Executive Turntable: Can Classic Label Talent Transition to Digital Formats?

Warner Music Group Grammy Celebration Hosted By InStyle
Lyor Cohen knows all about how to rub elbows with artists like Elvis Costello and Diana Krall, but how will that rub off on YouTube?

Old-school record executives seem to be joining new-school digital music companies in increased intensity.  In the past few years WMG’s Stephen Bryan (Soundcloud), Interscope’s Jimmy Iovine (Apple), UMG’s Amanda Marks (Apple), super-manager Troy Carter (Spotify) have all been wooed to some of the most prestigious companies.  Last week, the big kahuna Lyor Cohen, former CEO of WMG and founder of Def Jam, joined YouTube as head of music for the company. And  it isn’t some honorary title, where he deals with artist and industry relations. He’s running the whole thing!

What’s going on here? Obviously these companies all know they need to beef up their ranks with people who know the ins and outs of the music business. After all, a good relationship with your content supplier is extremely important. But it’s only one factor in building a successful music company. There are other essential skills that being a good label executive doesn’t necessarily provide the appropriate experience.

First let’s get something straight. All these label execs are eminently talented. You don’t get to the top of  label orgs without a herculean work ethic, serious business chops, and massive brain power. But getting to that level doesn’t  necessarily mean you can run other complex companies. After all, CBS Records’ Svengali Walter Yetnikoff might have built the company into a powerhouse, but it doesn’t mean he was qualified to do Russ Solomon’s job at Tower Records.

Record companies do many things; but at its core is scouting, locating, and developing talented artists. It’s a tough job we discount too often. You have to have a great understanding of art and a finely tuned ear to what people will respond to. But digital music companies have different needs: product development, technical acumen, and a keen understanding of what users will find compelling enough to open their pocketbooks. You also must know how to lead tech teams and understand how people use and adopt new products.

While there obviously is some overlap between these two diverse core skills, there’s a lot that doesn’t fit. We’ve seen this manifest when companies try to move into the other’s turf. Labels time and time again have failed at direct to consumer offerings. The efforts have gotten considerably more ham fisted as technology has played a larger role in the  industry. From its inability to secure files on CD and all the way up to the ridiculous Now! subscription service that rolled out just last week, nearly every label’s tech initiative  or direct-to-consumer offering has underperformed or been an outright disaster (Pressplay, anyone?). Likewise, digital music services struggle with artist relations, leading  to wary feelings between artists and digital services, or straight-up hostility.

DNA Mismatch

Both labels and digital services struggle to meld because they’re so different. At their essence, labels are about artists. Everything is built around finding and developing great artists. Talent is also the core talent of most senior execs at labels. Sure, there are probably great dealmakers, technologists, and marketing whizzes working at UMG, but ultimately, it all serves the artist. Meanwhile the digital services are all about the customer. And yes, artists are vital for services, but if push comes to shove, product development, not artist development, wins.

So when labels end up going directly to consumers, they’re on unfamiliar turf. Likewise, when Tim Westergren says something that sounds awfully stilted to the artist community, it’s because he’s not capable of fully serving both sides. Ultimately, he must side with his listener. You can bring in label talent to the music services to help co-mingle the two sides. But it won’t change the DNA of the company.

Free Advice

Look, I’m not telling you that digital music services are the model of how to build the modern company. Spotify isn’t Jack Welch’s GE or even Reed Hastings elite-level Netflix.  There’s a tendency to rely too much on technical solutions and not enough focus on customer problems, which leads to a functional–but not a very warm–product.

So if I were to give advice to say, a new executive at, say, the world’s largest free music listening service, I’d suggest following a few axioms about how to build his or her new team.

  1. Empower Product Leaders
    Too often we end up hiring product development professionals but don’t empower them to make decisions. Product is the core of what these companies do and to fully take advantage of this, you need great product talent in leadership positions. When you don’t own the content, you have to win on product, full stop. And yeah, I’m a product guy, so I’m biased. But I’ve seen what happens when you don’t prioritize the right talent in the right roles, and it’s not pretty.
  2. Practice Design Thinking
    Although tech products are much better today than even five years ago, we have a long way to go in building out thoughtfully designed products. You can tell a massive difference in Spotify versus a company where design is front and center like Airbnb. If you start with design solutions, rather than technology ones, it will resonate a lot more with your users. Cool tech is just that. Cool. Solve problems first and foremost, my friends.
  3. Different Analytics For Different Goals
    Labels have invested in analytics teams in varying levels. Most of these  efforts– including UMG’s exceptional data analytics team and Lyor’s start-up The 300– used data to identify artists that will perform best, which is just an evolution of what labels always have done. Spotify and YouTube have both invested heavily in solutions to solve ‘what to play next.’ While YouTube’s recommendation products are good, they don’t have the sheen of Spotify’s Release Radar, Daily Mix, and Discover Weekly, perhaps the best of all the technology centric recommendations. The lesson here: using data science and machine learning to create superior user experiences is the foundation of any successful digital music product.
  4. Market Like A Retailer
    If there’s been one element missing from most services, it’s figuring out how to sell them to mass audiences. At its core, the pitch seems to be “Hey, you like music. Well we’ve got lots of music. Come get some!” Okay then! The services need to get better. While it’s clear that music services are different than retail, the attention to detail and stronger relevance to the customer’s life would help the services define a) what they are and b) who they are for. Without that kind of definition, mass consumers will continue to pass.

None of this stuff is surprising. Let’s just file it under ‘doing the basics really well.’ But the labels, and the people who built their careers with them, still seem like they are steeped in another era. Digital is different, and building an elite team that can navigate this competitive market requires a different skill set. A phenomenal product team is today’s A&R. Invest wisely.

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