Lyor Cohen has seen just about every curveball the music industry has to throw, but in his keynote speech at South by Southwest in Austin on Wednesday morning, his message was largely one of optimism.
Cohen’s hour-long talk was heavy on nostalgia and autobiography, touching on everything from his days helping build Def Jam Recordings in the Eighties, to heading Warner Music Group, and his current role as Global Head of Music at YouTube and Google. With the help of Boogie Down Productions’ DJ D-Nice, who spun snippets of songs from artists Cohen signed over the years, the 58-year-old argued that the music business is in the midst of a new “golden age,” welcoming the return of an entrepreneurial spirit he felt was lost in the salad days of the Nineties.
Here are six things we took away from the speech.
1. In the music business, embracing change is key.
The theme that Cohen returned to over and over was the need to embrace change. “I love change, I’m open to change, I’m psyched for change,” he said early in the talk, describing his 37-year career as being full of “winding zig-zags.” While some of his peers were burned out by the unpredictability, Cohen insisted that even his biggest letdowns – like going “$19 million in the red” with Def Jam and being ousted from WMG in a self-described boardroom coup – turned out to be blessings in disguise. “If you’re looking for step-by-step success, then you don’t understand the mutant mistake,” he said.
2. In the early days of hip-hop, promoting the genre was all about improvisation.
Cohen drew heavily on anecdotes from his own career to make his larger points, usually punctuating them with the line, “I was having the best time of my life – again.” None was more entertaining, nor more instructive, than the one he opened the talk with about arriving in London for his first gig with Run-DMC in 1984 and realizing Jam Master Jay didn’t have his records. With hip-hop largely excluded from radio at the time, it was crucial for those promoting it to work on the fly. “Young, black America needed to tell its own stories in its own ways [and] those voices couldn’t be stifled,” he said. “We invented our own ways to get it out there.”
3. Cohen both praised and condemned Def Jam founder Russell Simmons.
“Russell was the smartest person I knew in the business,” Cohen said of his former business partner, whom he credited with having the vision to pull together the “music, art and fashion” that underpinned the burgeoning hip-hop culture of the Eighties. But he made no excuses for the sexual-assault allegations that led to Simmons stepping down from Def Jam in 2017. “I never saw him aggressive or violent with any women. It’s not the Russell I knew,” Cohen said, briskly. “I’m deeply troubled with all the allegations, and there’s absolutely no room for this type of behavior.”
4. Longterm success hinges on servicing artists, not yourself.
The nadir of Cohen’s career, as he presented it, came with the near-collapse of Def Jam in the early Nineties prior to its merger with Polygram. By the time the label was on the rebound, beginning with the success of Warren G’s “Regulate,” the hip-hop field had grown not only in terms of major-label interest but with the rise of other entrepreneurs like Sean Combs and Suge Knight, whom Cohen felt were too focused on themselves. “We wanted to be the Aamco of this business,” Cohen said of Def Jam. “We were the mechanics to the stars, not the stars themselves.”
5. The Internet has both leveled the playing field and added fresh challenges.
After leaving Def Jam for WMG, Cohen became the first major-label exec to license music videos to YouTube in 2006. He felt the Internet not only saw “the power shifting to the hands of the consumer” but also helped level the industry playing field. “It’s always been really expensive,” he said, referring to the cost of pressing, promoting and distributing records. In fact, an unexpected hit “could be the worst thing possible” for a small label. But as streaming took over, new overhead has become increasingly necessary. “Once you’d have a warehouse and stickers. Now you need a global footprint,” he said.
6. The future looks as bright as ever for the music industry.
Cohen eventually set up a new label, 300 Entertainment, which he said “was hitting the bell for impresarios” to return to the business, invoking the names of Chris Blackwell and Ahmet Ertegun. But he was persuaded to take up his current role at YouTube in part by his fear of a consolidation of power between Apple and Spotify. He drew a comparison between those two companies, which he said exist to sell a product, and other platforms like Snapchat, which exist for social purposes. YouTube, he claimed, combines both. “The industry is going to return and grow by ads and subscriptions. People are willing to pay, and we’ll convert them to paid subscriptions,” he insisted. “We know we’re late to the party, but it’s OK.”