Aaron Bay-Schuck’s fist is gripped into a ball, knocking home his points as if applying a hammer to a nail.
“There’s a fire that is just unmatched here,” he says. “We can’t rest on our laurels, we can’t rely on 10 established superstars to pay the overhead. We have to deliver for the new artists that we are signing: we have no other choice.”
Evidently, Bay-Schuck’s sense of purpose has crystallized in the past year.
On October 1, 2018, Bay-Schuck officially became a major record company CEO for the first time at Warner Bros. Records (now Warner Records). Following his departure from Universal’s Interscope to join Warner Music Group, the A&R specialist spent a full 12 months on what the British euphemistically call “gardening leave”.
This was a tough experience for Bay-Schuck – an exec who’d garnered a solid reputation for keeping his finger on the pulse of Stateside A&R trends. Happily, he had age on his side: today, at 38, he is notably youthful for a record company boss, especially in the United States.
And, perhaps, in hindsight, he’s even grateful for the chance to re-charge his batteries. Because ever since Bay-Schuck joined his co-Chairman, Tom Corson, at Warner Records, their pace hasn’t let up.
MBW joins Bay-Schuck in Warner Records’ sparkling new warehouse-chic Downtown L.A offices (white walls, polished concrete, floor-to-ceiling artist canvases). The exec reveals that, since his first day at the label, his team have cut over 50% of the previous regime’s roster from the label’s books; in the plus column, they’ve signed over 30 new artists.
Many of these fresh acts, as you might expect in the modern US industry, broadly sit within the boundaries of hip-hop – a cultural affiliation which was arguably lacking at then Burbank-based Warner Bros. Records under Bay-Schuck’s predecessors.
Pleasingly for Bay-Schuck and Tom Corson, the New Class of Warner Records are starting to gain real traction. Saweetie’s My Type and Wale On Chill (feat. Jeremih) recently scored the No.1s at Urban and Rhythmic Radio in the US. Elsewhere, platinum-selling NLE Choppa followed his breakthrough single Shotta Flow with latest hit Camelot; Ali Gatie, a young artist from Toronto, has amassed over half a billion streams; and Ashnikko’s STUPID feat. Yung Baby Tate has gone viral via TikTok. There’s also been Grammy success (with last year’s Best New Artist, Dua Lipa), as well as massive hits like Bad Bunny x Drake’s MIA (over 600m Spotify streams) plus Marshmello x Anne-Marie’s FRIENDS (over 700m), and album successes from OVO’s Top Boy to established stars like The Black Keys and Gary Clark Jr.
According to Bay-Schuck, Warner Records’ roster now spans over 90 artists (with circa 60 having survived the Great A&R Cull). There has been an influx of new executive talent, too: Bay-Schuck says he and Corson have “built an A&R team up from three people to 30”, which includes the likes of ex-Capitol exec Nate Albert, now EVP of A&R at Warner Records.
In their quest to modernize the company, Bay-Schuck and Corson have also inked a number of recent JV deals with external industry talents, including R&R Records, Masked Records , Katie Vinten and Justin Tranter’s Facet Records, and Pat ‘The Manager’ Corcoran.
Bay-Schuck’s industry career began 20 years ago out of Columbia University, where he studied Political Science. Following his graduation in 2003, he returned to Los Angeles and landed a job as an Assistant working for Martin Kierszenbaum at Interscope. A year later, he joined Atlantic Records as an A&R Assistant before stepping up as a fully-fledged A&R exec under Mike Caren, John Janick and Craig Kallman.
At Atlantic, Bay-Schuck discovered, signed and developed Bruno Mars – still a huge global priority at that label today. The exec also worked with the likes of CeeLo Green and Trey Songz, in addition to A&R’ing and co-writing worldwide multi-platinum hit, Right Round, by Flo Rida feat. Kesha.
