Executive of the Year Golnar Khosrowshahi on Reservoir Media’s IPO & Her History-Making Role
The entrepreneur is the first female founder and CEO of a publicly traded, independent music company — and leads Billboard's 2022 Women in Music list of the industry's high-achieving execs.
On Aug. 30, 2021, Reservoir Media CEO Golnar Khosrowshahi and rapper Offset laughed as they rang the opening bell at NASDAQ’s Marketsite Studio in New York.
As confetti — in Reservoir (and NASDAQ) blue — fluttered around them, Khosrowshahi soaked in the initial moments of becoming the first female founder and chief executive of a publicly traded independent music company.
“It was a true moment of arrival,” she recalls.
Although the presence of Offset, who signed with Reservoir in 2017, and a very pregnant Cardi B may have looked like a contrived photo op, Khosrowshahi says the Migos member had asked to attend the ceremony. “It just came up in conversation, and he told me he wanted to be there,” she recalls. And though she admits she was skeptical that he would show, due to his relentless schedule, she says the husband-and-wife hip-hop duo arrived at the NASDAQ studio fashionably dressed and precisely on time and continued celebrating with the Reservoir team that day.
Reservoir is one of several independent music rights holders — among them Hipgnosis Songs Fund, Round Hill Music Royalty Fund and One Media iP Group — that have gone public within the last few years, but, unlike her predecessors, Khosrowshahi chose to launch her company’s initial public offering stateside instead of on the London Stock Exchange. “It’s a finite universe as far as the investor base goes,” she says of the London exchange. With the field there already crowded and a reverse merger with the Roth CH Acquisition II special purpose acquisition company bringing $115 million to the offering, choosing NASDAQ “made a lot of sense.”
As Khosrowshahi sees it, the IPO was the next logical step in Reservoir’s evolution. “Our focus as a private company was always to build long-term value, so going public was not really a major adjustment for us,” she says — then, with a grin, adds, “But it was a lot of paperwork.”
Khosrowshahi founded Reservoir Media in 2007 while the music industry was in a piracy-induced free fall and just before the financial crash of 2008 crippled the American economy. Long before private equity’s mad dash to buy up music intellectual property for multiples of over 30 times a song catalog’s net publisher’s share (gross profit), Reservoir was one of the few players outside the major-label groups willing to bet there was still value in a great song. Capitalized in its first decade or so by her father — who also invested in health care, real estate and consumer electronics — Khosrowshahi notes that “it was a grim, dark time to start a company, and we were reporting up to a literal parent of mine who is used to investing in businesses that make money,” she says with a laugh. “It was a challenging start. We didn’t know a lot about the industry yet. We didn’t have a network of people, but we learned along the way.” The company reported $74.3 million in global revenue for the first three quarters of its current fiscal year, but Billboard estimates Reservoir generated $100 million for the full 2021 calendar year.
While many of her counterparts in the publishing sector are second- or third-generation music business professionals, Khosrowshahi, 50, entered music publishing as an outsider. Born in Tehran, Iran, amid the tumult of the revolution, she and her family fled the country when she was 6 years old and resettled in London. There, she grew up listening to The Doors and The Beatles — for which she credits her mother — and took classical piano lessons a few times each week. Her burgeoning talent led to a rigorous education at the Royal Academy of Music in London that was steeped in music theory and history. (She continues to play for enjoyment.)
Khosrowshahi says the discipline and deep reverence for music that the Royal Academy instilled in her have been key factors in her success as Reservoir’s CEO and in the company’s growth. Coming to the business with fresh eyes helped, too. “I ignore politics,” she says, noting that in the 15 years since she founded Reservoir, she has “seen a lot of new people come in and out” of publishing with different aims. Her strategy, she says, “has always been about the music.”
“She has a great balance,” says David Israelite, president/CEO of the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA). “She approaches her partnerships as someone who understands the economic side of the business but also as someone with an incredible sense of creativity.” Khosrowshahi credits that to her own musical background as well as her staff’s. “It informs our relationships with our writers so much and helps us be their partners.”
It’s why film composer Hans Zimmer; Oak Felder, the Grammy Award-winning producer-songwriter behind hits for Demi Lovato, Rihanna and Alessia Cara; and Ali Tamposi, who has written Billboard Hot 100 chart-toppers for Camila Cabello and Kelly Clarkson, all trust Reservoir as a publishing partner. “It has been a real honor to watch them grow,” she says.
Reservoir manages a catalog of 140,000 copyrights, including such contemporary hits as Post Malone’s “Rockstar,” the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” and Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” as well as late-20th-century classic catalogs from Joni Mitchell and Alabama. On the recorded-music side, Reservoir controls 36,000 master recordings, including those from labels like Tommy Boy and Chrysalis. And in 2021, its repertoire placed the music publisher in the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 Publishers and Top Radio Airplay Publishers rankings for three quarters. “In the face of competition, we outpace industry growth,” she says.
In the last year, Khosrowshahi has also advocated for songwriters outside of her duties at Reservoir. She is an advisory board member of Silkroad, a musical and social impact-focused collective founded by Grammy-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma. She is also a board member of the NMPA and, at the end of 2021, was elected to its executive committee, which comprises representatives from each of the majors and two elected independent music publishers who represent their peers. Khosrowshahi says she’s honored to be chosen because “your peers are entrusting you to advocate for them on a lot of important issues, both for their companies as well as for their clients.”
Amid what she calls “unparalleled challenges” facing songwriters in the streaming age, as Copyright Royalty Board action continues for Phonorecords III and Phonorecords IV — which will determine streaming royalty rates for the periods of 2018-22 and 2023-27, respectively — Khosrowshahi says her role at the NMPA is “one of the most rewarding things I do.” Over the last year, she served as the director of the board during two of the NMPA’s greatest victories: striking unprecedented deals with Roblox and Twitch, neither of which were paying songwriters for the use of their work before the association took action. “It’s not complicated,” she says of the settlements. “Songwriters should be paid fair compensation for their creative work, and that’s what we’re constantly advocating for.”
There are rewards outside of work, too. Khosrowshahi is mom to twin daughters who are freshmen at the University of Southern California, and when she’s not on the front lines of the music publishing business, she tries to find time for tennis, running and skiing.
But she’s keenly aware of her position as one of the few women in the industry’s C-suites. She says she could recount “countless unpleasant anecdotes” about men treating the business like a “boys club,” but she has concluded that sharing such stories is “not really productive. What is productive,” she continues, “is to effect change from within.” That comes with thoughtful hiring practices, compensation, recognition and company culture — all of which she has focused on at Reservoir since its inception. “I look forward to a time when being a female CEO is kind of unremarkable,” she says. “At that point, you’ll know the industry has changed.”
This story originally appeared in Billboard’s 2022 Women in Music issue, dated Feb. 26, 2022.