Running A Major Label...

[From New York Times]

And They Said He Couldn't Run a Major Record Label

SITTING behind his formidable mahogany desk in his Midtown Manhattan office, soft music coming from a nearby pair of six-foot-tall custom-made speakers, Antonio (L.A.) Reid, the president and chief executive of Arista Records, was asked about the challenge of running a major label.

"Have you seen `Kid Stays in the Picture'?" he replied, referring to the 2002 documentary about the Hollywood mogul Robert Evans, who ran Paramount Pictures three decades ago.

No, he was told.

"You have got to see it," he said. "Here's this guy who takes over Paramount, and as soon as he gets the job everyone's saying he's going to get fired. The papers went crazy, people said he wasn't qualified, everyone's predicting he's going to fail. Nothing positive."

Mr. Reid leaned back in his leather swivel chair, as if pausing for effect. "And then this guy went on to produce `The Godfather,' and all these other amazing films. I liked that."

Though he was discussing the arc of Mr. Evans's career, Mr. Reid, 45, could just as easily have been talking about his own. When Mr. Reid succeeded Arista's founder, Clive Davis, in July 2000, becoming one of the most powerful blacks in the music industry, questions almost immediately began swirling about him in the press. Though he had had success with his own boutique label, LaFace, discovering acts like Toni Braxton and TLC, could Mr. Reid handle the responsibility of running a major label? Would an executive with a background in R & B and hip-hop be able to work with Arista's rock and pop artists? Could Mr. Reid spot talent like Mr. Davis, the man who helped shape the careers of Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen and Whitney Houston?

Today, just over two years later, Mr. Reid has not only managed to stay in the picture; he has also silenced his critics with a string of multimillion-selling albums, even in a period when sales are down sharply. The R &B heartthrob Usher's album "8701" has sold seven million copies worldwide; the pop-and-roll singer Pink's sophomore effort, "Missundaztood," more than 10 million; and the rap duo Outkast's "Stankonia" sold more than five million copies and won a Grammy last year. Mr. Reid's biggest coup has been "Let Go," the debut album by the pint-size Canadian rocker Avril Lavigne; the record has spawned three No. 1 hits and sold more than 10 million copies. And last Sunday, Mr. Reid capped off the year when three Arista artists — Santana, Usher and Outkast — won Grammy Awards.

"He gets an A+," said Doug Morris, chairman of the Universal Music Group, the world's largest record company. "I really wish we could lure him to our company."

Mr. Reid said he appreciated the praise of his peers, but he still appeared irritated that his abilities had been questioned in the first place. "People say now you're validated because you have had success with Avril and Pink," he said. "But Toni Braxton has sold 10 million albums worldwide and TLC has sold 14 million. I also produced many cuts on the `Bodyguard' soundtrack, which sold 24 million worldwide. And now I'm validated?"

An executive at another label, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said initial doubts about Mr. Reid had something to do with race: "If a white man had come into that position, I don't think he would have been as scrutinized."

For his part, Mr. Reid said he wanted to be judged on his merits and not on "some customized rules that only apply to a black executive."

"I don't like that at all," he said. "I resent it and find it ignorant."

Music has always been a part of Mr. Reid's life. He was born and raised in Cincinnati with two older sisters and a younger brother. His mother was a seamstress; his father, he says, was not much a part of his life. He grew up listening to a range of artists like Miles Davis, Pete Townshend, Sly Stone and Led Zeppelin.

He started playing drums in bands when he was 14 and rose to prominence in the early 80's as a drummer with the R & B group the Deele, which featured the lead singer Kenneth (Babyface) Edmonds. Mr. Reid's penchant for flashy dress prompted friends to call him L.A.

He and Mr. Edmonds eventually started their own production team in Los Angeles, creating hits for Paula Abdul, Bobby Brown and others. Seeing a wealth of untapped music talent in Atlanta, the duo opened LaFace there in 1989. While Mr. Edmonds's successful singing career made him the label's public face, Mr. Reid toiled in the background, gradually turning LaFace into a $100 million company.

During this period, Mr. Reid also introduced a brash young entrepreneur named Sean Combs, a k a Puff Daddy, to Clive Davis. Soon, Mr. Combs's hip-hop label, Bad Boy Records, was added to the Arista fold. "I structured his deal," said Mr. Reid, who is godfather to one of Mr. Combs's sons.

Arista's parent company, BMG, took note of Mr. Reid's accomplishments and began grooming him, sending him to a six-week executive training course at the Harvard School of Business. Shortly thereafter, BMG executives told Mr. Davis, who was 67, that he was beyond the company's mandatory retirement age and that Mr. Reid would replace him. Mr. Davis refused to step down, a move that garnered headlines and prompted artists loyal to him to rush to his defense. "My allegiance and my heart is with Clive," Mr. Santana told an interviewer. He credits Mr. Davis for the success of his 1999 album "Supernatural," which resuscitated Mr. Santana's career.

Aretha Franklin, an Arista stalwart, threatened, "If Clive goes, I go." (She stayed with the label.)

Even Mr. Morris questioned BMG's decision, asking at the time, "Who is better than Clive?"

Steve Stoute, the president of black music at Interscope Records, said of Mr. Reid: "He had big shoes to fill, and everyone had the guns pointed at him. He was in a no-win situation."

