By Alice Macedo & the MBJ Editorial Staff
“I don’t want to be in the music business anymore, I want to be in the business of music.” A curious crowd listened attentively as Kevin Liles kicked off the 13th Annual Business of Hip Hop & Urban Music Symposium at Berklee College of Music, on October 3rd, 2019.
Around a hundred of Berklee’s most industry-savvy students had dispersed themselves among the orchestra seats of the Berklee Performance Center. The list of guests speakers at the symposium was stacked: Moxie Raia, a young and incredibly talented Pop/R&B singer; Her manager and producer, multiple Grammy-award-winner Che Pope; Gina Miller, VP and general manager of Entertainment One (eOne) in Nashville; Mark Robbins, general counsel and head of the legal department at 300 Entertainment; and, of course, the CEO and co-founder of 300, Kevin Liles. Most of these speakers would join Berklee Professor, and Music Business/Management mogul Tonya Butler on stage to simulate a negotiation of a record deal – an exercise that would give artists and business students alike a glimpse into the world of the music business in action. But first came a discussion with Tonya, and “The Man” himself, Kevin Liles.
An Iconic Career
Liles opened the event by sharing stories about the development of his career. Kevin Liles began his vocations in music as a rapper in Baltimore, Maryland. Simultaneously, he began to study engineering at Morgan State University, after receiving a scholarship from NASA. It was not long before he left school to pursue music full time, but his endeavors at Morgan were fruitful – so much so that the school went on to award him an honorary doctorate years later.
A turning point in Liles’ career came when he stumbled upon his music being played on the radio; though to his surprise, it was not his voice he heard, but that of the R&B duo, Milli Vanilli. Enraged and blindsided by the theft of his work, Liles decided he wanted to learn more about the business of music.
In 1991, Liles was offered an internship at Def Jam Recordings. Initially, he was put off by the idea of working for free, but he eventually came around to the idea. H realized that his aim was to network and learn about the industry. So long as he could make ends meet in the meantime, he wagered that the opportunity would be worth it; he was confident the money would come later.
This internship at Def Jam was the start of a magnificent career in the music business. Liles quickly established a reputation in the company through both his work ethic and his ability to make connections with people – two skills that have been critical to his success ever since.
Onstage, Liles imparted this philosophy to his audience. He underscored how important it is for an artist to understand their career to be a business. Every step taken by a musician must be calculated so that they can reap the full potential of their hard work, and so that their talents are not taken advantage of. Decisions must be made in the present, while always being conscious of the future; always anticipating possibilities that may or may not materialize down the road.
Liles told his audience about how, after years of growth and promotion within the company, he was offered a position as president of Def Jam Records. While he felt that he was unprepared for the role, he realized that such an opportunity might never present itself again. He decided to take the job, while also making a solemn promise to do everything in his power to live up to the highest of standards he could set for himself.
Much of Liles’ success can be attributed to a single resolve: to be the best at everything he does. This extends beyond his career and highlights the importance of patience, perseverance, and long-term dedication. His exact words were, “When it happens fast, it don’t last”. We aim high, stay humble, and be in perpetual growth to truly succeed.
Lilies also reiterated the importance of networking and building relationships in the music industry. He mentioned how, for instance, we should talk to people in the elevator instead of reaching for our phones. It is important to keep in mind that the person right next to you could be the next superstar or even your future boss. In the music industry, connections and networking lead to job opportunities, and the impressions we make and the effects we have on those around us matter. All the connections we make should be nurtured genuinely.
Kevin Liles became the president of Def Jam Recordings in 1998, a position he held for six years. He left the position to assume the role of executive vice president of Warner Music Group. Soon after, he wrote his New York Times bestseller, founded the Make it Happen Foundation, built a stadium at his old high school, and cofounded 300 Entertainment; these are but a select few of his many achievements. All of these accomplishments were the result of his wise decisions, patience, humility, and a profound faith, both in himself and in God. Kevin also highlighted how powerful that kind of faith could be: “One day, you might bump into someone that believes in you as much as you believe in yourself, and then the snowball effect will begin.”
The Negotiations Ensue
After Liles left the stage, the mock negotiation began. Berklee professor and Music Business/Management Assistant Chair, Tonya Butler, took center stage once more to introduce the panelists who would take part in the negotiation process.
Moxie Raia, a pop/R&B singer-songwriter, played the role of the artist in question. In her actual career, Moxie has seen a great deal of success opening for Justin Bieber on the North American leg of his Purpose tour of 2016, as well as through the release of her 2016 debut LP, 321 Reloaded, which features top-notch artists such as Vic Mensa, Pusha T, and GoldLink, among others. Opposite Moxie sat Che Pope, a multi-Grammy-Award-winning producer, best known for his work with Lauryn Hill, The Weeknd, and Kanye West. The two clicked “both musically and spiritually” when they met several years back, and have been collaborating ever since.
