Universal's Michele Anthony on Blending Philanthropy and Music

Michele Anthony photographed May 19 at Universal Music Group in New York.
Dustin Cohen

“I had the amazing good fortune of being born into the music business,” says Anthony, photographed May 19 at Universal Music Group in New York. “It wasn’t an industry then. It was my dad and Jerry Moss and Chris Blackwell and Frank Barsalona and Bill Graham."

Sitting down with the veteran label executive, dedicated philanthropist and UJA Music Visionary of the Year.

"I'm a child of the '60s," says Michele Anthony. "So there's no demarcation between work and ­philanthropy or activism."

Sitting on a couch in the listening room next to her New York office, Anthony is explaining how her job as executive vp at Universal Music Group connects to her charitable work -- chairing the Global Poverty Project's Global Citizen Tickets Initiative, raising money for the women writers retreat Hedgebrook and working with pro-choice organizations. On June 14, Anthony, 61, will be honored for both her philanthropic work and ­professional accomplishments as Jewish ­philanthropy organization UJA-Federation of New York's Music Visionary of the Year.

At Universal, Anthony helps manage the company's U.S. labels, global catalog and brand partnerships operations. She also oversees its U.S. commercial ­services ­division, where she assists labels in ­pursuing new businesses. She has been in the music industry since she was a ­teenager, starting out by helping her father, Dee Anthony, who managed Tony Bennett and Peter Frampton, among others; he helped bring a wave of British acts to the United States in the 1960s and '70s, including Joe Cocker and Traffic.

"I literally grew up with bands coming over from England and sleeping on our living room floor," says Anthony. "When I was 13, I'd go to the early show and the late show at the Fillmore East, and my dad would argue about the night's take and then put it in my green-fringed suede bag. Because who would ever look for it there?"

Anthony surprised her father by going to college -- then law school at the University of Southern California. She represented acts like Pixies and Ozzy Osbourne at Manatt Phelps Rothenberg & Phillips, then spent over 15 years at Sony Music, where she rose from senior vp domestic operations to president/COO of the label group, leaving in 2006.

Throughout her career, Anthony has worked on charitable causes that connect naturally to her work with music and the ­feminism that inspired her growing up. "I'm also a child of music," she says with a smile. "And music has always been an instrument of change."

Were you kvelling when you found out about the UJA honor?

More like shpilkes. The work they're doing is so important that I really want to deliver for them in terms of fundraising. My willingness to accept the award was not based on the fact that it's an industry honor -- it's more about the times we're living in. I had just read an article about headstone vandalism at a Jewish graveyard in St. Louis when [Glassnote Records founder] Daniel Glass called me about this.

What the UJA does isn't limited to ­raising awareness about anti-Semitism, of course. And another reason I'm doing this is that I'm also reading in the news about the rollback of programs for vulnerable ­populations -- women, the elderly, kids with special needs. They cut Meals on Wheels! So I’m interested in the work the UJA does.

You're involved in several causes. How do you decide what to take on?

A lot of my philanthropy and activism has come through artists. When I was at Sony, the company created a technology that would show what a child abducted at 3 would look like at 13 and donated it to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and I was on the board of the organization. I've been very blessed to have Pearl Jam in my life, and we've been on a journey, starting with the West Memphis Three -- they got involved in that case in the '90s, and that became something near and dear to my heart.

Also through [Pearl Jam manager] Kelly Curtis I met Hugh Evans, who started the Global Poverty Project with the goal of ending extreme poverty. He wanted to do a concert in Central Park, and in 2012 we pulled off a first show with Neil Young, the Foo Fighters and others. And from that first year, when we were begging people, we're now in the position where in 2015 we had Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran.

Is that how you became chair of the Global Citizen Tickets Initiative, which gives fans access to tickets if they take action to fight poverty?

Hugh's vision was, let's not give tickets away, let's educate and engage. So fans became eligible to win tickets [to Global Citizen Festival] by reading white papers or petitioning politicians. We extended that to other concerts, making it easy for artists and managers to donate tickets; we just give them two names to add to will call.

You're also active with Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers.

Through Nicole Vandenberg [Pearl Jam's publicist, who also works on the band's Vitalogy Foundation] I met Gloria Steinem, who is a hero of mine. And both Pearl Jam and I began doing ­different fundraisers with Gloria for pro-choice organizations. A few years later, Gloria and Nicole told me about Hedgebrook, a ­property that ­provides women writers with, in the words of Virginia Woolf, "a room of one's own." Their tagline is "women ­authoring change." Together we hosted ­several fundraisers, which in part helped create their ­songwriters program; Brandi Carlile and Joanna Newsom are alums.

You once said that Steinem and your father are your biggest influences.

If I talk about Gloria, I have to talk about my mother. My parents were divorced, so I would go on the road with my dad but then also watch the indignities that my mom went through in the workforce: getting sent home from work for wearing pants, or ­having her boss giving her his hotel-room key when they went on a business trip. So my mother and I would read Gloria's articles in New York magazine, and those became guiding principles for me.

What did you learn from your father?

My dad managed [Australian singer-­songwriter] Peter Allen. Peter frequently wrote with Carole Bayer Sager, and Carole, Burt Bacharach and Christopher Cross were working on the theme song to Arthur. They got stuck on the hook, so Carole called Peter for help. A few nights later, Peter was flying back to New York from L.A., circling JFK [Airport], and he came up with the line, "When you get caught between the moon and New York City."

When it was time to submit it to the Oscars [for best original song, in 1981], Carole calls Peter and says, "There have never been four writers for an Oscar-winning song; we want to pay you, but would you take your name off it?" Peter said sure, and called my father. My father said no and called Carole -- who later told me how much she regretted this -- and she asked, "Is there anything we can do to change your mind?" My dad said, "Yeah, you can fucking hum when you get to the chorus." Peter's name stayed on the song, they won the Oscar, and as Peter walked offstage, he handed the statue to my father and said, "This is yours."

This story originally appeared in the June 17 issue of Billboard.


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