Lyor Cohen talks hip-hop history, YouTube and the industry’s ‘golden’ future in Music Matters Keynote
In the world of music, Lyor Cohen doesn’t need an intro. The music executive was there at the dawn of hip-hop, through Rush and Def Jam. He’s run indies, majors (Island Def Jam, Warner Music), he’s launched startups (300 Entertainment) and he’s almost a year into his current role as head of global music at YouTube, clearly one of the most powerful positions in the industry.
Lyor Cohen sat with Lars Brandle for a keynote interview at the 2017 Music Matters summit in Singapore. During his 45 minutes on stage, the veteran music man opened up on the history of hip-hop, errors along the way, and the “golden age” of the business.
Below is a transcript of the interview.
You have a reputation for being tough and tenacious. You’ve been called a Doberman. Are you still that guy?
I have a reputation for being determined. I actually don’t spend a lot of time in the industry, and there are many people who don’t know me. My reputation (is) because I started in rap music and I was a white person in the black art form at the time, because I have an accent and I’ve been accused of being part of the Israeli mafia, all that stuff. And I’m also an ex road manager so I’ve lost a lot of hearing. This is before people recognised not to stand in front of the speaker. So I speak louder than most people because I can’t hear as well. And I’m passionate. All those things lead people to have stories about me. I’m glad people, when I get a chance to speak with them, they have an open mind.
Do you still have the rage, the beast inside you?
The answer is yes. It’s a different kind of rage or determination. When I touched down in 1983 in New York, the artists I represented really didn’t get much of a shot. There’s a lot of swimming upstream. So there was a lot of effort to keep pushing. And keep moving and getting heard, recognized. You used to go into record stores and the Beastie Boys record, there was only one copy, and it was ranked No. 33. And then there was a Poison record which had 1,000 copies and it was No. 1. I thought, “that’s weird. It looks as though everybody has been buying the Beastie Boys record but its only at No. 33.” Then I realised there’s a lot of manipulating of those charts, so there’s a lot of things that I had to learn, had to get through. And keep pushing.
Let’s discuss some war stories? If you were going to write a book, how would that first chapter pan out?
It’s probably a boring story but I would consider there are two stories. One, when I sat at my parents’ kitchen table and I explained to them I had an opportunity to go to New York where these people talked instead of sung, and my father was stroking his beard and said, “I don’t know what you’re planning on doing but I suggest you get a contract.” And my mom cut him off and said, “If I were you I’d just go and try and find your voice and your passion. And if that doesn’t happen you just come home.” Since I’m a mumma’s boy I took her advice and I moved to New York. And I went straight to the office, which was the size of these two chairs. And Russell Simmons wasn’t there. There were three people in the office, that’s all the people it could hold. I said, ‘hey I’m the new partner in the company.’ I thought there was going to be a marching band. They were all depressed. Russell never told them about me, “I said why are you so depressed?” They said, “Run-DMC’s road manager is on a cocaine binge and we can’t find him. And he’s the only guy with a passport. And Run DMC is at the airport right now and we have no one to mind them.” I said, “well I have a passport.” They said, “can you go?” And so I went to the airport in time and that’s how I became Run-DMC’s road manager. The story gets better. So we’re touring around…the person who picked me up at the airport was Roger Ames, chief of London Records at the time who grew up and became chairman of Warner, and prior to that at Polygram. We did the tour around England. And the big show was a matinee show in London. The reason why it was a matinee was “the dangerous rappers were coming to town.” So we had to do it in daylight. It was the one day that broke all the heat records in London. And London doesn’t have air conditioning. There was so much enthusiasm for the show that a three block radius was shut down. The promoter allowed so many kids in, you couldn’t stick an ace of spades in the audience. We barely got backstage and then Jam Master Jay turns to us and says, “I forgot the records at the hotel.” This is before the DAT machine and computers. We run back to the hotel, the records aren’t there. I’m thinking to myself, there’s all these kids inside this inferno, there’s three blocks of kids and we’re not going to have a show and Run-DMC is stuck in the backstage. This can’t go well. I’m definitely going to be fired. I said, “how could you lose the records?” An hour and a half later I come to the dressing room and said, “guys this is a really dangerous situation. He lost the records and I don’t know how we’re going to get out of this.” People are passing out, sweat was dripping off the ceiling. Then I had an idea. I went on stage and said, “we’re so late for performing because we’re signing so many autographs. Run-DMC wants to cherish those that bought the record. British people love collecting records.” And so a bunch of people put their hands up and I collected the records and went backstage and said, “let’s get on stage.” That was the moment Run-DMC said to me, “stick around and be our road manager.”
