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“We’ve gone from zero to 100 this year. We’ve been putting out a lot of records, and I’m happy to say we’ve had fantastic results.”
——Peter Edge
HIS MASTERS' VOICES
Peter Edge and Tom Corson on
the Transformation of RCA
By Simon Glickman

Q4 of 2012 finds RCA Records rulers Peter Edge and Tom Corson making good on the promise of their unique partnership. The pair, charged by Sony chieftain Doug Morris with overseeing the consolidation of RCA, Arista, Jive and J Records into a single entity, has co-presided at the freshly integrated label for a bit more than a year now.

They’ve lately seen big success with P!nk (who just earned a Best Pop Vocal Album Grammy nod), Pitbull, Dave Matthews Band, Usher, Kelly Clarkson (Grammy nominee for Record of the Year, Pop Vocal Album and Pop Solo Performance, and singer of Song of the Year contender “Stronger”), Miguel (who scored Grammy nods for Song of the Year, Best R&B Song and Best R&B Performance), Chris Brown, Daughtry and more; meanwhile, Christina Aguilera has had a Top 10 bow (with a second single breaking), while Ke$ha and Alicia Keys (last week’s #1) are poised for holiday-season impact.

These splashy releases, however, are only part of the picture; CEO Edge’s A&R/creative vision and COO Corson’s marketing acumen inform what Edge calls a distinctively “modern” approach that is nonetheless grounded in classic music-biz virtues.

“We’ve gone from zero to 100 this year,” Edge exults. “We’ve been putting out a lot of records, and I’m happy to say we’ve had fantastic results.”

“It’s been a very exciting and busy year,” agrees Corson. “The company has really pulled together. It’s been a big transition—and initially somewhat painful—but ultimately very rewarding in terms of how it’s come together.”

Edge says following the regime change last year, the company was “somewhat rudderless” when they stepped into their tandem leadership roles. “We really didn’t put out that many records last year and were wondering what would happen next,” he says. “It was a new team and it takes a while to get into a groove.”

He points to the “complementary skill sets” they bring to the table as the basis for the partnership’s harmony. “Obviously I have this longstanding A&R background, doing artist development, finding songs for people and so on,” Edge notes, “and Tom is the best marketer in the business. So it’s a classic combination.”

The key to their collaborative leadership, Corson asserts, is twofold: constant communication and proper delegation of duties. “After I get up, say hello to my wife, walk my dog, do my workout, I talk to Peter,” he reveals. “And my day ends with a call to Peter. And there are lots of texts and emails in between. We’re constantly talking, strategizing, laughing.” Though they’d never functioned this closely before, the pair worked together for 12 years at Arista and J, laying the groundwork for their current regime.

“I have this philosophy that the best A&R people have great marketing chops and the best marketing people have a terrific A&R sensibility,” Corson offers. “The handshake between those areas is essential to a successful label.” At the same time, he insists, “I defer to Peter one hundred percent on creative matters, and he trusts me implicitly on marketing issues. We stay in our lanes and respect one another’s expertise.”

“There’s not a lot of ego around here,” Edge declares. “I think the era of the outlandish, showy exec might be over. We probably typify the new kind, more modern, more artist/business-oriented and more music-focused.”

For Edge that modern outlook is characterized by both pragmatism and dexterity—the ability, as he puts it, “to not be locked into a formula but just be really music-orientated and watch the culture carefully” for new developments.

Both execs regard the success of P!nk as a key example of the new label’s approach coming to fruition. “That was a wow,” says Corson of the album’s 285k debut. “It exceeded our forecasts. Her star power is at an all-time high; we had a #1 single and a really deep album with a fantastic plan.” He adds that a Target spot (featuring second single “Try” before its launch) provided additional momentum, as it helped “flesh out the album for consumers.”

“It’s her first #1 U.S. album, and we did about a million albums worldwide,” Edge says, “which is phenomenal—especially nowadays. Gold,” he adds with a laugh, “is the new platinum.”

Indeed, according to Edge, album sales are often not the best way to gauge success. “It’s a TEA kind of world, a revenue-equivalent world,” he elaborates, pointing to Pitbull’s massive single sales (20-22 million) alongside his million-plus albums. “The combination of all these things—streaming, single sales, album sales, global success, continued success as opposed to just a moment—add up to some really significant income.”

Transforming the Miami rapper from a regional act into a global phenomenon in a mere two years, he continues, involved harnessing Pitbull’s abundant star power, choosing the right singles (such as the monsters “Give Me Everything” and “Back in Time”) and embarking on the sort of artist-development campaign that resulted in worldwide penetration. “You can go to Lithuania or Uzbekistan now,” Edge exults, “and they’re partying to Pitbull.”

Other recent boosts have come from Dave Matthews Band, Three Days Grace, returning siren Brandy and breakout Bystorm/RCA R&B troubadour Miguel. “He’s a consummate artist, that thing you always look for: the complete picture,” marvels Edge of the latter, who’s been dominating the Urban world with his Kaleidoscope Dream album and smash single “Adorn,” earned critical hosannas and begun crossing to Pop. “Soulful R&B records like this have been missing from the Top 40 for years,” asserts Edge. “We’re changing that.”

Edge and Corson see radio formats evolving, and the prior decade’s often monolithic approaches to genre and playlists breaking down. “Top 40 is at the beginning of a whole new cycle,” Edge observes. “They’ve had success with fun., Alex Clare, Imagine Dragons. I think everyone felt it was time for a change of tempo.”