After 10 years at Warner’s biggest label, Bay-Schuck joined fellow ex-Atlantic whiz, John Janick, at Universal’s Interscope Geffen A&M. There, Bay-Schuck operated as President of A&R, where he worked with the likes of Imagine Dragons, Lady Gaga, Gwen Stefani, Selena Gomez, Maroon 5, X Ambassadors, and Zedd.
Having agreed terms of his latest gig with Warner Music Group’s global CEO of recorded music, Max Lousada, Bay-Schuck’s resignation from Interscope in October 2017 caused clear internal consternation.
Sources say Jeremy Erlich, then EVP/CFO of IGA – now Head of Music at Spotify – sent a terse note to Interscope staff which read: “Aaron Bay-Schuck has made the decision to leave the company. He will remain here in his current role until September 2018.”
In other words: You’re going nowhere for the next 12 months, sunshine.
Now, two years on, Bay-Schuck is free to put his stamp on one of the world’s most storied labels – and, as MBW learns below, he’s not afraid of making tough choices if it helps him achieve his aspirations…
YOU’VE CUT OVER HALF OF THE ROSTER YOU INHERITED at Warner Records IN OCTOBER 2018. THAT SOUNDS LIKE A PAINFUL undertaking.
Yeah – it was a bit of a necessary evil. It’s never a fun process. We’ve recently been in strategy meetings, so I know the exact number: we had to let go 53% of the roster.
When Tom and I got started, we had a frontline roster here of about 60 or so acts, maybe even a little less, which is smaller than probably the largest indies out there. It’s certainly a really small number for a major US record company.
“We’ve recently been in strategy meetings, so I know the exact number: we had to let go 53% of the roster.”
Not only did we have to define a new identity here, but we had to sign more artists simply to have enough music for this company to work. That led to probably a few more signings than I would naturally make in a given year, but it was necessary and we always made sure that we kept the bar very high.
I didn’t want to sign just for the sake of signing. I feel like I made that mistake a little bit when I first joined Interscope. I rushed a little bit and signed a few things that maybe weren’t the best version of what I was going for. That was an important lesson to learn.
FOR A LONG TIME, WARNER BROS HAS STRUGGLED TO COMPETE ON ARTIST SIGNINGS WITH THE BIG FRONTLINE LABELS. HOW ARE YOU FIXING THAT REPUTATION FOR BEING BEHIND THE CURVE, ESPECIALLY WHEN SO MANY PEOPLE HAVE TRIED AND FAILED?
That question hit home for me when Max came to me with this opportunity. My initial instinct was to not really take it very seriously because there was an outside perspective, to be honest, that this label was in a dire place.
Todd [Moscowitz], Livia [Tortella], Rob [Cavallo], Cameron [Strang] – these are all very, very smart people. If they weren’t able to bring the label back to full strength, why would I be any different? It was something I asked myself a lot. Was I really going to be given the tools necessary to make a difference?
But when Max started to peel back the layers of the onion, telling me about Tom [Corson], the flexibility we were going to have – both in dealmaking and bringing in our people – it became very clear that Max was on a mission to make this one of the best record companies in the world again.
“My initial instinct was to not really take [this opportunity] very seriously because there was an outside perspective, to be honest, that this label was in a dire place.”
The No.1 way we’ve shown our ambition is by our aggressiveness and our building up of a world class A&R team. It was imperative to show managers, lawyers and anybody else paying attention that we have a point of view now.
My goal is to define Warner Records so clearly that sometimes we don’t get to sign things because people know what’s not right for us as much as they know what is. I’m okay with that.
It was also time to innovate, to do deals differently, and from day one here we’ve set that example. And then, of course moving downtown in L.A and changing our name [from Warner Bros.] have both been huge changes.
This building alone has done wonders for the perception of this label, while helping create a culture of productivity and of camaraderie that I’ve never really experienced in any other record company.
ARE YOU ENJOYING RUNNING A MAJOR RECORD COMPANY?
Yes. More than I ever thought I would.
