Barry Weiss Talks Hits, Trump and Lessons Learned

By Lars Brandle

Hits, superstars, majors, indies, divas, captains of industry, legends. Barry Weiss has worked with them all, and learned from the best.

The American record label veteran was a key lieutenant for Clive Calder, whose independent powerhouse Jive/Zomba launched the careers of Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and ‘Nsync in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The enigmatic South Africa born-Calder completed the sale of the company to BMG in 2002 for a whopping $2.7 billion, and has remarkably managed to stay out of the spotlight ever since. Everyone wants time with Calder. Few in the media have ever seen him, let alone met him.

Born and bred in New York, Weiss is himself a member of an American music dynasty, the son of the colorful hitmaker Hy Weiss, who produced and released records through the 1950s and 1960s. And Weiss’ sons are now part of the framework of the U.S. music business, the world’s largest market.  It was Hy Weiss who coined the “$50 handshake. Back in the so-called “golden age” of radio when labels embraced the dark art of “Payola,” the once widespread practice of paying broadcasters to play their music, Weiss senior simply refined the process. Payola is now history and the business Hy operated in is an alien landscape compared with today’s fragmented digital world. But Barry Weiss sees a golden future.

“We’re getting back to the golden years, but we’re not quite there now,” notes Barry. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel for the first time in many years with what’s going on with streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music and Deezer. It’s growth. The American industry was up 8.1% in revenues in the first half of the year last year. It’s amazing to see growth again, even if it’s single digital growth. “

Barry Weiss has pulled the levers at major labels, and indies.  He served in executive positions with BMG (which later merged with Sony Music), before bolting to Universal Music Group in 2010 to run its East Coast label group, which comprised Republic Records and Island Def Jam. Weiss left the company in April of 2014 and set about building his own business. Weiss launched RECORDS in a joint venture with New York-based SONGS Publishing (which represents The Weeknd, Lorde, Diplo, X Ambassadors, DJ Mustard, Desiigner, Duran Duran and others), and with distribution handled by Sony RED. RECORDS has already scored hits with Nelly’s gold-certified “The Fix” and ILoveMemphis’ “Hit the Quan,” which reached No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100, and Weiss is confident of launching another artist into the mainstream, with a name already familiar to most: Noah Cyrus.

Cyrus, a member of another famous American music dynasty, is the younger sister of Miley and Metro Station guitarist Trace, and daughter of “Achy Breaky Heart” singer Billy Ray. Earlier this month, RECORDS released ‘Stay Together,’ which Idolator pegs as a “Song Of The Summer contender”. It’s the second track from Noah’s forthcoming album NC-17, and follows the 2016 release “Make Me (Cry)” featuring Labyrinth.

TIO spoke to the entrepreneur about his lessons learned and Australia’s growing confidence in the global music market.

What’s the vibe on the Australian music business from the U.S.?

The bottom line is, Australia is a great place to find talent and a great place to break talent. It’s a great market, it’s like the way the record business used to feel in the ‘80s and in the mid-1990s in America. There’s an element of risk-taking from an A&R point of view, and from a media point of view. There’s so much on the line, the stakes are so big in America. Every quarter point rating on radio there means thousands upon tens of tens of thousands of dollars, or hundreds of thousands of dollars, so they have to get it right. In the same way where Netflix and Amazon Prime TV have unleashed this creative genesis, they’re calling it the “golden age of TV”, I think it’s the golden age of music in the Australian and British marketplace, with Australia in particular. There’s more risk taking because maybe the stakes aren’t quite as big. People really go by their gut here. And the public still loves discovering new artists.

What are some of the great lessons learned from your dad?

One of his favorite expressions was, ‘a hit record is like a tennis ball in the water, you can’t keep it down.’ It’s not quite as simple these days, because there’s a lot that goes into making sure a record gets enough oxygen to really rise to the top. But it’s still all about A&R. It starts and ends with A&R. It sounds obvious but it seems to have got lost in the sauce in the last 20 years.

Denis Handlin talks about hits and stars. It really is, and Denis knows what he’s talking about. It’s not about us, the industry. It’s about the artists. Take a back seat, let the artist be front and centre.

Your son Mike works with Larry Rudolph and Adam Leber at Maverick Management. What lessons did you pass on?

Stay close to the talent. There’s nothing more important than supporting the talent and making sure they’re secure and can feel they can trust you. That’s when they’ll make their best art. The power lies with the talent. That’s the mantra I’ve given my son and that’s why he’s edged toward being in artist management rather than the label side. This is such a niche business, the skill set is not that transferable. It’s not a business for civilians.

And of course, you learned from the mysterious Clive Calder.

I learned 100 lessons, 1000s of lessons from Clive. Clive was a certified genius. I think he’s Michael Jordan, he’s the best that ever played. I don’t think there’s anybody I’ve met in the music industry in 34 years who can come close to his brilliance. His problem solving ability. His left brain, right brain creative instincts coupled with strategic business instincts, his A&R vision. He truly had the ability to see around corners. And he could really see the future. He was as close to anyone I’ve seen who was literally anointed enough where he could see the future.

Have you had a lot of luck?

Yeah, but need to have a lot of luck. As my sons embark on their own careers, I tell them what I’d tell anybody: you have to work your ass off. And you make your own luck. You work hard and put yourself into a position to step into good fortune. If you don’t work hard, you’re not focused and passionate, the odds are dramatically decreased that you’ll have good luck.

Finally, Donald Trump is in the White House. How was his election victory received in the U.S. record business?

The vibe not only in the record business but in the east coast and west coast of America was stunned and disappointed.  A day after the election, you could almost feel it in the streets how disappointed New Yorkers were. It’s still early days, and the artist community is up in arms. But it’ll probably lead to great art.