Thursday, July 19, 2018

‘Artists with longevity are like athletes – they always want to see how they can get better.’ | Music Business Worldwide

It’s a good time to be Joie Manda.

In the first half of 2018, the Interscope Geffen A&M EVP oversaw the release of a landmark album by his friend, J. Cole – KOD – which shattered US streaming records on both Apple Music and Spotify.

(Manda is deeply rooted in Team Cole: the superstar artist’s manager, Ib Hamad, told MBW last year that Manda “believes in us and is a great partner”.)

Other priority projects currently on Manda’s books at IGA include Ella Mai, Playboi Carti, Sheck Wes, Rae Sremmurd, 6LACK, Tory Lanez and Juice WRLD, aka Jarad Higgins, whose recent smash hit Lucid Dreams now has over 190m streams on Spotify alone.

Brooklyn-raised Manda’s long-held expertise in the world of rap couldn’t be more of the moment: according to Nielsen Music, hip-hop (mixed in with R&B in the company’s stats) accounted for no less than 37.5% of on-demand audio streams in the States in H1 2018.

Yet for Manda, such industry dominance has been a long time coming.

The Los Angeles-based exec began his career as a night club promoter in the nineties – fresh from dropping out of high school in eleventh grade.

From there he started working the door at influential NYC hip-hop club Tunnel, where he observed the style of hip-hop mogul Chris Lighty at close quarters.

After being invited into the world of A&R by Funkmaster Flex (not an offer any sane hip-hop-head would turn down), Manda began making industry connections. Soon, word of his skills got out.

In 2004, Lyor Cohen left Def Jam to run Warner Music Group; Cohen hired Todd Moscowitz, and Moscowitz hired Manda as EVP of the newly-revived Asylum Records. There, Manda signed Gucci Mane, Lil Boosie, Paul Wall, and Bun B.

From there, Manda became Head of Urban Music for Warner Bros. Records – where he signed Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group (Wale, Meek Mill), Jill Scott, and Common, among others – before he was snapped up as President of Def Jam.

Manda eventually joined Interscope Geffen A&M in 2013, and has since played an instrumental role in fashioning standout joint venture label partnerships – including J. Cole’s Dreamville Records and Atlanta-based LVRN Records (the team who brought 6LACK to Interscope and are also behind the breakout success of D.R.A.M.).

Manda has also has his own Interscope JV to take care of, too – Rule #1.

MBW caught up with Manda to ask all about hip-hop’s rise, his defining professional principles – and why a frontline major label has to show flexibility in its deals in 2018…

Hip-hop’s having a moment. Where can it go from here?

That’s true – but in my mind hip-hop’s been having a moment for 40 years!

Urban music music rules culture no matter what cycle we’re in. When we were in the Mumford & Sons cycle, yeah there were a lot of people in Williamsburg, Shoreditch and Silver Lake that dressed like Mumford & Sons, but I don’t think they moved popular culture in the way that Jay Z did at the time.

Maybe music was never cyclical you know? Maybe the gatekeepers and radio just made it seem that way.

Maybe we’re about to find out it was always about rap.

Why and when did you get the hip-hop bug?

I grew up in Brooklyn in the eighties – and back then, everyone got the hip-hop bug. It was the music coming out of every car in my neighbourhood and being played at every house party.

It was Slick Rick, Run DMC, Beastie Boys, Big Daddy Kane; I didn’t know anyone that was listening to anything else.

Then you became a nightclub promoter?

I started giving out flyers. I did that for a friend of mine who was a local promoter for teenage parties in Brooklyn.

Then he got a job in Manhattan for a guy named Peter Gatien, who ran the biggest nightclubs in Manhattan [Tunnel, Palladium, Club USA and others], and we started throwing parties together.

Then I started going [to Tunnel] on other nights when I wasn’t working.

Did you think at that time you’d have a career in music?

Yes. I think all of us are retrospectively conscious of stuff we weren’t conscious of at the time.

I wasn’t into video games – I was just fixated on hip-hop. Whatever disposable income I had would go towards a record; whatever free time I had would go towards the club.

What was the biggest thing you learned as a nightclub promoter?

It taught me patience. When you’re a nightclub promoter and you start a party, you’re like, ‘Okay I’m going to run this party every Sunday night.’

Let’s say the place holds 800 people and that first Sunday, 120 people come. That’s a really shitty feeling; and not just because you lose some money. You have to persist; you have to realize, maybe it’s going to happen on the third Sunday, or the fourth Sunday.

“You have to have patience.”

There were a few [first week] parties where I was like, I’m shutting this down, I’m not losing any more money. But the reality is, you don’t always hit critical mass in the first week; word has to get around.

That’s relevant in a lot of different areas of life. Especially now, in the microwave-instant gratification era, when everyone wants success immediately. You look at artist development and it’s the same story. You have to have patience.

