Steve Lacy has taken a winding road through the music industry over the past few years. The guitarist, singer and member of the electro-R&B-hip-hop collective The Internet first made his name as a producer, before venturing out as a solo artist with 2019’s Apollo XXI, an indie release that landed him a Grammy nomination for best urban contemporary album. But this year, he’s taken a bold step forward in his career, signing with RCA for his latest album, July’s Gemini Season, a move that has paid off as his breakout single, “Bad Habit,” becomes his first top 10 single on the Hot 100 this week, and reaches No. 1 on the Streaming Songs chart to boot.
Lacy’s manager, Dave Airaudi, has himself taken a winding road through the business. A veteran of the Universal Music Group and Interscope Records, he’s worked with Pharrell Williams as CEO of i am OTHER, as an advisor to Kanye West, and with Odd Future, out of whose umbrella The Internet first emerged, while building his own companies, 3qtr and Airaudi Mgmt, in the process. Now, having guided Lacy to continued success with “Bad Habit,” Airaudi earns the title of Billboard‘s Executive of the Week.
Here, Airaudi discusses his work with Lacy, his extensive experience in both the indie and major-label worlds and how “Bad Habit” has helped bring Lacy’s talent to a whole new audience. “Steve has always been a star,” Airaudi says. “I think that’s where we in this industry can get confused: we can’t turn people into stars, we recognize them and hopefully help them maximize what’s already there.”
This week, Steve Lacy’s “Bad Habit” became his first Hot 100 top 10 hit, and reached No. 1 on the Streaming Songs chart. What key decision did you make to help make this happen?
Me? I just trusted him. The music is great, he knows his fans best, so I got a tight-knit team of people to make suggestions and let Steve riff. I look at my role more as consigliere: I suggest, vet, execute, but my artists ultimately decide. I do think kicking things off by pulling out an aux cord and playing new music on stage for real life humans was smart. We got tech and socials to drive to us instead of the other way around. Always key to have solid folks like RCA in the trenches as well.
He’s had significant success before, including Grammy recognition, but this is his first big commercial breakthrough. How did you set this project up differently to achieve that?
It’s different only in it being an evolution. We have always done everything ourselves, so this was about finding the right collaborative partners both creatively and on the business side. Great people, who love the music, Steve at the center, and go. I could bore you with my cash flow models and strategy decks, but no one wants to see those!
The song is a huge streaming hit. What strategies did you guys use to help the song take off on streaming services?
Ye said one time, “You want better marketing, make better music.” It’s like my favorite quote. Yes, you have a million things to do behind the scenes to educate people, position yourself, etc. But if the record doesn’t hit people right, it’s useless. If there was a strategy it would be that Steve has an amazing catalog and oversized footprint in culture — so connecting those dots and driving everything we do back to the music.
You’ve had a lot of experience both in the major label system and in the indie world. How would you compare the opportunities available between the two?
I love being agnostic because every artist is unique and thus their path and partners need to be uniquely suited to them. Indies are amazing, as I have found them to be full of true music lovers who put their whole person into projects; that passion, especially in the early days, is invaluable. Major teams tend to be assigned to artist projects, so there’s no guarantee they love it, but when you have an artist that wants to scale and a record that is moving, the work they do to execute all over the world is unmatched.
Why did you initially launch 3qtr, and how has the company evolved along with the music business?
3qtr was a thesis I had in ’08 — that artists were entrepreneurs, capable and deserving of owning assets and equity in the businesses they were driving. Back then I had to try to convince people that was true; now that’s a given. The rarity then was being able to grow the business side; now the rarity is being able to grow the artist side. I am closing 3qtr the business to focus on the artist.
What did you learn working with artists like Kanye and Pharrell that you can apply to working with an artist like Steve?
These guys are literally living my business model without ever knowing there was a business model! So humbled to help expand their worlds and scale their businesses. Practically, it allowed me to see, test and analyze my concepts and ideas at scale and in real time. For my family of artists it means efficiency; we can now make smarter decisions without all the trial and error.