The first Wednesday in November found Atlantic Records chairman/COO Julie Greenwald at the YouTube Space on Manhattan’s West Side, where astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was lobbing questions about the artistic process at Kelly Clarkson before a performance celebrating the release of her new album, Meaning of Life. (“You’re a scientist, but I’ve figured it out,” joked Clarkson.) Backstage, beforehand, Greenwald introduced herself to Tyson, who asked her who the biggest artists in the history of Atlantic Records were.
Tyson, whose normal conversational tone has a boom to it, boomed back, “That’s major!”
“I can’t take credit for the whole 70 years,” said Greenwald. “Just the last 14.”
That’s enough. Under her leadership, Atlantic is experiencing a two-year hot streak of growth that has earned Greenwald Billboard’s 2017 Women in Music Executive of the Year award. Atlantic led total market share through the first three quarters of 2017, with 10.17 percent as of Nov. 9, a year-over-year gain of 1.1 percentage points. Before Taylor Swift reset the clock with Reputation, the label had the top-selling album of 2017, Ed Sheeran’s Divide (931,000 copies, through Nov. 16), with Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic holding down the No. 4 spot (624,000 copies). Sheeran and Mars also scored the No. 2- and No. 4-selling digital tracks of 2017, with Sheeran’s “Shape of You” moving 2.4 million and Mars’ “That’s What I Like” clocking in at 1.6 million.
Big wins came from streaming as well, where Atlantic claimed five out of this year’s top 10 most-streamed songs (on-demand audio and video combined) as of Nov. 9: Sheeran’s “Shape of You” (No. 2, with 928 million streams), Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3” (No. 6, 849 million), Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” (No. 10, 807 million), Mars’ “That’s What I Like” (No. 4, 785 million) and KYLE’s “iSpy” (No. 11, 654 million). That’s a grand total of 4.02 billion streams, which Billboard estimates generated nearly $18 million.
The chart picture was just as impressive, with the label placing a dozen songs in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, including a No. 5 breakthrough for alt-rock band Portugal. The Man, and No. 1s from Migos, Mars, Sheeran and Cardi B, whose “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” became the first No. 1 for a solo female rapper since Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” in 1998. “Bodak Yellow” was a personal win for Greenwald. After being told that Cardi B was within striking distance of taking the No. 1 spot from Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” she started working the phones with the zeal she had shown in her early 20s, when she was cutting her teeth working for Lyor Cohen, first at Rush Management and then Def Jam, in the mid-’90s.
“I got on the phone with every person I could think of and I gave them the speech,” she says. “Which is, ‘It has been 19 years since a female MC herself had a Hot 100 No. 1. Please help me. Let’s do this not only for her, let’s do it for the culture.’” Greenwald was looking for streaming services to move the track up on playlists or put it on new playlists, and also asking for better positioning from the iTunes Store, and help from radio. “Charlamagne Tha God had her on [WWPR New York’s] The Breakfast Club again -- everybody I got on the phone said, ‘I will help you.’”
In part that’s a reflection of Greenwald’s determination; in part it’s a reflection of the reputation she has built during the last 25 years as someone who matches pushing with caring. “The creative business is full of passive-aggressive people who use words they don’t mean,” says her mentor Cohen. “Julie brings clarity, which is the best friend of the creative business.”
Greenwald, who grew up in the Catskills in upstate New York, credits her mother with instilling in her an equally strong work ethic and sense of compassion. “She raised four daughters and also worked,” she says. “She and my father were partners. They built and sold pharmacies. She taught me all about putting your heart and soul into your home life and also into your work life. When the base of it all is compassion, you’re a different type of boss, partner, worker.”
After graduating from Tulane University in 1992 with a double major in political science and English, Greenwald joined Teach for America and was assigned to a third-grade class at a school inside New Orleans’ Calliope Projects. On a break the following summer, her hustle impressed Cohen, who made her his assistant at Rush Management, where one of her sisters and a cousin were already working. It was a job without a desk. “I spent a lot of time in Lyor’s office, on a couch, just being a sponge,” she says. When Cohen went to Def Jam, Greenwald started in the promotions department and likes to say she got her hands dirty in every aspect of the company as she rose to president of Island Records and executive vp of Island Def Jam Music Group in 2002.
