This is the seventh installment of Rolling Stone’s series At Work, in which we explore the fast-changing music business from the perspective of a different industry leader each week. Read earlier pieces in the series here.
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Veteran music executive Barry Weiss is a difficult man to Google, with everything from his own name (two letters away from New York Times columnist Bari Weiss) to the name of his record label (“RECORDS”) turning up a jumble of results. But Weiss — who got his start at Jive in 1982 and worked his way up to head of the RCA/Jive Music Group, fostering artists like Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears along the way — is happy to stay in the shadows. Holding a lifelong belief that music executives should operate behind the scenes, Weiss co-founded RECORDS in 2015, and turned it into a joint venture with Sony Music in 2017 with a staff of 10 people who share duties. “I don’t play golf. I don’t have any fucking hobbies,” Weiss tells Rolling Stone from his corner of RECORDS’ Soho office. “I only love to break music.”
Walk us through your day now, as the head of a start-up, versus when you were heading up RCA/Jive.
The great benefit I have now is that there are no politics. I’m not caught up in endless meetings for the sake of meetings. I’ve been there and done that. We have a small team of 10 people between marketing [and] A&R, and I made a point of having no titles at the company — kind of like what David Geffen had done in the very early days of Geffen Records — and try to do as little as possible with politics and ego. We’re sort of an island unto ourselves. At a major, 50% of an executive’s time is spent dealing with this bucket of stuff that really doesn’t have to do with finding new artists. Because I’m not caught up in layers of bureaucracy and the red tape of a major-label job, it’s very spiriting to focus on the stuff that really counts: breaking artists.
First thing I do is — like every good executive should be doing — scour the charts. I go through the Top 200 viral charts and radio charts in every major territory; sometimes secondary or tertiary territories.
What have the craziest days of your career been like?
Put it like this: I spent a good part of my career with R. Kelly, Chris Brown, Britney Spears and Frank Ocean. There was a lot of drama. When Britney had her breakdown, I’d come home from a really crazy day and I put on CNN and there were ambulances at her house. One day after the Clive Davis party I woke up to a phone call from RCA’s Mark Pitts saying, “Barry, did you hear what happened with Chris and Rihanna!” The R. Kelly marriage with Aaliyah was a very challenging time. I have 800 stories. There’s no blueprint for artists or executives going crazy. I prefer the artists going nuts — ’cause who has time for the executives to go nuts?
I was taught by my dad, growing up in the record business, that you stand in the background. You’re not supposed to be front and center. That goes for ego as well. The goal is to always just be the guy in the background, acting as the conduit.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
My dad taught me a hit record is like a tennis ball and you can never really hold it down, and I think that’s true more than ever. Sometimes now you put records out and you don’t know when they will rear their head — maybe six or seven months later. 24KGoldn’s song “Valentino” was gestating for six months before it broke on TikTok and now it has 250 million streams.
Clive Calder, a mentor of mine at Jive, also taught me grace under pressure. And perseverance. He used to say, don’t be so impulsive in your decision-making; don’t be knee-jerk. He was the king of strategic, critical thinking.
“You still have to mix gut with ears. Just going purely by data and having no gut and no ears, just signing with your eyes? That’s a shitty way to do it. That’s why there’s a lot of carnage out there right now; a lot of labels getting burned.”
Why the name RECORDS?
When I left Universal in 2014, I was like, Okay I’m not really sure what to do now, because financially I’m fine. I don’t really have to worry about money. The challenge is that I don’t play golf. I don’t have any fucking hobbies. I have a really great house in Amagansett, but what the fuck am I going to do in it that many days a week? Jay-Z’s manager John Meneilly told me, go out and meet with really smart people. Jeff Zucker at CNN told me, do what makes you happy. I only love to break music. So I met Matt Pincus and Ron Perry, who had a great publishing company called SONGS. We thought it was kind of cute to have SONGS and RECORDS. Not quite as cute after SONGS became acquired by Kobalt and we became a self-standing venture — I mean, we thought about changing the name, but I thought about how in the early days of Jive, people were like, “What kind of a shitty fucking name is Jive?” and it didn’t matter. We have hit records. If we don’t have good records, who cares anyway.
Is there any advice you used to hear in the music industry that doesn’t hold up anymore?
