Gerson's career technically began in 1983, when Chappell Music hired the Pennsylvania native as an archivist. But in a sense, Gerson was primed for the biz from the start: Her family owned nightclubs, and she grew up watching icons like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Richard Pryor perform. “My goal was to be a music publisher,” she says with a laugh. “Not everybody even knows that job exists.” For 25 years or so, she ascended publishing’s corporate ladder under the auspices of now-Sony/ATV Music Publishing chairman/CEO Martin Bandier, until there were no more rungs left. “My contract was up for renewal, and I was negotiating just to become the president,” Gerson explained at the Glamour 2017 Women of the Year live summit in November. “I was co-president, I’d had all this success … and he just wouldn’t do it,” she said, alluding to Bandier. “I decided, ‘You know what? I’m gonna take my power and I called a competitor.” That competitor was Universal Music Group chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge, who installed Gerson as the first woman ever to run a major global music company.
Gerson is not only the first woman to assume a chairman role, she’s the only one on a major global level — a status she’s actively trying to change. In 2017, the mother of three joined the advisory board for the University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, an executive coalition committed to studying disparity in the entertainment industries and finding actionable solutions. Now with an eye on the music industry, the think tank recently released a report underscoring just how underrepresented women are in the industry’s top tiers. An illustrative stat: from 2013 to 2018, 90.7 percent of all individual Grammy nominees were male, while only 9.3 percent were women. As Gerson tells Billboard in this extended Power 100 interview, “I won't be satisfied until there are more of us.”
When you were first named CEO of UMPG, there was a touch of novelty to the appointment because you’re a woman. But in three years, you’ve accomplished so much — the Springsteen deal alone is huge — and it finally seems like your peers in the industry understand that you’re a great CEO. Period. Does that ring true to you?
Thank you, I appreciate that. The Springsteen deal does validate what we're doing here; I don’t think there’s a greater honor than to be working with Bruce’s team or representing that catalog. Being a woman, that story worked for me early on, but I am really happy that in many ways, we've moved on from that. However, I still think in my role it's really important to help other women achieve this kind of success. There was a little novelty at first, but being the only one is not OK anymore. I won't be satisfied until there are more of us.
At Glamour’s Women of the Year Live Summit, you were more candid about the factors that led to your decision to leave Sony/ATV than you’d ever been. Why was that the time?
That was the first time I felt really comfortable being honest. And it's funny because I've gotten more reaction to that Glamour interview than nearly anything I've ever done. I do think it was because I expressed feelings that clearly other women have. That is, we make excuses for ourselves: "Who's gonna take care of the kids? Who's gonna be there if my kid gets sent home from school sick? Can I really do all that?" Men don't have to think about balance. We do.
Jody Gerson inspires at Glamour's 2017 Women of the Year live summit
Were you underestimated as an executive because you were a woman?
I feel very strongly that it was me who underestimated myself. I can't say that anyone held me back but me. It's not like a man in my career ever said to me, "You can't do this because you need to balance" — it was me. So I had to get over that hump. I took a leap of faith that I could get over the hump and I did it. I think I did it by trusting my instincts, which were to put songwriters first — at the very center and the very core of my company — and I also took the time to learn Universal Music Publishing before I changed anything. Not one move was an ego move. I mean it: Every move was a strategic move because I had studied it and taken my time.
Did the Weinstein scandal’s aftermath make it easier for you to say publicly at the Glamour event, "The curtain is dropping, here's what goes on and here’s what held me back”?
No. First of all, I've always run this company with zero tolerance for that [sexual harassment] — and anybody who knows me knows that. But funny enough, the Harvey Weinstein thing hasn't affected our business the way it has other businesses. To be fair, I think our business is confusing because the lines of social and professional are often very blurred. But I think we all have to be clear: I've never been the victim of sexual harassment, but I do think we need to teach young women in particular to trust their instincts — and when it feels weird or uncomfortable, it fucking is — and men have to learn not to abuse their power. But I personally think that if women were running more companies, this shit wouldn't happen as much — you don't hear these charges against women to the degree you hear these charges against men. I think it's because women see power differently.
You said women see power differently. How do you mean?
I never wanted to mirror the way men have been executives. Let's change it. Let's change the definition of power. Especially for this Power 100 issue, what is “power”? Power is different for me than other people. Since day one, I’ve said that power is the ability to empower other people. So let’s empower other people.
That’s what you’re hoping to do with the University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.
I think what's important in our industry is that there is truly equal opportunity for people — regardless of gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. And to me, that was what was appealing about the USC initiative: It will really look at our business, but it will also figure out how to help people, how to get people in the door. So for me personally, it's not only important to identify that we need to do better in our hiring practices. We need to do better in training young people to succeed in whatever roles in which they want to succeed in. Because not everybody knows how to work in a corporate environment. Not everybody even knows these jobs are available. So outreach has to be important.
Do you also mean getting beyond class, as well?
I do! That's what I'm saying: Not everybody went to Northwestern and grew up with a family that was into music. It's easy for me to say, "This is how I got here." I studied it, I watched it, I have a good education, I'm confident, I'm comfortable around all different kinds of people, I grew up with lots of diversity. But not everybody has that experience. Not everybody knows how to climb the corporate ladder. So if you're going to give a kid a chance, you have to take the responsibility of teaching the kid how to have success. And that's key. The onus has to be on us as much as it's on them.
An abridged version of this article originally appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of Billboard.