Gamma founder Larry Jackson & UK president Ben Cook - The Music Week Interview

Gamma founder Larry Jackson & UK president Ben Cook - The Music Week Interview

On Wednesday, shockwaves were felt across the industry as Gamma – a new music, media and technology company founded by Apple Music’s former global creative director Larry Jackson and veteran music executive Ike Youssef – was unveiled.

Supported with up to $1billion in financial backing, according to reports, from Eldridge, A24 and Apple “to offer the world’s leading artists bespoke creative and business services across all artistic and commercial touchpoints”, it is the largest-backed music start-up ever.

“The power of intellectual property and creative expression cannot be contained to any one format,” said Jackson, unveiling the venture. “The artists shaping today’s culture not only create music, but also video, film, podcasts, fashion, and more. They shouldn’t have to jump through multiple hoops to express themselves. Gamma is built with the flexibility and aptitude that creators need to connect with fans on all formats and across all channels – with transparency and no restriction.”

While the implications of Gamma’s arrival are huge, within the blockbuster announcement was also another key bit of information, namely the surprise news that its president of UK and Europe is Ben Cook – the former Atlantic Records UK president who exited the role in 2019 amidst the controversial fallout from his appearance at a fancy dress party seven years prior. 

In a personal statement issued by Cook at the time, he said: “It is with great sadness that today I announce I am stepping down as president of Atlantic Records UK. Seven years ago, at a birthday party where guests were asked to come dressed as their favourite musical icon, I came as a member of Run DMC. Late last year rumours began to circulate about my appearance at that event, many of which are simply untrue. While my intention was to honour a musical hero, I recognise my appearance was offensive and I made a terrible mistake… I am devastated that this mistake has caused upset and has called into question my commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion, values which I have championed throughout my career. I have learned a great deal from this event and will resolutely continue to champion these values moving forward… I unreservedly apologise to anyone who has been hurt.”

With the arrival of Gamma, and the appointment of Cook, there are a lot of unanswered questions, both involving the vision of the company and the former Atlantic president’s past. Here, Music Week joins Jackson and Cook to find out more…

Before we get into Gamma and the vision behind it, let’s address what many people, especially in the UK industry, will be thinking about. Larry when starting this venture, why hire Ben after what he did?

Larry Jackson: “I have been a misfit and a bit of an underdog my entire life. I got kicked out of high school, never finished. I never went to university, never went to a college. I got fired from my job – with cause by the way – at Sony late 2010, specifically for putting up some capital to cover a cost that the label at the time did not want to cover to remunerate a very important artist on the label who was producing for another important artist that I’d signed, both artists being Black. I've signed Jennifer Hudson. I work with Monica. I signed Fantasia. I produced Whitney Houston's last studio album. I worked with Aretha Franklin. I signed Chief Keef. I signed, with Simon Cowell, Leona Lewis and produced the Spirit album with Sonny Takhar and Nicola Carson. I also signed Mario with [current RCA Records CEO] Peter Edge. At Apple I worked with Drake and helped to invest in Black artists who were having troubled times with their labels. I worked with Frank Ocean. I work with Travis Scott. I work with Future. The common denominator in all of those touch points is how I have helped to invest in and enrich and uplift Black music, Black executives and Black talent in our culture. I've always operated with our culture's best intentions at my heart, so to ever feel challenged about my perspective – about honouring what we are as a people – deeply hurts me. I lost my job for it, man.

"I understand the British music business. I've spent a lot of time there. I spend a week a month there. It's one of the cultures where I most palpably as a Black man, as a Black executive, feel that thing that you're talking about, that you're alluding to, that you're intimating, I feel that. I feel it just like they feel it. I've been in rooms where people have talked about me in a way behind my back or openly to my face, I feel it. I've been fired. I've been passed over for jobs. I'm speaking from the heart, even if it's hurtful to some people who might read this, but I'm saying it because I identify. And I'm talking to you from the heart, talking to you from experience – the same experiences that they've had.

"So when I sat down with Ben – somebody I'd known long before our relationship could benefit each other on any level – before this whole idea of us working together came into perspective, I had a conversation with him and I saw the emotion in his eyes. More than that, I saw the perspective and the contrition. I believe in redemption. I'm a beneficiary of redemption. Clive Davis hired me when I was 19 and I'm a high school dropout. Jimmy Iovine hired me after I was terminated for cause. You know what it is to be terminated for cause as a Black man in the music business? That's like branding a slave. Do you know that statistic of all high school dropouts that are incarcerated in the United States? 75% of us don't make it. I sat down with a person, Ben, in 2019 and I saw something that I felt in a person I've known for so long even before this situation. What are you going to do? Throw the baby out with [the bathwater]? I'm not here for this unilateral cancel culture on that level. You get what I'm saying? I'm putting my money where my mouth is. I'm putting my values where my heart is. Unless we are all willing to quit en masse and not work for these companies anymore, what are we talking about? It's selective outrage. I wish you could run the audio of this because that's how I feel. And I'm not talking to you in a scripted way, in any kind of way, I'm talking to you from the heart and from experience, because I understand. And I understand what the perspective is."

