When it comes to heavy weight influences in music culture over the last couple of decades, there are only a few companies that have remained relevant and continue to survive the cutthroat world of the music business. With an industry constantly in flux; evolving with technology, listening trends, and cultural shifts – companies are constantly put to the test – with only the structurally concrete managing to stand the test of time. One such company that has remained in the forefront of influencing music culture for over two decades is the multi-media company, The FADER.
Today, The FADER has grown into a globally recognized brand, well beyond its origins as a coveted magazine, that has helped shape the way artists communicate their vision through authentic storytelling, which has facilitated the careers of some of the industry’s biggest stars. Through in-house live events with FADER Fort, and aiding the development of their own artists’ careers such as Clairo, binki, Zachary Knowles, ella jane, Charlie Burg, and others with FADER Label, Co-Founder and Co-CEO Jon Cohen walked me through some of the challenges and successes of how The FADER continues to remain an elite, multi-faceted brand, and where he sees the future of music media headed tomorrow.
Jon Cohen is focused. Prior to joining forces with longtime friend and business partner Rob Stone to launch The FADER, Cohen and Stone were just two kids who loved hip-hop, discovering Run-D.M.C. together in Stone’s car. By college, Cohen started to study the music industry on his own – immersing himself in any information he could get his hands on. Right after graduating from Syracuse University, Cohen was hired to work for SBK/EMI, which was the world’s biggest publisher at the time. Proving his ear for talent, Cohen went on to become the Vice President of Alternative Music at Columbia Records, until his mid 20’s, when he left to reunite with Stone to begin building a creative ad agency, Cornerstone, which would go on to become the backbone of The FADER.
Cohen told me, “we started the company [The FADER] with Cornerstone which was initially an outsource for managers, labels, and artists to hire us directly to do the same things record labels do to really help break artists, and as that built, we made these tools that a lot of brand people started getting their hands on. Two years into Cornerstone, we saw we could tell stories within music and culture probably better than a lot of the media companies, so we started creating The FADER to document all the access we had.” As the brand and reputation for discovering and breaking music developed, artists began looking at The FADER as an authority for good music taste. Artists such as Outkast and Beck started inviting the The FADER team into the studio to listen to unreleased songs (often before labels got their ears on it), seeking The FADER’s feedback and hopefully their stamp of approval.
With this access to artists and the advertising and marketing tools of Cornerstone at The FADER’s disposal, came the realization of the ability to help artists on a deeper level, making the creation of FADER label a natural next step to continue expanding the brand. Even with the rapid success of The FADER magazine opening doors to be able to work with some of the biggest names in the game, FADER Label stuck to its core, helping artists that were in the earlier stages of their career that FADER Label truly believed in.
When looking for artists to add to the FADER Label roster, Cohen told me “it starts with the song. Can this artist write? Does this artist have a message and vision? Not only can they write and tell stories, but is there something unique in the way they arrange or have the pace to work well with a producer?” It’s refreshing to be reassured that there are labels like FADER Label that still put the music first, rather than chase data and viral moments.” Data is really the last thing we look at, we’re not going to be a data first label, we’re a music first label, and if [the artists] have the data to back it up, that’s just a plus,” says Cohen.
With the undeniable power of TikTok, it’s fascinating to see how labels choose to interact with the app. At FADER Label, TikTok is simply a tool to complement the groundwork of traditional methods to breaking artists, such as partnering with DSPs, creating great content, and compelling music of course. Even so, the label has had its fair share of TikTok success, as seen with Clairo in 2020. Cohen continued, “people are going to have hits, but at the end of the day, careers are not built on data. TikTok is just the icing on the cake to get that spark on top of everything else you do.” On top of looking for artists who understand who they are as a person, Cohen mentioned “the second part we look for, which has been the biggest challenge during Covid, is can that artist play and perform live?”
It’s no secret live events are a crucial part to any artist’s career, especially when it comes to longevity. With the recent return of in-person live events, the artists who not only can perform for 60 seconds in front of a ring light and phone screen, but also can translate their talents on stage in front of thousands of screaming fans will be the true winners at the end of the day. So, it’s only right that this qualification is a major priority for the label, as part of The FADER’s success has been built through its dominant live event arm, FADER Fort.
