For a record company, losing your CEO in the middle of several major project roll-outs — as Epic Records did back in May when label chief Antonio “L.A.” Reid was abruptly dismissed from the Sony Music label, amid an accusation of sexual harrassment — has the potential to create a disruption that could take months, maybe years to fully recover from. So it comes as some surprise that Epic, home to DJ Khaled, Fifth Harmony, Camilla Cabello, and French Montana, among the artists on its current slate, has managed to weather what could have been a pretty severe storm — and has done so relatively smoothly.
As it looks in mid-July, Epic could have three albums in the top 5 in the coming days: DJ Khaled’s “Grateful” (released June 30), French Montana’s “Jungle Rules” (out July 14), and 21 Savage’s “Issa” (released July 7), with Future and Travis Scott still holding strong on the charts. Two things this handful of artists have in common: they’re rap acts at the top of their game, and all claim a longtime champion in Reid.
But that’s not to take away from the current leadership, stewarded by Sony Music CEO Rob Stringer, who has the unenviable task of replacing himself as chairman of Columbia (the search has narrowed to final candidates, Variety hears), a position he vacated in April when he ascended to Sony Music chief executive. He’s delegated Epic president Sylvia Rhone, one of the music industry’s most seasoned executives with 30 years experience — the last four at Epic — to run the label as new candidates are considered. According to sources, Rhone herself is auditioning for a CEO position, but the party line from the top is that she remains in an “interim” role.
To Rhone’s credit, the ship has steadied: Khaled’s latest, “Wild Thoughts,” featuring Rihanna, is ascending, reaching No. 2 on the U.S. Songs chart, according to Buzz Angle’s data monitoring July 14 – 16; and French Montana is crossing over to pop with “Unforgettable,” featuring Swae Lee, currently at No. 2. 21 Savage and Travis Scott also appear in the Top 50 (Benny Pough leads the Urban radio team). Epic has also landed One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson, who comes into the label via Simon Cowell’s Syco, in what’s said to be a “vote of confidence” for Epic’s near future — and a project Rhone lobbied for personally after hearing his music — namely: the single, “Back To You,” which officially drops on July 21. (Fellow One Directioners Harry Styles and Zayn Malik are signed to Sony’s Columbia and RCA Records, respectively.)
“Epic did a great job working [French Montana’s] ‘Unforgettable’ globally,” says Wassim “SAL” Slaiby of Sal & Co/Maverick Management, who also manages The Weeknd. “We’re at 4 million plus [in] consumption sales three months from its release on April 13. This was the first project I’ve worked on with Epic, so I can’t speak much about the change of leadership, but I can say that Sylvia is a great executive. She’s on her cell 24/7 and on top of everything, which I love.”
But there have been bumps, too. EVP of Media and Strategic Development Laura Swanson was let go, a casualty of Reid’s exit, and EVP Todd Glassman, who led pop promotion, left the company last week after a dragged-out contract negotiation ended in an impasse, amid rumblings of tension with the transitional leadership. He’s bound for Universal Music, multiple sources tell Variety. And A&R executive Randall “Sickamore” Medford, recruited by Reid to work primarily with Travis Scott, also left for UMG’s Interscope in April. Those departures hint at a “bifurcated and understaffed label,” says one such insider.
But in the days after Glassman’s departure, Rhone took action. Sandra Afloarei, a longtime and well-liked Epic staffer who started as a regional rep, was promoted to SVP Top 40 Promotion for the label. Epic has also hired independent promotion agency In2une, run by Dale Connone, to supplement their efforts at radio, following what was described as “an emergency promo meeting,” early last week. (Sony Music would not comment for this story.)
It’s somewhat ironic that the internal strains have revealed themselves through the radio departments because that’s where Epic has seen significant success in recent years, particularly in the urban realm. But there’s no denying that some of the pop acts are struggling. Namely: Fifth Harmony and former member-turned-solo artist Camila Cabello, who both have new singles that have been slow to catch on (“Down” and “Crying In the Club” are at No. 86 and 50, respectively, on the most recent Billboard Hot 100 chart). A prime MTV Video Music Awards slot on Aug. 27, for which both acts were submitted and are being considered, could course-correct that trajectory, but then who deserves the credit?
“It’s about the team,” Khaled tells Variety, nodding to Reid as “one of the best in the business. … When you build the right team, that’s when you win. Record companies are supposed to be about the music, and that’s what Epic is. You walk the hallways [and] there’s music playing. When I’m in the building, we talk about music. They see and respect the vision of the artist.”
A label insider drives this point home: “The artist is getting a top-notch PR department with years of experience; a re-energized promotion team; Sylvia Rhone, who is very capable and has run labels at all [three] majors. She’s gelling and empowering the staff. It feels like a record company again.”
Epic “is running,” one manager agrees, noting that it’s not a matter of the acts starting over with a new label head, but rather, Rhone catching up with plans and priorities made during Reid’s reign. “The train had left the station and [Rhone] wasn’t on it. Now it’s about switching gears.”