Lyor Cohen, the legendary former CEO of Warner Music Group and, most recently, the founder of 300 Entertainment, is joining up with YouTube.
Cohen will be YouTube’s Global Head of Music, a position in which he will attempt to negotiate with record labels over streaming rights and further develop YouTube Music, the company’s bid to create a streaming service similar to Spotify, Apple Music, or Tidal.
The new position means that Cohen will transition out of his role at 300 Entertainment—he was the CEO and co-founder—by December, sources confirmed to Complex. He will remain the label’s largest individual investor. Google, his new parent company via YouTube, was also an investor in 300, and will also retain its multi-million investment in the label. 300 Entertainment will run as normal after Cohen’s departure, once a replacement has been found.
300 is an independent label designed to compete with the major labels, signing artists like Young Thug, Fetty Wap, and Coheed & Cambria. After a decades-long run at Warner Brothers and Def Jam, Cohen struck out on his own to create a smaller, more artist-focused business model, more collective than company. It rose to prominence quickly since its start in 2012 by positioning itself as a smart, risky, and boisterous—the company’s motto is “Fuck the cake, we want the bands”—alternative to traditional labels, with the often outspoken Cohen at its head.
Cohen will need to bring that outsider influence to his new position. The music industry has a famously contentious relationship with YouTube and its parent company, Google. Earlier this year, the RIAA railed against YouTube in a report that singled out YouTube when maligning the lack of revenue payments the music industry received from the company. For example, in 2015—the year streaming became the music industry’s biggest source of revenue—the industry received more money from vinyl sales ($416 million) than from the ad-supported streaming ($385 billion) that is, apart from subscriptions to YouTube Red, YouTube’s bread and butter when it comes to music. It makes sense that the industry is singling out YouTube over its purported competition, like Spotify or Apple Music; YouTube can claim over 50% of all music streamed in 2015, making it by far the biggest streaming service in existence.
Cohen, it seems, will be charged with mending the relationship for the video platform. “As we enter the growth era of the music industry,” YouTube’s Chief Business Officer Robert Kyncl wrote in a statement, “Lyor is in a position to make a tremendous difference in accelerating that growth in a fair way for everyone.” Fair is the word to pay attention to here—the same RIAA report from this year called the revenue the music industry received from YouTube “meager”—as the streaming economy expands, getting cooperation from major labels will likely become a major hurdle for all music streaming services.
In a letter to YouTube’s music team, Cohen laid out a three point plan for his new position, addressing both the challenges and opportunities YouTube faces moving forward:
First, helping the music community embrace the technological shifts we’re seeing in music today so we can help take the confusion and distrust out of the equation.
Second, building on the great work you all have done to help the music industry and creative community break new songs and artists to YouTube’s audience of over 1 billion fans. From building on the success of the YouTube Music app, to shining a light on emerging artists, I believe our potential to strengthen the industry is massive.
And third, I hope that together we can move towards a more collaborative relationship between the music industry and the technologies that are shaping the future of the business.
Cohen has the resume to back up this up. He’s known as the mind behind Run-DMC’s Adidas deal, the guy who convinced Def Jam to strike out on its own and split from Sony Music Entertainment, and for decades-long relationships with people like Jay Z and Kanye West. Especially in hip-hop—the genre serving as the current lifeblood of any streaming service—he’s likely the most recognizable record exec working today.
The streaming economy has been heating up for well over a year now, as the space grows and its biggest players prepare for the long haul. Hiring a high profile label exec now appears to be a mandatory step on the path to future success for a streaming service. Apple, for example, has its own music industry legend in Jimmy Iovine working what appears to be a loosely comparable role to Cohen’s, while Spotify brought on high profile music manager Troy Carter. In Cohen, YouTube has found its own industry insider.