6 life lessons from one of music's legendary execs
Lyor Cohen is credited with reinventing rap music and developing some of the world's biggest musical acts. Surely he's picked up a few tips along the way.
Lyor Cohen likes to stay behind the scenes. It's a preference that's served him well for the past 30-plus years; the former president of Def Jam Records is not a musician himself but is credited with developing some of hip-hop's biggest artists, including Jay-Z, Kanye West, Run DMC and LL Cool J.
But for all the times he's tried to melt into the background and let his clients' stars shine, he just keeps getting noticed. Maybe it's the fact that he's a towering figure at 6 foot 5; maybe it's the fact that he has the razor-sharp business acumen and straight-shooter demeanor that people just want to learn from.
Or maybe it's the fact that he so deeply, personally and unabashedly loves music. Cohen, born in New York to Israeli parents, is one of the shape-shifters of an industry rife with highs and lows, with booms and busts, with triumphs and setbacks. He's even responsible for some of them. And in this roller coaster ride of a career, he's managed to pick up a few pointers.
On building a team:
In 30-plus years in the business, Cohen has learned the true meaning of "there is no 'i' in 'team.'" He phrases it a little differently, though.
"The most important thing throughout my career is hiring and surrounding myself with people that are significantly better than myself, and being OK with it."
On being unpredictable:
Around 2004, Cohen left his post at the helm of Island Def Jam Records to run Warner Music, brokering deals with streaming services like YouTube and Spotify to simplify compensation. In short, he was trying to engineer a recovery of the entire industry, and meeting plenty of hurdles.
"Everybody in the industry was laughing at me like hyenas. Like, 'What is he doing? Hasn't he seen all the charts? Recorded music falling off the map, 18 years of decline?'" Cohen said in an interview with Complex. But he didn't falter. "I don't want to be arrogant and think that there's one path. There's numerous paths; that's what's so interesting about the opportunity here, that the digital revolution has offered."
On staying ahead of the industry:
No matter what direction music goes, it will always be there, in some shape or form. It's taken years for Cohen to finally understand this, and to convince others.
"Music is an essential element," he said. "There's a lot of water out there, but the water industry still works. My belief is that we're entering the golden age of the music industry. We have an industry that's set to explode because of streaming and advertising. ... I saw the explosion about to happen, and I wanted to ring the bell."
On being judged:
It's Hollywood, after all. You can't be a shrinking violent. Cohen, for his part, has a reputation for being relentless, if not aggressive. He just shrugs. It's not about being easygoing or agreeable, he says. It's about getting the job done.
"I'm not a 'yes' person. I'm very direct. I believe that my voice and my influence ... could impact the world. It's a tough philosophy because I'm all in. I'm not kinda sorta, I'm not guarded."
On discovering the next big star:
Motivation is a pretty special thing. There's nothing like having a reason to get up in the morning, one that makes you excited and pumped for what's ahead. But the reasons behind it are different for everyone. For Cohen, it's this:
"I wake up every day, and the first thing I think about is maybe today's the day. I jump into my shoes. Maybe today's the day I'm going to bump into someone that's going to change the creative landscape. That's my first thought every day for over 30 years."
On not judging others:
In addition to his decades of entrepreneurship, Cohen is an active philanthropist. He's on the board of Boys & Girls Harbor, a nonprofit based in Harlem, N.Y., dedicated to empowering young people. A couple years ago he took time out of his busy corporate schedule to drop some serious life advice:
"We all have to play with what we're dealt with. When you're competing or flowing through life, you have to understand that everybody else has been dealt some sort of hand that may not be beautiful and perfect. There's no such thing as a perfect hand and we just have to do the very best we can."
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