Billboard’s 2013 Women in Music top honoree is Atlantic Records group chairman/COO Julie Greenwald, the highest ranking female executive at any major U.S. record company. Greenwald, who tops Billboard’s survey for the fourth time, sat down with Billboard’s editorial director Bill Werde in 2011 for this extensive and compelling video interview. Here, Greenwald recalls growing-up in the Catskills and working in New Orleans for Teach for America when she landed at Def Jam in what was supposed to be a summer job. Also, in this nine-part video, Greenwald discusses her rise through the executive ranks, which included her move to Island Records where she worked rock bands and her jump to Atlantic while eight months pregnant. Greenwald also reflects on her triumphs, the biggest mistake (a $1 million Sisqo video), the profound influence of Ahmet Ertegun and women in the music business who inspire her.
Part 1 Julie Greenwald recalls the lark of landing a job at Def Jam in 1992 while working for Teach for America and how her parents were concerend when she came home with a pager. She also learned a great deal working under the watchful — and frugal — eye of Lyor Cohen while promoting artists like LL Cool J, EPMD, Public Enemy and Onyx who at the time were not being supported by radio. She also explains how she never felt at a disadvantage as one of a handful of female music executives.
Part 2 From her beginnings as Cohen’s assistant—with the arm of his sofa as her desk)—Greenwald after only a few months moved into the role of running Def Jam’s promotions. Her Teach For America stint in the New Orleans projects helped her prepare for Def Jam. Upon arriving in New York in the early-90s, Greenwald immersed herself in the vibrant club scene at venues such as The Palladium, The Tunnel and The Grand — the latter of which was where she first saw Biggies Smalls perform.
Part 3 In the early years, facing resistance to hip-hop from culture and businesses at large made the Def Jam staff more resolute in its determination to prove doubters wrong. Greenwald cite’s Def Jam’s creative atmosphere, which >thought of itself as a culture and lifestyle brand more than a music label, >as what she liked best about working there. As Greenwald rose through the company’s small, tight-knit, non-bureaucratic community, she considered getting another degrees and even began studying for the LSATs before Cohen aske her, “What the hell are you doing?”
Part 4 After Def Jam was sold, Greenwald moved to running the rock and pop side of Island, transitioning from the urban music scene to the rock side of things, eventually breaking bands like Sum 41, Saliva, Thursday, Thrice, The Killers and Fall Out Boy and bringing Bon Jovi back into the mainstream with “It’s My Life.” Greenwald credits >hard work and commitment—which included long hours and even handing out flyers—>as enabling her to transcend gender or racial barriers that might have otherwise kept her down.
Part 5 Greenwald discusses Cohen’s decision to leave for Atlantic Records and the difficulty of leaving Island/Def Jam. She acknowledges the importance of having a boss in Cohen who had her back 100% of the time no matter the situation and backed that up with equity in his companies. The move to Atlantic came so late in Greenwald’s pregnancy that she had to reschedule her C-section in order to have enough time to the new label job’s affairs in order before finally taking her maternity leave.
Part 6 Despite her career’s upward trajectory, Greenwald discusses some of the mistakes she made along the way, including green-lighting Sisqo’s $1 million video for “Unleash The Dragon,” which ultimately got shelved. She also discussed the challenges she faced in trying to make Atlantic and Elektra one new, viable company, including creating a new culture, instituting a more open approach to communication, and paring down the roster.
Part 7 After moving to Atlantic, Greenwald began working with the legendary Ahmet Ertegun (“the George Washington of the music business”), whose philosophies and hands-on approach are still hallmarks of Atlantic’s business strategy. She also discussed her favorite Ertegun story, which involved a prank he played on Sonny & Cher. She credits Ertegun as well as Cohen with teaching significant lessons on how to succeed in the industry, such as the importance of creating an open environment where young staff are comfortable speaking-up as well as emphasizing A&R.
Part 8 Greenwald said the aspect of Atlantic’s business model that she is most proud of are its embracing of new technologies, hard work in using those technologies to help artists better connect with fans, and the familial vibe that permeates the label, which she referred to as “a large indie.” She also touched on the “myth of Julie Greenwald,” how important it is to her to be a role model to women in the music industry, and the many important women out there now doing innovative work to push the business forward.
Part 9 While Greenwald is continuously looking for ways to grow in her own career, she knows she never wants to leave the label-artist side of music business. She also discusses some of her favorite women in the industry today, exuding positivity both in how they work together and in how her own career is progressing, even in this changing time for the music business.