An exclusive hitsdailydouble.com
dialogue with Arista President/CEO Antonio "L.A." Reid
March 21, 2002
by Shirley Halperin
In his 20-year-plus career, Antonio "L.A." Reid has guided dozens of superstars.
He started out as drummer and manager of 80s R&B group the Deele with fellow
member and longtime collaborator Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. He has also been a
prolific producer (Paula Abdul, Boyz II Men and Bobby Brown, among others) and a
successful label head (LaFace Records).
A lifelong music fan, Reid grew up a child of radio in Cincinnati, listening to James
Brown, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. And from Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix
to Roberta Flack and the Beatles, L.A. always came away from a good song with a new
understanding of what makes a quantifiable "hit." Which may explain why today,
Reid is all about making an impactwith songs, artists and records. While his ears
seem perfectly tuned into the sounds of the moment, it is his business savvy that has
brought him this far and guarantees his future.
Reids industry admirers are legion. An e-mail from IDJ President Lyor Cohen read:
"L.A. Reids power lies in his ability to get the aesthetics and music right
against all odds. To pull a fourth-quarter Usher album off the shelves, reload and go on
to save the artists career by selling 6 million albums for Arista simply makes him
my hero. Anyone who has anything bad to say about L.A. Reid is probably a finance or
lawyer type with absolutely no chutzpah, love or passion for our profession." Chimed
in BMG Chairman/CEO Rolf Schmidt-Holtz: "We love L.A. He came in under difficult
circumstances, but hes proved himself to be a great music man and a strong leader.
He has the intense musical focus and the deep experience to find not only promising
newcomers, but also to elevate the careers of established artists. We are proud he is part
of BMG." But by far the most impassioned comments come from members of his own staff,
all of whom describe Reid as the consummate "record man." Sr. VP Sales Jordan
Katz, recalling a late-night listening session shortly after Reids arrival, suggests
that Aristas current success across several genres "echoes L.A.s spirit
and extraordinary love and commitment to our labels artists and music." GM
Larry Mestel adds: "Ive never seen anybody who is able to match up a producer,
a song and an artist the way L.A. cannobody even comes close."
These resounding declarations of support come as no surprise to people who know L.A. Reid
personally. But having been stationed in Atlanta for the better part of his illustrious
industry career, he remains an enigma to many on the outside. Attempting to unveil some of
that mystery is someone with more than enough chutzpah of her own, HITS Shirley
First of all, congratulations on Aristas five Grammy wins.
I was so happy to see OutKast walk away with two Grammys. I started working with them in
1993, so for them to come here nine years later and be recognized by their peers is
phenomenal. Usher also got one for "U Remind Me," and Im very happy about
his win. I wish it was a televised award, because it certainly took some of the thunder
from an artist whos having a phenomenal year
but maybe next year. And Pink won
for "Lady Marmalade," in which I believe her role within the whole ensemble was
both meaningful and credible, so Im happy she won her first Grammy. All of our
artistsOutKast, Usher, Pink and Didowere first-time Grammy winners, so
Im really proud of that fact. It speaks volumes to the progress that were
making here at Arista.
Youre a nurturer, having worked with Usher since he was 13 and Pink from the age of
Thats the kind of commitment it takes to properly develop an artist these
As fans and consumers move from their favorite artist this year to a different favorite
the next, you have to be careful and wise about how to invest time and money in talent. I
prefer to associate myself with artists that I believe can make it in the long run and
have the staying power to warrant that kind of financial commitment. Artists like Usher,
Pink and OutKast have all been working for so many years that it feels good to see the
payoff. I feel that were all family, so its not just a question of signing
artists and putting out records. We bond creatively and understand each other. Its a
give-and-take exchange that will hopefully lead to the best ideas and decisions for their
careers and for the label. And we stick with our artists. Take Dido. Her album is making
huge noise around the world, but the fact is that it had actually been out for quite some
time. Its success is a testament to our tenacity to stick with an artist and a record to
achieve that kind of global potential.
Being a music executive who came from the creative side, how has that influenced
the way you do business?
I think of myself as a consumer first and an executive second. I love music and artists,
and I respond the way that a consumer would. That gives me the objectivity to make the
right decisions, whether creative or business. I dont totally hang my hat on the
creative; I keep that as a shield of honor, although I do pride myself on being someone
who is friendly to the creative community, having been a songwriterwhich I still am
. But I was also always a manager in my businesseseither managing bands that I was
in or managing my label. I got famous for being creative, but the fact is that I was
always in charge of my business affairs.
