Steve Bartels is one of the most enthusiastic and ebullient executives you’re ever likely to meet. Over the course of three decades in the music business — first as a DJ, then in rapidly elevating roles at A&M, Arista, Island Def Jam and finally just Def Jam, where he’s been CEO since 2014 — he’s led with the vigor of a basketball coach, and the sports metaphor is no accident. He keeps a basketball in his sleek corner office at Universal Music’s New York headquarters, which serves as both a literal and symbolic reminder of his company’s emphasis on teamwork, and at any given moment during meetings someone on his staff is usually holding it.
That enthusiasm has served him well, as the label has enjoyed recent number ones from Logic and Big Sean, adding to the strength of a roster that ranged from Justin Bieber and Kanye West to 2 Chainz and Alessia Cara and newer artists like Bibi Bourelly, Kacy Hill, Dave East and Earl St. Clair. And it’s a measure of that success that he’s one of the keynote speakers at this week’s MIDEM Conference in the South of France, where on Wednesday he’ll discuss the legacy and profile of the legendary 33-year-old label that he helms.
Your speech at MIDEM is scheduled to be about scouting talent, the label’s brand identity and marketing tactics. That’s a pretty broad subject!
It’s is, and right now I’m very bullish and encouraged about the marketplace and how music is being listened to more than ever before. And here at Def Jam, I’ve found it’s about being respectful to the legacy and the edginess of the brand, but also still building forward in a way that makes artists excited about being on this iconic label. Streaming has very much opened up the listening proposition — we’re very borderless now [in terms of musical genres], and that gives us a great opportunity to put music before people who have never heard it before, and also for it to travel that much quicker. When new artists come in here, not only are they excited about being connected to the legacy, but they’re also love the current artists on the roster. Every one of our artists is unique and different, from Bieber and Logic to Vince Staples and Alessia Cara. The roster does a lot of your work for you when you do well with it.
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Let me ask what’s up with several of your artists. Word was that Kanye West was recording by himself somewhere in Utah — is that real?
I don’t know if that’s real or not, I read the same things you do. When we talk we don’t really get down to the granular of where he’s going and how he’s flying there, we keep it much more on a broader level. Kanye is working, that’s been widely reported. He’s always very focused, and our relationship with him is that we always have great respect for him and when he’s ready to do something or talk about something, we’re there for him, we totally support his vision and his focus, and that’s where we leave it. I check in with him from time to time just to see how he’s doing. What’s great about our relationship is that I always know when it’s go time — because he wakes me up. [Laughter]
Do you think we’ll get new music this year?
You never know. He’s always working, so maybe so. It’s never something we’re pushing — it’s always led by the creative side.
How about Iggy Azalea?
I think the big thing is focusing on the single [“Switch,” released in mid-May] and getting it into the marketplace. It just came out and the song has gotten some good feedback from radio and the team is working really hard at getting it charted. It’s a building process. The most important thing is getting her back to a place where she’s hot.
How about Justin Bieber, who just performed at Ariana Grande’s One Love Manchester concert and will be on tour all summer?
The remarkable thing about him right now is that he could be having the song of the summer without it being his own record – both the DJ Khaled [“I’m the One”] and Luis Fonsi [“Despacito”] records are massive right now, and we’ve got another one coming: We’re doing a new release on Friday with Bieber and David Guetta called “2U.” We’ll be working on in conjunction with Warner France — we’ll be taking care of it here. It’s a massive record, and it’s another song that’s gonna compete for song of the summer even though it’s starting later than the other two.
Is this single leading up to a new Bieber album, or is it a feature?
These in their own right are driving to this tour, and when artists are hot, all bets are off. Scooter [Braun, Bieber’s manager] and I constantly talk about strategy and what his step-outs are gonna be and what he’s doing them on and maybe something happens and maybe it doesn’t, but when you’re making so much noise and such big hits, you never know.
He’s had one of the most remarkable career reinventions we’ve ever seen. What do you feel your role in that has been?
He’s got amazing talent, his personality is infectious and he’s super-creative. And I’ve said this before, I think it’s very difficult to grow up in the world’s eye — you’re always being judged and always being looked at, it’s very hard to find an even line in that space. So what I try to be here, in conjunction with [Braun’s company] SB Projects, is a solid base We’re here to support him, our team and Scooter and his team are immersed together. And just look at the love these songs are getting, and then look at [this summer’s] stadium tour — two years after his “Purpose” album came out, he’s selling out stadiums.
Alessia Cara was a slower-building success story but she got there. Where’s she at now?
In conjunction with Interscope and Zedd we just had hit single with “Stay” [the song, featuring Cara, is currently No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100], and her album just went platinum. Right now she’s meeting with people and thinking about recording her next album, but it’s in the very early stages. Hopefully we’ll hear some music later this year.
You’re putting out albums from both Vince Staples and 2 Chainz this month — they’re largely aimed at similar audiences. Won’t those albums step on each other?
We’ve done that before — we’ve done campaigns where we’ve had three in one week. We’re being smart and strategic about how and when we’re releasing records, and we want to give everybody their best and fairest chance. You’re right, you have to choose sometimes, but I’d rather have my unfair share for Def Jam and make sure all the choices go to our company rather than having to split it with anyone else.
But it’s also about having patience. It took nine months before Alessia had a top 40 record — anybody could have stopped at any point and said, “Oh, it’s too hard” or “It sounds like nothing on the radio” or “It’s cooled off at streaming” — you’ve gotta take the artist’s vision to the mat. [His voice grows in volume and intensity.] And you’ve gotta read the data, but we also had a lot of talks with her people and a lot of gut reactions from people like yourself or TV bookers or non-traditional gatekeepers — we take that as a responsibility to drive and deliver, because guess what? The next person who wants to sign with this label is gonna look at Alessia or Logic or Vince or 2 Chainz or even Jeezy, who had a No. 1 album at the end of last year [with “Trap or Die 3”] and hadn’t had a No. 1 album for eight years, they’re gonna look and say “Wow, they’re taking care of the icons, they’re taking care of the young talent, they’re taking care of the artists who are their third album, the new rappers are coming through, and they’re slamming it home with Justin and Kanye.” [Almost shouting.] I think that actually looks kinda hot!
Steve, are you holding the basketball right now?
I am, man! It’s in my hands! I’m gonna do a lap around the building! [Laughter] But you know what I’m saying. We really want Def Jam to be a place where artists feel they have a real home — and I’m not saying other labels aren’t, but we want our artists to have their vision brought to the marketplace in the way that they see it, and with an artist’s vision we try to add to it, or piece it together, or move it forward. Logic had this incredible vision for what he wanted to say and do, and it was very emotional when we first heard the album with him and he narrated it through to us and how he wanted to get it out to the marketplace and we really wanted to be sure we did it the right way. I don’t like to curate and inject my opinion — my job is to help push it into the right place so more people hear it.
When we first became a stand-alone [in 2014], it took a minute to bring the vision to the marketplace. But we have a great team here and we do it with acumen and perspective. Not everything works, but at the end of the day you’ve gotta know you’ve given it your all.