There’s not a lot the top tier of the music business can throw at you that Jason Flom hasn’t dealt with.
Flom started in the record industry in 1979, aged 18, as a junior merchandiser at Atlantic Records – eventually working his way up to Chairman and CEO of the fabled label in 2003.
Along the way, he worked under the likes of Ahmet Ertegun and Doug Morris, while signing and developing acts including Kid Rock, Matchbox 20, The Corrs, Hayley Williams, Skid Row, Tori Amos, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Jewel, and Sugar Ray.
In 2006, he moved to EMI to become CEO and Chairman of Virgin Records, where he signed Katy Perry, before moving to head up Capitol Music Group (also then an EMI company) – where his roster included Coldplay, Lenny Kravitz, 30 Seconds to Mars, Corinne Bailey Rae, KT Tunstall, and Joss Stone.
In 1995, he founded Lava Records – initially a joint venture with Atlantic before Flom got the name back from Warner in 2009.
Since then, Lava has been working in partnership with Republic Records, signing and breaking artists including Jessie J and Lorde, who recently returned with Green Light – the lead single from her upcoming album Melodrama.
In early 2015, reports emerged that Lava’s deal with Republic was up for expiry – and that both sides were permitted to buy each other out.
MBW caught up with Flom for an exclusive interview ahead of his appearance at the MUSEXPO event at the W Hotel in Hollywood, Los Angeles on Sunday (April 28).
We asked him about his major label experiences, his approach to A&R, his relationship with the Republic team – and being fired by Lyor Cohen in a bizarre manner back in 2005…
How has streaming changed the process of A&R for you?
It’s hard to think of an industry the size of the music business which has been as dramatically disrupted as it has.
The good news is that all the doomsday people have been demonstrably proven incorrect; there were people eight or nine years ago who were saying the music industry was going out of business. Now we see a big resurgence, which is fantastic.
“Doug Morris taught so many of us to look for the signs – not just to use your ears but to use your brain and be a little scientific about this very unscientific business.”
Streaming is a very interesting tool for research. That’s an aspect of the business Doug Morris really pioneered many years ago; he taught so many of us to look for the signs – not just to use your ears, but to use your brain and be a little scientific about this very unscientific business.
Streaming provides you with very rich data, which is good and bad because it can be confusing.
There are some examples, like Justin Bieber, who develop a tremendous online following and then turn out to be global superstars. But then there’s others who have had tremendous success digitally and it hasn’t translated.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given in your career and who did it come from?
Ahmet Ertegun – arguably for a long time the greatest record executive of them all – told me that unless you’re 100% sure the artist is wrong, go with their vision.
A great example of that is when I’d signed Kid Rock and was working Devil Without A Cause . The album had sold about 5m copies – Bawitdaba and Cowboy had been huge hits – and he wanted to put out a song called Only God Knows Why as the next single.
The Head of Promotions at [Atlantic] calls me and she has a group of program directors on the phone from one of the radio chains. They said: ‘We just want you to know, if you put out Only God Knows Why, you’re going to kill this guy’s career.’
I said, what do you mean? They said it’s a country song, it has no chorus and it’s out of tune.
“Ahmet Ertegun – arguably for a long time the greatest record executive of them all – told me that unless you’re 100% sure the artist is wrong, go with their vision.”
And I said, well, all of those things are true, but it doesn’t really matter – he’s told me on numerous occasions this is the most important song to him.
It became the biggest hit of them all, and we ended up selling another 6m records off the back of it.
Doug Morris taught me, amongst other things, to pay attention to what the customer wants. He said: ‘Whatever your opinion is, that’s fine. But if the public is telling you something – because they vote with their wallets – you have to respect that.’
He taught a lot of us that principle. Ultimately, Monte and Avery [Lipman] became the best at it.
They turned that principle into the biggest record company in the world.
Why do you enjoy working with Republic, to the point you’ve remained with them all this time?
Well, Monte [pictured] and I used to have a friendly rivalry. We competed for artists on several occasions. It seemed that every time I was breaking something, he and Avery were breaking something.
We’d talk several times a year and compared notes. But when I left Capitol, I thought: ‘These guys are great at breaking new artists, and I love breaking new artists. So let’s join forces.’
Republic is not a political place. I always say Monte and Avery can’t sleep at night because they don’t have all 200 of the Top 200.
“Republic has the best people – Charlie Walk, for example; the best in the business at what he does, unequivocally.”
They’re very competitive. But as much as this is an ego-driven business, they don’t have much of an ego about this stuff.
They’re interested in hits – they don’t care if I found it, you found it, or the f*cking cleaning lady found it. They just want their records on the charts.
The other thing is, they have the best staff. Just look at the people: Charlie Walk, for example – the best in the business at what he does, unequivocally.
How does your own ego deal with sharing A&R duties with the Republic team?
That’s always a tricky thing. But I lived that way when Lava was at Atlantic. At that time I had to generate all my own heat because, let’s just say, there were a lot of people there who weren’t on my side.
Every record company has its own priorities. But dealing with that is my job; when an artist signs with me they get to be on the biggest record label in the world, and all the leverage that goes with that.
“At Atlantic I had to generate all my own heat because, let’s just say, there were a lot of people there who weren’t on my side.”
