'The X Factor's' L.A. Reid: 'I'm Not Harsher Than Simon Cowell'
Think of popular music from the last decade, and executive L.A. Reid is owed more than a little credit. The man who discovered and nurtured Usher, Pink, TLC, Outkast and Justin Bieber has played a vital role in shaping the soundtrack to our lives, as a producer, songwriter, A&R man and executive.
Now, the multihyphenate can add X Factor judge to his already impressive resume, and with the show's premiere, he might want to embrace his new reputation as a no-nonsense talent assessor who could give Simon Cowell a run for his money.
In outtakes from The Hollywood Reporter's August cover story, Reid talks about his new role as judge and as head of Epic Records, an appointment announced earlier this summer. Plus, his thoughts on the inevitable Randy Jackson comparisons.
The Hollywood Reporter: Since you were X Factor’s first hire, it’s almost like they built the judges’ panel around you…
Reid: I think the panel was largely built around Simon Cowell -- which is to say he built the panel around himself -- but I think we’re good anchors, with him on one side and me on the other.
THR: Why, at this point in your career, did you think a TV gig was a good step for you?
Reid: It wasn't about whether it was good or not, I wanted to have some fun. In the beginning, I hated the idea of talent competition on television. In 2001, I dissed American Idol in an article -- like it was nothing and the talent was worthless. I was so nasty about it. As the years passed, I became more intrigued by it, and more jealous that the people involved were having amazing success. Then I was, like, “Why was I so dumb? This is so forward-thinking and smart, particularly at a time when the bottom is completely falling out of our business." At the time, those guys provided the only logical answer, which is get your talent in front of more people, and you have a much better opportunity to sell globally. So I admired Simon -- his brains, his progressive thinking -- and I wanted to be involved.
THR: In July, you took over Epic Records, which is owned by Sony Music, home to Cowell’s Syco label. Was that part of the X Factor judges’ package – a label presidency comes with the salary?
Reid: I can't say that. I didn't know what it was [when I took the job], I just knew I needed to make change. I was committed to change and I worked on it for a long time.
THR: Nearly half of X Factor U.K. winners have been dropped. Is the goal still a long-term investment in these artists?
Reid: It's long-term potential, not long-term for the sake of it. This isn't charity. I'm not a good Samaritan, I'm a businessman. … The goal is to read and react. If we sign an artist that has potential for a shelf life way out in the distance, then we'll stay. But if not, then we won't.
THR: But it is important that the winner go on to be a star even if it's just for a short amount of time?
Reid: Yes, it's very important that we're right and that the winner is a star to us. And in the event that we're wrong, we're just damn wrong, but we like to be right.
THR: The $5 million prize seems somewhat excessive in today’s struggling music business.
Reid: It's a big prize, but winning is a big deal. This isn't the same thing as an artist that goes the traditional route to success. This is a competition in front of a bunch of people. It's an emotional rollercoaster. And because it's a competition, if you win, you should get paid…
THR: The Randy Jackson comparisons are inevitable.
Reid: I'm the black guy with the bald head. That's pretty easy to put together. People have said, “If they're gonna use Randy, why don't they just get Randy?” I've heard all those comments. Unfortunately, that's just how people think. But who cares? I love Randy. He's great. He's been doing this successfully for 11 years, that's certainly not an insult.
THR: From what we’ve seen of auditions so far, the general consensus seems to be that you’re harsher than Simon. You told one girl you wanted to slit your wrists.
Reid: I said I wanted to, but some people might have actually done it. She was horrible! But no, I've never been harsher than Simon. Not even close.
THR: Jimmy Iovine and Clive Davis before him both did their time on American Idol, Ron Fair is judging a Canadian singing show, you’re on the X Factor. Is this the natural progression for music executives these days? A TV career?
Reid: I actually didn't notice. Look, Jimmy Iovine is one of the most brilliant record men that has ever lived, I’m a huge fan and friend. He absolutely deserves the platform, he's earned it, he's smart, he's talented, he's funny and he's got great taste. I was happy when I knew he was involved with American Idol. We happened to be on a plane together and started talking. As we compared notes, I realized we were both heading down a very similar route. Jimmy, he's supposed to do that and I feel the same way about myself. Jimmy, Clive and I: we're a little different. We're not quiet or under the radar. Artists know us, the fans of our artists know us. We're into show business.
THR: During the auditions, you were vocal about wanting a girl to win. Is that still the case?
Reid: I'm not so sure I was right. I've seen some guys that were amazing. But I don't have a preference like that. I like young artists. Historically, I've signed many, like Avril Lavigne, who was 16, Pink was maybe 16, TLC were 17, Outkast were 17, Usher was 14, Justin Bieber was 14 -- most of the artists I've signed are kids, but it doesn't matter if they’re male, female, a group or a band.
THR: Simon always says he's in favor of competition -- the more singing shows the better – but don’t you worry about viewer fatigue?
Reid: That's like saying that they're going to tire of police shows, or of game shows or of reality TV. I don't think you can count anything out like that. You can’t put things in a box and say this particular genre is over.
THR: What have you learned about the TV business from Simon?
Reid: What I love about watching Simon is that he has eyes in the front, side, and back of his head the entire time that we're working. I love how he cares about every single detail. Like how Steve Jobs would pay attention to the font on your phone, the press of the button, how it feels -- that matters to him. When you walk into an Apple store, the ambiance and look, the kids that work there, it all matters. When I see Simon work, I'm more inspired. People who want the boss out of the way -- f--- them, they’re dead wrong. The reason that X Factor is such a global phenomenon is because this man pays attention to every detail.
THR: The show airs during the fourth quarter, which is traditionally the most important time of the year for a record company. How will you divide your time to make sure you can honor all of your commitments?
Reid: My roster at Epic is such a young roster and I'm still growing it and beginning to develop it. For me, it's going to take the rest of this year to get my company up and running. So it's not like I'll have 15 albums coming out this year. I don't.
THR: How will you split your time between Epic’s New York offices and X Factor’s L.A. studio?
Reid: I'll be on set a couple hours a day, I have an office here [in L.A.] and in New York. There are recording studios everywhere. I won't stop working.