They shuttered legendary labels Arista and Jive, but Peter Edge and Tom Corson -- whose stable runs from Justin Timberlake to Foo Fighters -- are surprisingly bullish on music's prospects amid rising sales.
The music industry has posted 18 consecutive weeks of positive sales. Album sales are up just 3 percent from 2010 and digital tracks up 11 percent. So after years and years of steady decline, it's clear why a music exec would happily take this moment to break with the past. New RCA Records CEO Peter Edge, 50, even hesitates to call his company a record label. After all, it would be foolish to limit a label's scope to the business of selling records or to use a term as outdated as the concept itself. "My vision for RCA is to be more of a music company," he says. "You have to reinvent, and that's what we're doing." Indeed, after a tumultuous year that saw a new leader in Sony Music CEO Doug Morris, several dozen layoffs and the confirmed shuttering of historic labels Arista and Jive (with their major acts bequeathed to RCA), the pressure is on. U.K. native Edge's roster now boasts some of the biggest names in pop and rock, including Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Ke$ha, Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys and Pitbull, making parent Sony the No. 2 music company in terms of market share. (Founded in 1929, RCA is also the second-oldest label in the U.S., behind fellow Sony property Columbia.) Helping Edge realize his vision is Tom Corson, 51, a longtime colleague from J Records, founded in 2000 by Clive Davis, who was its marketing guru and is now RCA's president and COO. Edge, who is single, and Corson, a married father of two, spoke from Sony headquarters in New York.
What's driving this good sales news?
Edge: What we're witnessing -- finally, maybe -- is the digital turnaround that's long been discussed, where people feel comfortable buying music and building their collections digitally. People want songs available on their phones, computers, wherever they go. … Even though there isn't the income of 10 years ago, it's interesting that music seems to proliferate even more into our world.
But the business has gotten considerably smaller. Has RCA adjusted accordingly?
Corson: We've learned to work with less and hopefully accomplish the same or more. But by definition, the business has shrunk -- the staffing has shrunk, our rosters are smaller. But we're still profitable. Like any other business, you have to make money. But we're an efficient machine.
Was it really necessary to close the famous imprints Jive, J and Arista?
Corson: The path we've taken is to refresh RCA, so we're going to retire those brands. There may be a reason down the line to bring them back, but it's a clean slate here.
Jive made its name because of such multiplatinum successes as Spears and Timberlake. Does this mean there's not much value, awareness or loyalty to a particular label these days?
Corson: The concept is that there is value in branding RCA and not having it confused or diluted by other labels. RCA is big now. We've doubled our market share, and we're competing with the top label groups in the industry. I was at J when it started, Jive's a wonderful moniker, and Arista speaks for itself. They're all great, historic labels. But our goal is to refresh and rebrand RCA. And the artists have all been supportive. We didn't make this move without consulting our artists, and we haven't had any push-back. Frankly, they're the brand. We're defined by our artists.
There were layoffs and roster changes. Where do you see RCA's role in the greater Sony picture?
Edge: Doug is intent on making A&R the focus of RCA and the new focus of Sony Music. The big initiative here is to spend more money on artist development, making more records and making better records and less on all of the other stuff. I happen to agree with him.
Peter, you've said Spotify's streaming service changed your life. How do you feel the service is doing on these shores?
Edge: It's going like gangbusters in certain markets. They've had fantastic pickup for their first three months, compared with how Spotifystarted in European markets. This is not a company that's launching with Apple money, so it's not going to be this thing popping up like iPad commercials everywhere; I don't think they have that kind of budget. But the moment that Apple decides to run a similar service, they'll have serious competition. Without sounding like a commercial, it's pretty great. I'm music-obsessive, and wherever you go, you've got your record collection available to you.
During the past decade, RCA has amassed an impressive rock roster, but with the genre losing ground on the radio dial, what does it mean for your investment in such bands as Foo Fighters and Kings of Leon?
Corson: We're lucky we have a bunch of superstars -- Dave Grohl and Foos, Kings, Strokes and Ray LaMontagne -- and through the Jive side, we have Three Days Grace and Cage the Elephant. We're heavily invested in rock. Our belief is that the touring, merch and festival business is robust, and we're structuring new signings to reflect that with 360 ancillary deals.
Speaking of touring, Kings of Leon canceled their summer tour unexpectedly after singer Caleb Followill had an onstage meltdown. What's the story? Did they break up?
Corson: No. They're doing what rock bands do -- especially if you're brothers and family. This is par for the course for the Kings.
Tom, you've worked with Foo Fighters since the very beginning of their career at Capitol. To what do you credit their longevity?
Corson: They're as big and loud and exciting as ever. And Foo Fighters bring everyone into their world. It was great the way Grohl stood up to the Christian right recently. [The band donned hillbilly garb as the Westboro Baptist Church protested their Sept. 20 performance in Kansas City, Mo.]. This is what art and entertainment and our rock stars are supposed to do.
After nine years of partnering with American Idol to mixed results, Sony is the music arm of The X Factor. What did you learn from your Idol experience that you're applying to X Factor?
Edge: What people aren't always cognizant of is the fact that the best American Idol results come from doing great A&R. The TV platform provides amazing coverage, but if you don't have the right songs, it doesn't really mean a hell of a lot. Those where the A&R wasn't the best, or they weren't willing to be A&R'd, they didn't last.
Corson: Make sure you're passionate about it. We're not obligated to take anybody, whereas with Idol we were. It was just a part of the arrangement. We were happy to do it, we did very well, there's no grumbling about it, but my take is. let's make sure we're excited.