An amateur D.J. meets a highflying music industry executive and lands the rights to remix one of the greatest hits of all time.
It could be an inspiring story. Or it could be the story of David Solomon, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, who was able to remix Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” thanks to Larry Mestel, whose music company is a client of the bank and has financial interests in the oeuvres of music legends like Prince, Bob Marley and Ms. Houston.
Mr. Solomon has been spinning records for years, mixing electronic dance music for live audiences at tiki bars in the Bahamas, at the big Chicago music festival Lollapalooza, in downtown Manhattan. He has released about a dozen dance tracks in collaboration with a handful of producers. The Goldman chief even started his own record label, Payback Records.
But the Whitney Houston remix, which became available on Spotify and other streaming platforms last summer, about six months ahead of a biopic about the singer that shares its title with the pop hit, might be his biggest win yet.
Mr. Solomon has long maintained that his D.J.ing passion has nothing to do with Goldman. And many bank insiders also say that the D.J. gig is little more than a minor headache for Goldman, even if its highly visible and unusual nature — Instagram posts, Spotify playlists and a live performance that broke Covid protocols — risks drawing unwelcome attention at a time when the bank is struggling with its performance.
Goldman recently laid off 3,200 workers and announced a $3 billion loss tied to a misbegotten foray into consumer banking. The bank’s board also cut Mr. Solomon’s pay.
But Mr. Solomon’s hobby occasionally brushes up against his day job in ways that could pose potential conflicts of interest, according to interviews with securities law experts and four people who have worked with Mr. Solomon who were not authorized to speak publicly. Company executives and public officials typically try to minimize even minor conflicts because even the slightest hint of one can bring unwanted scrutiny and bad publicity.
Mr. Solomon has told senior Goldman executives that he donates any profits he makes as a D.J. to charity. But Goldman employees have sometimes helped him manage his D.J. schedule and his donations, three people who have worked with him said.
Through Goldman’s work in the music business, he has also made at least one industry connection that helped him pursue his hobby, raising questions about whether his opportunities have come about because of his talent or his position as the leader of Wall Street’s most elite investment bank.
“The question is: What is best for Goldman Sachs?,” said Jonathan Macey, a professor of corporate and securities law at Yale Law School. “Does Goldman Sachs deserve this guy’s undivided attention?”
In an emailed statement, a spokesman for Goldman, Tony Fratto, said that D.J.ing is a hobby for Mr. Solomon and has nothing to do with the bank’s business.
“The reporting is trying to assert that there is overlap or intermingling of David’s music activities and his role as C.E.O. of Goldman Sachs,” Mr. Fratto said. “It’s clear that both David and Goldman Sachs have been scrupulous in keeping the relationship separate.”
The apparent ease with which Mr. Solomon landed the Whitney Houston remix deal caught the attention of many in the music business, where even successful musicians have to hustle when seeking blessings from the various entities controlling the copyrights to worldwide hits.
For amateur D.J.s without Mr. Solomon’s direct line to Mr. Mestel, getting approval for the remix of Ms. Houston’s hit would have been much harder, said Guillermo Page, the assistant director of the music business and entertainment industries program at the University of Miami Frost School of Music.
“When you’re dealing with someone of the stature of Whitney Houston, it’s very likely that they have some restrictions as to who can use the sound recording,” Mr. Page said. “Just because you want to do your own remix or you want to make your own creation doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to be approved.”
Once Mr. Solomon and Mr. Mestel settled on Whitney Houston, Mr. Mestel convinced Pat Houston, the sister-in-law of the deceased singer who is the executor of her estate, to sign off on the project, Pat Houston said in an interview. Sony Music Entertainment, which owns the original recording of Ms. Houston’s song, also approved it.
“Our business is in part to get artists to cover, sample, and or remix our legendary song catalog,” Mr. Mestel said in an emailed statement. He declined to disclose the terms of the deal. Mr. Fratto said that Mr. Solomon’s lawyer dealt with Sony on its particulars. Sony declined to comment.
Mr. Solomon’s remix may have helped fortify his presence as a D.J. recently, with his monthly listeners on Spotify numbering around 600,000, said Serona Elton, a professor at the University of Miami and the director of music industry program at the Frost School of Music.
“It’s a very high number for a relatively unknown artist,” Ms. Elton said.
At the same time, Mr. Solomon’s overall rank as an artist — measured by the number of people choosing to stream his music, as opposed to hearing it on a premade playlist — remained low, she said. On Chartmetric, which ranks all published artists based on their streaming statistics and social media mentions, Mr. Solomon ranked at 37,547.
Ms. Elton said that was pretty far down the list, “above the masses who only have their mom checking them out, but certainly not a name that most people on the street would know.” But she added that “a really crazy hot track,” like the Whitney Houston remix, “can cut through clutter and get attention.”
