In 2018, when industry vet David Massey was leaving his post at the helm of Island Records and returning to his longtime home at Sony Music, he originally was going to give his label a new name — possibly Work of Art, the name of the Sony-affiliated publishing and management company he also heads up.
But when the possibility arose of relaunching Arista — the label founded by Clive Davis in 1974, now owned by Sony, which famously had a roster that ranged from Barry Manilow and Whitney Houston to Patti Smith — he changed his mind.
“A friend had said to me, ‘Your Island is almost like the new Arista,’ which I took as a real compliment, because they had that incredibly eclectic, colorful, vibrant roster, and yet they were smaller and contained and could focus very intensely. We asked Clive and he was up for it, and it was simple as that.”
Smaller is a relative term when you’re talking about a major label, but his Island punched far above its weight: He’d presided over the launch of Shawn Mendes’ career and worked with a roster that ranged from the Killers and Demi Lovato to Bon Jovi and Elton John. Arista is following a similar template, keeping its staff and roster at around 30 each, with the former focused on A&R, promotion, press and marketing and the latter including Grammy-nominated Italian rock band Måneskin and singer-songwriter J.P. Saxe as well as R&B singer Tai Verdes, rapper Lola Burke, alternative act Beach Weather and two successful acts Massey had worked with at Island, pop singer-songwriters Mike Posner and Bishop Briggs. (See Variety‘s feature on Måneskin for more on the group.)
“The industry has become very research-driven, and obviously you need it, but I want to let the artists lead,” says Massey, who worked closely with Oasis, Shakira and others during his previous stint at Sony. “Tai and Lola and Måneskin are all real artists, with a specific vision — they’re not manufactured, they’re not one-offs. And that’s what I always loved about Arista, you could have Whitney Houston but also OutKast and TLC, these very colorful career artists, and that’s what I want here.”
Massey’s path into the music business was an unusual one, to say the least. A London native, his mother, Marion, was one of the first female artist managers, orchestrating pop singer Lulu’s rise to stardom in the 1960s, so he grew up with pop stars in the house and regularly visited the set of Lulu’s long-running BBC variety show. He attended Cambridge expecting to become a lawyer or politician — his twin brother works in finance — but met a band called Wang Chung in the ’80s and became their manager in his early twenties, helming their rise to stardom via their titular hit single and soundtrack for the film “To Live and Die in L.A.” He moved over to the label side — and New York — by taking a top A&R job at Epic in 1991, and during his 16 years at the company he signed Oasis, and worked with them for their entire stint at Epic, as well as pre-superstardom iteration of the Jonas Brothers. In 2007 he went to Universal, sigining Avicii and bringing Iggy Azalea to Def Jam, and was named president of Island in 2014.
In just over four years at Arista, the company has racked up impressive numbers: Maneskin, originally signed to Sony Italy, have multiplatinum certifications all over the world, more than 6.5 billion streams and two Grammy nominations; J.P. Saxe (also signed to Work of Art publishing) earned a Grammy nod for his three-times platinum single “If the World Was Ending”; and Tai Verdes has one platinum and two gold singles. The bespoke approach the label can bring to artists, Massey says, is one of its greatest strengths.
“We’re one of the smaller Sony labels, so we can be nimble and zero in very, very intensely,” he says. “I started working here in July of 2018 and we started in earnest that September — and that’s when the entire business changed. The Spotify charts had become dominant, research became much more important, and that’s when newer artists started getting signed to multimillion-dollar deals. Anything can be a hit now, and the gatekeepers are not there in the same way that they were. In many ways the public are now the A&R people — and to be more specific, Gen Z, because they are voting through TikTok and Roblox and social media.
“If you’re in our business now, you have to really embrace and live within change at all times — and that’s the fun of it,” he concludes. “You’re always moving with the changes.”