At Work is a Rolling Stone series exploring how decision-makers in the fast-changing music business spend their hectic days — as well as what burgeoning ideas they’re keen to explore, what advice they’d give to industry newcomers, and more. Read earlier interviews here.
When Justin Lubliner gets on the phone, he’s somewhere in the midst of a 45-minute circular lap. This is normal for him. Lubliner, who’s not even 30 years old, is constantly moving — and constantly thinking of his next move. He founded his artist-development-focused company Darkroom as as 20-year-old student at the University of Southern California, and later pivoted it from a marketing and PR firm to a record label. After some time consulting for Republic Records, Lubliner met Interscope CEO John Janick, who offered Darkroom a subsidiary deal. He first heard Billie Eilish sing in 2016 when she uploaded “Ocean Eyes” to SoundCloud — and immediately set off to find her, later signing her to Interscope.
Eilish, of course, is now the youngest artist in history to sweep the Big Four Grammy categories, and she was out on a world tour when shelter-in-place orders went into effect and put the music industry on lockdown. Since that postponement of her tour, Lubliner has been working from home in Los Angeles. Although deeply concerned for those affected by the current health and economic crisis, he’s grateful for the opportunity to brainstorm opportunities for his intimate roster, which also includes developing acts Oliver Malcolm, Gryffin, and Max Leone. He’s just not used to being in one place for such a long time, he tells Rolling Stone.
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Generally speaking, what’s the first thing you do every single day?
Since I travel so often and I’m only home about half the year, I try to get certain things included in my day everyday but not in a specific, particular way or fashion. The first thing I do is I wake up around 8:00 or 8:15, and I have about 10 missed calls and 100 emails — and a looming, organized call around 9:00. I’ll just try to knock out as many of the texts and emails from the night before while probably still in bed.
Does waking up to a barrage of emails, text, and calls trigger any anxiety?
I don’t have a ton of anxiety — thank goodness — so it doesn’t bother me. It kind of gives me a nice little kick in the butt, because I have to really get on it very quickly.
It’s your cup of coffee before your cup of coffee.
Yea. We put a ton of focus on working with international markets and personally communicating with our partners overseas a lot of the time — whether that be from the [parent company] UMG side, the streaming platforms, different publicists around the world, or marketing arms. Obviously, we get a huge amount of support from Interscope and [Interscope International executives] Nick Miller and Jurgen [Grebner], so I don’t mean to take away from them, but we’re constantly communicating overseas. And honestly, we kind of want to be bogged down by people who are a few hours ahead. It actually makes me excited when a lot of people are communicating with me early in the morning.
“You grow up thinking that more success comes from completing as much of the work in front of you as possible. I fundamentally disagree with that… It’s really important to me that I’m not always bogged down with work and that I have a lot of free time to think.”
Do you think a work/life balance is important?
A lot of my best ideas come from when I’m brainstorming and thinking, and I’m always chasing an idea or opportunity, instead of waiting for something to come to me. Very recently, I started thinking about how to properly allocate my time. You grow up thinking that more success comes from completing as much of the work in front of you as possible. I fundamentally disagree with that. I feel like if you work so hard and you always have your head down, you don’t have enough time to look up, create, and think about more opportunities. So, it’s really important to me that I’m not always bogged down with work and that I have a lot of free time to think.
I do spend a lot of time working out and taking walks. Unfortunately, I don’t have major hobbies like surfing or jet skiing — although I do enjoy traveling a ton. I really try to utilize [free time] for learning, brainstorming, and staying in shape. I listen to audiobooks all the time, I listen to podcasts. I love Malcolm Gladwell. I love Guy Raz’s How I Built This.
Why do you travel as much as you do?
I want to be the guy who’s always there for the client. When they lift their head, I want them to see that I’m around. Also, to really break an artist and understand how to market, you need a global perspective. In order to understand international markets, you have to go to them. You have to meet with people and build relationships. No one’s going to care as much about your artist as you are, and if you’re communicating with people in these international markets personally, they’re always going to prioritize the project more than if you’re going through a bunch of different people. For instance, UMG Sweden works with every UMG artist globally, and they also have their local repertoire, so it’s really hard to get to the front of the line unless you can build those personal relationships, help allocate resources to those markets, and know what you’re doing.
