09/05/2014 12:16 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Music Industry Executive Meets Social Advocate: Chatting with Lava Records CEO Jason Flom

photo courtesy Lava/Republic Records

A Conversation with Jason Flom

Mike Ragogna: Jason, let's catch up on you. You were recently honored by Russell Simmons, Michael Bloomberg and all these folks from the Simmons Art For Life Foundation. Let's go into that first. What was the award for?

Jason Flom: I think it was really for the general work that I do. I haven't done a ton of work on the arts side, but I have been involved for over 20 years trying to reform the criminal justice system. I'm a founding board member of the Innocence Project, I've been on the boards of the Drug Policy Alliance and Families Against Mandatory Minimums for a long, long time. As you know, Russell is involved in that stuff, too, on the drug side specifically--The Rockefeller Drug Laws. He and I have worked together on certain initiatives and gotten to know each other as a result of that. He made a very beautiful speech in the event talking about the work that he had done in that area. I'm also on the board of The Flom Foundation, which helps gifted disadvantaged youth, so there's a connection there with Art For Life. But the Simmons Foundation doesn't only honor people who have been involved directly with their organization, they cast a wider net. I was thrilled to be up there with that group of people.

MR: I think most people associate you with Lava, Capitol or Virgin, not with your social work. What's the history of you being socially conscious and getting involved?

JF: It happened in 1992 just sort of serendipitously. I happened to read an article in the Post--I rarely read the Post, but that particular day, the Times was sold out at the stand I went to. I'll try to make a long story short, but the headline was about the first Governor Cuomo, it said, "Cuomo Denies Ferraro Bid For Druggie Parole" or something like that. I was like, "Oh, this story sounds interesting, it's got prison and drugs in it," two things that I'm fascinated with. I read it and it was about this kid who was serving fifteen to life for a non-violent cocaine possession charge in a maximum security prison in New York. The reason it was in the paper was he had been in for eight years already, he was the same age as I was at that time, he had completed college degrees, done rehab in prison and everything else and his only hope to get out of this mandatory sentence was a pardon from the governor or a clemency. His mom had gotten letters from the judge and community leaders and Geraldine Ferraro even wrote a letter to Cuomo back when she had recently been a vice presidential candidate and Cuomo turned him down.

I read this and was like, "What?" I mean, I didn't known anything about these drug laws, but I knew rapists and murderers don't serve that much time, so I was like, "This doesn't make any sense." Long story short, I called the woman on the phone, I said, "You probably think I'm a weirdo, I don't have a lot of money," because I didn't back then, "but I want to send you a check to get a new lawyer or do something." She said, "Well, that's very sweet, but we've exhausted all of our appeals, we've spent all our family's life savings on lawyers and we have no hope except for a clemency and now we've been turned down." She said, "Jason, there's a guy who's a murderer who got into the prison after my son and he's out. My son's not eligible for parole for another seven years. Can you explain that?" and I said, "No." So I called a guy I knew who used to represent my rock stars when they would get in trouble--which was frequently. He represented Scott Weiland and Sebastian Bach and all these people. I said, "Bob, what the f**k is this?" He said, "There's nothing you can do, it's the Rockefeller Drug Laws." Anyway, he took the case pro bono as a favor to me, we wound up getting a hearing for the kid five months later, we flew up to Malone, New York like the Avengers and we won on a technicality and the kid got out. I was sitting in the courtroom holding his mom's hand and it was such a transformative experience. I just said, "I want to do more of that."

So I did some research, I found out about Families Against Mandatory Minimums, I joined their board, I've worked on clemencies... I've worked on it on a micro and a macro level. I haven't spoken about this publically ever, but I worked on the micro level on getting clemencies for deserving individuals like this kid. I was actually able to convince President Clinton in his last year in office to grant clemency to seventeen non-violent first offenders who were serving between fifteen and eighty-five years mandatory for their offences. He and I actually became friends because of that. He was so happy with those clemencies, and he later told me he wished he had given me more, because I asked for more. But to my knowledge, no one got more than one clemency from him, those are hard to get, but I got seventeen. None of those people have reoffended and many of them have gone on to really be productive citizens, including getting degrees of higher learning and stuff like that. That's been my passion for a long time and it led me to my work with the other organizations, Drug Policy Alliance, which is underneath the umbrella of George Soros' Open Society Foundation. It's been a very, very big part of my life and I feel lucky that I found a cause that I care about so much that just feels second nature to me.

