An In-Depth Conversation With RCA's Rulers

Riding two of the year’s biggest smashes—Mark Ronson’s unstoppable “Uptown Funk” and Walk the Moon’s irrepressible “Shut Up and Dance”—RCA Chairman/CEO Peter Edge and President/COO Tom Corson are on a major hot streak. This is the fourth year of the pair’s regime; they assumed the mantle after a prolonged fallow period—the previous administration signed virtually nothing, creating a vacuum in new and developing artists.

The team’s aggressive A&R approach over the last few years—augmented by top-flight promotion, overseen by Joe Riccitelli—has resulted in a plethora of acts that are now reaching some sort of critical mass. So far in their tenure they’ve broken Miguel, Ke$ha, Pitbull, Miley Cyrus, Sia, Pentatonix and now Ronson and Walk the Moon. This comes at a crucial time, as some of their major artist roster begins to pass its peak career sales (notably Usher, Alicia Keys, Chris Brown, Britney Spears and Foo Fighters, though any of these could be dangerous with a smash). Meanwhile, Justin Timberlake and P!nk continue at a strong pace. The next 18 months should reveal the results of Edge-Corson’s aggressive A&R plan. On the marketshare front, the pair have 6.0 Frontline and 6.3 TEA—based entirely on acts developed in- house. With a big lineup of new acts and a possible superstar release or two, 2015 may represent the fullest flowering yet of their synergistic partnership. Although talking to us probably made them want to wear one of Sia’s bags over their heads.

We were at the midpoint of 2014 when last we spoke. So do you want to say a little bit about that and take us up through the present?

Peter Edge: Although Sia was not completely new to the market, we really broke her in a big way last year with “Chandelier”—not just as a song, but as a cultural anomaly, with the video being one of the biggest videos of the year, and her performances, including at the Grammys, game changers. The “Elastic Heart” video had some outrageous numbers—like 100 million views. The song is on the verge of breaking as we speak—another stellar job by Joe Riccitelli and his ace promotion team.

It was interesting how, when the “Elastic Heart” video was happening and leading up to the Grammys, she was selling albums.

Tom Corson: She was [selling] worldwide too. The U.K. actually broke the record. The visual was a game changer. With Sia it’s never going to be a straight line, where you go straight to Z100 and KIIS-FM, and everybody will follow. You build a proposition around her and around the song, and she follows through with interesting and creative performances and video. Then it’s the whole proposition that people are buying into, not just a great record.

PE: It is a rare thing. There are only a few album artists these days.

TC: Plus nobody could pick her out of a lineup.

Exactly, and I think a lot of people would have said, if you’d just proposed hiding her face as a marketing strategy, that you were out of your minds.

PE: People are looking for different these days. I think they’re tired of the usual celebrity run.

TC: There’s a lot of equity with celebrities, so how do you do it differently? She respected her audience enough to buy into the concept, which is why you’re getting so many repeat views.

Edge gets his Funk on with Mark Ronson

PE: We were excited about that. It was not just an artist breakthrough, but a breakthrough in terms of the kinds of things you can do in the music business.

In terms of artist development.

TC: We’re very proud of a lot of our artist development, and we’re seeing the benefit of it right now with Walk the Moon, which started last year and is just building and building and building. And now we’re breaking the song. We’re gonna be over 140k singles sold this week, and we’re Top 10 at Pop radio and Top 5 at Hot AC. You can see the power of a great record just leading the charge.

PE: We feel like it’s like The Killers’ first album, or fun., the Modern Rock-to-Pop breakthrough.

TC: We’re gonna go out on a limb ordain it as one of the biggest songs of 2015.

PE: Already a contender for song of the summer.

Defying gravity with Walk the Moon

Foo Fighters have entered a fascinating new chapter, with the HBO series leading into the album.

PE: It was a very unique show. I think it was very smart on Dave’s part to weave in the Foo Fighters’ creative process into the music at large.

TC: And what a clever and innovative way of bringing your eighth album to market.

There are overall signs of rock coming back after a bit of a decline.

