Business People and Community

Working for his passion of music

The University of Miami Alumni Association launched its new program, “Meet the CEO,” in NYC Monday featuring music industry executive and alumnus Lyor Cohen.
Lyor Cohen
Alumnus Lyor Cohen, global head of music for YouTube, is joined on stage by Aston George Taylor Jr., known professionally as rapper Funkmaster Flex. Photo: Danny Menendez for the University of Miami

NEW YORK—The last 20 years have been a tumultuous time in the music recording industry, and Lyor Cohen has no problem saying that the first victim of the digital revolution was the album.

“This business was once a singles business,” said Cohen, global head of music for YouTube, who added that the “singles business” morphed into feature albums.

But now, digital means the music is heard around the world—without the costs associated with producing and shipping an album. “The digital revolution makes curation even more important,” Cohen said.

More than 125 people gathered Monday evening in the Autumn Room at New York’s Google offices—the technology giant’s second largest campus outside of Silicon Valley—to hear from Cohen during a new University of Miami Alumni Association program, “Meet the CEO.” Cohen breezily bantered back-and-forth in conversation with Aston George Taylor Jr., professionally known as Funkmaster Flex, the rapper, record producer, actor, and radio host on New York City’s Hot 97.

Cohen, who earned his bachelor of business administration in global marketing and finance from the University of Miami in 1981, has been with YouTube (one of Google’s subsidiaries) since September 2016. He and his team oversee domestic and international music partnerships, as well as artist and label relations.

Throughout the evening’s conversation, Cohen reflected on his upbringing in Southern California. Growing up, “work” was a bad word in the Cohen household. Cohen’s mother used to tell her four sons that they should avoid work at all costs—instead, they were encouraged to invest in finding their passion. After all, “work is the most time-consuming part of your life,” Cohen said. 

In finding—and pursuing—his passion, Cohen has also created opportunities for musical artists to follow their dreams. Throughout his 39-year career in the recording industry, Cohen has been involved in the career success of artists including Jay-Z, Kanye West, Ed Sheeran, Bon Jovi, Bruno Mars, Fetty Wap, Migos, and others.

When he first entered the industry, Cohen said, he had “no experience, no money, and no clout.”

Cohen knew where he was needed, though, and where he could make a difference. In the 1980s, the arrogance of the music industry didn’t allow industry executives to realize that demand outpaced their supply, he said.

And hip-hop is where the demand was.

Cohen is credited with helping usher hip-hop from the margins of culture to the mainstream, developing the prestige of Def Jam Recordings before merging the label with Mercury and Island to create Island-Def Jam Music Group. He was later recruited by Warner Music Group, where he served as chairman and CEO of recorded music before founding his own independent label in 2012. Cohen’s label, 300, is a music content company that leverages innovative tech to discover, cultivate, and promote rising artists.    

Serina Guirantes, a 2002 graduate of the Frost School of Music and aspiring singer, songwriter, and vocal arranger, was encouraged by both Cohen and Funkmaster Flex’s advice that anyone looking to break into the industry do so with continued persistence. She currently works at A&E Networks and writes pieces and vocal arrangements for office events, but hopes to break into the industry as an artist. 

“I like that he [Cohen] looks for the diamonds in the rough, because that’s what I consider myself,” Guirantes said, noting that her style infuses R&B with a touch of jazz.

“I only care about music,” Cohen said as he held up his phone, exclaiming matter-of-factly that one single device “is the new record store.” Cohen sees YouTube and Google as adding to the streaming music industry’s diversity in distribution, competing in the field alongside Spotify, Apple, and Amazon to develop the perfect harmony between algorithm and human touch.

“The world is better with more quality music,” he said. And he’s happy to suffer through the odds to be right.


Upcoming “Meet the CEO” events:

Monday, May 20:
Guillermo de Aranzabal, CEO of Grupo La Rioja Alta, S.A.
San Francisco

Wednesday, May 29:
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., UM trustee and president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management
Washington, D.C.

Registration for the upcoming “Meet the CEO” events is available online.