Desiree Perez

Roc Nation's Desiree Perez: Billboard's 2019 Women In Music Executive of the Year

The COO of Roc Nation, Desiree Perez, has quietly become one of the most formidable figures in the music business. Now she’s talking about her career -- for the first time.

On a typical day, Desiree Perez would prefer not to be here.

Well, not here, exactly -- in a conference room on the top floor of Roc Nation’s sleek new offices on Manhattan’s West Side -- but “here” as in doing her first interview about her career in the music business. Her path has taken her from part-time hip-hop club promoter to the C-suite of one of the most prominent, artist-friendly independent companies in the world.

As COO of JAY-Z’s multihyphenate, one-stop music shop, Roc Nation, she’s certainly got plenty of other things to do. The Roc, which initially formed in 2008 as a $150 million joint entertainment venture between Jay and Live Nation (and included a 360 deal for Jay’s recordings, publishing and tours for 10 years), has during the past 11 years expanded into almost every facet of entertainment and grown from five employees to 450 -- of which 52% are minorities, according to the company. (A new $200 million touring-only deal between Jay and Live Nation was signed in 2017.)

There’s Roc Nation Records, which counts Rihanna, J. Cole, and Jaden and Willow Smith on its roster and has a global partnership with Universal Music Group (UMG), from which Roc’s label has generated over $200 million. There’s Roc Nation Management, which boasts Meek Mill, Mariah Carey and Shakira as clients. There’s a publishing wing with divisions specifically for country and Latin music; a touring arm, which handles live ventures for JAY-Z, as well as the annual Made in America Festival; and Tidal, the music streaming service and content hub Roc Nation purchased, rebranded and launched with 16 artist stakeholders in March 2015.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Diamond Ball
Rihanna is on the roster of Roc Nation Records, which has a global partnership with Universal Music Group.

Roc Nation Sports represents some of the most famous athletes on the planet, including CC Sabathia, Kyrie Irving and Victor Cruz; Roc’s film/TV division has produced acclaimed docuseries on Kalief Browder and Trayvon Martin. Spirits, branding, apparel, consulting, indie distribution, a venture capital fund and philanthropic efforts -- the S. Carter Foundation, which raised $6 million in scholarship money during its gala on Nov. 15 and 16, and REFORM, a criminal justice reform initiative with Meek Mill, among others -- all fall under Perez’s purview too, giving her one of the broadest job descriptions an entertainment conglomerate could conceive. And that, somehow, doesn’t cover all of it.

Yet the Bronx-born Perez -- who runs the company alongside JAY-Z, CEO Jay Brown, co-founder/president of A&R Ty Ty Smith and her husband, head of Roc Nation Sports Juan Perez -- still manages to be the confident eye at the center of the Roc Nation storm. “I’m fair, I’m strong, and I’m transparent,” she says about her management style, which also includes picking up calls at all hours -- especially when her phone flashes “No Caller ID.” “You never have to worry about what I’m thinking -- I’ll always tell you.”

“Desiree is one of the most driven women I’ve ever met,” says Atlantic Records COO/co-chairman Julie Greenwald. “I always kid her and say, ‘When are you taking a vacation?’ She never does, because she’s always working. She’s there morning, noon and night, really driving that business. Everyone looks at Roc Nation as synonymous with JAY-Z, but she’s really the engine that drives it.”

In Perez’s telling, that drive comes from being the daughter of Cuban immigrants, as a girl helping her Spanish-speaking father run his moving company in the Bronx and learning how to sell his company’s services to English-speaking clients. “My dad was a big influence on me because he worked so hard and he came from nothing -- it was really gritty,” she says. “I learned how to drive a truck at 16, how to drive a tractor-trailer at the age of 17. I learned how to change transmission oil and motor oil and all those things that normally ‘girls,’ quote-unquote, wouldn’t learn. So I think he empowered me in that way.”

Perez herself never intended to get into the music business -- she was running a company that sold cellphones and beepers when she was first asked to help run promotions at a nightclub in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood -- but she had the drive to run with the opportunity. By 1996 she was managing a series of clubs. That year, for $5,000, she booked a young rapper named JAY-Z and his DJ, Clark Kent, to play one of her venues.

A few years later, Jay, Juan and Desiree opened the 40/40 Club in Manhattan and Desiree became its director of operations, eventually launching additional outposts, including in Atlantic City, N.J., and Las Vegas. (The latter two have since closed, though the original club in Manhattan and one inside Brooklyn’s Barclays Center are open.) In 2008, after Jay struck his deal with Live Nation to create Roc Nation, he brought Desiree over to be his COO. “I don’t know that I would be anywhere in this business if it weren’t for Jay’s trust in me and his belief in me,” she says. Roc quickly expanded beyond its initial purview.