MR: Recently, we've seeing more decriminalization and legalization of marijuana use such as in Colorado, but where do you think we stand now in general?

JF: You know, Mike, when I first started this, people who were wise told me that it takes thirty years to change something in Washington, so I think we're ahead of schedule. It's a real tipping point right now, and it's extremely exciting from my vantage point to see actual legalization taking place. I think sixty percent of Americans now live in a state where medical marijuana is legal, and now of course we have the first two states that decriminalized it. It's just a common sense thing. We have 2.3 million people in prison. We had four hundred thousand, thirty years ago. The classic statistic is that we have one fifth of the world's prison population, but we have one twenty fifth of the world's population. We lock people at five times the rate of the rest of the civilized world. Fourteen times the rate that people do per capita in Japan. We have more people in prison for drugs in America than everybody in prison for everything in Western Europe and they have more people than we do. It's all wrong. It's got to change. The public has finally woken up to it and now the politicians are finally waking up to it, which is quite incredible. These things are being passed by referendums, so I can't give too much credit to the politicians, but there is a lot of movement both on the conservative and liberal side because conservatives don't like big government.

Anyway, we're digressing, but it's a wonderful moment and it's going to have a profound effect on everything. People don't think about it. When you have these low-level pot arrests, they have a ripple effect. People serve a few days or a week or a month or whatever in prison, or if they can't make bail they serve months and months in prison, they lose their job, if they're a single parent they lose their kid to foster care, they're no longer able to qualify for housing aid or college aid. It's madness--all for pot, which everybody's smoked at some point. Obama's talked about how much pot he's smoked. What are we doing? It's an extremely hypocritical situation. I don't do drugs, I don't do any drugs at all. I like to smoke cigars. I hope my kids will never do drugs, but it's a personal freedom issue to me. If you have an addiction, it's a medical problem, it's not the government's business. They have to get out of it and it's moving that way. This is a very exciting moment.

photo courtesy Getty Images

MR: Jason, what's happening on the Lava front these days?

JF: It's a great time at Lava. Lava's a small company, we have less than a dozen acts signed, but our batting average is very high. Someone just pointed out to me that the biggest-selling album in the United States this year was Frozen but I don't really count that because it's a soundtrack on Disney for the biggest animated movie of all time. Let's discount that for a second. The biggest-selling artist album this year was Katy Perry, who I discovered and signed when I was a chairman at Virgin. Number two is either Pharrell or Lorde, it depends on how you count it. If you count streaming she's bigger, otherwise he's thirty five thousand ahead, it's a statistical dead heat. So we can say that the two biggest-selling artist albums of the year in the US are both artists that I discovered and signed. And now, I have Jessie J, and this record feels like an historically big record. We call them monsters. It's a monster. It's number one in twenty-five countries. It's ginormous here. She's a giant star anywhere around the world and now she's becoming a real force here as well. It's really a wonderful moment! If I'm not enjoying my job now, I probably never will.

photo courtesy Lava/Republic Records

MR: Jessie J's also dueting with Smokey Robinson on "Crusin'" on his new album.

JF: She is. Randy Jackson produced that and I was in the studio when they did it. I wasn't doing anything, I was just trying to say hello! Smokey's a legend and I know it meant a lot to Jessie to be on that record.

MR: That little introduction she does in the beginning is really sweet.

JF: Yeah, that's sweet, and she's got this collaboration with these two wonderful artists Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj coming up. Sometimes it all just comes together. This job can be extremely frustrating, as you know because you've been on the other side of it. I was on the other side of it, too, but I never even got as far as you, I just played some clubs. It's a very humbling business. A lot of times the ones we think will be hits don't turn out to be, every once in a while you get the other kind of surprise. No one's ever batted four hundred. When you get one, you kind of have to sit there and go, "Hmm." You've got to take a minute to appreciate it. This is really a great moment for me professionally and I'm enjoying it.

photo credit: Jeremy Deputat

MR: You've been behind the signing and evolution of so many great artists. What are some of your favorite musical moments over the years?

