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RAINMAKERS:
STEVE BERMAN

They’re not big on job titles at Interscope, though, for what it’s worth, Steve Berman is officially Vice Chairman, meaning he’s second in command to Chairman/CEO John Janick. But Berman’s perch in the label’s official pecking order doesn’t begin to describe his value to the company, which is having a top-of-the-heap renaissance under Janick, hitting an all-time high in marketshare in 2020 with a 10+. Berman’s been there since the beginning, pulling the levers and pushing the buttons from behind the scenes, playing a central role in keeping the Interscope machine firing on all cylinders.

A third-generation music exec, Berman is the grandson of indie legend Si Waronker, co-founder of Liberty Records, and his first gig, as a teen, was working in the mailroom at Warner Bros. Records, where his uncle Lenny Waronker was President. After attending UCLA and Cal State Northridge, the L.A. native made a brief return to WB before joining WEA Distribution’s marketing department in 1988.

Three years later, Berman landed at the label he’s called home ever since. He started the gig six months after Interscope’s launch.

“The story is,” he recalled in a 2017 HITS interview, “I was working at WEA, and Interscope wanted someone in marketing and sales who understood the WEA system, because they were distributed through Atlantic. I already knew Tom Whalley from when I worked in the mailroom at Warner Bros. But most importantly, my wife, Frances —who was my fiancée at the time—was working in management with Ron Laffitte, and they recommended me for the job. So I went over and interviewed. I walked in and it was Ted [Field] in one corner, Jimmy [Iovine] sitting on top of the couch—not how normal people sit on the couch—John McClain, Tom, Michael Papale, Marc Benesch and David Cohen, all in the room. And I said to them that day, ‘I want to start working now. I don’t care what you pay me—this is where I want to be.’”

When asked what job he was hired for, Berman quipped, “Same job I have today. No, it was marketing and sales. But the record business was a much different place in ’91; their vision was that I would be there to support the promotion effort.

“Everyone had different backgrounds in music and different strengths. There was never a formula, so we were able to see the opportunities as times changed before almost everyone else did, how the business was going to transform and how to reach people differently.”

“We were nimble,” he added. “And that DNA is still here in the company today.”

It didn’t take long for the startup—formed as a joint venture with Atlantic, as Iovine and Doug Morris got into business together—to rack up the hits. The first wave in 1991-92 included Gerardo, 2PAC, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, Nine Inch Nails, No Doubt, 4 Non Blondes and Dr. Dre, providing Berman with ample opportunity to hone his marketing skills and build his Rolodex in live-game, full-contact action. He did his work behind the scenes, his name popping up occasionally in trade stories, variously preceded by “head” or “director” of sales and/or marketing. “Interscope is one of those fun(ny) places where employees don’t have titles,” Billboard retail columnist Ed Christman once noted in apparent frustration.

A politically fueled controversy about rap lyrics caused Time Warner to sell its 50% stake in Interscope in 1995 like a hot potato. UMG, which snapped up the label, couldn’t believe its good fortune, as the hits kept on coming from a meticulously groomed roster that included Snoop Doggy Dogg, Marilyn Manson, Bush, BLACKstreet, The Wallflowers, Limp Bizkit, Smash Mouth, Mya, Eve, Enrique Iglesias and Ruff Ryders, as Interscope—with its potent combo of expert A&R, promotion and marketing—became the #1 label in the biz.

Following the creation of Interscope Geffen A&M in 1999, the company broke Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent, Gwen Stefani, Black Eyed Peas, The Pussycat Dolls and The All-American Rejects, among other high-profile acts, while picking up superstar rock band U2. Through all the changes, Berman continued to do his thing with great effectiveness but little fanfare.

His cloak of virtual anonymity was unceremoniously ripped away by Eminem, whose second album, 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP, included “Steve Berman (skit)” on which the exec gave a convincing performance in his recorded debut. In the sketch, Eminem is summoned into Berman’s office, where he innocently asks, “How’s orders lookin’ for the first week?”

 “It would be better if you gave me nothing at all,” Berman snarls, beginning a soliloquy punctuated by Em’s comedically timed stammering. “This album is less than nothing. I can’t sell this fucking record. Do you know what’s happening to me out there? Violet Brown told me to go fuck myself! Tower Records told me to shove this record up my ass! Do you know what it feels like to be told to have a record shoved up your ass? I’m gonna lose my fucking job over this. Do you know why Dre’s record was so successful? He’s rapping about big-screen TVs, blunts, 40s and bitches. You’re rapping about homosexuals and Vicodin. I can’t sell this shit! Either change the record or it’s not coming out! Now get the fuck out of my office!”

While Berman’s performance failed to receive the Grammy nomination it clearly deserved—due to the lack of a suitable category—his rise to stardom had begun…

Read the entire profile here.

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