Long before Kevin Liles became a record label president, he dreamed of becoming a musician himself. It didn’t take him long to realize that he was destined for the boardroom, not the recording studio.
“I knew when someone else could sing my records better than me,” he says, laughing. “I knew when someone else made more money from my record that [being an artist] wasn’t the right thing for me. But I also feel in love with the business of music.”
Seated atop the Austin Convention Center, Liles tells me about falling in love with the business of music. He remembers standing in a crowd of 8,000 at an LL Cool J show and wondering how much the venue’s owner—and not the rapper—was earning that night. He recalls geeking out over details like figuring out who decides the ratio of red glow-sticks to white glow-sticks sold at concerts.
Liles’ early judgment served him well. After joining Def Jam as an unpaid intern in 1991, he stormed the record company’s executive ranks, landing the position of president just seven years later. He joined Warner Music Group in 2004 and helped take the company public the following year. In 2009, he founded his own management company and now guides the careers of artists including Trey Songs, Big Sean and Young Jeezy.
Along the way Liles sharpened his business instincts, emerging as one of the keenest minds in music. He’s got plenty of advice to aspiring executives (see video below) looking to follow in his footsteps. First among them: a corollary to the golden rule.
“I treat people like they want to be treated,” he says. “People know you’re going to get ‘God Bless’ out of me before ‘F-you.’ … I’m going to go out of my way to have a value proposition when we get together. And when we leave, you’re going to feel good about our meeting.”
Clearly, the executive route has served him well. But for the scores of aspiring artist-entrepreneurs, the number of record label jobs has fallen by more than half since the days when Liles first started looking.
The state of the industry raises a new question: is getting a job in music now just as hard as becoming an artist? Or, to put it another way, is Liles’ career just as unattainable as LL Cool J’s? Not necessarily.
“Yes, the industry is shrinking,” says Liles. “But look at the great opportunities now. You have artists popping up independently—artists have been doing independent stuff a long time, but now it’s on steroids. Those people need executives, those people need managers … I say the greatest job you can get now is to be a curator, to be next to the artist and to help him curate his brand to the world.”
After all, someone still has to count the glow sticks.
-Information Provided by Forbes