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Lyor Cohen’s Life Lesson for Artists: Don’t Be Stuck on Stupid

Hip-hop’s most prominent businessmen and YouTube global head of music wants to ‘humanize tech’ and help artists make lots of money

Nirmika Singh Apr 26, 2019

Lyor Cohen’s three decade-long career includes leadership stints at the iconic hip-hop label Def Jam Recordings, Warner Music and his own label 300Entertainment. In 2016, he took the reigns as YouTube’s global head of music. Photo: Noa Griffel/Courtesy of YouTube India

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It was at a very young age that Lyor Cohen learnt to grow a thick skin, a quality that would serve him in good stead in years to come. All thanks to his mother who deliberately “misspelled” his name because the common Hebrew word ‘Leor’ looked just too boring on paper. The downside? The funky ‘Lyor’ could also be mispronounced as ‘Lie-or’ or ‘Liar.’

“So I am growing up in America, and the teacher on the first day of school asks where ‘Lie-or’ is!” recalls Cohen, one of the world’s most iconic music executives and hip-hop impresarios. Cohen’s three decade-long career includes leadership stints at the iconic hip-hop label Def Jam Recordings, Warner Music and his own label 300Entertainment. In 2016, he took the reigns as YouTube’s Global Head of Music.

It is around noon and Cohen and I are seated across from each other in a Hiace van that is braving a rather tough Mumbai traffic. We are on our way to the After-School of Hip-Hop at The Dharavi Dream Project–a co-initiative of Universal Music India and media firm Qyuki–which aims to equip the underprivileged youth of the city with creative tools that they otherwise might not have access to. The previous evening saw him launch the long-awaited YouTube Music app in India at a swish event at a seaside venue in Taj Lands End hotel. It featured performances by some of Bollywood’s top music talent such as Guru Randhawa, Badshah, Jonita Gandhi, Akriti Kakar and Alka Yagnik (who also happens to be one of YouTube’s most searched artists), along with a few South stars, which included composer/singers Anirudh Ravichander and Devi Sri Prasad.

Lyor Cohen at The Dharavi Dream Project.

The independent music community comprising the many singer-songwriters, rappers and rock bands that are active on the club and festival circuit was conspicuous by its absence at the celebrations (barring composer Clinton Cerejo who straddles the fence between indie and Bollywood) but it’s not surprising why even they didn’t make it to the stage that day: as compared to their ‘mainstream’ counterparts who have masterfully adapted to the rapidly changing digital content game, catering to every new emerging taste and releasing songs like clockwork, India’s indie musicians haven’t really been digital-first in their focus. Some indie purists even scoff at the prospect of being social media-savvy.

However, given his experience in building a hip-hop ecosystem from scratch in the U.S., Cohen says it is the independent sector he wants to invest in India “so that the Indian people can also experience falling in love with artists and not simply songs.” He adds, “You know it’s wonderful–the Bollywood segment of the business—but it’d be a great joy for our platform, and for me and my colleagues to help develop more independent music. I think it’s a huge responsibility—a responsibility that we are very really enthusiastic about taking.”

Cohen’s journey in consolidating America’s fragmented music scene throughout the Eighties and Nineties is the kind of stuff both startup and M&A dreams are made of. The seeds were sown early when he was a teen growing up in Los Angeles, soaking in the live music during the intermissions of the basketball matches he and his older brother attended together in Compton.

But it wasn’t until he got a finance degree and served briefly in a bank—being the good Jewish boy he was–that Cohen would find himself deep diving into the music business. The story of the first-ever gig he hosted in 1984, featuring Run DMC, for which he borrowed $700 from his mother and ended up making $36,000, is almost hip-hop folklore now. Also remarkable was his quick ascent to power in Rush Management (which managed Run DMC, Whodini, Sparky D et al), followed by the culture-redefining stint at Def Jam, where he served as president starting 1988. In 1999 he sold it to Universal, merging Island, Def Jam and Mercury to form the Island-Def Jam Music Group. Music business aside, the question that almost everyone that met Cohen during his pioneering years perhaps wanted to ask was: What was a white dude doing in an African-American creative ecosystem?