You played a part in engineering that relationship between Adidas and Run-DMC. How did that come about?
That came about through truthfulness. And a brand that couldn’t help but understand that run DMC was hugely influential and authentically loving the brand Adidas. So it was very simple. You give me way too much credit. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I just put two people together who were leaning into each other. They brought Adidas to Madison Square Garden and when Run-DMC did “Me and My Adidas” it was all over. I wanted to do a deal and Run-DMC loved Adidas. It was really simple. It wasn’t heavy lifting.
There was a cute story about Trent Reznor in his role at Apple Music asked his colleagues to explain Drake to him. Ever find yourself asking a colleague to explain an artist to you?
I admire people who are smart enough to realise they don’t know all the answers. And ask for help. We have too many people who think they know it all. Part of being really smart is raising your hand and saying, “I don’t know.” I do it all the time. I’m in my 50s. I don’t hang out like I used to. Fortunately I have really active children, who are fully immersed in pop culture, and loving music. I have a vibrant group of friends that are from all walks of life. I’m constantly asking people to explain to me. Remember, when we started the company we had no money, we had no clout. We had no success. But for Rick, we all got high. Any one of those is enough not to be able to build a business. The centre of the music industry was in New York, 45-50 blocks away. All we had to do was get in the car and see that the kids were lined up around the block. The demand far outpaced supply (in hip-hop). It was the arrogance of the established record labels that they thought it was just noise. But that allowed us to incubate and learn and find our voice. For seven years we went unchallenged. So after seven years, getting high was unimportant. Suddenly we had money, suddenly we had clout. And we had seven years of experience. I’m constantly remembering, “how did they let us in the door?” If someone were to tell me, there’s some cowboy shit in Perth, Australia which you have to see. It’ll be the next big thing. I’ll get on a plane and go see it. I don’t want to be the person missing it in an arrogant way. I believe in the possibilities.
Will you jot these stories down for a book?
Lots of publishers have come to me wanting to put out a book, but I find it really hard to work on it. Many of them are intimate stories. This is a lot of joy but there is a tremendous amount of pain, we’ve lost a lot of people along the way. Remember we started in New York in the early ‘80s. Many of those people didn’t survive. Whether it was AIDS or drugs or whatever. It’s not just a golden road, there’s a lot of celebration but there’s also a lot of pain and intimate stories that I don’t know if I’m supposed to be sharing them.
I could ask you who were the nicest artists you’ve worked with? But that wouldn’t be so interesting. I’m keen to know who were the absolute nightmares you’ve worked with?
If the artist is truthful and they’re in it because they really desire to make a living in music. I have a lot of patience and endurance for terrible behaviour. We have a big management company and after a while having a management company and record company, as we got bigger and it wasn’t just implement beginnings, there are a lot of frayed relationships. I’d always say, if an artist did something bad to me, I always blamed the persona. That’s how I preserved myself. I’m built for this. I’m built for zigzagging. If it was easy then everyone would be doing it. I fell in love with the struggle and helping artists find their voice. And making it.
What’s your mantra when you look for an artist?
Being an ex-road manager, the sonic experience is less important even though it’s critical. I’m a live performance (guy). When I meet an artist, do the molecules act differently in the room? I really pay attention to the person, getting to understand the person and watching the performance. I want all-in. I’m not going to be happy in my life if I can’t feed myself and my family being a musician.
