The Cherrytree Music Company has long occupied a privileged position in the music business. It's a boutique operation — a recording, publishing and management company boasting an "artist-friendly" business philosophy and a roster of forward-thinking stars such as Robyn and Feist. But until recently it also had a foot in the major-label system through a joint partnership with Interscope, the label co-founded by industry juggernaut Jimmy Iovine and owned by Universal Music Group.
Since founding Cherrytree in 2005, owner Martin Kierszenbaum has been able to use this position to his advantage. Kierszenbaum has enjoyed a measure of independence, working with a small team to groom young artists without worrying about larger commercial demands. But as a senior A&R executive at Interscope, he's also been able to strike deals and forge partnerships with other Universal-affiliated executives and artists — like when he teamed up with Will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas to jointly release LMFAO's hit "Party Rock Anthem."
All of this seems like a plum position for a label boss to be in. But that came to an end when Cherrytree's contract with Interscope expired on Dec. 31 and was not renewed. (Kierszenbaum declined to confirm whether the decision to part ways was his or Interscope's, saying only, "It was the end of the term.") Last month, Cherrytree cleared out of Universal's hulking headquarters in Santa Monica, and Kierszenbaum has launched a search for a new partner.
"We had wild success together, especially for the last 10 years as Cherrytree, and I'm really proud of that. But it's time to explore other things," the 48-year-old executive says.
The split brings an end to Kierszenbaum's long relationship with Interscope, which began when he started working for the company in 1998. It also raises questions about what will happen to Cherrytree's artists. According to Kierszenbaum, part of his contract stipulated that, should the two labels part ways, Interscope has first pick of any artists on the Cherrytree roster. As of this writing, such high-profile Cherrytree artists as Ellie Goulding and La Roux are no longer listed on the label's website.
A publicist for Interscope didn't respond to multiple emails and phone calls seeking comment. Kierszenbaum declined to go into specifics about contract negotiations, but speaking by phone while on a business trip to New York, he downplayed the magnitude of it all.
"We're full steam ahead," Kierszenbaum says. He recently signed on to manage Sting, who has worked with Kierszenbaum in a professional capacity for years. The Last Bandoleros, another Cherrytree management client, just inked a recording deal with Warner Music Nashville. And Cherrytree is still working with Skylar Stecker, a tween singer-songwriter who signed to the label last year.
"I'll find the right home for [the label], sooner than later. It won't take that long, because luckily we've got people calling," Kierszenbaum adds.
Depending on whom you ask, this might seem like either a crazy or a brilliant time for an independent label to cut ties with its major affiliate. The entire music industry is in a massive, ongoing state of flux. Album sales, once the labels' main source of income, continue to plummet. Streaming music has exploded, but revenue from services such as Pandora and Spotify is still far from offsetting lost sales.
But in reality, this might be the perfect time for a label like Cherrytree to break out on its own. Rather than stick to the old way of doing things, in recent years many indie labels, including Cherrytree, have gone into publishing, artist management and other sectors of the music industry — part of an effort to stay relevant (and solvent) during a time of transition.
"It doesn't make sense to turn down good business if you're set up to be able to do it," says Richard Burgess, CEO of the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM), a New York trade group that represents indie labels. "I think it's definitely more a reflection of the nature of the business at this point. You have to monetize whatever aspects you can monetize, and it's much more difficult these days to set yourself up as a label and say, 'I'm a label and that's all I do and I don't get involved in anything else.'"
Kierszenbaum says he hasn't felt any panic due to industry turmoil. The son of two Argentine microbiologists, he has piercing blue eyes and a strong presence — friendly and inquisitive, always putting a positive spin on things. He's taken plenty of risks over the years, but many have paid off.
"He's one of them 'both sides of the brain' guys. I think he's very creative," says Christian Clancy, co-manager of Odd Future, who knows Kierszenbaum from their years working together at Interscope. "He just kinda gets it, and he feels incredibly trustworthy."
Kierszenbaum got his start in the music business working in the Polygram mailroom. In the 1990s, he had stints at Warner Bros. and A&M Records before moving to Interscope. There, he worked international markets, traveling the globe and taking chances on artists that many execs would've balked at — like Italian opera singer Alessandro Safina and Russian pop duo t.A.T.u.
He launched Cherrytree as an offshoot of Interscope in 2005, adding a management side in 2007 and starting a Cherrytree publishing company, in conjunction with Kobalt Music Group, in 2013. With Cherrytree he's helped break such artists as Lady Gaga and Disclosure, while maintaining a progressive approach — for example, by taking on Asian-American electro-rap fusionists Far East Movement, who landed at No. 1 on the Billboard charts with their 2010 hit "Like a G6."
Of course, losses and gains are built into the business of selling music. Some Cherrytree artists have struggled to rise on the charts, or repeat past triumphs; Far East Movement's 2012 album, Dirty Bass, failed to match the commercial success of their breakout hit. However, asked if he has to meet a certain ratio of winners versus losers for Cherrytree to succeed, Kierszenbaum bridles at the very notion.
"Every single project I take on, it's an original thing. It's like a snowflake," he says. "I can't say, 'Oh, I'm going to sign four bands, and if one makes it out of the four, I'm OK.' I can't have loss-leader artists. I can't say, 'Oh, this one will lose.' I can't, because every single one is a musician who practiced, who worked, who plays music, who studied. For me, every single one deserves our utmost dedication and energy."
Kierszenbaum himself is a musician — in his college years he played in a hip-hop duo called Maroon, and these days he produces and writes songs under the moniker Cherry Cherry Boom Boom — and says he intentionally keeps his company at a manageable size so he can focus on meeting artists' needs, whether they're churning out hits or not.
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It's unclear what Cherrytree will do next with its label operations. But even as journalists have croaked for years about the "death of the music industry," Kierszenbaum is looking forward to the future.
"I think there's so much opportunity in the music business right now. I feel really, really excited about it. I feel like the music business is coming back to musicians," he says. "It's really for the heads now. It's for the people who would do it whether they got paid or not, and that's what I am."