A year ago, Jody Gerson was preparing for one of the most important speeches she would give as chairman/CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG) — her first. More than 30 years into a successful career in music publishing, Gerson had ascended to a rarefied position of power: leadership of the second-largest music publisher and songwriting house of Elton John, U2 and Adele, which takes in annual revenue of about $1 billion.
The town-hall-style address, which she delivered in person to 200 staffers at UMPG’s Santa Monica headquarters and, via video conference, to hundreds more at satellite offices worldwide, followed a straightforward theme: music first, business second. Determined to change the culture of a company she says was “run by lawyers” prior to her January arrival, Gerson, petite and dressed in work-appropriate haute-hippie clothes (think: Stella McCartney and Isabel Marant, her two favorite designers), began with an introduction. “I told them who I’m not,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I’m not an attorney or an accountant; I’m not a copyright expert or a royalty expert. I’m not a songwriter or a musician. What I am is somebody who is passionate about music.'”
Gerson, 54, has a life’s worth of experience to prove it, starting as a young girl growing up in the Philadelphia area, where her father owned several nightclubs that featured Frank Sinatra and Diana Ross, to her first industry job making tape copies at Chappell Music.
In 1991, she moved to EMI Music Publishing, ascending to run the East Coast office and, later, the West Coast during a 17-year stint. That was followed in 2008 by a co-president position at Sony/ATV, where Gerson would stay until 2014, when she left to helm UMPG. At each company, she built a reputation as an A&R whiz, signing Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys and Norah Jones.
“She’s a vocal advocate for the songwriter as artist,” says manager Ron Laffitte, whose clients Ryan Tedder and Pharrell Williams signed to Sony/ATV during Gerson’s tenure. “I could talk to her about recording, the structure of songs, and she always made significant contributions to the record-making process.”
As the first woman to run a major label’s music publishing concern, Gerson admits she’s “very conscious of being a woman in power. I grew up in a business that was a boys’ club. Now I feel a responsibility to be in a sisterhood.”
At UMPG, she’s in good company. Gerson sees friends Universal Music Group executive vp Michele Anthony and Capitol Music Group COO Michelle Jubelirer regularly for lunch at her office or dinner at her Beverly Hills home. “We talk one another off the ledge,” she says.
In 10 months on the job, Gerson has signed 20 artists, including Ariana Grande, Halsey, Adele collaborator Tobias Jesso Jr. and, most recently, Republic Records breakout Post Malone. She’s also extended existing UMPG deals with such acts as Nicki Minaj, Eminem and Big Sean. Jesso, an indie act who commanded seven figures, tested her instincts. “He didn’t make sense on paper,” she says. “But I loved his album and took a shot. I knew he was working with Adele, but who knew he would end up with a song on [her new album, 25]? Or with a single on Sia‘s latest?”
As for what ultimately drew Jesso to UMPG? “Jody,” he says. “She knows so much about the business. She’s the biggest door you can open.”
Although UMPG’s revenue is up 4 percent year over year, and claimed a 10.5 percent market share of the top 100 radio songs in the third quarter (behind Sony/ATV, Warner/Chappell and Kobalt), music publishing has weathered turbulence in recent years. “It has gone from a pennies business to a fraction-of-a-penny business,” says Gerson. “It’s changing times. It’s no longer, ‘Publishing is the money that will buy your mother a house and send your kids to college.’ ” The rise of streaming over downloads means much smaller payouts to writers, and there are legal battles over copyright law and the fight to force terrestrial radio to pay royalties to artists. “And it’s not like the deals are getting any cheaper,” she adds.
Gerson reveals that UMPG is looking to tap additional revenue streams as she and Anthony spearhead new film and TV development projects with the help of Vivendi-owned sister company Studio Canal. “We should be creating the next Empire, the next Glee, the next Pitch Perfect,” she says. Worth noting: Gerson is no neophyte when it comes to Hollywood; She was an executive producer on the 2002 movie Drumline and the 2006 film ATL.
A divorced mother of three — sons Julian, 21, and Luke, 13; and daughter Daisy, 11 — Gerson, who’s dating Hollywood producer Gavin Polone, admits that work and home life don’t always mesh, but she says her maternal instincts are an asset at UMPG. “I’m a nurturer by nature and I get to nurture,” she says. “It’s one reason why publishing is a great field for women.”