This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Ted Cohen, managing partner, TAG Strategic.
Ted Cohen’s nickname should be The Hammer.
One of the most popular speakers on the music industry’s bustling conference circuit, Cohen—managing partner of TAG Strategic, and one of the pre-eminent experts in digital entertainment—can out talk, outwit, and pummel into the ground anyone dumb enough to oppose or disagree with him.
Think of a master chess player fueled up on Red Bull, and triple shots of espresso.
His four-decade digital media-fueled career has encompassed wrangling artists, as well as supervising brands, technology, and media platforms.
Music industry lore: He has more colorful stories about iconic music superstars, and industry legends than almost anyone; and his enthusiasm of music is boundless.
Music and technology: This guy practically wrote the textbook.
As EMI Music’s digital media guru from 2000-2005, Cohen created and implemented the company’s worldwide digital strategy, and led licensing negotiations with Apple/iTunes, Microsoft, RealNetworks, Rhapsody, MTV, BET, Virgin Mobile, Motorola, Nokia, Verizon and others.
As a result, EMI Music—the first major music company to make its repertoire available to digital music services—was also the first to allow listeners to download permanent copies of songs, transfer tracks to portable music players, and make copies to blank CDs.
In 1999, Cohen was practically the lone voice in the world arguing that Napster didn’t represent the death knell of the music industry.
With offices in Los Angles, New York, Miami, London, and Mumbai, TAG Strategic specializes in negotiating and expediting agreements with entertainment media rights holders.
Cohen launched TAG Strategic in 2006 with a handful of clients, including Gibson Guitar Corp., Muze, EMI Music, Limewire, EyeSpot, and Participant Media.
Since then, TAG Strategic has also worked with Coca-Cola, Verizon Communications, SanDisk, Hello Music, Stream Jam, UK Trade & Investment, Buymyplaylist.com, Emblaze Mobile, Rosenzweig & Company among many others.
Prior to joining EMI in 2000, Cohen held senior management positions at Warner Brothers Records, and Philips Media.
He also worked as a digital music/media consultant for Liquid Audio, Napster, Microsoft, Amplified, Universal Studios, Rioport, Amazon, Wherehouse Music, Dreamworks Records and music.com, among others.
He co-created the Webnoize Conference in Los Angeles in 1998, and MidemNet in 2000 in Cannes, France.
Growing up in the ‘60s in Cleveland, Ohio, Cohen managed several bands while in high school. In 1967, he began attending Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. For two years there, he promoted shows, and worked at the school’s radio station, WICB. After receiving failing grades, in part due to his extracurricular activities, Cohen left Ithaca College in 1969. He then enrolled at John Carroll University in his hometown.
Another year later, Cohen joined Warner Bros. Records as a regional promotion rep. Two years later, he was promoted director of East Coast artist development, and relocated to Boston.
Over the next decade, Cohen worked with Alice Cooper, the Doobie Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, the Who, Van Halen, Prince, Talking Heads, Robert Palmer, the Sex Pistols, George Benson, the Pretenders, the Ramones, Roxy Music, Asia, Al Jarreau and many others.
In 1982, Cohen joined an innovative new media work group—a cross-division co-venture between Warner Brothers Records and Atari—to gauge the impending interactions between personal computers, compact disc, and CD-ROMs on music consumers in the coming years.
In 1984, Cohen left Warner to join Westwood One Radio Networks, as head of content acquisition and tour; working on projects involving Elton John, Stevie Nicks, Foreigner and Neil Young.
A year later, he joined Sandy Gallin, Morey & Associates, a Los Angeles-based artist management firm that handled Dolly Parton, Whoopi Goldberg, the Pointer Sisters, Neil Diamond, Donny Osmond, Christopher Cross, Paul Shaffer, and America.
In 1986, Cohen co-founded Cypress Records. Its roster included Jesse Colin Young, Kenny Rankin, Southside Johnny, Wendy Waldman, John Tesh, and Jennifer Warnes.
In 1987, he began consulting Philips Media on interactive media projects for CD-i. Two years later, he joined Philips Media full-time as producer of CD-i music titles. In 1994, he was promoted VP of music at the company, leaving in 1996.
In 2000, Cohen joined EMI as VP of new media, and was subsequently promoted to SVP of global digital business development and distribution.
You seem to take a holistic approach to music and technology.
That’s pretty much it. I spent the first half of my life touring with bands. I have spent the second half of my life playing with technology that empowers music. So I get teased a lot. I have a 19-year-old son who sometimes asks if I would act at least his age. There has never been any necessity to get seriously morose about all of this. I’m still very optimistic about how all this is playing out. It’s been awkward, but it plays out nicely.
In the ‘90s, you were one of few technology experts working in the music industry.
I introduce myself to most people as the most conflicted person they are ever going to meet. In 1999, I was working for both Napster and the RIAA (The Recording Industry Association of America) at the same time. I was carrying messages back-and-forth. I was not working on the same issue. The RIAA brought me on to help figure out web casting rates. Napster brought me in to ostensibly help take them legal; although it became apparent very quickly that was not their intention. Their intention was for me to be the friendly face of the music industry working for Napster.
You participate in numerous music conferences around the world. What’s the benefit for you? Meeting clients and contracts?
In some cases yes, but I like the role of moderator, and I like the role of trying to draw people out to really talk about the issues. Last year, we did 12 salons, including in Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, and Helsinki; where we get 20-30 people together in a room with no press. (To participate) you agree that you are not going to tweet, blog or write about it (the meeting). People get incredibly candid about what the issues are in such settings. There was a guy in London, a few years ago, who said, “Nothing leaves this room.” Later, in a conversation, I asked him what was the biggest impediment in getting a deal done at his label. He said, “My boss. He’s an asshole. He wouldn’t know digital if it hit him in the ass.” I went, “Well, that was candid.” He was at the company for another year. Nobody in the room ever told his boss.
Has the gulf between the music and technology communities lessened in recent years?
It’s a bit better than it was but there’s still the promise of the big check (expected by the music industry), and that is what we need to get away from. Four years ago at MIDEM, I interviewed David Eun of Google, who is now at Samsung (as executive VP of its media-related units). I asked him, “Why are you trying to fuck the record companies over?” He basically said, “We’re not trying to fuck them over. We are trying to partner with them. We don’t want to just write them a big check. It’s not a vendor/supplier relationship. It’s a partnership. If the labels get their heads out of their asses, they are going to make more money from Google than ever. If they stop looking at the size of what the advance check is.”
Label executives fear a re-run of the MTV scenario where a company is built on their backs.
I don’t see that (fear) alleviating in the near future. The labels are still concerned that fortunes are being built (on their backs). There has always been (the attitude), “We will get a big check from Google or Apple” or from wherever. Looking out at the horizon, I don’t see who the next big check is. Labels should be more focused on considering what long-term partnership can generate significant revenue as opposed to who has the biggest checkbook that can help them make the quarter.
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