In the music industry, every twist and turn can be a lesson. For veteran artist manager and entrepreneur Steve Lobel—who’s worked with everyone from Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Scott Storch to Sean Kingston to the late Nipsey Hussle—the lessons across his decades-long career are plentiful.
Lobel, 54, was kind enough to take some time and walk me through his career. Most importantly, Lobel wants me and the world to know; he’s finally happy.
A man full of gems, or “keys” as the kids say, this conversation was both enlightening and a pleasure. Our full interview, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: When and why did you first get into artist management?
Steve Lobel: I got into artist management around the late ‘90s. I started managing Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. Before that, I was working at record labels as an A&R. I got into management because I felt like the record label didn’t have the best interests of the artist. I wanted to be the guy for the artist to fight the record label.
What about you as a person makes you a good artist manager?
Let’s talk about this: Nipsey Hussle, Scott Storch. Nipsey, beginning of his career, everybody told me he was wack, he looked like Snoop Dogg, and they didn’t believe in him. They thought I was crazy. When I started working with Scott Storch three and a half years ago after he had lost 100 million dollars on cocaine, the industry told me that he fell off, he burnt bridges, and he’s a drug addict. But I go with my gut; I never take no for an answer. Once you have a name, as far as Scott, you’re always a threat. Once you have talent, you’re always a threat.
With Nipsey, I went with my gut. I didn’t care about what he looked like or where he was from. I believed in his music and who he was inside—his mentality as a businessman and his work ethic. I’m a leader, not a follower. I’m gonna get a lot of Nos before I get a Yes. I’m gonna take a lot of Ls before I get a W, but that’s just how I am.
By trusting your instincts.
I’m a dinosaur, but I stay fossil-fueled because I changed with the times, and I know what’s going on. I’m very impactful on social media, and I keep my ear to the streets.
What’s the hardest lesson you learned as you began your career?
I began my career with Run-DMC and Jam Master Jay. Jam Master Jay allowed me to get into the music business. Even before Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, I was mentored by Russell Simmons, and I had worked with Fat Joe, Big Pun, Three 6 Mafia. Then I worked with Eazy-E, and then I met Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. And then, Nipsey and Sean Kingston and Scott Storch. I had a great career, but one of the hardest lessons was balance.
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When I lost my mother, is when I woke up and realized I have to be selfish with everybody else but myself. That’s why I spend a lot of time with my father now. I don’t wanna have no regrets. The hardest lesson was [achieving] balance. I cheated myself out of getting married and having children because I dedicated my career to my artists. I’m not saying I’m mad about that. I got to see the world. I got to be in different studios. I got to meet a lot of people. It’s a gift and a curse. But you need to find balance, especially as you get older in this industry.
What is the latest lesson you’ve learned?
I learned to diversify my portfolio and business. The music business is changing so much, and it’s hard to make the money you once did. I created the online college We Working University, where you go into modules and learn everything A-to-Z about the business. I’m opening up a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center with a recording studio in there with Scott Storch and a friend of mine; it’s called The Heavenly Center. I’m diversifying in business, and that’s what I learned in the last few years.
With Scott, I’ve helped him diversify as well. He’s doing a TV series with 50 Cent; he’s helping with the rehab center, we’re doing a clothing line. He’s doing his first album with Atlantic Records. Nipsey taught me a valuable lesson: Worry about yourself sometimes, take care of yourself. I also learned social media. You have to be tuned in to what’s going on. With Scott Storch, I was able to bring him back by bringing in young artists before they hit it off. The A Boogies, PnB Rocks, the Russes, and so forth.
Biggest success thus far?
Success comes in many forms. It could be a college degree, your first house, your first Rolex, your first Platinum record. My success is still being alive and healthy. Health is success as you get older. Diversifying is success to me. Success, to me, right now? I’m happy. I haven’t been happy in a long time, in my career, because I didn’t know what made me happy. You get caught up in what you’re doing; you forget who you are. My biggest success right now is I’m finally happy.
Have you ever considered leaving artist management and the music industry?
Of course, all the time. Music, the business, is a lot of Nos before a Yes. With Scott Storch, when I was doing the album deal, everyone was saying, “No,” but Kevin Weaver, the president of Atlantic, said, “Yes!” He believed in Scott, and he believed in me, too. Sometimes you wanna get away from the industry because it feels like it’s fake, and everyone is just looking for attention. The dinosaurs in the [high] positions, they don’t wanna take the risk. And the artists are being discovered by the fans before the label.
Sometimes you’re a babysitter. You’re a therapist. I’m not trying to manage anymore. I’m trying to partner with people. I’m in the publishing business right now. I had to learn, deep in my career, that your most important thing is your intellectual publishing. So I created a company called We Working Publishing. As I get older, I’m steering away from a lot of things I’ve been doing. I’m trying to work smarter, not harder.
I’m trying to spend time with myself, and enjoy life. Because when you’re a manager, you have no life. It’s 24/7 on the road, 24/7 in the studio—24/7 dealing with their stuff.
What is it like to be finally happy?
It feels amazing! It feels like… Every day I was on the road, traveling the world, living off Snickers bars and Mountain Dew, and dealing with artists missing flights. You’re just so consumed by everyone’s life but your own. But when you’re able to sit back and smell the roses and sit down and go to a sports game, and you don’t gotta worry about being away from your home, it’s an amazing feeling. It gives me more time to spend time with my father and my dog. It feels amazing. I was so consumed by everyone else’s life but mine.