In a November email, Mr. Mestel said he suggested the song to Mr. Solomon in 2021, and that the remix had been streamed more than 2 million times on Spotify.
“Seems like he did a pretty good job,” he said.
As of early February, the remix, released by Arista, had been streamed 3 million times. (By comparison, the original hit has more than 915 million streams on Spotify.)
Another track he collaborated on with Grammy-winning producer Ryan Tedder, has gotten more than 8 million streams on Spotify.
Mr. Mestel said he met Mr. Solomon “many years ago when he was running investment banking for Goldman and he came to my office to speak about business.”
Mr. Solomon became the bank’s chief executive in 2018, the same year Mr. Mestel’s Primary Wave became a Goldman client — although another Goldman banker already had a relationship with the company. The following year, Mr. Mestel was named one of the year’s “100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs,” an annual list published by Goldman. The list was a pet project of Mr. Solomon’s, according to a person with knowledge of the process.
“There’s a kind of prima facie appearance of: ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours,’” said Yaron Nili, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School who specializes in corporate and securities law.
Mr. Fratto said Mr. Solomon did not personally pick Mr. Mestel for the list, and that there is “no economic component” to their relationship.
Mr. Solomon’s dealings with music industry executives come as many big companies have begun buying catalogs of well-established artists and building new moneymaking ventures.
Last year, Sony purchased the entire catalog of Bob Dylan’s recorded music. More recently, a firm backed by private equity giant Blackstone paid a reported $200 million for the rights to the catalog of pop artist Justin Bieber.
For investment banks like Goldman, which make money by advising companies and arranging loans, these deals can be a meaningful source of revenue. In 2022, the music giant Broadcast Music, Inc., or BMI, hired Goldman to advise it on a possible sale, according to Bloomberg News, which also reported that Goldman advised the music company Concord on a potential deal.
Since 2016, Goldman has published a closely watched annual report called “Music in the Air,” which describes current trends in music investing and publishing and offers projections for the industry’s performance in the future.
“Goldman is extremely interested in music,” said David Lieberman, an associate professor of professional practice in media management at The New School. “They see it as an opportunity, and for what seemed to be good reasons. These catalogs seem to have real steady value.”
Mr. Fratto said that Goldman has a “large existing music industry business that goes back decades,” and that there was no connection between Mr. Solomon’s hobby and the bank’s business interests.
In 2018, Mr. Solomon established Payback Records, which a spokesman for the label described as a “small, nascent, but aspirational side project” for the bank chief. It’s unclear how many employees Payback has, but a young, up-and-coming music industry executive named Adam Alpert, who is nominated for a Grammy this year, is known in the business as Mr. Solomon’s informal manager, two people familiar with the description said. Mr. Solomon has also identified Mr. Alpert as his manager to Goldman employees, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Mr. Fratto said the two men are friends. Mr. Alpert, who runs Disruptor Records in a joint venture with Sony, has offered Mr. Solomon an idea or opportunity “on rare occasions,” Mr. Fratto said, but “David doesn’t have a manager because he doesn’t need one: There’s nothing to manage.”
During the summer of 2020, at the height of the Covid pandemic, Mr. Solomon played at a show in the Hamptons headlined by The Chainsmokers — a band that Mr. Alpert manages. (New York Health authorities investigated the event for “rampant violations” of Covid protocols. Mr. Solomon later acknowledged to Goldman insiders he’d made a mistake, The New York Times has previously reported.)
Business executives often rely on office assistants to maintain their personal and professional calendars, but Mr. Solomon has sometimes gone further.
Brandon Launerts, a former Goldman employee who worked in the bank’s marketing department as a social media manager, held occasional calls with people working for Payback — including a marketing firm it uses to help manage Mr. Solomon’s social media presence. The aim was to go over strategies for promoting new music releases and appearances by Mr. Solomon, and ensure that his D.J.ing activities did not interfere with his Goldman commitments, according to two people with knowledge of the calls.
Mr. Fratto called the communications “normal” because they involved coordinating on scheduling matters, and to consider “any potential risks” for Goldman. He added that the calls are infrequent given Mr. Solomon’s limited D.J. engagements.
Last fall, Todd Wilkinson, a D.J. who goes by the name “Liquid Todd,” took a selfie with three other men, including Mr. Launerts, whom he described in an Instagram post as “The @paybackrecords crew.” Mr. Launerts replied to the post with an emoji showing two hands pressed together, which is often interpreted as “thank you.” Another person in the photo, Luc Espinosa, had interned at Goldman over the summer.
Mr. Espinosa could not be reached for comment. Mr. Wilkinson did not respond to requests for comment about the photo. But three weeks after he posted the photo, it was deleted it from his account following queries from Times reporters about Mr. Solomon’s D.J. career.
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