Bryan-Michael Cox Is Having A New Career Renaissance
PHOTO BY KOBE BOATENG
When it comes to crafting a hit, Bryan-Michael Cox is the one to call. The Grammy-winning producer and songwriter is the mastermind behind R&B classics like Usher’s Confessions, Mariah Carey’s The Emancipation of Mimi, Mary J. Blige’s “Be Without You”, Jagged Edge’s “Where The Party At”, DVSN’s “If I Get Caught”, among others.
Cox’s decades-spanning tenure has now landed him at LVRN, where he serves as the senior VP of A&R and executive producer. Founded in 2012, the Atlanta-based record label and management company’s roster includes 6lack, Summer Walker, BRS Kash, Alex Vaughn, Eli Derby, North Ave Jax, Shelley FKA DRAM, Westside Boogie, Dvsn, Davido, and Spinall.
LVRN’s partnership with Cox was officially announced in February, but the initial discussions of Cox joining the team ignited when he began working on DVSN’s third album, 2020’s A Muse in Her Feelings.
“A&R has become a lost art in this new generation of music because of the gap in relationship between A&R, the artist, and the label,” Justice Baiden, LVRN co-founder, previously shared during the time of the announcmeent. “Bryan-Michael Cox is a respected and accomplished producer and executive, and he’s the perfect addition to our team to help continue in bridging that gap. Bryan not only speaks the same language as the artist, but he also shares the same values as LVRN. We are on an unwavering mission to disrupt and redefine the rules of the music industry while also preserving the quality and integrity of the music. When I think of someone who handles music with care, I think of Bryan, and we’re excited to welcome him home to Atlanta and LVRN.”
Below, Cox speaks with EDITION about his new music venture, career highlights and lessons learned from being in an unpredictable industry.
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I've interviewed all the guys from LVRN before. I think they're disrupting the industry in such an exciting way, especially with R&B. I would love to know what you think makes them unique.
I think what makes them special is that they set out to trailblaze their own path. They pretty much go against the grain. It's not completely about data, you look at the roster as a diverse, creative spectrum of artists. Some have large followings. Some don't. Everybody is equally important to us in our calls. We talk about each and every one of them in a real way and push to get them to the next level. So I think that’s what makes them stand out: their passion and unbelievable strategy ability. I don't think I've been in a room with executives who are that great at strategy. They are phenomenal.
And of course, you're a veteran in this industry, but joining this company, what are you envisioning? How will you use your own skills to bring to this new table?
I've been out here for a long time and never really went away. When it comes to R&B, social media has kept me in front of the people. Then when I started really curating the nightlife situation—I've been DJing for a minute— it became a strong point in my toolbox. Then of course, the pandemic happened, and that really blew it to the next level. So between my Ladies Love R&B party and my Love Zone [streaming on Twitch] during the pandemic, the visibility aspect of who I am really continued to heighten. And then my influence. I've produced a lot of big records, I have a lot of relationships with different producers, songwriters, recording engineers, mixing engineers, and people who are curators of the culture.
Whenever I speak to producers, I’ve realized that you all are already built in A&Rs. You already have an ear by being in the studio.
Back in the day, A&Rs were the producers. Mr. Jones is the first black A&R for Mercury Records. We all know Quincy Jones is the most legendary producer in the world. So I don't think there's much of a difference. Even as a producer, my job is to take care of artists and ensure that we get the product to the finish line in a quality and professional way. So I think it's the same with being an A&R, I think our job is to make sure that we're executing the vision of the artist and the label even when they're conflicting.
You've seen multiple phases of how this industry has evolved. But what do you think is missing when it comes to artist development or A&R?
I mean, artist development is missing. At the end of the day, you can't really knock the A&Rs for trying to keep their job as the music business shifted. The business shifted the data in a real way and if you took a risk on artists and didn't work, you lose your job. I don't really approach it from a data perspective and that's what I love about LVRN. We have to pay attention to and we look at the data, but we don't move on the data. For us, [we ask ourselves] do we feel it? Does it fit the culture of our company?
I think artist development is lacking and because there's no culture at these major labels. It's not about “Does this artist fit the culture of our company?” They’re just trying to stack artists and stack money. That's no disrespect, it just is what it is. They got hundreds of artists so how can there be culture at a major label? When you see LVRN or QC, there’s a culture attached to that logo. That's what these major corporations are buying into.
I think it's important to have executives in positions like yours, who are fans of music first and not thinking so much of hitting a certain statistic or making a certain number. The music will speak for itself. You’re also challenging yourself to do different roles in the music industry.