“Whether it’s music, film, television, fashion or sports, Desiree is either leading it or at the center of it,” says UMG executive vp Michele Anthony.

“She is tough because she is smart and a fierce champion for her artists,” says Jeffrey Harleston, UMG’s general counsel/executive vp business and legal affairs, who negotiated Universal’s deal with Roc Nation. He points to her “intellect, tenacity and strength, combined with a refined sense of what is the fair and right thing to do.” And Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG) chairman/CEO Jody Gerson calls her “loyal” and “a tough negotiator, but always fair.”

“I respect Desiree enormously,” says UMG chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge. “She’s tough yet extremely pragmatic and is someone you can do business with. Operationally, she’s very experienced and has the ability to resolve complex and difficult issues while maintaining a great sense of humor throughout the process.”

Perez, along with the rest of the Roc inner circle, is famously wary of the spotlight. But during the past few years she has begun to step more into the public eye. Earlier in 2019 she publicly criticized Billboard over the way album bundles count on charts, during a dispute that resulted in Roc client DJ Khaled coming in at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 with his album Father of Asahd.

Eleven months earlier, a public spat with the mayor of Philadelphia over the location of Made in America prompted her to go on the record with Roc Nation’s concerns, leading to a detente between the two sides that kept the festival at its longtime home on Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

And in February 2018, she joined with other high-ranking female executives -- including Greenwald, Anthony, Gerson, Epic Records chairman/CEO Sylvia Rhone and Sony Music general counsel Julie Swidler -- to pen an open letter to The Recording Academy, arguing for increased diversity and inclusion in both the academy and its Grammy Awards in the wake of then-academy chairman Neil Portnow’s controversial comments that women in the industry need to “step up.”

“There’s so much more that has to be done, that has to happen,” says Perez about the call for diversity in the music business. “Women shouldn’t have to make excuses for who they are or how they speak or how they carry themselves, because I’ve never heard a man have to make that kind of excuse for how they carry themselves.”

This year, Roc Nation’s biggest announcement came in August, when the company signed a deal with the NFL to oversee its live entertainment initiatives and social justice activism, a move that generated some controversy due to Jay’s relationship with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick (who in February settled a collusion lawsuit against the league over claims he had been blacklisted for protesting during the national anthem at games). For Perez, the NFL deal is part of a broader effort to raise awareness of social justice issues and create actual change in the criminal justice system in the United States. “They have 125 million viewers during the Super Bowl -- I want to talk to those 125 million people,” she says. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell calls Perez “a very savvy executive, the driving force behind the NFL-Roc Nation partnership and [someone who] has approached our work together with unwavering enthusiasm.”

But none of that explains why she has finally granted an interview. “The reason I’m actually talking to you and doing this is because I think it’s a special time at Roc Nation,” she says. “To me, the success of this company is so emblematic for so many other people -- a lot of people are inspired by what we do, to see people work hard and not necessarily be part of a big machine, and be entrepreneurial. I feel like the next two to three years [are] critical to this company’s growth. Because we’re almost to the next level. And we’re going to have to make it there.”

What led you into the music business?

I started promoting in a nightclub in Manhattan, on 158th Street and Broadway. It was a hip-hop club. I had a lot of live acts performing. I learned a lot about accounting and people trying to take advantage because at the time it was a 100% cash business. So I learned a lot about managing expenses. I used to wear a bulletproof vest to work. It was a tough neighborhood, it was a tough time.

How did you start working with JAY-Z?

Jay recorded most of his music at Baseline Studios in the early 2000s, and I was there helping Juan with accounting. (Laughs.) I’m not an accountant, but just more managing and figuring out how to run things. At the time I really wanted out of the nightclub business. And Juan suggested, “What if we opened our own sports bar?” A sports bar -- in my mind, I’m thinking 3,000 square feet, something you’d typically see. I was naive -- I mean, a sports bar with JAY-Z? You know what that turned into -- the 40/40 Club, thousands of people outside, 15,000 square feet on 25th and Broadway. We ended up opening five different 40/40 Clubs within five years. But it was better, and obviously it was a shift into where I am now.

Why did Jay bring you to Roc Nation when he did the Live Nation deal in 2008?

Running around in a club -- even the 40/40 -- was just a lot, and I was getting older and didn’t necessarily want to be in that. So I viewed going there as a positive thing, but not something that I knew anything about. And I just came over. It took time and trust, I think, and Jay feeling -- we just work together well, I guess.

