YouTube’s office complex on the fifth floor of Chelsea Market in Manhattan is nearly empty at 9 in the morning. But Lyor Cohen’s day has already started.
“My primary job is to create connective tissue between the labels and the creative community and Google and YouTube. And that’s a lot of meetings together,” he says, sitting down to a bowl of cornflakes in the office’s high-ceiling micro kitchen.
Cohen, 58, has had his work cut out for him in the year-plus since he left the independent label he co-founded, 300 Entertainment, to take on the role of global head of music at YouTube. The video giant has had a fraught relationship with the music business, criticized for what the industry sees as low payouts on its ad-supported platform and unauthorized user uploads of copyrighted music that YouTube’s system doesn’t catch. Last August, Cohen penned a blog post on the “disconnect” between YouTube and the industry, one that he’s worked diligently to overcome and which he now says “doesn’t exist.”
“Prior, [YouTube would] make a deal with the industry, go away for a few years and then come back. And that, to me, is where misunderstandings happen,” he explains. “It’s really hard to find an artist and break that artist — I mean, it’s almost impossible. So if Google and YouTube understand how difficult it is, maybe they could think about ways to improve that part of the business.”
Cohen would know: His 30-year-plus career began as a concert promoter in Los Angeles — where he met Run-D.M.C. — and as an ambitious young executive during the nascent days of Def Jam, where he rose to head the company before leaving in 2004 to take the helm of Warner Music Group. After being pushed out of WMG in 2012 in what he has described as a “boardroom coup,” Cohen launched 300, breaking acts like Fetty Wap and Migos.
It was during his time at Warner, in 2006, when Cohen led negotiations that made WMG the first major label to sign a licensing deal with YouTube. A decade later, as streaming exploded into the music industry’s biggest source of revenue, led primarily by Spotify and Apple Music, his concerns that distribution was becoming a duopoly led him back to YouTube, leaving behind 300 in a decision he calls “insanely difficult.” (Cohen remains an investor in 300.)
Now, with the May 22 launch of YouTube’s new subscription streaming service, YouTube Music Premium, and its broader June 18 rollout, Cohen is hoping to disrupt that status quo. “The present and future of our business is direct-to-consumer,” he says. “We’re the only place on the planet where labels can do both commerce and social interaction.”
You’ve been at YouTube for over a year. How have things gone?
I’m super encouraged. I think everybody doesn’t have their arms raised to fight and they have their arms reached out to hug and figure out how to improve, how to help us improve, the creative landscape. Instead of, “You guys are bad actors,” I’m only hearing, “What can we do to help you be successful?” I am mission-focused. I was so scared about a highly-concentrated distribution landscape that I set aside 300 to come and try to create connective tissue and have Google and YouTube work together with the creative community and the labels so they could build a subscription service and all sorts of tools to make their lives easier, and that’s what keeps me moving.
How difficult was it for you to step aside from 300?
Insanely difficult. I said no to them for a long time. I was having the best moment of my life. Because at Def Jam, I was too young and had no context. So now, having seen it all, being able to compete as a small, special ops-type music company that was incredibly focused gave me a great amount of pleasure.
Is your approach to the job different now than when you were at a label?
No. I made an early declaration that I was going to be my most authentic self. The last thing this organization needs is a fake creative person trying to talk and walk like an engineering [person]. I’m a very peculiar DNA inside of this building. I think the worst thing one could do is be less authentic and then get caught in the middle. One of the signatures that I’ve had throughout my career is I helped define what an immersive relationship was, whether it was Def Jam or Warner; deep connective tissue with the creative community was [important]. And everybody has a different definition of what that is. I try to learn. If we start creating a label infrastructure, introducing our engineers to all sorts of people throughout the organization so they can help imagine new products for the industry, that to me was very simple.
What have you learned at various stops along your career that helps inform what you do now?
Very quickly, I realized if I could surround myself with people significantly better than myself, I would increase the odds of success. That’s been a constant. When you hire incredibly competent people, you don’t have to micromanage. And, people don’t wake up as mercenaries. It’s not simply economic for them. So giving them the accolades, pointing to them as the reason why one is successful, has a huge flex with how they feel about themselves. Give them incredible amount of accolades and money, ’cause money talks and bullshit walks.
What feedback have you gotten from the YouTube Music app?
Amazing feedback, and by the way, we’re going to iterate and iterate. I’m very proud of the app. You asked me what I have learned — to be hyper-aware of constructive criticism. That’s why they do a lot of things in test mode — they call it dog food, which is internal to Google. I get dog food all the time. Different parts of the company trying to test something early on that you play around with and you give feedback. The kids in the industry, the consumers, are getting hit with a lot of options. So how you cut through the clutter is your first impression should be a very good one.
After the app was released, Irving Azoff tweeted, “YouTube’s rates are a threat to artists’ livelihood.” What would you say to that?
I say that if you take a look at any media business, you would see that either 60-40 or 50-50 comes from advertising and subscription. So history will prove him wrong; the good news is we have time to see. Irving is a lovely guy, but he also wants to have his name relevant in the newspapers. Obviously, someone hasn’t sent him the memo about how powerful the advertising industry is and how much money is deployed to advertising, and the growth of our business is astounding. And it’s really still a new category. So you’re watching segments of the world leaving traditional media and where do they go? They’re going to digital, and with digital we’re capturing a lot of the value.
I think it’s like the same spiel that everybody was talking negatively about Spotify: it had to grow for it to be meaningful. So as the world comes online and moves away from traditional media, the creative community will enjoy the benefits of that. But we are now going to layer in a subscription service, so by virtue of having both it’ll be incredibly healthy for the artistic community. But listen, all my life I’ve had people saying, “Rap is noise, it’s not music,” all these proclamations. So I don’t get upset. I adore Irving. But he’s wrong. And when he does come along I’ll be happy to receive him.
How did you alleviate the disconnect between YouTube and the music industry?
Just going back to back with them. Demystifying our intent. Understanding how hard it is to break artists and to go to work on behalf of the creative community and the labels.
On YouTube, 80 percent of watch time is from internal recommendations. What does that allow you guys to do?
What are labels’ priorities?
That is one of the art of having a person like me inside of this organization, because with most record companies, everything is a priority. [Laughs] So being able to be hyper-focused on what THE priority is, and helping them, is what’s important to us.
Do you see Facebook as a threat with their scale and ambitions in music?
I know you think it’s corny, but I’ve never looked at the competition. I always told my crew, if you look at someone else’s garden, you could be hugely disappointed because they could have fountains and pools and tennis courts and basketball courts; or, you could feel very sad for them: weeds and that. So just focus on your garden and do the best that we can. I don’t see competition. I don’t believe this is a winner-win-all category. We can carve out a very healthy business, but more importantly, we can contribute. And that’s the key.
You recently brought over Tuma Basa from Spotify. What will his role be with your team?
He’s gonna help shepherd our work stream in urban music, whether it’s product activation, programmatic packages, general programming. But he is just a lovely, thoughtful person. He’s going to be an incredibly high contributor to the company. We’re always expanding, we’re hiring in all areas. We’re open for business.
Do you feel artists still need record labels these days?
I think artists do need record labels, and I think it’s up to the record labels to redefine and reflect what’s happening in society and the changes that are happening there. A record company that was once upon a time in the 1940s should not be the same record company that’s handling things in 2018.
You said you’re very mission-oriented. Is there a “mission accomplished” for you here?
Well, you saw what happened with George Bush, right? In order to have a healthy relationship, you have to evolve. And it’s never easy; once it’s easy, we’re finished. So there will never be a mission accomplished, but we are in the process of accomplishing the mission.