It’s our 75th episode of Earned! We’re celebrating this milestone with an awesome interview. On the show today we have Lee Stimmel, head of global partnership marketing at Prime Video & Amazon Studios. Prior to joining Amazon in 2019, Lee spent most of his career in the music industry: he most recently served as the head of original content at Sony Music Entertainment, and previously led the marketing teams at Atlantic Records and Sony, in addition to establishing a creative agency within Columbia Records.
To start the episode, we dive into Lee’s time at Amazon, and learn how he spearheaded the company’s influencer marketing program before taking on his new partnerships role. Lee explains how the lines between traditional talent and socially native creators are blurring, and Amazon’s learnings around integrating influencers into its creative processes. Next, we take a step back and dive into Lee’s seasoned career in the music industry. Lee unpacks how the industry has had to evolve from the traditional label structure to the current streaming era—a transition that has put the power back in the hands of the artists.
We discuss how social media has enabled artists to connect with their communities in more meaningful ways than ever before, and the strategies behind building “fandoms” today. We then learn why Lee pursued original content creation at Columbia Records and Sony Music, and hear the origin story for “Mike Tyson Mysteries,” an animated series starring boxing champ Mike Tyson. We circle back to Amazon, and Lee explains why he saw influencer marketing as a “white space” in the company, and how Amazon continues to collaborate with and elevate these creators. To close the show, Lee shares what he loves most about working for Amazon, before revealing what’s up next.
We’ve included a couple of highlights from the episode below, but be sure to check out the full video above, or tune into the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts!
The following interview has been lightly edited for concision.
“Artists need a different aptitude of understanding how to communicate to fans”: Lee Stimmel on Building “Fandoms” in the Music Industry Today
Conor Begley: What's interesting about social and this concept of “fandom” that you talk about is that you, as an artist or as a creator, can connect with your audience in a much more meaningful way than you could in the past, right? Talk to me about that. How do you think about building fandom, and then, like you said, how do you service fandom?
Lee Stimmel: I think you really went from hand-to-hand combat, to being able to have mass communication at scale within seconds. It's incredibly exciting, but it's also daunting if you're an artist, because you need to make sure that you are communicating the right way. When you went through a traditional label structure, you had a lot of layers and a lot of places to vet content. You made a record. It took you X amount of months in a studio with lots of people to do it over time. Then you mixed the record, you mastered the record, you did all the artwork, you did the videos. All of those things were done in an elongated fashion. You had a lot of time to perfect that.
Now, I have friends at Sony where they get a record delivered on Wednesday night that's coming out the next day. So that's exciting, but it's also daunting. [The process is so different because] you can collapse that window of time in such an incredible fashion. So I think it takes artists to have a really different aptitude of understanding how to communicate to fans, and I don't know if that skillset was inherently there a decade or two ago. And not to say they weren't capable of it, but it just wasn't necessary at that point because you had so many mechanisms and places to vet [content], whereas now you can literally tweet out of your phone, and in three seconds you're trending number one because you just said you're releasing an album in 15 minutes. I think that's awesome. But you also really need to be smart from an artist's point of view to understand how to use that medium.
I always said when we were under the label structure that we had a hard time, because we never owned our customer. The customers were owned by a Best Buy, a Tower Records, Amazon, right? We didn't own the customer. And the artist didn't own the customer because they would go on tour, they would sell tickets, but they didn't know who bought a ticket. Ticketmaster would know that, or Live Nation, or whomever owned it. And so this is, again, that same theme of the artist taking control.
When I sat with artists when this transformation was happening, it was like, “This is your network.” If you really boil it down, there's MTV, there's ESPN, there's CBS, there's KROQ. This is your channel. This is your network. This is your CNN. But instead of it being about world politics, maybe it’s about the life and times of artists like Adele or Beyoncé. So that's an incredibly exciting, powerful tool at your fingertips. But it requires managers to rethink how they do business. It requires artists to rethink how they do business. It takes really listening to customers and fans and understanding what's exciting them. It also means feeding the beast and always bringing content to the forefront, whether it be music, video, tweets, behind-the-scenes footage—something that keeps everyone engaged, as well. It's really dynamic, and I think people are still trying to figure it out, myself included.
“The next incredible director or writer or photographer is going to come out of this pool”: Why Lee Stimmel Brought Influencers Into the Amazon Talent Universe
Conor Begley: So you went from the original content game to Amazon and to influencers. One, what made you decide to do that, and then what were some of your learnings after doing it for two or three years? How was this different from some of the work you had done with other artists historically within the music industry?
Lee Stimmel: I was running original content at Sony, and a good friend of mine, Mike Benson, who was the CMO of Amazon at the time, was looking for someone to join the team to work with their traditional talent—their actors, actresses, filmmakers—and help bring them into the fold to participate in the marketing plans of the series and films, and build bespoke elements within the marketing plan that laddered up to what they were excited about.
Which was interesting to me, because in the music business, we had no resources. The only things we had to leverage were the artists and the music and the content. So we always did live performances, and we activated artists’ socials, and we worked with artists directly to create things. It was very common for me to sit in a room with a bunch of artists and come up with ideas of, “Well, how do we launch X, Y, Z?” And I think [Amazon was] looking for someone at the time to do that for their tentpole initiatives. I did that for a year or two and I loved it.
Amazon moves people around, and when we went through a reorg, I saw this white space of influencers. I thought, we really need to look at this group of creatives and think, how do we bring them into our orbit and work with them, get to know them, communicate with them? The next incredible director or writer or photographer is going to come out of this pool. The talent really does rise. You see these incredibly talented people in their mediums, and so my feeling was, how do we tap into these people and elevate their work, or at least help them [reach a wider] audience? Again, the idea of fandom. How do we bring fans to them? How do we increase their business?
That can go from selling something at Amazon, or it could just be giving them exposure so that they double their followers and therefore can command a bigger footprint within the [social] universe. Those are all wins for me. With Reece (@guywithamoviecamera), we found him relatively young because he was working with [The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel] cast, and we brought him into our fold for a bunch of things, and now he's all over the place doing stuff for all different streamers. And someone said to me, “Well, are you upset that he…” Of course not. I love the fact that he's flourishing. That's what I want. I want him and all of the creators we work with to flourish.
Conor Begley: Because then they're like, “If you work with Amazon, look what could happen for you.” Right? That's the story you want them telling each other.
Lee Stimmel: Correct. And it really is the artist's first talent environment that certainly Jen Salke, the studio head, is emanating to her colleagues and clients. We wanted to do the same thing on the influencer side. So I saw this need, I pitched it in November, and literally within two weeks the green light was given and I was hiring. I did that for a little over two years, and now I’m onto my next adventure at Amazon.
Keep up with new episodes of Earned by following the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts, or subscribing to our YouTube channel. To catch up on our previous episodes, featuring leaders from brands like Revolve, K18, Instagram, and Roblox, visit our Earned Podcast page.