Lava’s Jason Flom and Jeff Kempler on Their Odd Empire of Music, ‘Wrongful Conviction’ Podcasts and Children’s Books

Lava Media Jason Flom Jeff Kempler

Lava Records founder Jason Flom (pictured above, right) has long been known as one of the most successful label heads and A&R reps of the past 30-odd years. While originally known as a hard-rock specialist, through his years as a top executive at Atlantic Records, as CEO of Virgin-EMI Records, and founder and chief of Lava Records, he’s racked up a remarkably diverse track record of artists, ranging from Tori Amos and Katy Perry to Kid Rock, Matchbox 20, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, 30 Seconds to Mars, Greta Van Fleet and Lorde.

Yet his longtime work in criminal justice has resulted in “Wrongful Conviction,” the widely popular podcast that he hosts about unjust incarcerations, and a podcast network, which also includes the new series, “Wrongful Conviction: Junk Science,” hosted by Innocence Project Ambassador Josh Dubin, and “Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions,” hosted by “Making a Murderer” lawyers Laura Nirider and Steve Drizin. Lava Media recently struck a partnership with Primary Wave for the podcasts that also includes Lava’s publishing division (although not the Lava label, which has been affiliated with Republic Records for 13 years).

Finally and somehow-relatedly, there’s Flom’s children’s book, “Lulu Is a Rhinoceros,” which he wrote with his daughter Allison and published through Lava, and which has turned out to be a remarkable success, selling more than 50,000 copies.

Flom’s chief lieutenant for many years has been Lava COO Jeff Kempler (pictured above, left), who was initially Flom’s attorney, then his COO at Virgin-EMI. Variety caught up with the two of them to discuss their uncommonly diverse and successful empire. “Even though it seems like odd bedfellows,” Kempler says, “there’s a common DNA through what we do, which is storytelling and helping voices that may not have been heard to be heard.”

First, let’s talk about the new Primary Wave deal — how will that work?
Kempler: Primary Wave has come along as an investor and also an enabler and supporter and strategic partner, focused on two aspects of the Lava Media businesses: the podcast side, and the music publishing side. Recorded music is our partnership with Republic Records, which continues and is not affected by the Primary Wave deal.

As for the podcasts, Primary Wave is very interested in it as a burgeoning medium for storytelling and engagement, and a gateway to intellectual-property development. Our podcast business is centered around the “Wrongful Conviction” podcasts — there are three in that series, we’re at about 17 million downloads from inception and about 1 million audience impressions a month and growing globally. So Primary Wave will be part of our growth accelerant as we include more criminal-justice work, more true-crime, but also stories that relate to music and entertainment, which is the other side of our unusual combination of pursuits.

How will the Lava and Primary Wave music-publishing companies work together?
Kempler: We work well with our partners — we’ve been with Republic for 13 years. With them, we do the A&R and marketing is collaborative, and I think it’ll be the same thing with Primary Wave.

Jason, how did your work in social-justice lead to a podcast?
Criminal justice reform has been my focus for 27 years — reversing mass incarceration in all its nefarious and uniquely American ways — and as my work in it evolved I devoted more and more of my time to working on Innocence Project-related issues and helping people who are the victims of wrongful conviction to get back on their feet. So because that’s been a focus for me, and because I find the people so inspiring, and because change comes from individual stories rather than statistics, generally speaking, I thought that if I could combine my love of storytelling with the marketing skills I developed in my years in the music business to help bring this to a wide audience. And then we’re able to educate the public as to the causes of these wrongful convictions, then we can help to influence the outcome of future trials to prevent [wrongful convictions] from happening with such alarming regularity.

I really had no idea where it was gonna go, and I’m in awe not just of the people who take 45 minutes out of their days to listen to our show, but how many of them take positive action. I get messages from people who say “I decided to go to law school” or “I know a conservative lawyer whose views on the death penalty you turned all the way around.” It’s been a really gratifying experience all the way around.

Beyond that, we may create new podcasts ourselves or be curatorial about it. It’s also possible we’ll find an interesting act or assets in the Primary Wave catalog — they have Bob Marley, Smokey Robinson, Alice Cooper.

Jason, how do you balance running a music company, hosting podcasts and being the author of children’s books — not to mention marketing all of those endeavors?
Flom: I think I’m just having a midlife crisis! (Laughter) I don’t wanna buy a Ferrari, so what do people like me do with their midlife crises? Podcasts and children’s books, apparently.