I’ll be honest: This was a job I never thought I wanted. I’ve watched the toll it can take on people all across our industry. It’s really, really demanding, it’s a lot of pressure and no matter how hard you work at it, no matter how good you are at it, it still takes a hell of a lot of luck to succeed.
I had to change my mindset and really decide to take a leap of faith. The reason I’m now loving it more than any position I’ve ever held in the business is because I come to work every day with a real purpose.
“All Tom and I care about now is that this company is successful, that the people working here are happy, and that the artists who sign here feel great about it.”
When you’re coming up as an A&R person, of course you care about your artists, but you’re also very aware that you’re defined by what you’re signing, that your career is on the line… and that, because this is the entertainment business, sometimes you don’t always get full credit for the work that you do. So you learn to constantly pound your chest and make sure people are aware of your own contributions. That gets exhausting.
All Tom and I care about now is that this company is successful, that the people working here are happy, and that the artists who sign here feel great about it. That’s genuinely my only goal. I love that.
WHEN TWO PEOPLE RUN A MAJOR LABEL TOGETHER, IT CAN BE A GREAT SUCCESS… OR IT CAN BE A POWER STRUGGLE. WHICH ONE DESCRIBES THE PROFESSIONAL BALANCE BETWEEN YOU AND TOM?
I can say very confidently that I would not have taken this job if I was the sole Chairman of the label. In fact, Tom was a huge reason I decided to come here.
I consider myself very in tune with my skillset. My blood, sweat and tears has always been the identification of artists and the creation of songs. Of course, any great A&R person needs to have a full understanding of the inner workings of a record company, but I’m not sitting in marketing meetings or promotion meetings every day. I don’t really know how you can be a truly effective leader if you don’t have someone, whether they carry the ‘Chairman’ title or not, who has complementary areas of expertise and that you completely trust.
“I would not have taken this job if I was the sole Chairman of the label. In fact, Tom was a huge reason I decided to come here.”
Turning this place around by taking on all sides of the company would be too much work for any one person. For one thing, there’s just so much happening out there. Every week in our A&R meetings there’s 10 or 12 new things worthy of us talking about. And when I see rosters [at other major labels] getting over 200, 300 artists, it’s hard for me to understand how not every label out there has two leaders.
Tom and I complement each other really well because we have completely different skillsets, but also a real appreciation and understanding of what each other does. He’s incredibly talented and he’s got 20 years of experience on me; as a first-time CEO, I have no ego about the fact that I have things to learn.
Plus, we just really get along. We bond over music, we bond over golf, we bond over a good glass of wine which he’s teaching me all about – I’m becoming a little bit of a white burgundy snob now! Obviously ours is an arranged marriage, so before getting here I considered all of the ways which it could’ve gone wrong. But not one of those negative possibilities has happened. We’re very fortunate.
WHY WOULD YOU ENCOURAGE AN INDIE ACT TO SIGN HERE, ESPECIALLY – AND THIS IS THE IMPORTANT, OFTEN INTANGIBLE BIT – WHEN IT COMES TO THE A&R BENEFITS THEY WILL RECEIVE?
One trend that I’m seeing is that most of the artists who are getting signed and are successful today are relatively self-contained. They make projects with very few people; the days of 16 writers on a song are becoming fewer and far between, [as are] artists who completely cut external songs [written entirely by others].
So our job, in nurturing these artists, is to find the few ways in which we can open a door or make a suggestion, those small things that make a massive difference. So if I’m an artist thinking about whether to sign to [Warner Records] and I see a team that was behind the development of Bruno Mars, behind Kendrick Lamar, behind the Weeknd and Maggie Rogers, that might make me think this is a bet worth taking.
“If you’re a new artist and the data suggests you’re going to be successful… everyone’s going to say what you want to hear.”
Also, you know everybody’s going to make you feel great in the initial meeting, right? If you’re a new artist and the data suggests you’re going to be successful… everyone’s going to say what you want to hear.
