Come on now. He doesn’t really need an introduction, does he?
Lyor Cohen. It’s not hyperbole to suggest he’s one of the most-talked about – and fiercely debated – music executives in history.
The thing is, he knows exactly what you say about him. The good and the bad.
That stands whether you’re a supporter – one of those who laud him for being sure-footed, determined or ruthlessly fighting for his artists during his three decades in the hotseats of Rush/Def Jam, Warner Music Group and 300 Entertainment.
And it stands whether you’re a detractor – one of those who dismiss him as a problematic, self-aggrandising, or unnecessarily truculent force in recent music biz lore.
He knows it all.
We discovered this fact during a lengthy conversation with Cohen which ostensibly occurred to promote the fact that YouTube Music is now available on iOS and Android in 17 countries.
Yet our discussion took a slightly unusual turn.
Lurking in the background from the kick-off was always that question: why, when Google clearly desired to improve its fractious relationship with the music business, did it hire a person with Cohen’s pugnacious reputation?
And why, when all’s said and done, does that reputation exist in the first place?
So here is Lyor Cohen on subjects that include (i) what it’s like to work at Google; (ii) Spotify’s recent direct licensing shenanigans; (iii) YouTube Music’s market advantage; and (iv) Facebook’s entry into music.
But, perhaps more memorably, here’s Lyor Cohen on Lyor Cohen.
We get into it. The man, the myth… and (as he sees it) the misunderstandings.
Congratulations on the international launch of YouTube Music. Do you think the reputational tide has now turned for YouTube in the music industry?
I’m in my own bubble. And in that bubble, the answer is yes.
Google/Alphabet is ultimately a very ad-driven company. In 2017, over 84% of its revenue [$27.2bn from $32.3bn] came from its ad businesses. Do you feel you have the full weight of Google’s support when it comes to selling subscriptions?
If you listen to the leadership here – and there are public statements about this – subscription is a huge priority at this company. In terms of wider Google support, I feel it. Music is a universal language and it’s very scalable worldwide; that’s music to the ears [of Google’s leaders].
You’ve spoken previously about the music business needing to be careful about backing one horse in the streaming race too aggressively, and the backlash that might result from doing so. In the past fortnight, we’ve heard about Spotify directly licensing artists – and a huge fallout ensuing at the labels. we’re starting to see that backlash, no?
The timing is impeccable! It’s like, wow.
Do you think the support YouTube Music is getting from the major labels is partly a reaction to that? a fear of what happens if Spotify gets too big?
It’s on the mind and the body and the soul [of the industry]. Anybody who is in the business of selling or streaming [content] has to recognize that diversity in distribution is their greatest offensive and defensive tool.
When distribution is too consolidated, it becomes a much different scenario. That’s very obvious. Of course my spiel on this feels self-serving, but now it’s getting actual context.
Listen, [the Spotify fallout] doesn’t make me happy in any shape or form; I want us as a community of music people to find, nurture, discover the next Kurt Cobain, Bob Dylan or Jay-Z. That’s where our efforts should be, not in fixing structural problems.
“the sooner we shed the bunker mentality, the PTSD mentality, the better.”
We have the opportunity after a long, difficult period to actually build the healthiest ecosystem ever created in the history of the music industry. The physical good was an absolute disaster – it was great for a period of time, but we’re now liberated from the expense of it, an expense which artists, consumers and labels had to pay for.
One of the things I say to the music industry is this: the sooner we shed the bunker mentality, the PTSD, the better.
We should focus on how we get more artists to invest in a musical career. I think we’ve lost a lot of really talented musical people during [the past decades], and I’m excited to see how the business evolves now.
The industry seems quite paranoid about Spotify’s direct licensing. Do you have any message of reassurance in terms of the way YouTube intends to work with artists?
I don’t look at the competition. I don’t spend an iota of a second doing that. And I don’t know the details [of Spotify’s direct licensing] – I’ve seen the headlines but the devil’s in the detail.
