Cannes Lions: Lyor Cohen on Reviving the Music Industry

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Lyor Cohen

"It’s an incredible time to be in music, fortunes are going to get made," said the head of YouTube Music, promising online subscription services will drive a return to growth for the sluggish music business.

None of the millennials watching 6’5” Lyor Cohen, once dissed as the “tall Israeli” by rapper Mos Def in a controversial 2004 song, glide graciously onstage at Cannes Lions Tuesday could imagine what it was like to interview him at Def Jam in the mid-1990s.

Cohen, 59, clad in pressed jeans, a crisp white shirt and navy blue jacket, first seemed like the avuncular and soft-spoken headmaster of a New England prep school as he took questions from BBC Radio 1 deejay Annie Mac.

In his latest incarnation as YouTube’s global music head — a gig he convincingly made sound like his most exciting ever — he said the company’s new streaming music app signals “a new love affair” for the music industry after two decades of somnolence.

And, in other words, watch out, Apple and Spotify.

“It’s an incredible time to be in music,” he said. “Did you see Beyonce destroy Coachella? It was mind-boggling what she did. You saw it on Youtube. We’re better than OK right now. Fortunes are gonna get made.”

Then he beamed and waved at the crowd like a pageant winner which, given his lengthy and legendary career as a kingmaker in hip-hop, he kind of is.

YouTube Music and YouTube Music premium streaming subscription services launched in another 11 countries Monday.

Record labels? They may remain relevant for awhile, said Cohen, who built the biggest label in rap and went on to head Warner Music, but they’ll need him as a bridge to the direct-to-consumer creative world, i.e. YouTube and Google.

Cohen faces daunting challenges. The music industry hates YouTube for low artist royalties and unauthorized uploading of copyrighted music.

But Cohen’s enthusiasm at Cannes was such that you wanted believe the guy who apparently swaggered straight out of the womb, whose bulletproof self-confidence has rarely waned.

Back in the day, when he deigned to let me interview him at Def Jam’s offices in New York, Cohen played the thug better than his biggest gangsta rappers. He stared at me like a professional assassin, flanked by two equally fearsome-looking bodyguards. Smiles were not cracked, love was not given, jokes were not made.

But Cohen’s long since broken character to become YouTube’s super salesman. He said Tuesday that the era of frustrated and unrealized artists “living with their parents” for two decades is ending and the industry — and the world — better seize the moment.

“As the business expands, are we just going to relive and have PTSD about two decades of decline, or are we going to figure out how to grow the business and find more Jay-Z’s and Kurt Cobains and Aretha Franklins?”

Cohen answered his own question.

“Everything is aligned,” he said. “We have the largest and greatest in-depth catalog in the world.”