But they also get me in there stirring the pot – running around people’s offices and getting them excited, and calling in favors from different places to add that special sauce.
There’s never a perfect situation; it’s not even perfect when you’re running a record company. I ran Virgin and Capitol and at the time it was a very tricky situation to navigate.
You worked under Guy Hands for a short time after he bought EMI.
I left soon after he took over. I didn’t want to be there.
It was an amicable split – they wanted me to stay. But they also wanted to change the structure of the company and that was not permitted under the terms of my deal, so it made perfect sense for me to leave.
“I didn’t understand Guy Hands’ vision. So it was thank you, good night.”
I didn’t understand Guy Hands’ vision. So it was thank you, good night.
But now [Capitol’s] part of Universal, it’s obviously made a huge difference.
A while ago, there were reports Lava was in a buy/sell situation with Republic – that either of you could take full control. How did that end up playing out?
We just decided to extend the deal, instead of doing any kind of transaction. I think the best is yet to come for Lava, and with the business rebounding I think it was a good decision for everyone.
When I sold Lava the first time to Atlantic, it was a good deal for everyone.
“Based on the information I have now, we’re going to have a very good run and I like being [at Republic].”
They sold a lot of records with the artists after the purchase that were part of the deal.
Based on the information I have now, we’re going to have a very good run and I like being [at Republic]. We’ll see what the future holds.
In your experience, what are the best things and the worst things about major record companies?
Major record companies are just great, there’s nothing bad about them – I’m kidding [laughs].
At the end of the day, record companies are made up of people. The name on the label doesn’t matter.
If you’re working with great people who have your best interests at heart and who have leverage to help the artist succeed to the highest level they can, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
“This won’t be shocking to anyone, but obviously a major label has to work with a certain a volume of product.”
This won’t be shocking to anyone, but obviously a major label has to work with a certain a volume of product. So you’re always going to have to compete with other artists for the priority slots.
That’s where good management comes into play. Proper management, most people would agree, is more important than ever today.
Labels are not magicians. People who are not in the business think labels can promote anything and make it a hit – that’s not true. Without great music, there’s nothing anyone can do.
Is it true that Lyor Cohen handed you a PR announcing your resignation from Atlantic in LAX airport in 2005?
That is absolutely true. It was a strange set of circumstances.
I was in Aspen on vacation with my family. I was on my way through LA to go back to work in New York.
Someone from Lyor’s office called me and told me he was coming to LA, so why don’t I meet him in the airport.
In retrospect, that sounded strange. But it’s like the mafia – you never see it coming.
“Someone in Lyor’s office told me he was coming to LA, so why don’t I meet him at the airport. In retrospect, that sounded strange. But it’s like the mafia – you never see it coming.”
I met him at the gate. We were walking down the corridor, and he showed me a bit of paper announcing my resignation. So I said: ‘I’m gonna go call my lawyer.’
It was really bizarre because I heard Lyor got on a plane right afterwards and flew back to New York.
He could have just called me into his office in New York, and saved himself flying across the country and back.
The whole thing is a surreal memory.
Was that typical of your working relationship with him and have you spoken since?
Yeah, we’ve spoken since. In fact, I got the Lava name back from him in a golf game – we’ve played golf together a few times.
It’s not personal; it’s business.
We didn’t have a great professional relationship and it didn’t work out. He’s done fine, I’ve done fine.
What is the key factor in making you want to sign an artist?
One of my heroes is David Geffen. David described it to me one time as instinct, and that’s perfect.
It just hits you and you think: ‘I get this.’
With Katy Perry it was when I met her. I just thought: ‘Oh my God, this girl’s a star.’ I’d never heard a note of music.
“With Katy Perry it was when I met her. I just thought: ‘Oh my God, this girl’s a star.'”
Or Hayley Williams. She was 15-years-old, sitting in my office playing acoustic and staring daggers through me.
I thought: ‘This girl’s going to be successful, and I need to get on this train.’
With Lorde, I actually heard Royals – finished. It was just in my inbox. That was a miracle. I heard it once and lost my mind.
Is it right you met some resistance at Virgin when you signed Katy Perry?
I was in charge, so I could do whatever I wanted – but the initial reaction I got after playing it for several of my top people was very negative.
They pretty much begged me not to sign her. They will remain nameless, but the fact is I was taken aback, and because of that I waited about a month before signing her.
“[People at Virgin] pretty much begged me not to sign Katy Perry. They will remain nameless, but the fact is I was taken aback…”
I remember that I was working out and listening to her music, and I thought: ‘This girl is incredible, why am I listening to anybody else?’
I was worried she might have been scooped up by somebody else. But she’d already been dropped by two labels and luckily no-one else was moving very quickly in her direction.
You seem to avoid A&R conservatism with Lorde, despite the high stakes of her as an artist.
Well, Lorde does not pay attention to trends. She’s her own person – she does what she feels, at whatever time she feels like doing it.
Creatively and musically she’s the most independent-minded artist I can ever remember working with.
“Creatively and musically Lorde is the most independent-minded artist I can ever remember working with.”
She has her vision – no-one’s going to sway her from that. And you can’t argue with the results.
She is the Lorde – the Lorde of everything, that one. There never was a more appropriate name.
She may be from another planet. I’m really not sure.Music Business Worldwide