"I think of myself as a consumer first and an executive second."
——Antonio "L.A." Reid, Arista Records President/CEO


An exclusive hitsdailydouble.com dialogue with Arista President/CEO Antonio "L.A." Reid

by Shirley Halperin

In his 20-year-plus career, Antonio "L.A." Reid has guided dozens of superstars. He started out as drummer and manager of ’80s R&B group the Deele with fellow member and longtime collaborator Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. He has also been a prolific producer (Paula Abdul, Boyz II Men and Bobby Brown, among others) and a successful label head (LaFace Records).

A lifelong music fan, Reid grew up a child of radio in Cincinnati, listening to James Brown, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. And from Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix to Roberta Flack and the Beatles, L.A. always came away from a good song with a new understanding of what makes a quantifiable "hit." Which may explain why today, Reid is all about making an impact—with songs, artists and records. While his ears seem perfectly tuned into the sounds of the moment, it is his business savvy that has brought him this far and guarantees his future.

Reid’s industry admirers are legion. An e-mail from IDJ President Lyor Cohen read: "L.A. Reid’s power lies in his ability to get the aesthetics and music right against all odds. To pull a fourth-quarter Usher album off the shelves, reload and go on to save the artist’s career by selling 6 million albums for Arista simply makes him my hero. Anyone who has anything bad to say about L.A. Reid is probably a finance or lawyer type with absolutely no chutzpah, love or passion for our profession." Chimed in BMG Chairman/CEO Rolf Schmidt-Holtz: "We love L.A. He came in under difficult circumstances, but he’s proved himself to be a great music man and a strong leader. He has the intense musical focus and the deep experience to find not only promising newcomers, but also to elevate the careers of established artists. We are proud he is part of BMG." But by far the most impassioned comments come from members of his own staff, all of whom describe Reid as the consummate "record man." Sr. VP Sales Jordan Katz, recalling a late-night listening session shortly after Reid’s arrival, suggests that Arista’s current success across several genres "echoes L.A.’s spirit and extraordinary love and commitment to our label’s artists and music." GM Larry Mestel adds: "I’ve never seen anybody who is able to match up a producer, a song and an artist the way L.A. can—nobody even comes close."

These resounding declarations of support come as no surprise to people who know L.A. Reid personally. But having been stationed in Atlanta for the better part of his illustrious industry career, he remains an enigma to many on the outside. Attempting to unveil some of that mystery is someone with more than enough chutzpah of her own, HITS’ Shirley "Burly" Halperin.

First of all, congratulations on Arista’s five Grammy wins.
I was so happy to see OutKast walk away with two Grammys. I started working with them in 1993, so for them to come here nine years later and be recognized by their peers is phenomenal. Usher also got one for "U Remind Me," and I’m very happy about his win. I wish it was a televised award, because it certainly took some of the thunder from an artist who’s having a phenomenal year…but maybe next year. And Pink won for "Lady Marmalade," in which I believe her role within the whole ensemble was both meaningful and credible, so I’m happy she won her first Grammy. All of our artists—OutKast, Usher, Pink and Dido—were first-time Grammy winners, so I’m really proud of that fact. It speaks volumes to the progress that we’re making here at Arista.

You’re a nurturer, having worked with Usher since he was 13 and Pink from the age of 16. That’s the kind of commitment it takes to properly develop an artist these days.
As fans and consumers move from their favorite artist this year to a different favorite the next, you have to be careful and wise about how to invest time and money in talent. I prefer to associate myself with artists that I believe can make it in the long run and have the staying power to warrant that kind of financial commitment. Artists like Usher, Pink and OutKast have all been working for so many years that it feels good to see the payoff. I feel that we’re all family, so it’s not just a question of signing artists and putting out records. We bond creatively and understand each other. It’s a give-and-take exchange that will hopefully lead to the best ideas and decisions for their careers and for the label. And we stick with our artists. Take Dido. Her album is making huge noise around the world, but the fact is that it had actually been out for quite some time. Its success is a testament to our tenacity to stick with an artist and a record to achieve that kind of global potential.

Being a music executive who came from the creative side, how has that influenced the way you do business?
I think of myself as a consumer first and an executive second. I love music and artists, and I respond the way that a consumer would. That gives me the objectivity to make the right decisions, whether creative or business. I don’t totally hang my hat on the creative; I keep that as a shield of honor, although I do pride myself on being someone who is friendly to the creative community, having been a songwriter—which I still am . But I was also always a manager in my businesses—either managing bands that I was in or managing my label. I got famous for being creative, but the fact is that I was always in charge of my business affairs.

