Taylor. Drake. Post. Ariana. The only things these artists have in common, apart from being chart juggernauts who only require only one name, is the label they’re on: Republic Records, which for the third consecutive year is Variety’s Hitmakers Label of the Year. The company has no less than 10 entries in Hitmakers’ Top 25 (including songs featuring their artists, and that they worked to radio), among them Post Malone’s “Wow” and “Sunflower” (with Swae Lee), Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” and “Thank U, Next,” Lil Tecca’s “Ranson” and Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes’ “Senorita.”
True to form, Lipman acknowledges the accolade and immediately credits the artists and his formidable team. “We’re very proud,” he says, “and we don’t plan to give up the cup anytime soon. We’re very, very fortunate because we have created strategic alliances with the biggest acts in the world, and they operate with tremendous independence and autonomy. We provide a unique skill set that is second to none, as far as I’m concerned, and it’s our job to present the music to the marketplace and hit all the marks.” That team includes far too many people to name here, but fellow Hitmakers honorees include his brother Avery Lipman (Republic president, COO and cofounder, pictured above right with Monte), Marleny Dominguez-Reyes and Donna Grynn (marketing SVPs), Michael Alexander (EVP international), Gary Spangler (EVP of promotion), Dana Sano (EVP of film & TV), Davey Dee Inglenloff (SVP of rhythm crossover) and Island promo SVP Ayelet Schiffman.
The brothers founded the label back in 1995 after both had spent several years in senior roles at Arista, EMI, Atlantic and other labels. They saw an early global smash with Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” and within five years they’d formed Universal Republic Records as a joint venture with the major that is still their partner — and still the leading label within UMG, the world’s largest music company. Lipman credits UMG chief Lucian Grainge with continually motivating him and the company’s other labels. Yet if there’s one characteristic that has marked the label, it’s been an ability to thrive in an ever-changing industry.
“The modern music business has been around for, what, 75 years?,” Monte says. “And the way we play and share and discover music has changed and will again, but what never changes is the impact that music has on people — and that’s the beauty of what we do.”
Republic is Variety‘s Hitmakers label of the year for the third consecutive year. What are some key moves that you’ve made to adapt to the new reality that has come with streaming?
The thing about the streaming revolution is, the most valuable commodity is “new.” And the challenge for us is that new is not always sustainable — [songs and artists] tend to shoot to the top of the streaming charts by virtue of being new, so how do you recreate that dynamic when you’re well into an album? So we try to continue to evolve and change and adapt to it. We experiment constantly, we think about different ways to approach the marketplace, different ways to stimulate streaming and generate interest. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s the one thing about our staff and our crew — we do not rest on our laurels. We don’t think, “Well, this worked three years ago, so therefore, it’s going to work again.” It’s the opposite.
By that metric, do you wait to see how a song is doing on streaming before you seriously take it to radio?
No. I wish it were that simple, but it’s not. There’s a level of patience that we apply in many cases, especially with new and developing acts. With people carrying around 40 million songs in their pockets, you’d think things would move a lot quicker and new artists would break a lot faster — but ironically, it’s the opposite. It actually takes longer now than it ever has. And a large part of that is because you’re going against sheer volume — against all the noise and static in the marketplace. A lot of times we see that an “overnight success” has taken three years. But you’ve got to recognize talent and hang in there and be patient and be committed all the way. You’re not going to conquer the world overnight, and sometimes it’s going to take a hell of a lot longer than you had planned. But you got to keep moving. And it applies to not just to the music, but the social media and messaging and the visuals and the latest thing, the “visualizers.”
But even with all that, it certainly starts with an incredible body of music. I worked with Amy Winehouse, and with an artist like that, it’s like the second you open the window, you just hold on tight. Don’t get me wrong: You’ve still got to go out there and educate people, because “different” is never easy. [Winehouse’s big success] was 10 years ago, but that [approach] still applies today, even though we’ve got different tools and partners to work with.
Did you anticipate or have a gut feeling that Post Malone would get to be as big as he’s become?
One brilliant thing about Post is that you couldn’t categorize him in any one genre — his point of entry was hip-hop, but he also does rock, and some day he’s going to come with a country album. But with just about every artist we sign, you want to believe they can be the biggest artist in the world. Like, a few years ago, when we had our first Coachella party, Post showed up late and there were maybe a hundred people. But he sat on a barstool and played his heart out for at least 45 minutes — and now it is so cool for those hundred people to be able to say they were there. I just think about those early days and humble beginnings and what he’s now become, and we never did anything to compromise him as an artist or anything he does.
Do you have any thoughts on why he’s connected so big? You can’t say “authenticity” — that’s the most overused music-industry word of 2019.
(Laughter) I think part of it is that he’s very cavalier. When he was on tour with Justin Bieber, the guy would come onstage in bedroom slippers (laughs), and I’m just staring at him like, ‘This guy doesn’t give a f—!’ You just can’t help but love that. And, you know, it comes through the music as well.
You also have an almost polar opposite artist on the label in James Blake, who’s very cerebral on the one hand, but is also somehow on huge rap records with Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott. Who is the audience you’re directing him to?
I mean, he is a unicorn — he is so unique and it’s hard to think of anyone else like him, and that’s his brilliance. You know, a lot of it doesn’t make any sense — his are some of the quietest shows I’ve ever been to, he just captivates the audience, you can practically hear a pin drop — and yet he’s [featured on all these hip-hop records], and they want to work with this person who in my opinion is a musical genius. We see the way that artists respond: Many artists who have chosen to work with Republic referenced him in a meeting, “That’s one of my favorite artists, I can’t believe you want to work with me.”
