Chairman/CEO Jon Platt talks the publishing giant's silver anniversary amid its rebranding as Sony Music Publishing.
In his 2020 year-end message to songwriters, Sony/ATV Music Publishing chairman/ CEO Jon Platt praised them for continuing to change the world with their creativity — especially in a tumultuous year framed by a pandemic and racial unrest. “Thanks to all of you,” he wrote. “History is always being written.” Those five words also describe the company, recently rebranded as Sony Music Publishing, and its journey to becoming the No. 1 global music publisher, especially under the 12-year watch of legendary publishing executive Martin Bandier and now Platt, who succeeded his former EMI Music Publishing boss and mentor in April 2019.
Now celebrating 25 years of songs, Sony/ATV was established in November 1995 when Sony Music Publishing partnered with Michael Jackson and his ATV Music. Jackson had acquired ATV a decade prior; at the time, he leveraged $11 million in equity and $36.5 million in debt to buy the ATV catalog, which included the rights to John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s Beatles repertoire on Northern Songs, for $47.5 million.
Sony/ATV’s legendary songwriters not only include Jackson and The Beatles, but also Stevie Wonder, Carole King, Leonard Cohen, Ashford & Simpson and members of Queen. Its roster of contemporary talent features Beyoncé, Rihanna, Ed Sheeran, Cardi B, Lady Gaga, Daddy Yankee, Gabby Barrett, Luke Bryan, Maluma, Kanye West, Pharrell Williams and its latest signing, JAY-Z.
Establishing Sony/ATV was part of Jackson’s dream “to create the biggest publishing company in the world,” says attorney John Branca, who has long represented the pop icon and his estate. When Jackson first hired Branca, he didn’t own his own masters. “Thriller gave him the leverage and the platform for me to go to Sony and get him the ownership of his masters,” recalls Branca. “Michael was the person who was single-handedly most responsible for the growth of Sony/ATV, first by bringing ATV in and then subsequently by being on the board of directors and helping guide the company.”
Sony purchased the Jackson estate’s 50% share of the publishing entity in 2016, making it a wholly owned Sony company. Along the way to becoming the world’s leading publisher, Sony/ATV acquired Famous Music, whose assets include classic American film and TV catalogs, in 2007. Five years later, Sony and a group of investors also bought EMI Music Publishing, followed in 2018 by Sony’s acquisition of the remaining ownership interests in EMI. In addition to administering Jackson’s personal firm, Mijac Music (including the Sly & The Family Stone catalog and songs by Ray Charles, Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin), Sony/ATV owns or administers such history-making catalogs as Jobete/ Motown and Leiber & Stoller.
When he took over at Sony/ATV in 2019, Platt became the highest-ranking Black executive in the music industry. Under his purview, the company recently ushered in a strong fourth quarter, ruling both Billboard’s Hot 100 Songs and Top Radio Airplay charts for the third quarter in a row. Sony/ATV logged 59 titles on Hot 100 Songs, including Drake’s “Laugh Now Cry Later,” featuring Lil Durk, and Cardi B’s “WAP,” featuring Megan Thee Stallion. The publisher’s market share on Hot 100 Songs fell over two percentage points, to 24.14% from 26.68%, the previous quarter, while its share of Top Radio Airplay songs jumped by one basis point to 22.11% from 22.10%.
Sony doesn’t report Sony Music Publishing’s financial results by itself but collectively with Sony Japan’s music publishing results. Thus overall, Sony’s publishing operations grew a whopping 18% on a dollar basis to nearly $430.6 million from $365 million compared with the corresponding third quarter a year earlier — a resurgence from the first six months when its revenue, impacted by the pandemic-causing economic downturn, dipped 10.1% to $642.3 million from the prior year’s $715.1 million. That strong third quarter boosted Sony's publishing operations so that its revenue totaled $1.073 billion for the first nine months of the company's fiscal year, which means the publishing operations have almost caught up to the previous year's $1.081 billion in revenue, a decline of only 0.64%.
