He came slowly to the idea of a little company with big dreams. His father, Steve Diener, was president of ABC Records in the late 1970s. At his New York private school and in college, Diener played in pickup bands, then cover groups and bar bands. But he was also an honors graduate of Johns Hopkins, and it didnt take the fledgling record exec long to realize his company was ripe for a new business model.
At Columbia Records and then RCA Music Group, he achieved a rare double title: vice president (senior at RCA) of both A&R and marketing. But he felt conflicted, because while established artists got world-class promotion, new ones were orphans. We signed a lot of acts that didnt get a decent shot, he says. I wanted to change that. So he started an independent label to nurture bands until theyd sold, say, 100,000 CDs then upstream them to a major label for the push to millions.
In 2000, with several partners and handpicked investors, Diener made a deal with Sony BMG while continuing to work creatively with Octones acts after they moved to the big leagues. The double tracking paid offhe enjoyed major success with Maroon 5 and Flyleaf; Octone moved on to A&M; and Diener, now 39, is struggling to find time to read.
Jesse Kornbluth: You had a fantastic job at Columbia. Why launch a start-up?
James Diener: Great record execs are known for the careers they develop.
JK: Did you tell investors youd have a band tour for 18 months before recording?
JD: I told them, and they understood. Theyre individuals who love music and recognize patience equals success.
JK: Youve said the hardest job for a company is getting the first 100,000 sales. Why turn a band over to a major label to get to the next level?
JD: We never turn a band overwe add partners to increase support and scale. Scaling is what the majors do best. They still have an essential structure if youre aiming for worldwide success.
JK: All of the majors passed on Maroon 5. What did you see that others didnt?
JD: A tween band that didnt fit a format. Maroon 5 was a white rock band doing pop music, with a singer who has a compelling, urban-style voicethe band was progressive but commercial.
JK: Where did this tween notion start?
JD: I grew up listening to pop, rock, jazz, fusion and classic soulnot compartmentalized music. I continue to believe that kids will listen to music outside narrow borders. And when tween artists connect, theyre stickythey tend to become career artists.
JK: Maroon 5 worked out rather well for you: 14 million albums sold.
JD: And none of their first three hit singles had been written when we signed them.
JK: In The Long Tail, Chris Anderson wrote, Increasingly, the mass market is turning into a mass of niches. So why aim for blockbusters? Why not control costs and produce niche acts?
JD: I respect the long tail. But blockbuster artists are essential.
JK: The current meme has it that bands can no longer expect to make money on CD salesthat the cash cow is touring. Small glitch: In 2008, the big winnersMadonna, Springsteen, Bon Joviwere acts that have been around for decades.