In the ever-evolving business of music, streaming services have eclipsed CDs and even downloads. So it was with awe and more than a little nostalgia that Steve Bartels (CERT ’92) — CEO of Def Jam Recordings and a special guest at UCLA Anderson’s 2017 Pulse conference — recalled hauling luggage carts full of vinyl to his early gigs as a DJ in the 1980s, when he brought a New York sound to the San Fernando Valley.
Bartels began his industry career under the wing of late legendary executive Charlie Minor as national director of promotion at A&M Records. “He completed people,” Bartels said of Minor, whom he called “happy and energetic.”
Bartels describes many people and things he admires with a string of positive adjectives: When Dean Judy Olian asked him about Def Jam’s origin story and his early days with the label, he replied, “Eclectic, vibey, authentic, honest.” Asked who he thinks perfectly represents Def Jam, whether a type or particular artist, he tossed out descriptors like “reverent,” “genuine” and “icon.” He cited underground newcomer Amir Obé and rising talent Alessia Cara as unconventional artists poised to join the pantheon of greats. That’s high praise considering the label has included legends like LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Jay-Z, Nas, Ludacris and The Roots, as well as contemporary stars Big Sean, Jeremih, Jhene Aiko and 2 Chainz, who just won a 2016 Grammy for Best Rap Performance. Iggy Azalea, Bartels said, is “quietly working on something that’s going to blow your socks off. She definitely says what’s on her mind.” And, he finished, “if anybody exemplifies what Def Jam subscribes to, it’s Kanye” — to whom he applied the terms “topical” and “genius.”
Bartels is nothing if not reverent toward artistic talent. Amid dizzying changes in the music business owing to new technologies and consumer behaviors, Def Jam remains an adamantly artist-centric company, steered by executives who lead with their gut. “I’m pragmatic about it, though,” said Bartels. “I do look at data analytics.” Merchandising, he said, goes hand in hand with distributing the music through multiple channels, including mobile, and through experiences Def Jam creates that consumers can’t get anywhere else.
As consumers make new music purchasing decisions, the growing popularity of playlists represents another seismic shift in the industry. But the subscriptions and mass streaming that are replacing downloads have been a boon for Def Jam; and Bartels, who said, “My goal is having more people wanting more of my music,” is prepared to lean forward into new challenges and opportunities posed by playlists. “Seize the medium and seize the day.”
He recalled that when he came to UCLA Anderson in 1992 for an executive education certificate he was “already on a trajectory” in the business he knew intimately. When a professor challenged him with an intricate CD cost breakdown, he learned that “part of teaching is showing people how things impact them. He lasered me,” said Bartels, “but it was a meaningful moment, not an embarrassment.”
Bartels became CEO of Def Jam Recordings on April 1, 2014. It marked the company’s 30th anniversary since its founding by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons. Bartels had been president and COO of the Island Def Jam Music Group Inc. since September 13, 2007, and was by then a veteran of Island Records, Arista and A&M. “I learned the recorded music business sitting next to Clive Davis,” said Bartels, who also counts L.A. Reid as a mentor. Bartels has been associated with or overseen more than 35 separate Billboard Hot 100 #1 Artist singles campaigns in his career.
A graduate education in business, Bartels said, “will prepare you for what you’re going to do in the future.” He sees a place for MBAs on the corporate side of the industry, in management and back-end analysis. His label is a lifestyle brand, as he put it, and every corner of the space — from meetings with parent company Universal Music Group to the protracted cultivation of an emerging artist to lavish showcases — demands spending time with people, building relationships well beyond the 9-to-5 confines.
As for hiring new members of his own team, he said he goes 100 percent with his gut. “If you walk in looking for a wild ride, you’re hired. And it’s a wild ride.”
The UCLA Anderson PULSE Entertainment, Sports & Technology Conference was organized by the Center for Management of Enterprise in Media, Entertainment & Sports with co-sponsorship from Anderson’s Entertainment Management Association and Sports Business Association.