How involved are you on the production side of things?
I spend a lot of time with producers, many of which I feel close to—Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Shek’spere and the Neptunes, to name a few. We often have exchanges about the work that they may do for Arista artists or we may discuss work that they’re doing for other artists because we speak the same language. Obviously, Babyface has been a partner of mine for 20 years and we still work very closely together and discuss music all the time. I feel like I work vicariously through the producers I have relationships with. While I don’t actually go into the studio to produce records, I do work very closely with the people who do. I feel, if there’s a necessary change, whether it’s a lyrical, arranging or mixing change—things I would know as a writer and a producer—I’m still able to express my opinions. I’ve found that the producers tend to respond to it very favorably and we come to a happy medium.

Is that what happened with Usher’s record? Word is that you had it completely scrapped and re-done.
People think I had the record re-done but, the truth is, we never finished it. We got to a place where we felt we were close, but the recording process never stopped. We continued to record until we felt we had the album we wanted. Once we did, there was no looking back, and we’re now having a wonderful run with it. I’m probably an overly meticulous executive when it comes to making records and Usher and I both really pushed each other to go for the best. I’m happy with the results; it’s a huge record and I believe you have to stick with something until you get it right. And again, you have to examine the kind of commitment you’re prepared to give. Usher is an artist whom I feel deserves that level of commitment, both creatively and financially. I believe he is one of the most exciting singers in the world. With an artist like that, you have to make sure you got it right. Fans like great music. They don’t like you just because you’re you, so I need to make sure the record will absolutely connect.

Being so hands-on, how do you juggle the responsibilities of overseeing the creative and business ends?
I’ve tried to surround myself with the brightest people in the business, including [General Manager] Larry Mestel, who is not only the GM, but also the chief-of-staff here; [Executive VP] Lionel Ridenour; [Sr. VP] Steve Bartels; [Sr. VP Marketing & Artist Relations] Mark Shimmel; [Sr. VP Sales] Jordan Katz; [Sr. VP Promotion] Steve Bartels and [VP A&R Administration] Karen Kwok. These are people I feel are the best around and we work very closely together. I spend a lot of time with my A&R staff, my promotion staff and the marketing team as well. I’m across-the-board; I touch the key issues in every department on a day-to-day basis and I find that as long as I stay abreast of everything that’s going on, I’m OK delegating certain responsibilities to people that I trust and believe in. I’m a 24/7 guy. I work all day and night. I’m usually in my office until 1 a.m. and my key guys are generally very close by. But my foremost focus is making and promoting records. That’s my first concern and my passion.

You’re now 18 months into your presidency. How has the transition been?
I was very optimistic when I became the head of Arista. The truth is that it takes a certain amount of time to put together a team and develop the roster, to really find your footing and your own style of doing things. It took more time than I hoped, but I’m very proud of our progress so far. We’re still working on developing certain areas of our company. Although the transition wasn’t as smooth as I had hoped, I’m very happy with the results.

How did you deal with the heat of succeeding a legend like Clive Davis?
I’m an entertainer, so I don’t care about the fact that we were in the spotlight, so to speak—entertainers like the spotlight, which is why we do it. I wouldn’t say that our transition was affected any more or less by everybody focusing on it. I’m happy that people paid attention to me and to what we did. As for the "heat," they have a right to their opinion and I accept it as that. The truth is, I think we have one of the most incredible teams in the business today. In a short amount of time, we’ve become highly competitive. We are absolutely a label to watch.

When you last spoke to HITS, you said two areas you’d like to further develop were rock and Latin.
We have made significant progress in both areas. In the Latin area, Tocallo Caballos is an artist we signed to Arista who has garnered both Latin Grammy and the mainstream Grammy nominations. In rock, we’ve had success in developing Adema, which I’m really proud of. We’ve gone Gold and the second single and video are just starting to kick in, so I’m feeling like we’re getting some footing there. We obviously have a lot of signings that haven’t been released yet, in the rock world in particular. We have some really incredible acts, from Adema to Avril Lavigne—a new signing whom I feel is a franchise artist for us, she’s just incredibly talented—to Butch Walker, the lead singer of Marvelous 3, who has an incredible album coming. We’ve worked a great deal over the last 18 months to develop the roster and now we’ll work to market and promote those artists. We remain committed to what we feel are our core musical genres—Pop and R&B, Urban music overall—so we’re also continuing to grow our artist roster in those areas.

