Music

How Interscope Pioneered the Modern Label’s Approach to Sports

When David Nieman first started a decade ago in a newly created job at Interscope Geffen A&M loosely revolving around film and TV synchs for games and sports, “it was about synchs for ESPN, putting music in Madden, and that’s where I was focused,” he says. “And then over the years, we just realized how much more there was to do.” Since then, Nieman has transformed his role from just another voice in the label crowd pitching songs to networks into the leader of the first dedicated department at a major label solely focused on the intersection of sports and music. In the process, he has broadened the idea of both what that can entail and what a label can offer — not just to the artists on its roster, but to athletes, teams and sports leagues across the country.

“We’ve elevated the way that we work with athletes and artists so that we can elevate the product that we’re bringing to our fans,” he says. “We’re trying to superserve the athletes with the resources that we have and, if they’re serious about music, put them in a place to win. But then with the fans, it’s ‘How do we superserve with more product, with custom vinyl packaging, jerseys, merchandise?’ ”

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Over the past 10 years, Nieman has realized those goals in myriad ways. He has overseen events that are traditional yet still ambitious: Kendrick Lamar becoming the first-ever College Football Playoff halftime performer in 2018; the NBA All-Star halftime show by J. Cole in 2019 in Cole’s native North Carolina, at which 1,000 die-hard fans were invited onto the court, then brought to a post-halftime location where Cole and his Dreamville Records artists performed; and Super Bowl halftime show performances by Lady Gaga (2017), Maroon 5 (2019) and Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Lamar, Mary J. Blige and Eminem (2022).

Nieman and his team have also orchestrated unorthodox moments, like working with MLB to create 30 custom vinyl iterations of The Rolling Stones’ 2023 album, Hackney Diamonds, representing each team in the league or leveraging preexisting athlete-artist friendships (6LACK and the Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, Rob49 and the Cincinnati Bengals’ Ja’Marr Chase) for video pieces that felt not just authentic, but sincere.

In the past year, Nieman’s team has strengthened those athlete-artist bonds. Interscope hosted a listening session with the Los Angeles Chargers and several of the label’s artists in which the team came to the studio to hear unreleased music, with a few players even entering the recording booth themselves. That sparked an idea that became NFL Career Day: Interscope invited 20 current and former players — legends like Harry Holt and present-day stars like Derwin James and Darren Waller — to its offices to experience a day in the life of the music industry, building and extending relationships among the players, the label and its artists. An EP emerged, featuring collaborations between five NFL athletes and five Interscope artists and produced alongside the Madden NFL video game, and its music appeared in Madden as well.

“So often we just think about halftime shows and synchs and who likes what team, and there’s so many more layers to it,” Nieman says. “Music and sports is pop culture, it’s front-line news. I’ve learned the power that it has to turn heads and create conversation. And really, the more we do, the more we can infiltrate culture and be that trendsetter that we’ve always set out to be at Interscope.”

This story will appear in the Feb. 10, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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