The wallpaper behind Jody Gerson’s desk shows a pastoral landscape filled with a menagerie of wildlife — lions, elephants and the creatures Gerson immediately focuses in on, birds. “I see soaring,” she says. “I want to soar.”
Gerson has been doing just that ever since she became chairman/CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group in January 2015, making her the first woman chairman of a major global music company, as well as the first woman to be named CEO of a major music publisher.
Since she took over, UMPG’s revenue has grown by 40%, with annual revenue surpassing $1 billion for the first time at the end of 2018. The year since has been even brighter: Through the first three quarters of 2019, UMPG enjoyed a 12.6% increase to $910 million, ensuring another record-setting year.
In a year of musical chairs in publishing, with new heads installed at Sony/ATV and Warner Chappell, Gerson applied steady, strategic force in a challenging market. As independent publishers backed by deep-pocketed private equity firms continue to raise catalog prices by paying stratospheric multiples, Gerson, 58, made a series of savvy deals — particularly investing in top female songwriters such as Rosalía, Alicia Keys, Maren Morris, Tierra Whack and City Girls. She also continued to bolster UMPG’s bottom line by signing administration deals with MGM and Paramount, and renewing pacts with HBO and Amazon to lock in dependable revenue.
Gerson has also wielded her power to effect change beyond her own company: She joined the board of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative; co-founded the nonprofit She Is the Music to promote women songwriters and engineers; called on the Recording Academy to increase its efforts toward greater inclusivity, diversity and transparency; and vowed not to sign songwriters who she knows have committed violent crimes against others.
Meanwhile, Gerson is also reaping the benefit of prescient signings from earlier in her tenure. Post Malone, for example, was a developing act when she signed him in 2015; his Hollywood’s Bleeding was the most popular album of last year, earning 3 million equivalent album units in 2019.
UMPG, the second-largest publishing company behind Sony/ATV by revenue, oversees more than 3.5 million song copyrights from songwriters both nascent and legendary, including the Bee Gees, Elton John, Carly Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, H.E.R., Coldplay, Justin Bieber, Jack White, SZA, Quavo, Ariana Grande, Halsey and Harry Styles.
As buoyed as she is by UMPG’s successes, Gerson admits she is too busy looking ahead to appreciate how far the company — and she herself — has come. “My biggest flaw is that I don’t take a moment to reflect on how amazing it is to have accomplished this. I keep thinking about accomplishing more,” she says, sitting on one of two long gray sofas in her spacious corner office at UMPG’s Santa Monica, Calif., headquarters. “It’s easier to have gratitude for all those other people who do it with me than to look in the mirror and be like, ‘Shit, girl, you’re doing this.’ ”
Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Gerson attended Sunday afternoon concerts at the Latin Casino, the Cherry Hill, N.J., dinner theater owned by her family where luminaries such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Richard Pryor performed, and Jimmy Hoffa dined. (The long-shuttered club makes a cameo appearance in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.) “I was a real student. I had an affinity for what makes artists tick,” she says. “I knew talent was different than everybody else.”
After attending Northwestern University (“Chicago was as far west as my father would let me go”), she got a job in New York at Chappell Music, photocopying lead sheets and maintaining the lyric library. She later joined EMI Music Publishing, serving as head of the company’s East Coast division, then running the West Coast before working at Sony/ATV Music Publishing (after Sony/ATV’s partial EMI acquisition in 2012), where she rose to head of A&R and co-president.
There, she says, she hit a wall in terms of advancement, just as she was coming into her own as a boss. “I was always driven, but I don’t know if I allowed myself to think about running a company,” she says. Gerson reached out to Universal Music Group (UMG) chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge, who had previously expressed interest in her: “He said, ‘Are you ready to be the global chairman of Universal Music Publishing?’ It was easy for me to make excuses in my own head of ‘I have three kids and I’m divorced,’ and ‘How am I going to do this?’ Lucian knew I could do it before I knew I could.”
Grainge sees Gerson as one of a kind. “One of the things I most love about Jody is that she’s as comfortable offering a songwriter creative advice as she is setting the strategy for a global publishing company,” Grainge says. “The biggest mistake someone can make with Jody is to think that simply because she exudes humility and grace, she’s not one of the most multidimensional, talented, and also competitive and driven executives you’ll ever encounter.”
On Gerson’s desk sits a nameplate that reads “Good Vibes Only.” Nearby, a painting features the word “yes” floating above a flower. “When I came to Universal, the culture was a little cold, so the first thing I did was decorate my office so it was a place where people could feel warm and happy,” says Gerson. Her buzzword for UMPG’s culture is “integrity”— in the songwriters the company signs and in its business dealings overall.
Today, Gerson oversees 800 staffers in 46 countries, and she has her eye on expansion in China — UMPG opened a Beijing office there in 2019, complementing its existing offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong — as well as India and Latin America. She also serves on the UMG board, and, with UMG executive vp Michele Anthony, oversees UMG’s development and production of film, TV and theatrical projects. In the pipeline are several documentaries, as well as the new NBC musical series, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (through a deal with Lionsgate Television). “Where traditionally we were just licensing our music,” she says, “in many cases, we want to be a producer on creating the content for it.”
Since you took over in 2015, revenue has increased by 40%. What early changes fueled that growth?
The first thing I did was empower our [executive vp global administration] John Reston to take the technology that [UMPG] had already invested in and make it that much better. There [had been] more of an emphasis on administering catalogs and buying catalogs of proven songs, so I, along with my staff, made a bet on several unproven artists: Shawn Mendes, Ariana Grande, Post Malone, Halsey, Billie Eilish. We made the right bets. I recognized we had to have a balance of new artists as well as signing [the Bee Gees’] Barry Gibb [and] Bruce Springsteen, and really take a portfolio approach to the catalog.
