In normal times, the collapse of three storied record imprints into a single entity would be the music business story of the year, prone to intense scrutiny and second-guessing. So it was in certain ways a stroke of luck that RCA’s recent overhaul happened to coincide with the biggest music industry development of the decade, with the division of EMI distracting most of the critical attention.
Since absorbing the Jive, J and Arista labels into the RCA Records brand a year ago last fall, with Peter Edge and Tom Corson appointed to steer the ship as CEO and president-COO, respectively, the label has quietly been having a notably turmoil-free time of things. It amassed 21 Grammy nominations for 2012, and has already notched its first No. 1 single (Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie”) and album (A$AP Rocky’s “Long.Live.A$AP”) of 2013 within the year’s first few stanzas.
“These things always take a little bit longer than you think, but when you’re in two very diverse organizations and artist rosters, it takes a minute for everyone to get to know each other,” Corson said. “But the brand is in full swing now.”
Particularly notable among the label’s newer acts is Harlem rapper Rocky, who was signed in a head-turning deal shortly after Edge and Corson took the helm. Despite having little more than a minor mixtape hit to his name at the time, the rapper and his extended crew inked a deal that Rocky pegged at $3 million in the hip-hop press. Edge calls that widely reported figure both “wildly exaggerated” and yet “not inaccurate” in describing the extent of the label’s investment.
“What we decided with Rocky from day one,” Edge said, “was that he could really be a superstar and was doing something revolutionary, so we invested in every aspect of his brand: merchandising, touring, record deals, publishing, and the other artists who come under the A$AP umbrella. It’s a little like Wu-Tang was at RCA in the past, where there were four big stars that all came out of the same core group.”
Corson noted that, as rare as such huge investments may seem in the current penny-pinching record biz climate, it was one they’d gladly make again: “We’re a major label. From time to time we’re gonna make big bets.”
If Rocky represents RCA’s re-entry into the hip-hop world after a long absence, the diskery is intrinsically well positioned to take advantage of the brewing resurgence of R&B as a crossover genre, on the back of the label’s own Miguel and Island Def Jam’s Frank Ocean. RCA has been buttering its bread with R&B since the heydays of Barry Weiss at Jive and Clive Davis at Arista and J, but as Edge noted, the genre had become someone stratified in its “over-25,” domestic-heavy demo.
“Commercially, R&B is kind of where modern rock was three or four years ago,” Corson added. “At that time modern rock stations were having a really hard time getting ratings, a lot of it was online, and it wasn’t migrating to pop radio. And now you look around and there’s Mumford, the Lumineers, Fun, Grouplove — these more progressive new modern rock acts coming in. R&B feels like it’s gonna go the same way.”
Not surprisingly, given that philosophy, RCA has also been targeting the rock-pop nexus at which the abovementioned acts lie. The label signed Miley Cyrus just last week, with Edge comparing her adult persona and potential to that of Pink. Meanwhile the label’s top rock A&R guru David Wolter has been pushing tyro rock acts like Walk the Moon and Mikky Ekko, as well as a very recently signed new project from Fun guitarist Jack Antonoff.
As for the future, a hint of uncertainty surrounds the label’s lessening entrenchment in the singing competition model. Long serving as the default destination for “American Idol” winners, the agreement has since expired, with a number of “Idol” winners — Lee DeWyze, David Cook, Kris Allen — ankle the label over the past year and a half.
“It’s certainly been good for some of the judges,” Corson said of the singing-show model. “Less so for the contestants in recent years, and maybe that sort of format has gotten a little tired. But we would never, ever write it off.”
Also eying the future, the two still believe in streaming services pointing the way forward, even if the ride there can be a bit bumpy.
“I read a quote from Don Passman the other day, who said it was the same situation when the CD first came out — the model hadn’t really been thought through all the way yet, but we needed to invest,” Corson said. “So everybody had to give a little to get that model going. We need new formats, and streaming is the next format.The business will be there.”