I know you can’t talk specifics of the deal with Taylor Swift. But what do you think it was that convinced her to sign with you, apart from your very famous personal charm?
(Laughs) It’s important to point out, we’ve worked with Taylor for years, helping to provide [promotion and other] services over the years, by way of our Big Machine strategic alliance. So we’ve had a longstanding relationship and we’ve done some amazing things together — there’s proof of concept, and I think there’s a sense of confidence that she’s comfortable working with the staff. What I love about the people at Republic is they operate with a chip on their shoulder — they’ve got something to prove, they make it personal. And I think to a large degree, that’s what makes us so competitive, because it’s not just a job: We will do anything and everything on behalf of our artists to reach those expectations, because it’s important, and we want to make good on our word. I’m very proud of the staff.
Now that the music industry is back on its feet, do you ever feel like there’s too much optimism? A song blows up on TikTok and suddenly the artist is looking at multi-million-dollar deals.
Well, we went through that [dozen-year dark period of the music industry, roughly from the Napster-induced collapse of CD sales to the arrival of streaming in the U.S. in 2011] period. We had the biggest year the music industry had ever seen in 2000 — and a couple of years later, “What the f— happened?” I remember coming to work during that period, and you just keep working and throwing punches and “we’re gonna figure it out,” you know? We never panic — there was certainly some looking around and questioning, but even then, our feet were firmly planted on the ground, and the same applies today. We are constantly looking for greater ways to improve what we do each and every day, and the future looks incredibly bright — but you always have to pay attention to what’s happening.
What’s Lucian like as a boss, and how do you know you’ve done well?
One thing Lucian and I have in common is neither of us is ever, ever satisfied. We recognize levels of success and accomplishment, but we’re not big on victory laps. He’s constantly challenging and pushing us, in a very intellectual way, and forcing us to re-evaluate and adapt to changes in the marketplace. But one thing I really respect is that he allows us to operate with a tremendous sense of independence and autonomy, and that’s why we and Capitol and Interscope are red hot. We never do anything to hurt each other, but we’re all very competitive and try to beat each other every day. Everybody wants to be in the starting position and everybody wants to find themselves in the end zone, and he creates that environment.
When you say he challenges you intellectually, can you give an example?
One thing is to never fall back on what’s worked in the past — that’s an absolute recipe for disaster. You always have to reevaluate: Do we have proper structure? Do we have the right people and positions in place? Are we adapting to this ever-changing marketplace? If TikTok is, in fact, a catalyst in the market, what are you doing to embrace it? What’s ahead of the curve and how are you looking into it? What’s next? It’s those type of things. We’re now living in an audience economy, where we used to be in a transactional business: It was always about how do we drive as many people as we can into a record store, and now it’s how you get somebody to listen to an album over and over again.
Okay, last question, and this one is very important: What was your what was the biggest concert you promoted while you were on the concert board as a student at the University of Albany?
(Laughter) Well, the biggest concert, I actually wasn’t able to promote. We were preparing for MayFest — that was the big event, the one we spent the entire year preparing for, that’s where the biggest budget was, and we always got into our biggest fights over it. I remember there was a girl who was that was breaking across America, I’d seen her on “American Bandstand,” and I could just tell that there was something special about her — she was from Michigan, and you can probably figure out who I’m talking about. I got into this crazy fight because everybody said I was wack and had no idea what the hell I was talking about, and ultimately the board decided to book Kid Creole & the Coconuts, who opened up for a band called The Alarm. And the act that I was not able to convince everybody should headline our MayFest was, of course, Madonna.
Another time, when I booked [legendary punk act] Black Flag, I almost got thrown out of college because somebody threw water on [singer] Henry Rollins in the middle of the concert. He jumped offstage, and when we when finally we found [Rollins], he literally was choking the guy. I landed in the dean’s office that Monday, basically had to shut down production…
Actually, that that leads to one more question: When did you realize that you had an instinct for this? Was there a moment or a song or a single thing that made you realize, I actually can pick hits and great artists?
I remember listening to Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40” on the radio when I was a kid and digging around about charts, but while I was in college, I knew I was different from the others because I would categorize my records — most people would do in alphabetical order, by artists, or by genre, and I categorized them by label! And I don’t know why I did that. This was in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and I’d notice that I had more Warner Bros. records than any others, and as we got further into the ‘80s, I noticed I had a lot of Chrysalis records because I loved, like, Billy Idol and Sinead O’Connor. They just had all these cool, different acts. And I was fascinated to read not just the liner notes, but about the label, I’d look at the imprints, etc.
It’s funny, I’m not so sure we choose this business — I think the business chooses us. You just get the bug. I feel very, very fortunate, because this is my hobby, this is my passion, and along the way, I found a way to get paid for it, and get paid a lot. It’s something I’m very proud of. I mean, I’ve got kids lined up down the street who would work here for free. I did it — I was that person, you were that person, because we’d do anything to break in and be closer to the music and see if we can make a difference. And in these brilliant artists’ careers, there’s nothing that makes me feel prouder than seeing Ariana nominated for [Grammy] Record of the Year or Taylor Swift for Song of the Year. The first time I heard “Royals” by Lorde, it was one of those situations where you just open the window and hold on for dear life.
Anything more you’d like to say?
Just that I really respect what you guys are doing — you recognize these big records, but you also recognize the key players in the success of every record, which I think is dynamite. I really, really admire you for doing that, so thank you.
See the full list of 2019 Hitmakers here.