For 18 consecutive years, The FADER has cemented its presence at the coveted music industry conference and festival in Austin, Texas – SXSW, with it’s FADER Fort stage, hosting dozens of the industry’s hottest emerging artists to showcase their talents directly to music fans and industry insiders. Having to pull the plug on 2020’s event due to Covid, Cohen mentioned “we were working on plans to expand the Fort past Texas into other major cities, but we made a good move in bringing the Fort back digitally, hosting about 100 different acts in a 48 hour period.” Remaining focused on the original mission of FADER Fort, the company quickly adapted, a continuing theme to The FADER’s success. Not only was the Fort kept alive through adaptive decision making and teamwork, but the digital event also managed to raise about $50,000 for the Save Our Stages initiative, benefitting local independent venues, bartenders, technical workers, and others who lost their work due to Covid. There are few companies in the music industry that manage to see success in a singular area of the business, but there’s even fewer who can say they are successful and sustainable in multiple sectors of the business such as The FADER. So, what’s the secret? How has The FADER built such a successful brand with so many different facets to their business model?
In regard to building a strong brand, Cohen revealed the secret is consistency. “Strong brands stay consistent and true to the integrity of what they’re built on, they do things with taste and class, they know how to say no to certain things, they don’t become too mainstream and sell out. It’s coming up with whatever your mission is, evolving it, but staying true to that mission.” Although The FADER has made it look seamless and easy over the past 20 plus years, consistently remaining in touch with what the next best thing is in music is no easy feat. Cohen enlightened me on how The FADER’s younger employees play a pivotal role in remaining relevant. “First of all, it’s hard as hell starting a business. Even though it’s fun and exhilarating, it’s also just as intense, stressful, and difficult. I think the way we’ve stayed so current and relevant is as we’ve gotten older, we’ve always trusted the next generation, and we’ve always been very fortunate to attract really good young talent,” explains Cohen. No empire in the history of our existence as humans was built single handedly, nor overnight. It’s crucial to build a strong team, and even more important to The FADER for that team to be in the know and on top of trends with a keen ear for what’s hot, which consistently remains the competitive advantage of the youth. “As a 52 year old, I am still really into the music. I love seeing shows, going to festivals, discovering new artists, but at the end of the day, I’ll never be a peer and in the thick of it again like I was in my early to mid 20’s. The key to our success is being humble enough to realize that and let it go, and empower and teach the future generations in our company. It’s really crucial to our success to trust their taste, instincts, and empower the ideas of our young staff, and support them to have a big hand in shaping our business,” states Cohen.
Many of you reading this right now are likely just starting out in the industry, in your early to mid 20’s, looking to make an impact as soon as possible. Know that your talents are valued at the right companies, and at the right times, even when it may not seem like it. But with hard work, focus, and determination, also comes patience – another key ethos to The FADER’s prosperity. Cohen told me “it’s the patience to take the punches that get thrown at you, and most people don’t have the patience or focus to weather the storm. To survive in this business, you have to be able to handle a lot of adversity and overcome it.”
Even with decades of success, as The FADER continues to grow, there will always be new challenges that arise – but with a team that’s ready to tackle any obstacles head on. When I asked about any challenges The FADER has faced from having multiple different facets to their business, Cohen told me “the blessing is we have a very diverse revenue stream, but the tough thing is staffing and managing the ebbs and flows of the business.” Cohen says, “as you get bigger, the harder it gets, and the more you do, the more challenges, but they also play off each other, they’re all helpful if you think about it.” Even with the media, label, and Fort working together in harmony, after 25 years in business, Cohen told me he wants to streamline The FADER even more. The FADER looks to continue to evolve and tell stories within music, just in ways that may not have been done before.
When we discussed where the future of music media is likely headed, Cohen predicted, “I think media vehicles are going to be drivers for e-commerce, drivers for video and TV content, drivers for record labels, and I think we’re going to see media become storytelling vehicles that is at the center to connect all of those other areas. Media is going to be more important than ever. Writers and photographers are on the front line of documenting and sparking some of the biggest careers in our business, but media is really going to have to evolve the business model to help support the storytelling.”
With new and exciting artists being discovered daily, the more important storytelling and communicating the full artist experience becomes to fans and to the business. Music has increasingly become more about winning and retaining attention, which is where music media has thrived, helping to curate and facilitate taste, giving direction to those lost in the chaos of an oversaturated market. For The FADER, you can expect to see the media conglomerate continue to evolve with how they tell stories within music, across a wider range of vehicles and mediums, more involvement with playlist curation, podcasts, new partnerships, and new signings to their label to be announced in the near future.