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Monte Lipman on Republic’s Big Year, Expanding Into Film & TV and Relaunching Mercury & Uptown

todayDecember 15, 2022 2

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It’s a Wednesday afternoon in early December, and Monte Lipman is running late, but with good reason: Journalist, activist and feminist icon Gloria Steinem has been in the Republic Records offices in midtown Manhattan for the past two hours, speaking to the staff about equal rights. “It’s amazing — Gloria is sharper than ever, and she was sharing her thoughts,” Lipman says when he comes to the phone. “The Q&A was dynamite and everyone was beyond grateful.”

Lipman has had plenty of reasons to be in a great mood of late. The chairman/CEO of Republic saw his label land the No. 1 spot on each of Billboard’s year-end label rankings: Top LabelsBillboard 200 Labels and Billboard Hot 100 Labels, the second year in a row the company has topped the trio of charts, and the sixth time in the last eight years it has finished at No. 1 on the Top Labels ranking. Republic ended 2022 with five of the top 10 albums of the year — the second year in a row it has done so — and with 23 albums having reached the top 10 of the Billboard 200, including five No. 1s: Taylor Swift’s Red (Taylor’s Version) and Midnights, Drake’s Honestly, Nevermind (released via OVO Sound/Republic) and Stray KidsODDINARY and MAXIDENT (JYP/Imperial/Republic). (This week, it added a sixth: Metro Boomin’s Heroes & Villains.)

But Republic has also spent the past year in expansion mode, having either launched or strengthened several new initiatives. One was the new independent distribution subsidiary Imperial, which quietly opened last year and quickly caught fire with the release of Bo Burnham’s Inside (The Songs), but then landed two No. 1s through its distribution of Stray Kids, under the leadership of executive vp/president Glenn Mendlinger. Another was the relaunch of both Mercury Records, with A&R execs Tyler Arnold as president and Ben Adelson as GM, and Uptown Records with co-presidents Saint Harraway (executive vp A&R at Republic) and Marleny Reyes (executive vp marketing strategy at Republic) and Republic senior vp of business and legal affairs Khelia Johnson at the helm. There is also a new Kids division, overseen by vp of marketing and operations Bree Bowles, announced in August; and Federal Films, a new film and TV division that will allow the label to expand into Hollywood beyond soundtracks and music licensing, run by Republic executive vp Danielle Price, executive vp of film & television Dana Sano and senior vp visual content and production Devon Libran. And finally, Republic opened a new recording studio in Manhattan this fall, run by senior vp A&R Ken “Duro” Ifill as operations manager and executive vp of brand partnerships Kerri Mackar.

With another year of honors in the books, Lipman spoke to Billboard about Republic’s expansion into new areas of late, the reasons why the label is moving into film, children’s content and distribution, and the benefits of relaunching an iconic label brand rather than starting anew. “We’re not in the business of good or bad, we’re in the business of whether or not we can make a difference, whether it’s working with a new artist or an established artist,” he says. “We’re thrilled with the artists we work with, with the projects and campaigns, and I could bore you with all the milestones that we’ve reached and the impact that they’ve made. But it’s about what’s next.”

How would you describe the past year for Republic?
Listen, when you have certain releases by the biggest artists in the world — including Taylor Swift, Drake, Post Malone, The Weeknd — what’s there not to be excited about? And then this past week we just dropped Metro Boomin, which is tracking to be No. 1. [Ed. Note: Metro Boomin’s Heroes & Villains debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 this week.] And through Imperial we had two No. 1s this year with Stray Kids, which is a K-Pop act. For us, I always say that if we don’t win the pennant, we’re not having a good year. And metaphorically, we won the pennant here. So that part of it feels good. But it’s really about what’s next, what does 2023 look like, what are we preparing for, etc. A part of myself and this company and our DNA is we’re never satisfied. And that’s what keeps us going and grinding as hard as we can.

