There used to be a veil that artists could hide behind. You never saw artists like Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, or even the likes of a Dr. Dre, before any of them wanted you to. Their music was always presented the way they wanted to present it. You couldn’t catch them on the blogs, and you couldn’t undress them in any way. Now in the age of consumption, in the age of social media, we all suffer from leaks, an overabundance that ripped back the veil to a certain degree. -Chris Hicks, Def Jam
At its core, brand development is about progressive adaptation. For instance: virility of YouTube videos express worth. Forbes has moved to a collective, curated contributor platform to push forward an aging brand. And, we now consider musicians to be brand makers that not only sing and maybe dance, but that have clothing lines, weird fragrances, restaurants, acting careers, and music imprints of their own.
Record labels are adapting by redefining music development as media development with a foundation in music- signing 360 deals, giving in to the transparency of social media, and working with inevitable piracy. These things are reshaping roles. Unsigned artists have to prove themselves somehow (be it YouTube or mixtape buzz) before getting near a single contract, let alone an album deal. Signed artists need to represent their brands with more autonomy considering TMZ, YouTube, and everybody else is just an iPhone video away. Established artists need to find a way to stay relevant. And, record execs have to get good at being involved in every aspect of their artists' careers to justify getting paid for it.
Cee Lo Green, Selena Gomez, and Def Jam's Chris Hicks play different parts in this changing music industry. Below are excerpts from our conversations about how their brands are making it work.
Artists have always had a sense of power, but this transparency bumped it up a notch. Now, it's about a direct relationship with fans, a more intimate influence. Selena Gomez is a great example of this. She's a teen icon being nurtured into superstardom with a massive fanbase, a singing and an acting career. I asked her how she feels about the power of fame:
Selena Gomez: It's really frightening at times to know that there is a sense of power- I hate using that word, but ultimately that's what it is. You look at Angelina Jolie doing amazing things with her name- that's awesome and I hope that inspires people. But at the same time, there's things like being my age and working with adults and having people constantly say yes to you, and favoring you, and pampering you. It's not the fun part for me because it's really not normal. And it is unhealthy. I have a good mom, and I have a family that puts me in reality, giving me huge reality checks all the time and I appreciate that. Doing things like using my voice and my "platform" to be part of organizations that help is really nice. So it's good and bad, I suppose.
She makes a good point. It sounds scary. Fame is quick moving, and defines trends at the speed of media. Record labels try to maneuver through that to stay relevant and make money.
Chris Hicks, the current EVP at Island Def Jam has a diverse roster of talent to watch over, including Kanye West, Justin Bieber, Rihanna, and Jennifer Lopez. Although these artists are household names, the label is still challenged by changes in the media climate. Def Jam made substantial staff cuts last year, and recently parted with famed chairman L.A. Reid. Things will have to change.
Chris Hicks: Music is being consumed far faster than it ever has and I think that contributes to trends changing faster than they ever have. I think about the popularity of an artist like Lady Gaga and what she captured two, three years ago. I think she’s going to be challenged in the next two or three years to maintain that and evolve as the trends evolve.
I think the record companies are in the same situation. The label should have to adapt to changing times and still do their best to remain culturally relevant with artists that they sign and music they put out. I’m watching it with Mike Caren and what those guys are doing with New Elektra. They’ve totally redefined what that company stands for based on today’s modern music culture with the Bruno Marses and the Cee Los of the world. It’s just simple adaption.
That modern music culture is about timing. Chris used Cee Lo as an example of redefinition, but Cee Lo has been making music for decades. Once part of the legendary Dungeon Family and Goodie Mob in the early 1990s, also a solo artist and one half of Gnarls Barkley, Cee Lo is a veteran. His soulful sound, creativity , and loud fashion have always been, but the timing has never been as right as now.
Remember that Closet Freak music video from 2002?
In conversation, Cee Lo acknowledges that it's taken time for his talents to reap. He makes it out to be like math that has finally added up.
Cee Lo Green: It's taken me this long to be considered a commodity, to where they see the math. Executives think in terms of black and white, checks and balances, and that's completely logical. It's like managing music and machine. The machine needs to be behind you. The machine is about pumping out product, but product doesn't necessarily have a pulse, and art is meant to be alive. The questions become- why be an artist when we all know that art isnt meant to be understood by everyone at the same time? Why don't you give us a brand new shiny product that anybody and everybody can buy if the product is placed in the right place? My quest has been how can I make art- product?
However central to the equation, talent isn't the most powerful force behind the music making machine. I asked Cee Lo how much of it he thought was fueled by luck and the record company, if not by the art of music:
Cee Lo Green: Luck in lamens terms is being prepared for when the opportunity presents itself. If you are lucky enough to have liked something, and held your interest enough to fall in love with it, when the opportunity presents itself, you show your love and your love is reciprocated. That's a little luck and a lot of logic.
Labels in my opinion, they're lone sharking. If I loan you this, you'll pay me back with interest. And thats not to insult them, it's to be matter of fact. Since they deal with checks and balances, I expect them to be meticulous. I don't expect them to be malicious, which in some cases they are. A lot of us go from nothing to something, and they give you something that you don't have, something that you need, for a signature. That signature could last a lifetime depending on the terms of the contract. And within your lifetime, you can come up with that one masterful song or album. As artists, we are all really one song away. Look at me I have a few under my belt but that's only because nothing guarantees results like repetition.
Repetition works but doesn't mean that an artist like Jennifer Lopez can rely solely on what worked for her at her peak. Now ten years older and a Def Jam artist, the J Lo brand will have to do some careful maneuvering to stay relevant.
Chris Hicks: I think we will obviously continue to help complement her brand with great music. I also believe with the global aspect of her platform we will continue to exploit her music through traditional channels as well as look into more non traditional outlets for her musically.
But, what kind of adaptation can we see in new artists today? How does this apply to an artist like Justin Bieber?
Chris Hicks: I think a lot of the color lines that have been traditionally set up in music are starting to fall. What makes Bieber a pop artist is the fact that he’s a phenomenon, and because he’s white. Look at the basis of his album- it’s an R&B album with a very high rhythmic tone to it. He doesn’t have a ton of pop records on his album. That’s what I mean by the color lines are kind of falling.
People question where we go from here. To me, it’s not very complex at all. We grow musically within the realm of what he wants to do. It’s not like we haven’t seen it before. His mentor is the greatest example of that. Usher is the greatest example of how we’re going to grow the Justin Bieber business.
We have all been very focused on keeping him grounded. If you had a friend that did something great, you’d say hey, that’s great. And if they did something wack you’d say, hey, that’s wack. I think that that’s our methodology. He gets it from everywhere, so it’s consistent. He leans on that source of realness around him. He’s in a world where everybody is going to say yes.
Influence is beginning to even out. The masses can speak and hear. And, artists are more responsible for their public facing selves. Sure, they have support from labels and fancy execs. But, the label job is different now. Social media lifted that veil, pushing the music industry to focus on the artist- the person, more than the artist- the brand. Stay tuned.
- Record labels
- Def Jam
- Island Def Jam
- Michael Jackson
- Dr. Dre
- Kanye West
- Mariah Carey
- checks and balances