How involved are you on the production side of things?
I spend a lot of time with producers, many of which I feel close toJimmy Jam and
Terry Lewis, Shekspere and the Neptunes, to name a few. We often have exchanges
about the work that they may do for Arista artists or we may discuss work that
theyre doing for other artists because we speak the same language. Obviously,
Babyface has been a partner of mine for 20 years and we still work very closely together
and discuss music all the time. I feel like I work vicariously through the producers I
have relationships with. While I dont actually go into the studio to produce
records, I do work very closely with the people who do. I feel, if theres a
necessary change, whether its a lyrical, arranging or mixing changethings I
would know as a writer and a producerIm still able to express my opinions.
Ive found that the producers tend to respond to it very favorably and we come to a
Is that what happened with Ushers record? Word is that you had it completely
scrapped and re-done.
People think I had the record re-done but, the truth is, we never finished it. We got to a
place where we felt we were close, but the recording process never stopped. We continued
to record until we felt we had the album we wanted. Once we did, there was no looking
back, and were now having a wonderful run with it. Im probably an overly
meticulous executive when it comes to making records and Usher and I both really pushed
each other to go for the best. Im happy with the results; its a huge record
and I believe you have to stick with something until you get it right. And again, you have
to examine the kind of commitment youre prepared to give. Usher is an artist whom I
feel deserves that level of commitment, both creatively and financially. I believe he is
one of the most exciting singers in the world. With an artist like that, you have to make
sure you got it right. Fans like great music. They dont like you just because
youre you, so I need to make sure the record will absolutely connect.
Being so hands-on, how do you juggle the responsibilities of overseeing the creative and
Ive tried to surround myself with the brightest people in the business, including
[General Manager] Larry Mestel, who is not only the GM, but also the chief-of-staff here;
[Executive VP] Lionel Ridenour; [Sr. VP] Steve Bartels; [Sr. VP Marketing & Artist
Relations] Mark Shimmel; [Sr. VP Sales] Jordan Katz; [Sr. VP Promotion] Steve Bartels and
[VP A&R Administration] Karen Kwok. These are people I feel are the best around and we
work very closely together. I spend a lot of time with my A&R staff, my promotion
staff and the marketing team as well. Im across-the-board; I touch the key issues in
every department on a day-to-day basis and I find that as long as I stay abreast of
everything thats going on, Im OK delegating certain responsibilities to people
that I trust and believe in. Im a 24/7 guy. I work all day and night. Im
usually in my office until 1 a.m. and my key guys are generally very close by. But my
foremost focus is making and promoting records. Thats my first concern and my
Youre now 18 months into your presidency. How has the transition been?
I was very optimistic when I became the head of Arista. The truth is that it takes a
certain amount of time to put together a team and develop the roster, to really find your
footing and your own style of doing things. It took more time than I hoped, but Im
very proud of our progress so far. Were still working on developing certain areas of
our company. Although the transition wasnt as smooth as I had hoped, Im very
happy with the results.
How did you deal with the heat of succeeding a legend like Clive Davis?
Im an entertainer, so I dont care about the fact that we were in the
spotlight, so to speakentertainers like the spotlight, which is why we do it. I
wouldnt say that our transition was affected any more or less by everybody focusing
on it. Im happy that people paid attention to me and to what we did. As for the
"heat," they have a right to their opinion and I accept it as that. The truth
is, I think we have one of the most incredible teams in the business today. In a short
amount of time, weve become highly competitive. We are absolutely a label to watch.
When you last spoke to HITS, you said two areas youd like to further develop were
rock and Latin.
We have made significant progress in both areas. In the Latin area, Tocallo Caballos is an
artist we signed to Arista who has garnered both Latin Grammy and the mainstream Grammy
nominations. In rock, weve had success in developing Adema, which Im really
proud of. Weve gone Gold and the second single and video are just starting to kick
in, so Im feeling like were getting some footing there. We obviously have a
lot of signings that havent been released yet, in the rock world in particular. We
have some really incredible acts, from Adema to Avril Lavignea new signing whom I
feel is a franchise artist for us, shes just incredibly talentedto Butch
Walker, the lead singer of Marvelous 3, who has an incredible album coming. Weve
worked a great deal over the last 18 months to develop the roster and now well work
to market and promote those artists. We remain committed to what we feel are our core
musical genresPop and R&B, Urban music overallso were also
continuing to grow our artist roster in those areas.
Whats happening with your affiliated labels and joint ventures?
