If you’re going to sit with Neil Jacobson for any length of time, you better prepare your brain cells.
The Geffen President doesn’t just take a conversational thread and loop-the-loop with it; he knits a whole damn sweater. If you concentrate, and imbibe the optimum amount of caffeine, you can just about keep up with his syntactic rhythm. He tends to make doing so worth your while.
Jacobson might talk a mile a minute, topics frothing from his mind as his words leap, double-back and pirouette in unbroken riffs – but he offers plenty of entertainment value, too.
Take, for example, his route into the music business.
New York-born Jacobson’s father, an accountant, passed on a love of golf to his teenage son.
From there, Jacobson became a caddy at a golf club in the Big Apple before, in his fifth day on the job, his head was turned by an older gentlemen pulling up in a gleaming Bentley.
“He gets out, he’s wearing this amazing Fedora, cool as hell; this older guy with white hair, just smoking a cigar like it was nothing,” recalls Jacobson. “All of us caddies stood up a little straighter. Someone said: ‘Charles Koppelman’s here.’ And I’m like, whoa, ‘Who’s Charles Koppelman?'”
To those who know their music biz history, Koppelman won’t need any introduction; a highly successful A&R exec, his tenures at CBS and EMI saw him work closely with everyone from Billy Joel to Tracy Chapman and Journey, while he co-founded SBK Entertainment World in 1986 alongside a certain Martin Bandier.
“Charles was the biggest tipper at the club, and he hung out with superstars, had the nicest house maybe in Long Island and was the coolest guy,” recalls Jacobson. “When I found that out, that was it for me. ‘Well, there it is… I’m going to be a record executive.’ I swear to God, it was that simple.”
Jacobson tried his hand at being a drummer in a band (“correction: a shitty drummer in a band”) before going on to study at Berklee School of Music in the late nineties.
“I did not have a father who gave me the ‘you’re not going to music school’ lecture,” says Jacobson. “My mom was a worried Jewish mother, but my dad was absolutely into it. His attitude was, ‘Do what you love, stick with it, show persistence.’ That was his thing: if you persevere, you can achieve anything you want.”
Jacobson persevered. He started his own record label, Tonic Productions, at Berklee, making “avant-garde jazz recordings” which, partly due to an inability to properly clear rights, flopped.
“I loved it, and I was totally happy. But I burned through 10 grand, which was a huge amount of money. It was like… oy, that hurt.”
It was at Berklee, aged 17, Jacobson first began working with one his best friends, Jeff Bhasker – the songwriter-cum-super-producer who has collaborated with everyone from Kanye West to Jay-Z, Mark Ronson and Drake.
Jacobson was making important connections at Berklee, but academically flailing. He would eventually drop out, swallowed up by a cycle of putting on bands, partying, tour managing local acts and playing at being a label A&R.
On his return to New York, he began caddying at Deepdale Golf Club for his regular loop, Tom Ennis, then Vice-President of Arista Records. Ennis told him to “get a job, any job – just learn what it is to work for a living”.
Jacobson took the advice, and landed a full-time position as a carpet salesman in Boston. Within months, he’d been fired. (“They realized they needed someone with a little less ‘energy’,” he says, knowingly.)
Jacobson got back in touch with Ennis, who hooked him up with an internship at Arista.
From there, Jacobson landed a job as an assistant in the international publicity team at Interscope (now Interscope Geffen A&M), where he’s worked for the past decade-and-a-half.
Jacobson went on to found Interscope’s (now closed) internal artist management division – where he looked after the likes of will.i.am and Robin Thicke – before being named EVP of the label. In that role, he A&R’d multi-platinum records from The Black Eyed Peas (including I Got A Feeling and Boom Boom Pow), Madonna, Fergie, Robin Thicke (including Blurred Lines), Avicii (including Wake Me Up) and DJ Snake (including Let Me Love You feat. Justin Bieber and Taki Taki Feat. Selena Gomez, Cardi B and Ozuna).