It’s hard to imagine the same guy who signed Kid Rock doing a children’s books series. How did it come about?
This is the story I tell when I do readings for kids. I got the idea when I came back from a trip to Africa. I work with an organization called VetPaw — Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife, it’s a group of military veterans who are on the ground in South Africa protecting rhinos, elephants and other animals, but their focus is on rhinos. They train local rangers, and break up poaching rings and protect and save rhinos. I got to spend some time with them and got close to some rhinos, and it was just amazing.

When I came back I was on the couch with [his dog] Lulu and she looked me in the eye and said “I’m a rhino too.” I said, “Obviously you’re a dog, you’re small and furry” and she said, “Can’t you see? I have short legs, a big body and a flat head, I only run fast for short distances and I burp, snort and fart like a rhino.” So I said “Okay, you’re a rhino, let’s tell the story.” I thought if we can create a little hero for kids who feel left out, put down or bullied because of the way they look, feel or are, let’s do it. Fortunately, my daughter Allison is an actual writer, so we wrote the book, nobody wanted to publish it so we did it ourselves, and I went out and promoted it like a record.

We started getting great feedback — not only did people like it, but it was having the effect that I hoped it would have on kids who needed a little hero. And it’s a success: Scholastic [publishing] put it in schools, we’ve sold 50,000 [copies], which is not bad, from a standing start with nothing and a character nobody had ever heard of and an unknown author. The second book is done — the same character on a different adventure — and we’re making a deal for it.

In your spare time you also run a record label. What’s coming up?
We’re extremely excited about our current crop of artists. Greta Van Fleet is kind of our flagship act, I’m super proud to have them as part of our family and I love the idea that they’re bringing the type of rock and roll I grew up on to a new generation. Jessie J is about to come roaring back — I have always believed that she is not just one of the great talents of our time and I think she’s about to have a real moment, so more to come on that. And we have a couple of new artists that I’m really excited about. We have a new artist called SomeGirlNamedAnna who’s about to break out, and a singer named Kat Cunning is breaking as we speak — they’re binary — with their first single “Supernova,” and there’s new music that’s at even another level.

There’s another band we just put out, South of Eden, it produced by Greg Wells who did “The Greatest Showman” [musical], and now he’s producing a band from Ohio. And there’s one more that’s just a few months out called Hero the Band — a Black rock band of four brothers from Atlanta who all play all the instruments and sing. We’re launching them with a podcast and I’d love for Jeff to talk about them.

Kempler: They sound like Nirvana mixed with the 1975, and there’s a rich narrative about their youth in Atlanta. We’re going to have the podcast and the music come out as complimentary pieces, where songs will be introduced in the narrative of the story — you hear podcast and then they’re basically released as singles. So it’s almost like watching a movie and getting the soundtrack at the same time, and the podcasts and the music come to the listener through the same doorway: Spotify, Apple, iHeart, so the ability to have those components come together is really exciting and unique. That’ll start to hit in the first quarter of next year.

Flom: It’s always a thrill to have a new artist that’s bubbling and to figure out how to put the jigsaw pieces together so they’re reaching their full potential. People find this odd, but I’ve always enjoyed marketing as much as A&R — or more. People usually think that finding a wonderful piece or music or a talented artist is the glamorous part of the business, but for me the jigaw puzzle aspect and finding the right formula is so exciting — especially in this world where people see a thousand messages a day and there’s more music and more distractions than ever.

We get spoiled sometimes, like we did with Lorde and “Royals” [becoming an immediate global smash in 2013], but the biggest artists I’ve had in my career have been the ones that took a while to reach their potential. Tori Amos, Matchbox 20, Trans Siberian Orchestra, Kid Rock — because we’re small, it allows us to stick with things for longer than most major labels. And Republic have been such fantastic partners — I love that it’s a place where [cofounders Monte and Avery Lipman] can’t sleep unless all the records in the top 20 are theirs, and I love that it’s really non-political. They don’t care if I found it, they found it, you found it, as long as it’s a hit. They’re data scientists, so if we put out a record out like Kat’s and all of a sudden it starts talking to us — because records talk back to you — then an email goes out from Avery, “Hey! Look at these stats!” and everybody goes “Woah! We got one!” and Monte puts the hammer down and the whole things goes nuts. At some other labels, I think politics play a big role, and as a result they lose out.

Speaking of Lorde, what’s the latest on her third album?
The Lorde moves in mysterious ways! I spoke to her manager the other day, obviously there’s a lot of excitement about [her third album], but more than that I can’t tell you.