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WORDS & MUSIC BY L.A. REID

Few record executives to come along during the last 30 years are more highly regarded by artists and fellow execs alike as Antonio “L.A." Reid. A former artist, producer and songwriter himself, the Cincinnati-born Reid transitioned from recording and performing alongside Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds in The Deele to co-founding and running LaFace Records with Edmonds in 1989. From that launching point, Reid began a long and fruitful run as a creative executive, heading up Arista, IDJ and now Epic. There are enough memorable characters, familiar songs and colorful details in Reid’s story to fill a book, and that’s what he’s done, penning—with Joel SelvinSing to Me: My Story of Making Music, Finding Magic and Searching for Who’s Next (Harper), which arrived at bookstores yesterday. HITS tracked him down on the eve of publication to discuss his book and his adventures in the music business.      


What inspired you to write this book?
My wife's agent brought up the idea to me; she felt there would be interest from the major publishers. I said, “I’m not so sure I want to do it,” but she went out and pitched it and brought me an offer that I couldn’t refuse. But the real motivation behind it is I like sharing. I like sharing stories that I think people will find inspirational or motivational. I do motivational tweets daily on Twitter. I like the idea that people—not us jaded people in the record business and all these spoiled, rich people—but the rest of the world that pays attention. I like the idea of inspiring them.

There’s plenty of inspirational stuff in the first half of the book in terms of your transition from music-loving kid to aspiring musician to where you are now. I focused on those early chapters when I first got the book, because it’s the part of your life that I know the least about.

Exactly. No one knows those stories. I never talked about them.

You worked with Joel Selvin on this project. I was somewhat surprised that it was Joel that you chose to work with. He’s a skillful writer, but I think of him as a Summer of Love San Francisco dude.
Well, we have something in common: We both love Sly and the Family Stone. He’s chronicled Sly and the Family Stone, and I loved that he was so passionate about it. I also liked that he was a critic. But basically the book is me, and Joel was just a great guy to talk to and to help me embellish the things that I wanted to talk about. If you talk to him, he’ll tell you that every word is my own.

It reads exactly like you sound.
Yes, definitely. The book isn’t a reflection of Joel’s point of view, which is what would make you wonder, why him? So I understand why you asked. You’re the first person to mention it—I love that.

One of the things that struck me was the degree of candor in several instances. Was it a difficult decision to come out so honestly on subjects that might be sensitive to you or to other people?
Well, it’s still very difficult for me, but why speak if you won’t speak the truth? What would be the real point? The point of it was that I’ve not spoken about many things, and many people have enjoyed taking their swipes at me and I’ve never once spoken about anything or anybody. So this was the one time that I could at least tell everyone how I felt. I don’t take swipes at people; it isn’t about that. The whole book is about how I felt, and no one has ever known about how I felt about anything [chuckles]. No one’s asked, first of all, and secondly, I’ve never shared it. So more than anything, this book is about what I felt as I went through different phases in my career. I don’t begrudge anyone, and I’ve actually enjoyed some portion of the relationship with anybody that I mentioned in my book or I would not have mentioned them.

Who do you regard as mentors?
Gosh, there are so many. On a day-to-day basis, Doug Morris is the greatest mentor anyone can have; Jimmy Iovine is a mentor; Kenny Edmonds is a mentor. There are people whose names aren’t so famous who work in different sectors of the world who are mentors to me. There are many people that I lean on for feedback, guidance, clarity, inspiration, but I would say that Doug Morris is absolutely at the tip-top of the list of people that I feel have mentored and coached me.

At what point did you realize that the music business was where you wanted to be, and that you could succeed at it in a significant way?
I read Clive Davis’ first book when I was a teenager, and that was a great inspiration to me, because I didn’t know that that job existed, and I thought it was the coolest job in the world. So it started with that. I still don’t know if I’m good at it. I give it my very, very best every day, but like most people, I wake up every morning and I wonder, did I do a good enough job yesterday, and how will I do today? I don’t take anything for granted.

In terms of your Epic experience, you’ve said that you felt like you were taking over a start-up label, because the brand was tarnished and the roster was practically nonexistent. There had been years of inattention, and it must have been a formidable challenge going in. But now you’ve completely turned that perception around as well as the label, and Epic has become competitive again.
Thank you, thank you.

“Every time I say that there are rules that I live by, or built-in philosophies, I’m quickly reminded of moments when I didn’t apply them and yet had some kind of meaningful win.”

How did you do it?
Record labels are all about people, talented people—whether it be the executives or the artists. I’ve been very fortunate that I have surrounded myself with very talented people, and it’s the people who make the difference. Whether it’s Laura Swanson, Todd Glassman, Benny Pough or Sylvia Rhone; whether it’s Future, Travis Scott, Meghan Trainor or Mariah Carey, it’s all about the people that surround you. It’s a people business. That’s the most difficult thing, but it’s also the fun, and the beauty and the magic in what we do. Yes, we have progressed, but we’re still a work in progress, and I think if you speak to any label head, they would tell you that every label is a work in progress, because things change on a dime. One hit can change everything, and one stiff can certainly change things, you know. And we’re all capable of both.