PE: Two words: Wolf Alice. They were the phenomenal rock band at South by Southwest. It’s a fuckin’ rock band, which is a very unique thing. They’ve got great songs. They were listed in the BBC’s “Sound Of” Poll for 2015. They were the only rock band of their type chosen by Radio 1 in the U.K. We have had tremendous reaction in the U.S. already.

TC: They’re phenomenal, and she is just a star. We’re also really thrilled with the progress on Bleachers. We’ve had two big Modern Rock hits, and we’re about to go with our third; we’re hoping one day to cross that artist over. They’re an arena act currently playing large clubs and theaters. You can see where it’s gonna go.

It is heartening that Modern Rock radio in particular seems to have a place at the table and in the marketplace again. It’s still on its own as a format, and a bit limited in terms of its upside for moving units. I was also hoping that it would have a bigger buy-in on the streaming side. But I do still think that’s a work in progress. That crowd isn’t necessarily going to your Spotifys; they’re more into the blogosphere, where it becomes more of a SoundCloud thing—and obviously, from our point of view, we need to get a deal struck with them.

So we’re very aggressive in the rock space. We just added a new A&R person, Dan Chertoff, whose first signing is Wolf Alice. And hats off to David Wolter, who has been nurturing Walk the Moon from day one.

We should also mention Three Days Grace, who have an album coming. We spent the better part of last year setting that up.

“[Sia] wasn’t just an artist breakthrough, but a breakthrough in terms of the kinds of things you can do in the music business.”—Peter Edge

Let’s look at a couple of your other major breakout stories, one of them being Pentatonix.

TC: We earmarked Pentatonix as an act that—based on what was going on in the market—could have a huge upside. So we went with their strength, which was the Christmas repertoire. They worked with Keith Naftaly and the A&R team and crafted a stunning Christmas record, which hit a nerve.

It was a great team effort with management, and the band just works so hard. We created a platform together that allowed them to reach a lot of eyeballs and ears. That it became the fourth-biggest-selling album of the year last year in the U.S. It was pretty breathtaking; it exceeded all our expectations. We thought a gold album was more than attainable. We were hoping to nudge up on platinum. But to blow by platinum and do 1.2-plus million just on a Christmas record, not to mention the 2 million combined on all the titles, was extremely rewarding.

Edge, Corson, Riccitelli, EVP John Fleckenstein, A&R man Keith Naftaly and manager Jonathan Kalter practice their scales with Pentatonix

PE: And they have an upcoming studio album, which we’re making some really good strides on. We played a song for the band that they loved last week. We just locked that one in today, and maybe it’s even the single. Getting a big Top 40 hit would be a game changer for them, and that’s what we’re trying to do this summer.

But you love these kinds of challenges: An artist who doesn’t show her face, an a cappella group…

TC: We are the artist haven.

PE: I love that. We’re running with it; it’s now our new headline.

One of the biggest stories of this year is Mark Ronson—that thing is a juggernaut.

PE: It’s this year’s biggest song, so we are sort steaming along towards happyville.

Obviously, you wouldn’t want to step on that momentum in any way. What’s the next step on that project?

TC: We’re staying out of the way. We want to let this play itself out completely. But at the same time, there are a few things going on. “Feel Right” has a video that’s been shot and it’s coming imminently, but it’ll just get stepped on if it’s dropped anytime soon. And “Uptown Funk,” just keeps researching better, so it’s not going away. We’re hoping that we can get “Feel Right” into play soon. The U.K. is going with “I Can’t Lose.” We want to get those in place so that this amazing record gets a look over the next year and is well-positioned going into the Grammys.

Which gives me the ideal segue to get your thoughts on the issue of a record’s life in the marketplace, and the very long tail that records can have.

TC: And it’s not just a radio thing. I think we’re at more than 100 sync quotes on this track. It’s cultural. My sister—who is older than I am, suffice to say—sends me a clip a week of somebody doing something to “Uptown Funk,” and I’m like, enough already.

