Peter Edge and Tom Corson know what makes RCA tick.
The duo were appointed leaders of the historic label by (outgoing) Sony Music CEO Doug Morris in 2011, and have since repeatedly proven their prowess at breaking talent at a blockbuster level.
Standout successes have included the transition of Miley Cyrus from a Disney star to a boundary-breaking pop behemoth, as well as promo-shy Sia, who ended 2016 as the third most played female artist on Spotify worldwide.
Last year, RCA signing Zayn became the first British male artist to debut at No.1 in both in the US and UK with his first solo single, Pillowtalk, before a No.1 album swiftly followed.
Fellow RCA signings Alicia Keys and Britney Spears joined Sia in charting in the Top 5 of the Billboard 200 – while No.1 US albums were secured by Kings of Leon and a cappella outfit Pentatonix.
Talent broken at the label under the tenure of Corson and Edge has included Elle King, Bryson Tiller, G-Eazy, Walk the Moon, Miguel, Ke$ha, Pitbull and Mark Ronson.
New RCA priorities in 2017 include 18-year-old Texan Khalid, All My Friends singer Tinashe, Nigerian One Dance collaborator Wizkid, hip-hop artist Goldlink and band Muna – while we can also expect new records from Bryson Tiller, Pink! and perhaps from Miley Cyrus, who’s started work on her RCA follow-up to Bangerz.
MBW visited Corson (pictured right) and Edge (pictured left) in Sony’s New York HQ to chat about the future of Sony Music under Rob Stringer, how they approach streaming and radio – and the golden rules of their A&R strategy…
First things first: Doug Morris hired you. what will you miss about his leadership as CEO?
Tom Corson (President/COO, RCA Records): One of Doug’s great characteristics is that he really coaches and supports executives. The first time we met him six years ago he said, ‘Make yourself proud,’ and he really meant it. He wants his executives to win, but he also supports you through the ups and downs. But we are thrilled with [his successor]. Rob is the best choice and we’re looking forward to hearing his vision.
Peter Edge (Chairman/CEO, RCA Records): Agreed, Rob is a great music guy. I think one of the reasons Doug has been able to run all three major labels is because he knows how to support and encourage others. He’s in the business of trying to make everybody succeed. That’s very unique.
Doug has created an incredible camaraderie at Sony. He encourages people to work together. Maybe that’s not always the case in large companies, where people like to pit others against each other. Doug encourages everyone to get along and not build big walls.
What’s your overarching strategy at RCA and what are the qualities that inspire you in new signings?
Pete: The music comes first. We are not a promotions-driven company – we are an A&R-driven company.
We place emphasis on artist development and doing unusual things that not everybody would take on. Sia is at the top of that list.
When we signed her four years ago, we had a meeting where she told us she wouldn’t show her face, she wouldn’t do promo, play live or make videos. It was a leap into the unknown but we really believed in her talent and the fact she is totally unique.
The campaign we’ve worked on with her is definitely her big vision; it’s been completely game-changing across the videos we crafted, marketing strategies, visuals and the music.
Sia is a very good example of what we do here, as is Miley Cyrus.
“WE place an emphasis on artist development and doing unusual things. Sia is at the top of that list.”
Tom: There was only one other label that wanted to sign Miley. Everybody actually thought we were a little crazy.
She’d had one kind of hit and at that point it was very unusual to transition a teen star into a proper pop star. It wasn’t a cheap deal, so that intimidated some people too.
But when we met her we thought she was a force of nature. She didn’t want to play by the rules and she wanted to do her own thing. Off she went and made a record with some input and guidance from us
Across Sia, Bryson Tiller, Walk The Moon, Elle King, Pentatonix, A$AP Rocky, Miley and G-Eazy we’re covering hip-hop, pop and urban.
We are diverse and we want to be hitting every major category in contemporary music.
Publishers and managers would say A&R is happening more and more outside of labels. Would you agree?
Tom: Yes, a version of it is. But it depends what you define as artist development.
The very earliest stages of artist development are most often not done by any record label. And it’s a dirty secret that even indies often just pick up [individual] records and the artist is left to find their way.