How did you react when you found out what Ben had done?

LJ: “I was disappointed. But I had a conversation with him and I heard him out. I didn't talk before he talked, I listened and I took in what he was saying. And I looked into his eyes, and I took it in the way that I wanted to be taken in those particular times when I was down. Again, when you're an executive and you're terminated with cause, try getting a shot. So from my perspective, I identified, but at the same time I was disappointed. But he had perspective about it and he understood. He didn't try to excuse, he leaned into it and he owned it immediately. So I actually admired the fact that he wasn't trying to excuse it or talk about it in a way that was not the reflection of what the mistake deserved.”

Ben really celebrates and deals in Black music and I regard him as one of the best executives of our generation

Larry Jackson

Are you expecting any kickback from Ben’s appointment? Does it feel like a risk?

LJ: “Perhaps, but that's just the world that we live in now. We shoot before we think. I just told you all the Black artists that I've signed. I just told you that I got fired. Look at my character as well – my intentions have never been anything other than to invest in our culture and lift us up.”

Ben, regarding the circumstances of your exit from Warner, can you please give us your account of what actually happened? 

Ben Cook: “What happened was I went to a ‘dress as your musical heroes’ party in 2012 and I put on dark fake tan. I put on blackface. That was unquestionably wrong. It was ignorant, it was thoughtless and it was hurtful and harmful. I now recognise that blackface has been used as a powerful tool of racist oppression for centuries and there's no place for it at all. I'm deeply sorry to have contributed to that. I hurt people that had trusted me and those that didn't know me and I'd like to apologise to them and the Black community unreservedly.”

Your leaving statement was seen as too vague in details and accountability and in not being far reaching enough in terms of the strength of the apology. What do you make of your own apology at the time with hindsight?

BC: “In terms of my apology, I think it wasn't clear and it didn't go far enough. I'm ashamed to say my awareness wasn't there, and I recognise that's part of my privilege I guess. I can't undo what I did, but I can try to make repair. And that's where I'm at.”

Do you understand why some people will see it as rather timely that a full scale apology only comes as you’re launching a new venture? 

BC: “Look, it took a long time for me to process the shame and the embarrassment of the exit and to deeply reflect and to understand and recognise the hurtful impact of my action, and the privilege that I have been afforded as a white man in this industry. I've had many challenging private conversations. I've made full apologies face-to-face. But I know this requires more than just private conversations: this is my first foray out in front of the music industry since I left and I wanted to use this platform to make that public.”

I hope people can accept my apology, but I know it's a step of a much longer and wider journey

Ben Cook

What would your message to the Black music community be? Do you understand why some may still not want to work with you, or feel that you should not be given the opportunity to take such a high profile role given your past action? And what would you say to them?

LJ: “Let me interject on that point if I may. One of the things I've always admired about Ben is his taste. I have worked with other British executives as well – Peter Edge comes to mind as someone who I have deep admiration for and whose taste I revere. He really celebrates and deals in Black music and I regard him as probably one of the best executives of our generation. But I also feel that way about Ben, and the reason I feel that way is I saw the way that he championed and ushered in grime, by helping to sign a lot of artists – Black artists – in the British music business, and I always respected that. As a Black man who often feels, again, protective and territorial about our culture, you always look to executives that don't look like us with a bit of a side eye. But when somebody's really the shit, you've got to give it up. I certainly feel that way about Ben [because of] the signings that he championed in grime, in particular, and also the executives that he nurtured and mentored, two of whom are people of colour as well – Dipesh Parmar, Briony Turner, Alec Boateng, Ed Howard and David Dollimore who have gone on to run major labels. I always found him to be a man of good character. Whenever a celebrity gets into trouble, there's always this thing: they type out an apology in the Notes app on their iPhone and post it on their IG story within 72 hours. No one ever really takes time, however, to sit and deeply reflect. There's always the societal pressure to apologise right away, but I think actually Ben taking the time to let these conversations and these learnings inform his perspective and not jumping back into it, is much needed.”

Ben, are you open to dialogue if the Black music community has questions and concerns with what you have said here? 

BC: “On the dialogue point, I've had many deep conversations on this and I intend to continue doing that, and doing it with openness, empathy, and humility. To add to what Larry said regarding the message to the Black community, what I did was completely out of alignment with how I was raised and my core beliefs. I hope people can accept my apology, but I know it's a step of a much longer and wider journey. My learning and understanding continues. I want to say so much of this industry's cultural and economic value – and by the way, so much of the music I love the most – is owed to the creativity of Black people, so I'm interested in working to ensure that that's acknowledged and there's genuine equity and opportunity. That's one of the many reasons I really wanted to work with Larry. His principles and his company's principles are founded on those same things that provide agency and opportunity to artists and execs.” 

