Lyor Cohen’s past is enough to make him a legend of the music industry, but it’s the way he has morphed that analogue music past into a digital future that makes him one of those legends that actually has something to say.
His mother had a lot to do with the trajectory of his career – as he told the audience at a session at Singapore’s All That Matters Conference. She told him to follow his intuition and head to New York City, just as hip hop was getting started. The worst that could happen, she counselled, was that he’d just have to come home if he failed.
As it happened, he turned up to his job to find his new office was depressed. Why? Because Run DMC were waiting at the airport to go on tour, but their manager was AWOL on a cocaine binge, and nobody else had a passport. Luckily, Lyor had one, so off he went, and his story began in earnest. That story took him through the record labels at ground zero of the hip hop explosion to the switch to digital that has been changing the industry’s business models. He is now Global Head of Music for YouTube.
One main theme running through his session was that success breeds complacency. He saw this back in New York City. A few blocks from his office, kids were queuing round the blocks for this new music, but he says the record industry was too arrogant to notice. They missed the clues, they missed the behaviour.
The music industry of 2017 certainly cannot afford to be complacent. Record sales have been replaced by streaming, and many are struggling to get their heads and their business models around the new way of doing things.
As you can imagine, as somebody who has spent so much of his career bringing through new artists and new content, Cohen does not believe that digital – and YouTube in particular – is a block on this. “My mission here at the company is to help break artists for the labels; to increase the advertising CPMs for their content; and to build a subscription business that shows the industry that our funnel converts.” His plan is to create original content and stick some behind a paywall, some that is “just going to be part of the delighting of our consumer base.”
Predictably, he is rosy about the future. Indeed, he thinks that despite the concerns voiced about how digital and streaming has destroyed the record industry, he sees it on the verge of a new golden age. But, he warns, “the golden age doesn’t get realised until we have the impresario return and roam and create”. They are, he believes, the figures who recognise, catalyse and direct innovation in music in new ways.
Towards the end Cohen was asked to answer a familiar charge of the modern music industry – that whatever its successes it has destroyed the art form of the album. He was dismissive. The music industry was originally simply about 45s, he said, and albums were developed as a commercial product, partly to increase revenues to pay for the heavy TV and radio marketing budgets. And far from being the creative pinnacle for musicians, he believes they were shackles that forced them to spread their talents across too many songs at once, rather than pour their full energy into one or two crackers. “Not having such weight on a body of work at a particular time is liberating for an artist,” he suggested. “My thesis is that we might have had more Led Zeppelin records if they didn’t have to climb Mount Everest once a year.”
Expect YouTube and the music industry especially to continue to innovate and find more ways to express itself, so long as Lyor Cohen is part of it. But just don’t expect many double albums.
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