The Fifth in a Series of Follow-up Q&As With
the Heads of the Top Five Labels of 2013
Our year-end chat with RCA CEO Peter Edge and President Tom Corson found them with 2013’s biggest album (Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience), P!nk’s multi-hit monster, Miley Cyrus’ explosion into the zeitgeist and Kelly Clarkson’s holiday bonanza. In the first half of this year, with most of the superstars on their blingy roster either off cycle or focused on touring (though JT has yet another smash), Team Nipper has fostered the growth of artists like Pitbull, Kid Ink and Cage the Elephant, and busied themselves breaking newer acts; Magic!, Sia, Tinashe and Bleachers show the depth and diversity of their rookie bench. Edge and Corson will be rolling out several event records in Q3 and Q4 too, as they further demonstrate their unique corporate chemistry.
What’s your assessment of the first half of 2014, in terms of records that exceeded your expectations and some that perhaps had you scratching your head a bit?
TC: We’re super excited about Kid Ink. It was the first album we dropped this year. He’s at half a million TEAs right now and growing. He’s got "Main Chick" out right now with Chris Brown. We have follow-ups. He’s starting to get asked for every feature all around.

PE: He did a great one with Steve Aoki that we think is a big hit. Biggest rap record of the year, with 1.3 million.

TC: We’re super excited about Justin Timberlake’s #1 single, "Not a Bad Thing," which didn’t have to happen—it just captured a moment. It’s been 15 months since we launched the first album and it’s still going strong going into the summer. So, there’s more to come on the Justin front. So, those two things, in many ways, really capture the first half of the year.

The other headliner, if you will, would be a very nice launch to Shakira, very nicely positioned in the marketplace. There’s Ray LaMontagne with his highest debut ever chart-wise. On another note, a headline for us is developing artists now and breaking new artists. That’s why the Kid Ink record is so exciting.

At the start of this year we were two-and-a-half years into our term here, and we’ve had some great successes between A$AP Rocky, Miley Cyrus and Miguel, among others. But the next year to 18 months is when all our signings, artist development and refreshing of our roster are starting to come to fruition. And you can see it with breakouts like Magic!

PE: Which is Nasri. It’s his band. He’s a popular songwriter who formed this band, managed by Charles Chavez, Pitbull’s manager. We just heard this music and decided we were really going to back it. It was #1 in Australia and Canada, and now it looks like we’ll have a #1 American record.

We feel that Tinashe, whom we signed about a year ago, could be our own baby Beyoncé or Rihanna, somebody cut from that cloth. She writes, produces, dances and sings. She’s about to be #1 at Urban and Rhythm and crossing to Pop. Bleachers is #4 at Alternative as we speak. It feels like a blowout hit. Sia would be the other one of our five current breakouts. She’s everybody’s favorite artist that never made it into the mainstream—an amazing songwriter. Now she’s put her craft into writing her own record, and "Chandelier" is breaking.
With Justin Timberlake having yet another #1, how did you overcome this much-discussed "Justin fatigue?" He’d been front-and-center forever on this record.
We never looked it in that way. His impact is massive, but he really doesn’t tick every promotional box. Everything is very strategic; his frequency is low, but his reach is massive. The new campaign was inspired by the truth. One of our people was on a train and this guy proposed to this girl with his Beats Pill and "Not a Bad Thing." Peter got Justin to sign off on it. He really left it up to us, Sonia Muckle and Johnny Wright to brainstorm the concepts. It’ll be around all summer. He’s on tour this fall, and we’re developing the next phase.

Where do things stand with Miley? Hers was certainly one of the most noteworthy artist stories of last year.
She went out on tour and has been getting phenomenal reviews. It’s definitely next-level touring with just the idea, the visuals, the staging, the props, all of it. She pushes a lot of buttons.

TC: The tour goes through most of the rest of the year. She’s writing and has a couple ideas for what’s next, but it’s very early at this point.
A lot of your biggest recent successes have been in the Rhythm world. What do you attribute that to?
The format is a little broader than it was a couple years ago. While it’s hard to break anything 100% at Rhythm, it’s an incredible platform to spread your brand to other formats. When you have young artists, almost all of them are influenced by hip-hop.

