Kevin Liles has done a lot. The 52-year-old Baltimore native started off his career as an artist with the DJ crew Numarx — who had a song called “Girl You Know It’s True” that was not only covered by Milli Vanilli, it was the title track on the controversial multiplatinum-selling duo’s Grammy-winning (and Grammy-retracted) 1990 album. It was an unusual and auspicious start to a career that saw him work his way up from being an intern at Def Jam Records to being its president and CEO, then becoming an EVP at Warner Music, managing multiple acts over the years — including D’Angelo, who he got to finally release his 15-year-in-the-making “Black Messiah” album, Mariah Carey and (still) Trey Songz — an entrepreneur, and most recently, a cofounder and current CEO of 300 Entertainment, which has had huge success with Young Thug, Migos and most recently Megan Thee Stallion.
But that’s not what we got on a Zoom call to talk about. Anyone with his track record has picked up some wisdom about managing people, and he’s launched some initiatives to support and inspire 300’s artists, its 55-strong staff and even fans — via an art contest with prizes called “300 Creates” — through the coronavirus pandemic. These include a fund for artists and staff facing financial challenges, a mental-health program, and more — he talked with us about them.
What inspired you to start these initiatives?
I’m trying to accomplish three things: to make sure our people are good, our artists are good, and to our community is good. I made the decision early to close the office early — on March 6th — and I got a lot of calls, “Why would you do that? What’s going on?” But all I could think about is somebody who can’t afford [car service] having to catch the subway or the bus and getting infected, and then infecting the 55 people in the office. And since we were born in a digital age, we’re built for whatever is put in front us. Also, nine months ago we were operating remotely because we were renovating the office, so that was kind of our training period.
I was talking with someone earlier today who was like, “We’re actually more productive now, what do we need offices for?”
I’ll bet that was a CFO (laughter). But I think you need places for people to commune and see each other, because humanizing our business is not just a series of Zoom calls. You have to have a congregating space — I call it the worship space — for people to come to.
The idea [behind the initiatives] is to bring a sense of stability when things might be changing around you. You hear about 25 million people applying for unemployment and all the furloughs, and you’re sitting at home with your family and maybe your wife has been laid off or your kid is about to graduate into this job marketplace. We made some contributions to our community — we donated 100,000 meals here in New York — but I really worried about our artists and the 55 people who work with us every day: What does home or a crisis look like for them? So by creating a Covid relief fund in the office — and not just for them, it might be for a family member or someone close to them in need — that we have an unlimited crisis budget that I and the COO go over. It’s a way to say hey, no matter what changes around you, we’re going to provide you with stability and a fund to pull from if necessary.
I also felt that therapy was very important, so we set up a Covid therapy opportunity for employees and artists: twice a week they can have sessions and we’ll pay for them to have someone to talk to, and all these things are confidential.
How is being a CEO different from being a manager?
With management, you’re a parent and even a pastor in some sense. You’re dealing with everything, not just one or two sides of their business, so I find myself really being what I am to my family: stability, a foundation and an ear to bend when they’re going through something.
How did the art project come about?
We were trying to think of a way to help and incentivize people to be creative during this time, so we created 300 Creates, and the first one was for the 5th anniversary of Young Thug’s “Barter 6” mixtape. We said, “What if we have people design what the cover would look like now if they had the opportunity to create it, and we give the person that Young Thug picks as the winner $5,000?” So that was engaging fans, celebrating the anniversary and also compensating people for their creativity, because we believe that during these times creativity should never be quarantined. We’re coming back with more of those challenges.
We’re also doing an “Unplugged” series every Tuesday night on YouTube — it’s increased our viewership by over 1 million over the past four weeks, and it’s all new artists. It shows people are starving for music.
Isn’t it challenging to be running a record label in these times?
Well, to call us a label limits the opportunities that we give to creators, artists, managers, executives — it’s more of a platform, and we have different verticals that answer different needs at a different time. But I say to people, “We’re home right now. Does that mean you can’t do a virtual tour? Radio interviews? Instagram or Google Hangouts or Zoom calls? People still want to engage — the radio station’s still there, the DSP is still there. How do you turn what we do physically into virtual?” One of our artists, Phony Ppl, did a virtual tour last week and it was so successful they ended up doing two days in a row with ten stations a day.
But are all your artists equipped to record and perform from home?
We took a survey and those who weren’t, we sent them a home studio, green screens, things to help them be creative. We’re doing virtual meetings introducing products; we did a Megan Thee Stallion TikTok challenge, we’ve got another with Lil Keed. We just have to adopt to the new normal — I remember handing out stickers and flyers, now we use Twitter and Instagram. What people think is change is really adaptation — and if something hasn’t been done before, that’s exciting.
That’s a refreshing way to look at it.
You can say “I don’t want to be in a Covid movie — I want to be in my movie! Covid is going to provide a new normal, but I’m not going to be subject to the rules of what its movie is.” We have to get to a better world, and this is a chance to show us what really matters. I challenge my team: “I know you work 200% for us and our artists every day, but we need 300%,” and it’s my job to create an environment and a foundation for that that inspires and uplifts. I’m implementing these things because I know we’ll get to the other side. We might not look the same, but we’re going to get to the other side together.