Did you have industry heroes when you were breaking into the industry?

Yeah – Chris Lighty was a real industry hero of mine. He was the man; always with talent, always in record labels. I would see his office in magazines and I was always impressed.

Puffy was another industry hero if you were in New York in the early 1990s – and Lyor [Cohen] was definitely an industry hero. All for different reasons.

Did you have many dealings with Lyor once you joined Warner and then at Def Jam?

Yes. Todd hired me, so in turn I spent a lot of time with Lyor.

What did you learn from Lyor and what did you learn from Todd?

From Todd I learned everything about how the music business works – I’m talking about the actual business. He was the head of Business Affairs at Def Jam, then General Manager. So he knew how the deals worked, how producers got paid, how publishing worked, clearances, putting it all together. He was an expert at the nuts and bolts.

And from Lyor, I learned a few things to do… and a few things that worked for him, but that wouldn’t work for me.

“Lyor is kind of fearless.”

Lyor is kind of fearless, and isn’t scared that something he says might sound stupid to some people. It’s a variance of ‘no filter’.

Lyor doesn’t care about the consequences of what he says, and that can lead to big ideas.

That fearlessness is actually one of his greatest attributes.

We interviewed J Cole’s manager, Ib Hamid, and he talked about you in glowing terms, but he didn’t always talk about the industry in glowing terms. Why are you seen as their guy, despite working for a big corporation?

When I first met Cole, we were both at SIR [Studios] – the rehearsal space in Hollywood. I was there with an artist, and it was right after Cole’s second album came out.

He was a big artist then, not as big as now but he’d had two No.1 albums.

Whenever anyone conceptualizes, writes, and produces their songs, I put those artists in a special category.

I ran into the parking lot and struck up a conversation with Cole – I was trying to get him to do a feature with one of my artists – and he was just super-cool.

“It’s a friendship as much as a business relationship.”

We were texting, and I thought, This guy could run a label – he can produce and understands how hit records work, plus he has a lot of credibility.

We had lunch in New York at the Palm, and I said, You should have a record label, and he said he’d always wanted that. They had Dreamville but it wasn’t really clear at that point what they were doing with it.

We started spending a lot of time together – Cole, me and Ib. Now it’s a friendship as much as a business relationship.

It’s funny, that used to happen more in the record business, but I don’t think a lot of artists spend a lot of time with label heads and executives today – socialising, hanging out at each other’s houses.

You read about Joni Mitchell and David Geffen, or Jimmy Iovine [with Dr Dre, Eminem etc.] – Jimmy’s probably the best at it, since Clive [Davis] and Geffen.

Jimmy’s artists believe he can make money and that he’s a winner, but he also has genuine friendships with them.

Do you look up to Jimmy?

For sure. I didn’t know him till a lot later – I was in New York [at Warner/Def Jam] and he was in LA [at Interscope] – so he was just a legend to me.

But Jimmy was here [at Interscope] when I was hired by [John] Janick, for my first year-and-a-half. Then one day we woke up and… Jimmy owned Apple [laughs].

What have you learned from John?

Everybody has their own style. When I worked for Todd, he had interned for Lyor – Todd and Julie Greenwald came up together, and [they have] a very New York, Lyor, in-your-face approach.

John is completely different. He’s not from California, he’s from Florida, but he’s got that LA way about him that’s very relaxing for artists and partners. It’s just as effective if not more effective in some situations

John’s not scared of a confrontation… But his first reaction isn’t, ‘They did what?!'”

John’s not scared of a confrontation, because you can’t be in his position and not do what you’ve got to do. But his first reaction isn’t, ‘They did what?!’

He’s not reactive in that way, he knows his own mind and is very strategic. I appreciate John’s style and I continue to learn from it.

I’ve also learned a tremendous amount from Lucian over the past 6+ years I’ve been at UMG. He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.

Are you more naturally of John’s style or Lyor’s style?

Look, I’m from Brooklyn, and I’ll always be from Brooklyn. So even before I met Todd and Lyor that’s how I was.

In that part of the world, if two guys don’t like each other, someone’s getting punched in the face. And then they’ll be friends five minutes later.

Maybe that’s somewhere in my DNA. But now I choose to live in Los Angeles, my wife’s from here and we raise our kids here.

It’s healthier for the soul, not to get too hippy-dippy about it.

The industry signing spree is getting really intense. When you ‘win’ a competitive artist deal…

[Interrupts] When’s that?! I’m joking, but I tell all the A&R guys here – the day the artist signs, and we pop the champagne, we didn’t win anything that day.

We have to remember this: there are only eight [major] record companies and this artist could have chosen us because they like Santa Monica – it could have been because of a million different things.

In my mind, you’re not celebrating until you’ve had real success with that artist. Not necessarily commercial success; making a great record is a win.

What sets Interscope apart, in your mind, from its rival labels?

The people and the personalities the artists can connect with.