The question you have to ask yourself is: Who do you connect with on a personal and philosophical level? Because, trust me, it’s not always going to be a smooth road; no matter how talented you are, you’re going to hit roadblocks. You’re going to put music out that isn’t as well received as you want it to be. And there are labels out there who will, at those tough moments, say goodbye. That’s not us.
We want Warner Records to be the label that you can have a tough conversation with, where we all sit down and have open dialogue about what went right, what went wrong, how are we going to do it differently the next time – to challenge each other, scream if we have to, whatever it takes. But then hug it out, move forward together, and double and triple down on our efforts.
For us, this is solely about artists. We’re not here just to break songs.
LET’S TALK ABOUT YOUR MENTORS.
Martin Kierszenbaum was my first mentor. When I graduated college in ’03 Napster was ramping up, and the record business was collapsing all around. Labels were letting people go; they were certainly not hiring. It was a tough time to enter the business.
I targeted Interscope [where Bay-Schuck had interned a year earlier in the video promo department]. I got a temp job in the international marketing department, which Martin was running. It was my job to be his assistant for a few days, and after those three days, I left. A few weeks later he called and said, “I was impressed by you. I’m hiring for a second assistant, do you want to come in and temp for a little bit longer?”
I came back in for a month, then he hired me full-time and I spent about a year working for him. It was absolutely invaluable experience.
He was both brilliant and very tough. The best compliment I could give him is that I would never have moved as quickly out of being Mike Caren’s assistant [Bay-Schuck’s next job at Atlantic], had I not had that year of crazy training from Martin. He made me into an indispensable assistant. So then Mike – who’s another demanding executive! – was able to feel confident that I had the admin side of what he needed completely taken care of. And that meant he was able to give me some A&R training and A&R opportunities a lot sooner than your typical assistant in the music business might get.
HOW WERE YOU INSPIRED BY MIKE CAREN’S STYLE OF A&R AND HOW HAVE YOU SINCE DIVERGED INTO OTHER APPROACHES?
The best thing Mike taught me, that I still use to this day, was how to get my hands dirty in the record making process, together with the importance of knowing every songwriter, every producer, every publisher. That puzzle of putting the right creative people together, the right songwriter with the right producer and the right artist. That is something that’s not easy to do and it takes a lot of practice.
“If all you’re doing is being around talent and earning their trust, but not adding valuable additions to their creative process, then you’re not an A&R person – you’re a friend.”
It’s a problem I find with a lot of young A&R talent out there today: truthfully, they’re better at finding talent than I ever was and ever will be, but they don’t always know what to do with it when they’ve got it in their hands. They don’t know how to negotiate the deal, and they don’t know how to help an artist execute their vision via their music.
To really be a successful A&R person, you need to have that full 360 understanding. If all you’re doing is being around talent and earning their trust, but not adding valuable additions to their creative process, then you’re not an A&R person – you’re a friend.
WAS YOUR NEXT MENTOR AFTER THAT JOHN JANICK – AND WAS THAT WHY YOU FOLLOWED HIM OUT OF ATLANTIC TO INTERSCOPE?
Yes. John changed my career. When I started to work with him at Atlantic, he needed some A&R support on Travie McCoy and Gym Class Heroes; we got to know each other through that and had some success. Then came Bruno Mars.
The best way for me to sum up what John did for me is that he gave me confidence. He made me feel like I was ready for the next level. And he supported me with no questions asked. He was the first boss I had where I felt there was a real friendship building at the same time as the boss-to-A&R [paradigm].
Craig [Kallman] was also an important mentor; I got to know him better during the second half of my Atlantic career. Craig’s mind and his knowledge of music is extraordinary. If you can get to spend time with Craig when he’s laser focused on a project, it’s one of the most inspiring and exciting music conversations you can possibly have. And then I was so fortunate that Julie [Greenwald] took me under her wing; she encouraged me, and really taught me how the business works beyond just A&R.