Artists have to be fairly well-groomed by the time they get to any major record label; what we do is develop the artist further.
“Artists have to be fairly well-groomed by the time they get to any major record label.”
Most artists aren’t ready to talk to the media when they get here; they don’t really have their right band together; they don’t have the infrastructure behind moving that band forward; they may have the wrong publicity person if they have one at all. They usually have no understanding of how international works, when to ‘go’ and when not to ‘go’.
You’ve got to understand how your record is moving and how to read it and analyze, which takes years of expertise.
What’s more important: streaming playlists or radio playlists?
Pete: Both. While some people may feel that radio is old-fashioned and streaming is where it’s at, the truth is you need both to have a real hit.
Tom: Radio has more mass appeal scale at the moment so it drives it home, but streaming is critical.
“You can have a streaming hit and not a radio hit – very rarely vice versa.”
You can have a streaming hit that’s not a radio hit – very rarely vice versa. But there are a lot of people who aren’t signed up to streaming yet who listen to the radio and you’ve still got to reach those folks.
Which one should come first: streaming or radio?
Tom: Generally, streaming. The discovery process happens online these days.
How difficult is it to make a breaking an artist financially viable in 2016?
Tom: The economics of most music companies [today] is that [with] the superstars, you do well. The margins aren’t quite as high [as with breaking artist signings], but the volume’s good.
With a breaking artist, you’re taking on a lot of risk so you take [more margin]. And then the artists grab [more margin] back as they go through the growth process – then we’re happy to share more. When it ‘goes’ it’s a nicely profitable business.
Even in the streaming age?
Tom: It’s getting better as streaming grows. A year ago I would have said, ‘We’ll see’.
Now it’s an important part of our business and getting more important every day.
How has the A&R process changed in recent years?
Tom: So many records now [begin life] streaming or YouTube or whatever – so the good news is that there are a lot of signposts out there that didn’t prior to the last 10 years. But that also means you can get caught ‘speeding’ very easily.
There’s a difference between proper artist development and just reading records.
Kings of Leon had their first US No.1 last year at RCA. Is there a big enough appetite for rock music to break through the hip-hop and pop dominated streaming charts?
Pete: We’re investing in alternative rock because we believe that there’ll definitely be another wave of success [in that genre]. [It will come] as that [alt-rock] audience realizes the streaming model is something for them, and not something to be shunned for whatever reason.
Tom: The rock genre has lost market share to hip-hop and dance – it’s just what it is. People don’t listen to rock the way they used to 15 or 20 years ago. But there are other opportunities. Culturally, the genre barriers are down. It’s not naff to be into dance in the US anymore. That was a real issue here for a long time; you were either a hip-hop guy or a rock guy.
The beauty of streaming is that it doesn’t define genres as rigorously as radio stations do. Radio stations are all about selling advertising, and that burden is very tough. They have to be super-right with their choices, otherwise they lose retention, listeners will punch the button and go to the other station.
On-demand is about subscription, and that’s a whole different thing so playlisting can be more inclusive and try things out.
Which charts accurately reflect success?
Tom: Soundscan’s total consumption chart is the best approximation right now – it’s the best attempt at box office rankings [based on revenue].
It’s the music business, so we’re not talking about critical and social success here.
We’re also talking about one segment of the industry – there’s live and other things [not taken into account]. I certainly wouldn’t say The Rolling Stones aren’t successful because they maybe don’t sell [records] the way they used to.
Charts are marketing tools, when we really get down to it. Yes, they’re a barometer of what’s going on, but they inform people about what the broader populous thinks is worth listening to.
Each genre varies, the scale is different in certain genres, so you have to be aware of that.
But [labels] are in business to make money. And at the end of the day, we don’t keep the lights on here if we don’t develop new artists.
Pete: What’s good business to us is not what’s best on the charts. It’s clearly very connected, but sometimes you can do really well with things and it doesn’t necessarily reflect where they are in the charts.
What’s your policy on exclusives?