JF: No one's ever asked me that question before. I remember seeing Tori Amos at The Bottom Line in New York when we were first breaking her. That was a great moment for me. Kid Rock's first showcase in New York when I first signed him and also his appearance on the VMAs when we did that thing with Aerosmith and Run-DMC, that was incredible. This isn't somebody I signed but Steven Tyler was my idol growing up and I got to manage him for about a year. Even though I'm not a manager, we became close. There were some great moments watching him on stage, even standing on the stage and saying, "What am I doing here?" I kept waiting for someone to say, "Hey kid, move it," but I was like, "Wait a minute, I get to tell them that! This is crazy, right?" So that was amazing. I would say that watching Jessie J's first showcase for us was a great moment, and seeing her at The Royal Albert Hall in London. I love to watch that progression and be a part of that, from being in a small club and then knowing I had something to do with helping them get to that other place.

Again, the Lorde thing has been remarkable. I saw her do her first show she ever did singing her own material at a club with about seventy people in Auckland, New Zealand. That was one of my favorite moments because she was so poised and so great already. She was fifteen and I said, "Oh my God, where's this going?" It went exactly where you would hope it would go. She's such an important and classy and beautiful and wonderful artist, I feel really lucky to be involved with her career at any level. Even down to when she told me what the name of the album title was it took me twenty four hours to recover from how genius that is. Are you kidding me? Come on, I wish I'd thought of it. It's amazing. So I would say those are some of the moments that come to mind, because there's been so many. The first time I saw Twisted Sister at Skid Row sticks out in my mind.

MR: The way you work behind the scenes, the word "mentor" comes in to my mind. Do you enjoy being in that sort of situation?

JF: Yes. I'm very proud of some of the executives that I've brought along, having had some influence on their lives and their careers is something I do enjoy. I love sharing the knowledge that I've gained over the years. It's knowledge about something you can't know, right? The music business is unknowable, but it's certainly a great part of this. I think I haven't been the best self-promoter, but I have no regrets. I've had a really great run and now's one of the best times I've ever had. When I had Lava at Atlantic--and we're getting ready to have Lava's "Lucky Thirteenth Anniversary," I'm calling it, we're going to do a party in New York--we had eight lucky years at Atlantic and five lucky years here although not all of them have been lucky. But back in the Atlantic days, I had three gigantic hits with Matchbox 20, Kid Rock and The Corrs.

Somebody reminded me, you know the debt clock in Union Square? I put a clock like that in our lobby that showed the number of records we'd sold and it just kept going and going and going because back then you could ship out ten million of this, fifteen million of this. It was crazy, the numbers were massive. That was a lot of fun. By the way, going back to the favorite moments, there was a moment with Thirty Seconds To Mars where Jared Leto stopped the show at the Hammerstein Ballroom because he saw me in the audience, and he told the story of how when I took over Virgin records they were about to be dropped and then I made them the number one priority. He said something along the lines of, "I wouldn't be standing here if it weren't for this guy." That's a great moment. There are a lot of great moments. This is going to make me sound old but July 31st was my thirty-fifth anniversary in this wacky business.

MR: Nice, Happy Anniversary!

JF: It was nice, Mike, because I was hiking up a mountain in Aspen and I realized it was thirty fifth anniversary and Jessie J was number one and I was like, "F**kin' A!" You know what I mean? Checked that box.

MR: Jason, what advice do you have for new artists?