These come along only every so often—maybe once or twice a year—and hopefully they’re yours, not your competitor’s. But you do have to manage it. We’ve all made mistakes trying to rush another single out and having it get stepped on, or doing things that don’t optimize or maximize the big juggernaut hit. We naturally want to ensure Mark and the album can get as much shine off of it as possible—because obviously Bruno is front and center in this campaign. We are very grateful for that, but it is on Mark’s album, and the hope is that as people get introduced to more content—more music off that album—that they get a fuller picture of what Mark Ronson’s record is about.

We also think it’s important to acknowledge the amazing resiliency of Chris Brown. Through all his ups and downs last year, he came back with an album that did very, very well. He’s probably the biggest-testing artist at Urban and Rhythmic radio right now. His brand is as strong as ever.

Edge and Corson consider midriff-baring suits while posing with Tinashe

The one other breakthrough we had last year on an artist level was Tinashe, who had that big hit “2 On.”

PE: One of the top Rhythm records of the year in England, and a platinum single.

You’re on another single with her, correct?

TC: It just started. But her album was incredibly reviewed, and that’s a long-term artist development in the making. But let’s not forget D’Angelo, who, musically and culturally, really hit a nerve going into Christmas. That was really exciting.

We had a fun year, where we felt we accomplished what we wanted to in terms of artist development, and teed up for an even better 2015.

Are there any other things that have not come out yet that you want to spotlight before we get into some of these macro questions?

PE: I think A$AP Rocky is one we’re most excited about. His album was platinum in—what do we call it, consumption?

TC: We did a million-and-a-half somethings. That’s what we call it.

PE: Miguel, Jamie Foxx and Usher are coming. We’ve got Pentatonix, we’ve got a Wolf Alice album coming in June. We’ve got King Los, who is a hot young rapper out of Baltimore.

TC: Magic! was huge for us last year, of course. We’re working “No Way No,” which is the new single, which is showing signs of actually working. We’ve got Prince Royce as well. That takes us through the end of June, more or less.

“We’re now at the place we want to be in terms of releases. We’re really getting a shot at everything too, so we’re able to pick and choose what we really go after… 2015 could be a breakthrough year for us.”—Tom Corson

PE: We wanted to mention another brand new artist, who could be one of the most exciting things we do this year. A young girl we signed who actually grew up in Australia, of Australian heritage. She’s only 17. Her name is Grace. We just released the first thing we’ve done with her, a collaboration with G-Eazy and Quincy Jones. They did a version of “You Don’t Own Me,” the Lesley Gore classic. We’re going to get behind her.

We’ve got three party records of the summer. One is from Martin Garrix featuring Usher. The second is Kygo; we’re working with Ultra and teeing that up. And last, but certainly not least, the Deorro-Chris Brown track, “Five More Hours.”

TC: Couple other things. We’re getting a real reaction to Elle King. She just dropped her album in February off The Today Show, and she’s just done a South by Southwest run.

PE: She’s a very unique proposition. She’s a character, and could be a comedian. She came in here with a banjo a couple of years ago and sang these really bawdy songs.

So you’re loaded for bear.

TC: It’s been a few years now, but we inherited a label that needed more new and developing acts. So we’ve been signing very strategically, but very aggressively. We’re now at the place we want to be in terms of releases. And we’re really getting a shot at everything too, so we’re able to pick and choose what we really go after. We’re more determined and more ambitious than ever to take RCA to the next level.

2015 could be a breakthrough year for us, and if we’re fortunate enough to get a few of our big superstars delivering records at the end of the year, then watch out. We’re only barely into the second quarter, so there’s a lot of road left.

I do have to ask you about Pitbull. I know that he and [former manager] Charles Chavez parted ways recently, and I’m wondering if that is going to affect the situation at all.

TC: No, Pit is an established artist now, and an established brand. And we love Charles so much, we did a label deal with him. And we think it frees them both up to grow and do even more. We loved them as a team, and we’re optimistic that they’ll thrive separately.