In the case of one hit changing everything, I suppose you could point to A Great Big World’s “Say Something” as the kick-starter and Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” as the hit that emptied the bases.
I would say that that’s pretty accurate. But I would also add that, from the very beginning, we’ve had some incredible successes in urban music that shouldn’t be discounted just because they didn’t live on the pop charts. And we’ve been having those kind of hits since the day I walked in the door, and that’s the truth. And with some very significant artists, I might add. We’ve been having hits with Future since 2011, when we first signed him, and we’ve had many, many hits with Yo Gotti, Travis Scott, Jidenna and Tamar Braxton. We don’t only regard success as Top 40—that’s not the nature of our business. We believe in all genres of music, and if there’s anything that I’m proud of in my own career, it’s that I cherish all genres of music. Whether it’s a hip-hop record or an R&B record like Tamar, a Top 40 record like A Great Big World or an alternative record like KONGOS, I value them all the same way. They are all important to me. Top 40 is not the only thing that matters. It just isn’t—not to me.

In terms of valuing all music, you write in the book that you had an epiphany as a kid listening to The Beatles, and your taste began to expand, which turned out to serve you well in terms of your career.
I listened to a lot of music as a kid; I still listen to a lot of music. One of the beautiful things about being born in the ’50s is that we were exposed to everything, from doo-wop to the British Invasion, surf music and funk music before James Brown when it was coming out of New Orleans, or Miles Davis before Bitches Brew, or the Beach Boys when they were almost rivaling the Beatles, if not parallel with them at a certain point. But the beauty of it is people my age who are still living the life of music know DJ Snake, and we also know the Drifters. I love that. If I had a competitive advantage in terms of my passion in music, it would be that. I’m an outlier, because I was born in the perfect year.

I can relate to that. When we were growing up, Top 40 was encyclopedic. You could hear anything just by turning on AM radio. But now, of course, we can create our own Top 40 stations in our computers.
Exactly. But there’s good and bad in that. Discovery is interesting, because there are so many platforms, and there are so many playlists on the various streaming services, and there’s a lot coming at you. So my question is, do we discover more as a result of it, or are we overwhelmed? In its simplest form, you just turn on radio in your car, you don’t have to think about it, and great music comes your way. But I tell ya, there’s a lot coming at you now for every move, for every activity.

As a fan of all kinds of music, what artists not on Epic are you hooked on? I love DJ Snake, Major Lazer, Kygo... I really particularly like the EDM-influenced pop music right now; that’s what I’m loving probably the most.

You’re the only guy running a major label with a wealth of actual hands-on musical experience. How does that help you do your job?
I don’t really know, but I like that you said it, I really do [laughs]. In every respect, I’m an outcast, you know? I’m a musician who is a record executive that runs a major company; I’ve produced records and written songs and done that stuff, and I have an appreciation for exceptional songwriters, producers and artists of all tastes and styles. But I really don’t know if any of this is a competitive advantage. What I do know is that there are some great record executives in the business right now—really great—and everybody comes from a different background. For example, Rob Stringer is an encyclopedia for music in every shape and form. So I don’t think me being a musician, songwriter, producer or any of that makes me any better than anybody else. For a lot of reasons, I’m an outcast.

You’ve obviously been thinking about your past in the last couple of years while writing the book. Can you single out a high point and a low point in your career?
So many peaks and valleys, Bud. I honestly can’t think of any one particular low point or high point. But I will say that every day there are peaks and valleys—every single day—and I love that, you know? I really do love it. You can’t appreciate a great day if you haven’t had a tough day.

Any good anecdotes you can throw out in terms of the first time you heard somebody audition in your office?
The truth is, some of the best auditions were artists that didn’t work out. I’ve had people come into my room and bang my piano down, man, and sound so incredible, and they leave my office and I’m thinking, oh my God, that was the greatest audition I’ve ever seen. And then it doesn’t always come together later. Or conversely, somebody who may not have blown me away, they grow and become incredible. So even the auditions—as important as they are, and I really live and die by them—can throw you off. Future never auditioned, and when he walked into my office and sat down, I didn’t want him to. It was because I was on The X Factor and I was seeing 50 auditions a day, and I was like, “I’m cool, you don’t have to audition. Let’s listen to the music.” And he looked so incredible. So every time I say that there are rules that I live by, or built-in philosophies—every time I find myself saying it, I’m quickly reminded of moments when I didn’t apply them and yet had some kind of meaningful win. This is such an inexact science.

You’re known as an artist-friendly executive who challenges and inspires artists to go beyond what they think is their best.
Yes, that’s what I hope for. It’s a trust thing. Because you can inspire people with words and examples, but ultimately, if you’re in judgment of their work, they have to trust you. They have to trust that you’re right, and that’s where it becomes difficult sometimes, when they say, “Well, that’s your opinion.” But I’m the luckiest guy in the world, because there is no cooler job than being a record man. I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones. So good day or bad day, I’m honored and grateful that I’m still able to do it. 

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