Raven Varona/Parkwood/PictureGroup/Shutterstock
The touring arm of Roc Nation handles live ventures like Beyoncé and JAY-Z’s On the Run Tour.

Roc Nation is a big company now, but still independent. What does that allow you to do?

It allows us to do what’s right, always. It allows us to make decisions on our own, to do things outside the box, that are different and not necessarily “industry norm.” And that’s OK. Because I think that opens up all the doors of what business is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be evolving.

The reality is, we have to change everything that’s working and not working because we have to continue to progress. And in order to progress, you have to think outside of what you’re normally doing and think of how to do it better. All of us do. We’re all witnesses of this new era where streaming has happened. So how do you make money? How do you still maintain commerce but integrity? It’s that fine line -- that’s the rub of what we do. It’s our responsibility as an industry to continue to seek out new systems in the name of evolution, and there is always pushback by those who profit. But we push forward anyway.

Do you feel you’ve had to fight harder at times because you’re an independent company?

Always. Just because we’re independent, just because we’re minorities -- it’s just a fact. I walk into a room, we’re doing a $200 million deal and it’s 30 white people in the room, or all men. Little by little, as you evolve, you have to straighten some people out, because they say the most inappropriate things to you, or they don’t believe in you so they treat you a certain way, and so you kind of push your way forward.

We have a company that’s not just music. We’re in publishing, we have a great deal with a rate where we can actually go out there and compete with those companies like Sony/ATV, UMPG and Warner Chappell. We have a music label, so we compete with Atlantic and Warner and Interscope. But because of our [Universal] deal, we’re able to actually compete with them commercially. We have Tidal, so we’re competing with the biggest streaming services in the world, and we all have the same catalog so we’re all trying to find ways to differentiate ourselves. We’re competing on management -- same thing. And it goes on and on. The difference with us is that we’re one company with so many different verticals. We’re really just creating culture. That’s really what we’re doing every day.

Have you seen attitudes toward diversity and inclusion change during your career?

I think the conversation has changed. I don’t know how much has actually changed. I think that more needs to happen in general. I mean, how many Women in Music executives are racial minorities? It’s not 50%. It’s hard to be a woman who’s secure and to deal with people’s insecurities, and if you’re a woman and you’re straightforward, it’s different than being a man and being straightforward -- we’ve all heard this a million times, especially in the last two years. It’s much harder for a woman to just be, you know, yourself.

In March, it’ll be five years since Roc Nation launched Tidal, which doesn’t share subscriber numbers. What have you learned from running that business?

I’ve learned that the power of content is even stronger than I’ve ever thought. I think that unfortunately, in general, the music industry has made a lot of mistakes in how it has handled its music and its content. And what I’ve learned is that we have to figure out a better way of how we can capitalize from the industry of music, rather than others in other industries.

I’ve learned that it’s really hard to compete against big companies. (Laughs.) It’s not easy. But we’ve relied on content to make it as far as we have. Some companies have $100 million to spend in one quarter, and we only have a song that we can put out that hopefully everyone wants to listen to and it’s on [Tidal], or people want to hear the podcasts that we have. So: the power of content. And the power of culture. We’re representing all artists and we’re representing music. Not the commercial side of it -- even though we have to fight for the commercial side of it so that we as an industry can stay alive. So I think all of that. It has been a tough fight. If I had to pick all the fights in my life, it has definitely been top three.

In January 2017, Sprint purchased a 33% stake in Tidal for $200 million -- a coup for the company. But do you regret any of the moves you’ve made to grow the streaming business?

In all the businesses, you’re always going to make missteps. On Tidal, we could have sold five different times. We could have merged five other different times. We could have taken a check very early. I think it was a big undertaking, more than we even thought. We delisted a public company [on the Swedish stock exchange, Oslo-based Aspiro, which Roc Nation acquired to launch Tidal]. (Laughs.) Just think about this: Its operations were sitting in a European country with a completely different work ethic, to say it nicely, and obviously a completely different culture, and they were very dependent on technology.

None of us are tech experts. We’re music people in the tech business. Completely different. So I think that’s a little bit of what we didn’t foresee. And also, people don’t understand you’re putting distribution in the hands of the artist. I could see why the labels didn’t like that. (Laughs.)

It goes back to how we work and the purity of our naiveté. The intent is always pure and we go for it regardless. I think the right opportunity will come [for Tidal]. But the only way we would do a deal for Tidal would be if the vision is about the art and the artist. If not, we couldn’t do it, and that has been the reason, actually, why we’ve turned down a lot of deals, because the different companies we’ve talked to just were not thinking the way we’re thinking.

Since Roc Nation formed in 2008, the business has completely changed. How do you stay on top of it?