I’ve been to almost every major music market in the world, and when I first started going to these places, I’d always ask the people: If the artist was local and signed directly to this area, what five things would you do to market the artist here, not including streaming or radio? There are a ton of things that you can do outside of the traditional marketing tactics, and if you’ve never been to these places, that would be really hard to understand. That goes especially for markets like Asia — where the social media platforms are different, the way that fans consume music is different, the way that fans interact with artists is different.
I want to go on tour to help support the artist in that way. Specifically, for Billie, a lot of us will go to the shows as a team. I’m still in my twenties — albeit not for long — I have the resources to travel, and I’m not committed to enough things that I can’t travel. I don’t know how many more years of my life that I have to do that. In the last few years, I had the capabilities to jump on a plane at the snap of a finger if I thought there was an opportunity that I could take advantage of — and it really was helpful. I had a phone call with Adele’s manager, Jonathan Dickins, who has given me amazing advice throughout this process. I was telling him about some of the plans that we had for Billie’s first album and how I thought it would be a cool idea to go to as many markets in the world to help promote and communicate our plans for the album. He told me that, with Adele’s album, he went to every market in the world as well. Obviously, given the success of Adele, it really motivated me to jump into gear and get on a plane.
How did you start Darkroom?
I saw an opening when EDM artists were starting to play a lot of shows in Los Angeles. A lot of the international artists didn’t really have representation in that sector. I wanted to help build their exposure in the U.S. on the blogs — with creative assets and fundamental marketing — almost from the perspective of a college kid marketing to a college kid, because that was really the target demographic. That gave me a keen understanding of how to communicate clients to partners, be mutually beneficial to people, and get visual exposure for an artist without spending any money. Eventually, we started working with a ton of different artists, nightclubs, and festivals.
Then I started consulting Rob Stevenson at Republic Records in A&R. He initially wanted me in marketing, but I wanted to maintain an entrepreneurial approach. Remaining independent and running my own company was at the forefront of everything that I did. Whenever I was given a job opportunity, I tried to turn it into something I could do as a partner instead of an employee. So, I asked if I could be an A&R consultant instead, because I’d ran a blog, I was really intrigued by finding artists, and I had a lot of great relationships with management teams.
I worked with Rob for a year. I had some pretty good success signing a couple artists there, and I had the option of staying there as an employee. I had just watched the David Geffen documentary and was really inspired by his entrepreneurial spirit and how he started his own label. Eventually, I got an opportunity through John Janick, who I was really enamored by. I think he saw a lot of himself in me and was someone, as an entrepreneur himself, who would be the perfect mentor to help me build my business. I didn’t feel like I had so much pressure to succeed right away. I felt like if I made a mistake, he’d be there to help lift me up.
And how has it developed from then to now?
I’ve done a million different things, but I’ve always been told to focus on one aspect of the music industry. At Darkroom, we were a marketing agency, we were a manager, we started publishing, we did brand deals. This is probably the first time in my career that I’ve decided to focus on the label side. We obviously do management as well, but we’re really trying to streamline. We want to utilize our knowledge in all those different spaces and just make it more attractive to artists to work with us on the label side.
Because we’ve managed, we understand touring and tour marketing. Because we’ve done publishing, we understand song development and A&R. Because we’ve run a marketing agency, we understand asset creation and creative development. So, we’re slimming down all those different things, honing in on us as a record label, and putting as much time and resources as possible into each individual artist — and not signing a ton.
In structuring the team we have today, it wasn’t about having someone as an expert in one field. I don’t have people on the squad to just do one thing like a normal label would have. Everyone kind of does everything and helps out on everything.
How has your routine changed amid the crisis?
it’s been a good time for coming up with ideas. It’s a horrible time for the economy, and I’m incredibly sympathetic to all the people that are struggling right now. It’s definitely terrible and hard, but at the same time, there is some part of it where, because the work load is a little bit lighter, it gives our team the opportunity to free think, strategize, and be creative.
