Popular music in 2022 is more diffuse than ever. With TikTok entrenched as the industry’s most effective (and maddening) marketing tool, streaming services continually democratizing listening and dulling the impact of conventional singles, and songs from years (if not decades) earlier resurfacing as contemporary hits, it’s increasingly rare to see new releases rule over all sectors of the pop landscape.
But this past year, that very rarity was the norm for Columbia Records. As listeners’ ever-evolving consumption habits pulled them every which way — and rarely toward the same handful of releases — the label dominated in a way that could be described as old-fashioned: with acclaimed full-length albums from established superstars that spawned massive hit singles and sold lots of physical records. The monoculture may be long dead, but Columbia delivered a pretty convincing flashback to it in 2022.
Evidence of the label’s all-encompassing impact was on clear display during the Grammy nominations announcement in November. Columbia claims three of the most-nominated artists for the awards in February 2023: Adele, Beyoncé and Harry Styles, who have a combined 22 nods. An album of the year win seems especially likely for the label, with Adele’s 30, Beyoncé’s Renaissance and Styles’ Harry’s House considered the three front-runners to take home the award, according to betting site GoldDerby.
And the albums’ commercial performances easily matched their industry plaudits. Each debuted at No. 1 on both the Billboard 200 and Top Album Sales charts during the same weeks that their respective lead singles (“Easy on Me,” “Break My Soul” and “As It Was”) also led the Billboard Hot 100, as part of their combined 27 weeks atop the chart.
Meanwhile, the gains Columbia made in 2021 with The Kid LAROI and Lil Nas X — artists who had found commercial success before Columbia signed them, but who the label helped establish as A-level hit-makers — carried over, with the radio success of their respective chart-topping singles “Stay” (with Justin Bieber) and “Industry Baby” (with Jack Harlow) spilling well into the new year and helping Columbia earn Billboard’s Top Radio Songs Label distinction for 2022. And the label kept an eye on the future, aggressively signing up-and-coming sensations like Nicky Youre (“Sunroof”), Megan Moroney (“Tennessee Orange”) and Yahritza y Su Esencia (“Soy El Unico”), helping those acts get footholds in the industry following their early TikTok virality.
“We’re always focused on two things, really: One, breaking new artists, and two, elevating the careers of superstars,” says Peter Gray, executive vp/head of promotion at Columbia. “We don’t control the timing of the calendar, or the tides or the moons or the stars — the material flows as it flows, and we’re certainly happy to deliver it as it comes. But to see both of those things happening simultaneously — turning new young talent into household names, and then finding superlative moments for the world’s biggest stars — are equally gratifying and exciting for our team.”
Captaining that team are chairman/CEO Ron Perry — installed in the position in 2018 to take over for his mentor Rob Stringer after the latter’s move to run parent company Sony Music Entertainment — and Jen Mallory, the label’s executive vp/GM. Though label veterans like Adele, Beyoncé and Styles predate the duo at Columbia, Perry and Mallory have helped to expand those artists’ reaches and keep them vital to the contemporary pop mainstream, while also signing artists like LAROI, Lil Nas X, “Boyfriend” breakout Dove Cameron and recent Latin Grammy album of the year winner Rosalía, developing them to new levels of stardom.
Described by his staff as a master of A&R, Perry is known as an executive with a unique understanding of artists’ perspectives. It helps that he’s a musician himself, as well as a producer and songwriter — he even landed production and writing credits on BTS’ Columbia-released 2021 megahit “Butter.” “He’s the only major-label chief who’s also a musician and truly in the studio,” Gray says.
He also brings an artist’s pure passion for music to his position as Columbia’s lead decision-maker. “My favorite thing in this entire job is getting a song from an artist that’s just incredible — that excites me more than anything else,” Perry says. “Things are changing, things are evolving, things are always going to be different. But at the end of the day, great music is the biggest factor.”
