It’s 10 a.m. on Columbus Day, and the corridors on the ninth floor of 6 West 57th Street, New York, headquarters of Arista Records, are anything but deserted. The music coming from the office that occupies the biggest section of the floor, in fact, is so loud you have to strain to hear your own thoughts. No, it’s not the mischievous deed of an intern sneaking a quick break from a fast-food run to groove to a new R&B CD from LaFace Records. It’s Antonio “L.A.” Reid, putting his office sound system through its usual paces.
Today, he’s reviewing a track that Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas-one-third of the R&B girl group extraordinaire, TLC-created with superproducer Dallas Austin (who is also the father of her young son). Reid nods his head and slaps his knee a time or two in time with the strong bass line of the song. Great beat, but it’s not going to be a hit, he tells us.
“I can usually tell if a song will be a hit within 30 seconds, and this is about my fifth time listening to this one,” he says. “I think I’m going to have to call Chilli and tell her that she can’t release it.”
Reid’s passion for music is reflected in the sprawling office space. Photos of his three kids-ranging in age from 11 to 21-share space with a computer and printer on his desk. Most noticeable are the photos of various singing sensations-including Usher, a pet project of Reid’s from his Laface Records days as half of the dynamic producer-management team of L.A. and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds-propped up on the table behind his desk. When it comes to songs that are connected to his name, Reid is dead serious: Everything he releases must be a hit.
“He’s been extremely careful with his releases. In 1998, I asked him why he wasn’t putting out a lot of records, and he said ‘I don’t want to put out people I don’t have faith in,'” says Clarence Avant, former chairman of Motown Records, who was responsible for arranging the 50-50 joint venture with LaFace Records and Arista 11 years ago.
It’s that ear for music that compelled BMG Entertainment, the German parent company of Arista Records, to recruit Reid to succeed legendary Arista Records founder Clive Davis as president and CEO. “There were no other candidates,” says Strauss Zelnick, president and CEO of BMG. “He has a wonderful style, he’s comfortable with the artists, and they respect him.” BMG Entertainment is the $4.7 billion worldwide entertainment division of Germany media powerhouse Bertelsmann AG. BMG acquired Arista Records in 1979.
The appointment was hardly without controversy, however, and Avant commends BMG for sticking to its guns in choosing Reid. “I have to take my hat off to Strauss Zelnick for never budging to the negative press [about removing Davis],” he says.
After reigning as Arista’s head honcho since starting the company a quarter of a century ago, Davis did not have his contract renewed by BMG, Arista’s German parent