Let’s talk about Gamma, where did the idea behind the company come from? 

LJ: “A few places. I'll start with the name first. I was having a conversation with a friend of mine last year about transcendental meditation. I was talking about the various brainwaves that we toggle and oscillate on a daily basis in our levels of consciousness: there's alpha, there's theta, there's delta, but the highest level of brainwave frequency is called gamma. And as someone who's a fierce creative, it's the space that I desire to tap into on a daily basis. I listened to an interview with Michael Jackson and he talked about how his greatest songs were written within minutes because it almost felt as if they were already written by the time that his pen hit the paper. And being on that frequency, 30hz and higher, is gamma. It's heightened perception, elevated thought, and we are fundamentally an ideas-driven and creative company. My eight years at Apple was probably the best chapter of my career, because I had a unique opportunity to deal and transact in the creativity of everything from music to podcasting, design, TV... I wrote and directed a lot of our big Apple Music commercials, so what may sound as, confusingly, perhaps kaleidoscopic, is something that has been my every day for well over 10 years.

"Speaking of inspiration, and it ties back to the first half of this conversation, what made me want to get into radio when I was 10 or 11 years old is I saw a young kid in San Francisco. He was about four years older than me, but it gave me the inspiration to feel as if I could be a DJ too, and that there was opportunity for me. I felt like that coming up as well when I saw Black executives from the music business like Jon Platt, or Dave McPherson, or Lionel Ridenour, or John McClain. I don't know what systematically happened, but I felt like when I started to look at the business [later], I didn't see a lot of people that looked like me. So I felt a compelling desire to start Gamma because I wanted to lead a company as an African American man, as a Black man, and to be able to challenge the status quo [and show] that a company of this scale and this size could be led by someone who looked like us.”

Gamma has nothing to do with being a label, it's an ideas-driven company, and the best idea always wins

Larry Jackson

Where do you see Gamma existing between the majors and the so-called mini majors?

LJ: “Nowhere. I mean, we're making a film right now. Daniel Katz from A24 sits on our board. A24 is nominated for more Academy Awards this weekend than any other film studio in Hollywood. Bill McDermott, who's one of the most powerful CEOs in Silicon Valley, chairman/CEO of an enterprise software company called Service Now, sits on my board. I didn't even mention an artist or an album or a release date, or a TikTok or anything like that. Our interests are quite varied and deep, and music does play a part of it, but as does film, as does TV. Again, we're an ideas company: if there's a good idea, and it's in a space that is adjacent, peripheral, direct, we have the capacity, we have the depth of bench, we have the deep relationships to be able to execute against them. So I'm not particularly looking to be in between the majors; I actually think the major labels do an incredible job. [Columbia CEO] Ron Perry is a friend of mine. Peter Edge is a friend of mine. I admire what they do. I think what RCA has done with SZA is an incredible thing. I'm not really looking to compete with anybody in that space because I admire them all too much, quite frankly. I'm just looking to [provide] another opportunity for people who are looking to create their magnum opus.”

What do you do that a major can’t? And that the bigger independents can’t? How are you pushing things forward and creating new opportunities? 

BC: “Ike [Youssef, Gamma co-founder/president] said something that resonated and it was that we're this nonlinear business, and I think that's one of the great differences. More and more today, ideas propel culture, so that's a key tenet of what we do. Ike said something along the lines of, ‘We want to help artists capture the value they've historically created for so many other stakeholders.’ We want them to be able to catch that and to help artists build their businesses and enterprises based on their own singular vision and on their own terms. I liked the way he captured that, I think that was a really good way of expressing who we are.”

LJ: “I remember when I was managing Kanye in 2013, he was coming out of his deal at Nike and he was pivoting into Adidas. We went in to talk to some people, you could probably guess who, about, ‘I know that you're the label, but what about investing in this new sneaker company?’ And [they said], 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, where's the album?' Look at what Yeezy's become. So we're an ideas-driven company, man.”

So this isn’t a streaming service cutting out the label as middleman? 

LJ: “No, absolutely not. No, not at all.”

How have your competitors greeted your arrival? 

LJ: “Oh, I've had a great reception. I got texts from a lot of people at the majors. We've all been in this business for so long.”

Given Apple is funding Gamma, will that affect opportunities with Spotify?

