Nir Seroussi ’96: Sony’s Latin Pop Puzzlemaster

Mike Keefe-Feldman
August 19, 2013
Nir Seroussi

Even before he was recently named one of Billboard’s “40 Under 40” in the music industry, it wasn’t difficult to tell that Berklee alumnus Nir Seroussi ’96, the managing director of Sony Music U.S. Latin, was making his mark on Latin pop music. One need only look at the Top Latin Albums chart: Seroussi produced Romeo Santos’s 2012 album (and corresponding DVD), The King Stays King: Sold Out at Madison Square Garden, which hit No. 1 and stayed in the top 50 for 39 weeks. Gerardo Ortiz, an artist that Seroussi signed and developed with Sony Music U.S. Latin, recently had the No. 2 Latin pop song with “Damaso” and currently has both a studio album and a live album in the top 50.

Clearly, Seroussi has a knack for finding and delivering what Latin pop fans in the U.S. want. Over the course of his career, he has played a number of different roles, from songwriter and composer to producer and art director. He has delved into just about every aspect of the business, including A&R, sales, and marketing. As a result of wearing so many hats, Seroussi now has a strong understanding of how to connect and align the Latin pop puzzle pieces for extremely successful outcomes. In a wide-ranging conversation, Seroussi shared his thoughts on the future of the music industry, the value of his time at Berklee, and how current Berklee students might best embark on a career in music. The following is an edited and abridged version of that conversation.

Congratulations on being named one of Billboard’s “40 Under 40.” What was your reaction to that news?

It’s very cool. At this point, I feel comfortable and I’m definitely excited about it, but I’m not used to the limelight, because I have always placed myself in the background. When I was writing, I would always put my name last on every credit. I don’t like making things about me. I like to be part of the process that leads to a successful result versus being the guy who says, “I did it.”

How would you describe your approach to making records?

The less I have to be involved, the better. My philosophy is, the more the artist brings to the table, the easier it is for me, and it’s not because I don’t want to do the work, but ultimately it’s the artist who has to go on stage—in the case of Romeo, in front of 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden—and make it amazing. So if it ain’t broke, I’m not going to fix it. But if there’s something I can contribute, I will. So my role really changes from one project to another.

What makes you want to sign an artist?

Some parties in our community still thrive on this egocentric engine of, “I want to make somebody famous.” Of course, in an era before social media, that made sense. It took someone to identify a talent without any sort of gauge or analytics. Today, when people are voicing their opinions and it’s very easy to listen in on those social media conversations, that’s a valuable tool and I think you have to be more agnostic so that you don’t miss out on no-brainer opportunities.

Gerardo Ortiz was a no-brainer opportunity. I pursued him very aggressively, because I believe in his talent and his ability to connect; my approach is looking for that connection, rather than trying to create it. I’ll give myself some credit—I met the kid and I knew there was something there. But I’ll never say I discovered Gerardo Ortiz. People discovered him on their own. I just raised my hand and said, “Look, Gerardo has started to have a success story, and there is no doubt in my mind that that can be amplified on a much larger level.”

When you think back to your time at Berklee, what do you think about?

You’re 17 or 18 years old. You’re sitting in your room thinking, “Man, can you imagine if one day I’m a famous producer?” We would talk about those kinds of things, and it actually happened—that’s what’s remarkable. I’ve worked very closely with people I was roommates with back in the day and they’ve all grown and become amazing in their own specialized fields. The initial network that Berklee provides was a starting point for me. I don’t think I would be where I am without that. I tell people, “You’re not going to realize it until you leave, but you went to boot camp with these cats.” Those years were key.

Some of the great records that I’ve worked on have been with people that I went to school with, but even that doesn’t fully tell the true story of what the Berklee experience means to someone like me. I always tell people, “You’re not going to appreciate what you get from Berklee until five, 10, or 15 years later when you look back to trace your path and realize that a lot of benchmarks were initiated because of a band you put together for a recital, or something you worked on for Heavy Rotation Records.”

So Berklee had a big impact on preparing you for your career?

I see myself as someone who is good at putting together puzzles, and Berklee provided a lot of the pieces. I will be eternally grateful to some of the great professors at Berklee, starting with (professor of music business/management) Jay Fialkov, who was really the first person who turned me on to the business side of things. He actually gave me the opportunity of working with him on a label that he had back then called Dakota Arts, and we had a couple of releases. That was really my first experience, so Jay was really fundamental to my formation. (Chair of music business/management) Don Gorder was also influential. My first hands-on, yet still in a lab, experiment was running Heavy Rotation Records, going to a record store and trying to get records on the shelf.

Had I not gone to Berklee, I guarantee you that my path would have been completely different. It would have taken me many more years to understand those puzzle pieces and put them together, or maybe I wouldn’t even be in this business. Seriously. Berklee gave me a perspective on how music works.

The music business has clearly been experiencing a lot of turbulence in recent years. How do you view these changes and what do you see on the horizon?

One concept that I live by is convergence. Back in the day, it was really easy to break down the pie. So you had these silos, perhaps, of production, A&R, sales, marketing, and—on the artist’s side—managers, agents, publishers, concert promoters. Everyone had their box. That concept is gone. The conversation is crossing all these different departments—which is why you see these 360 deals. The composition of the business has changed completely, but I’m very bullish about music.

I absolutely believe that the revenue pie will grow and exceed what it was in the past. But the past was heavily focused on revenue generated from recorded music assets. That, by itself, is in decline. And yes, the replacement of that with digital hasn’t quite been there. Now we’re talking about iTunes flattening and a lot of migration to subscription services. But that’s only one piece. If you concentrate only on that, you’re going to want to shoot yourself. You have to look at music as a whole.

And when you do so, what do you see?

What we’re really selling is an experience with music that is extremely powerful. If you start backwards from that, then you’re going to see the light at the end of the tunnel. People will invest in that experience, but we’re going through a transition that is caused by the consumer controlling when and how they consume that experience. That doesn’t mean that you can’t make money as a musician. You just have to throw away that old box.

Start with the solution and take out the finances for a second. The reality of the industry losing control of consumption and that shift to the consumer is that the new generation isn’t going to care about owning the asset, so maybe it becomes a B2B transaction instead of a B2C transaction. In the end, when we finish all of this crazy transition, people are going to be consuming music whenever and wherever they want. You can’t really argue against that logic, so I wake up every morning thinking, “How can I adapt my business to that?”

What advice would you give to Berklee students looking to break into the music business?

My advice is if you’re going to stand in line, then expect to wait. I always look for, “How do I do something different?” Some of the best success I have had came from pursuing opportunities that others discounted because it’s uncool or for whatever reason. Get yourself out of that line formation. That is key.

Also, diversify. I was lucky to get in this business when it was already going through turmoil, because it forced me to diversify. If you’re a songwriter and you plan to make a living just from writing, it is very challenging. Learn how to produce and learn about publishing. Just expand. I’m not saying don’t specialize. Specializing is important, but you have to become more universal. Engineers become producers and then songwriters—everything is converging. It’s hard to be the guy who says, “I just want to be an engineer who focuses on old-school analog recording.” If you want to take that path, that’s valid, but all I can say is you’d better be the best around. So diversify, know that everything is changing, and just learn.