You mentioned Imperial. Why did you want to launch a distribution company?
It’s another option, another alternative. There is a community of artists, DIY or independent, who have chosen not to align themselves with a major label because for whatever reason they feel more comfortable staying independent. And this is an option that we created for them. Because Republic came from the independent marketplace, and for a long period of time we were fiercely independent and just liked the idea of operating with a certain amount of autonomy. You know, it’s smaller, historically, but from time to time, a band like the Stray Kids, through our alliance with JYP, there are opportunities where you can land at No. 1 on the charts.

How do you decide what makes an act right for Imperial as opposed to Republic itself?
It really starts with the artist and it’s based on conversation, the artist proposition, what they hope to accomplish, their expectations, how much input they want and what kind of partnership they want. So it’s just another option, another dynamic to the relationship. But Imperial is independent; it operates with full autonomy and the idea is to align ourselves with those entrepreneurs and artists that have proven to be resourceful. In our business, resourcefulness is an incredible, valuable trait among the artist community. That doesn’t mean you have to run it through Imperial and be independent, because with the biggest artists in the world, my feeling when I met them and started working with them was just how resourceful they are, which is a large part of their success.

Was launching Imperial a response to how the industry has shifted in the past several years, towards a distribution model for some artists?
Well, I think the difference is there has always been independent distributors — in fact, that’s the core of our business. The difference now though is I think the point of entry into the music industry is with a lot less friction than there’s ever been, because when you think about it, an artist can basically wake up in their pajamas, flip open their laptop, record a vocal, cut a beat and in the same 24-hour period make the music available to the world. So technically, in that moment, they have become an independent artist. But things these days just move so much quicker, and I tend to believe there’s more companies out there now that are responsible and supporting ingestion. Glenn Mendlinger, who is leading the initiative, is somebody who is a forward-thinker and constantly challenging the status quo. He’s a remarkable executive and someone we really appreciate working with.

You mentioned that artists now can record music in their bedrooms. Why did you want to open a new recording studio in New York City?
That’s the magic — that’s where it all happens. We’ve had a studio in Los Angeles for many years now and it’s incredibly successful, and it’s not just about dollars and cents and financial reasons, it’s also culture and our home, so to speak, because that’s where we have a lot of our meetings and social gatherings and listening sessions. And it just reminds us that it all starts and ends with the music. With that in mind, we saw a great opportunity here in New York City, a studio became available, and it was the perfect time and we went for it. It was a bummer that COVID held us back from a grand opening and moving on it quickly, but where it stands now it’s officially opened, we’ve got an Atmos room that is world class, we’ve had some of the most important artists in the world come in there for Atmos mixes. That room’s going nearly 24/7. And what’s also neat with a lot of artists or potential partners, or even our mentorship program in bringing kids to the studio is, it’s just the vibe. You’re physically surrounded by the music and the production facilities and it makes a difference.

Did you see a need for that in the city? There have been a lot of studio closures in recent years, and COVID-19 did nobody any favors there, either.
Well first of all, you’re talking to one of the strongest advocates of New York City; it’s something that’s near and dear to my heart. I grew up here. The world headquarters of Republic Records is in Midtown, and it’s something that I feel very strong about. Investing in the community, investing in the city — New York City, for a long period of time, had been the epicenter of the music industry around the world, and one can argue that no longer exists. And the point is, we want to bring it back.

I talk to the artist community, and what I can tell you is, right now, if you go downtown where a lot of the studios are, most of the studios are filled, are at capacity. There’s a certain energy, there’s a certain vibe that has returned to New York City, and that’s something we’re excited about. There’s a fellow by the name of Duro who runs the studio for us in New York, and a woman named Kerri Mackar, who also works for us, and she’s very involved in the operations, some of the social gatherings, events, staging things at the studio. But it’s a world class operation down there.

You guys also launched Federal Films. Why did you want to get into film and TV?
The writing is on the wall of where all things are heading. And so much of what we do involves visual content, and it just makes perfect sense given that, we’re one of the market leaders in the world of soundtracks. And from time to time I find myself getting a bit frustrated, just because I felt like there may be more opportunity for us to participate in the creative process and not just be the soundtrack company or the music label. So we’ve done some amazing alliances with some of the artists, with some of the studios, producing a documentary, or a feature in certain cases, or even a series.

