10 Questions with ... Ben Berkman
July 7, 2015
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Ben began his career as an assistant to Sony Music CEO, Tommy Mottola in 1996. From there, he was hired at Columbia Records to do college radio promotion. After a brief stint at Warner Bros. Records in LA as a marketing director, Ben returned to Columbia Records as Regional Director, National Modern Rock Promotion.
In 2000, Berkman left Columbia with A&R/Marketing executive James Diener to start Octone Records, a Joint Venture formed with industry legend Clive Davis. After successfully breaking a number of platinum artists including the global superstars MAROON 5, Octone was bought out by Interscope Records in 2013.
In early 2015, Ben and James launched their new company FreeSolo: a multi-platform music company in joint venture partnerships with RCA Records, SonyATV Music Publishing, and Vector Management.
1. Tell us about what led you and former A&M/Octone Records exec James Diener to launch of FreeSolo Entertainment.
After selling A&M/Octone at the end of 2013 and making a successful exit, James and I finally had the time to reflect upon the amazing experiences we shared. As friends, colleagues and business partners for 17 years, we knew we wanted to work together on something new. The big question was how we could evolve and create a new company more comprehensive and versatile than Octone.
Solely running a recording company limited us to just making and selling records and we were ready to expand and do a whole lot more. Octone was a very hands-on label, and building it from scratch taught us a great deal about every sector of the industry.
Over the next few months, instead of resting on past success, we spent time asking ourselves a series of critical questions: what could we do differently? Where did we make mistakes? And most importantly, where is the void in the industry and how can we fill it?
In the same way we believe Octone differentiated itself from other boutique labels by effectively introducing a modern "uplift" model of record marketing, we wanted to introduce a new modern multi-platform breed of music company capable of working with artists in distinct yet compatible lines of business. With FreeSolo and our joint-venture partners, we are able to record, publish and/or manage the artists we encounter whose music we love.
2. How does FreeSolo's joint venture with RCA, SONY/ATV Publishing, and Vector Management work?
It's very simple and straightforward. With each JV, we created a 50/50 partnership with the senior management of each company. Each company made an investment in FreeSolo and is providing invaluable resources to help us achieve our goals. Once a company recoups on a project, we split profits 50/50.
3. What's the story behind the FreeSolo name?
James is way better at this than I am. He came up with Octone, which I thought was great. It was short, easy to pronounce and sounded cool. But since we were starting a new company with new artists and a new strategy, it was time to rebrand. I suggested we look to a source of mutual inspiration. I love skiing, hiking, and the mental challenge and rush often involved in outdoor mountain sports.
James is a huge adventure traveler and eco-tourist as well. Since those two passions overlapped, I figured somewhere in that outdoor world we would find a name. James liked that idea and asked me if I had ever heard of free soloing. I hadn't but again thought the name sounded cool. He explained that the "free soloist" is the mountain climber who ascends the rock face with no ropes, no protective gear and no net. The steepness and pitches they tackle are extreme and can often be close to 90 degrees...nearly straight up! If you fall, you might die and people sometimes do. The reasons given for doing something so insane are both the intense concentration required and for some, the adrenalin rush. I loved the concept.
We think the name lends itself well to anyone attempting to do something entrepreneurial in any industry, let alone one as crazy and unpredictable as the music business in 2015. We also feel the name is a good metaphor for what artists are doing with their lives. Whether you are an artist or an executive you have to go all in. If you have the passion, there is no other choice, and there is no safety net when you fail. It's the ultimate risk/reward proposition and that is the concept behind FreeSolo.
4. Congrats on an amazing job launching The Struts at Alternative! How did you discover this UK band and what was the secret to getting The Struts charted without a label deal?
Thank you. I am so proud of the band. They made a brilliant record that didn't initially find an audience in the UK and I am thrilled that they are finally getting the exposure they deserve.
I discovered The Struts last summer when they opened for The Rolling Stones at Stade de France in Paris. I watched an amazing interview on French TV and saw their performance. I thought they were incredible. I heard through the grapevine they were seeking new management and I pounced.