Tom: We treat it on a case-by-case basis. We’ve had some, not a lot. They serve a purpose from time to time.
We feel that, in general, they put the consumer at a disadvantage because they encourage piracy and exclude people.
What’s your verdict on Apple Music and Beats to date?
Pete: There’s a lot of great creative stuff happening. Zane Lowe’s a fantastic music guy.
Tom: I hope they continue to broaden the funnel of what Apple in general has to offer. They have a huge reach – how can we leverage that more for the music service? That [kind of thinking] would be very welcome.
It could be something as simple as just the next model of the iPhone or iPad embedding Apple Music. They embed Wallets and Apple Pay, why not the music service?
I’m sure there’s a very good business reason they don’t do it, perhaps because of licenses and what not, and that’s probably something we [as the music business] have to answer for too.
Amazon has recently launched its unlimited streaming service. Is there space in the streaming market for all of the current services?
Tom: At the moment, definitely. If you look at what sells on Amazon vs. [the music] that streams elsewhere, they’re somewhat different.
So that tells you there’s a consumer who maybe won’t easily convert to Apple, Spotify, Deezer or whatever. There’s definitely an opportunity with the scale Amazon has on a global level, their Prime program, and their Echo.
Pete: They’re very mainstream. That’s what we like about Amazon. They get to an audience that perhaps Apple Music doesn’t.
There’s a lot of people on streaming… but there’s also a lot of people in the world.
Give us a prediction for 2017…
Tom: Something big will happen in the streaming world; maybe there’ll be some buy-out by a major platform of a streaming service.
Maybe Google will buy SoundCloud…
Tom: Something along those lines. Or even Pandora. Everyone forgets about Pandora – their premium [$9.99-a-month] service looks pretty good. And here’s one: pay attention to Amazon.
Amazon are world beaters, they get the consumer. They’ve had some misses, [but] they’ve got Alexa right and music integrates very nicely with that. You can go from a few million subscribers very quickly to tens of millions. If Amazon gets it right they can make a lot of money from music. And now they have the hardware vehicle with Echo – just like the iPod launched iTunes.
Pete: Alexa is very neat. It’s a fun new angle to access music and it’s super easy – easier than ever before. I noticed a lot people who are more casual music listeners are really loving the whole AI/personal assistant experience, whether it’s Alexa or the Google Home unit. Voice activation is going to be really big.
The Echo is an innovative product that’s affordable and it could be a game changer. It’s very mass market.
What would you change about the music industry, and why?
Tom: I would have a more legally representative partnership in our deals [with artists] which spans all income streams – so that we’re more aligned in terms of live, merchandise and so forth.
That would be a better model for everybody, not just for us.
You’re talking about 360 deals.
Tom: Yes, but I hate that term because it diminishes the notion of a partnership. It feels like we’re grabbing.
Both major and indie labels invest significantly in artists; we’re one of the few parts of the food-chain that take the risk dollar-wise.
Yes, artists take a risk by signing to a label – but we sign artists for hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars and then we put the same amount into [further development] to find out what we have.
The ‘360’ [contract] sounds better than it is for labels. Very rarely you get more than 10%, maybe 15% of an artist’s [ancillary rights].
A true partnership basis would eliminate some friction that is sometimes there.
Could it exist? Yeah. We do deals that are a step in that direction. But it’s probably not going to happen in the near future – [the current standard contract] is kind of grandfathered in.
“I wish people were more dedicated to artists and not just songs. We’re in a very song-driven era.”
Pete: I wish people were more dedicated to artists and not just songs. We’re in a very song-driven era.
Generally, I feel like a rich cultural space was created when people were very invested in artists. The ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s were a rich time for music.
People’s attention span is too small, I think that’s a big piece of it – nobody’s got the time.
Tom: When we grew up there were no video games, there was no online, there were three TV channels.
Pete: We weren’t distracted by loads of stuff like constant cell phone messaging.
Instead you might want to study what was in that Bowie album, which was actually interesting art. Maybe something more fulfilling than getting another ‘Like’.
Music Business Worldwide