This story is part of Billboard’s annual 40 Under 40 list, which spotlights the young executives who are pushing the music industry forward.
In January, Darkroom founder/CEO Justin Lubliner had what he calls “the best day of my life.” He attended the 62nd annual Grammys in Los Angeles, where his label’s star, 18-year-old Billie Eilish, was up for six awards. She went home with five and became only the second musician in the ceremony’s history to sweep the Big Four categories. “To have an artist achieve that level of credibility was such an unbelievable moment,” recalls Lubliner, 30. “I was the craziest person in the crowd, screaming the entire time.”
It was the culmination of years of hard work for Lubliner, who signed Eilish in partnership with Interscope in 2016 and has watched the “bad guy” singer become a next-generation icon: Her triple-platinum 2019 debut, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, was the first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 by an artist born in the 21st century. For plenty of musicians, such Grammys success might signal time for a break. Yet since then, Lubliner (along with Eilish’s managers, Brandon Goodman and Danny Rukasin, and the rest of her team) has helped the singer maintain momentum with a dazzling global livestream concert in October (in place of her postponed 2020 arena tour); an Apple documentary (coming to theaters and Apple TV+ in February 2021); and a steady stream of new music from her and FINNEAS, her brother and main collaborator.
“What we really wanted to focus on,” says Lubliner, “was being as proactive as possible: not only coming up with concepts and ideas but chasing them to death until we achieve them.”
His drive to be helpful appealed to Eilish from the jump. “When I met Justin, I felt like he was the only person out of everyone I met that year — and I met with a lot of people — that really saw something and believed it,” she says. “There was such an energy in the room in that first meeting with Interscope, and it was radiating off Justin because he had such a strong intention. He didn’t have some plan that was to turn me into something different. He really just saw me for exactly who I was and wanted to support that. I think that’s rare.”
Lubliner initially launched Darkroom as a marketing/ PR firm in 2011 while enrolled in the University of Southern California’s music business program. Then 21, he was also consulting for Republic Records’ A&R team and starting to amass an enviable contact list. He met Interscope chairman/CEO John Janick in 2014, and the two hit it off; that year, Darkroom became a joint venture with Interscope and signed its first artist, DJ-producer Gryffin. Lubliner, whose roster also includes alternative producer Oliver Malcolm and pop singer-songwriter Max Leone, credits his success to his early start and “kid at heart” enthusiasm. “When you’re younger, you’re connected to the culture, new marketing ideas, new social media platforms,” he says. “When I started our company, I was a college kid marketing to other college kids. It’s a young person’s game at the end of the day, and every day I get older, I feel like I’m slightly less aware.”
Right now, at least, Lubliner still has his finger on the pulse. He’s focused on expanding Darkroom’s international presence and recently hired an analytics expert so the six-person team can approach “our global strategy with data [instead of] just ideas and instincts,” he says. Establishing artists in film is also a priority: In addition to the documentary, Eilish released “No Time To Die,” the theme for the next James Bond movie of the same name, to rave reviews in February. “It was one of the most difficult things we’ve ever had to go after,” says Lubliner, who credits Jody Gerson (Universal Music Publishing Group chairman/CEO) and Tony Seyler (Interscope’s executive vp film/TV marketing and licensing and soundtrack A&R) with helping the team pitch the song to MGM and Eon Productions.
As for when Eilish will release her next album, Lubliner says he has no idea — but that hasn’t stopped him from waking up in the middle of the night and texting colleagues his ideas. “We’re already whiteboarding how that album is going to be marketed,” he says. “That said, 90% is from Billie and Finn. They’re the leaders, the vision, and we’re along for the ride. But I think the 10% we contribute is really influential. If you can help an artist have a sustainable career, that’s the best metric of success in the music business.”