What I do know, and this I’ve been saying this for a while – when are you going to write it?! – is that if there is a healthy diversification in distribution, all hands get put on the table [ie. there’s no way to hide anything from each other].
“Someone could only do that kind of thing when they feel like they have a comfortable, unrestricted and unfettered lead in the marketplace.”
Someone could only do that kind of thing [Spotify’s direct artist licensing] – and, again, I don’t know the details – when they feel like they have a comfortable, unrestricted and unfettered lead in the marketplace.
If there was a healthy environment of real competition, I suspect it would be a different story.
The positive conclusion to that, then: you obviously feel there’s enough room left in this streaming market for YouTube Music to challenge the No.1?
I don’t believe this is a winner-takes-all category. Not that I read the Goldman Sachs or Credit Suisse [reports] but they’re talking about how nascent music subscription is, and they’re right.
I think Google has a history of not being first to [market] and learning a lot from first entrants in order to build great products.
This [YouTube Music] took a village of people to [make] – a bunch of really smart people.
What’s your hope for the amount of subscribers you want by the end of the year, and by the end of next year?
We don’t talk about numbers, but I know definitely on Monday we’ll have more subscribers than we did on Friday.
The fact the industry now recognizes that we heard them, and the fact that the product is so good, you’ll feel all that in the marketing campaign, which is the biggest in YouTube’s history.
I don’t think we’d be able to spend that type of money if the product wasn’t great.
Obviously YouTube has some advantages over Spotify in terms of its catalogue. But with 99.9% of all music licensed across every leading streaming app, differentiation is difficult. Do you think the music industry made the right decision licensing the entirety of its library back when streaming began?
[Long pause] Emphatically, yes. Because it helped stimulate the success we’re now seeing.
The fastest-growing category of subscription globally is music, primarily because of that [decision]. And there are lots of ways for us to iterate.
Maybe my daughter, who loves the hits and doesn’t have a job, will pay, I don’t know, $3, just for the hits. Maybe she doesn’t want The Doors. There are a ton of options.
According to MBW sources, Facebook has signed a deal with music rights-holders where it’s paying a ‘blind check’ for two years of licensing – ie. with no necessity to provide detailed reporting on the use of tracks. Do you find that deal odd after YouTube got so much stick from the industry despite its investment in Content ID?
In my mind, personally, I think any [licensing agreement with a ‘blind check’] sets the industry back in terms of the spirit of where we’re trying to get to.
In the content world, where artists get paid, clearly we need to have well-organized data pools driving good understanding of how things are being monetized.
You’ve poached Tuma Basa from Spotify – the guy who built RapCaviar into a great success. How well-resourced are you to hire more of these leading industry figures?
You asked earlier: do we have the support [from Google]? What you mention now is a perfect reflection of that support. So the answer, again, is an emphatic yes.
Please do not be surprised when we populate YouTube’s music business crew with the finest and brightest people.
“For a second, I thought I would meet a bunch of people who would say, ‘Could I take a selfie with you?… your industry got what was coming to them.'”
One of the greatest joys I discovered [at Google] was when I first went to San Francisco. For a second, I thought I would meet a bunch of people who would say, ‘Could I take a selfie with you? Great you joined us, but your industry didn’t evolve, so they got what was coming to them.’
I didn’t get any of that. The whole place is littered with music junkies who are deeply passionate about being a part of the music industry and being net contributors to its success.
Apparently there are 24,000 new tracks being uploaded to subscription streaming services a day. On the one hand, that speaks to the amazing democratization of music that’s been happening in the past few years. On the other hand, how the hell do you properly break a new artist in that blizzard?
A beautiful question – and the question I want to talk most about with the industry.
Be careful what you wish for. Distribution and tight curation was eviscerated [by streaming], and now you have a billion bands swimming around your ankles. How do you know which one is right for you?
“Distribution and tight curation was eviscerated [by streaming], and now you have a billion bands swimming around your ankles.”
