Charlie Walk is a music industry icon and the former President of Epic Records, Republic Records, and Executive VP at Columbia Records. He was also a judge on the FOX reality series The Four: Battle for Stardom. He is one of the top music executives in the world who has played a significant role in his specialized area of developing new artists into global superstars. Throughout the course of his thirty-year career in the music business he’s been a mainstay on Billboard’s Power 100 list and has had over 400 #1 Top forty songs to his credit. He is affectionately known to insiders as “the Artist behind the Artist”.
Charlie’s hands-on guidance has been pivotal in pushing previously unknown artists into the spotlight. Most of which are household names like Aerosmith, Ariana Grande, Beyoncé, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Demi Lovato, Destiny’s Child, Drake, Enrique Iglesias, Florida Georgia Line, Fugees, Hailee Steinfeld, Jennifer Lopez, Joe Jonas, The Jonas Brothers, John Mayer, Lauryn Hill, Lorde, Mariah Carey, New Kids On The Block, Nick Jonas, Nicki Minaj, Nipsey Hussle, Post Malone, Ricky Martin, Shakira, Shawn Mendes, Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, Will Smith, Wyclef Jean and many more. We had a chance to catch up with Charlie Walk recently in Los Angeles and ask him some questions.
Respect: What misconceptions do you think young people have about entering the music industry?
Charlie Walk: What I love about young people is that they have no fear of entering the industry or being a part of it. The biggest misconception that exists today is that it’s easy to move culture as an artist or a through a song. Yes, people have gotten lucky, but the truth of the matter is that entry into the music business is available to anyone but requires doing the work. For example, playlisting is not marketing.
There is no “cutting the line.” The context of an artist/song happens off platform. A new artist is simply a “startup.” It’s about that artist laying out the strategy to make their ‘start up’ move culture, create value and leverage. In my opinion, to be successful at it you have to create something that is great. You have to be ‘great’ at devising, creating and ultimately, executing GREAT. We’re in the GREAT business.
Respect: What’s an underrated or overlooked factor you think is critical for achieving early career success?
Charlie Walk: One of the things I talk about in my Music Mastery program is defining your “star chip.” A star chip is what’s in your brain, it’s your DNA, it’s what you’re born with. If you define your star chip early enough you can get a jump on anyone else around you. Your star chip actually doesn’t have to even relate to music. It identifies and defines your unique abilities, and what you’re going to be great at.. whatever the category may be…a lawyer, doctor, baseball player, accountant, or musician… Everyone has a “Star chip.”
The biggest stars identify theirs early. The key of the star chip is just that..to identify early on what you’re great at. Your passion has to lead. You can’t be forced to do something that you may not be good at. Ask yourself, what are you doing today? What do you want to do tomorrow? Have you ever had a meeting with yourself to define your God given star chip that instills in you the confidence to carry out what your DNA says you are?
Think about this, how many people do you know that went to college and didn’t know what the hell they wanted to do when they graduated. If you actually interview the mothers and fathers of successful men and women, they can pretty much tell you the characteristics of their star chip at two, three and four years old. And this applies to most of the biggest stars in the world. I remember asking Hailey Steinfeld’s & Ariana Grande‘s mom’s about their daughter’s early journeys. All of these artists came out very different. They came out singing, dancing, acting, they were creative, they were unique, and they were different than the other kids.
I remember meeting Beyoncé at a very early age, and she was clear that she was a star. She knew what her journey was going to be like. So, when you think about the biggest stars including people like Oprah, you’ll realize that they didn’t decide what they wanted to do in their late twenties. They had a really focused vision and they knew ahead of time. You can’t let yourself be in a position to be manipulated where you end up on the wrong side of things. It’s the road to not just comfortability, but stability, success and confidence. It comes from defining your star chip, finding that road customized for you, and staying on it.
Respect: Was there anything early on in your career that you didn’t necessarily anticipate being helpful, but actually has been?
Charlie Walk: I realized early on that taking drum lessons, piano lessons, singing lessons and being in band was me training to understand the mindset of an artist. I was channeling being an artist while knowing I wasn’t the best drummer, but I could keep a beat. Knowing I wasn’t the best singer, but I could keep tone and be on key. Knowing that I can hear a hit, but I couldn’t write one. I think experiencing these particular things early on was a subliminal message telling me where my focus should be. Growing up I didn’t have a ton of resources. I had a great mom and dad, but I didn’t know anyone in the entertainment business or music business. I was on my own to figure it out.
My Mom gave me advice and told me I needed to get an internship in my areas of interest. She put that in my head at the early age of nine years old. “You must get an internship!”. To me that meant I needed to know what the hell I wanted to do. I wanted to intern in the business that would lead me up the right street sensibility. The combination of understanding the intricacies of the music business combined with a college education could never take me down. It allowed me to be a participant early on. Not on the football field, not on the baseball field, but in the field of music.
Respect: What’s your very best advice for helping a student or young professional craft a career with a strong sense of meaning and purpose?
Charlie Walk: For me, I’ve always wanted to find the next executive or the next artist. I always wanted to be a part of the future because I was never comfortable being in just the present. I think that if you’re young, you should question whether you’re actually helping people. Are your efforts just to make money or are you focusing on your passion, while helping people? Leading with passion and purpose seems to always win.
I also think it’s a balance of really being true to yourself. So that when you look in the mirror analyze who you are you have that selfless component. I like to call that the give back. It isn’t necessarily starting a nonprofit, donating money as needed. ‘Give backs” are done with promotion, that people don’t talk about. The giveback is actually going to sleep each night with a completed sense of purpose because you guided somebody or did something that made a difference in someone else’s life. You can’t put a price on that.
Respect: Does ego play a role in the entertainment business?
Charlie Walk: I would say you have to be confident and curious and be conscious of ego. Ego is not your amigo. You have to come into the game with some sort of an ego because that’s giving you the edge to push and push while everyone around you is rolling their eyes and not seeing what you’re seeing.
The ego is a very delicate thing that needs management. I remember going on a TV show while I was working at a record company with Diddy, Khaled, Megan Trainer, and Fergie. I had a natural transformation after being taken out of my work element into a movie set environment with celebrity fueled fire. Even seeing myself in Times Square and on the billboards on Sunset Boulevard gave me an out of body experience. Looking back, I can say that I became someone that didn’t like and someone that I never thought I would become. I was morphing into a different type of person.
The sweetness and the delicateness and the lovable side of me morphed in the wrong direction. I think that was an awakening for me. One of my old bosses use to say to me “Ego is the number one killer in the music business”. I didn’t know what he was saying until it actually happened to me. I think different experiences humble you but also allow you to come back stronger, smarter and faster than the next person. It also allows you to identify the difference between good and great, while maintaining equilibrium and balancing ego. Now I can look around at what I’m doing today and make sure that my ego never gets out of check because when it does it sets you back.
Respect: What factor does money play in the music industry?
Charlie Walk: The beautiful thing about the music industry today is that there’s a force out there fighting for independent artists. I think the Digital service providers respect and support this cause as well. In a business where the audience demands for “NEW,” it’s never been more exciting to compete for the consumers attention. The point of entry into the music game is easier than it’s ever been, but at a certain point you do need money to be competitive on a global basis.
However, if you have a magical artist and a magical song, I say “Great” can happen at any time. Today, there are so many young artists breaking without major label affiliation. They are making world class music and content very inexpensively and that’s because they’re aggressive, smart and clever. And those ingredients combined with the ‘great’ factor always ends up finding its way. Whether you’re the executive, the artist, the artist behind the artist and so on, there’s always an opportunity for greatness to break through, drive culture and make a difference.
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