The Last Word: Lyor Cohen on the Future of Music

This story appears in Rolling Stone‘s 2021 Future of Music issue, a special project delving into the next era of the multibillion-dollar hitmaking business. Read the other stories here.

A tour of Lyor Cohen’s career can be taken, rather efficiently, through the sheer number of rap lyrics in which he appears. The tally of recording-studio references to the 61-year-old label titan includes Pusha T’s “tell Lyor I need a million for my monologues,” Kanye West’s slightly phonetically misaligned “the Lyor Cohen of Dior Homme,” and, of course, Mos Def’s more oblique “some tall Israeli is running this rap shit.”

Cohen (who is, for reference, 6’5″) cuts a formidable presence in the music industry, physically or otherwise. Born in 1959 to Israeli immigrants and raised in Los Angeles, he was siren-songed into music around age eleven — “the beat came and my jaw crashed. I physically swallowed the beat, and it went inside me,” he recalls — and jetted off to New York after graduating college to work for Russell Simmons, which plopped him into a job managing Run-DMC on tour. By the Eighties and Nineties, he was shepherding LL Cool J and Public Enemy and running Def Jam, the crème de la crème of hip-hop labels. He would go on to make a C-suite victory lap of the music industry, serving as chairman and chief executive of Warner Music Group, co-founder of 300 Entertainment, father of the infamous “360 record deal,” and, currently, head of music at YouTube.

Characterized by record producer Irv Gotti as the “coolest white dude in the game” and by Ja Rule as “kind of gangster, man,” the present-day Cohen spoke with Rolling Stone for the Last Word interview from his home, where he has bunkered down in Covid-19 lockdown alongside his wife and newborn.

You’ve led the music business from so many different sides. What’s the achievement you’re most proud of?
Being the road manager of Run-DMC and learning the essence of our business. Ultimately, the artist and the fan have to close the deal, and I realized that what Run-DMC did — and the Beastie Boys to an extent — was close the deal onstage. As we talk about the future of music and how the digital platforms provide much more music to many more people, I think live [performance] is going to be incredibly important.

Distribution got eviscerated and the levy broke. Now we have a billion artists swimming around our ankles. Which one do you invest in? Which one do you believe in, in such a profound way that you go and tell all your friends and put your assurance, your stamp, on?

A lot of people can fake a lot of shit digitally. But the truth will always be told where there is no agent, no manager, no DSP, no radio station between the artist and the fan. Mano a mano. I learned this in the three and a half years of being Run-DMC’s road manager. We separated ourselves from all the other rap artists emerging by burning down every single stage we came across.

So what do you think of the artists who were signed from TikTok during the pandemic and have never performed live?
If you graduate medical school, they don’t give you a bag of scalpels and say “go operate.” You go into residency. Why should an artist be able to just go into the world without an incubation period, a gestation period? Work with people to create an understanding of that sacred moment where they are exposed in a way they’ve never been exposed before — no meme, no explosion of a song, just performing it.

One of the things that was jettisoned in the music industry in decline was the commitment to artist development. I think the music industry, now that it’s growing, should recommit to artist development. If an artist got discovered on TikTok during the pandemic, they certainly can start working and trying to communicate that song live, so they can go and perform it in a way they feel proud of, when the pandemic is in the rearview mirror.

What would you say to an 18-year-old who wants to go into music today?
I would say an emphatic yes. The music industry takes a lot of courage, but it is full of opportunities. I’m very, very bullish about this industry; it’s starting to attract some really high-quality people and it’s a fabulous occupation.

I sometimes show up to PTA meetings with all the parents and it’s, “What do you do?” “I work at JP Morgan.” “I work for a hedge fund.” And then there’s my kid, and “I help artists and songwriters make a living from their music,” and it’s like a mic drop.

“What a beautiful industry, you know? None of your decisions would determine whether someone lives or dies; you only bring joy to the world. Turn off music and we’re going  to have a terrible world”

But isn’t it also a more difficult business nowadays, with data-fueled gold rushes and the sheer amount of new music being released?
I think that is only opportunity, because someone needs to figure that out.

What a beautiful industry, you know? None of your decisions would determine whether someone lives or dies; you only bring joy to the world. Turn off music and we’re going  to have a terrible world.

What are the most overrated and underrated trends in music right now?
Overrated is data A&R — using data as the beginning, middle, and end to signing an artist.

Underrated is the real A&R — helping develop a musical point of view to help an artist articulate their conscience and desire in a way that allows them to feed their family. The classic A&R of punches, guts, musicality, chorus, verses, that kind of stuff.

What’s the greatest risk you’ve ever taken?
I had parents that did everything in their power to convince me not to go to work, but to find something I’m passionate about, and so they gave me the jetpacks on my back to go take the risk and go to New York City. My timing was impeccable.

If you hadn’t gone into music, what would your backup careers have been?
I would have been a conflict-resolution person in a diplomatic corps. Or I would have been some serial entrepreneur.

Who are the entrepreneurs you’re most impressed by?
I’m always amazed by Jay-Z and his development of his businesses. And Kanye West. In order to be hugely creative on a consistent basis, you have to really focus on that. But it’s very rarefied air that you could actually branch out and develop other businesses and still stay incredibly focused and creative.

Are there any artists you’ve always wanted to work with, but never gotten the chance to?
Only the dead ones. I would’ve loved to have been a part of Fela. I would’ve loved to have been much more intimate with Aretha Franklin early on.

You’ve done hundreds of interviews, many probably including the same questions. So what are the questions you wish people would have asked that haven’t been asked?
I never get asked “What’s important to you?” And I guess the answer to that is: feeling that I am contributing something. I don’t need to be the boss. Being a great record person would not be satisfying to me. I want to contribute to my community, my family, myself.

Another question I don’t get asked is “What is winning?” I am a music person who has survived at least three cold periods, so I’ve gotten that stripe, and I feel like I’m a terrific husband, a good father. But winning doesn’t stop there. I also want to be feeling good to myself — having hobbies and interests and being a round person. There are a lot of people who are great in a certain area, and they’ve sacrificed and dedicated everything. I think winning is finding the way to manage a career, a home, a loving relationship, and also being good to myself.

If you come to my home, you wouldn’t know that I’m in the music business. I don’t have gold records all over the place and everything like that. I want to be round. Successfully round.

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