“When you do every job, you understand the plumbing of each department,” she says. “So you’re more sympathetic when someone says, ‘We can’t get that done.’ Or at least you’re sympathetic as you’re beating the shit out of them.”
Though Greenwald -- who lives in Manhattan with her husband and two children -- may be versed in all aspects of the label’s business, she makes a point of saying she doesn't handle A&R. It’s hard to gauge whether she’s quicker to give credit to her partner, Atlantic chairman/CEO Craig Kallman, and the label’s A&R team, or the artists themselves. Still, the story of how Sheeran came to collaborate with Lil Uzi Vert on a performance at the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards just two days after the August release of Uzi’s Luv Is Rage 2 demonstrates her ability to “sprinkle some extra magic dust,” as she puts it, when she sees “an opportunity to help artists make things bigger.”
She was eager to convince Sheeran to perform “Shape of You” at the VMAs. He was eager to try something new. “I was like, ‘Listen, what if we put a rapper on it so we get a new version?’” Sheeran, an avowed hip-hop fan, loved the suggestion enough to fly in to meet with Uzi on a day off from touring to create and rehearse the mashup. “He’s the musical genius,” says Greenwald of Sheeran. “It was all him.” The VMAs performance helped contribute to a No. 1 bow for Luv Is Rage 2 on the Billboard 200.
At an urban marketing meeting on the afternoon following Clarkson’s YouTube performance, the discussion touches on the usefulness of listening parties. “Let’s call our listening events what they are,” says Greenwald. “They’re for people to socialize and go on social media and talk about our artists. We think people are coming to listen to our records. They’re really not.” She wants to send everyone home with a secure stream, so they can concentrate on the music later. Senior vp Marsha St. Hubert has a suggestion -- several, actually. “I’m being vulnerable here,” she says. “Don’t judge.” Talk of artist-themed apparel turns to artist-themed karaoke. Greenwald loves it: “It’s going to make great Instagram photos.” Ideas begin to ping-pong around the table.
“Vulnerable” is a Greenwald watchword. She encourages staffers to put aside their insecurities and speak their mind. “You can put out 12 bad ideas before you get to the good one, and no one looks at you and says, ‘Oh, that’s the dumbest shit on the planet.’ And even if it is the dumbest shit on the planet, you feel safe enough to know you can put out the next idea, and the next.”
In the current moment, there’s no discussing feeling safe without discussing how to create an environment free of sexual harassment. “The way Craig and I run our company, I don’t believe it’s in our building,” says Greenwald. She recalls a recent meeting where “someone made a joke that was very sexually charged, and I didn't like it. I said, ‘Guys, let’s remember what climate we are in.’”
Now in a position of power, Greenwald feels able to change the culture and change the things that are acceptable and not acceptable. “I can only speak for Atlantic, but I think everybody’s way more sensitive to making sure [their workplaces] feel safe for everybody -- young women and young men.”
Among those young women, Greenwald hopes, is her replacement. “I love all the women here who put their hand up and say, ‘Listen, at some point I want your chair.’ I want someone to come take this chair. I want women to come in with a tape measure. Because that’s what I did with Lyor. Him moving up the pyramid allowed me to move up the pyramid. That was the greatest part of our partnership.” She says the door to her office is open for people to come in and work while observing her.
Most days start with her rolling calls at the walking desk she brought in earlier this year; she often does Ashtanga yoga before work and finds that the desk keeps her from getting stiff. “It’s great to get on that sucker and just walk out my pain.”
Among the lessons she wants to impart to the women who work for her is that it’s impossible to juggle everything. “I don’t think you can have it all,” she says. “There’s always compromise. Especially in the music business, because it’s a nighttime sport. You can’t be at a show seeing your artist playing Madison Square Garden for the first time and be home with your children.” For Greenwald, Friday night Shabbat dinners have always been the one time everyone -- staffers, managers, artists -- knows she can’t be disturbed.
She wants the women at Atlantic to be able to set similar boundaries, to not be “fearful of making a decision of, ‘OK, I want to go home.’” But for Greenwald, right now, as the sun drops on this Wednesday evening, the nighttime sport beckons. She has a black-tie event and some work to get done first.