AARON BAY-SCHUCK AND TOM CORSON: THE HITS INTERVIEW (PART ONE)


The last time Warner Records (formerly Warner Bros.) had three different acts with Top 10 songs in the same week, Zach Bryans family hadn’t yet moved to Oklahoma, Benson Boone was in nursery school and Teddy Swims had a full head of hair.

Today, led by its two co-chairmen, CEO Aaron Bay-Schuck (pictured, right) and COO Tom Corson, the storied West Coast label counts Bryan, Boone and Swims with hit songs that have simultaneously lodged in the Top 10, a remarkable achievement for any label, but one that is especially eye-popping for a company that had been struggling for chart relevancy.

Bay-Schuck and Corson came to Warner in 2018, taking over from Cameron Strang at the behest of then newly installed Warner Music Group CEO of Recorded Music Max Lousada. “An arranged marriage” is how Bay-Schuck and Corson both describe it, with Corson leaving a top executive post at RCA Records and Bay-Schuck coming over after running A&R at Interscope.

The label, once without equal under Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker for fostering great art while hoovering up obscene marketshare, had fallen on hard times. “We were a last-place team,” says Corson about the state of the Bunny when he and Bay-Schuck arrived. “We were the 0 and 16 Cleveland Browns.”

Since then, they’ve streamlined the label name and moved its headquarters from the Burbank chateaus to a 240k-square-foot building in downtown Los Angeles, but neither of those rebrandings has been as galvanizing as discovering and developing the likes of Bryan, Boone and Swims. Omar Apollo, fresh off a Best New Artist Grammy nomination, has a much-anticipated sophomore album coming this summer, and the revitalized label has scored an impressive seven Best New Artist Grammy noms to date. Add the forthcoming album from pop megadiva Dua Lipa, plus rising stars Michael Marcagi, Warren Zeiders, Kenya Grace, Nessa Barrett, Veeze and NLE Choppa (not to mention freshly announced signing Dasha), and Warner Records is finally holding its own not just in today’s ultra-competitive marketplace, but perhaps even with the ghosts of Warner’s fabled past. Notably, as with that prior era, they are doing so primarily with singer-songwriters.

“Few iconic labels have been able to reinvent themselves with the passion, originality, and tenacity that Warner Records has displayed over the past five years,” insists Lousada. “Tom and Aaron have taken the long view—building a fresh, entrepreneurial company that’s artist-focused, close to culture and bursting with energy and creativity. This team and these artists are on an amazing journey, and there’s much more to come.”

Corson and Bay-Schuck spoke with us over Zoom. Hey, it was better than having to be in the same room with us.

After five years of pretty dramatic course correction, Warner is on a tremendous roll right now. Does the air smell sweeter? Does food taste better?

Aaron Bay-Schuck: I would definitely say that there is a newfound confidence in the way that everyone’s rolling at Warner Records. But we are still nowhere near where we want to be. We like to talk about the run we’re on right now as a new baseline, not the peak.

Tom always says that “pressure is a privilege,” and that’s totally correct. But it’s wonderful to have had the pressure shift from “Jesus, when’s this run ever going to begin?” to “How do we keep it going?” I much prefer the latter.

Was there a tipping point when things really started to feel like they were on their way to a sustained level of success?

Bay-Schuck: Zach Bryan was a key moment in our success. Up until that point, we’d had plenty of hit singles, but we hadn’t really broken an artist. When Zach started to go, it sent a message to our company, and to the business, that we have a superstar here. Zach changed the narrative.

Tom Corson: There were different skill sets we developed during COVID and different opportunities that arose, because everything became so digital and so viral. We also saw a shift in tastes towards the kind of artists Aaron and his team had been carefully crafting and developing, and we were prepared.

Let’s go back to when you first signed on as co-heads of Warner. You’ve mentioned that there was a five-year plan. Was there actually a five-year plan, or is that just biz-speak for having a long rope?