Obviously, deals are fundamentally about money and rights, and a lot is being said about how expensive the deals are [becoming] today in a seller’s market.

“There’s a reason we don’t wear blazers and wing-tipped shoes here.”

But if we’re all offering the same [contract]… artists want to find people who understand them creatively, and who have a sense of humor.

There’s a reason we don’t wear blazers and wing-tipped shoes here – we want artists to feel comfortable.

There’s a lot of confidence in the business today, especially in the hip-hop world, which relates to the big deals you talk about. But has the number of deals you do changed at all in recent times?

Yes. When I worked with Todd we didn’t sign a lot of artists. John, when he had Fueled By Ramen, even at its biggest, I’d be surprised if it was over 12 acts in total on the roster.
Now, we’re still signing quality but we’re able to invest in more artists because the industry is healthier.

Interscope is a big company. I can do zero signings in one month, and six deals in the next month. It ebbs and flows, and there’s no rhyme or reason to it.

Except the week before I’m due to go on vacation – then there’s always a few deals to get done…

You’re a decades-long ‘urban’ music specialist. Are you finding that lots of people in this business have become ‘urban music specialists’ in the past few years?

Hell yes! Thank you for asking this; now I don’t have to be an asshole and be the one who says it.

I talked about Mumford & Sons before; I didn’t put on overalls and run around with my banjo when that was the big thing, and I think a few people are maybe doing the equivalent with rap music today.

I say that tongue-in-cheek; everybody has to make a living. But, yeah, everyone’s a [hip-hop] expert right now.

How do you get to a stage of trust with an artist that is so strong you can tell them when you think something isn’t right with a project?

Depends on the artist. It’s super-subjective and personal. Some don’t want to hear it – some say they want to hear it, and then don’t want to hear it!

When an artist comes in [for a meeting] they’re auditioning for you and you’re auditioning for them, like a first date. And the artist might say they want advice, and they want to hear what’s going right or wrong. And then some artists, after a hit or two, start not really wanting to hear that anymore.

The good ones, though, they always want to hear it. The superstars with longevity are like athletes leaving the field – they shower, go home, come back the next day and look at the game tape. They always want to see how they can be better.

Interscope, like most majors now, has signed a lot of JV-type deals with major artists. Is that a sustainable model for company of this size?

Yes, and there are a few deals recently that we’ve walked away from. Things that are interesting creatively but which didn’t work for us.

You’ve got to be disciplined. There are some deals being signed out there that, if you go down that path, your [company] won’t be sustainable.

What’s happening to the album in this track-focused world?

The excitement for the Cardi B, Cole, Drake, and Post Malone albums felt real. And I still think you need to put out a body of work to get people to buy in.

How much can an artist do on their own without a label in 2018?

They can build online awareness and buzz. Chance [The Rapper] took it further than that; he and Pat are very smart, incredible guys and tapped into resources that not everyone can get.

But theirs is not the typical story of a new artist and new manager.

Do you feel the narrative of the ‘major label deal’ is a bit flawed? Because ‘the major label deal’ can encompass many different things these days?

I totally agree with that. The cliche of ‘don’t sign to a major’ – and maybe I’m biased – I just don’t see it anymore.

There are certainly some artists that should stay indie. But then a lot of majors are doing indie-style [artist distribution] deals too if they make sense.

In terms of how music is listened to, is streaming a good thing or a bad thing?

Good thing. In rap music, before streaming, people put out mixtapes and the labels hated it – but the artists knew they had to keep feeding the fanbse.

Lil Wayne became a superstar off putting music out. He was omnipresent. Now we’re watching the Migos do it, but in a streaming world.

It’s not one-size-fits-all. You have to put out nothing but quality.

Who out there, label-wise, puts fear in your heart?

There are definitely people you take more seriously than others. Atlantic is tough competitively; they’ll spend on a deal and Julie is a real closer if she gets in a room with somebody.

Ethiopia is killing it at Motown. I think RCA is good – especially in the R&B space – Peter Edge is a real music person.

What are your best attributes as an executive and what have you forced yourself to work on?

The second part is the longer list! I play team-ball – I want my A&R people, marketing staff and other parts of the company to shine and grow. That only makes me better and it improves the company culture.

Stuff I need to work on is not trying to do everything myself, not micro-managing things, delegating more. I still get into the weeds on things too much.

Interscope’s a real force now. We’re only getting stronger, and other labels should fear us. I genuinely mean that – we’re just hitting our stride.

The Jimmy dust has settled a bit, that was always going to be a shift. Jimmy’s DNA will always be in this company, but John’s DNA is in this company too now.

The next few years will be amazing. Ask any other label; they feel us in those [competitive] deals now. We’re getting the deals we want to get and we’re breaking more than our fair share of artists.

I know where we’re headed in the next few years, and we’re only getting stronger.Music Business Worldwide


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