After attending Northwestern University (“Chicago was as far west as my father would let me go”), she got a job in New York at Chappell Music, photocopying lead sheets and maintaining the lyric library. She later joined EMI Music Publishing, serving as head of the company’s East Coast division, then running the West Coast before working at Sony/ATV Music Publishing (after Sony/ATV’s partial EMI acquisition in 2012), where she rose to head of A&R and co-president.
There, she says, she hit a wall in terms of advancement, just as she was coming into her own as a boss. “I was always driven, but I don’t know if I allowed myself to think about running a company,” she says. Gerson reached out to Universal Music Group (UMG) chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge, who had previously expressed interest in her: “He said, ‘Are you ready to be the global chairman of Universal Music Publishing?’ It was easy for me to make excuses in my own head of ‘I have three kids and I’m divorced,’ and ‘How am I going to do this?’ Lucian knew I could do it before I knew I could.”
Grainge sees Gerson as one of a kind. “One of the things I most love about Jody is that she’s as comfortable offering a songwriter creative advice as she is setting the strategy for a global publishing company,” Grainge says. “The biggest mistake someone can make with Jody is to think that simply because she exudes humility and grace, she’s not one of the most multidimensional, talented, and also competitive and driven executives you’ll ever encounter.”
On Gerson’s desk sits a nameplate that reads “Good Vibes Only.” Nearby, a painting features the word “yes” floating above a flower. “When I came to Universal, the culture was a little cold, so the first thing I did was decorate my office so it was a place where people could feel warm and happy,” says Gerson. Her buzzword for UMPG’s culture is “integrity”— in the songwriters the company signs and in its business dealings overall.
Today, Gerson oversees 800 staffers in 46 countries, and she has her eye on expansion in China — UMPG opened a Beijing office there in 2019, complementing its existing offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong — as well as India and Latin America. She also serves on the UMG board, and, with UMG executive vp Michele Anthony, oversees UMG’s development and production of film, TV and theatrical projects. In the pipeline are several documentaries, as well as the new NBC musical series, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (through a deal with Lionsgate Television). “Where traditionally we were just licensing our music,” she says, “in many cases, we want to be a producer on creating the content for it.”
Since you took over in 2015, revenue has increased by 40%. What early changes fueled that growth?
The first thing I did was empower our [executive vp global administration] John Reston to take the technology that [UMPG] had already invested in and make it that much better. There [had been] more of an emphasis on administering catalogs and buying catalogs of proven songs, so I, along with my staff, made a bet on several unproven artists: Shawn Mendes, Ariana Grande, Post Malone, Halsey, Billie Eilish. We made the right bets. I recognized we had to have a balance of new artists as well as signing [the Bee Gees’] Barry Gibb [and] Bruce Springsteen, and really take a portfolio approach to the catalog.