Larry Khan, Head of Urban Radio Promotions at Interscope Records
This month’s Millennial Mentor Larry Khan attributes a large part of his success to being in the right place, at the right time. But after speaking to this industry veteran for just a few minutes, it became clear that music has been his calling from day one. He worked his way up the proverbial food chain, from loading and unloading vinyls for a record wholesaler to his current title as Head of Urban Radio Promotions at Interscope Records. Over the past three decades, he has collaborated with some of the biggest names in R&B, including A Tribe Called Quest, Ciara, Usher, Chris Brown, R. Kelly, and Kendrick Lamar, without ever losing sight of his number one priority: family.
We are thrilled to share some of Larry’s words of wisdom, including the importance of embracing change and being honest with yourself about what will truly make you happy in life.
What inspired you to pursue a career in music and what was your first industry job?
As a young teenager, my passions were music, sports and comedy. History and math were never my thing. I didn’t grow up knowing my birth father [radio promotion legend, Joey Bonner], but when I finally met him at eighteen, it turned out he was in the music industry himself. He was an old school traditionalist and insisted I work my way up from the bottom. My first job was loading and unloading trucks of vinyl for a record wholesaler in the warehouse.
My career included a brief detour into standup comedy, but I was more gifted in music and found my way back there after a few years.
How important has mentorship been throughout your career? At what point(s) in your career did you find you needed this guidance most?
I have always been determined not be known as my father’s son and fortunately for me, we do not share a last name. Although my father opened some critical doors early on in my career, he is but one of many mentors on my personal “board.” While my father had a very outgoing, loud personality, I’ve always been the opposite; so I sought out people who had a similar demeanor and could help me become a leader in my own right.
A big part of my success can also be attributed to being in the right place at the right time. I believe everybody needs a bit of that. In the 90s, at the height of R&B and urban radio, I happened to be at the right label when R. Kelly was there. I had very little to do with signing him and rarely spent any time in the studio with him, but R. Kelly indirectly had a big impact on where I am today. Even when you’re blessed with these types of opportunities, however, you still have to seize them. I have always worked very hard and been quite progressive in my approach.
The music industry is incredibly dynamic and undergoing significant shifts. How are millennials disrupting the industry and how are you responding to these shifting preferences when it comes to creating, listening to, and sharing music?
The music business is always a moving target, so you have to be good at embracing what’s next. What’s happening in the music industry is a reflection of what’s happening across all media: the world is becoming an on-demand forum. Growing up, we would run home on Thursday night to watch the Cosby Show. Today, it’s all about streaming - millennials want music when they want it. The whole mindset around consuming entertainment has changed and I’m sure it will continue to evolve beyond streaming.
But what will never change, and what transcends the medium through which it’s being consumed, is the emotional response that a good artist can evoke in young people. I was at a showcase for a new artist last week with 1500 screaming [millennials] who couldn’t get enough. While they may go home to look the artist up on Spotify instead of waiting patiently for an album release, their enthusiasm is the same as when my friends and I listened to the White Album over and over again until the vinyl wore out.
What will never change, and what transcends the medium through which it’s being consumed, is the emotional response that a good artist can evoke in young people.
How are record labels adapting to these shifts and what type of strategies are they using to forge a deeper connection with this generation of fans?
Moneyball tells the story of a scout using data and analytics to assess an individual player’s potential. Record Labels have moved in a similar direction. Analytics has become a big component of how we evaluate new artists - no longer does talent get signed simply because they look good or have the “it” factor; equally important are things like how many Instagram followers or streams on Soundcloud you have.
Chance the Rapper is an example of how powerful a strong individual brand can be. He doesn’t have a record label and has done everything himself through the Internet and social media. Record labels still have considerable political klout, especially with radio for example, but you don’t need them to go viral in this day and age.
You were at Jive Records for 20 years. Most millennials don't last more than 2.5 years at one job. In your experience, what are the some of the benefits of working for the same company for that amount of time?
It’s different for everyone, but I think for me it was the security. I always had a pretty good sense of who I was and what I wanted to be. From day one, I knew I did not want to be the president of a record label and sit in a recording studio until 3AM with an artist. The most important thing to me was becoming a good parent and being the president of a record label would not afford me that opportunity.
I also knew that there was a certain amount of financial assets that would be enough to live the type of life I wanted, and that the difference between $5 million and $50 million would mean nothing to me personally. It’s important to get clear on what makes you happy, because it will make it easier to design a life that is aligned with what you want.
It’s important to get clear on what makes you happy, because it will make it easier to design a life that is aligned with what you want.
What advice would you give your 20-something self that you wish you knew when starting out your career?
Know who you are and what makes you happy. Know that you’re going to make mistakes and that you’ll learn from those mistakes. I tell my kids that there’s a very high likelihood they’re going to have to spend 40-60 hours a week working to pay off a mortgage, so you might as well spend that time doing something you enjoy.
Any words to live by?
Be balanced, be honest, and work hard.