As it embarks on its next quarter century of songs, Sony/ATV is also reclaiming its heritage as a Sony cornerstone. In February, the company announced its rebranding as Sony Music Publishing, complemented by a redesigned logo — a vibrant abstract depicting sound waves — and a renewed commitment to its “Songwriters first” mantra. Following the announcement, Platt discusses Sony’s forward focus, upgrades to its royalty payment system and navigating publishing’s current Wild West climate.
How would you assess the company’s legacy?
It’s a legacy of excellence, which has been proven time and time again. It’s a legacy composed of some of the greatest songs and songwriters in the world. And when you look at the origination of Sony/ATV, it not only represents partnerships with talented songwriters but also with other companies and executives. On the executive side, legendary music publisher Marty Bandier led the company to become the No. 1 music publisher in the world. However, you can’t discuss the legacy of Sony/ATV without also acknowledging the influence of Michael Jackson, who is arguably one of the smartest music publishers ever. The success of Sony/ATV would not have been possible without his contributions. And now this anniversary is a perfect time for us to rebrand the company again as Sony Music Publishing. It’s important that we honor our company’s legacy and, at the same time, chart our own course for the future as a modern music publisher.
How did you come to that decision?
It just makes a lot of sense. First, after so many company partnerships, it’s very important for us to show that we are one team at one company working together as one for songwriters. Bringing back the original name, Sony Music Publishing, conveys our alignment with Sony’s entertainment brands: Sony Music, Sony Pictures and Sony Interactive.
In your letter to songwriters in December, you used the phrase “History is always being written.” What inspired it?
It has been our tagline that keeps us aligned with our songwriters and focus as a company. Songwriters do something that no one else can do: They can walk into a room with nothing and later walk out with something. Something that could change the world; touch the world; make people feel good, smile or laugh; or make them cry. That’s an incredible gift that songwriters have. So we tell our songwriters, our history makers, that history is always being written because you never know when that’s going to be.
How would you describe your business philosophy?
It’s the same philosophy I started with as a creative manager in 1995: Always put the songwriter first in everything we do, period.
What are potential signees looking for from Sony?
People want to be in business with a strong music publisher that is going to support their career and be a partner to help them grow. The relationship between talent and publisher is very important, but delivering on that relationship is more important. So what I look for are people who can truly do that. You want your calling card to be how you help the songwriter’s life, not how much you paid for a deal or anything else. The No. 1 thing that you should do for a songwriter is everything you told him or her that you were going to do when you signed them. If you do that, then they’re good. If you go beyond that, then they have a chance to be great.
Who are among the notable signings that have occurred under your watch thus far?
As well as signing important extensions and making some incredible acquisitions, we’re excited about new deals we’ve signed with songwriters that I feel are going to be among the next generation of stars in our business — like Tate McRae, BENEE and Conan Gray, as well as songwriter-producers such as Scott Harris and [The National’s] Aaron Dessner. Moving over to Latin America, we brought Claudia Brant — one of the great songwriters in Latin music — back to Sony, and also signed Sky Rompiendo and Myke Towers, who is having an amazing run right now.
We’ve been diverse in our signings as well. In the U.S., we signed WondaGurl and Jozzy, two of the top new female songwriter-producers out there right now. And then in the country space, Gabby Barrett is hands-down a breakthrough artist for us. It has been amazing watching her rise. We also brought country talents Josh Kear and Ben Hayslip into the company. Outside of the U.S., there’s Labrinth, which was a very big signing for us, along with renewals for London Grammar and Ellie Goulding. Additional renewal highlights include Maluma, Stargate’s Tor Hermansen, Camila Cabello and Boi-1da. Beyoncé and Rihanna are also now here, along with someone else new: JAY-Z. I don’t think we’ll be doing a formal announcement. But me and Jay have been telling the same story for over 20 years. (Laughs.) People know where we stand.
A year into the pandemic, what challenges are you still facing as a business?
People’s wardrobes have changed. There are a lot more sweats and flip-flops. (Laughs.) But I’m proud of how our entire music publishing team has been there for our songwriters every single day. Not having the physical connection within an office environment has been the biggest change because there’s strong value to being around and with people. That’s still the missing piece we don’t have right now, and we shouldn’t have it right now because we all have to be safe. But no matter how things have changed for us internally, we still need to work as hard as we can so that songwriters’ lives change very little, if at all, because of this. It’s very important that we continue to create opportunities for songwriters because it’s not the same as it was prepandemic.