This is one of the great challenges for the next iteration of our business. One of the efforts we’re trying to make, and you’ve seen it with the release of our charts and official artist channels, is helping [the industry] develop their talent and find their consumers.
I wouldn’t say that that code has been cracked; this is an evolution.
You’ve previously spoken to me about the ‘rise of the independents’ – the fact that the music business, in your eyes, is now wide open for a new wave of entrepreneurs to come through. Is that happening? and will it be a good thing for the music business?
It’s mission-critical. We are seeing a bounce in our business, but I don’t think it gets fully realized until the impresario, the unemployable, roams once again.
That Jamaican who signed U2 and Bob Marley; that trumpet player that signed The Police… you’re gonna see some of the new impresarios team up with money to build out their businesses.
They’re absolutely necessary and I’m looking forward to seeing it happen.
This is a question that probably doesn’t get asked enough: are you in good health [Cohen was hospitalized after suffering a pulmonary embolism in 2016]? and are you enjoying your new corporate life?
I’m in excellent health. I’m a little overweight, and I have to really focus on that – metabolism – because I’m getting older. But generally I’m in, like, bizarrely excellent health; the lowest possible cholesterol you could have, the lowest blood pressure you could have. It’s insanity. I have to take blood thinners, but so do a lot of people.
Am I enjoying this? Very much so, because I’m mission-focused and I’m on my mission.
I had two fears at 300: no hits, and consolidation of distribution. Fortunately we had some hits, which has now allowed me to go and try to tackle my biggest fear.
“A lot of journalists didn’t read the fine print.”
This is a bizarre situation in many ways because many of the headlines [when Cohen first joined YouTube] were about: ‘How is this highly competitive, rough guy supposed to bring harmony [to the industry vs Google]?’
Well, a lot of journalists didn’t read the fine print.
It’s fascinating to me to walk into all these offices of people I’ve worked with for so many years and have them see me in this context. It’s a really interesting dynamic [laughs]!
Now, they understand: ‘Oh my God, what he says is absolutely the case.’
At first, they were more: ‘Oh my God, what’s actually happening here?!’
Presumably these were people used to fighting with you, competing with you, in your label days.
Right. Actions speak louder than words.
This is really important: For a long time, we [YouTube], were a deal-making organization. We made a deal and got the rights… then came back three years later.
“If we don’t treat the industry properly, they’ll find someone else.”
When you don’t see someone regularly and then they – lawyers or deal-makers – just come back in for your rights, there’s a lot of misunderstanding and paranoia that can happen.
But when you see someone saying: ‘Hey, we know breaking an act has changed from the days when you could buy indie labels, [stick] a video on MTV and, because [labels] owned distribution, get great placement in the stores… we want to understand what’s critical to you today.’
We’re treating [the industry] as customers. And if we don’t treat them properly, they’ll find someone else – we’ll lose the customer.
That’s a nuance that has been highly impactful.
You mentioned that you were aware of those headlines: ‘How is Lyor the rough guy supposed to bring harmony to YouTube vs. The music business?’ Do you think that story is bit reductive? The fact people paint you as this domineering character?
Yeah, but I’ve been dealing with this ‘narrative of Lyor’ for a long time.
For 15 years [at Def Jam], I’d been dominating rap music and nobody knew me. My business partner [Russell Simmons] loved being the lighting rod so I didn’t have to do it.
I was still in the age of awkwardness then; not a kid but not an adult either. I never felt really comfortable being [‘the face’ of Def Jam].
But then I realized something. Fat Cat, one of the most notorious gangstas of all time [in New York], used to go to the same nightclub we all went to in the early ’80s – The Red Parrot.
“I’ve been dealing with this ‘narrative of Lyor’ for a long time.”
