J. Erving on RAYE, independent artists, and why he sold Human Re Sources to Sony Music

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Joining Music Business Worldwide founder, Tim Ingham, on the latest MBW Podcast is Julius Erving III, better known as J. Erving.

Erving is the founder of Los Angeles-based Human Re Sources, a distribution and services company whose successful clients to date have included Brent Faiyiz, Pinks Sweats, Ant Clemons, and YBN Nahmir.

Right now, though, people are focusing on Human Re Sources for one artist more than any other – RAYE, who recently won a record six BRIT Awards in London, having received a record seven nominations.

The British singer/songwriter signed with Human Re Sources in 2022, after parting ways with her former label, Universal’s Polydor.

There is, then, lots to ask Erving about in terms of the growth of independent artists like RAYE – and what that reflects about the wider music business.

On this podcast, we also ask him about his previous life as an artist manager, his personal motivations, and his decision in 2020 to sell Human Re Sources to Sony Music/The Orchard. (Erving has since operated as both the head of Human RE Sources within The Orchard, and as an EVP for Sony Music.)

Read an abridged/edited version of the Q&A below, or listen to the podcast above…

We’ve just seen RAYE break all-time records at the BRIT Awards in the UK, winning six awards. What significance can we put on the fact that an independent artist has dominated a traditionally pop music biz ceremony in that way?

We joke that if she had been signed to a frontline label, people would have said it was rigged – that somehow the label paid for it!

The way in which RAYE won at the Brits is really a testament to who she is as an artist, and as a person. She’s persevered, kept her head down, done the work and stood for what she believes in from an artistic perspective.

We all know RAYE ended up frustrated with her previous label relationship, primarily because, from what I can tell, there were some doubts about her ability to be an ‘album artist’ – which seems silly in retrospect. But I also know that label fairly well, and the part of the story that’s not often told is that they’ve had great success with ‘self-contained’ artists – Sam Fender being an excellent example. There’s no doubt that for RAYE, being an independent artist was the better route. Why do you think the creative chemistry, which didn’t work in her label situation, works with Human Re Sources?

I can’t really speak to a previous label situation – obviously I wasn’t involved. What I will say in fairness is any music executive who’s been in the business for some time has missed some things, right? I’ve missed a lot of stuff!

All I can speak to is, when I heard the album, when RAYE played it for me. And you speak [about] chemistry; it [didn’t require] chemistry to make the album, because it was already done. I was [just] able to hear it in the same way that RAYE heard it. That in itself made us aligned in terms of how we felt about the body of work that she had created.

There’s still a lot of discovery happening around RAYE right now; we still have some other dominoes that we need to knock down, in other territories and whatnot. But the folks that are discovering this album are hearing it the way that I did. She performed at the O2 Arena [in London] the other week, with 18,000 people singing every word to songs that are supposed to be ‘album cuts’. That’s a true testament that people have bought into RAYE holistically – it’s not about any particular single or song. It’s really about her as an artist.

We’ve now seen an independent artist dominate the BRITs, just as we’ve seen independent artists dominate mainstream awards events in Latin America, Scandinavia, and elsewhere. That, with the exception of maybe Chance The Rapper, hasn’t yet been the story in the US. Do you think that story will eventually come to the US – an independent artist dominating the Grammys?

I’ve been pretty vocal that I feel like the Grammys got it wrong [this year] as it pertains to RAYE. She is not the first artist, nor is she going to be the last artist, that they’ll get it wrong with.

I’ve had some spirited debates with some folks in and around the Grammys. One of my takeaways was the work that we have to do in making sure that everyone – myself and everyone around me – who’s eligible to vote is weighing in, taking all of the necessary steps to have a voice.

[The Grammys] have done a better job [in terms of] recognizing all genres of music. But there’s still a long way to go.

Spotify recently announced that $4.5 billion of the $9 billion they paid music rightsholders last year was generated by the independent sector, including independent artists. What does this tell us about the industry and the way that it’s moving?

I think $4 billion of that could have gone to Bad Bunny [laughs]!

I think it’s a testament to this: Five years ago, when I launched Human Re Sources, I was listening to the young artists, young executives, young managers, who were talking about independence. And I was recognizing a shift in how these artists and executives were looking at independence and ownership.

“I grew up in an era where all we wanted to do was get a record deal. It felt like when we got an artist signed to a major label, we had a partner that was going to pay for everything and make magic.”

I grew up in an era where all we wanted to do was get a record deal. It felt like when we got an artist signed to a major label, we had a partner that was going to pay for everything and make magic with these artists.

Someone asked me recently what’s different from when I came up in the game versus now. The access that these artists have to speak directly to the consumers is very real. The beauty around what’s happening in the music business now is that it’s not old guys like myself that are gatekeeping – folks on Reels and TikTok and YouTube are telling us what the hits are, what they’re excited about.

I think [Spotify’s] numbers are just reflective of where the community is at and where, and the fact that there is the ability to have success as an artist independently in this new music business model.

What were some of the things that were going through your mind when you sold Human Re Sources to Sony Music – and went inside the company at The Orchard – in 2020? I believe you’d only recently just reunited with Troy Carter.

I want to be clear about one thing first: It’s not possible for me to ‘reunite’ with Troy, because we’re never not together. We’ve been in each other’s pockets, in each other’s hearts; that has and will never change.

There were two individuals, initially, that made me comfortable with being at Sony and at The Orchard: Rob Stringer and Brad Navin.

Both of them are very forward-thinking in terms of where the music business is going. But more importantly, they both made me feel very comfortable in that I would be able to develop real artists – not rushing a report card, not having to look over my shoulder every two seconds, not having to do something that compromises who [Human Re Sources] want to be as a company to make a couple of dollars and hit some numbers.

Both Rob and Brad supported me in taking my time to really develop artists in the right way.  I don’t think you get that everywhere, really putting the artists first.

They’ve both also done an amazing job of leaving me alone at times… and giving me teaching moments when I need it.

We patted each other on the back and shared a few cocktails at the BRITs. But now it’s back to work. For RAYE, it’s Saturday Night Live, Met Gala, Coachella, figuring out the US and other markets. And it’s about making some more hit records.

A philosophical question: what personally drives you?

I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by amazing people that had a very high level of success, both from a business perspective, but also from a personal and real-life perspective. So I don’t have to look very far for motivation.

I look at what Troy [Carter]’s building with Venice; I look at my friend Shawn Gee that’s over at Live Nation and what he’s building; I look at my friend Ryan [Press] and what he’s doing at Warner on the publishing side; my friend Sterling [Simms] at Columbia, and what he’s doing on the A&R side.

Like, my friends are crushing it. Every time I feel like I’m accomplishing something, they do something else amazing. And I’m like, ‘Shit, I gotta get back to work!’

And then, I have kids. So it’s about trying to be something and someone that they can be proud of.

Between my family, my mother and father, and my friendship group, I’m surrounded by people who motivate me on a daily basis.

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