BMG’s Weiss brings business savvy

Special to The Times

One week after taking over as chairman and chief executive of BMG Label Group, Barry Weiss appears to be toiling away behind the scenes, unconcerned about the long shadow cast by his predecessor, Clive Davis.

Living with Davis’ outsize legacy is perhaps an unavoidable conundrum for Weiss, 49, who is respected and well liked by his peers but doesn’t have the same larger-than-life profile as the industry icon.

With Davis transitioning to the newly created role of chief creative officer worldwide for Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Weiss will have the opportunity to demonstrate his own skills at the suite of labels he now oversees: Jive, Volcano, Verity, GospoCentric and Fo Yo Soul, in the Zomba Label Group family; and BMG Label Group imprints RCA, LaFace, Arista and J.

As it stands, Weiss, who has declined to be interviewed since stepping into the job, has a reputation as a savvy businessman who shies away from the spotlight but has a keen ability to develop young R&B; and pop performers such as Chris Brown and T-Pain, not to mention Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake.

In his new role, he inherits platinum-selling stars such as Alicia Keys, Daughtry, Whitney Houston and the Foo Fighters.


Whereas Davis was a celebrity unto himself, a star maker with a passion for pop divas and a reputation for controlling the public personas of his proteges, Weiss is respected for his ability to control the all-important bottom line. It’s a skill that will be crucial as BMG, like every music label, is under tremendous pressure to cut costs.

“Barry is a much more efficient executive than anyone else because he learned from [Zomba founder Clive Calder], who ran that company as if every dollar that came in and went out was his own,” said Larry Rudolph, Spears’ former manager and current advisor.

Billionaire Calder was undeniably one of the greatest influences on Weiss, but so too was his father, Hy, who founded New York-based doo-wop label Old Town Records in the ‘50s and ran a series of imprints, including Barry Records, named after his young son.

“Hy Weiss was a relentless optimist and can-do kind of guy,” said Neil Portnow, who worked alongside Barry Weiss for 14 years at Zomba before becoming head of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. “Barry will find a way around a brick wall as opposed to being blocked by it. He got that from his dad.”

The apprentice

After graduating from Cornell University, where Weiss promoted acts to radio stations from his dorm room, Weiss joined Zomba’s fledgling Jive Records in 1982. There, he worked closely with Calder until 2002 -- when BMG completed its purchase of Zomba and Calder left the company.

“Barry learned from the most successful guy in the music business,” said Rudolph. “No one had better instincts or thought process on both the marketing and A&R; sides.”

Among the skills Weiss gleaned from Calder was how to cultivate a loyal team.

“Weiss’ management style is one of inclusion,” said Jeff Kwatinetz, head of artist management company the Firm, which handles Jive acts Backstreet Boys, R. Kelly and Three Days Grace. “He asks a lot of tough questions, but he’s more concerned about getting it right than being right. I know he’s always willing to consider viewpoints other than his own.”

Industry observers expect Weiss to look at combining resources within the labels, although a source within BMG said Weiss met with BMG executives last week and told them he had no immediate plans to merge any of the labels or make any cutbacks.

Whereas Jive’s pop handprint is wide, Zomba has stressed diversity to avoid becoming overly reliant on Top 40 radio. Zomba’s gospel imprints, Verity and GospoCentric, include top acts such as Marvin Sapp and Kirk Franklin.

“They eyeball talent and develop if for themselves,” Rudolph said. “They don’t need to find the flavor of the month.”

Pop slant

Under Weiss, Jive almost single-handedly created the teen-pop explosion of the late ‘90s, fronted by Spears, ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. At 2.4 million, ‘N Sync’s 2000 album, “No Strings Attached,” holds the record for the most copies sold in the first week of release. It broke the record set by the Backstreet Boys.

Observers expect Weiss to continue his mainstream focus, which often skews younger than that of his predecessor. “There’s probably going to be a generational shift in the company in terms of A&R;,” said Steve Greenberg, president of S-Curve Records and former president of Sony BMG-owned Columbia Records. “Clive Davis’ sensibility is more the big diva, the big ballad. Barry’s sensibilities are more rhythmically leaning.”

The biggest challenge Weiss will face, say those who know him, will be trying to integrate what remains of Zomba’s independent spirit into his larger BMG universe.

“There will be times, I’m sure, where his eyes are going to be rolling back in his head, ‘Why am I at this corporate meeting when I should be at the marketing meeting to talk about the rollout of the next Justin Timberlake record?’ ” Portnow said. “But he has both the executive and the artist-friendly piece, and you don’t see that too often.”