Travis Scott’s Cactus Jack GM, Warner Chappell A&R Dynamos Among Music’s New Leaders

Every year Variety seeks to identify the next generation of leaders in the entertainment business who represent the creative community of film, TV, music and the digital space. The 2020 music industry group has in common ambition and conviction and includes a pair of duos — Warner Chappell’s Ryan Press and Shani Gonzales and Create Music Group’s Jonathan Strauss and Alexandre Williams — along with selected solo acts from such innovation-forward companies as Cactus Jack and SB Projects.

Shani Gonzales
Managing director of Warner Chappell Music U.K., head of international A&R, Warner Chappell Music, 39

Named managing director of Warner Chappell’s U.K. operation earlier this month, Gonzales is a founding member of Warner Music Group’s diversity and inclusion council, and in that role, helped plan her division’s open discussion on racial injustice earlier this year; another is planned later in 2020. During the pandemic, she has been running her global A&R team virtually. “Zoom meetings will never fully replace the vibe and energy of in-person [songwriting] sessions, but they’re opening up opportunities for people from different countries, genres and backgrounds to connect and create music together.”

Rohan Kohli
Senior director of A&R, Warner Music Nashville, 34

Soon after joining Warner’s country A&R team in 2017, Kohli joined Dan + Shay on insisting, counterintuitively, that the ballad “Tequila” be their next album’s first single — and because of which they became superstars. Ingrid Andress’ tradition-breaking “More Hearts Than Mine” subsequently hit No. 1, after a long chart dearth of rookie women: “It’s so fun and beautiful to watch a great song hit the top of the charts,” Kohli says. “I always drove by Warner and thought, ‘God, how cool would it be to work there someday?’ — thinking there was a 0% chance,” he says. “It speaks to how open-minded country is that they’re gonna take a shot on an A&R who’s an Indian guy from L.A.”

Justin Lubliner
Owner, Darkroom, 30

“My label guy, Justin, was like the only person I trusted to begin with,” Billie Eilish said of Lubliner when accepting Variety’s Hitmaker of the Year award last year. “That’s no shade to anyone, but I feel like he saw something in me.” Lubliner founded Darkroom as a 20-year-old USC student and gradually transformed it from an EDM-focused marketing company into a multifaceted enterprise that includes publishing, management and branding. Now focused on the label side, he was one of the first members of Eilish’s tight-knit team, which united around her after the then-14-year-old Eilish posted “Ocean Eyes” on SoundCloud late in 2015. Other artists include Oliver Malcolm and Gryffin.

Shauna Nep
VP of philanthropy, SB Projects, 33

“Since the company was founded, SB Projects has always incorporated social good into everything the company and our clients do,” says Nep of Scooter Braun’s 12-year-old management concern, which counts Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato on its roster. Among its initiatives: Demi Lovato’s the Mental Health Fund; Lil Dicky’s $800,000 donation to fight COVID-19 and climate change; and Ariana Grande’s partnership with HeadCount to register voters. “There is so much need, and our artists want to help,” says Nep, who helps mobilize “massive fanbases to take action on issues that matter and help them vote safely this election cycle.”

Ryan Press
President of A&R, U.S., Warner Chappell Music, 39

The global pandemic hasn’t slowed Press down.  “If anything, the deal flow has increased,” says Press, president of U.S. A&R for two years. “Everyone’s sitting down, so you get to have a lot more one-on-one engagement.” His roster includes Lizzo, Summer Walker, Partynextdoor, Justin Trante and the late rapper Pop Smoke, plus emergent hitmakers like Section 8 (“The Bigger Picture”) and SethInTheKitchen (“Rockstar”). “Signing people is one thing, but being able to actually develop them is what publishing is really about,” Press says. “It’s one of the last places where that old-school artist development and songwriter development stage still exists.”

Jonathan Strauss and Alexandre Williams
Co-founders, Create Music Group, 34 and 32

Strauss and Williams started Create Music in 2015 to track and collect YouTube royalties for independent artists, many of whom didn’t know they were owed money. Since then, it has grown into a mini-empire with a staff of 125 people (average age: 26) that handles rights management, distribution, music publishing and advertising. CMG brought in $28 million in revenue in 2018 and is enjoying a major windfall from distributing controversial rapper 6ix9ine’s music. With his single “Trollz,” Create became the first true independent company to score a No. 1 single in the U.S. in many years. Next up for the high school friends: a 25,000-sq.-ft. space in Hollywood that includes five state-of-the-art recording studios and a soundstage.

David Stromberg
General Manager, Cactus Jack, 32

You could call Stromberg the Cactus Jack of all trades — at least of the Travis Scott kind. The rapper’s calling card is a multi-product mini-empire and Stromberg, as manager and GM, is in charge of all branding, merch, artist development and creative consulting. This includes Scott’s recent partnership with McDonald’s and Cactus Jack’s Fortnite event, “Astronomical,” which reached 45 million viewers in April and launched Scott’s collaboration with Kid Cudi straight to No. 1. Says Stromberg: “We pride ourselves in coming up with inventive strategies and being able to take anything to the next level regardless of what it is; sneakers, cereal, clothing, films, video games, or even iconic brands such as McDonald’s. When we are rolling out something, we make sure that each part of our company is moving.”

Pictured from left: Shani Gonzales, Ryan Press and David Stromberg.

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