Corson: No, it was a big part of our conversation with Max before we joined up to do this. Aaron and I were presented with one of the greatest opportunities around. But make no mistake, the company was in crisis. It was ripe for reinvention, but the job wasn’t for the faint of heart. There were days when we looked at each other and we were like, “You still good?” Speaking for myself, there were days when I thought, “I left a pretty good company for this?”

We had to make some hard decisions. We flipped most of the roster, and we had to re-craft our team. We still hit or exceeded our financial targets every year since we’ve been here, by the way. We punched above our weight class, which bought us time to do what we really want to do, which is to become the premier artist-development label in the business. We’ll take quick hits, of course, and we’ve had a bunch of them. But we want iconic artists. We want to take the DNA of this company and pay it forward.

Bay-Schuck: To add to what Tom just said: We were always going to be an artist-development label. We did not believe we could go after highly competitive signings that were going to require massive checks. So we had to sign acts early. We always believed that patience and commitment were going to be the keys to long-term success for this label. And we’ve never wavered from that.

You have three artists in the Top 10 right now: Zach, Benson Boone and Teddy Swims. Do you see them on a continuum with the quote-unquote golden age of Warner and Reprise?

Bay-Schuck: Absolutely. Look at the artists that Mo, Lenny and that world-class team signed and developed, from Fleetwood Mac to Prince to Madonna to Tom Petty to Green Day to the Chili Peppers. The throughline with all of those acts was fearlessness, risk-taking and a refusal to compromise. And the label knew when to lean in, and when to get out of the way and give the artist space.

When I look at Teddy and Benson and Zach, every one of them was signed early and then earned their hits. They didn’t have their wins too early in their careers, where they ran the risk of songs becoming bigger than they were. And that’s why we think we’re in such a privileged position with not just those acts, but with Warren Zeiders, Kenya Grace, Nessa Barrett, NLE Choppa. They’re real stars with real vision, and that’s what all of Mo and Lenny’s true breakthroughs had.

Tom, describe your relationship with your work husband, Aaron.

Corson: Work husband. Hmm [laughs]. I never quite thought of him that way, but it’s been a wonderful partnership. It’s been great grinding it out together through the lean years. And now that things are going well, it’s even sweeter.

Bay-Schuck: Tom and I didn’t even know each other when we walked in here. But as excited as I was about the opportunity to be the CEO of Warner Records, I don’t think I would have accepted the job if Max wasn’t also working to give me a partner. This job is far too big, in terms of the number of things you have to be expert in, to effectively do it solo.

How has your relationship with Max evolved?

Corson: We’ve got a great partner and boss in Max. In the dark moments he was there for us; in the high moments, he pushed us to go higher. His energy level is awesome. We’re both grateful for having such a supportive boss.

Bay-Schuck: Max said to me early on, “I’m going to be tougher on you in times of success and easier on you in times of failure.” And I really appreciate that. Don’t get me wrong. He’s always tough. We have very difficult conversations about what he sees us doing incorrectly. We challenge each other and debate and argue, but he always knows when to say, “I’m going to let this unfold the way that it needs to.”

Warner Music Group bets on entrepreneurship, it bets on real talent and real stars, both on the executive side and the artist side. I don’t think the story that we’re seeing unfold at Warner Records would be repeatable at a different label group.

ON THE BMM COVER:
RICO WADE
ATL legend (6/17a)
NEAR TRUTHS: THE HITS KEEP COMING (PART TWO)
Born in 1986 by mad scientists; still lurking. (6/17a)
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Pairs well with grits and gravy. (6/14a)
SUMMERTIME ROLLS: FESTIVAL SEASON IS UPON US
The latest tidbits from the bustling live sector. (6/17a)
IS MCK ABOUT TO
MAKE A BIG MOVE?
This would be a great get. (6/17a)
THE GRAMMY SHORT LIST
Who's already a lock?
COUNTRY'S NEWEST DISRUPTOR
Three chords and some truth you may not be ready for.
AI IS ALREADY EATING YOUR LUNCH
The kids can tell the difference... for now.
INDIE DISTRIBUTION'S RISE TO GLORY
The discovery engine is revving higher.
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