Label Look: Nice Life Took the Long View with Lizzo, and the Result Was Good As Hell

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Bradley Haering, Ricky Reed, Larry Wade

Ricky Reed, founder and CEO of Nice Life Recording Company, felt the weight of expectation leading up to last month’s release of Lizzo’s “Rumors” feat. Cardi B — the singer’s first single since “Truth Hurts” transformed her into a superstar in 2019. While the strategy behind the release came with a heightened sense of responsibility owing to Lizzo’s meteoric rise, Reed and his team tried not to futz too much with a winning formula.

“It was our goal to try to let it feel cool and let it feel scrappy and let it feel how it did at the beginning,” Reed tells Billboard. “Like, ‘What would we have done if we had one-tenth of the eyeballs on us?’”

The label’s efforts paid off: last week, “Rumors” (which Reed produced) debuted at No. 4 on the Hot 100, becoming Lizzo’s highest-ever launch on the pop tally and her third top 5 hit. The successful debut is the latest testament to Nice Life’s fruitful relationship with the artist, having signed her in 2015 in a joint venture with Atlantic Records. While some labels might have given up on Lizzo over the subsequent years before she had the chance to blow up, patience is a guiding ethos at Nice Life, which prides itself on taking a long-view approach to artists’ careers.

Reed — himself an artist, songwriter and producer — is familiar with the pressures of being a creator in the modern music industry. In 2013, he released an album under the performance alias Wallpaper on Boardwalk/Epic, followed last year by The Room, released by Nice Life under his own name. In addition to Lizzo, he has written and produced hit tracks for an impressive list of artists, including Jason Derulo, Pitbull, Twenty One Pilots and Fifth Harmony.

Those experiences have informed Reed’s work as a label CEO. In Feb. 2020, Nice Life began integrating non-recoupable mental health funds into its deals with artists, and also extended them retroactively to the remainder of the roster. “I’m always trying to help our artists live better and feel better,” says Reed, whose perspective extends to the label’s artist development-centric philosophy: giving artists room to breathe and grow but also knowing when to push.

“I do like to try to bring my experience… in the form of empathy with my artists, with what they’re going through, and to try to really hear them and see them,” says Reed. “And while I’m challenging them to make themselves better, also know where to draw the line and try to just be a kind and supportive partner to them at all times.”

Reed formed the label with his manager, Nice Life COO Larry Wade, in 2014 after Atlantic CEO Craig Kallman and senior vp of A&R Brandon Davis asked the men if they’d ever considered starting a label. Having worked as an artist, producer and songwriter for years, Reed wasn’t sure he was “cut out” for being an executive, but put aside his reservations and took the plunge. It wasn’t long before he realized that Nice Life could become a vehicle for his left-of-center sensibilities.

“I realized that the philosophies I’ve had as a music maker, that the label would actually give me the opportunity to build a platform around those ideas,” explains Reed. “Let’s give a voice to artists who might not otherwise, let’s find people that are really not only musically shaking things up but have something to say and are driving really different narratives.”

After bringing on Reed’s friend and former roommate Bradley Haering as president in 2015, the label signed Lizzo, who had a loyal following but needed the right team to help boost her career to the next level. “With Lizzo, right when we all met her, her personality and presence was just undeniable,” Haering recalls. “You sit in a room with her for five minutes and you’re like, ‘Yep, let’s go. I am here to help in all the ways I can.'”

In addition to the label, Nice Life also boasts a publishing arm whose roster includes songwriters Nate Mercereau, Tele, Bigman, Billy Lemos, Cara Salimando, DJ Stanfill, King Garbage and Tom Peyton. The publishing business often cross-pollinates with the label side: Mercereau recently launched How So Records, an imprint under the Nice Life banner, through which he signed the emerging artist St. Panther. Elsewhere, Tele (born Steven Cheung) performed production work on both “Truth Hurts” and “Rumors” for Lizzo.

While recognizing Lizzo’s potential for mega-stardom, Reed, Wade and Haering also believed in the power of the slow build, and they took their time in cultivating her fan base.

“Those three years it was building her touring, from [her] first show in L.A., opening for Stormzy at the Echo, to less than a year later headlining the Echoplex, less than a year later headlining [the] Fonda and just keep building her platform and her audience,” explains Haering.

On the recording front, Nice Life and Atlantic dropped a string of Lizzo singles beginning in 2016, including future mega-hits “Good As Hell” and “Truth Hurts,” but she didn’t blow up until the latter track was used in the Netflix movie Something Great in 2019 – a placement that coincided with the song’s now-iconic “DNA test” lyric catching fire as a TikTok meme.

Once the song exploded, Atlantic performed what Reed describes as a “full left turn,” pivoting from working the Missy Elliott-featuring track “Tempo” to putting their full weight behind “Truth Hurts,” which finally hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 in Sept. 2019. That song’s success, in turn, gave “Good As Hell” – originally released way back in March 2016 – a “second life,” says Reed.

The remainder of Nice Life’s roster includes several emerging acts: L.A. indie-pop group (and Atlantic joint venture) The Marias, who put out their debut album, CINEMA, in June; psych-pop singer-songwriter Junior Mesa, whose EP, Cirque du Freak, was released in August; St. Panther, the singer-rapper-producer who was signed in partnership with Mercereau’s How So Records; and singer-songwriter John-Robert (signed as a joint venture with Warner Records), whom Reed calls “reminiscent of Jeff Buckley.” Similar to Lizzo, Reed doubles as A&R and producer for a number of these acts, bringing his production prowess to tracks for John-Roberts, Junior Mesa and other signees.

Lizzo, the label’s most popular artist by a longshot, has logged a combined 3.2 billion on-demand U.S. streams, according to MRC Data. All three of her top 5 Hot 100 singles – “Truth Hurts” (No. 1), “Good As Hell” (No. 3) and “Rumors” – topped Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Songs tally, while “Good As Hell” and “Truth Hurts” also peaked at No. 1 on Pop Airplay. Her debut album, Cuz I Love You, hit No. 4 on the Billboard 200 in Sept. 2019.

The Marias’ debut album, CINEMA, peaked at No. 176 on the Billboard 200, No. 22 on Alternative Albums, No. 35 on Top Rock & Alternative Albums and No. 12 on Vinyl Albums. In addition, the album’s lead single, “Hush,” reached No. 3 on Adult Alternative Airplay, No. 33 on Alternative Airplay and No. 26 on Rock & Alternative Airplay.

Based in Los Angeles, Nice Life has a total of 10 employees, four of whom were hired during the pandemic. Despite the small staff, Haering refers to the tight-knit team as a “small army” compared to the skeleton crew they launched with back in 2015.

Lizzo naturally remains a top priority for the label, which is currently strategizing around the release of new tracks leading up to the debut of her forthcoming sophomore studio album. While noting that their overarching strategy with the singer remains to “do the most Lizzo thing possible,” Wade says they’re also looking to be a bit more deliberate with future releases.

“Now it’s a bit more of, ‘Okay, we need to be really intentional and thoughtful about how we release and what we’re releasing, more than normal just because of the eyeballs that are on her now,’” he says.

Elsewhere, Nice Life has slated a Sept. 10 drop for the next single from John-Robert, while Junior Mesa is currently at work on new music that will be released late this year or early next. Meanwhile, The Marias will embark on a U.S. tour beginning on Sept. 22, while the label hopes to mount full-scale tours for John-Robert, Junior Mesa and St. Panther, whose first major tours were canceled once the pandemic hit last year.

On the executive front, the label recently signaled its intention to lean further into sync with the hire of Madeline Ziecker, who was brought on as director of creative licensing at the end of last year.

 
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