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“People paying for things is the only science we really have in this business.”

FLOM BUOYANT!

The Lava Founder’s Got His Label
Flowing Once Again
 By Simon Glickman
 
Jason Flom is widely acknowledged to have one of the best batting averages in the biz. As the founder of Lava Records, the Chairman and CEO of Atlantic and the Chairman/CEO of Virgin and Capitol, he has presided over an extraordinary string of hits, having signed worldwide superstars including Katy PerryJessie JKid RockMatchbox 20The CorrsTrans-Siberian OrchestraStone Temple PilotsSkid RowTori Amos and Twisted Sister. Now he’s reactivated his original label (in partnership with Republic) and is enjoying new success with Kiwi singer/songwriter Lorde, whose “Royals” is a smash. He’s also found time for some serious philanthropic work. All in all, Flom’s feeling pretty good these days—though after talking to us, jumping into some actual lava might start to look appealing.

Let’s start by talking about Lorde, who’s blowing up right now.
This is one of those moments I’ll always remember. Ella [Lorde’s real name] is so young and so gifted, that this feels like the beginning of something truly historic.

Is this a question of timing, that radio is finally ready for music like this?
Great music can happen at any time. To that point, radio has been energized recently by artists like Adele, The Lumineers, and Mumford & Sons. So it’s wonderful that radio is embracing Lorde, but it’s not surprising.

How did you find her?
A friend of mine who’s a music supervisor, Natalia Romiszewski, sent me a Soundcloud link under the subject line “HOT SHIT !!!!” I listened to it once and reached out to Ella immediately. Soon after that, I jumped on a plane to New Zealand to meet Ella’s parents and her manager, Scott MacLachlan. Scott has had a distinguished career and is a brilliant music man. He began working with Ella when she was 12, and it’s impossible to overstate the importance of his role. While in Auckland, I attended her very first show performing her own music and I was blown away.

What other acts are you working with now?
There’s Jessie J, who is so good it scares me; Adele herself said of Jessie, “The things she can do with her voice are criminal.” She’s got a new record coming out here in January; it’s already out in England and off to a great start.

We also have Black Veil Brides, a great hard-rock band who bring back memories for me of working with bands like Skid Row and Twisted Sister. Their first record did 300,000 worldwide, and the new one is on track to exceed that. There’s Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the only act from the Lava “1.0” who’s on Lava “2.0.” They’ve sold over 10 million records—it’s no wonder I love Christmas music! And we have some new acts that I really believe in, like Jetta, Roy English, and a Swedish band called The Royal Concept. The Royal Concept have their song “On Our Way,” are on the verge of a breakthrough. They were signed by A.J. Kasen, who is a rising star at Lava.

How did you discover Jessie J?
Rich Christina
, a terrific guy at Sony/ATV Publishing, where Jessie was signed as a writer, sent her music to me and I flipped out. She had a manager in those days who was extremely difficult; there were a number of labels after her, but because of his tactics none of us could figure out how to close the deal with her. As I was trying to come up with the right approach, a young guy working for me named Harinder Rana took the initiative. He flew to London, tracked her down somehow, and called me from a coffee shop. He put me on the phone with Jessie directly, and that led to her deciding to make a deal with Lava.

How did you reclaim the Lava name?

I got the name back from Lyor Cohen on the golf course. He’s a very good player, but he graciously gave me my name back after I had a particularly stellar round!

Why did you decide to do a deal with Republic after you left the merged Virgin-Capitol?
What I liked about the idea of doing a joint venture with Monte and Avery Lipman was that they’re not political at all. They are obsessed with success to the point that they can’t sleep if all the top 200 songs on the charts aren’t theirs. They just love having hits. They’re great executives and great partners to me. 

I was wondering about how in retrospect it was to move from the A&R department at Atlantic to building Lava and then to being a label-group CEO.
When I started Lava, I had no idea how to build and run a company or manage people, but I learned on the fly. I sought out people I respected and solicited their advice. My strategy was simple: sign great acts and hire the best people.

