Lyor Cohen, global head of music for YouTube and Google, and Diane Warren, songwriter extraordinaire, took the stage of the Musikaliska Kvarteret theater in Stockholm on Monday (May 23) to be interviewed by Swedish journalist Jan Gradvall. Their appearance was part of the Polar Talks, a day of conversations annually based on the theme “the power of music,” according to Marie Ledin, managing director of Sweden’s Polar Music Prize. The Prize was founded by her father, ABBA manager Stig Anderson, in 1992 to honor the world’s greatest pop and classical musicians and the Polar Talks were added to the agenda about a dozen years ago.
Cohen’s interview kicked off the Talks as he answered questions about his life growing up and his current work at YouTube. Asked what advice he would give to up-and-coming artists in the industry, Cohen said that people who work in the industry tell artists they should always be on. “One of the saddest parts of this era is these artists have to do likes, followers, subscribers and have so many duties in the social sense and last week I heard this man who was running a major record company say, ‘Focus on ‘occasionally brilliant.’ I found that perfect.”
Gradvall wanted to know how Cohen became interested in rap music in its early days. “My brother was a wood shop teacher in south central Los Angeles at a high school called Verben Dei,” he responded. “He would take me to their basketball games. And every break, a guy on bass and a guy with drums and dancers would run out in the middle of the court and do some of the funkiest beats. As a young kid, I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. Much later, when I listened to (Los Angeles R&B station) KDAY, I recognized many of those beats. I started getting interested and was curious what it was all about. I went to work at the Bank of Israel in Beverly Hills and I was really miserable. My parents always encouraged all four boys to do everything in their power to avoid work and to find passion.”
Cohen hired a new trio called Run-DMC to headline a local gig. Joseph Simmons, known as DJ Run, called his brother Russell, co-founder of Def Jam with Rick Rubin, and said he should hire Cohen to work for the band. Cohen flew to New York and immediately was sent to London. “That’s how I became their tour manager for three-and-a-half years. If I hadn’t gone to New York, what would I have done? I have no clue.”
One of Cohen’s most memorable moves was inviting Adidas executive Angelo Anastasio to see Run-DMC play Madison Square Garden. “It was one of the most miserable evenings of my life because it was the first time a rapper played MSG. It wasn’t just an achievement for Run-DMC, it was an achievement for the art form. I remember the backstage being horrifically overrun [with people] and the big boss of MSG said, ‘There’s no money large enough for me to have another rapper back in the Garden.’ It was a big learning experience for me because I was in control and let the whole thing get out of sync. But the positive thing that came out of that show was Run-DMC’s authentic passion and love for the Adidas sneaker. They just loved the product so much. That’s why it was such a great [endorsement] deal for Adidas and for Run- DMC. But I wish I was more sophisticated, I would have made a better deal for the kids.” Still, the deal Cohen did make became a model for other hip-hop acts to sign major endorsement contracts.
Speaking of his current work at YouTube, Cohen told Gradvall that the company nurtures the fringe and avant-garde. “And suddenly you get the explosion of Afro beats or Latin music. “We went to Nigeria about four years ago and met the ecosystem there. I write in my blog that if you listened to the melodies you would know for certain that they would have a global impact. It’s nice to see Burna Boy selling out Madison Square Garden and all the growth of that genre, something you would not see if it weren’t for the growth of YouTube. I like to change things when they’re working, not when they’re not working. I remember when I started [record label and entertainment company] 300, on the front of the office door, I painted a Bob Dylan lyric: ‘If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.’ That’s how I feel. When you are in the friction and sparks are flying you get singed and certainly I’ve been singed. The joy that I get seeing things happen outweighs the disappointments or the singeing I get when I’m deep into the friction.
“I know it sounds strange that I went from traditional media to YouTube. They’re still trying to figure out why I’m there and why I’m reasonably successful. To me, I’m the music person that happens to work at YouTube and Google. I like to put things together and so last week we had an off-site in London and I had the music industry meet the head of engineering, the head of product and the head of user experience and I got out of the way and let them build beautiful products. We have two billion daily active users. We have a lot of people who rely on the platform, both the user and the creator. It’s very exciting to watch what’s happening.”
The conversation turned to how artists and composers earn money from YouTube. “Last week I had the great pleasure of having a fireside chat with Björn [Ulvaeus] from ABBA, in London. He’s deeply passionate and so are we about improving the metadata. We are living in a digital world with imperfect information. There are a lot of wonderful compositions and songwriters that aren’t getting renumerated because of imperfect information and Björn has this program called Sessions. We’re working with him to make sure that the metadata is great and those who were there recording and performing on a composition are paid. Now, it’s all memory after the fact and lawyers and managers forget what they agreed to. All these problems over time will be solved.”
After Cohen’s interview, Warren came to the stage to talk with Gradvall. Asked about the secret of her success and her work method, the Los Angeles-based songwriter and Polar Music Prize Laureate for 2020 just needed three words: “I show up.”
Although Warren purchased her own building ion Cahuenga Blvd. in Hollywood to house her self-owned publishing company, Realsongs, she still works in her “cave,” which is what she calls her old office in what was the RCA building on Sunset Blvd. Gradvall brought up the severe 1994 Northridge earthquake that shook the building so badly, all of Warren’s music equipment and cassettes were thrown to the floor. “It still looks like that,” Warren told him. “Is that because of superstition?” he asked. “No, I’m just lazy,” she said to much audience laughter. She did admit she picked up the keyboards so she wouldn’t have to play them while sitting on the floor.
With equal good humor, Warren responded to a question about being a 13-time loser at the Academy Awards. She quipped about it being the all-time record for a female in the almost 100-year history of the Oscars. But then she added, “It’s alright. There are only five songs nominated out of hundreds of songs written for movies every year. That is a win for me.”
Pressed to choose her favorite among all the songs she has written, Warren cited “Because You Loved Me” from “Up Close and Personal,” which has deeper meaning for her because it was a tribute to her father, who always encouraged her songwriting when she was growing up in Van Nuys, Calif. “It’s become a big wedding song and a big funeral song. It’s really weird,” Warren said to more laughter. She also mentioned “Til It Happens to You,” which she wrote with Lady Gaga for the 2015 documentary “The Hunting Ground.” While the film deals with campus rape, Warren said the lyrics could apply to many personal situations, including dealing with being bullied.
Warren also spoke of what inspired her to be a songwriter instead of an artist. “I read what was in parentheses under the artists’ names. I saw ‘Goffin and King’ on the 45 of the Drifters’ ‘Up On the Roof.’” She wanted to be Gerry Goffin and Carole King, not the Drifters.
Warren also touched on Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” saying the band told an interviewer that they “sold out” by recording a Diane Warren song. “Maybe it was strange at the time,” she acknowledged, “but it’s the biggest hit they ever had.”
Warren received her Polar Music Prize from the hands of King Carl XVI Gustav of Sweden at the ceremony held Tuesday (May 24) at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. Although she was named a Laureate in 2020, there was no ceremony that year or in 2021 due to the COVID pandemic.