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The Kid Laroi, Lil Nas X, Lil Tjay: Label of the Year Columbia Records Is Flooding the Charts With New Talent

·9 min read

As 2021 draws to a close, to say the hits keep on coming for Columbia Records would be an understatement. At press time, Variety’s Hitmakers Label of the Year, led by chairman and CEO Ron Perry (pictured at left) and executive VP-general manager Jenifer Mallory (right), had the top three songs on Mediabase’s Top 40 chart (Lil Nas X’s “Industry Baby” featuring Jack Harlow, the Kid Laroi and Justin Bieber’s “Stay” and Adele’s “Easy on Me”). That’s on the heels of a stream of smashes from Polo G (“Rapstar”), Lil Tjay (“Calling My Phone” featuring 6lack) and 24kGoldn (“Mood” featuring Iann Dior, a co-release with Barry Weiss’ Records), all of which landed in the top 25 for 2021.

That the company has been able to break multiple new artists is a testament to the leadership of its chief executive, who arrived at Sony Music in January 2018 after the sale of Songs Music Publishing, which he helped build as an equity partner. Mallory, who spent nine years at Sony working in international marketing and eventually rose to executive VP, proved to be the perfect partner for the label newbie.

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“We’ve been doing this together for basically three years, and now it’s all coming together,” says the New York-based Mallory (Perry is bicoastal). “We have great artists and a great team.”

Indeed, artist development stories like Lil Nas X (who easily could have been relegated to the one-hit-­wonder file after “Old Town Road”) and the Kid Laroi (whom Perry signed when the Australian singer was 15) are the envy of the industry. Lil Nas X’s sexually bold “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was accompanied by arguably the most memorable video of 2021 (until he followed it up with another, the eye-popping “Industry Baby”), while “Stay” is now well north of a billion streams and has topped charts all over the world.

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“I think what we do well is help artists get to be the best versions of themselves,” says Perry of Lil Nas X. “This song, the album, the ideas — it was a complete cultural moment that he’s always had in his mind.” Adds Mallory, “‘Montero’ helped Nas figure out who he was as an artist. When you speak your truth and lean into it by way of art, here we are.”

While many executives would be happy to take credit for setting up key collaborations, Perry reveals that Laroi secured Bieber’s contribution on “Stay” on his own. “[Laroi] hadn’t put out a song of his own since October 2020, and everyone across the board was quite aware of how big ‘Stay’ was going to be, so it was the obvious choice for his comeback single,” Perry says, adding that a Laroi full-length will be out in 2022.

Even if Columbia thought “Stay” was a home run from the beginning, Laroi still waged a Twitter campaign urging fans to bombard Perry to release it sooner. He also convinced Perry to stage dive during an August show at New York’s Irving Plaza.

“That was fun to watch,” Mallory says, adding, “What’s so cool about Ron is that he doesn’t come from a major-label system. He got here and was like, ‘Why the fuck do you do it that way? What’s going on over here?’ It was really great to have a fresh perspective on things. It allowed us to blow up old paradigms.”

No kidding: Perry is the rare record executive to be credited as a writer and producer on one of his label’s biggest hits, BTS’ “Butter.” Getting a 2022 Grammy nomination for the song was icing on the cake, even if the South Korean pop group will no longer be distributed by Sony. Says Perry of BTS’ move to Universal Music Group: “Columbia and Orchard are proud of the four years we together worked with BTS. We put out five No. 1 songs and several No. 1 albums. From a creative perspective, Columbia was super involved with four of the five No. 1s (“Butter,” “Dynamite,” “Savage Love” remix, “Permission to Dance”). The majority of those songs were done here in my home studio. We’ve made great friends at Big Hit and are proud of the history we made with K-pop. We wish BTS all the best.”

Capping 2021 with Adele’s first album in six years, “30,” is “a really chill way to wind down the year,” Mallory adds with a hearty laugh. “This album is unbelievably beautiful, and she wanted it to be perceived and consumed and ingested all at once. Even marketing that in this age is difficult, because it’s hard to find partners that help you do it.”

Enter CBS, whose old-school “Adele: One Night Only” special, featuring performances from Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory and an interview with Oprah Winfrey, was the most-watched entertainment event since the Oscars. “A lot of artists wouldn’t have thought something like that would make sense for them, but that sets her apart from everyone else,” Mallory says.

Adds Perry: “She’s the greatest singer in the world. It takes you to a different place when you watch Adele perform.”