Jacobson was named President of Geffen Records in the spring of 2017, with a current roster that includes, DJ Snake, Yungblud, Mura Masa, Col3trane, Griffyn, Lil Jon and Bunt, plus the Darkroom label and more.
He also continues to wear an artist management hat, looking after his old friend Jeff Bhasker, as well as the likes of Emile Haynie, Ian Fitchuk, King Henry and Brendan O’Brien…
You began you career at Interscope 15 years ago. How did you break into the company?
I started in the international department under [Cherrytree Records founder] Martin Kierszenbaum, who was a great mentor to me – and by mentor, I mean he beat the crap out of me, but with love. You had to be on point with Martin.
I became an international publicist pretty quickly, which was my big break. I had clients like Black Eyed Peas, 50 Cent, Gwen Stefani, N.E.R.D., Eminem, Snoop Dogg and The Game. My job was to handle the international press campaigns and promotion, and to work with all of our local territories within Universal to deliver the artists.
It was an unbelievable experience. Most importantly, it gave me my understanding of international marketing, which I think is absolutely at the core of the future of this business.
I was with The Game when the beef started between him and 50 Cent. I was overseas when that craziness broke. I was handling the international publicity for both [of them], which was wild.
What came next?
I became really close with will.i.am. He parted ways with his manager, and I was hanging out with him every day. In the most honest way, I’m like, ‘Damn. Who’re you gonna hire? Ooh – you should talk to Irving Azoff!’ I’m throwing names at him and he’s like, ‘No, no, you don’t understand. I want you to be my manager.’ I was like, ‘You’re shitting me. No way.’
I truly didn’t believe it. Then he was like, ‘But I also want you to stay at Interscope, so you can be my man inside the building.’ By the way, Will was clever. He understood that the best thing he could do is have a manager inside the [label].
“That was it. That was my intro to Jimmy Iovine 101.”
I was like: ‘Jimmy [Iovine] doesn’t know me. He doesn’t even know who I am.’ Will’s like, ‘Well, I told Jimmy about you and he’s gonna reach out to you because we’re gonna do this.’
Sure enough, next day, phone rings, it’s Jimmy Iovine. ‘Is this Neil?’ Yes. ‘So, Will says to me, I want Neil Jacobson to be my manager. And you know what I said? Who the fuck is Neil Jacobson?!’
That was it. That was my intro to Jimmy Iovine 101.
Did you get on with Jimmy eventually?
Yes and it was an incredible experience. I spent eight years working closely with Jimmy as A&R on a great roster of artists.
What does A&R mean to you?
I have a lot of opinions on this subject. I almost went on a Twitter rant once, but I was like, ‘I should not do this.’
Have that Twitter rant now…
Okay! Dear person that doesn’t work for a record label who’s claiming to be an A&R… A&R stands for artist and repertoire. It does not stand for being an artist’s best friend and giving them your opinions on his songs – that position is valuable, but is closer to being additional producer or executive producer.
Having opinions on records and scouting is not A&R. There are parts of A&R that include that, but the A&R is the executive in charge of the project. He or she is the person who runs it through the building – from within the building. It is the person who lives and breathes it for the artist every day. That’s real A&R.
“In order to put out the endless fires and to conduct the wild symphony that is working a record – an A&R has to be an expert at their label.”
Something that Jimmy taught me: While music is the core of this [A&R process], its also one part of the greater whole.
A&R has to be intertwined in every aspect and every department in the company. A&R has to understand what everyone does. In order to put out the endless fires and to conduct the wild symphony that is working a record – an A&R has to be an expert at their label.
That expertise will be tested, I promise.
Any other strident thoughts on this subject?
Oh yeah. If you’re 21 years old, I expect you to walk in and pick out every popping artist that’s ‘next’ – that’s your damn job! You’re 21!
You’re in clubs, you still hang out with 12 friends a day and talk about music until 1am.