I had my first hit record when I was 19. So I've been in the music business for 26 years. I've seen a lot, I've done a lot. And you have to ask yourself, “What's the next step for me? How can I expand my bandwidth and utilize a skill I have chipped away for all these years?” The executive role was the next phase. And also really digging into and organizing my company, Illustrate New Ideas. My partner Keith Thomas is a part of the Ladies Love R&B brand. We've been building that and just going crazy. A lot of this happened organically, so I'm just learning from each experience and molding what my future is gonna look like.
You've seen firsthand how R&B has evolved over the years. I would love to know your thoughts on the current state of the genre.
I think that every generation has its own perspective when it comes to music So I hear people who are older, around my age or a little bit younger than have a lot of gripes with how young people are expressing themselves musically with R&B. I feel like music is a big cycle. It’s a 20-year cycle. So if you do your research, the ‘90s was the re-emergence of people sampling funk records. In the ‘70s, people were wearing afros and braids. The music is reflective of that. D'Angelo is a 20-year throwback playing Fender Rhodes [keyboard] with the braids. So I feel like music is a cycle, we just stay on the horse long enough to ride until we get back to certain things. I've seen it happen with Summer [Walker], SZA, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak.
Also seeing legendary artists like Beyoncé, who made a house record. Seeing Usher emerge as this…he's always been a big superstar, but it's almost like he's emerged as this ageless unicorn. [laughs] And then watching artists like Miguel, who is working on his album, develop and really explore instrumentation and create his own bubble as an artist. Seeing Brent Faiyaz become who he's become. So I think R&B is in a really good space, actually. It's just we have to acknowledge that the youth are going to interpret it in their own way. They're going to take what they want from the past and it's gonna get refined. We're going to go into a space now where there’s gonna be massive records being made like the ones we've said that was happening “back in our day”. I hate saying that, but. [laughs]
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I want to take it back to your musical beginnings. How did that musical discovery first happen for you?
It was my mom and my aunts. I was surrounded by music. Everybody played instruments and sang. My grandfather was a pastor. So going to church and playing at church, I was surrounded by it. Once I got the bug, it was no escape.
Do you remember your first lightbulb moment where you realized you “made it”, so to speak?
Well, I made a record called “Get Gone” with a group called Ideal. It became a proper R&B hit. I couldn't really feel it at the time because I hadn't started making money yet. The royalty checks start coming like six months after. So they were months when this record was blowing up but I was still broke. [laughs] In the midst of that, I was working on Jagged Edge’s “He Can't Love You.”
That’s one of my favorite songs of all time.
Thank you. So “Get Gone” and “He Can't Love You” were out. I had two songs on the top of the R&B charts. Seeing my name twice in the top 10 on Billboard with just my name was very interesting to me. Then “Let's Get Married” came out. Then I had a song called “Creeping” that came out. That's when it was like, “Okay, I have four songs in the top 20. I'm really in it now.
Put some respect on my name.
I do this for real now. It's not just a fluke. And I just kept going.
You have multiple runs throughout your career, but I feel like 2005 was such a massive year with Usher’s Confessions winning Best R&B album, Mariah Carey's Emancipation of Mimi that you worked on, and Mary J. Blige’s “Be Without You” hit.
I was just happy to perform at that level. I had a proper team of creatives around me. My engineer Sam, [engineer] Donnie Scantz, [producer/songwriter] Adonis Shropshire, [producer/songwriter] Johntá Austin, and I was still working very closely with Jermaine Dupri. So I think it was just a perfect storm of all these different elements.
It's crazy because there were a lot of things happening that were on the other side of it that nobody really saw. I was trying to launch a company, so I had a staff and was spending a lot of money. I had groups I was trying to get signed. My focus was a little all over the place and the only thing that had my complete attention on was producing for these other artists. That condensed space was so jam-packed with hit records because I was kind of producing to try to fund these other things. And everything I was trying to fund failed. Just to keep it real. [laughs] Like I said before, your experiences dictate how you move now. I didn't know how to manage people and was doing things out of order. All I want to do is make music. So I love the studio. I love history. I love making records, I love discovering sounds and all that stuff. So 2005 was a great stretch for me, professionally. Personally, it was just taxing. I learned a lot about a lot of different people and how to manage friendships, especially long-term friendships and people's expectations of you.
During that period, my mom had to apologize to me, because when I was younger and coming up trying to produce my mom was helping me. I remember I was like 15 or 16 when she told me, “Keep your friends around you and don’t let these other people influence you” because the music business is like the unknown. That was a mistake. How can you not change? As the world revolves, you want to evolve
I mean, if you don't change, you're gonna get left behind.
And more importantly, when you become successful—whether you change the image of yourself or not—the people around you, their image of you changes. That was the thing I had my mom apologize to me for. She was like, “I didn't expect them to change.”
That's a big eye-opener, for sure.
I learned so much as a man during that period. So a lot of great things happen but a lot of wild things happen too. I'm thankful for all of it.