I feel very blessed and lucky. Because I run a record label, as long as people listen to music, there’s still business. Obviously, the industry as a whole has been impacted, especially with artists who can’t play shows, but for us personally, there is some sort of ‘business as usual.’ On my team, Austin Evenson, who does incredible work with Gryffin, is using a lot of this time to better understand the digital world. For example, he’s working with another partner of ours on a cool tool that helps people understand how songs are reacting on/in different platforms and international markets. Layne [Cooperstein], who acts pretty much like our label manager and oversees Max Leone, is keeping busy. Dylan [Bourne], an A&R guy who also does a ton of creative work, has time to find new artists. My assistant Oliver [Jordan] is getting really close with a new artist we’re signing, so he can help out. I’m trying to empower and comfort my team, while also letting them focus on things they’ve wanted to do but haven’t had the time to. Billie’s mom, Maggie, is working on an awesome charity initiative [in response to the COVID-19 crisis] that helps support local, plant-based food restaurants and brings food to places in need — hospitals, senior homes, and food banks. Passion projects like that can come to fruition.
For the developing artists that we have, everything is really digital anyway, so as long as the platforms are being supportive, and as long as we have a good strategy with social media and the creative assets are ready, it’s fine. I’m not going to put a priority single out right now when I can’t shoot a video, but you can still release music — it just might be a different song that you might not have put out or didn’t really have a good time to. That could pull in different types of fans, for one. With some of my bigger artists, same thing. It opens up a door to music that doesn’t need a video or a huge push but can still keep the momentum growing. I’m definitely maintaining a consistent rollout strategy for all of my clients. With every single one, there are discussions for releasing music and music creation.
What’s the most overrated trend in the music industry right now?
There came a point in the streaming era when platforms focused a lot of attention on individual songs. Often, when platforms break songs — as opposed to artists — people frown upon it. I think you’re starting to see a bit of that trend happening with TikTok. These songs go viral and all the labels clamor to sign the artist for a ton of money, and then nothing really happens beyond that song.
That said, TikTok, in itself, is not an overrated trend. It’s an amazing social media platform that’s giving visibility to creators in a way that hasn’t been done before and should be embraced. Although there’s this fight to find the next TikTok song, which I think is starting to get a slightly negative connotation, I’m gonna step out and focus more on how TikTok as a platform can be worked in to help show different aspects of an artist.
Basically, there’s an overrated trend coming from something that I think could be turned into an exciting, new way to market artists. It’s about how you use the tool, while still focusing on the artist as a person.
What’s the greatest hurdle you’ve had to overcome?
There’s a lot of competitiveness that can make you feel really insecure. A lot of people are very territorial of what they do, and they don’t want you to do it yourself. When you’re somebody who does many things and can help out wherever, some people will tell you to back off. But no one cares as much about my clients as I do, and if I can help contribute to something — whether it be by helping to get an activation with Spotify or a song in a movie, or help communicating with an international market — I will.
There are always people who will get frustrated by you skipping steps. I feel like, along the way, there was a lot of frustration towards me from people who felt that I may have been overstepping my boundaries or stepping on their toes. And as a young person coming up in the music industry, that frustration can really put you down and make you feel like you’re doing something wrong. John Janick helped me navigate through a lot of that — and understand where I was overstepping or being too aggressive, and where I was just adding value, doing my job, and putting my client first. If I didn’t have great mentorship to help me through it, I think I would’ve had a lot of trouble.
There’s also the amount of times people say no to you. A lot of artist development is pitching and trying to convince people to pay attention to your artist and their music. You can’t imagine the amount of no’s I got on the way up — the amount of meetings that I couldn’t get, the amount of people that didn’t give me the time of day. It can be so unbelievably discouraging. You start to think that your perception might be off, that things are not where they should be. If you’re not able to disregard those thoughts and remain confident and persistent, they can really get in your way. I would take that negative energy and turn it into positivity. It motivated me.
One of my favorite things in the world used to be getting a no, because it just made me want to prove those people wrong. I’m not always right. I’ve made wrong decisions. Not everybody who said no to me was wrong, but when I was hungry, I needed to turn a no into fuel.
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