WHEN YOU JUMPED OVER TO INTERSCOPE AND WATCHED JOHN RUNNING THAT COMPANY, WHAT DID YOU LEARN that YOU CAN APPLY TODAY?
How to build a company for the long term. John did a really good job and showed a lot of patience resisting instant gratification.
He had big shoes to fill at Interscope but he walked into that situation and, right away, he made sure Blurred Lines, Kendrick Lamar and Imagine Dragons were all wildly successful. Having that level of heat right from the start comes with a lot of pressure. Some things came across our desks during that period, which we could have signed, that might have been successful, but that weren’t [artists who were] going to define Interscope. John showed restraint. He knew the types of artists that he wanted Interscope to be involved with.
That was a really great thing for me to observe. John’s very direct and honest, and he doesn’t consider himself bigger than the artists. I’ve never worked for [an executive] that wanted to be the ‘star’, but they do exist, and John in particular was really good at always putting the artists first.
It’s well known that YOU AND JOHN didn’t end on the best terms WHEN YOU LEFT INTERSCOPE. WHERE ARE WE TODAY?
I guess the direct way to answer that question is there isn’t much of a relationship at all at this time. When we see each other it’s cordial and then we keep it moving.
We’re competitors. I certainly have nothing but the greatest respect for him. I hope he feels the same about me, but the friendship part of our relationship is unfortunately not present at the moment.
YOU REFERENCE BEING ‘COMPETITORS’, BUT I’M SURE THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE YOU both COMPETE WITH WHO YOU still HAVE An occasional DRINK WITH AT THE END OF THE DAY.
I mean, look, John and I had 10 years of nonstop success together at Atlantic then Interscope. The plan was to do this together for as long as we wanted to. And so this [opportunity to join Warner Records] blindsided both of us. I take loyalty very seriously, and so does he. Ultimately the friendship-and-boss dynamic made [my departure] very difficult to navigate.
Through that process [of leaving], my mistake was treating John as a friend first and a boss second; I should have never taken him on the emotional roller-coaster that I did. I told him the minute that I was [offered] this opportunity, but it took me five months to ultimately make the decision. I was staying, I was going, I was staying, I was going: that’s not the way I would do it today, and it’s not the way I would want someone to [deliver that news] to me.
At the end of the day, I couldn’t pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I keep a real fondness for John and I’m just hopeful that we can find a way back into each other’s lives on a personal level.
ONE OF MY FAVORITE industry PICTURES I EVER TOOK IS OF THE THREE HEADS OF THE SWEDISH MAJOR RECORD COMPANIES – UNIVERSAL, SONY AND WARNER – AFTER I INTERVIEWED THEM ON STAGE, ALL happily stood ARM-IN-ARM. IT’S JUST NOT LIKE THAT IN THE US BUSINESS, IS IT?
When you flip through books on the record industry, they’re filled with pictures of competing executives at dinner together, or at parties together. You’re right: that’s not the culture of the music business today in a lot of ways.
“If we all got together and talked about what we were experiencing, we’d probably find that we all have a lot in common.”
I don’t fully understand that; it’s a very select and privileged group of leaders that get the chance to do this.
If we all got together and talked about what we were experiencing, we’d probably find that we all have a lot in common. I’m not saying you would ever have utopia or anything, we’re competitors at the end of the day, but it might make this business, overall, a bit more of a buzz.
RECORD DEALS ARE GETTING MORE EXPENSIVE, AND YOU’RE SIGNING JV AGREEMENTS WITH THE LIKES OF PAT THE MANAGER AND KATIE VINTEN / FACET. HOW DO YOU DEVELOP THAT LEVEL OF COMFORT IN DOING THOSE TYPES OF DEALS?
There are a few parts to that. It’s true that the modern deal landscape is insane. The price of getting into business with artists these days is not like anything that I’ve seen in my almost 20 years in this [industry].