Compared to even a short while ago, new artists are driving the business.
TC: Thank God. We love our existing artists, but it’s great to see everything refreshing.

PE: When we took over—this is about to be our third year—there hadn’t been a lot of new signings. But we had some amazing established artists that we had to refresh and find some new music and directions for, like Kelly Clarkson, P!nk and people like that. Then we really set about signing new artists; that’s why it’s taken time. It takes a couple of years to sign and make records and get them released and have hits. It’s at least two to three years.
Now we’re seeing some of these acts that were signed in the last two years actually on the charts. There are others coming. We’re really excited about Erik Hassle; we really feel he’s a star. Betty Who seems to be making real noise with the last two releases going Top 5. Brooke Candy is like viral fire every time she does something. As of yesterday, Sam Smith was pledging love, saying she was the greatest thing on the planet on Twitter. There’s Mr. Probz, which is the hottest record overseas right now. It’s called "Waves." It’s #1 on the pan-European airplay chart and we feel it’ll be #1 in the U.S. as well. It’s coming on real strong. We feel that’s our next hit.

Then, we have a bunch of major releases again. There’s the new Usher album. There’s the new Foo Fighters album. Miguel will be following up his breakthrough album in the fall. Jamie Foxx is coming back. Chris Brown is out of jail, thankfully, and has got probably one of the best records he’s made in a long time.

TC: Don’t forget Pitbull.

PE: Alicia Keys has a dynamic album in Q4, and so do Pitbull and A$AP Rocky. Another very interesting project is Prince Royce. He’s really had a breakthrough year on the Latin charts and we’re looking at working on an opportunity to cross him properly. There’s also Pentatonix. We see that as a big opportunity; they’ll have a Christmas album, followed by a studio album. We heard a couple of original songs they cut this week and were very impressed.

TC: We’re getting there. With rock and hip-hop, the refreshing of the rosters is on. Bleachers is the best example, but we had a nice opener last year with Smallpools, and Cage the Elephant just keeps rolling on. Kings of Leon are on tour this summer, and we’re going to go into their new single shortly. Then, we’ve got a record coming from the Foo Fighters—who will also have an HBO series—and we’re aggressively pursuing rock bands.

Another thing I think has changed the equation is the sort of globalization of music, in terms of stuff being able to come much more easily from other countries or territories.
Well, look at Magic!. Look at Probz. It’s a small world. You put something up, like a Sia video, and boom. You put up a Shakira video of her World Cup look, and it’s 35m views a week from everywhere. The walls coming down creates a great time for music.
I wonder if you could speak specifically about the U.K. as an A&R source and if indeed you find a record’s success in Britain to be predictive.
PE: It’s good to see that the U.K. is no longer just an island. It was for many years. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the early part of the 2000s, not a lot of music was coming out of the U.K. and working everywhere else. Happily, because of the world we’re in now, we’re seeing the Sam Smiths, the Disclosures, the Rudimentals and all of the different acts that are working in the U.K. being heard around the world.

On the label side, British executives have been hugely successful at American companies in the last few years. Given that you’re one of them, Peter, what are your thoughts about this?

PE: One thing I know is that when I grew up—and obviously contemporaries like Rob Stringer had similar experiences—the depth of the music culture was really formidable. You grow up with music as a big part of your life. You do in America too, but the U.K. is a little bit more like a village. Music played a huge role and got national attention at all times.

Then there’s the tradition of all those great ’60s and ’70s labels and entrepreneurs, like Chris Blackwell with Island. We grew up on that business model that fostered not just British acts, but acts around the world as well. There’s just a really good background of music business and music culture coming out of the U,K. You know, I can’t say why British executives work in America. I just know that there’s a great business here. And we want to come here [laughs].

