Music Industry Executive Lyor Cohen Shares Insights at Zafris Lecture

Mike Keefe-Feldman
March 12, 2014
Lyor Cohen speaks at the annual James G. Zafris Jr. Lecture.
Cohen was interviewed by Panos Panay, founding managing director of Berklee’s Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship (BerkleeICE).
From left to right: Music Business/Management chair Don Gorder, Panay, James G. Zafris, Cohen, and Professional Education Division dean Darla Hanley
Cohen accepts a plaque and sweatshirt as Panay and others thank him for sharing his knowledge with Berklee students.
Photo by Kelly Davidson
Photo by Kelly Davidson
Photo by Kelly Davidson
Photo by Kelly Davidson

Berklee’s 21st annual James G. Zafris Jr. Lecture featured veteran music industry executive Lyor Cohen, who offered students something of a state of the industry address as well as informed speculation as to what the music business of the future may look like. Cohen conversed in a question-and-answer format with Panos Panay, founding managing director of Berklee’s Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship (BerkleeICE), and took questions from Berklee students.

Cohen spent 30 years steering companies such as Def Jam Records, Island/Def Jam Music Group, and Warner Music Group, but recently embarked on a new venture, founding 300 Entertainment, a label that includes Google among its investors and that has arranged to tap into data from Twitter to find new talent.

Don Gorder, chair of Berklee’s Music Business/Management Department, introduced Cohen, noting, “This is the man who pioneered rap and hip-hop music and who steered the careers of platinum-selling artists in multiple genres, from Slayer to Jay-Z to Bruno Mars.”

The discussion took place before a packed house in David Friend Recital Hall while many more watched online via a live stream.

Streaming as the Next Disruption

Cohen spoke about streaming and subscription services, noting that downloads—“one of the first green chutes” of the digital music era—will become “a challenged business model as streaming gets to scale.” Cohen suggested that, with streaming, music will be “a much less expensive proposition for the consumer and everybody is going to have a subscription”—a point that Gabi Lamb, a fourth-semester music business major who took lecture notes on her phone, says rang true to her.

In an industry that has historically been adverse to change, Cohen welcomes such an evolution.

“What a great opportunity for the creative community and artists to be a part of a business that has no inventory, no obsolescence, no shipping, no warehousing,” said Cohen. “It’s a fabulous idea with a light infrastructure.”

Just as iTunes eventually captured the lion’s share of the download market, Cohen predicted that streaming music subscriptions, still in their infancy, are in a “winner win most” field. Cohen acknowledged other income streams, such as advertising, but said, “I do see streaming as the major earner for the creative community over time.”

Big Data’s Big Problems

Cohen also focused on the music industry’s use of data and discussed his new company’s plan to use data in a more targeted way than some others have done.

“We’re getting a tidal wave of data and I’m not sure we know exactly what to do with it,” Cohen said. He noted that most music data pools treat the opinions of all individuals included in a sample equally but argued that, when it comes to music, his opinion should have more weight than the opinion of someone with little to no experience with music.

Rather than relying on gigantic national data feeds, Cohen’s 300 will use indicators such as Twitter to filter out what Cohen refers to as “the massive passive.”

“When you include the massive passive,” Cohen said, “you get something that feels comfortable to them.” He continued, “We want insurance or health care to be comfortable, but we want our creative spirit to be challenged every day—otherwise, you don’t get punk and you don’t get rap.”

Cohen said that big data would likely have axed the Beastie Boys or Public Enemy by drowning the voice of “the cool kid” in the sea of the “massive passive.” Panay pondered whether “to some degree, the massive passive is making our cultural muscle really weak,” adding, “if you exercise, you know that to build strength you have to challenge yourself and go outside of your comfort zone.”

Cohen also took those who rely on big data to task for being out of step with how artists begin to break—locally, not nationally.

“Using the data from a national feed, you could miss a Macklemore that’s exploding out of Seattle,” Cohen said.

However, if one looked to Twitter, one might see traction of that sort building locally, a more nimble approach that Cohen hopes will give him an edge over larger competitors and one that appealed to Rebekah Samarin, a fourth semester business and performance dual major.

“It was really interesting because I wouldn’t have thought of finding bands and artists that way,” Samarin said.

A Most Fascinating Hour and a Half”

As the session came to a close, Gorder summed up the mood of many in the hall, saying, “That was the most fascinating hour and a half that I’ve had in a long time.”

The significance of the chance to hear from Cohen was not lost on second semester student Ralston Queensborough, a music business student and hip-hop writer.

“It’s not everyday that we get an opportunity like this,” Queensborough said. “We have to take advantage while we can.”