What’s happening with your affiliated labels and joint ventures?
We continue to have a joint-venture relationship with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Flyte Tyme, which is about to relase an album from Nodesha Felix, a young, talented new artist that we feel very strongly about. Obviously, we’re close with them as producers as well. They worked on Usher’s record and we plan to work together on Whitney Houston and Blu Cantrell. I’m very proud to be in a business and personal relationship with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. I have so much respect for them, not only as music professionals, but as incredible people with a great deal of integrity.

Then there’s Shek’spere, with whom we also continue to have a joint-venture relationship. He is part of the Atlanta community and is not only a strong creative force, but also a future executive in our business. He’s very smart, understands music and the industry and I think he will grow into a very seasoned and important executive. He has a future on both sides of the tracks.

The Neptunes, who are as hot as you can get, are developing their roster. While still in its formative stage, they do have music that they’re releasing from SpyMob as well as The Clipse. They’re also the producers of the current Usher single, "U Don’t Have to Call," and they’re in the studio with several of the artists on our label—writing for Carlos Santana and Whitney Houston. The relationship with our partners goes much deeper than merely a joint venture… We have a musical relationship and we work together very closely.

How about Babyface?
We had a joint venture with Babyface and Andre Harrell [Nu America] and we mutually decided that maybe it wasn’t the best thing for us—it wasn’t the most ideal fit. But we continue to have a relationship with Babyface as a recording artist and a producer and we’re very happy with it. As a matter of fact, he’s producing Boyz II Men for us as well as Toni Braxton and Carlos Santana. So we continue to have a very active relationship with Babyface and, for me, a 20-year friendship, which I’m very proud of.

Is there a rivalry between Arista and J?
I’m in competition with everybody. This week, Arista is #6 in terms of market share and I’m trying to beat the other five guys that are ahead of me. I’m very competitive and, while I admire many of the executives and labels in our business for their individuality and their ability to develop great artists, I don’t feel a particular rivalry with anyone specific, but I do openly compete with everyone. I wish Clive the absolute best with J Records. I love Alicia.

With shrinking margins and a general industry slump, can you still justify the enormous sums being shelled out for artists?
We have to be smart. The days of big spending and excess are over and we absolutely have to re-examine how we do business. We’ve certainly been forced to do that here at Arista—to focus on things that we feel drive the sales of an album and the branding of an artist—and we won’t overpay for anything. Because of the climate and the environment, we were forced to make some tough decisions on how to go forward. While a few of those things may no longer be beneficial to some of the people that we once did business with, hopefully they it benefits us as a label.

What are your thoughts on CD-burning and piracy?
The music industry loses. The sale of pirate recordings exceeds 4.2 billion worldwide and this doesn’t even include the number of lawsuits against Internet piracy. This is definitely something that I am very active in, as is the company, because it’s a problem. Piracy doesn’t just hurt the performers, authors, musicians and the record companies—it’s a problem for everyone. Fans and consumers are growing accustomed to believing that music should be free or should be traded or downloaded and, at the end of the day, it’s really set up to ruin our business. Forty percent of music consumers now own CD-burners, compared to 14% in 1999; 77% use them to copy CDs. It’s a disturbing problem. I intend to contine fighting it.

What do you have lined up for 2002?
We have a new Boyz II Men album coming, their first on Arista, so we’re excited about that. Donell Jones is releasing a new album. Both Whitney and Toni are in the studio working on new albums. Carlos Santana too. We’ll have two Kenny G releases this year: a studio album as well as another holiday album. We have Patti Smith’s greatest hits album, Land 1975-2002, out March 19 with a single that’s a remake of Prince’s "When Doves Cry" that I absolutely love. We also have several new artists. One that’s really important is Cee-Lo, who used to be a member of the Goodie Mob, an Atlanta-based group that was on LaFace. He has a new album and video out that’s really starting to heat up. Again, he’s a franchise artist…an important singer, rapper, producer and songwriter—a multi-talented entertainer. And then there’s Isyss; four girls out of L.A. who have a great R&B/pop single, "Day and Night," we’re very excited about. We have Avril, out of Canada, a rocker who’s very strong. We also continue to move forward with Lennon and Adema. Then there’s Tina Novak, from Spear Records, and Nodesha Felix from Flyte Tyme, The Clipse and SpyMob are both on the Neptunes’ label… There’s so much music right now. Our schedule is really solid and building. But my real focus is to continue growing our superstars—Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Carlos Santana, Kenny G and TLC.

When do you anticipate the release of TLC’s album?
We hope to get it out by summer. It feels good so far, but I’ll only release it when I know it’s absolutely right.