One exec who went in the other direction was Jason Iley, who left Roc Nation to run the Sony U.K. office. I’m wondering if you have some insight into what he brings to the job.
TC: I think that the fact he’s been here is a tremendous advantage for him, to go back to the U.K. with that American, broad-landscape point of view. He’s always been a proponent of global music. As we get to know him, we’re very excited because he’s going to have an opportunity to really take Sony Music to the next level. He’s forming a vision right now that really suits the needs of the company, so the timing is excellent.
What are your thoughts on the Apple/Beats deal and sort of how this might change the landscape a bit?
Well, we think it’s making some people really rich. How’s that?

PE: Tom and I have been big believers in streaming for several years. Once you use it, you don’t want to turn back. It’s a much better experience than just downloading, and you don’t have to drag drives around with you. It’s just kind of a no-brainer when you offer the consumer a better alternative. I turned some friends on to Spotify and such, and they were a little reluctant, initially. Now they’re in love with it.

TC: In terms of Beats, I think it’s a brilliant move for everybody. It’s probably very good for the record business to have Apple with their embedded user-base to have a competitive streaming service with a hot brand. You know, they’re buying a hot brand with very competitive, smart people running it. They get artists, get the lifestyle and get the 360 approach.

PE: That’s the Jimmy Iovine tactic. He really understands artists and how to make music really active. He’s got a passion for music. We met with him recently, and his approach to it is exciting, because he brings the same vigor, the same energy that he does to the business of making stars and putting records out.

Speaking of Jimmy, how does his leaving the record side change the playing field?
TC: We think it’s great. We think it’s about time [laughs]. I just want to say one thing, though. I think we’re gonna find in some way, shape or form that Jimmy isn’t gonna leave the music business. That’s all I’m going to say.

PE: I think he just figures he’s changed hats.
I wondered if you had anything to say about the reshuffling of the UMG East labels and how that kind of changed the marketshare equation
TC: It is what it is. Organically grown marketshare is a very difficult thing for any business to do. As you can see, Beats is a rarity; it’s a unicorn out there. So, good on them. We still think that it hasn’t affected anyone’s competitiveness.

In fact, bigger isn’t always better. It poses volume problems. If you get too big, there’s always a tipping point about having too much and where you aren’t able to get some things. They’re going to have to keep everybody reasonably happy and there’s only so many hours in the day—only so many records that can be priorities and only so much budget money to go around. The bigger you get, it’s just tough to fly at that height and stay competitive. Those guys are great at what they do, so I think that this is more of a business-school observation. It’s not a competitor’s observation.

I’ve been at #1 companies, and when you’re #1, there’s only one place to go. In grafting stuff on, you’re incorporating cultures that don’t necessarily have common values and you have artists that you have to get to know, and that’s challenging. We had to do it when we merged RCA and Jive. It isn’t easy. It’s nice to be in their shoes, but we feel it has not diminished our competitiveness and our ability to win. We’re finding that’s nothing’s changed in the market in terms of signing and developing artists for us. In fact, with a lot of artists it’s an advantage.

Since we’re discussing executives and systems, perhaps you could talk a bit about your team.
TC: We have a wonderful executive team. We’re really fortunate. We’ve been together for a while now, and some of us have been for quite a while. Obviously Joe Riccitelli, our Head of Promotion and General Manager, is a key player. There’s Geo Bivins, our head of Urban and the General Manager of our gospel label RCA Inspiration. Mika El-Baz is not just the head of Publicity; she’s a policymaker. We have three tremendous Heads of Marketing, Aaron Borns, Carolyn Williams and Lisa Cambridge-Mitchell.

John Fleckenstein, our Head of International, is a rock star, and we’ve got a great CFO in Cliff Silver. We have an outstanding EVP of Business & Legal Affairs, Dan Zucker. Of course, there’s the incredible A&R team, including Mark Pitts, the Head of Black Music and the Head of Bystorm. We have Keith Naftaly and Rani Hancock who head the A&R team. There’s Bryan Leach with our Polo Grounds deal, which is A$AP Rocky. David Wolter is our rock guy who signed Bleachers. J Grand found and developed Kid Ink, and there’s a lot more. We just brought in Katie Welle from Sony/ATV, who’s working on setting up A&R in our West Coast office. She’s terrific.

We’re an evolving label. We’re refreshing at a very measured pace on both the executive and the artist levels, and it’s an exciting place to be.

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