Starting with LOUD Records, Wu-Tang Clan and the groundbreaking SRC marketing team to his current management enterprise, RI Entertainment, and global superstars like Mika and Gustavo Santoalalla, Rich Isaacson has proven adept at navigating both the corporate and creative sides of the industry, equally at home, in the boardroom and on the street.
With his childhood friend and partner Steve Rifkind, Isaacson built LOUD Records in the ‘90s from a $3,000-a-month production deal to a $100 million powerhouse, featuring multi-platinum artists such as Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, Big Pun, Xzibit, Funkmaster Flex and Three6Mafia. He also oversaw the expansion of the pair’s SRC promotion/marketing company into the formidable “Street Team,” a group of 25 tastemakers around the country who helped usher in an unprecedented viral tool that eventually attracted Fortune 500 companies like Nike, Pepsi, Levi’s, Universal Pictures and Hugo Boss. Those two brands ultimately forged a first-look deal with Miramax Films and the acquisition of SRC by advertising conglomerate Interpublic.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Merrick, Long Island, the son of a toy manufacturer father and medical office professional mother, Isaacson identified with soul and R&B music at an early age. “Being a New York Jewish kid born in the mid-‘60s, I always related to the underdog and those that were struggling, so naturally I gravitated to hip hop.”
Isaacson attended Cornell University’s College of Labor Relations, where he studied the union movement and labor history. After attending the University of Pennsylvania Law School, he joined the Manhattan law firm of Shea and Gould, where the self-described “Met fanatic” worked as a litigation associate for Bill Shea, the man instrumental in bringing the expansion team to New York, eventually getting the Queens stadium where they played named after him. Disillusioned with the corporate grind—his salary was barely making ends meet when his student loans were paid—he took up an offer to join his old pal Rifkind, now in Los Angeles.
Rifkind’s LOUD Records had just secured a small production deal with Zoo Records, at the same time running SRC, an upstart street promotion/marketing company designed to connect the dots at the emerging rap scene. Isaacson spent a few weeks on Rifkind’s couch, studying Billboard, reading lawyer Don Passman’s All You Need to Know About the Music Business and going over the LOUD contracts.
“I called his father Julie (founder of iconic urban music label Spring Records) and asked him how this worked,” said Isaacson, not being able to figure out how they were going to make money the way the LOUD deal was structured. “’You have a hit and then you renegotiate,’ he told me, and it hasn’t changed since. It took me a few years of looking for rationality in the music business to realize there was none.”
The initial idea—for Rifkind to handle the creative, and Isaacson to put to work his academic and legal background on the business side—quickly took a different turn, as Rich built SRC’s innovative guerilla marketing concept into the modern-day “Street Team,” eventually attracting corporate America to the grass-roots campaign that predated Internet’s viral word-of-mouth.
“We were at the forefront of the movement,” explains Isaacson. “But there was a lot of luck involved as the hip-hop scene was literally exploding. It all came together at the same time.”
Rich led the negotiation for LOUD’s landmark deal, signing Wu Tang Clan for $10,000. LOUD released the single, “Protect Ya Neck,” with the promise to allow leader RZA to shop the other members of the collective to individual solo deals at other labels, then a no-no in recording contracts. During Isaacson’s decade-long run at LOUD/SRC, the label made tens of millions of dollars for RCA, and then Sony, which acquired half the company, and then the entire operation in 2002, merging it with Relativity Records.
With a successful first act behind him, Isaacson, ready for another challenge, partnered with SONY Music executive Jerry Blair on The Fuerte Group in 2002, an innovative, full-service marketing and music management company dedicated to the burgeoning young Hispanic urban market. While there, Isaacson served as executive producer on Motown Remixed Volume 2, a compilation of that legendary label’s hits covered by leading Latin Producers and the critically acclaimed Si*se album More Shine released on their own Fuerte Records.
Mirroring his Street Team triumph, Fuerte attracted corporate clients including Coca Cola, Western Union, Hollywood Records, J Records, the WWE, SRC Records, Latino Royalty, The Mottola Company, Blingtones, Universal Music Group, Tu Pizza, Heineken, Clear Channel, Major League Soccer, Koch Entertainment and Univision. Through Fuerte management client, Grammy-winning writer/producer Jodi Marr (Ricky Martin, Paulina Rubio, Thalia), Isaacson met and signed his first artist management client—U.K.-based performer Mika, who went on to sell some 8 million albums, going gold or platinum in 32 countries.
After Fuerte Music Group, Isaacson reunited with Rifkind at the newly launched SRC label at Universal Records, which lasted five years and produced another flurry of hit artists, including David Banner, Akon, Shontelle, Grammy winner Melanie Fiona and Asher Roth, ending only when the company was sold to Universal Music Group in 2012.
Signing both Jodi Marr and Mika to his RI Entertainment, Isaacson is now focusing his attention on management, adding two-time Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Babel), Canada’s highest selling native artist Bobby Bazini, and soul singer Charles Bradley to his roster.
“I want to be in business with real artists who have a real vision and passion,” insists Isaacson. “I don’t live and die with whether they get on the radio.”
To illustrate his point, Rich cites Mika’s worldwide success not just as a performer and writer, but as a style icon who is a fashion and jewelry designer as well as a TV personality starring in both X Factor Italy and The Voice France, while Santoalalla composes films, writes plays and performs with Bajofondo.
In addition, he and Rifkind remain partners in Merokee Music, a publishing joint venture with Lance Freed’s Rondor, which features Melanie Fiona and Shontelle, with copyrights including Rihanna’s “Man Down,” while the pair’s VOCO publishing company owns the rights to Xzibit’s first three albums, including the Dr. Dre-produced Restless.
“I still love being in the entertainment business,” he says. “It’s so exciting because one day you are playing music from a new artist alone at your desk and six months later, you might hear that same song on your car radio. That validation, when something you believe in resonates with somebody else…that’s the thrill. On any given day, that potential still exists. Everything can change in a moment. And that gives you the juice to keep doing it.”