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Lyor Cohen, YouTube's Music Head, Faces Down A Doubtful Music Business

Lyor Cohen delivered the SXSW keynote address at Austin Convention Center in March 2018.
Sean Mathis
Getty Images for SXSW
Lyor Cohen delivered the SXSW keynote address at Austin Convention Center in March 2018.

Fear is not an emotion typically attributed to Lyor Cohen. This is the former music industry exec, after all, whose imposing swag and steely visage made him as formidable a figure as the major rap stars whose careers he helped launch and lord over (from Run-DMC to Young Thug) during hip-hop's 40-year rise to the top of the charts. So when Cohen copped to a fear of public speaking during one of two recent conversations we had in the weeks preceding the long-awaited launch of YouTube's newly announced streaming subscription services, YouTube Music and YouTube Music Premium, it seemed like an unlikely admission from a person known for crushing competition at all costs.

"I tackled a lifelong fear of mine. I dragged it to the ground and I stomped on it," Cohen said, in near glee this March, recounting the SXSW keynote address he had just given to a ballroom of hundreds in Austin. "I said to myself: 'I'm on the back half of my life, and I'm going to tackle every one of my fears.' " In his speech, he positioned his many career pivots (from road manager to leading Def Jam to head of Warner Music Group) as a sales pitch for the music industry to embrace change.

Lately, Cohen's been inducing fear into the traditional music industry he defected from two years ago to become YouTube's global head of music. Brought on board in 2016 to repair YouTube's soured relations with major labels and wrangle new agreements, he found himself waging a public power struggle of sorts with label heads critical of a value gap loophole that allows YouTube to capitalize on artists' content while offering some of the industry's lowest royalty payments.

Being the bad guy has its benefits, especially in the rap world where he's been equally venerated and denigrated. (Dame Dash notoriously labeled him a "culture vulture"; Yaasin Bey characterized him as the "tall Israeli [who's] running this rap s***," in a lyric meant as cultural critique.) Last month, the man who's been known to shoot the camera a middle finger got harangued online for flashing a different hand sign. Apparently, it's easy to misinterpret Cohen's go-to signage (the classic three-finger OK sign, a shout to the label he founded, 300 Entertainment) with the alt-right's adopted white-power hand gesture when you're in a photo smiling next to a red MAGA-hat wearing Kanye West. Cohen eventually released a statement through his spokesperson, explaining,"I went to listen to music and see Kanye. He is someone I care about. I don't abandon people. With great music comes great pain and stress. The music is incredible!" His spokesperson followed up with further clarification: "The hand gesture made by Lyor Cohen is representative of the company he founded, 300 Entertainment, and absolutely nothing more."

Now, well into a storied career he haphazardly fell into at 22, he's still as protective as ever of hip-hop, even in the era of #MeToo, as well as the reputation of his baby, 300 Entertainment, after facing criticism from former marquis signees Migos. Ever one to wield control, conversational or otherwise – at one point in the interview, he turned the questions on me – he's also wistful about his fears of a future beyond his control.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I think most people would be surprised to hear that Lyor Cohen has fears.

Yeah, you know, I wake up, too, and go to the bathroom and I eat. That's part of the problem is people, especially in this day and age, forget that we're all human beings first and foremost, you know?

You became the first major-label exec to sign a licensing agreementwith YouTube in 2006. What did you fear most about entering that territory at that time?

Always, the greatest fear is around precedent when you're running one of these companies. Are you setting a precedent for something that you will not be able to get out from underneath? Are you going to further hurt the ecosystem? A lot of great people were starting to lose their jobs, man. I didn't want to make a deal that ultimately was going to be bad all the way around.

What was the state of things at Warner Music Group at that time?

The credit goes to a colleague of mine named Alex Zubillaga [former WMG Executive VP of digital strategy, who has since founded the venture capital firm ]. He was in charge of thinking through the transformation from physical to digital. He was the one who said, "I want you to close your eyes and think of an industry that is free of a physical good." Of course, he got me at the right time. I was feeling good and had a mind to go with it. It brought a smile to my face.