Data, ultimately, is secondary for our team and our approach. Data helps point us in the right direction, but if we don’t love it, if we don’t understand it, if we don’t know how to make it better and add more value, then it’s not worth our time. I’m happy to spend [big] when I feel like I’m getting an artist that can change the world, but I’m certainly not enticed to spend money simply because the data is suggesting that there’s something viable there.
“I’m certainly not enticed to spend money simply because the data is suggesting that there’s something viable there.”
The JV thing is a strategy that, for example, Jimmy Iovine employed religiously – his entire business for a while was joint ventures. It helps you get into business with creators, and get into business with the people that attract the best. We’re trying to find the right hybrid of that: let’s have the right ventures, but also sign a lot of things direct and use our A&R ability to develop those acts.
This label needed a lot of new associations. We needed to position ourselves in a way that showed that we were in touch with what was going on out there. The first JV deal we did was with busbee, may he rest in peace. I believe wholeheartedly in the collision of country with urban, country with pop, country with alternative, and busbee was completely at the forefront of that.
BOTH OF YOUR PARENTS WERE ACTORS, AND YOUR STEP-FATHER WAS LEONARD NIMOY, BETTER KNOWN TO MILLIONS AS SPOCK. WHAT DID GROWING UP IN SHOW BUSINESS TEACH YOU?
I learned about the fragility of an artist and how to deal with their insecurities, their confidences and their talents. I also got to see firsthand the kind of effort it takes to become a major force in whatever industry.
In their case, as actors, I saw a relentless and unforgiving approach to work; it consumed them. And I know that the best music artists function in exactly the same way. This is everything to them. The psychology of my awareness of that, how it [affects] my approach to how hard I push somebody; it was all informed by seeing my parents in their career.
WHAT IMPACT DOES MAX LOUSADA’S ROLE AS GLOBAL CEO OF RECORDED MUSIC AT WARNER HAVE ON YOUR EXPERIENCE RUNNING A LABEL?
Max has had to redefine the new world for Warner Music, and I can always count on him to do that in a way that has complete and total integrity.
I believe one of the things that’s giving [Warner Records] a great competitive advantage right now is that we are only signing things that we feel will help redefine this label. Max and I call [the opposite of that] ‘fast food’: it’s great for quick revenue, quick chart positions, quick market share – but, more often than not, those quick wins hurt your long-term reputation.
“Max and I call it ‘fast food’: it’s great for quick revenue, quick chart positions, quick market share – but, more often than not, those quick wins hurt your long-term reputation.”
We’re much more about the artist proposition, being a company that supports career artistry, great music and letting the rest take care of itself.
Warner Music had a summit in Ibiza this summer. Max pulled me aside and said, ‘I’m really proud of this first year – I know why you had to be as aggressive as you were. But let’s keep making sure that the promises we make to artists are promises we can deliver on.’
To hear that from the guy at the very top was so refreshing and so reaffirming of my decision to join this company.
YOU’RE NO FAN OF FOCUSING ON MARKET SHARE TO MAINTAIN MOMENTUM?
We all want to grow our market share, so I’m not dismissing its importance. But I do think that if you start making everything about market share, it removes a lot of the joy and creativity from what we do. I recently read a book called The Startup Way by Eric Ries. There’s a line in it that says, “Consumers don’t care about market share. They only care if you’ve made their lives better.” That really hit home for me; it’s the perfect description of the job of a record company.
One trend I’m seeing in the business that we really try not to be a part of is this desire to sign [artists] simply so other people can’t. It’s like watching labels become collection agencies, and it’s bad news. I want Warner Records to be a label that cares much more about having the right artists than having the most artists.
Going on that journey of hot, cold, hot, cold, hot, cold – that’s just stressful. I’d much rather we were on a steady climb to the top, knowing that we’re positioning Warner to be successful for the next 25 years.Music Business Worldwide