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YouTube's global head of music Lyor Cohen.Noa Griffel/Handout

This week marks the launch of YouTube’s Artist on the Rise feature in Canada, the first market outside of the United States to offer the platform. The inaugural spotlighted artist is Faouzia, a trilingual 20-year-old Morocco-born singer-songwriter and Spotify star from Winnipeg who recently collaborated with John Legend on the single Minefields.

Former Def Jam and Warner Music Group executive and current YouTube global head of music Lyor Cohen spoke to The Globe and Mail not only about Artists on the Rise, but his sour taste for the Grammys and the troubling issue of musicians starving on streaming wages.

What’s your take on The Weeknd being shut out of the Grammy nominations?

I’m the wrong person to ask. I started my career in 1983 as the road manager for Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, and ended up managing them. I remember going to the Grammys and sitting there for Run-DMC’s nominations and didn’t get one of them. One of my other artists, Public Enemy, had a very famous song, with the line about who gives a dot-dot-dot-dot about a Grammy.

Do you share that sentiment?

Of course I do. Sitting there all night, seeing all the glad-handing that happened. It upset me so much. And then understanding how the process is and how convoluted it is. Many years ago I had an album, O Brother, Where Art Thou? I don’t know if you remember it.

Soundtrack album to the Coen brothers film, a landmark roots-music record.

Yeah. I was at the Grammys in 2002. I looked to my colleague, Julie Greenwald, who runs Atlantic Records, and I said: ‘Do you know what? This is the Grammys, we’re not going to win, so let’s go get some food.’ We went to a cheap Japanese restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. Both our phones started exploding when O Brother won. I wasn’t even in the audience. Just so you know my sentiment on the Grammys.

You left the label side of the industry in 2016 to become YouTube’s global head of music. Streaming is great for music consumers, but it doesn’t pay the artists well. How do you reconcile that?

I think it’s good for artists if the user is delighted. It’s good for the labels and the ecosystem. I believe putting the record stores in the pocket of the consumer is a beautiful thing. I will take exception to artists not getting paid as much. When you had to have a CD plant, when you had to have shipping, when you had to pay for shelf space in retailers, the ecosystem paid these fixed costs and thus artists shared these costs as well.

Are those savings making their way back to the artists, though?

Certainly. You’re watching an evolution of deals that are being made between the record industry and the artists. There’s always a stub period where you’re living with contracts that were designed and created for a past era. What we’re seeing now is much more usage of music, and artists and publishers and record companies are being paid for it.

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YouTube launched Artist on the Rise in Canada this week. The first featured musician is Canada's Faouzia.Handout

But the ecosystem depends on artists making money from live performances. With COVID-19, the model has fallen apart.

I wouldn’t say fallen apart. I would say being put on pause. There will be a vaccine. Remember, after the Spanish flu there was the Roaring Twenties. I suspect people will get back together. It’s super exciting to see what happens in 2021.

Will the concert venues still be around when concerts come back? The small venues are getting hammered.

That’s very true. We worked very hard on our end, what we did with NIVA, the National Independent Venue Association. YouTube collaborated with NIVA on Save Our Stages, alongside Budweiser. We worked very hard to bring attention and revenue to some of the struggling venues out there.

YouTube launched Artist on the Rise in Canada this week. Why choose Faouzia first?

She’s an incredibly compelling vocalist and incredibly talented songwriter. And she plays instruments. We’re all about the Canadian music scene. We know what’s happening there.

You personally have a history with Canadian acts.

I do. One of the first rock acts I signed was Sum 41. Then I bought Roadrunner Records, which ended up being good to me because of Nickelback. There’s something in the water in Canada. You’re proud of your creative industries. YouTube backed Shawn Mendes, and it made us proud that he’s doing stadiums throughout the world. We believe Canadian artists aren’t just meant for Canada, and we’re delighted to have Faouzia as our first Artist on the Rise.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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