Being on the label side for the bulk of your career, I'm sure you understand why label owners, who are in the same position that you were then, feel like they're getting the worst end of the deal in negotiating with YouTube.

How about this: Breaking an act is impossible. It's like, an impossible act — and that's where most record people want to focus. So when you ask them to think about the possibilities of the future, and you have to tell them that there's a lot of pain that you're going to experience in the present, it's really tough. Because you're trying to break an act, you're trying to keep your company sexy and alive, and then you have to have a lot of trust in the future. We're more equipped to try and understand how to break an act than actually think about the possibilities of the future.

So that's when you get scared and you act defensively and you protect the future. You protect the present. And then you get sloppy. You get sloppy because you're not giving enough attention to the seismic changes that are happening right underneath your feet. I would say that we weren't — as an industry — so elegant in the transition between physical and digital.

Lyor Cohen in attendance at Rick Ross' 40th birthday party in Fayetteville, Georgia with Ludacris, Big Tigga and a guest in 2016.
Paras Griffin / Getty Images for The Vanity Grou
Getty Images for The Vanity Grou
Lyor Cohen in attendance at Rick Ross' 40th birthday party in Fayetteville, Georgia with Ludacris, Big Tigga and a guest in 2016.

Regarding YouTube's new subscription service, how much of a role should we presume hip-hop will play in that strategy, now that Spotify's former Rap Caviar curator Tuma Basa isreportedlycoming to YouTube?[Note: YouTube has not publicly confirmed the hiring of Tuma Basa, according to YouTube's head of music communications.]

Hip-hop is critical to our subscription service. But more importantly, hip-hop can be contextualized not simply by audio, but even better by audio-visual. Hip-hop is the classic storytellers, right? So I think video is very important; I think storytelling is very important. And let's be clear, hip-hop is dominating the musical landscape right now, so we're going to reflect the musical taste of the world.

Speaking of hip-hop, how did you feel when you heardMigos recently saythat their career was held back at 300 because they couldn't release music for 18 months?

It kind of worked out for them, right?

In the end, I guess you could say. But how did it work out for 300?

It worked out fine. Listen, 300 was designed for artist development, and my favorite [Migos] record is [the first] Culture, to tell you the truth. So everybody has to make their decisions. I'm only in the spirit of positivity, and so I'm happy with how everything turned out. I'm glad that I did what I did; I have no regrets. And I think that things worked out pretty well for them. If I were them, I'd just simply focus on their craft and their fans, you know what I'm saying?

I hear you. You're used to dealing with disgruntled rappers at this point in your career, right?

Yeah, but I have a good attitude about it. Let me ask you a question. Was 300 good for hip-hop?

I definitely respect what you're saying in terms of bringing back the impresario, and bringing back smaller labels that can really focus on artist development.

But do you think maybe we were a good home and investors in QC [also known as Quality Control, the label and management company to which Migos is signed]?

I can't speak to that — I'm not on the inside. I don't have the information that they have.

All I'm saying to you is the point is that more choice is better.

Lyor Cohen in attendance with producer Rick Rubin and hip-hop godfather Russell Simmons at induction of famed Def Jam act Public Enemy into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.
Kevin Mazur / WireImage
Lyor Cohen in attendance with producer Rick Rubin and hip-hop godfather Russell Simmons at induction of famed Def Jam act Public Enemy into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.

During your SXSW keynote, you acknowledgedthe sexual assault allegationsyour longtime friend and colleague Russell Simmons is facing, and you stated that "there's no room for [that] type of behavior." But beyond Russell, I'm curious whether you feel like hip-hop — as a culture and an industry — will survive the kind of reckoning that the #MeToo movement could bring?