Looking back at this glorious innings, Cohen says he never cared about what others thought. “For me to wake up every morning and help artists and songwriters make a living making music is like wow—it’s a beautiful business card. I like waking up to my job… I am motivated by not what other people think. There’s a saying that a gentleman is a gentleman all the time. I am not a gentleman when it is convenient. I am who I am. Period. Does that make any sense?”

Badshad performing at the YouTube Music launch in Mumbai.

Cohen’s sharp-shooting ways have earned him accolades and brickbats alike. For every article on the Internet that lauds his contribution toward bringing hip-hop from the fringes to the mainstream, there’s also a counter litany on his ‘culture-vulture’-like scheming ways. There’s no denying Cohen is controversy’s child. But say what you might about the 59-year old businessman, the one think you cannot miss about him is his almost contagious passion for helping artists find their groove. “I love artists that believe they cannot breathe or live without singing and creating. And that money is not the motivation–that their ability to survive and live has to do with that they’re artists. So they wake up everyday to be artists… They’re the ones I am most interested in. I think those that swim like fish, that are chasing the money and the success, are not the ones that have coffee table books,” he says.

In this freewheeling, on-the-road exclusive interview, Cohen discusses culture, curation and why we need to break echo chambers to discover the next big thing.

Good mor…

Good morning, I beat you to it! 

Haha! Good morning, Lyor, and thank you for joining me for this conversation. How are you feeling today?

I feel like I am in a fantasy! A beautiful fantasy! Last night we had our launch event and I got to see so many Indian artists and I got a chance to experience the real diversity in the Indian music business, which is like an incredible gift. I mean, to sit there on a beautiful Mumbai evening–I felt the wind blowing, it was just magical–and to witness a couple of hours of music not just from Mumbai but also from the south, it was really special. And now with you on the way…

Thank you! Well, India is an incredible place, no doubt! But from a music executive perspective, it is also a difficult place to navigate through. What has been your understanding of the Indian market?

My understanding of the Indian market is that it is segmented between Bollywood and independent. And I think that it’s beautiful to see India have this wonderful tradition of seeing music, experiencing music. I was told by this beautiful poet that I met yesterday–what’s his name…

Javed Akhtar.

Yes, he was explaining to me that this Bollywood effect is not a recent effect–it’s thousands of years old in Indian culture: to bring songs to stories and telling stories in songs. The independent music sector is really important for us to support as well as Bollywood because we have heard from so many creatives and artists that while they want to have their Bollywood careers they also want to be able to sing songs that are important to them. So that the Indian people can also experience falling in love artists and not simply songs. And you know it’s wonderful–the Bollywood segment of the business—but it’d be a great joy for our platform and for me and my colleagues to help develop more independent music. I think it’s a huge responsibility–a responsibility that we are very really enthusiastic about taking.

“ALGORITHM + HUMAN TOUCH IS THE WINNING FORMULA”

While YouTube has facilitated a democratization of sorts for artists, where everyone stands chance to become a star, there’s a new problem that has come up today of discoverability…

Discoverability is a problem, why, because there is so much content?

Yes, and because people like yourself, the culture curators and the impresarios are missing. I see it as a problem because on the app side, you are democratizing the scene and helping people become more equipped than ever before that ever before but on the other side, where are the curators?

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Curation always follows the audience. Now YouTube is really loved in India, whether you’re in the very, very South or the very, very North, whether you’re a young person or an old person, you have access to YouTube, so with the explosion of connectivity, the user is really happy to access incredible content.

