Veteran Music Executives Discuss Where Their Careers Were In Their 20s, 30s and 40s

John Zarling, Julie Swidler, Martin Kierszenbaum, Rob Light, David Gray & Marsha Vlasic
Courtesy Photos

Clockwise from top left: John Zarling, Julie Swidler, Martin Kierszenbaum, Rob Light, David Gray & Marsha Vlasic

Billboard has revealed its annual 40 Under 40 list of music executives, which highlights young talent across the industry. 

In conjunction with the list, Billboard asked a handful of the industry's top veterans to chart their respective careers when they were 20 years old, 30 and 40. Here's what they said.

Martin Kierszenbaum
Chairman, Cherrytree Music Company; Manager (Sting)

At 20:
I was a music theory major at the University of Michigan and performing in and producing a hip-hop duo called Maroon. We released [our work] independently on a label I co-founded called Arb Recordings. Maroon’s debut album The Funky Record was named one of the best releases of 1988 by renowned music journalist Robert Christgau in The Village Voice.

At 30:
I was senior vp at A&M Records running its International Department on the lot at 1416 N. La Brea Ave. and working with Sting, Bryan Adams, Sheryl Crow and Soundgarden.

At 40:
I had founded my label Cherrytree Records and was releasing records from Feist, Robyn, Tokio Hotel, Keane and Lady Gaga on whose debut album The Fame I produced and co-wrote four songs.

David Gray
EVP, Head of West Coast A&R, Universal Music Publishing Group

At 20:
I was in college and in and out of terrible cover bands. I once had to audition by singing a cover of Kajagoogoo’s “Too Shy”. When I graduated, I knew two things. One: I wanted to do music and there was no plan B. Two: I did not want to be in a cover band again. Ever. So I started writing my own songs.

At 30:
I was in an alternative rock band called Idle Wilds and we were about to get signed to RCA Records. We were signed and dropped. Then signed. Then dropped. A well-known music executive once said I was just shitty enough of an artist to be a really good A&R guy. I took that advice to heart!

At 40:
I was director of A&R at Daylight Records/Sony Music International and working for [current Arista Records president/CEO] David Massey. It was a great proving ground and learning experience-boot camp doing international A&R. It was so valuable to travel the world and get a clear understanding of how music is made globally. And the air miles were amazing.

Rob Light
Partner/managing director/head of music, Creative Artists Agency?

At 20:
I was the concert chairman at Syracuse University, and asking myself: “I wonder if there is a career in this?” A year later, William Morris turned me down for the mailroom and ICM gave me a shot.

At 30:
I was 4 years in at CAA. We were on fire. Tom Ross was steering an incredible ship. Our staff and roster were growing by leaps and bounds, and I was just divorced from Sheena Easton. A whirlwind, exhilarating and crazy time. L.A. felt like the center of the music universe.

At 40:
I was No. 2 at CAA behind Tom Ross. Little did I know that in just nine short months Tom Ross would retire and I would be given the opportunity of a lifetime. At that moment, CAA had only a Los Angeles and Nashville office. We had approximately 20 agents and executives in music. Twenty years later, we are in New York, Nashville, Los Angeles, and London, and have an incredible team of 142 agents and executives -- a remarkable achievement from an amazing family of music loving, like-minded individuals.

Julie Swidler?
Executive vp business affairs/general counsel, Sony Music Entertainment

At 20:
I was a senior in college. I was also working part time as a bartender, had a radio show on the college station two days a week during prime time (dinner) and ran a college coffee house where I had to do the contracts between the college and the “talent” (as well as the marketing, management, etc.). Of course, marketing a college coffee house was easy enough in those days as all I had to do was add “Irish Coffee” to the menu.

At 30:
I joined PolyGram Records one week before I turned 30. I was hired as a senior director of legal affairs. My job involved negotiating recording agreements, publishing agreements, overseeing outside litigation and I was the one tasked with overseeing any legal work related to music synchronization as I had just come from an ad agency. The biggest artists on the roster at that time were Bon JoviDef Leppard and Cameo, whose Word Up! album had just sold 10 million units.

At 40:
Big things seem to happen for me at each decade. Shortly after I turned 40, Universal bought PolyGram. At that time, I was senior vp business and legal affairs for Mercury Records. By the end of the year I was senior vp business affairs for Island/Def Jam. It was a crazy year of transition. By the end of that year, I left to go to work for Clive [Davis] at Arista, as senior vp business and legal affairs. I thought to myself, what could be more stable than going to work for Clive at Arista Records. Joke was on me. Six months into my tenure BMG decided it was time for Clive to retire and a war of words ensued. One year later Clive started J Records and I went with him. I joked at the time that while Clive was starting an instant major, the initial recording sessions were on my credit card. I learned a very valuable lesson. The only constant in life is change and flexibility is key.

Marsha Vlasic
President, Artist Group International

At 20:
I was working full time. I was working for two guys that had a booking agency at the time and were middle men. They represented go-go dancers and bands. They were pretty shady, but I did learn a lot! I then moved on to American Talent International and was an assistant to three crazy crazy agents! It was sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll at that time.

At 30:
I was already an agent. Being a woman in the business was few and far between -- there were three of us. I became an agent at ATI, then went to work at ICM, and returned as vp to ATI. I had an amazing client list, which included Rush, Styx, all the British punk rock bands, Neil Young, AC/DC.....and many more.

At 40:
ATI had been sold to ICM so I was back there and was vp. By that time there were more woman agents. I always felt very privileged and fortunate to have had the doors I had to walk through. To this day I feel so blessed to be in this industry.

John Zarling
Executive vp marketing and new business, Sony Music Nashville

At 20:
I was in my senior year at Belmont University here in Nashville. I had interned several places prior to that but at that time I was working in the mailroom through a temp agency at Mercury Records here in Nashville, which is now a part of Universal Music Group. I was learning the ropes and getting to know everybody, sending out more packages than I can even remember.

At 30:
I was in the middle of my eleven-year run at Big Machine Label Group, overseeing national promotion as well as brand partnerships there. That would have been in the middle of the Taylor Swift ascension to international stardom, I think we would have been gearing up at that point to release her Speak Now record coming off the Grammy win for Fearless. It was a very exciting time, obviously Taylor being the most prominent artist but Big Machine was really changing the nature of the Nashville music business at that time, so it was exciting. My most recent title when I departed was senior vp of promotion strategy & new business, but at that point I was probably like a director or senior director.

At 40:
I’m 39 -- I’ll be 40 in February. Right now I’m learning and challenged everyday with my role at Sony Music Nashville. I oversee seven different departments that encompass a marketing component. Everyday is different. Working with Kane Brown has been so exciting -- we are in the process of gearing up to for his second release Experiment, and he’s doing so many things differently that are not in and of themselves revolutionary, but he’s bringing a mainstream marketing and communication approach to the country format -- especially in the way that he communicates with his fans on socials. So, he's a really exciting artist to be aligned with.

Q1 2019 (when he will be 40): I’m excited about our artist Luke Combs who is nominated -- that was a Freudian slip -- who hopefully will be a contender for Grammy best new artist. He’s got a sold-out first quarter tour and he’s another act that in two short years has really turned the country industry on its head. He's proving to be a headlining act in a very short time frame. 


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