“When I was 21, I could have told you who the next big artists were going to be. That part is easy.”
When I was 21, I could have told you who the next big artists were going to be. That part is easy. What’s not easy is to get [artists] to commit to the record label, sign on the dotted line, to actually supervise the project, release everything, get the production agreement done, not have a meltdown because your artist is… being an artist.
All that? That’s a whole other thing.
Do you think social media has been a good thing or a bad thing for artists as a whole?
Amazing thing. Everything is evolving. It might be bad for some artists that haven’t learned to properly exploit it, and that sucks for them, but at its core it’s a form of expression.
My artists need to be able to create across multimedia platforms. I will not just sign somebody who’s [just] got a great voice or is a good songwriter; I need somebody that understands and is excited by social media, that’s excited to express themselves in every way they can and is clever with how they approach it.
“Entertain us. Mesmerize…. Be great. That’s what this thing is about – greatness.”
I feel the same way about what is about to be the virtual reality revolution. The depth of creativity that universe will require is going to be daunting. The artists I hope to sign have to be up to that task.
Is social media great? Yes. The challenge is: can you handle expressing yourself beyond just your music?
What is your character? Who are you? Entertain us. Mesmerize. Be great. That’s what this thing is about – greatness.
What if artists aren’t feeling inspired that week?
Creativity is a muscle. It must be worked out. It must be pushed.
There’s no room for passive creativity, where you’re just gonna wait for the idea. If you get lucky, that works. But more often than not, those type of guys don’t [have hits] again and again.
“There’s no room for passive creativity, where you’re just gonna wait for the idea.”
Look at Bruno Mars, for an example [not at Geffen]. He keeps doing it again and again because Bruno has a brilliant, creative muscle and he works it out, thinks about it, challenges himself, pushes himself. Goes again, again and again and again.
That’s the kind of artist I want to be around. People that have a prolific sense of creativity.
Why did you take the top job at Geffen?
It’s been a dream my whole life; that’s it. I was 15 years old, loved Nirvana, loved Guns N’ Roses. In those early caddying days I remember asking my dad what a record executive was: ‘Dad, what is Geffen Records? What’s a record label?’
Today, Geffen is a label within a label, and that’s exactly what I wanted. Geffen is designed to be a smaller roster where we can a lot our full attention to each act. Because attention is a very valuable commodity in this new music business.
“Attention is a very valuable commodity in this new music business.”
With Nick Groff, who’s our GM and my right hand, he found Billie Eilish and introduced her to Justin Lubliner; Ryan Roy who heads A&R, who signed DJ Snake, amongst others; and Max Weinberg who is the head of marketing, plus their respective teams, we have a fully-staffed label that can take any record and make sure it’s set up and primed perfectly for Interscope central to drive it home.
We use Interscope’s radio department, for instance, which is headed up by Brenda Romano – the single best in the business. And we use [IGA’s] Gary Kelly, who is also the best, and his revenue and data team, who are at the forefront of a landscape that shifts just about every two weeks; being keyed into that is a huge advantage.
However, marketing and A&R sits with in Geffen. It allows us to control the narrative within the building and to make sure details don’t slip through the cracks.
How did you gain such an affinity with the genre you might call EDM?
I was traveling around Europe for so long [as a publicist], and I travelled with t.A.T.u, who had the huge hit All the Things She Said [in 2002]. Martin Kierszenbaum signed them and actually co-wrote the song.
In 2003, I went to Moscow with them, and all this dance music would come on, [including] this David Guetta record called The World is Mine. It was like a watershed moment. I’m in this club, I’m getting a drink at the bar, everything is relatively chill, and then they play this song and these kids just start running to the dance floor, screaming in Russian. The dance floor becomes a mosh pit. I was like ‘wow’.
“Joel Zimmerman, an incredible agent who did LMFAO with me, said: ‘Neil, I got one for you. You gotta check this kid Avicii.’ And I did, and he was awesome.”