Perry and Mallory demur when asked about rumored 2022 albums from Beyoncé and Harry Styles (“Let us finish 2021 first, please! We’re not done yet!” Perry says) but did confirm Spanish star Rosalía will release her Columbia debut early next year. “We’ve had a great year, and when you set the bar this high, you have to come back and keep having hits,” Perry says. “We’re prepared for that.”

Dream Team: Columbia staffers moving the needle

Erika Alfredson, Co-Head/Exec VP of Marketing

Now in her 10th year with the label, Alfredson brainstormed a pole-dance competition and coordinated LGBTQ-specific marketing initiatives around “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” while fanning the flames of controversy around Lil Nas X’s “Satan” shoes. She also handled important early rollout details such as teasers, trailers and live performances for the Kid Laroi’s “Stay.”

Phylicia Fant, Head of Urban Music

In her third year at Columbia after VP stints at UMG and Warner, Fant was key to helping Lil Nas X craft authentic messaging around the controversial “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” video. “He posted an op-ed letter speaking directly to fans where he let them know he was proud of his growth and wanted them to be a part of the journey,” she says. For 24kGoldn’s “Mood,” she paired the artist with a movement coach “to make sure the performances were just as impactful as the record.”

Joe Gallo, Senior VP of Sales

Gallo and his bicoastal team were busier than ever in 2021, converting early buzz for Polo G’s “Rapstar” into a No. 1 debut on the Billboard Hot 100. For the Kid Laroi’s “Stay,” Gallo helped lay a plan to forecast metrics. Between release strategies, alternate versions and direct-to-­consumer campaigns, the song saw a seven-week run atop the chart.

Peter Gray, Exec VP/Head of Promotion

Perry’s directive to Gray was to break hits, and that’s exactly what the major label promo vet did. The Kid Laroi’s “Stay” is the longest-running top 40 No. 1 in Mediabase history at 11 weeks. Meanwhile, “Mood” hit No. 1 in three radio formats, and “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” scored Lil Nas X’s first pop radio airplay chart-topper. “Great songs with a great team is always a winning combination,” says Gray, who coordinated a bus tour to take BTS’ “Butter” to radio program directors across the country during COVID.

Saul Levitz, VP of Video Production

Multiple Grammy winner Levitz salutes Perry and Mallory for “trusting Lil Nas X’s vision” and letting the team take the “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” video “to the limit.” He also offers a shout-out to Polo G’s “Rapstar” video for eschewing “the hyper-edit aesthetic” in favor of “lyric-focused vignettes” that bring fans into the rapper’s daily life. As for “Calling My Phone,” Levitz says, “we loved being able to combine the talents of Lil Tjay and 6lack into one video that served both their aesthetics and audiences.”

Shahendra Ohneswere, Co-Head/Senior VP of Digital Marketing and Content Development

A Roc Nation veteran now in his third year at Columbia, Ohneswere runs the content side of the digital marketing team. For each of the label’s big 2021 hits, he says, “our approach was to make each feel anthemic and larger than anything that these artists had put out before, but to also build communities where there previously wasn’t a large footprint.” Ohneswere, who works closely with VP John Salcedo, also brought Lil Nas X into the gaming world with “Twerk Hero: A Dance Game,” a mobile game set to “Montero (Call Me by Your Name).”

John Salcedo, VP, Digital Marketing

The eight-year Sony vet keeps fans top of mind on a daily basis in order to “create a world for them that they can be a part of,” whether that means joining a Lil Tjay group chat on Instagram or making a twerking game for Lil Nas X after seeing social media feedback. With smashes from those acts as well as Polo G and The Kid Laroi, “fans identified from the beginning that they were hits. We just paid attention.”

Jay Schumer, Co-Head/Exec VP of Marketing

Beginning as a sales coordinator, Schumer has spent his entire 23-year career at parent company Sony Music and still thrives on “learning something new every day.” He’s particularly proud of the campaign around “Rapstar,” which began with Polo G teasing an acoustic performance online months before its release. “That mix of direct social engagement and compelling content leading into release drove a lot of excitement,” he says. “The trailer was still trending even when the official video dropped.”

Manos Xanthogeorgis, Co-Head/SVP of Digital Marketing and Media

Columbia acts are “so much more than just musicians, lyricists and performers,” says Xanthogeorgis, now in his 11th year at Sony. “We want our marketing campaigns to be as multilayered as the talents and the star power of our artists. All we want to do is make people stop doing what they’re doing and pay attention.” It doesn’t hurt that, in his estimation, “Lil Nas X and Polo G could have been critically acclaimed novelists or poets in a different era, and 24kGoldn, Lil Tjay and the Kid Laroi famous movie or theater stars.”

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