Meanwhile, Mallory is a marketing specialist, approaching Columbia’s album campaigns from a global perspective (previously, she served as evp of SME International, reporting to Stringer). Sitting together and talking to Billboard, it’s also clear that while Perry takes the lead, he relies on Mallory to fill in the gaps in his thinking — even down to a single word. As he searches for the most precise adjective to describe the nature of musical successes in 2022, Mallory offers options — “Transient, like they don’t last very long? Ephemeral?” — as Perry racks his brain.
“There’s not really one answer to [who does what between them] — it’s very fluid, it’s by project,” says marketing senior vp Erika Alfredson. “But that’s the beauty of the two of them: They’re able to sort of see that in real time — and they’ve gotten in a great rhythm of being able to kind of know where each of their places is, and where they can be the most effective.”
The combination of Perry’s expert touch with artists and Mallory’s global marketing vision has allowed Columbia to both land and grow successful artists at all levels of the industry — and while their 2022 success has a classic feel, both remain fixated on securing the label’s future. “We’re constantly trying to evolve and be better, honestly,” Perry says. “And we’re always learning… we’re never satisfied with the way a thing is done. We always want to improve, and…”
“Improve the status quo,” Mallory finishes. “Listen, [the market] is just all so fractured now, it’s all so…”
“That’s the word I was looking for earlier — ‘fractured’!” Perry interjects.
When you start a year like this, do you get the feeling that it’s going to be one when everything aligns?
Jen Mallory: I mean, you never know. But all the artists that were [Grammy] nominated, and of course the top three that we’re talking about [Adele’s 30, Styles’ Harry’s House and Beyoncé’s Renaissance], they’re incredible bodies of work. So it’s thrilling.
Ron Perry: And it’s well-deserved. We’re happy with the outcome.
And in the meantime, you’re still aggressively going after new artists like Yahritza, Megan Moroney and Nicky Youre. Is it important to keep stockpiling up-and-coming artists while you’re enjoying those successes up top?
Perry: I definitely wouldn’t call it stockpiling. We’re very deliberate in what we sign. I don’t think we sign that much, to be honest with you. Columbia’s just an amazing place to be, both historically and currently. And I think — Rob [Stringer] taught me this — that people that come in here, we give them a lot of love, a lot of attention, a lot of strategy. And we’re pretty careful in who we sign, to make sure that’s the right fit.
I’ve heard that you’re very aggressive in going after the artists that you’re really excited about.
Perry: Yeah, when you’re passionate, and you want something… I’m very aggressive about doing that. If it’s someone that I feel belongs here, then I really want them to be here.
Those three artists — Yahritza, Moroney and Youre — all had early success on TikTok. Is that where most of Columbia’s artist scouting is happening these days?
Perry: All these platforms, it’s always changing. We’ll be talking about something else a couple years from now. At the end of the day, you have to sign incredible talent. The platforms will always change and the talent won’t. So if someone is working on TikTok, you want someone because they’re great. Because… look at Twitter right now. If something happens [to the platform], you want to be able to have a great artist no matter what the situation is. Not necessarily because they’re great on one platform.
I actually prefer to avoid a viral hit early on in someone’s career. It’s too difficult to overcome that, if it’s too early.
Nicky Youre’s management told Billboard that one of the main reasons they decided to come to Columbia is because you have such a great reputation for radio. Do you take pride in that? Is it something you feel you can offer to up-and-coming artists?
Perry: Well, first of all, I think our reputation is that we’re artist-first. And that comes from Rob Stringer. And Rob, who’s really my mentor, taught me how to go from being an A&R person to being a chairman/CEO, and that the reputation of this company is really the artistic integrity and the amazing artists that this company has had… since the beginning of this company until today.
Have we done well at radio? I think we’ve done great. Peter Gray has come in, and I think we’ve gone from No. 9 to No. 1 in market share over a four-year period. I call the shots of which record to go with. I think we have a very high batting average with what we go to radio with. And I think Peter has done a tremendous job across all formats to make those records a big success.
