Jason Flom on making hit records and freeing the innocent

Jason Flom says luck is at the center of his success in running four record labels, including his own, Lava, which signed Katy Perry after she was dropped by multiple labels. Photo: Courtesy subject Jason Flom says luck is at the center of his success in running four record labels, including his own, Lava, which signed Katy Perry after she was dropped by multiple labels. Photo: Courtesy subject

Jason Flom was born into wealth and privilege. His father, Joseph Flom, made a name in legal circles as a mergers and acquisitions savant, a man who built one of the largest law firms in the country and is sometimes known as “Mr. Takeover.”

As a youth growing up in New York City, the younger Flom seems to have enjoyed everything that came with his father’s success, making connections in the music community that would eventually serve him professionally.

So it’s refreshing when Flom, asked about the secret to his success in anticipation of his talks at the 2016 Tom Tom Founders Festival, continually admits it really comes down to one thing: “luck.”

Flom parlayed his privileged childhood into becoming one of the most successful record executives of all time. He’s headed four different record companies—Atlantic, Virgin, Capitol and his own company, Lava, which he launched twice. The first time, in 1995, he turned it into a success before selling it off and heading back to lead one of the majors. The second time, in 2009, he revived his brand and a client list that includes Katy Perry and Lorde.

“I won the name back in a golf game,” he says. Okay, so maybe his success is from luck and solid putting.

Flom says once he had his company name and brand back, running his own label has been like riding a bike, despite the “tremendous upheaval” of the record business since his first go-around.

“We’ve had to adjust to those changes, but as much as it’s different, it’s the same,” he says. “It’s a hit-driven business. If you have hits it works. That’s what it comes down to. Record companies have adjusted, whether they are small or big, to the new reality that the business is smaller than it used to be.”

Again it was luck, Flom says, that brought the powerhouse Perry to Lava. He had hired a woman whom he’d worked with at Virgin who told him Columbia had dropped Perry. It was the second label to have released the now-megastar. Flom met her at The Polo Lounge. Despite the rejections of his peers, he immediately embraced her.

“As soon as she walked in, I was like, ‘Oh my god she’s a star,’” he says.

He listened to Perry’s backstory and was convinced before he’d even heard her music.

So how was Flom able to tease Perry’s star power out where others had failed? Luck again.

“Serendipity,” he says flatly. He invited Perry to a Grammy after-party and introduced her to a friend of his, Dr. Luke. The two musicians clicked, and the result was two of Perry’s breakout hits: “I Kissed a Girl” and “Hot N Cold.”

“With Katy, the magic came from that chance meeting,” he says. “I walked in with Dr. Luke, we brokered a deal, and that was where the magic came from. Sometimes artists need to meet their creative muse. The record company just helps make it happen.”

(Flom declined to comment on Dr. Luke’s recent legal troubles involving the musician Kesha, who has tried to vacate her contract with Sony Music Entertainment because she says Dr. Luke sexually assaulted her.)

Flom says serendipity and luck are likely to be the subject of one of the two talks he’ll give at this year’s Tom Tom Fest. The April 15 Founders Summit at The Paramount Theater will feature a variety of entrepreneurs; Flom’s Passion & Advocacy talk is scheduled for 2pm.

“I think I’ll talk about how I was able to take [Lava] from zero to hero, or whatever you want to call it—what that was like both in the ’90s and today,” he says. “I like to talk about the role of luck and serendipity.”

The festival will give Flom a chance to talk about his other passion: freeing the innocent. A founding board member of The Innocence Project, made famous by its prominent role in the podcast “Serial,” Flom has made it his mission to free the improperly incarcerated. “Hit records are great; getting someone out of prison is better,” he says.

Flom, who’s on the board of five organizations involved in reducing mass incarceration, will tackle the issue in a noon luncheon at the Founders Summit, “Exoneration as Innovation.” The talk will give him a chance to explain just how overwhelming this problem is, he says, and continue to push it into the spotlight, as real-life crime dramas such as “Serial” and “Making a Murderer” have.

In the meantime, the music magnate took a minute to reflect on the innocence of the two most famous criminals whose guilt has been questioned. He says he’s not versed enough on the Adnan Syed case to say innocent or guilty. As for Steven Avery, Flom says “there is a huge probability that Steven Avery is innocent, and probably even greater that his nephew is.”

What we do know, Flom says, is Avery didn’t get a fair trial. And that’s his focus—the inherent problems in the legal system that made his father’s career.

“People have woken up to the idea that the criminal justice system is flawed,” he says. “There is a lot of momentum for change.”

Jason Flom says luck is at the center of his success in running four record labels, including his own, Lava, which signed Katy Perry after she was dropped by multiple labels. Photo: Courtesy subject

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