Here's how I answer that: It's too general to say hip-hop. I don't think that's reasonable; I don't like when people lump in too much. It's so individual. I don't think, personally, there should be any tolerance and room for any type of behavior like this. Period. When it happens it degrades people and the opportunity. Now, for years people were very upset with me because, during the late-'80s/beginning of the '90s, the crack epidemic happened and so many people were affected by it. It was an epidemic. And it was an epidemic primarily inside [communities] of color. There were a lot of harsh lyrics at the time – "Head crack! Head crack!" – and a lot of people used to call me and say, 'This is really misogynistic and degrading to women. This is offensive!' But that, to me, because it didn't affect, at that moment, white neighborhoods or people of affluence, it was really never covered and those harsh lyrics were a way of communicating to everybody what happens when you become a zombie to crack.

So a lot of the sexually exploitive, harsh language and descriptive language, to me, I think, put a huge magnifying glass on an epidemic that needed, like, 911 attention. I've always been a defender of the arts. And that's not a scapegoat move. It's just, like, where is the line of what's offensive? I think people should vote what's offensive by their ears and their pocketbook.

Is it different dealing with major label owners who give you public pushback during negotiations than it is dealing with disgruntled artists?

My whole life, I've never cared about what anybody has to say about me. [When] utilizing the public forum to negotiate, the problem is I don't actually pay attention. So all I can do is the best I can do. I definitely have taken this job in order to harmonize the relationship between YouTube and Google where the companies could work with Google and YouTube to build a business that everybody can be proud of. This doesn't have to be us against them. We're in two different areas. We've built the world's best global distribution platform and they sign acts and break acts, so we should be in harmony and that's what I want to do. I want to bring us [closer] to working together, 'cause if we work together we're going to make a lot of money together.

You've also said you took the job at YouTube to help diversify the distribution model. How do you reconcile that with numbers that show YouTube pays out an even lower share to labels and artists than the major streaming services do?

You know, the bugged-out thing is you're just regurgitating a sound bite. You didn't do your homework! The reality is that, in America, we pay way more per stream. But because we're so big all over the world, especially in developing countries, that it suppresses that number. And that argument will all go away when we build this subscription service on top of our advertising service.

[Update at 10:22 a.m. on May 18: After this interview was published, a YouTube spokesperson contacted NPR to say that it pays higher rates than other streaming services that also get revenue from advertisements rather than subscription fees. According to YouTube, its rate is currently over $3 per 1000 streams. YouTube will launch its own subscription-based streaming service on May 22.]

I feel like a lot of the conversation around this hinges on mistrust. How hard is it building the industry's trust in YouTube's vision for the future when so many music industry insiders and executives feel like YouTube is taking unfair advantage of certain things, whether it be the "value gap" or the ongoing discrepancy between industry metrics and how much YouTube claims to pay out per stream?

I don't find it particularly difficult to build trust with my colleagues. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding that I hope to clarify, and part of it is creating connective tissue; that everything is not just based around the deal. We used to make a deal and they would never hear from us till we needed to re-up the deal, and a lot of time would go by. Now we're closer in creating connective tissue and, believe me, Google and YouTube simply want to help the music industry build products that are good for the industry, [products that] help create scale in a way that's never happened before. I look at our business going from a luxury goods business to a more mass-scale business.

What's the next big fear you plan to tackle, Lyor?

I think one of my other big fears is skydiving. I'm doing something that allows me to have more trust and not have to control tightly the outcome. And I guess my overarching biggest fear is simply the understanding that I'm growing old. And the way that I'm in the process of tackling that is simply accepting the fact that we're here for a split second and we're really just dust. Like Barbara Bush said in her Wesleyan speech, the biggest thing you'll regret when you're faced with death is not about the bills that you didn't make but the time that you didn't spend with loved ones. I don't want to regret, [so I] remind myself how critical it is to be with friends and family and live a healthy, balanced life. I'm in the process of growing old gracefully and accepting the fact that we're just dust and here for a moment.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.