We have program called A2K, which stands for America to Korea. That’s something we’re doing with JYP, and we’re in the middle of production, and there will be more announced at the top of the year in terms of releases. We’re also doing a series with Nick Cannon called Classics in Session. Nick came into my office and the conversation started with a band that he was excited about, and ended with us coming up with the idea of Classics in Session. It’s a high-level interview with legacy artists just having a conversation about their classic album, or in some cases the catalyst album that launched the biggest artist in the world. It’s shot live at HBCU schools around the country. We did that intentionally because we wanted to have a dynamic of being in a room together vs. a Zoom or podcast or Webinar. It’s really about going deep in the process of making the music and the point of view and where the artist’s head was at the time, the lyrical content, and so on and so forth.

Is running that a different type of skill set for you guys, or do you see it as another outlet for creative expression?
It’s a great question, because when you talk about creative expression, that’s an easy aspect of it. When you think about the amount of music videos we’ve made over the years, and the production, none of it is necessarily difficult and none of it is anything we haven’t done before. The difference, though, is in the world of Hollywood we are sailing in uncharted waters. The positive in that, and what I love about it, is we don’t necessarily know the rules. So with that in mind, we’re willing to take certain chances that others may not want to take.

Do you see Federal as producing a lot of music-related programming, or do you want to go beyond that?
Everything associated with Federal Films, there’s a music connectivity to it. So are we gonna do a horror film? Unless it’s a musical, no. [Laughs] But right now, we’ve invested in a brand new film with Billy Porter called Our Son, and it’s something we feel very strong about, and music is part of the narrative and is critical to the film. Documentaries, obviously, make perfect sense, whether it’s Reggaeton, which highlights Daddy Yankee’s career, or the documentary about Donna Summer. Those are simple enough. But we’ll also get involves as producer for a feature like They Cloned Tyrone, which right now is with MACRO and Netflix, and we are the music partner in that. Same thing with Marlowe, which features Liam Neeson and is with Open Road Pictures. So we’re open.

You guys also this summer launched Republic Kids & Family. Why did you want to get into that?
Our saying with Republic Kids is very simple: “We don’t make kids music, we make great music.” It’s run by a woman named Bree Bowles, who has been here now for a little over a year, and she’s incredible — her energy, her excitement, her dedication to kids music. The focus is zero to 12, obviously with their moms and dads; any opportunity to engage in educational or exploratory type of content, we’re all about. We’ve made some great partnerships, including Nickelodeon. We launched in August of this past year, and right now we’re tracking more than 100 songs per month, and that’s only going to grow. But again, it’s different properties like Blue’s Clues, Nickelodeon, Jojo Siwa we’re in talks with right now. Can’t forget The Bubble Guppies. [Laughs] I’ve got three kids, two are much older but I’ve still got an eight-year-old in the house. His new thing is SpongeBob — we’re not involved in SpongeBob necessarily, but there’s more to come. It’s early days, but we’re excited.

Did the recent successes of Encanto and Frozen inspire that?
Oh, yeah. The success ratio in the music industry is a single digit or so; I heard the riskiest business out there apparently is kids toys, which I understand is over a 99% failure rate, because you never know what kids are going to respond to. You just don’t know. But when it hits, it hits big. The two you just mentioned, more than just a movie or a soundtrack, those are rides at theme parks now, and then there’s the merch and the rest of it. But more importantly, it’s giving back to the rest of the community and supporting our community. Educational [content] is a lightning-rod of interest for us. And it’s just about working to make the world a better place.

