The members of Billboard’s 40 Under 40 Class of 2017 are renowned not just for their hustle and perseverance in the music industry, but also for their dedication to fostering community and understanding among their peers, and to cultivating the next generation of leaders.
Last Tuesday (Jan. 23), sixteen nominees from the 2017 class convened for a private Grammy-week dinner at the Legasea restaurant in Times Square. Co-organized by Jake Udell (founder, Th3rd Brain), Matt Goldstein (vp sports and entertainment, Madison Square Garden Company) and Jacob Fain (vp A&R/head of research and analytics, Sony/ATV), the group exchanged career stories and advice face-to-face, and discussed topics ranging from influencing up the corporate ladder to laying sustainable foundations for more diverse leadership in the future.
After an hour of mingling and eating, Udell opened the conversation with a round of introductions, asking each attendee to state what they were most excited about for 2018. Some cited their continued passions for supporting emerging artists who had yet to release a record; others looked forward to helping artists exceed their expectations on their sophomore, third or even fourth albums. Some were excited to continue innovating around music discovery, while those in the live space were enthusiastic about growing opportunities to create and deliver valuable music content not just during a show, but also before and after.
Overall, the room was glowing with optimism for the future of the industry, driven by the rise of healthy digital platforms for artists and a breed of young executives forging new paths. In addition, as Justin Kalifowitz (CEO of Downtown Music Publishing) noted, an increasing number of executives from companies like Google and Bank of America are now entering the music business, sensing a growth opportunity that is truly distinct in the industry’s history.
“Try telling someone ten years ago that an executive would leave Google to work at a music company,” said Kalifowitz. “We’re attracting such incredible talent from all corners of the world now, and we have to use what other industries have learned in terms of enriching their employees and creating a vibrant company culture.”
One of the core discussion topics of the evening was the challenge of rallying multiple generations, cultures, backgrounds and biases around one’s singular vision for an artist, department or company. As Kristen Fraser (music marketing at Beats By Dre) put it: “The art of music is young, but the business of music is old.” Managers, agents and label execs in their 20s and 30s who are cultivating new artists from the ground up and pushing the needle on culture often struggle to reach consensus with bosses who grew up in the same generation as David Geffen and Walter Yetnikoff—i.e. those who built iconic catalogs that will stand the test of time, but perhaps at the expense of building nimble, sustainable and diverse companies from the inside.
One strategy for influencing up the corporate ladder is proving the existence of concrete value and revenue left on the table. Fain experienced this firsthand: he recently got approval to double the size of his analyst team, but not without years of resistance from bosses and colleagues who remained skeptical about the role data could play in A&R. It took several successful signings such as The Chainsmokers — and a handful of signings that Sony/ATV passed on who ultimately became wildly successful — to get the long-awaited go-ahead. “As soon as you can make a direct line to benefiting your artists and songwriters, people will pay attention very quickly,” said Fain.
But a direct, aggressive approach doesn’t always deliver when it comes to more abstract, delicate notions of culture. Marsha St. Hubert (svp of urban marketing at Atlantic Records) sees arguing with older execs in a meeting room about the validity of younger, emerging cultures, particularly those that brought the likes of Gucci Mane and Cardi B to world stardom, as an ineffective strategy for enacting change. “That’s like me showing up to Seder and saying I don’t want the lamb shank — that’s not my role,” said St. Hubert, drawing laughs from the group. Instead, she chooses simply to stick to her plan and prove her vision through her work, persevering with a close support group of colleagues who are plugged into and align with said culture — a method she describes as “moving in silence and violence,” quoting The Notorious B.I.G.
In non-corporate environments, building consensus often comes down to empowering individuals to leverage their individual, unique strengths. Udell brought up his recent implementation of Area of Excellence (AOE), an approach for giving his employees more ownership over their individual career roadmaps that he detailed previously in his newsletter Art of a Manager.
Under AOE, each employee is responsible for an entire department of the business across all clients — be that music supervision, Asian markets, remixing or live — in addition to their traditional artist-centric projects. Taking a tip from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, each employee then pens a biweekly report up to six pages long measuring progress in the “department” and sharing opportunities and challenges, and all memos are shared and discussed with the entire team every other week — a sort of extended all-hands meeting. The results so far are impressive: “You have people who are complete introverts going out and getting six-figure deals in under six months,” said Udell.
Aside from company-wide operational overhauls, increasing and celebrating diversity also involves reaching out to the younger prospective leaders who need it most, but who might not have the privilege of direct, immediate access to the industry. Every week for an entire year and counting, Fraser has been talking on the phone with at least one person who reaches out to her on LinkedIn, and regularly checks in with many of these new contacts. Kalifowitz cited the NYC Mayor’s Fund initiative Ladders for Leaders, which places hundreds of high school and college students in paid internships across media & entertainment, real estate, hospitality and fashion every year; Downtown Music Publishing is one of several media & entertainment partners of the initiative, alongside the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM), CBS Corporation, Time Warner, Tommy Boy Entertainment and VP Records.
The biggest takeaway: mentorship, persuasion and organizational change require so much more than what happens within the confines of weekly meetings and conversations with colleagues. It’s about implementing tangible solutions, large and small, for measuring and supporting value creation on the individual level, regardless of one’s skill set or background — such that the music business can be as diverse as the artists and fans it serves.