With the passing of the Music Modernization Act and the Mechanical Licensing Collective preparing to distribute funds, are songwriters finally going to get the financial respect they deserve?
Things are getting better, yes. But we still have a long way to go. Songwriters deserve to be respected. There is no music business without songwriters.
What’s one thing you want to see happen on this front a year from now?
Even better rates. I want all writers to be compensated for their significant contributions in a fair way. I don’t think that’s a one-day fix, but we must continue to move in that direction.
It seems like the Wild West in publishing right now, given the flurry of catalog acquisitions and soaring multiples. Have you ever experienced such a competitive climate before?
I’ve never seen as much acquisition activity as we are seeing right now. It’s an incredibly aggressive market that is creating unique opportunities for songwriters, particularly for iconic legacy songwriters. However, younger songwriters should give serious, deep thought before going down this path. As the industry continues to evolve, songwriters have more options and leverage than ever before. And that’s a good thing that I absolutely applaud.
You mentioned signing JAY-Z, who was previously with Warner Chappell. Last year, Taylor Swift and Bob Dylan left Sony and signed with Universal Music Publishing Group. How do you deal with those situations? Is it simply just part of the business?
It’s going to happen. But at the same time, I’ve benefited from it my entire career as well. Of course, you don’t want to see great songwriters leave. And I don’t love it when that happens. But you manage what you can manage.
June 2 will mark one year since Blackout Tuesday, the music industry’s day of reckoning with systemic racism. What progress have you seen at Sony and across the industry?
We’ve been focused on making our company more diverse while fostering an inclusive culture. We’ve doubled the number of women in senior leadership posts and tripled our executives of color in the U.S., which I’m happy about. I want to be clear though, that we as an industry still have a lot of work to do. It’s not just about filling companies with employees. There must also be an opportunity to move into leadership positions with a diverse pool of candidates to choose from. That’s the discipline we must have to truly impact change and people’s own new awareness. Music is diverse. The listeners are diverse. So there’s no reason that the insides of these companies shouldn’t be diverse.
All the major companies have hired [diversity, equity and inclusion] executives, [Sony Music appointed Tiffany R. Warren executive vp/chief diversity and inclusion officer in October] and a significant amount of companies have made substantial contributions to underserved communities, funding various initiatives from education and homelessness to mental health. That didn’t exist prior to June. Russell Emanuel, our president/CEO of production music, came up with the idea for the Screen Scoring Diversity Scholarship for Black composition students in the master’s program at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, which we established with Bleeding Fingers Music [a joint-venture music production company established by Hans Zimmer and business partner Steve Kofsky]. You don’t see many people of color in that space, so giving someone that educational access as well as assets is super key in that world. We’re not trying to do onetime events; we’re trying to create significant partnerships. For example, we’ve also partnered with Shanti Das and her nonprofit organization Silence the Shame [which focuses on education and awareness around mental health], through which we’ve done forums for our employers and are now doing for our songwriters as well.
As important as it is as a music community that we do those things, it’s also important as a music community that we take care of our own debt. “Systemic” means something has been happening for a long period of time. And we’re only eight months into the industry taking a stand. It’s too early to tell and unfair to judge if there has been a seismic shift. But four months from now, we have to take a real look and see if things are moving in the right direction. Out of all of the entertainment industries, music has the best opportunity to impact change.
What other operational changes have been implemented at Sony since you joined the company?
One thing I’m very happy about is our current royalty payment system called Real Time Royalties, which we upgraded last year. We’re now able to pay our songwriters their foreign royalties in the period those royalties were earned, which hasn’t been traditional in the music publishing industry. Usually, there’s a six- to 12-month lag on those payments.
There’s also the partnership that we created with a company called BeatStars, which is an online marketplace for hip-hop producers to sell their tracks. One of the bigger trends that’s happening now is how so many international songwriters and producers have been writing and producing records in the U.S. One reason why hip-hop has been able to flourish during quarantine is because working virtually or remotely is nothing new to the hip-hop space. Partnering with a company like BeatStars lets these producers put their music online and make records out of them. It has been a perfect opportunity and partnership for us.
