The Hot Seat: Barry Weiss

Published in The Music Network


Australia has proven a happy hunting ground for Barry Weiss. The veteran U.S. executive is chairman and CEO of the RCA/Jive Label Group, whose roster of artists have taken turns at destroying the national sales charts in recent times, the likes of Pink, Kings of Leon, Justin Timberlake and Foo Fighters among them.

Weiss’ destiny was always to be at the elite end of the record business. His father, Hy Weiss, was a notable music man whose doo-wop Old Town Records set the tone for independent music labels in the 1950s. The younger Weiss made his own mark including in 2002, becoming President and CEO of the Zomba Label Group, the hit-making factory behind the likes of Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and ‘N Sync. Throughout the journey, he learned from the best in the business — Zomba founder Clive Calder and Clive Davis, whom he succeeded last year at the head of the RCA/Jive Label Group.

Weiss made a whirlwind trip to Australia last week for a round of meetings and music presentations with his Sony Music Australia colleagues, business partners and caught Pink in action. He even found time to sample the local culture — a visit to an NRL fixture. TMN spent some time with the industry great.

What do you make of the music scene here?

It’s fantastic. Australia is very much like the U.K., the people are very serious about their music and it’s really a big part of the culture. Melbourne has a very Canadian feel to me, like Toronto. Sydney feels more like L.A., with a British culture. Australia is up there with the U.K. in terms of per-capita consumption of music. There’s a great heritage of buying music here. Every act in America knows if you break in Australia, the best thing to do is go and tour in Australia. You feel like music still matters here. In America, music matters but it feels like a commodity. It’s been great watching MTV here and actually seeing music videos, because you can’t find a video on MTV in America unless it’s really an early morning/overnight sort of thing.

Is the U.S. more receptive to Aussie music?

We think Daniel Merriweather’s on the verge of a worldwide success story. We took a shot with Augie March. We didn’t succeed, but we thought they were really cool. It’s down to the music case-by-case. It would be hard to say there’s an Australian wave. American pop radio and the pop marketplace is very consumed with American artists, and with more dance and hip hop based music than it is rock-based, which is what Australia’s generally more known for. We in the U.S. always think of Australia as an unbelievable rock market. The radio slots in America, at least pop radio where you get big upside, is so focused on rhythmic and dance, rhythmic pop and hip hop. It’s tough for rock in America to really break in a pop sense.

You’ve worked with two of the icons of the industry, the two Clives – Davis and Calder. What did you learn from these guys?

Working with Clive Calder for 20 years, that was an amazing lesson in having the right-brain, left-brain balance of creative excellence and business excellence. Clive Calder was brilliant in the recording studio, which most people don’t really realise. He was a bass player and he had great musical, creative instincts. He was as creative a deal-maker as he was a creative record guy. He was brilliant in every respect. Every time I sit with Clive Davis, I feel like I’m still learning. Whatever I’m doing, I realise he’s done it 200 times over and he’s done it for 50 years as opposed to my 25 years. He’s really a master. Between the two Clives and my father, it’s been a great education. But an ongoing education.

Are you still optimistic for the future?

Yeah, but it’s tough. What I’m optimistic about is, despite the doom and gloom and despite the difficulties and challenges of today’s environment, when you get a fantastic artist, it still cuts through the clutter. You can still do really well and you can still run a profitable business and have a profitable exercise. You might not make the money that you used to make, but it still beats digging ditches for a living.

How do you rate the efforts of the Australian Sony Music business?

The Sony Australia company is probably our favourite and best territory within the worldwide system. They’ve done an absolutely bang-up job on our artists. It’s really very exciting to see a company as focused on our music as they are on their own, domestic repertoire.  It’s a very hungry, very cutting edge, very entrepreneurial company. And that’s why Denis Handlin is the best there is, he’s fantastic.

[Barry Weiss has since been appointed Chairman & CEO of Island Def Jam and Universal Motown Republic Group.]