This was an era where the gangstas came in full-length mink, big gold chains and everything. Fat Cat [Lorenzo Nichols, pictured inset] would always come and sit in a corner, quietly. All the other gangstas came in and made sure everybody knew who they were. But the whole night, people would say [whispers cautiously]: ‘Fat Cat’s in the corner.’
The quiet discovery of Fat Cat was much more powerful than any of the behaviour of the [other] gangstas.
In many ways, my being off the beaten path created this [industry story] of ‘Lyor is the Israeli Mossad’, as well as Lansky* references, all these stories.
It was very interesting; the more I went into [the music industry] the more I had to live up to being this hard dude.
[* Meyer Lansky, aka ‘the Mob’s Accountant’ was a notorious Jewish-American figure in organized crime who built a gambling empire in the 1940s.]
You feel like your music industry legend was being written for you?
Yes. I’m sorry to burst everybody’s bubble. You come to my house, I don’t have a platinum plaque on the wall or any of those things. You wouldn’t know this is Lyor [the industry bigshot].
I have many parts to me; I celebrate Shabbat, I’m a father, I love sports. People are shocked when I tell them I don’t wake up every single day diving on the [business] opportunity.
I’ve always been happy. My parents were amazing parents. They instilled in all of us the lifelong gift of being self-assured.
“I keep telling them: ‘You’re only making me bigger! Slag me off, but I’m still here, I’m still growing, I’m still building!'”
There are magazines which still today spend an enormous amount of energy on me, and I don’t even pay them any mind. I keep telling them: ‘You’re only making me bigger! Slag me off, but I’m still here, I’m still growing, I’m still building!’
I don’t know why you’d want to do that to someone – we just laugh about it.
People that really know me aren’t surprised [by how I am in reality]. This is a sociological class course in imagining who someone is, and then finding out who they really are – when people have to completely alter their mindset on you.
The reason I ask this stuff is because there’s a slight dichotomy between the story Atlantic’s Julie Greenwald told me of Lyor Cohen, her bearish mentor – her professional protector – and the things some other people have said about how contentious you have been.
That myth happened because I was never invited to all these industry functions [when Cohen was at Def Jam in the ’80s], because we were outside of the traditional music business.
When Hits Magazine came, finally – because I had lots of hits – to ask for [ad] money, I’d never received Hits, so I didn’t really know how to ‘do’ Hits.
I always tell people, ignorance is bliss. I had no idea about the UJA benefits, the City of Hope – I wasn’t invited for a long time!
So when I came on the scene and I started to get invited to these things, I was an outsider.
How did that make you feel? how did it shape your attitude?
Remember when Chuck D said, ‘Who gives a f*ck about a Goddamn Grammy’?
When I was a Road Manager [in Cohen’s early career], I’d always go to the retail stores. It was regularly part of the promotion for Run DMC or the Beastie Boys to show up and do an in-store.
When they were doing signatures, I would go look at the rack. And there were so many times there was hardly a Beastie Boys record available [on the shelves], even though it was No.38 [on the chart]. But Bruce Springsteen had the full rack and was No.1.
“It’s not that I’m a rebel.”
The correlation was so obvious! Those numbers were being augmented by people!
That burnt in my head. And when I finally got invited to the Grammys and watched Run DMC go oh-for-five, that also had a big impact on me.
It’s not that I’m a rebel. It’s just… some of these things burnt inside of me that made me de-emphasise the [traditional music industry machinery].
Are we getting to the heart of why you are enjoying yourself now? This idea of democratization, nobody being in control of the music business anymore?
I definitely want there to be a fair fight. I believe it will be better for music and for artists.
But I also want the music [industry] impresario to come back more than you could imagine.
I want colorful characters in this business. Where are they today? You tell me.
“I want colorful characters in this business.”
Go to a music industry event and [scan] the room.
Fifteen years ago, that same room would have been mind-blowing: Charlie Minor, Jerry Moss, Herb Alpert, Ahmet Ertegun, Chris Blackwell, David Geffen… Wow!
Take a look now, man.Music Business Worldwide