In the world of the mock negotiation, the two of them had started a project together, which ended up becoming a masterpiece LP, already finished and ready to be released. All they were looking for was a label that could provide marketing, sponsorships, and the connections to make the album – and Moxie’s career – as big as it could be.
On the left side of the stage sat Gina Miller, senior VP Music, and general manager for Entertainment One (eOne). Opposite her sat Mark Robinson, the head of business and legal affairs for 300 Entertainment. In the negotiation, each one represented their respective labels in the hopes of signing a deal with Moxie and her new album.
After each of the panelists were introduced, the conversation started with each label representative making a pitch. Mark Robinson was bold in offering an incredibly desirable deal up-front. This made it clear to Moxie – and everyone else – how interested his label was in signing her. In addition to getting Moxie excited about the prospect of working together, this strategic move made it very difficult for Miller to get her attention…but Gina Miller was more than prepared. Rather than trying to outbid Robinson’s proposition, Miller’s first move was to ask Moxie what she was looking for in a deal – an entirely different tactic, which highlighted her label’s dedication to meeting the needs of each of their artists with precision. Even within the first few minutes, it became clear that Moxie’s choice in this negotiation would come down to her values – whether she preferred the clout and heavy financial backing of 300 Entertainment, or Gina Miller’s boutique-style model that could be catered to her exact needs.
As the negotiations ensued, certain topics and key deal points were raised again and again. Terms, publishing splits, royalty rates, advances, and marketing plans were but some of the many issues which were covered. Che Pope made sure to emphasize the importance of attaining support through marketing and radio placement. In another bold attempt to seal Moxie’s signature, Robinson even went so far as to offer her a sub-label under 300’s banner.
Going even further, the panelists came up with hypothetical scenarios, the kind of which anyone would need to consider when negotiating a deal: “If Moxie is not as successful as expected, would the label still support her?… Since she already has a finished album, how much recoupment would [the record labels expect]?… Would the label pay off the album recording costs?”
Those questions led to Gina Miller describing what, according to her, most labels would offer an emerging artist in Moxie’s position: in short, a “360” deal, co-publishing included, and a $200,000 advance; all within a 1-album 4-options term.
As the negotiations neared their end, it came time for Moxie to make a decision. Moxie made it clear that she was looking to work with a label that truly understood and believed in her vision. Although she would be willing to compromise on many things, Moxie demanded autonomy and creative control over her musical projects. “There are certain things that you feel in your gut that pull you away from yourself,” she said. “And based on my previous experiences, I do not think [they are] ever worth it.” Moxie’s abilities as a writer and performer are prolific, but at this moment it became clear that it is not just her talent, but her incredible passion and unwavering dedication to her artistic vision that truly sets her apart.
As the negotiation itself came to a close, this sentiment was echoed back by all the music executives onstage. Truly understanding and believing in both the artist and their art is crucial in any artistic partnership or collaboration. A mutual understanding and agreement of the artistic vision is a critical prerequisite to successful collaboration in this industry. It is the difference between a label that is invested in an artist and their ideas, and a label that is only interested in maximizing the capital gains earned off of their investment, even if it comes at the cost of an artist’s vision.
Everyone agreed that the first thing they are looking for in a partnership is comfortable communication and an excellent working relationship. Flexibility is important – there no good contracts without consideration and both parties will likely have to compromise to reach a mutual agreement – but integrity is important too. Knowing when to stand one’s ground, and when to relinquish it is half the battle. This brought up another point which was addressed by both Tonya Butler and Mark Robinson, which is how incredibly important it is for anyone in the music industry (but especially young and emerging artists) to have legal representation. Without proper legal counsel (that is, advice from a certified lawyer who is both experienced and expert in the field of music, copyright, and/or entertainment law), musicians run the risk of being exploited in any number of ways. These exploitations come at the cost of their livelihood, and the thing they love most – their music.
All in all, the Berklee’s Hip Hop Symposium was a smashing success. Before they left, the guest panelists finished the night with some final words of advice:
1) Artists: learn and prepare for the business.
2) Have a clear idea of what you are doing so you can advocate and compete for yourselves.
3) Surround ourselves with good, trustworthy, and competent people.
4) Above all else, believe in yourself, and your artistic visions.
In this way, the business of music is not so much about business at all, but merely the vehicle through which music is created, sculpted to perfection, and shared with the world. That is something worth knowing about.
The 13th Annual Business of Hip-Hop/Urban Music Symposium – Event at Berklee College of Music Participants: Kevin Liles; Tonya Butler; Moxie Raia; Che Pope; Gina Miller; Mark Robinson.
Colin Stutz. “Justin Bieber Bringing Post Malone & Moxie Raia on North America Purpose Tour.” Billboard, March 7th, 2016.