Celebrating sales Magic! with the Canadian band and manager Charles Chavez

One of the things that you’ve touched on implicitly is that new artists are really driving the business to a profound degree.

PE: Tom and I talk about that all the time. The difference is if you have a Sam Smith or you don’t. It’s harder for established acts to come back and do the huge numbers these days. They do well, but it’s not like the avalanche of sales.

TC: There are so many ways to discover music now, and there’s so much great music out there. And when you avail yourself through streaming or however you’re getting your music, it just raises the bar higher for established acts to really move the needle.

I wonder if we could just say a little bit about streaming and where things stand, from your perspective.

TC: We are at an inflection point, and the next 18-24 months are going determine quite definitively the impact of what streaming and subscription will mean to this business on all levels—how it affects downloads, how it affects physical. And this is a global conversation.

But as a way to experience music, streaming is pretty great. And there’s a lot of growth in the user interface for any of these services. They need to grow and improve and raise the bar, and it’ll be exciting to see what Apple/Beats does and how they might raise the game. But whatever screen you want it on, wherever your ears go, how does video play into it? In any case, this next period will be definitive.

With P!nk and manager Roger Davies

Let’s stay on the Apple/Beats question. Last time we talked about the impact of Jimmy Iovine’s departure from Interscope, and now we need to address the impact of his next moves at Apple--what iTunes/Beats is likely to be and what it means, and the whole concept of not simply offering music for streaming, but offering exclusive content.

TC: Liquidity for them is not an issue. They have resources and they have reach; you would have to say that it’s theirs to win. We’ll see if they have the strategy. It’s gonna be down to the strategy and the software. Is their product as good as or better than existing products? It probably has to be better.

But what happens three to six months down the line? How are they going to sustain it? Are they going to have the same commitment to building that category that they had when they first launched the iPod, or when they first launched iTunes? That was sustained, but that was the introduction of a new category. This is a little different—they’re trying to steal marketshare, not create marketshare and build a business. So it’s a different proposition, with different players. I’m fascinated to see how it plays out.

It’ll be particularly interesting to see how they go after Spotify internationally.

TC: Everyone forgets that physical is still a very substantial business in certain European markets—Germany in particular.

PE: And then there’s the challenge of getting ahead of Spotify in Sweden.

TC: Good luck.

PE: The U.K. is definitely game, because iTunes is so big there, and Apple is so big there. So that’s a huge market. Germany is moving to streaming fast.

TC: My guess is that they’ll focus on getting it right here first.

We’ve been hearing a lot from industry leaders about the question of Freemium. A lot of people feel its dominance has to be radically reduced as a step toward a sustainable streaming market.

TC: We’re not going to disagree with any of that. For years, consumers have been able to sample music and they buy it. How much is enough? What do you consider sampling? Frankly, it’s an industry issue. I’d leave it to our corporate guys to comment on that right now.

I wondered if you wanted to say anything about the whole question of the global Friday Street Date.

TC: It’s overdue, and a reflection of what a small world it is. Nothing is in isolation anymore, so let’s get on with it. Do I love Friday over Tuesday? It’s irrelevant. It’s done, and that’s what we’re doing.

I thought we could talk a little bit about Shazam and other contemporary research tools and how that’s grown of late.

TC: Yeah, Shazam’s excellent. It’s not perfect, by the way. There are a few glitches from time to time in the Shazam universe, but it’s pretty helpful, and it feels like it’s visceral too, which is good. It’s an ear-pick kind of thing, and we love stuff like that. It feels are real as you can get.

PE: It helps us, actually, because in a world where music is just everywhere, it’s great for consumers to just react to something and go, “OK, what am I listening to right now?”

You mentioned SoundCloud as well.

TC: That’s another freemium discussion. It’s actually just free. That’s got to sort itself out, because we can’t build people’s businesses anymore. We’ve got to be in a place where we and our artists earn collectively.

Care to comment about the Billboard Power 100?

TC: It means everything to us. [laughs] We think it’s fun; it’s good sport. And you know what? People worry far too much about these things. •





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When vaccination schedules and touring schedules meet.

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