I’ve been to many conferences over the years. Some have been pretty gloomy but Music Matters have been noticeably optimistic. How do you gauge the industry right now?
I’m profoundly optimistic. I love change. The message above the front door of 300 is from a Dylan song, “If you’re not busy being born you’re busy dying.” I’m very optimistic about the evolution of the business. Anyone who thought the industry was going away, it’s just dumb. Music is like an essential element. Like water, oxygen. It’s so critical. Take music out of our lives and it just sucks. I always knew that there was going to be some pain. Some readjustment. The CD was a success. Success and money is sometimes a sedative, it makes you behave poorly. I thought the CD, even though I’ve enjoyed the benefits of the CD — I sold my company the month the CD started going down. But it created bad behaviour. The excess of our industry was off the charts. Private planes, humongous offices. It was irrational behaviour. Prior to the CD was more of a business that I remember being to the point. We’ve suffered for the last 18 years and there’s a lot of amazing optimism. The CD used to be the way that the major labels prevented the independents from being able to get their hustle on. That’s why so many of the independents formed WEA, many of those independents are the building blocks for many of these major companies. These major companies are (formed by) the acquisition of impresarios and independent companies. So the CD was an ecosystem that had a huge barrier of entry. You had to have enormous capital and staff, it was very hard to be an independent at that point. The fact that distribution has been eviscerated is a huge opportunity for musicians, for labels. The fact that we don’t have cost of goods, all the expenses have started coming down, piracy is going down dramatically based on the fact there are other ways to lean into music that doesn’t make you wait for a Tuesday. You don’t have kids stealing a 99c download. If you went to the playground and said, “hey look I stole a 99c download” they’d laugh at you. When the kid came into the playground, he got the new Kanye record in advance of the Tuesday release. There’s so much opportunity between advertising and subscription. This business is entering a golden age. I think the golden age doesn’t get realized until we get the impresarios to return and roam and create boutiques. We’re entering the golden age but we need some impresarios back. We need more diversity and the ability to source talent and bring them to market. That would be a really great thing for all of us. But I’m incredibly bullish but I’ve only seen happy people…over the last couple of days. I’m seeing a real bounce in the market. And there’s true optimism. Of course there are a lot of things that need to be worked out and of course everybody has got to get better. I know for a fact that my experience at Google and YouTube is that the company I now work with truly wants to build a subscription service that the industry, the artists, the labels can be very proud of. We’re definitely going to continue the hard work of increasing the ad market, and we’re going to help our partners — the labels and managers — break their artists. I think, from our end, there is a lot of enthusiasm in the building to be a really positive addition to this business. If you look at Spotify, what a brilliant job they’ve done. I’m just so grateful that Daniel Ek didn’t listen to anybody and kept moving his legs and kept believing in his purpose and he’s built a beautiful business, a business that the creative community can be incredibly proud of. I sat in front of Steve Jobs, who was basically spitting at me because he was so loud and certain that he would never build a subscription business, ever. “Do you understand, it will never happen.” Boom, they’ve now entered the subscription business and it’s brilliant. The more distribution partners that the labels and the artists can have, it’s got to be a net positive.
You say we’re coming into a golden age. The crystal-ball gazers at Goldman Sachs released a report in which they predicted the streaming business will be worth $28 billion by 2030, that’s up from about $5 billion last year according to the IFPI.
That means 300 is worth a bit of money? So listen, it’s definitely bouncing in the right direction, the value of the content. I don’t think it’s fully realized unless there are numerous distribution and platform partners. If it’s too highly concentrated, the value would not come as much as it should to the rights holders.
YouTube and the labels have always had a tricky relationship. How is that relationship now?
