Across his 30+ years in the music business, Def Jam CEO Steve Bartels has never stopped learning.
Luckily enough, he’s learned from the best – with mentors and peers across his career including Herb Albert, Jerry Moss, Clive Davis, LA Reid, Barry Weiss and Sir Lucian Grainge.
Over his career, Bartels has been part of more than 34 separate Billboard Hot 100 No.1 artist single campaigns.
Since arriving in the industry as a club DJ in the ’80s, he’s worked at A&M Records, Arista Records and the Island Def Jam Music Group.
And as for the star-studded list of artists he’s worked with, try these for size: Kanye West, Rihanna, Jay Z, Justin Bieber, Mariah Carey, Outkast, Big Sean, Janet Jackson, Notorious B.I.G., Whitney Houston and Jennifer Lopez.
Bartels was named Chief of Def Jam Recordings when Universal spun it out as a standalone imprint in 2014.
Since then, the exec has led the revitalization of the label that was set up by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons in 1984, and which gained legendary status with hip-hop stars such as LL Cool J, Slick Rick, The Beastie Boys and Public Enemy.
Def Jam’s success stories over the last few years have included Justin Bieber’s Grammy Award-nominated comeback album, Purpose, and No.1 albums from Kanye West and Rihanna.
And for new talent broken under Bartels’ watch of late, you only need look as far as Alessia Cara, Jhené Aiko, Iggy Azalea and Jeremih.
Fresh priority acts for Def Jam this year (and beyond) include US rappers Amir Obe and Dave East, singer/songwriter Bibi Bourelly and Belgium artist Fanny Neguesha.
“Each of the aforementioned artists have a very distinct point of view, come from different origins and are all musically distinct from one another,” Bartels tells us.
“Yet, as the renaissance of creativity continues forward at Def Jam, each will play a significant role in our future success.”
Ahead of his keynote presentation at Midem tomorrow (June 7), the exec sat down with MBW for an exclusive chat – to discuss the culture at UMG, the role of a major in 2017 and why he’s optimistic for the future…
Does the fierce competition between labels at UMG help or hinder your A&R?
I think any competition is healthy, whether it is internal or external. It helps keep you on your toes.
Def Jam’s A&R team has distinct taste and focus and looks for unique, edgy and long-term artist opportunities; music that breaks down walls with a view towards worldwide audiences. Our goals are targeted.
“We try to create trends versus chasing them, and don’t get involved in bidding wars just for the sake of being in one.“
steve bartels, def jam
We try to create trends versus chasing them, and don’t get involved in bidding wars just for the sake of being in one. If we really want to sign something we get involved.
I feel a strong sense of responsibility for what comes out of Def Jam, and that our music not only aligns with our heritage, but forges a new path forward.
What does Def Jam tell artists it can do other labels cannot?
I can’t speak for other labels, but at Def Jam we are here for our artists. We want to nurture artists’ cycles of creativity as they seek to grow and explore new areas.
We support their vision and give them the time it takes to deliver.
We want Def Jam to be known to be a home/collective of great artists, secure with a label team that helps them best get their vision to the marketplace with maximum support and the minimal interference.
For most of our artists, being a Def Jam signee has an emotional component — they grew up being shaped by Def Jam artists, so to be one is an honor and responsibility.
Now, someone else is at home listening and being shaped by them.
What is the key factor in making you want to sign an artist?
The artist must have a point of view. A reflection of importance and great music.
Looking to make sure that they are unique and not duplicative, in terms of our own roster, so that each and every one of the signings has a reasonable chance to develop and grow unfettered.
Why do you think hip-hop is fast becoming the world’s favourite music?
Musically, hip-hop moves listeners all over the world, regardless of language. Lyrically, hip-hop is the poetry of the artist’s point of view, so it is identifiable and appealing across borders.
Since its inception, hip-hop music has been on the forefront of lifestyle and mainstream trends. Today, the new streaming paradigm has eliminated the need to wait for traditional gatekeepers to champion music.
Streaming gives the consumer more options and choice to listen to what they want, without effort, just choice.
Hip-hop has moved past influence to actually dominate the mainstream, and is now reaching a broader section of listeners than ever before with both catalog gems as well as frontline releases.
What’s Sir Lucian Grainge like as a boss?
Sir Lucian is focused and super engaged in making sure the macro investment in creativity across the company connects through to each of the labels.
Have you needed to become more flexible as a company in order to sign more JV/distribution deals as opposed to straight label signings?