LJ: “I'm having lunch with Daniel today, I love him. [There should be] a monument of Daniel Ek next to Buckingham Palace. This guy really changed the music business. This guy went in there and got the deals done with the majors, got these licensing agreements done at a time when everyone was so sceptical. Before Apple Music, I was Beats Music. When Jimmy [Iovine] and I were talking about premium – we were talking about the value of streaming and where things were going – people looked at us like we had three heads and were talking about science fiction, but Daniel did it before we did it. The way he's scaled that company and what they've turned into as, really, a global powerhouse, deserves to be celebrated. We spoke for an hour the other day, we're like the old guys of streaming now. We were there very, very early. So I love Daniel and I love what he's built with Spotify. And the respect that we have for each other is deep and mutual.”

What is the identity of Gamma’s recorded brand specifically in the UK? What acts are you wanting to sign? 

BC: “Larry's been at pains to position Gamma as not a label, so A&R for me in the UK will be about more than just recordings. Artists express themselves in any number of ways through fashion, or through music or film, or short form or long form, or whatever, so the A&R has got to encompass that thinking going forward. I've always loved breaking new artists, but we're obviously working with some established artists now as well. But for me it's about working with genuine talent and supporting and being in service of that talent.”

You’re looking for “direct partnerships with artists” – how did the deals with Snoop Dogg and his Death Row catalogue, Rick Ross, and Naomi Campbell come about? 

LJ: “I've been at a unique intersection in the business for a minute in that I've just been able to be a sounding board and a consigliere to many. We'd not announced Gamma up until [Wednesday], so everything was kind of on a dark alley, speakeasy basis, shrouded in huge layers of secrecy, with NDAs on top of NDAs. But through all of that, we were able to have conversations in a real way that we were able to keep private and I'm so proud about that, because it's hard to keep anything a secret these days. It's hard to keep mystery around anything. But that's how it all came about. With Naomi, for instance, people think of her as a supermodel, but she is a dignitary of the world. When I had a problem when I went to South Africa a couple of years ago, the first person that I called, instead of global security, was Naomi and she worked it out for me in two seconds. She is literally the most connected person on the planet.”

BC: “Coming from you that's saying something!”

LJ: “No, no, she's got me beat by a factor of 10. She is very well connected.”

What kind of deals will you offer artists at a time when many are not willing to accept traditional life of copyright and prefer revenue sharing model? 

LJ: “Assets inherently have value, of course, but if I'm going to be scientific about it and look at the decay curve of certain assets, it started to make me challenge the notion and conventional wisdom of life of copyright and holding on to things in a perpetual way. It just doesn't feel a fair thing to do all the time. I want to talk about Vydia for a second [Gamma has acquired the distributor and royalties platform]. Vydia is paying artists on the cadence right now of once a week. If you're not getting paid once a week, they're religiously paying artists once a month at the latest. I don't know if you know how artists are paid on the other side, but it's not with that level of frequency. I've tried to audit, by the way, to look at things that I wanted to get, but trying to audit is so hard. So I was looking at how we modernise this. And looking at the technology, the software and the tech stack that Vydia's built, it blew me away.” 

In terms of signings, is there a certain level of artist you’re targeting?

LJ: “We're not looking to sign anything that we feel we can't bring value to. And I'm not saying value in terms of what the single should be, I'm saying, how do you look more expansively past that? For instance, when my good friend Travis Scott was trying to figure out his situation with Nike, I called the CEO John Donahoe, who's also a friend of mine, and he helped with the negotiation. You help to grow a brand and you help someone become multifaceted and multi dimensional in how they express themselves. Largely, people are looking to express themselves in ways that transcend single-album-video-TikTok. That's yesterday’s talk. There's a cacophony of content that is assaulting you on a day-to-day basis. So if we are to cut through the clutter and not make music just a utility, we have to think about things that are broader in a different way.”

Before we let you go, are there any closing thoughts you’d like to share?

BC: “We had a big meeting pre Christmas in LA and one of the comments was that this has obviously taken Larry and Ike a long time to bring to fruition and it's incredible, because it feels like the world has actually waited. The train hasn't left the station for Gamma. I think we've arrived at exactly the right point and that's really exciting.”

LJ: “I met with Ben and told him this idea that I had in my head back in 2019 – that's four years ago and I had this idea even before then. This is something that I've patiently felt in my heart was something that we wanted to bring to the world. It has nothing to do with being a label, it's an ideas-driven company, and the thing is that the best idea will always win. The other day in the UK, I saw these mannequins on the side of a building that spray painted 'liar' for the PinkPantheress and Ice Spice single, and I thought to myself, 'What a fucking awesome idea.' Just think about when Michael Jackson was coming out with the Black Or White video, or the Remember The Time video, all these moments felt larger than life. We have to market these moments to be larger than life and that's what I'm compelled to do right now. And it has nothing to do with a marketing checklist, it has to do with ideas. I'm always challenging the team, what's the best idea? And by the way, we can pick up the phone and call anybody.” 


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