Universal Music Publishing Group Chairman/CEO Jody Gerson on Balancing Hits With Legacy and What It's Like to Compete With Your Ex-Boss
When Jody Gerson left Sony/ATV Music Publishing in July 2014 after six years at the company, many industry observers were taken by surprise. After all, she was then -- as she is now -- the highest-ranking woman in publishing and positioned to become heir apparent to chairman Martin Bandier. But behind the scenes, Universal Music Group chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge waited out her contract, swooped in and gave the 53-year-old Philadelphia native control of Universal Music Publishing Group and its $1.1 billion in annual revenue.
Gerson made her name as one of the most renowned A&R executives in the music business, identifying and signing such artists and songwriters as Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, Norah Jones and Enrique Iglesias, all early in their careers. She started out at Chappell Music, now known as Warner/Chappell, where she worked for six years before moving to EMI for a 12-year stint. Gerson left to join Bandier at Sony/ATV in 2008. During her tenure as co-president, the company had unprecedented growth -- by mid-2012, Sony/ATV averaged a market share of 14.9 percent, as reported when it took over administration of EMI Music Publishing.
Today, six months into her stint as chairman/CEO of UMPG, the divorced mother of three is still making it her business to discover up-and-coming talent -- recent signings include Tobias Jesso Jr., Ariana Grande and Nick Jonas. "I lead by example," says Gerson, who oversees 800 employees based at UMPG's Santa Monica headquarters and at offices around the globe. "I want everyone here at UMPG to work creatively."
What in your career best prepared you for the UMPG job?
My A&R skills in signing artists that have global appeal. How Lucian got me to leave Sony/ATV is because of my relationships with talent. But I am only as good as my team, and one of my great strengths is identifying great executives on the creative level and hiring them.
If you were to write your own performance review, how would you describe your first six months?
I'm working hard getting to know the company, visiting offices in Nashville, Miami and the United Kingdom, where I met with a lot of the managing directors. At my prior job, I didn't pay attention to how the competition operates. Yet my instincts were right in coming here. The administration, systems, business affairs and finance teams are so superior. I thought all that it needed was a cultural shift, so I made some changes in the A&R and synch areas.
The biggest cultural shift at UMPG is putting the songwriter first and putting action behind that statement. The company had really great artists and songwriters, but it was focused on the established ones. UMPG was more about risk management -- specifically being risk-averse. Our U.K. office had some of the biggest signings with acts like Coldplay, Mumford & Sons and Florence & The Machine, but the U.S. A&R wasn't about [discovering] unproven artists, except for Ethiopia Habtemariam -- who heads our urban team and runs Motown. I'm changing that so we can sign new acts and songwriters.
Can you point to any key differences between how UMPG conducts its business versus Sony/ATV?
UMPG's royalty system is better than anything I have ever experienced. In my previous jobs, success always had been defined by market share and what's on the charts. That wasn't the focus here. We went from counting pennies to having passion about the music.
How have you seen the position of women in the music business evolve through the years?
Women from the generation before me who were on their way up the ladder, they didn't think they could have it all so they had to choose between a career and a family. Now, it's much more acceptable to have both. Women can run companies while having the balance of a family life. Even men can have that balance nowadays.
Who are your mentors?
My parents. My dad was in the entertainment business, and I learned a lot from him in how to deal with talent. He gave me tremendous confidence and knew I could be a high achiever, while my mother kept me down to earth. After him, there's no question that Marty was a mentor for years. And now Lucian -- he's a smart businessman who's driven to win, and he empowers his executives and is not threatened by them.
What's it like competing with Bandier after working for him for so long?
Marty and I had a great run, and now we are competitors, just like I am with everyone else. I think I got my competitive and winning spirit from him, although I had it naturally to begin with.
What's your assessment of UMPG's catalog? Is it weighted appropriately by genre and geographic areas?
I look at things in terms of decades and iconic songs. Sometimes, you are so uber-focused on hits, but I don't want to forget legacy. We have 3 million songs, and I want to make sure every song, from new ones to classics, is achieving its potential. The other thing with legacy is to develop content; we are not just a licensing company. With my relationships with the TV and film studios, there is no reason we can't create content based on our catalog. The next few years will be fun.
As the fight over higher rates for songwriters rages on, will you personally be on the front lines?
Absolutely, yes. I always have been a passionate defender of creators' rights, and now I get to do it on a bigger scale. The music industry has not done the best job of presenting a unified front. I think I can help find common ground.
What's your take on Apple Music?
I love Beats 1. I haven't listened to another radio station since it launched.
Your college-age son has brought a few artists your way. Do you support a career for him in the music industry?
My oldest, Julian Swirsky [a 20-year-old student at New York University's Gallatin School], is constantly bringing me acts, and he's pretty dead-on. He brought me Drake way before anyone knew who he was, and recently brought me Post Malone, for whom there's a major bidding war. I want my children to follow their passion.
This story first appeared in the July 25 issue of Billboard.