You also relaunched two iconic record label imprints this past year, in Mercury Records and Uptown Records. Why?
Uptown, going back to our commitment to New York, they were the premier New York label, the label that inspired me and made an impact. You can’t talk about Uptown Records without talking about the founder, Andre Harrell. He was showbiz, and I remember early in my career watching him operate, the narrative, what Uptown stood for, it was the coolest, hippest label, and the acts that came from there, including Mary J. Blige, continue to make an impact in popular culture. And we had the opportunity to relaunch Uptown, working with Andre’s estate and being incredibly respectful of the legacy. To his credit, it was Saint Harraway who came to me and said this is something that’s near and dear to his heart, and he’s also New York born and bred. We recruited Marleny Reyes, who runs it with Saint, and there’s a third wheel in there, Khelia Johnson, and between the three of them they’ve done an incredible job and they’re off and running.

There’s tremendous passion in this initiative, and it’s still early days, but we’re very proud of what we’ve already accomplished with Coi Leray, who is a premier act on Uptown; we made a deal with Ciara, who we love and we’re very excited about the new music, and we’ve got a hit song on the radio right now. And there’s a band that’s coming over from the U.K. and I’m telling you right now they’re going to blow up big, and that’s a band called FLO. That’s where Uptown is now, and it’s very recent — we just flipped the switch, so there’s a lot more to come in 2023.

And then Mercury, again another legacy label, and one that I as a kid grew up with some of my favorite acts coming through Mercury. And when I took the idea to Tyler Arnold and Ben Adelson, they jumped at it. When we spoke about the idea, their first question was, “Tell me more about Mercury.” It wasn’t a vanity play or anything like that, they took a real interest in the legacy of Mercury and did the research and we had many conversations about what Mercury stood for and what they’re known for. But what I explained to them was, by reactivating this, this is now within your vision. This is a company under your watch. And you can make it whatever it needs to be.

And to their credit, they’ve come out of the blocks hot because of pre-existing relationships: Tyler Arnold signed Post Malone, he made a strategic alliance with Morgan Wallen and Big Loud Records; and Ben Adelson signed Stephen Sanchez and Noah Kahan, two of the biggest breakouts of ’22. And it’s still early days; we’ve got a lot of work to do. But Elton John called me himself to lend his support to Stephen Sanchez, and the last time he did that was with Amy Winehouse. So that’s what’s happening with Mercury. They also signed AJR, and we’ll have new music from them in 2023, but that’s a multi-platinum, arena-size act coming off a monster smash, and if the new music is any indication, they’re going to have a great year.

What do you see as the value of relaunching some of these iconic brands vs. starting a new label or imprint?
It’s two things. It’s embracing the entrepreneurial spirit, and it’s essentially encouraging ownership. Because again, now there’s a sense of responsibility with Saint, Marleny and Khelia on behalf of Uptown. There’s a sense of responsibility and ownership with Tyler and Ben. And that’s where you get the best out of people, when you empower them and give them this ownership and encourage a sense of autonomy and independence and free-thinking. Because I don’t want to find myself in a position of micro-managing people. If that happens, we all lose. We can’t do it. So you need people to really take on these added responsibilities and know that at the end of the day, they’ve got to do the job. You could say the same thing about Federal Films, and the Republic Kids initiative.

How do all these new initiatives enrich what you are doing at Republic?
Well, Republic started as an independent. And I report to somebody named Sir Lucian Grainge, who empowers me and allows me to operate with an entrepreneurial spirit, with a sense of autonomy. And that’s how you get the best out of Monte Lipman. So just applying that rulebook is something that, culturally, is important. We want to house and align ourselves and partner with true entrepreneurs. And when you look at the success of this company and what we’ve accomplished and achieved, much of it comes from these strategic alliances: Cash Money Records and all the success we’ve had with them over the years, and XO Records with The Weeknd, or OVO Records with Drake — you can go down the line. That’s the nature of our industry, it’s built on the entrepreneurial spirit. So the idea is to celebrate it, enhance it, support it and just make sure that people have that spark of excitement and opportunity.

What are you looking forward to in 2023?
I think about that every day when I wake up. The short answer is we want to make the world a better place. How do you do that? We are very fortunate because we represent the biggest, most important artists in the world and we help provide a platform, we provide incredibly valuable label services so their voice can be heard in every corner of the world, so to speak. And we want to make a difference with every artist we work with, and we want to be able to make an impact.

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