A couple of years later, will.i.am came to me and played me Fedde Le Grand’s Put Your Hands Up for Detroit, and [from there], I reached out to David Guetta and introduced him to Will.
Then I watched Swedish House Mafia pop up, and I met Amy Thomson; I was like Amy’s cheesy friend, maybe because I worked for a record label. She was like, ‘You are like so American cheesy, but I like it.’ And I was like, ‘You are so underground EDM, but I like it.’ And we became homies.
Then a friend of mine, Joel Zimmerman, an incredible agent who did LMFAO with me, said: ‘Neil, I got one for you. You gotta check this kid Avicii.’ And I did, and he was awesome.
What is your perspective on Avicii’s talent and what he achieved?
He was a great musician. A great musician. At Berklee [School of Music], one of the most important classes you take is ‘ear training’. Its rooted in solfège which is ‘Do Re Me Fa So’ etc.
I remember my teacher saying, ‘This is the most important class at this school.’ And they were right. Ear training teaches you that if you can hear it, you can sing it, and if you can sing it, [you can create it].
“[Avicii] would literally would sing the melodies to the vocalists from the other side of the booth in precise detail. It was magical to watch.”
The ability to take what is muddled in your mind and to manifest it into a two dimensional tangible melody is what separates great musicians from the rest of us.
Tim [Avicii] knew how to do exactly that. He would sing the melodies in the studio, focus on the phrasing… he heard it so clearly and could manifest it and transcribe it into reality. He literally would sing the melodies to the vocalists from the other side of the booth in precise detail. It was magical to watch.
Secondarily, he was brave. When we put out True, he played Ultra and played it, and got booed. Booed!
Were you there?
I was in the middle of the audience watching people go, ‘What is this shit? Why the hell is there a banjo player on stage?’
He brought down a live band to Miami to premiere the album. Everyone in the dance world was there. Nick [Groff one of the A&R’s on Avicii] went into the middle of the audience just to see what it felt like, and afterwards I came backstage; I remember talking to [Avicii], and being spooked, ‘Should we change our direction, should we rethink this whole thing?’
He didn’t even blink. ‘No, no, no. They’re all going to love it. Don’t worry. It’s a fucking hit.’
He never wavered once. We put the album out and it became one of the great albums in EDM history. He knew. He always knew.
Are there lessons that the music industry should be learning from the Avicii story?
I think this story retells its self through the generations. Art is rooted in extreme emotions. The great artists are vessels for emotional intensity, both happy and sad.
It is a bit of curse to be a great artist, one way or another, because it’s exhausting to express yourself. Literally exhausting. It’s the [pressure] of recognition, greatness, and your own self-expectation.
“Art is rooted in extreme emotions. The great artists are vessels for emotional intensity, both happy and sad.”
I rarely see a well-balanced person be truly great at anything in this business.
This is a really intense business. And the ascension to success can come at personal costs.
What’s your view on Blurred Lines and the Marvin Gaye plagiarism case?
Well, frankly, I think it’s bullshit, and you can print that. It’s terrible. They are not the same song. They’re not even close.
Musicologists don’t even try to argue they’re the same song. They argue the vibe is similar.
I mean, how do you qualify inspiration? Are you saying that if I’m inspired by something, that I’m copyright infringing?
I’m worried that if my artists ever say who they are inspired by again, it becomes a liability for them.
How would you describe your general approach as an executive? What is your angle on this business?
I want to find great artists, help them on their path toward being discovered by the world for what they do, and help them do the best they can. Be able to understand what’s happening, what the weather patterns are, how we are planting seeds for the future.
That’s a crucial part of my psyche and it’s getting easier with data, which is really nice, but the data alone isn’t going to help – it’s the hunter-gatherer in me that’s gonna pick up the phone, call 293 people to amplify [a release] to all of our media partners; to have the networks and the relationships, and the be the phone-call-making lunatic that I am.
“when I’m promoting a track, I can be a bit much, but that role is often necessary.”
