Street marketing does the trick

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Lyor cohen is doing an impressive job of marketing and advertising a record label and its artists as he runs off to the Grammys, takes the wife and kid to Aspen, Colo., and move from one floor in his midtown Manhattan offices to the next.

So getting Mr. Cohen on the phone to talk about how he does what he does proved impossible. Getting people to talk about Mr. Cohen, however, was easy.

"Lyor is the king of buzz, and the kind of guy everyone wants on their team," says Def Jam Chairman Russell Simmons, who hired Mr. Cohen as a partner in 1985. With 17 years in the music business, 40-year-old Mr. Cohen, Def Jam's co-president, has made the most -- and tens of millions of dollars -- out of hip-hop music's underdog status.

Early on, Run-DMC, the first rap act to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone and the first to hit the pop charts' Top 10, couldn't even get into the studios of local radio stations. Mr. Cohen, the trio's road manager at the time, decided to put fliers on all the windshields in the stations' parking lots.

"People knew Run-DMC was there, even if Run-DMC wasn't actually in there," laughs the group's Joseph "Run" Simmons.

It was Def Jam, under Mr. Cohen's instruction, that implemented street marketing in the record industry, says Antonio "L.A." Reid, co-president of LaFace Records, which now uses street marketing to push its labels.

Street marketing involves the plastering of telephone poles, sides of buildings and even a car's front windshield to announce the upcoming release of a new album by, say, Public Enemy or LL Cool J.

"Rap was having a hard time reaching fans through the airwaves," says rapper/actor Cool J. "It wasn't the pop music that it is today.

Promoters "couldn't go through the traditional means of getting a record played on the radio and getting a hit. You had to meet the record buyer where they lived, handing out fliers and posters at the mom-and-pop around the corner, putting stickers on street lights, [and posting them] where they partied."

Def Jam, the record label, was already a well-known entity when Mr. Cohen, a global marketing and finance major at the University of Miami (Fla.), decided to try concert promoting in the late '70s. He borrowed $1,000 from his mother, put on a show in Los Angeles that included Run-DMC, and made $36,000.

"Lyor oversaw every detail of everything to make sure there was never, ever a problem," recalls Darryl "DMC" McDaniels. "He was Mr. Handle-It-Make-It-Happen."

Through that Los Angeles encounter, Mr. Cohen happened into the Def Jam operation.

Mr. Cohen worked his way up through its management division, eventually replacing Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin, who left in 1988, as partner with co-founder Russell Simmons.

Last year Mr. Cohen and Mr. Simmons sold their 40% interest in the label to Seagram Co. for $120 million, allowing Def Jam to merge with Island Records, to create Island/Def Jam, a $350 million company.

It was a good year to make the move -- Def Jam had its best year in 1998, with Grammy Award winner Jay-Z and fellow rapper DMX helping the record company triple its sales to $180 million. It claimed $40 million in profits.

"Lyor just challenges the system, and at the same time that energy just challenges and motivates you," explains Jay-Z.

Knocking the record industry notion that an artist should wait two to three years in between releases, Mr. Cohen released hardcore rapper DMX's debut effort and its follow-up within eight months of each other in 1998. They sold 3.4 million and 2.5 million copies respectively.

An all-rap concert tour, "'99 Hard Knock Life," became the best-selling rap road show in history, earning $11 million at 37 shows, according to Amusement Business, which tracks concert sales.

In December, Mr. Cohen made the decision to have Island/Def Jam follow the Christmas holiday with new releases from Jay-Z and DMX.

The century started with Jay-Z at No. 1 and DMX No. 2 on the pop charts, right above Celine Dion.

In a marketing coup, Mr. Cohen went the underground way. Rather than group interviews and pushes for airplay, he used a method that makes teen-agers feel as if they've stumbled upon something special: the well-placed stickers and placards.

Now his sights aren't simply on rap. Mr. Cohen's position at the merged label has him steering the comebacks of teen pop trio Hanson and longtime rockers Jon Bon Jovi, as he pushes R&B singer Sisqo into crossover territory and builds Redman and Method Man's status as rock fans' favorite rappers.

"He's real busy right now," Mr. Simmons says.


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