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INTERSCOPE: THREE STORIES OF #1

Interscope scored an impressive run of album-chart successes recently, scoring three releases at #1 in four weeks. To label chief John Janick and Vice Chairman Steve Berman, those wins were achieved in large part via two fundamental points of focus: teamwork and storytelling.

The three #1s—Gwen Stefani’s 
This Is What the Truth Feels Like, Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered (Top Dawg Entertainment) and The 1975’s i like it when you sleep for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it (Dirty Hit)—come from three different corners of the Interscope universe. Each entailed working effectively with a different team and serving the specific narrative surrounding the artist.

“They’re all unique, and with all three it’s about the collaboration with the artist and executing on the opportunities and the artistic vision—and, in certain respects, a label vision,” Berman reflects.

Stefani’s first solo album in nearly a decade followed her emergence as a TV star on The Voice, as well as the dissolution of her marriage and new romance with Voice co-star Blake Shelton. How would she approach a return to pop?

“[A&R head] Aaron Bay-Schuck brought some great people in,” says Janick; these included Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels (Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato, Nick Jonas, Selena Gomez) JR Rotem (Meghan Trainor, Maroon 5, Fifth Harmony) and Mattman & Robin (Tove Lo, DNCE). Assisted by such hitmakers, Stefani transformed her recent personal experiences into a strong set of songs.

The goal, Berman notes, was “many big moments,” with the hope that some would prove explosive. The highest-profile of these was a Target-sponsored commercial break on the Grammys telecast for a “live video” performance of “Make Me Like You.”

Berman spearheaded the creation of that moment—following a song-length Target spot featuring Imagine Dragons on the prior year’s Grammys show—and is effusive in his praise of the partners. In addition to Target, and in particular the retail giant's William White, he extols creative agency Deutsch (brought in by the retailer; Karen Costello ran point at the agency) and, most of all, Stefani manager Irving Azoff and team. “Any chance you get to work with them on an artist,” he insists, “you know you’re going to be 
dealing with the best caliber of people and opportunities.”

The ultimate team player, of course, was Stefani. “She’s such a pro,” Janick marvels, noting that she rehearsed and performed for Saturday Night Live and Good Morning America within 36 hours, and has delivered flawlessly on similarly hectic timetables throughout the campaign.

Truth bowed with 81k sales and 88k Sales Plus Streaming (SPS). It’s now nearing 100k and sits in the Top 20 at iTunes, with some 2.5m streams. “Make Me Like You” is Top 15 at Hot AC radio and Top 25 at Pop.

Kendrick Lamar’s huge Grammy moment and Rap category sweep for To Pimp a Butterfly ended a triumphant chapter for a true hip-hop innovator. Janick, Berman and company followed the lead of Lamar’s TDE team, led by chief Top Dawg. The rapper performed the Untitled Unmastered songs on Colbert and Fallon before they were commercially available. Among those demanding the unreleased tracks were celeb fans like LeBron James, who expressed his wishes on Twitter.

The music went up on iTunes and streaming services with no fanfare—not to mention no track titles, and with the project emphatically not called an “album”—and ignited a flurry of activity. “When you’re dealing with Kendrick, TDE and Top Dawg, there’s a very clear vision,” Berman asserts. Top Dawg and Interscope sought “credibility moments” such as a Final Four, rather than a typical all-out assault. “It wasn’t about a big album launch and tons of media,” he says. “It was about letting the music speak for itself and tying up the story of To Pimp a Butterfly, which is such an important album.”

Without any radio or other tools that might normally accompany a release from such a high-profile artist, untitled bowed with 135k sales, 174k SPS.

Berman also notes that Lamar is “already working on the next story.”

Janick notes that Polydor’s signing of the U.K. band The 1975 came mere months after he arrived at the company; once he saw their video, he quickly snapped them up for North America. The band’s 2014 debut topped the U.K. chart on release but bowed with sparse U.S. sales, and “We really spent the next two years marketing and trying to set them up,” he says.

“We were looking for a big moment to tell the story on a much bigger platform,” Berman says. A significant part of that was an Apple Music-backed live performance on an L.A. rooftop, which underscored the key element of the 1975 story—their scrupulously prepared, high-energy live shows. There was also an SNL appearance, and singles “Love Me” and “The Sound” went to Alternative radio. Interscope also partnered with the band on a merch pop-up store.

The album bowed at around 100k and was #1 in the U.S. and U.K. For Janick, this success is attributable to his team having done “a fantastic job doing the grassroots work.” A Coachella set is forthcoming ahead of a U.S. headlining tour. “We still have a lot of work to do” on the band, Janick says. “We feel we can sell a lot more albums and make them a much bigger artist.”

Janick and Berman give copious credit to Polydor and hail manager and Dirty Hit mastermind Jamie Oborne as a brilliant strategist. “He plays with a big canvas,” Berman says, “and he’s a big thinker.”

All three successes, the pair say, showcase the label’s uniquely collaborative culture. Janick, meanwhile, points to Interscope’s history with such out-of-left-field phenomena as Dr. Dre, Eminem, Nine Inch Nails, No Doubt, Lana Del Rey and Lady Gaga. “Interscope was always untraditional,” he says. The story continues.•

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