What are Sony’s business priorities internationally?
One of the things I’m proud of is how much more connected we are globally. Elicia Felix-Hughey, who is our global head of HR, was my first hire. She has been right by my side the entire way in pushing a lot of the initiatives I’ve wanted to establish at the company. But international has always been an important factor at Sony. So it’s not about it being a next frontier for us, it’s now. Jorge Mejia runs our whole Latin America region, where we’ve done some fantastic signings. And we have new leadership in the U.K. under David Ventura and Tim Major. They’ve put together an entirely new A&R team, which is run by Sarah Lockhart, and they are on fire. Then there’s Johnny Tennander in Scandinavia, who is one of the best music publishing executives you’ll ever find. We’ve also opened offices in India and Southeast Asia.
How have Sony’s U.S. operations shifted during your tenure?
We made a leadership change to enhance our business in Nashville after the previous leadership decided to depart. We have a dynamic executive in Rusty Gaston, who has completely rebuilt our Nashville operations. We also opened offices and studios in Atlanta last year. I’ve done business in Atlanta for over 25 years and feel it’s the epicenter of Black music right now, either created there or inspiring music around the world. We signed a long-term deal with [songwriter-producer Christopher] Tricky Stewart to take over his entire Red Zone [Entertainment production complex in Buckhead]. Again, it comes back to songwriters. It’s very important for us to be there and be a part of the community. We’ve planted our flag there, providing jobs as we put together a full staff rather than having people fly in and out.
Your second anniversary at the helm is coming up in April. What are your next priorities looking ahead?
I have my foot on the gas every single day. My job is to make sure everybody else also has their foot on the gas. We’ve done four to five years’ worth of work in 18 months. I’m proud of that. For the first time in our industry, what you’ve done doesn’t mean as much anymore. It’s about what are you doing. What you’re doing means more than what you’ve done. We are in a time in our lives right now that people see better than they hear. So they want to see what you’re doing versus talking about what you’re going to do. And I truly believe that.
What is your vision for Sony Music Publishing 25 years from now?
It won’t look the way it looks right now, but Sony Music Publishing will be a more authentic reflection of the music and songwriters that we are lucky enough to work with and represent.
Top Hits of 2020
The highest-charting songs on Billboard's year-end Hot 100 list with Sony/ATV Publishing credits.
1. “Someone You Loved” - Lewis Capaldi Rank: No. 10
Publishers: Sony/ATV Songs (BMI), BMG Rights Management U.K. (PRS), BMG Gold Songs (ASCAP), Sony/ATV Music Publishing Allegro U.K. (PRS)
Publishers: 1501 Certified Publishing (BMI), Hot Girl Music (BMI), Songs of Universal (BMI), Songs of Kobalt Music Publishing America (BMI), HSZ Music (BMI), Von Word Music (BMI), Oakland 13 Music (ASCAP), Sony/ATV Tunes (ASCAP), 2082 Music Publishing (ASCAP), WC Music (ASCAP), Jorden Kyle Lanier Thrope Publishing Designee (BMI), People Over Planes (ASCAP), These Are Songs of Pulse (ASCAP), Artist 101 Publishing Group (BMI), Carter Boys Music (ASCAP)
5. “Roxanne” - Arizona Zervas Rank: No. 16
Publishers: Arizona Zervas Publishing Designee (ASCAP), Sony/ATV Tunes (ASCAP), Jace Jennings Publishing Designee (ASCAP), Music by JG Publishing (BMI), Tru Music (SESAC), Prescription Tracks (SESAC), Songs That Go Boom (SESAC), Kobalt Group Music Publishing (SESAC)
6. “Before You Go” - Lewis Capaldi Rank: No. 21
Publishers: BMG Rights Management U.K. (PRS), Sony/ATV Music Publishing U.K. (PRS)
7. “Falling” - Trevor Daniel Rank: No. 22
Publishers: Songs of Universal (BMI), Sony/ATV Songs (BMI), Taz Taylor Beats (BMI), Artist 101 Publishing Group (BMI), KC Supreme Publishing (BMI), Copyright Control
