If anyone can lay claim to the notion that the music industry’s premature death is highly exaggerated, it’s Martin Kierszenbaum, CEO and president of Cherrytree Records.
“It’s the shorthand message that is spinning around right now,” he says. “I am a songwriter and a musician. That is how I grew up. I refuse to accept that the intellectual property (musicians) create is just going to be given up for free as some sort of loss leader.”
As the label begins its 10-year celebration, Cherrytree can take credit for 31 Grammy nominations, 51 international No. 1 singles, an ongoing parade of placements in film, TV and advertising and a staggering 33 million albums sold worldwide. From mainstream superstars such as Sting and Lady Gaga, to more left-of-center hitmakers like Feist, Far East Movement, and LMFAO, Cherrytree has benefitted from the leadership of Kierszenbaum, who understands the creative process from the inside out.
Begun as an artist-haven boutique label, under the Interscope/Universal umbrella in 2005 with the blessing of Jimmy Iovine, Cherrytree has grown into one of the industry’s premiere 360 operations. It includes a full-service record company, management firm and publishing house.
“Cherrytree is a convergence of a place in time and also my taste, shaped by my upbringing, which involved moving around the world a lot,” says Kierszenbaum, the son of research scientists. He gravitated toward music, studying piano from age 8.
After college, he worked as a publicist, first for Warner Bros. Records, then with A&M, where he moved into A&R. It was there where he began his 25-year relationship with Sting. When Interscope took over A&M, Kierszenbaum began working with Eminem, Gwen Stefani, Nelly Furtado, Soundgarden and the Black Eyed Peas. Eventually he was encouraged by Iovine to start Cherrytree (the name is the German-Polish translation of his last name), where he brought Sting over in 2007.
Today, Kierszenbaum views Sting as “a mentor and a very good friend,” and credits him with teaching to encourage the artists on Cherrytree to develop their creative urges, no matter how un-commercial they may appear at the onset. He points to “Songs From the Labyrinth,” an album of 17th-century lute compositions Sting insisted on making that went to No. 1 on the classical charts and sold platinum.
“People will be listening to his music for the next 50 to 100 years, or more,” Kierszenbaum says of Sting.
“In the end, if he wants to make a Kentucky clogging record, we’re gonna make it. That’s kind of the way I am with all the artists on my label.”
Adds Sting: “My fans have come to expect the unexpected. I feel blessed for that, because for me, the essence of music is the element of surprise — a principle that Martin very much shares and fortunately, has encouraged throughout the 25 years we’ve worked together.”
In terms of a larger strategy, Kierszenbaum made music synchronization of its artists into national ads, TV shows and feature films a priority. He has seen the label’s sales skyrocket using this approach with Ellie Goulding, Robyn, Far East Movement, LMFAO and Feist, whose “1234” went platinum after the video was incorporated into an Apple Nano TV spot.
“That was the shot heard round the world,” says Kierszenbaum. “They integrated our own video for ‘1234’ into the spot. They had never done that before, but they felt she was one of the artists that was about to break, and Apple wanted to be associated with that, as opposed to an act that was already ubiquitous.”
He credits Andrea Ruffalo, Cherrytree’s g.m. and head of music synchronizations, as the driving force in this area. Her efforts resulted in placements for new Cherrytree artists on the “50 Shades of Grey” soundtrack and in the upcoming Melissa McCarthy film, “Spy.”
The career of Lady Gaga — who left Cherrytree to sign with Interscope proper, though she remains close to Kierszenbaum — didn’t take off until after Cherrytree broke her in Sweden. “In the beginning it was difficult,” he recalls. “People said she sounded too European; too disco. I remember all those things because I have scars from them.” Her first two albums resulted in 21 million in sales.
“Martin’s musicality as a writer and producer; his international awareness and believing that music no matter the genre has to come from a real place and culture is what has the strongest impact on the artists and label,” says Far East Movement’s Kev Nish, whose “Like a G6” went to No. 1, aided by Cherrytree’s innovative marketing strategy.
In the meantime, Kierszenbaum will continue signing and developing artists that push the pop music envelope.
“We don’t do focus groups,” he says. “We infiltrate the nooks and crannies; identifying subsets of culture and seeing if we can help amplify something that is heading in that direction anyway. We do that with our antenna. Our decisions are made by instinct and experience.”