So, in my mind, you’re now going to see, really talented curators and organizations that are going to help curate all the incredible access that the consumer has. To [be able to] figure out: ‘I only have a certain amount of time in my day to watch, what should I watch.’ I think you’re going to find many new curation vehicles and trusted brands and people. I suspect you could be a really good curator and you could guide. You are, actually. You work for Rolling Stone, which is a known curation tool. But what makes YouTube so interesting is that in the past you had to move to Mumbai and possibly get discovered by Bollywood but now Bollywood is discovering you…so Bollywood is not really trendsetting but they’re actually taking all sorts of different experiences, like Gully Boy. Look, they’d have never thought of Gully Boy until there was this movement happening, so I think curation always follows an audience. The audience is there and there no question that everybody’s spending time on YouTube. I’d really love to follow you and I really hope that you build your own channel–I’d like to hear what you’re listening to.

Oh, I’d love to share my playlists! The one question that I wanted to ask you was whether you see tech emerging as the new curator? The human angle that was so important all the years–and there couldn’t have been a bigger example of that than yourself – do you think that is missing and being taken over by algorithms now?

Such a good question! The way I describe it is that we are in the 2.0 version of the algorithm of our product. I really believe the human touch is so critical, it’s so important and I think the algorithm, although would get intelligent, but at the current state I worry about it being an echo chamber. And that’s not sexy to me, like I would like the unexpected surprise that we as human beings are in real need of. So, I am hoping that the algorithm becomes better but I truly believe the algorithm and the human touch is the winning formula. And you say I am perfect example–I am working at a tech company and they’ve actually got a music person working! I declared very early on that I was going to be my most authentic self. They don’t need a person from traditional media, a music person, trying to act like they’re a tech genius. So my effort is to humanize and to continue bringing context to machine learning, and to my colleagues who are extremely smart in building world-class products. And I’m hoping that the combination of human desire to explore and to discover the unexpected can help lessen the echo chamber. So I believe we’re going to see 3.0, 4.0 version of the algorithm and machine learning–there’s no question that machine learning is helping our lives get a little bit better–but we have to keep working on it and making the machines work for us. And not us work for the machine.

That’s a great point about the unpredictability of a new sound. And tech doesn’t always work towards that. Tech might seed something based on your listening pattern but not always introduce a whole new world. Is that a challenging exercise to be able to humanize an enterprise that is inherently tech-driven?

You know the fact that declared so early on that I was going to be my most authentic self, I think made all the engineers and tech people actually say, ‘Okay, wow, maybe we could learn from him as much as he could learn from us.’ So the mutual respect allows for us to really work together. And it’s similar to the Indian music industry. YouTube is your product–work with us to shape it, design it, and work better for the consumer and the artists. Let’s work together and design something. Digital product is not like a physical product – you have to get everything perfect. If there’s something about the app that we could improve on, we are constantly iterating and making changes and making things better. And so if we work with the music industry better, we could make a product that we could really be proud of. So, that’s what I am hoping to accomplish in India– to get smarter because the Indian music industry has had a lot of challenges, just like all media, but they’re truly impressive and creative, thoughtful people. I really respect them.

The problem that we have here is that Indian market is so diverse.

I would not say that’s a problem. I would say that’s a gift.  My god, you saw all the flavors– first of all, India is larger than Europe, India has more ‘countries’ than Europe, more languages than Europe. So, just to put it in context: this is one country that houses so many beautiful and intricate cultures, and my hope is that it doesn’t become all homogenized. I hope that Punjabi keeps rocking that Punjabi stuff and keeps bringing their flavor and the Tamil continues…  So I don’t see it as a problem, I see it as a great opportunity.  One of the artists that I met said that if he has one hit, if he can do that in many languages, the view count doesn’t count to one, so he’s breaking up his view count. So that’s a perfect example of something that we could start thinking about and seeing if we could solve it.

“LIBERATION OF LOCAL RAP LIES IN NOT IMITATING AMERICA”

What have been the biggest learnings from your record label career that you have applied in your new job at YouTube?

