(Epic Records Chairman/CEO Antonio "L.A." Reid will receive the President's Merit Award at the 2013 GRAMMY Salute To Industry Icons during the Pre-GRAMMY Gala on Feb. 9, the night prior to the 55th GRAMMY Awards. The Recording Academy will present Reid with the honor in recognition of his significant contributions to the music industry and the impact his efforts have had on music and the business of music. Past recipients include Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, Sir Richard Branson, Clive Davis, Ahmet Ertegun, David Geffen, Berry Gordy, Doug Morris, and Mo Ostin.)
From his days in the Cincinnati-based group the Deele, where he first teamed with his songwriting partner Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, to his stints running LaFace Records, Arista Records and Island Def Jam, and now as chairman/CEO of Epic Records, Antonio "L.A." Reid is one of the most successful music executives in the business. Among the artists he is credited with mentoring are Pink, Cee Lo Green, OutKast, Avril Lavigne, Kanye West and Rihanna, among many others. He's also a three-time GRAMMY winner himself, picking up awards as a songwriter for songs such as Boyz II Men's "End Of The Road."
Prior to receiving The Recording Academy’s President's Merit Award 2013 GRAMMY Salute To Industry Icons, Reid discussed what the honor means to him, why he is bullish on the music industry's future and why he's still searching for something he hasn't found yet, among other topics.
What does it mean to you to be included in this distinguished list of former honorees?
It is humbling, to say the least. Each and every one of them I have studied, admire and respect. Some of them I know and love, particularly Doug Morris, Berry Gordy and Clive Davis. I don' think I'm those guys. I do believe I have a shot. I have not accomplished the cultural landscape change of Berry with Motown Records or how Ahmet came to this country and started signing jazz and blues artists that became Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway and John Coltrane into the British Invasion. I don't claim to have done what those people have, but I'm proud to be a part of that list. I don't completely believe my career stands as tall as theirs to this point.
It sounds like you still have unfinished business. What is left for you to accomplish?
I'm still very motivated. I love what I do, what we do as an industry. The kids I talk to are convinced their generation will make the best music. And the greatest artists have yet to be discovered. I walk around with that thought every day. I am searching for something I haven't found yet. I'm looking for a stable of artists and music makers yet to be discovered. I'm proud of the artists I've worked with, but what I want to do I haven't done yet.
At what point did you realize you were more interested in an executive position rather than being a performer and songwriter?
That kind of happened for me on day one. I was never interested in being in front of the camera. I was the drummer, who usually sits behind the band. When I started the Deele, it was my way of putting together a team of singers I thought could have success. And I wanted to be the guy behind that. My band was cast. I cast Babyface as a member of my group. He had that tender voice, he could write songs, [he was] an amazing producer [and] capable of sharing the mic with the other two singers. I could have a whole record company with this band. It was never about me being up front. You can ask Babyface. I'm exactly the way I was when we started out back in the '80s. My perspective is no different now except I have a lot more experience and made some mistakes along the way that became important life lessons. The people that work for and with me are the most important in the makeup of what I do. I rely heavily on others. I think of myself as a producer who tries to bring the best out of everyone, whether that be an artist, songwriter or a publicist. The only time I ever made it really about me was when I decided to take a break and do "The X Factor" for fun, and now that's in the past and I'm back to my real job.
And was it fun?
I enjoyed it very much. I loved working with Simon [Cowell]. It was like putting myself into the position of the people that work for me, trying to please Simon, anticipate what he wanted me to do. Every decision I made, I was trying to see life through Simon's eyes, hear music through his ears and try to make decisions based on what I thought he wanted. Now I understand what the people that work for me must go through. Now I get why they call me crazy. Simon is a great entertainment executive and an amazing celebrity.
Can these music competition shows actually produce stars?
We've seen the show create stars and fail to create stars. It's not unlike all of the other platforms. We've seen artists go to No. 1 on the radio and not have a career, or the opposite. There is no exact science to what we do … whether you're auditioning for a TV talent show or putting out a garage demo … everything is a competition. And there's no one way. And that's the beauty of this business. There is no blueprint. You have to find your own.
Which of the artists you've worked with turned out to impress you the most?
I have to say the one who's had the most surprising career has been Cee Lo [Green]. I signed Cee Lo with Goodie Mob and also put out his very first solo album on Arista. He's my friend. I always thought he was really talented and smart. I loved to hear him talk. He's one of those guys when he came to my office, he spoke with such flair. It was one of those things that stuck in the back of my mind. "Damn, he's special … ." But I wondered what that meant. He found a way with "The Voice" to put himself on a platform for everyone to see how special he was as a performer. I just got back from Las Vegas with "Loberace" posters all over, which is Cee Lo. That's my kid. I'm proud of him.
Growing up in Cincinnati, were you influenced at all by Syd Nathan's King Records?
I was one of those kids standing outside those offices. I had a karate class around the corner, so I had a really good excuse to be there. I was a James Brown junkie as a kid. Between King Records being there and James Brown performing, it was one of the few times that it was OK with my mother that I stayed out late. I'd go to a James Brown show and wait backstage until he came out.
You are one of the few African-American record executives with a track record in rock as well as pop and R&B. Who are your favorite rock bands?
I'm a Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin fanatic. I love Green Day and Guns N' Roses. Nirvana may be at the top of that list. A very different kind of rock … I also love Coldplay [and] the Killers.
Would you consider yourself, like Clive Davis, first and foremost a song man?
I think so … almost sometimes to a fault. I want to be a "star" guy. I admire Jimmy Iovine's career because no one ever calls him a "song" guy. He's a "star" guy.
Are you bullish on the future of the music business?
I am. I see the emergence of satellite and digital radio as well as the subscription model ... the transparency and accounting to both the record companies and the songwriters. I'm one of those foolish people who believe the glory days of the record industry aren't behind us. They're actually ahead of us. I'm a real music fan. As a kid, I didn't put music into boxes. I didn't know what I liked was pop or R&B or rock. I've always been color-blind when it comes to music. It's amusing to me when the hip-hop guys say I'm not hip-hop enough and the pop guys say I'm too hip-hop.
Do you believe in the idea that artists are brands to be spread across multiple formats?
I do believe in that philosophy. Everything about an artist has to have an identity, whether that be how they sound or what they look like, the messaging has to be consistent. You have to earn the trust of the consumer. Without the music, though, the rest of it falls apart quickly. As an industry, we may not be curing cancer, but we sure are inspiring the people who are curing cancer. I bet they're listening to us.
What gives you the most satisfaction in your job at the end of the day?
My greatest joy is in seeing an unknown become somebody. Taking this Epic job, I needed to do that again. Doug [Morris] told me there's a place for people like me … it's called the insane asylum. This latest chapter of my career is the most difficult. When I started LaFace, I didn't have my first hit for two years and nobody noticed. Now, everybody's watching.
The 55th Annual GRAMMY Awards will take place live on Sunday, Feb. 10 at Staples Center in Los Angeles and will be broadcast in high-definition TV and 5.1 surround sound on the CBS Television Network from 8–11:30 p.m. (ET/PT). The show also will be supported on radio worldwide via Dial Global, and covered online at GRAMMY.com and CBS.com, and on YouTube. For GRAMMY coverage, updates and breaking news, visit The Recording Academy's social networks on Twitter and Facebook.
(Roy Trakin has been senior editor at HITS magazine since he still had hair, and has written for every defunct rock publication that did and didn't matter. His weekly online blog, Trakin Care of Business, counts his mother as its biggest fan. He is also the author of biographies on Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks and Sting.)