Publishers: Washpoppin (ASCAP), Sony/ATV Tunes (ASCAP), Hot Girl Music (BMI), Tenyor Music (BMI), The Upperclassmen Publishing (BMI), Keyzbaby Productions (ASCAP), Avex Music Publishing (ASCAP), St. Lukes Publishing (BMI), Sony/ATV Ballad (BMI), Future Sights and Sounds (BMI), Songs of Universal (BMI)
Publishers: Mustard on the Beat (BMI), EMI Blackwood Music (BMI), 10 Summers Songs (ASCAP), Khan Boys Music (ASCAP), Kobalt Songs Music Publishing (ASCAP), Project Dreams Publishing (BMI), Songs of Kobalt Music Publishing America (BMI), Narquise (ASCAP), Checkman Music (ASCAP), WC Music (ASCAP), West 11th Street (ASCAP), Volume Ventures Publishing (ASCAP), Songs of Peer (ASCAP), Ermias Asghedom Publishing Designee (BMI), Sony/ATV Songs (BMI)
10. “Blueberry Faygo” - Lil Mosey Rank: No. 27
Publishers: Lil Mosey Publishing Designee (BMI), Songs of Universal (BMI), Callan Wong Publishing Designee (BMI), Franmar Music (BMI), Unidisc Music (BMI), Sony/ATV Songs (BMI), ECAF Music (BMI), Sony/ATV/Epic/Solar (BMI), Warner-Tamerlane Publishing (BMI), Boobie and DJ Songs (BMI), AX5 Songz (BMI) Cardi B (left) and Megan Thee Stallion on the set of their “WAP” video.
Methodology: Song ranks correspond with their position on the 2020 Billboard Hot 100 year-end ranking, which covers activity on the weekly Hot 100 charts dated Nov. 23, 2019, through Nov. 14, 2020.
Iconic (and Valuable) Hits in the Sony/ATV Vault
Catalog executives on their favorite copyrights, including songs by Carole King, Stevie Wonder and Sade.
Jorge Mejia, president/CEO, Latin America and U.S. Latin: “There is a before and after [Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s] ‘Despacito’ — before ‘Despacito,’ songs in Spanish or partially in Spanish didn’t regularly form part of the non-Latin mainstream charts; after, this song topped the charts in 47 countries and reached the top 10 of six others. Luis Fonsi, [co-writer] Erika Ender and Daddy Yankee each brought their vision to a fantastically catchy love song and made it a global game-changer for Latin music and for music as a whole.”
Audrey Ashby, senior vp business affairs and catalog: “The Jackson 5’s ‘I’ll Be There’ [which reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970] is an uplifting and inspiring song that has endured over the years because of its message of unconditional love. To love unconditionally is one of life’s greatest experiences.”
Johnny Tennander, managing director, Scandinavia/senior vp A&R, Europe: “Sade is one of the absolute best and most influential artists and songwriters ever, with a total elegance and quality in everything she does. And ‘By Your Side’ [which reached No. 2 on the Adult R&B Airplay chart in 2001] is definitely one of her finest moments — completely timeless songwriting and production that has inspired many generations of artists and songwriters. As a bonus, The Neptunes did an amazing remix [driving the track to No. 2 on Dance Club Songs].”
Liz Lewis, senior vp catalogue development: “One of my favorite songs is Carole King’s ‘Home Again’ from Tapestry [a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 in 1971 that has spent over 300 weeks on the chart]. The line ‘Chills my soul, right to the marrow’ evokes such a powerful feeling in one sentence. Her songs are classics because of her unique ability to capture universal humanity with every melody and lyric.”
Sarah Lockhart, head of A&R, U.K.: “Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life track ‘As’ is a majestic gift that will remain relevant forever. For me, this is the single most important love song — a celebration of universal love captured in seven minutes. It blows me away every time, and I have to stop and stand still to feel its power.”
Jean-Christophe Bourgeois, directeur général, creative for France: “The power of Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘September’ lies in its ability to conjure up feelings of pure joy and exhilaration for listeners regardless of where they come from. The song’s universal appeal draws from the band’s incredible musicianship and highly sophisticated vocal arrangements, and ultimately the genius of leader and main songwriter Maurice White. More than 40 years after its creation, ‘September’ is one of the most streamed songs in the world as well as a staple in film, TV and advertising.”