We look at all opportunities that make sense for our signing strategy as applicable.
We have successful relationships with GOOD Music, Circa 13, and Global among them, and we also have successful direct new artist signings.
“In some cases, we have actually sought JVs on our artist’s behalf, to create broader signing opportunities underneath them.”
At times, having a JV relationship with a creative steward allows a different tone to come through the label’s infrastructure and helps provide balance.
In some cases, we have actually sought JVs on our artist’s behalf, to create broader signing opportunities underneath them.
What are the best and worst things about a major label?
I can tell you from first-hand experience that when you pair an engaged artist with a distinct point of view – combined with strong and experienced management — and meld that into a team execution with major label drive, reach and focus, great things can happen.
Just look at Alessia Cara (pictured), Big Sean and Logic for Def Jam as a few recent examples of what can happen. It works.
“A major label with experience and international relationships can still move much quicker to bring an artist exposure.”
Obviously, innovations in technology now allow artists to create and distribute their music almost instantaneously, which provides this wellspring of talent, and a great resource for A&R.
But, as a result, there’s also a lot more noise out there.
A major label with experience and international relationships can still move much quicker to bring the artist exposure, and with more depth.
What’s more important in breaking an artist – radio or streaming?
They are both important, and can both be important in an artist’s developmental arch at different times. And when everything comes together, it can be very meaningful.
Consumers and listeners don’t focus on the record company’s tactics of what works in the marketplace, they like what they like when they like it.
“radio has to look at streaming as an opportunity for a broader and immediate view of what consumers want to hear and factor that better and more efficiently into their decision making.”
I think radio has to look at streaming as an opportunity for a broader and immediate view of what consumers want to hear and factor that better and more efficiently into their decision making.
Conversely, radio — especially in the US — has always been successful when the local market approach is highlighted as opposed to centralization.
Streaming analytics, particularly Shazam for example, can help with that. Its immediate and alerts you to what consumers want to hear or know about immediately.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned during your time in the music business?
How important the artists are and how important it is to support and help them grow.
How important the creative part of the industry is and what it means for a label when the creative community decides to line up with a brand that is functioning effectively. And investing in key creative and bigger picture executives to help bring all that together.
“I’ve worked with many one-hit artists that didn’t have the real talent for long-term artist growth and longevity”
I have been involved in music since my club DJ days in the ’80s and during that time I’ve worked with many one-hit artists that didn’t have the real talent for long-term artist growth and longevity.
I’ve learned that what stands the test of time, and how you grow a musical community at a label, is to seek out artistry and voice and do your best to nurture that.
What do you make of YouTube and Lyor Cohen’s new job?
Over the years, Lyor has always been supportive and helpful to me in my role at Def Jam.
I hope and look forward to him doing the same in his new role and bringing YouTube forward for the creators and industry in a right, just and equitable manner.
What would you change about the music business and why?
I’d like to see the continued empowerment and development of future music executives that reflect the diversity of our rosters.
Coaching, education, opportunity, development and structure. An investment in identifying star talent early on and nurturing it.
“The labels are losing much of this talent pool currently to other areas of the business.”
The labels are losing much of this talent pool currently to other areas of the business — tech companies, streaming companies, artist management companies, touring giants and agency representation among them.
At times, bright minds go directly to those areas before considering a career in a music label. I have had great personal experience in the music business and have had the chance to grow and give back. We need more of that industry-wide.
What does the future hold and why are you optimistic? Will building artist brands, and partnering with brands, play a bigger role in future?
The future is very exciting for music: technology is expanding and music has an immediacy and international appeal more than ever before. Artists are our great influencers.
It’s only logical that an artist will have a creative vision beyond music.
Merging into fashion, footwear, and brand alignments isn’t merely consumerism but avenues for artists and audience to connect in broader ways.
What advice would you give to someone entering the music business now?
Ask questions, ask advice. Listen and be open to learning while putting in the work.
Nothing happens without constantly being on the pulse and putting in the effort and work behind it.
“Take risks: every failure or mistake is a building opportunity or road map on the way to success.”
Take risks: every failure or mistake is a building opportunity or road map on the way to success.
Build a community and respect others within it. You don’t have to agree with others’ ideas or direction — forge your own path. The world could use more strong, thoughtful music visionaries to inspire and unite.
Listen to others, think about what they say and then listen to your gut and proceed.
Music Business Worldwide