We were streaming five years ago and actually bought [Aspiro] a year before that. In 2014 we started talking about streaming, and everybody thought we were crazy. We stay on the cutting edge because we are part of it. Jay’s an artist. He and Juan live for sports. Jay Brown is living it day and night -- artistry is who he is. Ty Ty is the best ear that we have and has helped us so much in growing the music business, and now he’s moving into film. We are the industry. It’s not like we’re some guy who came into the business and just knows business. It’s different for us. We’re the species ourselves.

Roc Nation was born from Jay and Jay Brown and Juan and Ty Ty being at Def Jam and saying, “We need to create our own place.” Jay’s the model, and we’ve taken his model and said, “OK, this needs to go across everyone.” That’s how we’ve been able to start all the different divisions: because we’ve needed them. We needed a publishing division, just in case we can’t go out there and get [artists] a competitive publishing deal. We can give them one. Do we get them a good label deal? If you don’t want to do it, we can. Oh, you want to put out some music? They can’t get it out? We can get it up. It’s like we’ve created our own toolkit to do what we do.

What do you hope to accomplish with this partnership with the NFL?

We’re hoping to be able to affect what’s going on. I don’t think, in our lifetime, racism will end. We were born into it, it’s here, and we’re going to die, unfortunately, and it’s going to be here. And it stems from so many different things. So I think we want to affect, we want to create awareness.

We were at the sentencing for Meek Mill, when he was sentenced to two to four years [for a parole violation in 2017]. And Michael Rubin [co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers] was in the courtroom -- and he was shocked. I wasn’t shocked because this is how it is. We all know someone who’s got locked up, I know people who are doing life in prison, who have been killed, who have been harassed by police -- it’s just a normal thing for us. It’s just how we deal with that. And for [Rubin], he had never experienced that.

And seeing how he experienced that, and then what he did about it -- he ended up wanting to start REFORM. Rubin had his epiphany and said, “I have to do something about this. I’ve always given to charity, but I’ve never been passionate about anything.” Him going out and knocking on his friends’ doors, bringing $50 million to the table. And now we’re doing all these incredible things with REFORM -- it’s only 11 months old, and we’re waiting on Pennsylvania to hopefully pass this bill, and we’ll change how probation and parole get handled in that state. That’s just the beginning.

So I realized that -- some people are unaware. Some people just don’t know. If we’re able to create more awareness, I think there’s a lot more Michael Rubins out there. They may not be as wealthy and have such influential friends. (Laughs.) But it’s enough that they know. I believe that, fundamentally, the majority of Americans believe in life, that there’s part of us that is good, that we’re good people. It’s America -- best country in the world!

I believe that the 32 [NFL] owners, they’re billionaires and intelligent people -- I get all that. And I get that some people don’t like some of the owners, or the NFL -- put that to the side. They have 125 million viewers during the Super Bowl. I want to talk to those 125 million people. And I want to tell them, “Do you know that this is happening to Meek Mill?” And some of them will say, “I don’t care.” Some of them will say, “I didn’t know, and I care, and I don’t want that to happen to another kid at the age of 19.” Because that affects us, somehow, because we’re all in this together as a country. So part of what we’re trying to do is figure out how we can create awareness, how we can bring our message across, and I think the NFL wants that also -- they just don’t know how to do it.

Which of Roc Nation’s accomplishments are you most proud of?

I think the NFL deal is a success. Here you have the biggest sports organization in the United States. Super powerful. Billions of dollars a year, ratings going up as we speak. And they came to a minority-owned, little independent company in comparison to them, and said, “We’d like you to help us.” I think that’s a win for culture, it’s a win in the music movement.

Our label deal that we did with Universal, that’s groundbreaking. Now I know that some people are actually using it in other labels, because I negotiate label deals for other people and they’re actually using the deal that I did with Jeff Harleston as a template. We were in the right. And kudos to Universal for wanting to do that and saying, “Let’s try it. Let’s see how it works.”

You want me to tell you the truth? The music industry, touring and management -- most of it has to do with accounting. It’s all accounting. Right back to the beginning [of my career]. I never realized that. There’s so many things; we’ve done so much.

The fact that we employ so many people -- that’s a big responsibility. People have families, they work here. And making sure that every day we’re pushing the envelope, and they come here because they believe. It’s super entrepreneurial in here. If you come here in the morning, it’s full. Or you come in here at 9 o’clock at night, it’s full of people, everyone working for the same cause. I think we’re a movement -- we’re a cause. We’re more than a business. And then the money comes after it. Because we do what we’re passionate about.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of Billboard.

2019 Billboard Women in Music