I started my career at Atlantic putting up posters in record stores when I was 18; I grew up at Atlantic and ended up working alongside one of the greatest legends in music history, Ahmet Ertegun. So it was an incredible honor being named Chairman and CEO of this iconic company. 

From there, I moved on to Virgin and then Capitol, and I’m very proud of what we accomplished there. Early on, I hired two great executives, Lee Trink and Jeff Kempler. Together, we oversaw a dynamic company that broke 11 acts in two and a half years. We made our numbers and had a lot of fun. 

Who brought Katy Perry to you?
I hired a brilliant executive named Angelica Cob away from Columbia to be our head of publicity. Angelica told me about Katy, who was in the process of being dropped from there, and she arranged for me to meet her at the Polo Lounge. When we met, I knew instantly that I was in the presence of a true star. Soon afterwards, I signed her and facilitated the now-legendary sessions with Dr. Luke.
 
Shortly after her signing, I hired a young A&R person whom I assigned to do some admin work on Katy’s record; this person proved to be a huge disappointment. After I left the label, he ran around telling anyone who would listen that he discovered and signed Katy, which is absolutely not the truth. In fact, he had nothing whatsoever to do with signing her. Angelica Cob deserves all the credit for bringing Katy to me.
 
What guiding principles would you say have been constants in your career?
I learned really early on from Doug Morris, who was my mentor, that the most important thing in the music industry is when someone pays for something; somebody’s opinion is totally secondary, maybe even tertiary. People paying for things is the only science we really have in this business.
 
Even if your opinion is secondary or tertiary, as you say, your opinion. in many instances, had been the deciding factor—you’ve known long before there was anything for anybody to buy.
That’s true; some notable examples are Tori AmosStone Temple Pilots and ParamoreParamore’s Hayley Williams was brought to me when she was 15 by our A&R guy, Steve Robertson. She performed acoustically in my office. She was so intense, I could tell nothing was gonna stop her—so I might as well see if I could get in the middle of it. The magic bullet there was John Janick at Fueled by Ramen, which at the time was distributed by us. We downstreamed Paramore’s first album to FBR, and John and his team did an amazing job breaking the band.
 
Certainly Matchbox 20 was completely unknown; they were called Tabitha’s Secret. I went and saw them in Tallahassee the first time. A promotion guy who worked for us, Kim Stevens, called me and said, “You’ve gotta hear this.” Kim’s got great ears; he also brought me Collective Soul. With all of these artists, there’s a combination of alchemy and instinct.

For over 20 years, you’ve also gotten very involved in nonprofit work, notably in your roles as a founding member of the board of the Innocence Project and in advocating against the drug war through your work with Drug Policy Alliance and Families Against Mandatory Minimums. 
For all of the joy I’ve gotten from music, the most rewarding thing is the work I’ve been able to do helping people who are less fortunate. It began 20 years ago, when I read an article in the newspaper about a guy named Steven Lennon. He was serving 15 years to life for a non-violent first offense—cocaine possession—in a maximum security prison in New York. 

I asked a criminal defense lawyer in New York, Bob Kalina, who represented some of the rock stars I worked with, to get involved. He took the case pro bono and miraculously we got Steven out, he’d served nine years; he would have had six left to go before he was eligible for parole.

That must have been an incredible feeling.
I was so energized by that experience that I decided to dig deeper. I learned of the great work that Families Against Mandatory Minimums was doing and joined their board. That led me to the Drug Policy Alliance, which is at the epicenter of “the war against the war on drugs.” Then I saw something on TV about the Innocence Project, which at the time was a new foundation. I met with [attorney/founder] Peter Neufeld, and soon I was named a founding board member. We’ve exonerated 309 people so far who were factually innocent, through DNA evidence.

I’ve had the privilege of spending time with many of the exonerees, some of whom served as much as 30 years in prison for something they didn’t do. Amazingly, most of them exude grace,  not bitterness. When you spend a few minutes with one of these people and then try to remember what your problems are it really puts things in perspective.

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