Business

Columbia Records' Jenifer Mallory on Navigating a 'New World' of Breaking Artists & NFTs

Jenifer Mallory
Erica Génécé

Jenifer Mallory photographed March 3, 2021 in New York.

The label's executive vp/general manager on marketing through a pandemic.

In May 2013, thousands of people descended on the small Australian town of Wee Waa for the global album launch of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, a dance party on a giant LED floor that marked the first time anyone heard the French duo’s Grammy Award-winning release -- even though the DJs never planned to show. For Jenifer Mallory, then vp international marketing for Sony Music, the event was “one of the most impactful, pivotal campaigns I’ve ever worked on in my career,” she says. “They taught me everything about building a narrative and doing things that create conversation. It was one of those things that changed me forever.”

Less than a decade later, the world is a very different place -- for starters, Daft Punk has announced its retirement -- but the lessons Mallory took from that campaign have become even more valuable since the pandemic forced artists to experiment with new ways to connect with fans. As executive vp/GM of Columbia Records, a position to which she was promoted in September 2018, Mallory oversees marketing, plus digital, promotion, publicity, sales, licensing and brand partnerships for the record industry’s oldest label. And over the past year, she has helped to guide a young, digitally savvy staff through a once-in-a-century pandemic while adapting to a changing marketplace that can now shift at the whims of proprietary algorithms.

Alongside chairman/CEO Ron Perry, Mallory has molded Columbia into a more nimble operation that caters to its legacy artists (Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, AC/DC) and superstars (Adele, Beyoncé, Harry Styles), while breaking a new wave of genre-blending MCs like Polo G, Lil Tjay and Lil Nas X and tapping into the burgeoning international pop market through a partnership with Korean megastars BTS and the signing of Spanish dynamo (and Grammy winner) Rosalía.

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"We created these condoms as promotional items for 'Get Lucky.' Fans went crazy for them," says Mallory. "We also made the bowling ball for our Japanese album launch event, which took place at a roller rink in Tokyo."

The principles of marketing and promotion remain steady, but strategy shifts at a breakneck pace. “As soon as you feel like you’ve figured out something that really has an impact on consumption or as a way for an artist to break through, it no longer works when the next thing crops up,” she says. “It’s a constant learning curve. And by the way, once we come out of quarantine -- God willing -- it’s all going to change again.”

You have been in your current role for two and a half years. How has Columbia evolved during that time?

Ron has brought a lot of incredible new and fresh energy. Probably the biggest shift in the industry over the past three years is the necessity to move quickly. Starting with A&R, there is an urgency to find artists and quickly sign them, and that bleeds over into marketing and digital. Every day and night, our teams scour the internet for live-time conversations on culture that are happening and try to insert our artists and their music into them. We’ve spent a lot of energy revitalizing the digital team at the company. Ron is incredibly internet-savvy and understands how critical it is, especially now in lockdown, to utilize the internet to drive artist narratives.

In addition to that, we’ve put a lot of focus on diversifying the roster, and hired a lot of new people -- a diverse, young staff with female leaders. Ideas can come from anyone, no matter what your rank or what department is. The vibe is level in a great way.

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"For his single 'Watermelon Sugar,' Harry Styles sent these ceramic watermelons to me and Ron."

How has the marketplace evolved?

There’s a huge emphasis on singles versus albums. With all of these global short-form video platforms -- Reels and Shorts and TikTok -- kids identify with a song long before they even know who sings it. So, at Columbia we’re constantly trying to balance that with making sure we focus on artist development and driving fans back to either a larger body of work or a larger artist narrative. The Kid Laroi is a great example of that: He put out several songs over the course of the last 18 months, but we used press and interviews in the right places online to make sure that his story wasn’t just about one song.

The connection between fan and artist has never been more critical. There’s so much noise in the marketplace right now with the pandemic, politics and all the different music coming from every corner of the world, it’s important that the tracks Columbia releases are coupled with a story that makes fans of the music want to connect with an artist. Songs are easier to break in a way, because you have so much more access to consumers, but that access is giving thousands of artists the same ability to connect. So, you have to be that much more savvy at it.

I used to run international for Sony overall -- all three labels -- and in the last 18 months, even though I haven’t gotten on a plane in so long, I’ve never felt more connected with our markets overseas. The streaming and promotional platforms have really leveled the playing field, and there’s no passport control for music anymore. The internet doesn’t know borders, and it’s wild. You have BTS taking over the Billboard Hot 100 chart in America, and between them and Rosalía, songs that are not sung in English are breaking through in English-speaking markets. It’s thrilling.

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"Fader was Rosalía's first U.S. cover," she says. "We serviced one of her first singles from Columbia to partners via these bejeweled flip phones. It was a fun way to tie the whole campaign together."

How has that changed the way you break artists globally?

Streaming has a lot to do with it. Access is now available to every fan around the world. And, specifically at Columbia, our philosophy is it’s important to think globally. For Harry Styles, for example, we started the last album campaign in Australia. We did a cryptic, sniping campaign and über-fans down there found it and took to Twitter. That’s the first place people saw it, and that was intentional. Because while we think globally, it’s important to market locally. Connecting our acts to fans in local markets is imperative. You need local activations to knit these fan bases around the world together.

The most recent example would be our AC/DC campaign, where we started sniping that there was a new album coming outside of Angus Young’s old high school in Sydney. We were very thoughtful about starting it in a targeted way that makes sense for the band, not just buying random pieces of media. What that does is get all this earned media. News sites and papers will pick it up. It’s those little idiosyncrasies that really make the difference now.

I can imagine that opens up possibilities but can also make it hard to decide on strategies.

We start with the artist and where they fit in culture and what is true to their story. One example is Bruce Springsteen. We put out Letter to You during quarantine, which, without Bruce touring behind the record, was a little daunting. What really drives his story is that he’s an incredible live performer. So we had to get creative about mobilizing his fans in a digital world. And one thing we did was a Bruce emoji. We weren’t the first to think of this idea, but it was very purposeful in the way it was designed. We took it from the Born in the USA album cover, where he’s holding the guitar and his arm is up. We thought it captured everything that Bruce is -- a rock star. It garnered so much earned media -- The Late Show With Stephen Colbert brought it up to him when they interviewed him; all the morning news shows brought it up to him; NPR did a feature on it. If we had actually bought media across all these platforms, it would have been incredibly expensive. Instead, we did something that was true to his brand and unexpected, and it drove the narrative.

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Chocolates of Bob Dylan album covers made by the Sony Japan team for his 2006 album, Modern Times.

When you approach a campaign for a new artist, where do you start?

The importance of community building is critical. Look at what the Reddit community did to the stock market a couple weeks ago. These communities are so powerful, and whether it’s on Reddit or Twitter, Discord, Twitch, Clubhouse or Roblox, we have to find the fans. But we also have to make sure that it feels authentic to the artist. So an artist who’s not a big gamer doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on Fortnite or Twitch. It’s also important for artists to make every effort to connect with their fans. BTS and Harry Styles have some of the strongest fan bases in the entire world, and it’s their efforts that ultimately help drive their songs up the charts.

We have teams of people learning about the new thing every week. Now you’ve got these NFTs [non-fungible tokens, a method for buying and selling media], which are adding new angles and layers to artistry. We’ve seen a lot of artists selling their creations on the internet for millions of dollars, but this could add more dimension to the industry because there’s more opportunity for artists to sell components of their art now. We don’t really know how it’s going to evolve, but we’re excited to explore it with our artists. It’s a whole new world.

A version of this article originally appeared in the March 13, 2021, issue of Billboard.

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