In a characteristically direct and enthusiastic keynote at South By Southwest on Wednesday morning, YouTube Head of Music and industry veteran Lyor Cohen touched on his rich past as a club promoter, label head and entrepreneur as a prelude to a testimonial for why he believes the music industry is entering a “golden era” that he’s “excited to be a part of,” powered by innovations in technology and distribution as well as art. While this latter claim was a bit nebulous, there’s no disputing Cohen’s passion or his track record, which was illustrated with cuts of songs from his nearly four-decade career, spun at key moments by DJ D-Nice (from hip-hop group Boogie Down Productions, whom Cohen road-managed in the 1980s).
Cohen’s speech was a chronological history of his career, beginning at the beginning: “I met sheer terror when I was 22 years old,” were the first words he said. He had just locked his first job — as road manager for a young Run-DMC on their first European tour — when, backstage at an overpacked theater in London, it became clear that the group’s DJ, the late Jam Master Jay, had forgotten all of his records. The group was panicking — but the terrified Cohen had an idea.
He walked onstage, he said, and announced, “[Run-DMC] want to sign everyone’s autographs. But we’re going to prioritize those that brought the records.”
It was the first of many anecdotes intended to accentuate Cohen’s unique approach to problem-solving and embrace of change, one of a couple of themes he returned to over the course of his hour-long speech (another, “it was the best time of my life,” became a running joke, with audience members humorously yelling out “again” every time Cohen repeated the phrase.)
Though overall a fun and optimistic talk, the keynote did hit a serious point early on, when Cohen addressed sexual misconduct and assault allegations that have been levelled against his former partner and one-time roommate, Def Jam and Rush Communications co-founder Russell Simmons.
“I want to acknowledge the awful allegations that have been made about Russell,” he said, at the first mention of Simmons’ name. “We were roommates and we’ve stayed friends and partners ever since. I never saw him aggressive or violent with any women. It’s not the RusselI I know. I’m deeply troubled with all the allegations, and there’s absolutely no room for this type of behavior.”
Cohen then discussed a career full of ups and downs (a particularly self-deprecating moment came when he mentioned whether anyone had heard of artists he namechecked from his short-lived ‘90s label RAL — “Didn’t think so,” he quipped). He described his goal during his eight-year stint at the helm of Warner Music Group as being the blue-collar Aamco to then-competitors Death Row and Bad Boy’s glitzier sheen — “We were the mechanics to the stars,” he said, throwing a bit of shade, “not the stars themselves,” and referred to his 2012 ouster from the company as “boardroom coup.”
But, he said, as he rose further up the traditional music-biz ranks, he found himself further and further away from his passion of signing and breaking artists — which is what excites him most about his current job. “I’m focused on bringing diversity to distribution,” Cohen said, pointing out that having Apple Music and Spotify as the only two choices for artists was limiting. “We’ll do that by adding subscriptions,” he added, acknowledging that they’re already late to that party (and late for a relaunch of YouTube’s subscription service, which was expected to be announced at SXSW but the company has said is not happening).
His optimism comes from Google’s reach — and its algorithm. “Eighty percent of watch time [on YouTube] is recommended by an engine,” he claimed, backing up why the company is now putting significant resources to growing its playlist ecosystem. He continued by explaining that he sees companies like Spotify and Apple as content-only, while Snapchat and its competitors are strictly social. “The only place to play with commerce and direct to consumer is YouTube.”
To close, he said, “I made a promise to this industry to get Google and YouTube to work together and build a beautiful business together. That’s my promise — and I’m sticking to it.”