“Bar mitzvahs and weddings,” answers Neil Jacobson when asked how he knows that one of the records he helped to create is a smash. He rattles off several of the biggest hits of the 2010s, all of which he A&R’d or “had my fingerprints on”: “‘Party Rock Anthem,’ ‘I Got a Feeling,’ ‘Blurred Lines,’ ‘Wake Me Up!’ — I always annoy my wife and say, ‘I worked on that record!'” he says with a laugh. “And she’s always like, ‘I know.'”
Jacobson’s success emanates from, as he puts it, “being an opportunity-manifesting maniac.” In his 15 years at Interscope, he has worked in international publicity and marketing, management and A&R, signing LMFAO and DJ Snake, managed Will.I.Am (and also ran his label), Robin Thicke and superstar songwriter/producers Jeff Bhasker (Fun, Kanye West, Mark Ronson) and Emile Haynie (Lana del Rey, Father John Misty, Lady Gaga).
That track record, along with his knowledge of the company’s inner and outer workings — remember, its full name is Interscope Geffen A&M — made chairman John Janick’s decision to tap the 40-year-old to lead the relaunch of Geffen Records an easy one.
Why reactivate Geffen?
I’ve been telling people for 15 years that one day I wanted to run Geffen. I always thought it’s a special label and David Geffen is a special person. And with Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses you’re talking about my favorite artists of all time.
How did it happen?
When John Janick took over Interscope — he’s a good friend whom I know from when Jeff Bhasker produced the Fun. album — I would say, “Man, Geffen Records, that’s what it’s about.” Partially due to the success of DJ Snake, they said, “Alright, we’re gonna give you a shot.”
Who have you signed to Geffen so far?
DJ Snake will come through Geffen and so will AlunaGeorge, and a number of developing artists like a group called B00ty, who have a couple of records on Spotify. And also Avicii, which is really exciting. We’re working on his album now.
Why isn’t he on Island anymore?
His option was up. It’s all within the Universal family. I helped him A&R [his 2013 album [True] and helped put together the “Wake Me Up” sessions with Aloe Blacc.
What’s the structure of the new label?
We have an eight-person staff: There’s an A&R department and a department I describe as “promotional marketing.” This is a label within a label — radio, for example, is done by Interscope. We need to focus attention and make sure the larger Interscope is seeing the artists and projects the right way.
How did you make the pivot from marketing and publicly to A&R and management?
I’ve always had a service-minded approach. I grew up as a golf caddie and was a carpet salesman [he worked for interior designer Kenny Alpert, one of his mentors and the father of Chainsmokers manager Adam Alpert]. When I was doing international publicity and marketing I served Will.I.Am and Robin Thicke. I enjoy serving artists and people felt like I was attentive. They told Jimmy [Iovine] and he was like, “Who the f— is Neil Jacobson?”
What was it like meeting him for the first time?
It was 10 p.m. at his house in Holmby Hills [in Los Angeles]. He calls me up and says, “I want you to come over.” I said, “Great, I’ll email your assistant.” He was like “No, no, no, I want you to come over right now — here’s my address.” I drove over and hung out with him. He said, “I see what you’re doing, just make it happen, don’t worry about what your title is.” Jimmy hated titles. He wanted people to connect and create and serve their artists.
How did you go from caddying and carpet sales to the music business?
I was caddying at Deepdale, a golf course in Long Island, where I met [former Arista, 19 Entertainment and Red Light exec] Tom Ennis. I called him up and he was like “Look kid, I don’t really have anything for you.” So I built a website called HireMeTom.com: It was a really terrible website with drop-down resume menu and a picture of me with my thumbs up being like “Yeah!” He got a kick out of it and recommended me for an internship in Arista’s radio department.
What’s the takeaway from that?
If everyone’s going right, you’ve gotta go left. There’s a great book The Purple Cow by Seth Godin that I viscerally understood from when I was a kid. In the land of brown, white and black cows, the purple cow stands out.
This article originally appeared in the April 1 issue of Billboard.