So much has changed but so much is still the same. We’re scouring Spotify now and looking for the record that’s doing 200,000 streams just like we were calling record stores in New York and Philadelphia and asking wholesalers what independent records were moving. That’s how we signed Will Smith and Schoolly D. And you know, it’s just a different form of distribution — you still have to mix gut with ears. Just going purely by data and having no gut and no ears, just signing with your eyes? That’s a shitty way to do it. That’s why there’s a lot of carnage out there right now; a lot of labels getting burned. It’s sort of like catching a falling knife on Wall Street, you know that expression?
Entering a trade at that perfect point as it’s on the way down, before it soars up.
Yes, that’s what’s happening right now, because of all the data-led signings — people still have to make a judgment call about artists! It’s still about hits and stars. These lessons have gone by the wayside when people only look at numerical data. Does this artist have the killer instinct? Do they have the work ethic that will make then a superstar? These things haven’t changed.
What do you look for in new hires?
Most people here are really young, and I think that’s important. They are eating, breathing music, pop culture, rap culture, whatever the case may be. I am still on my phone constantly at the age of 61. I never stopped. My wife will take my phone away when I’m looking at SoundCloud, Shazam, and be like, “This is ridiculous.” But I think if you don’t have this burning desire, you should not be in the business.
You have a lot of cool things coming up.
We’re hitting in three genres: pop, country, rap. Noah Cyrus is doing really well. We have a country record that’s going to be fucking massive, co-written with Florida Georgia Line. We’ve got Matt Stell who’s dominating radio as we speak. 24KGoldn, who’s a kid from San Francisco, half-black, half-white, half-Jewish — you know, the formula that worked for Drake — brought to us by a rap producer. There was no data. No records were out. We just thought, this kid’s fucking amazing. A total winner. I don’t know many ventures of our size who are so multi-genre. I like to zig where others zag.
It’s an overheated marketplace. I don’t have the war chest, nor do I want to be blowing my brains out on crazy deals. I also don’t want to put that much pressure on an 18-year-old. I know that sounds hokey, but I think you have to do it at a more measured pace. Quality over quantity. Some of the deals being made right now are just stupid. I am trying to run a proper business here. There is never an issue with writing a big check, but you want to make sure it is a sound investment, not just to beat the competition.
Well, there are the crazy deals, but there’s also a new class of musicians who kind of bubble up slowly.
Yes, there’s such a bifurcation right now, because what’s happened is that there’s been an onslaught and a re-emergence of middle-class citizens that have come back into the music industry. And by that, I mean, it was a zero-sum game at one point. Up until streaming, they had artists that were really big or, like, nothing. You get a lot of middle-class people; a lot of artists that are in the middle now. So there’s a lot of these artists that are emerging and doing really, really, well that the core of the older industry people have no fucking clue about.
“Just because someone is throwing you a like on Instagram, doesn’t mean they are going to stream your record. It is an oasis, an illusion. It’s really important for artists and executives to be sober.”
What do you feel is the most overrated thing in music right now?
A lot of young artists and executives are overconfident. I call this the Snakes on a Plane effect. That movie trailer was shared like crazy on social media and everybody thought, Oh my god, this movie’s gonna open at $100 million! It was a complete flop. Just because someone is throwing you a like on Instagram doesn’t mean they are going to stream your record. It is an oasis; an illusion. It’s really important for artists and executives to be sober. Every young person in the business is around so many false positives of success — they think they’re on top of the world with a Number One record, and they are going to realize it’s a tough business. Even though I have money now, I work like I’m poor. It doesn’t matter if I am 80 years old. It’s a weird Depression-era mentality. I will never stop grinding or hustling. You cannot get complacent.
You work all the time — what do you do to unwind?
I go to the Super Bowl every year. The last 22 Super Bowls. I work out four times a week. I watch sports. But I mean, my oldest son works for Sony Music in digital and my younger son works for UnitedMasters, and I just spend endless amounts of hours looking at music on Instagram and YouTube, so — it’s probably not the healthiest thing in the world, but my hobbies are my work. I read a book every once in a while. I read a book on Joe Namath during the summer. My wife was like, Why would you buy a book on Joe Namath? And then we’re at the beach in the Hamptons and I look and there are two other guys my age, next to me, both reading the Joe Namath book. It was a Curb Your Enthusiasm moment.
I wake up every morning and I am still excited to go to work. I still love the game, for some reason.
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