That brings value. It’s annoying for people to be around me sometimes, I admit that; when promoting a track, I can be a bit much, but that role is often necessary.
I am putting myself out there so that my artists music can get the exposure it needs. That’s my part, that’s what I bring to the table.
The track-led consumption area that we are moving into doesn’t leave much love for the album. but you’re were once a 15-year-old who adored Nirvana. Does the decline of the album bother you?
The fashion industry got it right. In fashion, there’s a spring collection and a fall collection. Every spring, every fall. You know what that does? It liberates [fashion] labels from living or dying by the success, or lack of success, on any one collection.
No single collection will destroy, nor will it break, a brand. I remember when Gucci was less-than-popping three or four years ago. They then had a good spring collection, and then had a great follow-up collection. All of sudden, by the third great collection, Gucci was the hottest label in the game again.
“I’m dreaming of the artist that will let me work with them to release four collections a year; four five-song batches, just blocks of music.”
I am over-simplifying and am sure there’s a lot more to it, but the point I am making is the value in playing with fluidity in a release schedule.
I want my artists to try some of those same things. I’m dreaming of the artist that will let me work with them to release four collections a year; four five-song batches, just blocks of music. One focus ‘single’ per batch.
Once you start to play with blocks of music, putting out five songs here, five songs there, your touring gets interesting. For instance, when you go to do Australia and Asia, you might put out a block of music right before that tour; then when it’s time for the UK / European shows and the promoter wants new material to support the on-sales – hey presto, another block [is released]; a new marketing is opportunity created.
You speak fast. Have you always been this high energy?
Complete freaking maniac… Seven years old, I was in second grade with Mrs. Zlockhour, and she kicked me out of her class entirely – like for the year. Who does that to a second grader?
Who have been your key mentors over 15 years at Interscope/Geffen? What did they teach you?
Martin taught me precision. No mistakes. He used to correct my grammar on emails!
He also taught me decorum, and the importance of being polite. It’s easy to be rude. People that get frustrated and just want to vent, that’s rude, and it’s unacceptable in his world.
“Jimmy had that Steve Jobs reality distortion principle: ‘You are not getting the right answer. Maybe you’re not understanding me. Go fucking fix it!'”
Martin, because of his international experience, completely understood the Universal Music Group, every department; he knew every territory, how they all moved, how to follow a record, how to follow a hit, how to understand the ebbs and flows around the world.
Jimmy doesn’t exactly teach, per se, that’s not how he operates. Jimmy expected a lot. I was next to Jimmy for all those years.
He expected his people to execute, and to persuade people. ‘Turn them around – talk ’em into it!’ He was so great at it. He had that Steve Jobs reality distortion principle: ‘You are not getting the right answer. Maybe you’re not understanding me. Go fucking fix it!’ It was very intense, but there’s nobody like Jimmy.
With [John] Janick, it’s different. He and I were close before he came to Interscope. I met John through Fun. [Janick signed the band to Atlantic, going on to multi-platinum success.] John had reached out to me about Jeff Bhasker working with the band.
“I knew from my first conversation with John what I was dealing with: the real deal. This guy was a genius.”
I knew from my first conversation with John what I was dealing with: the real deal. This guy was a genius. We had great success with that album [produced by Bhasker]. John coming into [Interscope] to succeed Jimmy was an incredible stroke of luck for me. Now the new CEO of the company was someone I had an incredible rapport with..
The way our relationship works, for instance; John allowed me to bring Justin Lubliner into [IGA] and back his Darkroom Records label. That, of course, led to Billie Eilish and maybe the greatest artist development story of the decade.
I asked John for Geffen on day one of him getting here: ‘I just want you to know that my goal is to run Geffen.’ We [subsequently] had some hits together, and then one day John called me up: ‘All right. Let’s talk about Geffen.’
The funny thing is, I’d pay him to let me do this job. It’s my favorite thing in the world.Music Business Worldwide