Lyor Cohen, YouTube’s Music Head, Faces Down A Doubtful Music Business

Lunch with Lyor Cohen starts with a boss move. The global head of music at YouTube, formerly top man at the New York rap label Def Jam, walks briskly into Sautter, a cigar retailer based in Mount Street, Mayfair, one of the ritziest streets in London’s ritziest neighbourhood. He inclines his tall frame forwards to inspect the wares. “You’re going to take one with me,” he says as he picks out two Cuban cigars, Partagas Serie D No. 5s. 

“Is he a cigar smoker?” says the woman behind the counter in a Hispanic accent. She means me and, no, I am not. “This is a very strong cigar,” she warns. “We’re starting him off at the top,” Cohen says breezily, straightening to his full height of 6ft 5in. The deal is sealed. Not untypically, it is on Cohen’s terms. I am about to take up smoking again, for the first time since quitting cigarettes 20 years ago.

The man who was once nicknamed “Mr Handle-It-Make-It-Happen” marches outside with the stogies. He has a reputation as a tough negotiator and ruthless competitor. “I’m a carnivore — I’m not a vegan. I’m a predator. But I don’t do anything illegal,” he told the FT in 2002, when asked about accusations of poaching a group from a rival label.

He started his music career at the sharp end, as road manager for the rap group Run-DMC in the 1980s. Rising through the ranks, he became co-president of Def Jam Records in 1988, marshalling rap’s first wave of stars, the likes of LL Cool J, Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. Just over a decade later, he brokered the sale of a 40 per cent stake that he co-owned in the label for a reported $130m.

Fear is not an emotion typically attributed to Lyor Cohen. This is the former music industry exec, after all, whose imposing swag and steely visage made him as formidable a figure as the major rap stars whose careers he helped launch and lord over (from Run-DMC to Young Thug) during hip-hop’s 40-year rise to the top of the charts. So when Cohen copped to a fear of public speaking during one of two recent conversations we had in the weeks preceding the long-awaited launch of YouTube’s newly announced streaming subscription services, YouTube Music and YouTube Music Premium, it seemed like an unlikely admission from a person known for crushing competition at all costs.

“I tackled a lifelong fear of mine. I dragged it to the ground and I stomped on it,” Cohen said, in near glee this March, recounting the SXSW keynote address he had just given to a ballroom of hundreds in Austin. “I said to myself: ‘I’m on the back half of my life, and I’m going to tackle every one of my fears.’ ” In his speech, he positioned his many career pivots (from road manager to leading Def Jam to head of Warner Music Group) as a sales pitch for the music industry to embrace change.