it was as easy as pushing one?

Livia Tortella is the founder and CEO of Black Box.

Billboard welcomes responsible commentary. To submit pieces for consideration, email the editor at