You don’t get much more iconic than Def Jam Recordings, which has provided a home for the Beastie Boys, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Kanye West, LL Cool J and other storied artists down the years.
Today at the Midem conference in Cannes, its CEO Steve Bartels sat down for a keynote session reflecting on his career, including the evolving challenges of developing and marketing new artists. He was interviewed on-stage by Village Voice and Rolling Stone journalist Joe Levy.
Bartels’ career has taken in time at A&M, Artista and Island Def Jam – before Def Jam was spun off as a separate label entity within UMG in 2014.
He talked – predictably – very diplomatically about that separation, about how it “was good for both of the brands” as well as how “it’s a great time for both labels”, adding that “for us it’s a renaissance”.
Given these types of keynote interviews, there are never going to be lines of questioning that pin the subject to the floor, but there was still enough of interest in terms of how the label ideology is defined and how acts are developed.
“You are taking care of the icons and you are taking care of the new artists,” said Bartels of the label’s role today. “It’s an exciting time for us.”
He added: “I am proud of the artists that have a point of view – a perspective on what they want. And I am proud that our label is a collective and a home for artist innovation and for trying things.”
The discussion was top-heavy with discussion about how amazing Def Jam artists are, but there were moments discussing the structures and processes behind those acts.
When asked about using data, Bartels said this was a big part of what they do now, before drawing out the great intangible that always appears in these discussions – instinct.
“There are a lot of different things to look at,” he said. “You can look at Shazam information, you can look at what the streaming services provide you, you can look at the reaction to records, you can look at traditional radio, you can look at online success, plus there’s online testing, and there’s gut – which is what I always believe in at the end of the day, once you factor all the data in. There are a lot of different things […] You can read when something is talking to you.”
On the artist/fan relationship, he had this to say.
“The biggest thing with an artist is their ability to link with their consumers in terms of having a more direct connection. The consumers understand and are they are very interested in being interested in who they are interested in. There is a quicker way to connect that [mainly] through social media or touring. There are a lot of great ways to do that, but at the core of it there is great artistry.”
Without saying it directly, Levy pondered if the album was dead as new acts on Def Jam tend to be introduced to the public via a series of EPs. (This flexible way of working and releasing material is becoming the norm for a particular type of (generally chart-oriented) act.)
“There are a lot of different ways to put music out,” said Bartels. “Gaining fans and evaluating how people listen to music, I wouldn’t say there’s a set way to do it every time. The EP is definitely one opportunity that is part of that […] It’s an option but it’s an option that is part of a workshop as opposed to every time.”
Perhaps the only moment where he gave a peek behind the curtain was in discussing the unpredictable and the predictable when working with acts. Unsurprisingly, Kanye West was wheeled out as the prime example.
“When he is ready to go, he makes a phone call and it’s go time,” he said of how West operates. “We don’t always get a warning. I have taken a call on New Year’s Eve where he wanted to put a song up on iTunes at midnight – and the call was that morning. There were a lot of people who work at these companies who are gone for the holidays. But we try and make it work. That’s what we do. We are here to help the artists.”
When asked how acts reacted when they were not always allowed their own way, Bartels was sanguine.
“I am in many positions where I have to talk to the artists honestly about what is working or what is not working,” he said. “Or what I don’t or do recommend from our collective staff wisdom or what we read from the marketplace. Many of those conversations are received well. I think artists, for the most part, like to hear the truth. Sometimes it has to be given in a certain way out of respect. But there is a good back and forth in the relationship then when you can also hear their point of view when you give your point of view.”
The conversation progressed to cover what an act can expect when signing to Def Jam.
“The first thing we do when an artist walks in is that we listen to them and we hear what they have to say as well as what they want to do,” he suggested. “We listen to music and we just talk. I always believe that the best day shouldn’t be the day you sign a deal and everybody is excited about it; the best day should when you actually deliver on what we talked about in the room [that day]. Does that always happen? No, it doesn’t always happen. But it’s an attempt to actually try to make that happen […] It is always the artist first.”
He ended by noting how streaming is giving hip-hop a whole new lease of life and he was effusive about how it is unlocking the promise of the long tail for both new releases and catalogue – something that was unimaginable in the days of physical.
“Things for us – definitely on the hip-hop side of the catalogue as well as current music – is really very bullish,” he said. “Hip-hop does so well on streaming and over-indexes big time. As streaming grows and there is more scale, that is going to do even better because people like to hear that music.”
He concluded, “We are seeing the long tail on both sides. It is very strong. For many years, hip-hop catalogue was challenged in terms of physical sales only getting to a certain point. It’s just super-exciting to see what I always believed – which is that it has amazing staying power and focus.”