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10 Music Industry Lessons From Lyor Cohen

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When Rick Rubin left Def Jam in 1988, only one man could replace him – Lyor Cohen. Cohen had started at Rush Management with Russell Simmons four years earlier, first as a road manager for Run-DMC and eventually as a broker of sponsorship deals for the likes of LL Cool J, Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, and others. His negotiation style was brusque, almost mercenary, but he swiftly climbed the ranks of the music industry. His transition from artist management to an executive position spurned the rise of Def Jam in the ’90s, and he would go on to run Warner Music Group for eight years.

In 2012, he left his chief executive position at WMG, and soon after, mysterious reports of Lyor starting a new music company with former colleagues Kevin Liles and Todd Moscowitz began to swirl. Now we know it’s 300, the innovative record label that’s signed the likes of Young Thug, Migos, and Shy Glizzy – albeit in completely non-traditional ways.

Yesterday, Lyor took to Reddit for an AMA after launching a rebranding of the 300 website. When someone as powerful as Lyor speaks, you listen, so we took some notes on the music industry. Here they are.

1. Stop trying to predict what’s next.

When asked where he thought hip-hop music was going, Lyor said he never thought of himself as a “weatherman” in the music industry. Then he elaborated: “I think that one of the diseases of the music business is feeling like we could predict the future. Instead of taking care of the present. And the future will depend on us as an industry creating safe environments for our artists to create the future.”

A cynic might read between the lines and think he’s talking about capitalizing on current trends instead of trying to predict the next one. But spend five minutes on Twitter and you’ll see how many Certified Music Industry Experts know about the future of hip-hop.

2. Labels find stars, they don’t create them.

Lyor’s best advice was, “Sign stars, don’t dust bums off.” He went on to explain another major problem with the music industry: “Another disease of our industry is that we think that with our influence, that we could create stars. And that doesn’t work. Our job is to find stars. Stand back, jump on the magic carpet, and try to keep them alive.”

Meet enough label people and you’ll know exactly what Lyor is talking about. Too many people surrounding the talent think they’re the reason for an artist’s success. Hubris at its finest. Nobody is a star except the artist. Everyone else is behind the scenes – and it should stay that way.

3. A good label is full of good listeners.

Piggybacking off the previous point, Lyor explained what makes 300 stand out: “Starting off being good listeners. And one of the problems of our industry is that we are presumptuous, thinking that we may know more than our artists or the entrepreneurs that actually sign those artists, and starting by listening to them, I think, is the first important step.”

Again, notice the emphasis on the artist, not the team. Teams serve different purposes for different artists, but the former can never substitute for the latter. An effective relationship between artist and label begins with the understanding that the label wants to make money off the artist’s abilities. They may also genuinely want to help the artist succeed and grow their fanbase, but the label still needs to listen first and talk second.

4. “Why is every thumb the same size?”

One of the most insightful parts of Cohen’s AMA was his multiple mentions of the “massive passive.” When asked what was the next big obstacle for the music industry to hurdle, he answered, “The 2.0 version of fan engagement. Similar to thumbs being equal. The next big thing is trying to delete the massive passive and focus on the high influencers.”

He’s essentially talking about that icky word – “tastemakers.” In other words, it’s cool if 500 people hear a new song, but what’s most important is for a small, concentrated group of tastemakers and highly influential people to hear it and spread the word organically – er, “organically.”

5. Lyor has signed artists who make music he loathes.

The question was, “Have you signed many artists whose music you absolutely loathed?” His answer was simply, “Yes.”

Here’s the lesson: Sometimes, you need to do what everyone else wants, not what you want. Some teenager just balled up their fist at that, but look at how far it got Lyor. Take yourself and your judgment out of the equation, and things might go better than you expected. 

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