There are many labels who are completely leaned into the platform and love what we’re doing. There are other labels who are concerned about the fact our advertising funnel is retarding the growth of subscription or is too identical to the subscription product. We are definitely going to help in finding those who are leaned into our funnel that have jobs that are working around paid, and we’re going to find them and we’re going to convert them into a higher arc for the industry. That’s my mission here at the company — to help break the artists for the labels. To increase the advertising CPMs for their content and to build a subscription business that shows the industry that our funnel converts. That’s so important to me and my personal story. All I know is that there are people in this room in charge of building these products. This company is going to do a really, really great job. We’re going to change the narrative and work really hard to prove to the industry, not just talk about it, that we’re really important to the whole ecosystem.
We all know Google Play Music and YouTube Red are coming together. How’s that coming along?
Building a subscription business is really hard. Building two is multiplying it. So the fact that that effort is being combined should be a real green light for everybody to recognise how serious this company is. The process is going really, really great. I’m in awe of the people building the product. They’re intelligent and musical. I really feel very confident. It’ll come and you’ll experience it and decide if you like it or not.
YouTube has been involved in the creation of music videos for the rising Aussie pop artist Tom Jay Williams. Are we going to see YouTube becoming more involved in content creation?
Part of our journey is also to create original content that is more premium, that we could put behind the paywall, so we could show creators that we do care about subscription and that we will find other ways other than simply advertising to pay creators. But we’re also going to create originals that sit in front of the paywall that will be part of the lighting of our consumer base. We have an incredible profession team based in Los Angeles but also in Japan, the regional lead for the originals team. I really hope the industry will take advantage of leaning into the fact that we want to…because music is such a critical part of YouTube, we wanted to reflect how important music is by also have music-based originals. We’ve teamed up with Sony in Australia to create a new show that they’re very enthusiastic about. What a great platform to showcase original music-based content.
Staying in Australia, we have a 25% quota for domestic content on commercial radio. The system seems to be broken, and there are now calls for streaming playlists to up their game. You’re a supporter of this idea.
I love Australia. I think it’s critical we have diversity of Anglo-repertoire, it can’t just simply come from America and England,” he told audience Tuesday at the Ritz-Carlton Ballroom. “I think that Australia has a heartbeat and a core of their society that is musical and some of our greatest bands and artists have come from Australia. And I want to do anything I can to support local repertoire being successful. That’s really important for YouTube to continue its growth and its success is to support local emerging talent. That’s really important.
Tina Arena spoke at Bigsound where she implored radio, TV and streaming services to get behind local artists. Of course, there’s no legislation to force streaming companies to do this.
I’d rather be proactive than be forced.
Another topic I’d like to hit you on is albums. You’re not a big supporter.
There are certain artists that want to express themselves in the context of an album. But I don’t think an album is necessary at all. Just so we’re clear on the genesis of the album, the music business used to be a 45 business. Someone said, if we poured more wax we could sell more records for significantly more than the 45. The product was developed out of a commercial opportunity. Not having so much weight on a body of work at a particular time is liberating for artists. In fact, we may have more Zeppelin records if they didn’t have to climb Mount Everest once a year. When you’re an artist and you have to put 10 or 12 songs together for an album, it’s a very daunting exercise. There’s a liberation where an artist can go into a studio overnight and put it out the next day. Remember, the reason why they have to put out this album is because it has to sell for so much money so they could load up on marketing. Traditional marketing at that time was through radio stations and TV, newspapers and magazines. It was very expensive so you had to put out a body of work in order to afford to do that. I like the idea of having more frequency. It’s more liberating for artists.
This could be a chapter for the book. You had a major health scare in the last year. What happened?
I had a pulmonary embolism. It’s the No. 1 killer in the world, more than heart attacks more than cancer. It’s called the “widow maker.” You frequently get it in long haul flights. I was in Sweden giving the keynote for the 10 year anniversary of Spotify. I flew back and I wasn’t feeling right. I went to the doctor and she said, “You know Woody Allen? You’re Jewish. You’re just being a hypochondriac. You’re fine.” So I left. Two weeks later I almost died. I had a massive clot that kept building and building. My son, thank god, found me and saved my life.
You’re a lucky man, really.
I’m a very lucky man. I stay lucky. I feel lucky.
This article originally appeared on The Industry Observer, which is now part of The Music Network.