You’ve signed a large number of young women artists. Is it a good time for female songwriters, despite the 2019 Annenberg study finding that only 12.3% of the writers of the most popular songs over the past seven years were female?
It’s a great time. The [stats] are getting better. I’ve always been attracted to strong female talent. Alicia Keys was 14 when I signed her. I have a 15-year-old daughter. It’s very stressful today for teenage girls, but it’s important to have strong role models. The authentic voice that these women are speaking with now is really important. They’re not playing a role anymore. They are playing themselves. And as the world is changing, those women are making a profound difference.
You co-founded She Is the Music with Alicia Keys, engineer Ann Mincieli and WME’s Samantha Kirby Yoh in late 2018. How much progress have you made?
The idea was simple: How do we help create more opportunity for women working in music? We created the database [with Billboard] with 800 vetted women on that list so far, so if you’re looking for a woman engineer, producer, road manager, songwriter, there’s a resource. We created these song camps and the idea is this: If you put women in a room, you’re giving them the opportunity to speak up where they maybe weren’t comfortable speaking up in a session with all guys. Maybe the content of music changes. What if the song that those women wrote together ended up on a record? We’re already changing the numbers. So many women in our business now want to help other women, so we’re going to be creating mentorship programs [with Step Up]. I think we all had to acknowledge that the only way we’re going to change the numbers, is if we women change the numbers.
In 2019, you hired Troy Tomlinson from Sony/ATV to become chairman/CEO of UMPG Nashville, where you are fourth in the market. What are your plans for Nashville?
What writers felt about us in Nashville was we took shots on them early and developed them. But I always had my eye on Troy, because I had a hard time with the idea that if I’m aiming for Universal to be the No.?1 global company, is it OK if Nashville is just a little sweet, nurturing place? Ultimately I decided that wasn’t enough. Troy is able to attract a different kind of talent than anyone else could have. I’m going to continue to make major investments there.
In the last several years there has been an influx of private equity coming into publishing that has caused multiples to skyrocket. Does that affect how you do business?
It’s a great sign that private equity is so bullish about music publishing in terms of valuation. I’m not saying that it’s a great trend. I grew up in a time where people did not sell their catalogs. My pitch used to be, “Publishing is going to buy your mother a house and send your children to college and will be passed on from generation to generation.” People talked about their songs as their children, and you would never sell your child. But clearly the valuations are so high that perhaps these writers feel like now’s the time to do it. It’s against what I believe in, because I believe in nurturing songs. [But] the valuation is flattering because when we sign a songwriter, it’s our job to create value for their catalog.
Can Universal, Sony/ATV and Warner Chappell compete to buy catalogs with the deep pockets of private equity-backed indie publishing companies?
I don’t know that we would have the kind of success that we’re having if I wasn’t fiscally responsible. I don’t earn a fee from deploying money from private equity. I’m not being rewarded for spending [parent company Vivendi’s] money, I’m being rewarded for making the right valuation … I’m definitely in the business of buying if somebody wants to sell. But [private equity-backed indie publishing companies] are gobbling up catalogs so that they can turn around and sell them. I’m holding on to and building catalogs.
What catalog do you wish you had?
The Philadelphia International catalog. It was all the songs of my youth. I grew up around Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and Thom Bell and Linda Creed. It was my musical foundation.
In 2018, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, you said UMPG would “not knowingly sign an artist who has committed a violent crime against women or anybody else.” How hard has that been to enforce?
It’s complicated because artists are complicated people, and I try hard not to be judgmental — but I try to be responsible. The thing that concerns me more today is signing artists who are troubled and have emotional issues, mental health issues, drug issues… and what do we do about it? I would prefer always to sign an artist who was putting out a positive message. But great artists do artistry that can often reflect our troubled times, so I’ve softened my approach because I’m trying to have compassion for artists who go from zero to a hundred in a flat second. Fame is an unnatural state.
What did it mean to you when UMPG’s annual revenue hit $1 billion?
I aimed to run a company [where] integrity was as important as great financial results. And it worked… I think women will truly be respected in business when they can show that they’ve built a billion-dollar business. No one can dispute the financial success of this company. You can’t. So now I will be viewed as a chairman and not as a female chairman. And that’s really important to me.
A Singular Publisher
Gerson is unique in the view of many superstar artists and songwriters with whom she has worked. Five offer their praise below.
Elton John: “Jody is resolutely passionate about great music and championing new songwriting talents. We are both equally enthusiastic about the important art of writing songs and are always trading knowledge about new songwriting talents we have discovered.”
Alicia Keys: “Jody’s unmatched love for music is what makes her such a unique person in this business. She has a passion for discovering unique talent and a love for timeless and creative people. The boss of bosses, Jody is a powerful and compassionate leader. I find Jody can hear the specialness in a song before even the artist who wrote it truly knows its greatness. She’s a magician at bringing together forces from different walks of life to build incredible moments and compositions. Jody is a beautiful force!”
Justin Bieber: “One thing that makes Jody so unique is how much she really cares about the artists she signs. She stays involved in our careers and our lives, and develops authentic relationships with us. She’s a very special person.”
YG: “Jody is a boss. But outside of business, Jody is a great human and a strong woman! Facts.”
Rosalía: “I’m honestly inspired by Jody Gerson for her qualities as a groundbreaking woman in the music industry, as a longtime supporter of Spanish-language artists and as an extremely insightful ally to songwriters. She was one of the first people who bet on me and had trust in me in this industry. I feel blessed that she has felt such a connection with my writing and music, chose to bring me into a family of so many incredible songwriters and has been so generous with her guidance and advice. As my career grew, I always hoped to surround myself with a team of gifted women, and Jody has become an integral part — for which I am extremely grateful.”