My number one learning has been to be present–I am much more educated, much smarter, much more capable of helping the Indian music market by investing in being here. So I started as a road manager, and road managers can’t do it from their office–they actually have to road manage! So that was my first experience and that was the most important experience: showing up, being here. We’re going to this area, Dharavi, and I am going to learn about this emerging art form of rap music in India. Now, I personally believe that the liberation of rap globally happened when local artists decide not to pay homage to American rap, but to make the art form their own. For me, that was the liberation–when they said we are not going to imitate American rappers, we have our own issues, our own problems, our own culture. I think rap is about not regurgitating love songs. Remember rap first displaced disco and disco was during a period of high elitism and partying, and exclusivity. Studio 54 [the legendary New York nightclub] which I used to go to, you know, was very exclusive and it kept people out. Rap music was inclusive and brought people in. And so I think that what I have seen about the explosion of rap music around the world is whether it is French or Spanish or Indian or Korean–they’re making it their own. They don’t give a fuck about American rappers and where they came from. They’re not paying homage to America. They’re so cool and I’m looking forward to the Dharavi Project.

Rap group Run DMC including members Joseph ‘Run’ Simmons, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, and Jason ‘Jam Master Jay’ Mizell attend the Tougher Than Leather album release party with their one time road manager hip hop mogul Lyor Cohen at the Palladium night club on September 15, 1988 in New York, New York. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Yeah, what’s unique about this project is that it is a regular school by day and it turns into a hip-hop school by night. And as much as we might think that Dharavi is full of strife and struggle, you would find that this place is buzzing with positivity. Lyor, how important is it for tech giants to feel invested in the growth of an art form at the grassroot and keep it sustainable?

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You know, I think we create the opportunity–we’re just the platform that gives the chance to someone in this project to communicate. I don’t want to over-reach because the creativity is happening internally and anything that we could support young people in finding their voice and finding their audiences makes us excited. So, giving them the amplification and opportunity to continue engaging with their audience is a treasure for us.

“MONEY CAN’T BE THE MOTIVATION TO CREATE ART”

What from your experience are the biggest mistakes artists keep making?

I think: swimming like fish. I love artists that believe they cannot breathe or live without singing and creating. And that money is not the motivation–that their ability to survive and live has to do with that they’re artists. So they wake up everyday to be artists. Those finding their voice– they’re the ones I am most interested in. I think those that swim like fish, that are chasing the money and the success, are not the ones that have coffee table books. I am interested in the ones that have coffee table books. You know, when you go to someone’s home and you flip through the book of an artist that changed the game because they were singing to their own tunes. They weren’t following someone else. They broke through a barrier. That’s interesting to me.

One of the biggest requests we get from debut artists is about how to be on the cover. What do you have to say about the sense of entitlement artists have?

[Laughs] You know, I have so much respect for artists and remember they had to sit at their parents’ table and say to their parents that they might not be going to college and they’re going to pursue a life of being an artist, and I think that’s hard. So I have a lot of respect, whether they’re chasing the Rolling Stone cover or they’re trying to stay alive by being an artist. I have a lot of respect for both of them. I just favor in my own journey the artists that are breaking glass and creating new place and new movements in music that you could tell are so genuine and important to them. I have a respect for them all–especially Indian parents, they want their kids to be doctors, lawyers and finance persons–for them to hear that their children are going into creative arts… that’s a tough conversation. I am hoping YouTube makes that an easy conversation.

And it’s already doing that!

Super cool! To me, that’s a gift I think for a society like India, where the middle class is exploding and there’s an enormous growth and optimism. The GDP is growing more than China, at seven percent. But how sad would this continent be that it forgets what made them get here. The arts, the movies kept the country together… [helping] tolerate the extreme differences in socio-economic status. So if YouTube could help grow the creative arts and the creative expression in the same speed as the economic growth, that could be, I feel, that could be on my gravestone.