Corson offers a similar perspective on PoMo: “Different beats and sounds—that’s what you’re hearing again, and that’s what was always great about alternative radio: They took chances,” he reflects. “But it got very conservative, and it hurt them. They haven’t broken enough acts. I love the format; it’s my heritage. But it needed to step up.” He and Edge see that happening with acts like Gotye [a Record of the Year, Pop Duo/Group Perf and Alternative Album Grammy nominee] and feel such new signings as Walk the Moon and Mikky Ekko (already a favorite of Rihanna and BBC Radio 1) will help set the format’s next course. Mikky wrote, produced and duets on Rihanna’s next single, “Stay.”

They’re predicting more roster breakouts soon, including A$AP Rocky, Walk the Moon and Elle Varner (100k in the urban world, a top 10 track, R&B Song Grammy nominee). “Our new artists are bubbling and breaking to some degree, but we’re still on deck for the breakthrough,” Corson says. “It takes a couple of years, unless you get lucky. We feel the next year to 18 months is going to really define us in terms of strategy, how we execute that.”

The challenges of recent Aguilera and Usher singles at radio led us to ask Corson about finessing such a situation.

“You look at the facts,” he insists. “While there’s passion and belief involved, in this day and age there’s so much information—between research and sales and streaming activity and so on, you stick to the facts, draw upon your experiences of like records or records the artist has had out before, if they’re a known artist. You examine every possibility, every feeling, every market, every sales and streaming tool, everything you can do to build that dashboard and try to come to a conclusion. We always try to exhaust every possibility before we let go of a record.

“You’re always preparing for the worst and planning for the best,” he adds, “but we don’t have to make a decision today we can wait a week, or maybe two. We’ve had records turn around in a week, and all of a sudden you say, ‘Here we go.’”

Both partners give major props to Morris for providing the support and resources to put it all together. “I owe Doug a lot for this opportunity,” notes Edge. “He gives people their space but always comes in with new ideas. I’m learning a lot from watching him—his understanding of human psychology, how people work emotionally. He’s pretty brilliant at the game.”

“Doug’s a fantastic inspiration to us and has been incredibly supportive,” Corson adds. “He’s encouraged us to take shots, really backed us one hundred percent in terms of what we want to achieve, and given us great guidance and insight to raising our game. So it’s been a wonderful culture shift under Doug Morris.”

Promo domo Joe Riccitelli (recently upped to EVP/GM) naturally gets laurels for making their Pop acts pop. “He’s critical,” Corson declares, voicing praise as well for urban promo head Geo Bivins, SVPs of marketing Aaron Borns (Pop and Rock), Lisa Cambridge-Mitchell (Urban and Pop) and Carolyn Williams (mostly Urban), and PR chief Mika El-Baz. “They’re all stars,” he says. Further shout-outs go to RCA head of international John Fleckenstein, digital topper Jennifer Fowler, head of video Samantha Lecca, sales topper Bob Anderson, licensing/brand marketing head Karen Lamberton, finance head Cliff Silver and to Dan Zucker, who runs business and legal affairs.

Edge is effusive about his A&R team, with accolades for legendary rhythm-radio architect and Arista veteran Keith Naftaly, who’s worked with Kelly Clarkson on her string of successes; Mark Pitts (the man behind Bystorm Entertainment, Usher and Chris Brown); rock dude David Wolter (RCA’s rock stable includes Foo Fighters, Kings of Leon, Ray LaMontagne, Daughtry, The Strokes, Walk the Moon and DMB); Rani Hancock, who works closely with Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe and A&Rs and guides #1 pop diva Ke$ha; Polo Grounds chief Bryan Leach, who signed Pitbull and A.$.A.P. Rocky; former Atlantic exec Mr. Morgan, who brought in the surprising Snoop Lion project, helmed by Diplo; Veep Trevor Jerideau; Senior Director Adonis Sutherlin; rap expert J. Grand; and veterans Wayne Williams and Shawn Holiday.

He counts the building of his team among the most rewarding tasks of his tenure. “We have an amazing set of creatives in the building,” he says. “And creative at this company drives the culture.”

Both are conscious of being mentors to their staffers, remembering the figures who taught them the ropes. Edge singles out Chrysalis co-founder Doug D’Arcy, the Warner Bros. team headed by Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker (as well as Urban head Benny Medina) and, of course, Clive Davis, under whose tutelage he and Corson both developed their leadership abilities. “He’s just relentless—that’s the quality I think of when I think about Clive,” Edge recalls. “He would not stop until he felt it was right, and he put the artist on a pedestal. He cared a lot about everything he did, and still does. He held the bar up very high.”

“It was so fascinating to watch Clive pull the levers and strategize,” Corson remembers. “You could come to him with questions and problems, and there was nothing he hadn’t faced before. That’s where true wisdom comes from. And you could ask him about Janis Joplin or Patti Smith and he would always have amazing stories to tell.” Corson, who began his career as an intern at I.R.S., also singles out that label’s Miles Copeland and Jay Boberg—as well as Gil Friesen at A&M, Hale Milgrim and Joe Smith at Capitol, Charles Goldstuck at J/Arista Records, and Donnie Ienner at Columbia—as formative influences. Working with Ienner now (in his capacity as manager of artist Hot Chelle Rae), says Corson, is “a fascinating turn of the wheel. He’s a great record man, one of the best ever.”

Indeed, Edge and Corson draw inspiration for their leadership styles from the labels that shaped their sensibilities. “These were entrepreneurial companies,” says Edge. “They were mavericks and avoided formulas. They were all about artist development, being true to the music and having integrity. That’s been my foundation.”

“I think about a number of my mentors every day while I’m making decisions—or, in some cases, not making them,” Corson points out. “You’re always learning, if you’re open to it, and I’ve drawn upon all those experiences constantly.”

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