Mr. Reid described his relationship with Mr. Davis then as "very tense." The two say they are on much better terms now. "I'm really happy that his successes continue today," Mr. Davis said in an e-mail statement. "I always wish him well with Arista, as I want the label and its legacy to flourish."

Mr. Davis did not make the transition easy, however; he took promising artists like Alicia Keys and top-level executives with him when he left Arista to start his own BMG imprint, J Records.

"It's O.K.," Mr. Reid said of those who moved on. "I would've fired them anyway. I needed people to come in with new ideas and do things in a new way."

Mr. Reid first went to work on himself. He changed his diet and started lifting weights and logging four to five miles a day on the treadmill, losing 50 pounds in the process. Bearded and heavy just a few years back, Mr. Reid is now clean-shaven and chiseled, a striking figure in his handmade Italian suits and shoes. "Since I've been in the gym, I make less mistakes at work," he said, a half-eaten Power Bar on his desk.

Unlike other executives who are almost as well known as their stars, Mr. Reid maintains a low profile, preferring to spend evenings at his apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with his pregnant wife, Erika, and their 1-year-old daughter. "If you're having a party," he said, "you can bet I won't be there." (He has two other children from a previous marriage and one from an early relationship, ranging in age from 13 to 24.)

Ms. Lavigne recalled her first encounter with Mr. Reid. "Everyone kept talking about this huge, powerful guy, and I was expecting him to be mean-looking, but he wasn't," she said. "He was this cute little teddy bear, really soft-spoken and gentle."

His catch-more-flies-with-honey approach has worked well for him over the years. "He gets what he wants 99 percent of the time, and he does it in a way in which he doesn't have to scream and shout," said Bille Woodruff, a director, who is the former head of video production at LaFace. "He's a great motivator and very charismatic. You feel like you want to make him happy."

Pink can attest to his persuasiveness. Originally part of an all-girl trio, she said Mr. Reid convinced her to strike out on her own. "He was like you can either stay with the group and you might be successful or you can go solo and I'll be behind you 150 percent," she said. "It was one of the hardest decisions of my life, but I said I'm going for it."

But for all the Pinks and Avrils, the millions of albums sold, Mr. Reid has had several misses in recent months. TLC's latest effort, "3D," released last November, has sold about one and a half million copies, a substantial number though well below levels reached by the group's three previous albums. Mr. Reid attributed the album's lackluster sales to the loss of Lisa (Left Eye) Lopes, the trio's creative spark, who died in car crash in Honduras last April.

"We need all three to have that magic," Mr. Reid said. "Without that, it's just not the same, which is why I'm sure the girls made the decision that this will be their last album."

Ms. Braxton's latest release, "More Than a Woman," is also doing less than spectacularly, languishing at 109 on the Billboard chart last week. One music executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, offered a somewhat different explanation. "The aging diva is the worst thing in the business right now," he said.

BUT perhaps Mr. Reid's biggest disappointment has been Ms. Houston. Her current album, "Just Whitney," entered at No. 9 after its release in December and has since fallen out of the top 50. Once the crown jewel of Arista, Ms. Houston, who in a recent interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC television acknowledged her past drug use, is increasingly being seen within the industry as a grossly overpaid liability. Her current contract is reportedly worth $100 million. (Ms. Houston could not be reached for comment.)

But Mr. Reid said he had no plans to drop Ms. Houston. "Arista and Whitney are synonymous," he said. "Whitney was never a disposable talent."

He conceded, however, that she might never be the megastar she once was. "I would never say that we will make a record that can sell what `The Bodyguard' sold or what the first, second and third Whitney albums sold. Maybe the reality is that those days have passed us."

Where R & B was his forte at LaFace, Mr. Reid now sees it and hip-hop as areas of weakness at Arista. "I need help in black music," he said. "When LaFace and Bad Boy were in their heyday, Arista was at the forefront of urban music. We need to get our slot back."

He recently appointed Jermaine Dupris, a producer who has worked with artists like Janet Jackson, Jay-Z and Bow Wow, to the post of senior vice president and co-manager of Arista's black music division.

While at LaFace, Mr. Reid stayed clear of gangsta rap, preferring to sign acts whose music he felt comfortable "playing at home for my children," he said.

"I personally never wanted to be involved with music that was about senseless murder and crime," he added. "It was just never for me."

But Mr. Reid acknowledged that he might have to reverse his position. "I can't really impose all of my personal values on everybody I work with, because it is a business," he said. "I may not sign those acts, but Jermaine might, and I have to support what he wants to do musically."

Mr. Reid summed up his long-term goal for the label in one word: hits. "Today my strategy is where is my next hit going to come from," he said. "My strategy in 10 years will be the same damn strategy: Where will the next hit or the next star come from?"

As Mr. Reid readied himself to leave his office for an evening out with his wife, he explained why he gave up performing and producing. "I didn't want to sit in a studio night after night and only hear me and my ideas," he said. "I got terribly bored with it."

Now he has to focus on running his company, but the musician in him still rises to the surface now and then. "There are times I've awakened hearing a melody in my head and I'm like `damn, that's good,' " he said. "Then I come in here and, all of a sudden, it's gone."  

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company



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