That’s amazing!

I feel I have the best job in the world.

I thought I had the best job in the world!

[Laughs] We could share it! For me to wake up every morning and help artists and songwriters make a living making music is wow—it’s a beautiful business card. I like waking up to my job.

“IF WE PAY ARTISTS LOTS OF MONEY, THERE WILL BE MORE ARTISTS”

I guess a part of the job is also to understand that while there are accolades there are also brickbats, and labels get a bad rap all the time. They have a bad name in the business.

Sure, sure!

Lyor Cohen at the YouTube Music launch.

How important is it for you to shatter the myth of a devious music executive? How challenging has it been for you to keep a good name?

It’s not challenging at all because I go home to my gorgeous family and my friends who know me, and I don’t pay attention to all the elbows and the criticism that gets flung at us, or me. I don’t really care about it. I have a thick skin. And I know what my motivation is. My motivation is to help grow the artistic base and you grow the artistic base by building a platform–it makes it easy for artists and songwriters to build an audience, but also to create a way for them to earn a living. I personally believe that it’s great that we have a great reach, but we have to have also the ability to pay the music industry lots of money. If we pay them lots of money that means more artists can talk to their parents about being artists, more songwriters can be songwriters, and it makes the world just a better place to live. I don’t pay attention to the criticism because I know everyday I wake up to those two things: reach and money, for artists and songwriters. Listen, the music business has provided me with a gorgeous life. I go to a PTA conference–and in New York there are a lot of finance people–and I bump into them at the PTA. So it’s like, ‘Who’s your kid?’ ‘That’s my kid.’ ‘What do you do?’ ‘I work for Bank of America.’ ‘ I work for Goldman Sachs.’ And when they ask, ‘What do you do?’ I say  ‘I help make artists and songwriters make a living making music.’ It’s like a mic drop.

Hashtag cool daddy!

It is hashtag cool daddy! So this industry has given me so much–my kids had a great education, we have a great life. And so for me to wake up everyday–I know what I am doing, I know I need to partner up with the creative community, I need them to feel that YouTube Music is theirs. If there’s an issue with it, work with us to improve it. I want the artists to not have to worry about scale and engineering and how does one create a platform like this but more about creating music, and beautiful songs and promoting their careers. And leaving the scale and that stuff to us. It’s a big responsibility and I treat it really seriously. So this is a great moment for me. My love affair is still finding acts, signing them. I am not going to do this forever–I’m going to go back to my real love. My real love is I own a record company and one day I will have to go back and sign the next beautiful artist. I mean, I used to wake up with the first thought in the brain that maybe today is the day. Who knows!

“I AM NOT STUCK ON STUPID”

Has working in a tech company handicapped you in any way?

It hasn’t handicapped me in any way, because life is not linear. And I’m not, I like to say, stuck on stupid.  This has been a glorious time, not for me just to give back to the industry but also for me to learn. If I was still running my record company, I doubt I would be here with you today, on the way to the Dharavi Project. And it’s going to make me a richer person–I am going to be a richer person experiencing this. So I’m not stuck on stupid. This period has been glorious. But just for all transparency, I have a love affair and I have to go back to it.

Do you find a lot of people like you in your circle, who are thick-skinned or don’t care about criticism?

No! That’s my parents’ education. The gift of being as old as I am is that not many people recognize that simplicity and editing is key. So I edit friends, I edit songs, I edit notes, my life, my closet. I spent the last 10 years of my life editing and simplifying. So to worry about what other people think about me is… first of all, I wasn’t educated that way. I am a Jewish person, so we struggled with being the odd men out – I should say the odd person out. So I have had a thick skin since a very early age.

Your story is exemplary in so many ways–we need lone rangers sometimes.

We definitely need lone rangers sometimes. I am going to use that under my name, on my business card. ‘Lyor Cohen–Lone Ranger.’ [laughs] I am going to send you publishing [rights.]

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