The secret ingredient to success at radio will always be the same: have a great song that stands out from the pack. I believe The Struts have several, but "Could Have Been Me" really spoke to me as an obvious first single. I think it's an incredible, up-tempo anthem with a killer vocal performance and fresh sounding production. Lyrically, it's uplifting without being contrived and that's something that is really hard to execute. It has an edge that the format is lacking and it sounded like a fit to me. Some very important and influential programmers at radio agreed with me and took a shot. The record is highly reactive and I was able to spread it fast.
5. You've been doing record promotion for a long time. What are your most important indictors when you launch a radio campaign?
First and foremost: passion! When I decide to take the leap with an artist and go for it at radio, I have to be the one most passionate about it at first. If I don't believe in my heart that the song has the ability to make it to the top, how am I going to convince anyone else?
Radio takes a big risk when stepping out on a new artist. If you are to have success, your song must excite the people you ask to expose it. We are selling art and there are always many more records to choose from than there are slots available. To have a real shot, your song needs to have the special qualities that set it apart from the pack and motivate radio to want play it. Secondly, once radio gets on board, a song needs to react and sell. Even if it's just one or two markets, I need to know the audience cares. From there we can do a whole lot more, but without those early indicators of success, I would think twice about a bigger, more expensive launch.
6. What do you love the most about your job?
When you are lucky enough to do what you love, it's not a job, but more like the most wonderful form of play. I love the very personal connection with artists my job affords me. I love being there through every part of the creative process: identifying the talent, helping them develop their repertoire, selecting producers, writing the marketing plan and then actually executing it-by bringing the product into the marketplace and promoting to radio-it's all very gratifying. Especially when you have a hit and it all works!
7. What may surprise people the most about the company?
The fact we have no home office. The modern fast company doesn't need any traditional trappings -- our team's fluidity, efficiency, and decentralization allows for maximum creativity, swift decision-making and a global presence.
8. Fill in the blank: I can't make it through the day without _______?
My iPhone, coffee, and the laughter of my three kids. If I don't get to see my kids in person, (often since I travel so much), I do my best to FaceTime or Skype with them. Or if the timing doesn't work out, I make sure to watch a few of the many videos I have of them on my iPhone.
9. What stands out the most from your first job working for Tommy Mottola at Sony?
Learning very early on that promotion is the most important part of this business...that, and finding an act! Everything else is bullshit. This sentiment certainly resonated with me and has guided my entire career.
10. What is the one truth that remains constant throughout your career?
In my career (AND in life) love what you do - and do what you love - nothing else matters. It may sound like a cliché, but so what? It's true.
What are weekends like with your family?
Running a startup is so incredibly busy and consuming that we try to keep our family plans to a minimum on the weekends and just chill at home. My kids are still very young and since they are so close in age: 7, 6 & 3 they also happen to be great friends. The point is we can just be together and everyone usually has fun. I love to cook so we do a lot of hanging out in the kitchen, making food, having a few drinks and relaxing. Tribeca, our neighborhood in NYC, is very social so sometimes our friends come over for casual gatherings with their kids. The kids love music and always want to have dance parties. They also have these little toy microphones and have started singing together as well. Who knows, maybe I have the next family super group living right under my roof!
You love to BBQ. What is your specialty on the grill?
You guys know me well. I have played around with many different techniques and recipes but I would say my most popular specialty is grilled marinated lamb chops. I get racks of lamb and slice them into individual ribs. I then marinate them for a few hours in olive oil, crushed garlic, fresh oregano, parsley & mint, sea salt, cracked pepper, chili flake, and a little honey. I throw them on my Big Green Egg, put the top down, and grill them to medium rare. I make a 'board dressing' with more chopped fresh herbs and pour some top quality extra virgin olive oil on top. Right before serving I'll squeeze a lemon half over the whole thing and sprinkle on some crunchy Maldon salt. That plus some crusty bread, a nice salad and a great red wine, and you have won at dinner.