We continue to have a joint-venture relationship with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Flyte
Tyme, which is about to relase an album from Nodesha Felix, a young, talented new artist
that we feel very strongly about. Obviously, were close with them as producers as
well. They worked on Ushers record and we plan to work together on Whitney Houston
and Blu Cantrell. Im very proud to be in a business and personal relationship with
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. I have so much respect for them, not only as music
professionals, but as incredible people with a great deal of integrity.
Then theres Shekspere, with whom we also continue to have a joint-venture
relationship. He is part of the Atlanta community and is not only a strong creative force,
but also a future executive in our business. Hes very smart, understands music and
the industry and I think he will grow into a very seasoned and important executive. He has
a future on both sides of the tracks.
The Neptunes, who are as hot as you can get, are developing their roster. While still in
its formative stage, they do have music that theyre releasing from SpyMob as well as
The Clipse. Theyre also the producers of the current Usher single, "U
Dont Have to Call," and theyre in the studio with several of the artists
on our labelwriting for Carlos Santana and Whitney Houston. The relationship with
our partners goes much deeper than merely a joint venture
We have a musical
relationship and we work together very closely.
How about Babyface?
We had a joint venture with Babyface and Andre Harrell [Nu America] and we mutually
decided that maybe it wasnt the best thing for usit wasnt the most ideal
fit. But we continue to have a relationship with Babyface as a recording artist and a
producer and were very happy with it. As a matter of fact, hes producing Boyz
II Men for us as well as Toni Braxton and Carlos Santana. So we continue to have a very
active relationship with Babyface and, for me, a 20-year friendship, which Im very
Is there a rivalry between Arista and J?
Im in competition with everybody. This week, Arista is #6 in terms of market share
and Im trying to beat the other five guys that are ahead of me. Im very
competitive and, while I admire many of the executives and labels in our business for
their individuality and their ability to develop great artists, I dont feel a
particular rivalry with anyone specific, but I do openly compete with everyone. I wish
Clive the absolute best with J Records. I love Alicia.
With shrinking margins and a general industry slump, can you still justify the enormous
sums being shelled out for artists?
We have to be smart. The days of big spending and excess are over and we absolutely have
to re-examine how we do business. Weve certainly been forced to do that here at
Aristato focus on things that we feel drive the sales of an album and the branding
of an artistand we wont overpay for anything. Because of the climate and the
environment, we were forced to make some tough decisions on how to go forward. While a few
of those things may no longer be beneficial to some of the people that we once did
business with, hopefully they it benefits us as a label.
What are your thoughts on CD-burning and piracy?
The music industry loses. The sale of pirate recordings exceeds 4.2 billion worldwide and
this doesnt even include the number of lawsuits against Internet piracy. This is
definitely something that I am very active in, as is the company, because its a
problem. Piracy doesnt just hurt the performers, authors, musicians and the record
companiesits a problem for everyone. Fans and consumers are growing accustomed
to believing that music should be free or should be traded or downloaded and, at the end
of the day, its really set up to ruin our business. Forty percent of music consumers
now own CD-burners, compared to 14% in 1999; 77% use them to copy CDs. Its a
disturbing problem. I intend to contine fighting it.
What do you have lined up for 2002?
We have a new Boyz II Men album coming, their first on Arista, so were excited about
that. Donell Jones is releasing a new album. Both Whitney and Toni are in the studio
working on new albums. Carlos Santana too. Well have two Kenny G releases this year:
a studio album as well as another holiday album. We have Patti Smiths greatest hits
album, Land 1975-2002, out March 19 with a single thats a remake of Princes
"When Doves Cry" that I absolutely love. We also have several new artists. One
thats really important is Cee-Lo, who used to be a member of the Goodie Mob, an
Atlanta-based group that was on LaFace. He has a new album and video out thats
really starting to heat up. Again, hes a franchise artist
an important singer,
rapper, producer and songwritera multi-talented entertainer. And then theres
Isyss; four girls out of L.A. who have a great R&B/pop single, "Day and
Night," were very excited about. We have Avril, out of Canada, a rocker
whos very strong. We also continue to move forward with Lennon and Adema. Then
theres Tina Novak, from Spear Records, and Nodesha Felix from Flyte Tyme, The Clipse
and SpyMob are both on the Neptunes label
Theres so much music right
now. Our schedule is really solid and building. But my real focus is to continue growing
our superstarsWhitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Carlos Santana, Kenny G and TLC.
When do you anticipate the release of TLCs album?
We hope to get it out by summer. It feels good so far, but Ill only release it when
I know its absolutely right.
NEWSFILE: 22 MARCH 2002