JF: It's interesting. It's changing. I think the most important thing is to get out there. Get out of your garage if you're in there practicing, play as many shows as you can, make your presence known on social media any way you can, put content out there. In this day and age, it's really important to put content out there. And I guess believe in yourself until the evidence against it becomes overwhelming. You and I both had that experience. I heard the first Van Halen record and I said, "Okay, f**k it, I'm hanging up my guitar. I might as well try to dunk a basketball. This is ridiculous." Be very cautious early on with who you get involved with in terms of managers and agents, there's going to be all kinds of people coming at you with all kinds of offers that may look very tantalizing but do your research, make sure as best as you can that the people that are going to be a part of your inner circle are people who can actually help you. Be aware that this business is a business of rejection and disappointment. Some of the biggest artists I've ever signed have been dropped from other labels, maybe more than one. Katy Perry was dropped from two labels when I signed her. Kid Rock had had two record deals, neither of which had worked out when I signed him. It's a difficult one because some people will read this who maybe don't even have the talent and will say, "Well, Jason said just keep at it!" There's no magic formula, but I think you should read the audience as best as you can. When you're playing a show, you'll see what songs react better, you'll see what they vibe for, you can see it online now, too, and then go towards what works. Then the only other thing I would say is stay true to yourself. You have to do what you do and try to be the best at it.

photo courtesy Lava/Republic Records

MR: Beautiful. What do you want to do now?

JF: I don't know. I'm actually talking to Sirius about doing a radio show, which would be a blast. I've done some stand up, that was fun. What do I want to do? I enjoy doing what I'm doing. I said to somebody, "Listen, maybe I should quit after the Jessie J record because this is as good as it gets." But I have some new artists I'm extremely excited about. I want to continue to sign great artists and help them build important careers. We'll see how it shakes out. The music business keeps getting smaller but I think it'll turn around. I'm bullish on a five-year basis. This is what I do. This is what I know how to do and I still enjoy doing it. It's literally finding a needle in a haystack because there's so many artists, there's so many things but I never know when the next superstar is going to walk into my office or I'm going to get an email from someone like Natalia Romiszewski who sent me Lorde. I have the email framed in my office from her from November 27th, 2012. The subject line is "Hot S**t." I get a dozen of these a day from people, "Hey listen to my thing it's the biggest thing in the world," right? She was a music supervisor and she sent me a soundcloud link. It says, "Unsigned New Zealand Female, Listen!" And she put a little disclaimer on it that says, "Not sure if it's for you, but wanted to pass along." I was just sitting, minding my business at home going through my inbox, I opened that up and listened to it and went, "What in the world is this?" Royals, right? It had only been online for two days, somehow it made its way from New Zealand to a woman in Australia or London who forwarded it to Natalia who was a music supervisor who forwarded it to me and lo and behold here we are, she's winning Grammys and has become a real generational superstar. I love that. It's fun. I want to keep doing that and devote as much time as I can to my family and doing my charitable stuff and in between play a little golf and have a relatively simple life.

MR: And all the best with that, Jason. So what did we leave out?

JF: One of your questions reminded me that my dad, who I revered and I miss, gave me and my brothers some great advice when we were kids. He said, "Do whatever you want to do, try to be the best at it, but just know that the meaning of success is having made the world a better place because you lived." I've tried to live up to that. As I said before, I just feel very lucky that I've found ways that I can make a difference in people's lives. There's nothing more rewarding than meeting someone who you helped get out of prison, just righting wrongs. When I was at Capitol, my staff surprised me with a poster they made in which I'm a superhero and I have a cape and a "U" on my chest. My superhero name is "The Unf**ker." I've always wanted to be that guy, where I was able to be in a position where I could help people in an irreligious way because it's a lowercase "g" when I say, "There but for the grace of god go I." I'm lucky enough to be in this position--and I know how lucky I am. Even talking to these guys who have been through these incredibly terrible experiences--terrible's not even a strong enough word--in some ways, I feel like I get as much out of it as they do from being able to help them and extricate them from a situation they didn't belong in in the first place. So yeah, I want to make more money so I can give more money away.

MR: [laughs] That's a great way to put that.

JF: That's my shtick.

MR: Well, it looks like you've used your success to contribute to the world, just like your dad suggested. I really admire people who do that.

JF: That's very kind. I feel awkward talking about it because you know, it's something you do and you don't really talk about it, but if in talking about it some of the millions of people that read your stuff are moved to research the organizations or get involved, it would be great.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne