Reservoir Founder Golnar Khosrowshahi On the Publisher's Data-First Approach and 'Getting Deeper Into Masters'

Golnar Khosrowshahi
Winnie Au

“We have the benefit of youth, and what I mean by that is that we didn’t inherit a bunch of grandfathered-in systems,” says Khosrowshahi, photographed on Sept. 13, 2019 at Reservoir Media in New York.

Golnar Khosrowshahi once played at the highest levels as a pianist — she attended both the Royal Academy of Music in the United Kingdom and the Royal Conservatory in Canada — and didn't even consider a career in the music business until after she worked as managing director for the Canadian pharmaceuticals firm DRI Capital. "When you look at an inventor trying to create a molecule versus a songwriter creating a song," she says, "it's really not very different."

This revelation led the Iranian-­Canadian pianist turned entrepreneur to found independent publisher Reservoir Media in New York in 2007 under the umbrella of a family office. (Khosrowshahi's father, Hassan, is a billionaire businessman, one of the richest men in Canada; her cousin Dara is currently the CEO of Uber.) Among her most formative acquisitions were U.K.-based publisher Reverb Music, which publishes songwriters like John Fortis (Ellie Goulding, Prodigy) and Jamie Hartman (The Wanted, Joss Stone), and First State Media Group, which owns compositions by Sheryl Crow, John Denver and Billy Strayhorn. Reservoir also owns rights to the film scores of Hans Zimmer, such as The Lion King and The Dark Knight.

In May 2017, Reservoir began to expand further when it purchased a stake in artist management and publishing company Big Life Management, which represents clients including Badly Drawn Boy and Bloc Party. In August, it acquired Blue Raincoat Music and its subsidiary Chrysalis Records, which owns the master rights to songs like Sinéad O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U" and Generation X's "Dancing With Myself."

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A wall of recent awards that Reservoir Media has received. 

Khosrowshahi has kept Reservoir ahead of the curve; in 2017 it licensed Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" to advertise the then-new Google Home. Meanwhile, the company has become a staple on Billboard's quarterly ranking of the top 10 publishers, with a stable of artists like Migos' Offset and Takeoff, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie (signed in June), 2 Chainz and Young Thug. (In the second quarter of 2019, Reservoir held a 1.96% market share of the top Billboard Hot 100 songs.) Khosrowshahi says she is also deeply passionate about her philanthropic work: She sits on the board of directors of the NMPA's SONGS Foundation and Yo-Yo Ma's nonprofit Silkroad, which promotes multicultural artistic collaboration.

Now, Reservoir is a full-service music company with 110,000 copyrights, 20,000 master recordings and locations in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, London — and Nashville, which opened in April. But Khosrowshahi is always looking for more ways for Reservoir to expand. "We anticipate getting deeper into masters," she says. "We are certainly looking at ways we can participate in the emerging markets and add that to our services."

When you established Reservoir, what was the market need that you were trying to fill?

It would be wrong to say that we were going to come in and change the age-old model. In the context of how this business was going to be changed by technology, we were very much focused longer-term to fill that void of one-on-one creative services. That said, we didn't start expanding that part of our business until a few years in because we wanted to build a catalog first.

Winnie Au
“Yo-Yo gave me that for my birthday,” says Khosrowshahi. “He’s suggested I use it in meetings to express how I’m feeling about certain ideas.”

When you were first starting out, did you feel like an outsider in the music business?

When I first got started, what I found most striking was that everybody in this business knows each other. In meetings, somebody would say to me, "Do you know so-and-so?" And my answer was always no. It took quite a bit of time to be able to answer yes. Once you've been to a year's cycle of events, you know a lot of key players.

Has your approach to catalog acquisition changed since those early days?

It's pretty much true to what it was at the outset. We didn't get into this business with the intention of selling it within a finite period of time — if you want to build long-term value, you want high-quality music that retains such value. We're super happy we have a catalog that dates from Hoagy Carmichael's 1920s output to music that's delivered this week.

How does Reservoir take a data-first approach to monetizing its catalog without sacrificing human instinct, experience and business acumen?

Collections, administration, how we get paid and tracking licenses are probably eventually going to be automated. But understanding the music and the trajectory of somebody's career, and the right song for a film trailer or an advertising placement, are where we have the best people. The data make those people better at what they do, but it's not driving what they do. We assess our numbers on a monthly basis, and if it's a song like "Take Me Home, Country Roads," we'll look at how much synch that song has done year over year. It gives our teams the right information to not only enhance, but retain value.

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Leon Ware’s Rainbow Deux and Nat Turner Rebellion’s Love to Keep From Crying, two “passion projects” led by Reservoir senior vp A&R and catalog development Faith Newman. 

How do you ensure that songs by lesser-known writers also get syncs?

Our synch people say they need to live with the music. At first, I was like, "What do you mean, 'live with the music'?" But they do that so they know [an artist's] entire catalog and can find the perfect song for that perfect moment, when it isn't something like [the Fugees'] "Ready or Not." Those are the easy ones, the no-brainers. The skill comes in when you can create licensing opportunities for the rest of the catalog.

These days, there are a lot of independent publishers in the marketplace. Has increased competition affected how Reservoir does business?

I certainly think there's a lot more competition, and the days of buying things at very low multiples are over. Some people are describing it as a very "frothy" marketplace. We're certainly not going to join this multiples race. We fully acknowledge the growth and the shift in our assumptions as far as what we would've valued something at five years ago versus today.

Do you feel like your experience as a pianist positions you to advocate for songwriters and musicians?

I think it does. You have a different lens through which you can see the challenges of their job. I played other people's music — I was never faced with actually creating music, and I would say that's even more challenging. Having empathy is im­por­tant and understanding how that creative process, performance, practice and learning has its ups and downs. It's not so surgical that you can just go in and do the same thing and have the same output every day. This hasn't been deliberate, but we have a lot of people on our team who at some point have been pretty serious about music.

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“I run a lot,” says Khosrowshahi. “I would say somewhere between 25 and 30 miles a week. Now, I say I run a lot, but [executive vp, creative and A&R] Donna Caseine runs marathons all the time.”

How does being on the board of Silkroad inform the work that you do with Reservoir?

It's really important to align everything I do: I have a background in music, I'm educated musically, I'm in the music business, and I'm devoting all my free philanthropy time to further musicians and their causes. My mother met Yo-Yo Ma probably 25 or 30 years ago when she was chair of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and he had this idea to bring together musicians from different backgrounds and start a cross-cultural dialogue. The work that Silkroad does, bringing that front and center in today's world, is now probably more important than ever.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of Billboard.