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LYOR THE DISRUPTOR

For as long as he’s been in the music business, whether in the capacity of road manager, artist manager, major-label exec or company founder, the lore of Lyor Cohen is long and legendary. He’s been praised by some of the artists he’s championed and vilified by others. There’s a contingent of team members who’ve worked beside him and legions more who’ve been unceremoniously blown out by him, not to mention a wider executive peer group in the industry that absolutely marvels at how he’s consistently managed to navigate the mostly self-inflicted catastrophes and survive.

“A lot of luck involved in all of this stuff,” he told Complex in a Blueprint profile last year.

If Cohen is singularly focused on a matter that requires people to bend favorably, there is very little chill in the manner and methods he’ll deploy to achieve that end. I’ve had many experiences of this mode, particularly ’90s-era Lyor, trying back then to reinvigorate a dimmed Def Jam. I kid you not—he once booked a plane ticket for the same flight I was taking from San Francisco to Los Angeles in order to hog that middle seat and unleash 55 uninterrupted minutes of persuasive torture about a record that I, as PD of KMEL, hadn’t added yet. The guy is absolutely relentless in the grind to have it go his way.

Equally brutal is his communication style—direct, sure, but often wading into rude and insulting behavior on a level that would arguably put him on the autism spectrum. Lyor would no doubt contend he’s doing folks a service by leveling these blows, viewing himself as a truthsayer, not a trickster, whether it comes in the form of strangling 360 contracts, staff blowouts, album-release delays or general evaluation about your future prospects (just ask Irv Gotti, or better, Migos).

On his first visit at 92.3 The Beat in the early ’90s, when I was working there, he walked through, looked around and then declared, “You guys are gonna lose—there’s a better vibe at your competitor.” I mean, no filter; and considering that The Beat was actively breaking and playing his rap artists on FM in L.A. for the first time ever and our competitors flipped formats as a result of that very pivot, no loyalty either.

It’s a bit of a shocker, really, that we’ve never heard any whispery gossip about Lyor getting his ass beat down for a pick-your-poison list of transgressions—to say that his credibility in terms of playing fair and telling the truth in both management and other business scenarios is strained would be a radical understatement, hence the Irving Azoff-coined nickname “Liar Cohen.” His success is wrapped in a raptor-level instinct for securing the personal win, seizing any opportunity to do so and steamrolling forward over everything and anyone to get there.

The 2018 version of Lyor has been working at YouTube for the past year to build on what was started with Google’s investment in his 300 Entertainment; a label primarily guided (or manipulated, depending on how you view it) by data. As part of the media summit around the YouTube streaming-service launch, I reconnected with the much older, slightly warmer Cohen at the company’s offices in Beverly Hills. Firmly intact was the same overall intensity about his assigned mission and powered by the same blind conviction, the 2018 Lyor wants to be a weaver instead of a steamroller, forging something else for the music industry now led primarily by tech—ironic for a business whose decimation by tech was, in his words, “tragic.”

Lyor's success is wrapped in a raptor-level instinct for securing the personal win, seizing any opportunity to do so and steamrolling forward over everything and anyone to get there.

“My main goal is to make the music business better, be a partner with the record labels and not have a deal-centric relationship with them,” he claimed. “We’ve got people embedded in every one of the record companies, in every department—marketing, A&R and promotion, from all of the labels—and not just interface with the digital teams. When I was at Def Jam, I did away with that word ‘digital’ because it’s all the same business now. And we’re all experts. We all have a phone; we’re all digital people.”

He then asked if I’d heard any of the labels talking about the outreach YouTube has done with them, and when I replied that I had not, he seemed confused at the pushback.

The issues about royalty payments—the main gripe among creators despite all this partnership talk—remains a point of contention. Lyor is slippery in his answer, never approaching the topic directly. Instead, he insists the way forward for YouTube is “building both an ad-supported business and a subscription-revenue business,” since both paths, he insists, have demonstrated over time to have robust returns attached.

I asked YouTube’s T. Jay Fowler, a member of Cohen’s new crew, who came to the team after stints at MOOG and Beats, what Lyor’s main task at the company has been for the past year and a half. “We are in their halls, we’re listening to what their priorities are, we’re talking to them,” he explained. “We’ve shown them early betas of features that are direct to consumer and getting their feedback on it.”

“I’m known for telling it like it is,” Lyor says to me, like I’m totally unaware of this trait after multiple burns directed my way over the years. “I’m unpopular because I’ll do stuff like go into a recording studio and see a guy holding a cup and point to it and tell him, ‘That is liquid heroin.’ I won’t work with anybody who does that. But my heroin is taking an unknown artist and making them a celebrity,” Lyor boasts. “That is what I love to do the most. We’re the biggest platform and have the biggest audience in the world. So this is the place to do it.”

Let’s see how he’s doing a year from now.

 

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