In 2022 and 2023, I’m not sure that radio’s the No. 1 selling point in an artist’s career. It is a selling point, it is part of the picture, but we offer a lot of strategic help, and creative support, and with so many things that go just beyond this one thing.
So when you’re talking to those younger artists, telling them what Columbia can offer them that they can’t do on their own, what are you telling them?
Mallory: I think, again, it goes back to artist-first, and I think Rob has set us both up for success. What we do is we help an artist amplify, and help an artist build a world, right? Obviously radio’s a part of it, international’s a part of it, figuring out how to create a kind of community, fan-building… But no one campaign is like the other, and it’s all bespoke to the artist. And at the end of the day, artists need to find teams that they feel comfortable around, that they feel understand them. I think, ultimately, we’ve built a team here that does that.
When you talk about the evolving landscape, what’s the biggest evolution that you’ve noticed over the last year or two that has really changed the way you think about how business is done here, or just the industry in general?
Perry: Obviously in the past year or so, catalog [consumption] has gone up. And with TikTok, the older records are climbing the charts, so front-line records take a little less space right now.
So are you taking a more open-minded view to what could be promoted, or what could be considered a new release, in light of the fact that songs from five to seven years ago are basically being treated like new hits?
Perry: Absolutely. We put everything on the table.
Mallory: Good music is good music, right?
Perry: There’s really no rules anymore.
And is that exciting to you?
Perry: Oh, it’s exciting to us.
Mallory: Super exciting.
Perry: We talk about that all the time. I mean… listen, two to three years ago we started teasing records [online], and that was an exciting time. And now as it’s happening within the entire marketplace, we’re looking at the next thing. What’s the next thing that’s going to be groundbreaking? So we love being challenged, and right now, the market’s interesting.
Going back to the bigger artists that you’ve had this year — each of them had immediate impact. Big first-week numbers, not just on the albums side but on the songs side, with each of those albums having an accompanying Hot 100 No. 1 single the same week the album was No. 1. Is that something that’s a priority to Columbia, to come out of the gate screaming and capture those big moments and headlines with the first-week performance?
Mallory: With those three artists? Absolutely. Again, each one is different. I think all the work that was done on [Styles’ 2019 album] Fine Line for Harry brought his fans into Harry’s House in a big, big way. So we had a huge, seismic kind of launch. And “As It Was” is an incredible song, and the album is fantastic front-to-back. So all of that played a part in such a big week one.
Perry: And with Harry, Beyoncé, they’ve been in this company for a long time. And Rob Stringer is extremely involved creatively with them. Very helpful.
Mallory: And Beyoncé, I think the way that she welcomed people back outside [with “Break My Soul”] off the back of the pandemic — that song was just a celebration of being out of the mask and back outside and with people again — from a narrative perspective, that played a part in [its success]. I think this lives in the streets, this lives in culture. Not only with “Break My Soul,” but now again with “Cuff It” — it has been beautiful to watch.
I talked to a couple of people in your promotions and marketing departments, and they said, “Well, yeah, the first week’s great and important, but we’re looking at 12 to 18 months on an album.” Is that harder to do in 2022? What’s most important to keeping the album fresh for that long?
Mallory: I also think it’s about building a long-term narrative and strategy and world for a fan to celebrate and step into, right? With Harry, we’re continuing to roll [out] singles and new kinds of chapters of this Harry’s House that stay fresh every time. And same thing with Beyoncé. We have so much more coming, obviously. Even Adele,  is a year old and she just launched [her Las Vegas residency] and was incredible.
Perry: The [residency debut] was insane. One of the best things I’ve ever seen.
Jen, you mentioned “Cuff It.” TikTok is very unpredictable as a marketing tool, but is it a powerful thing to have in your back pocket when it helps a song like “Cuff It” take off?
Mallory: I mean, it’s just exciting to see people celebrating this music the way they are, right? This album has landed [directly] in culture [without official visuals], and people have just made it their own, in a way. And this is all Beyoncé — this is rolling out exactly how she wanted it to.
Perry: TikTok is a mirror of culture, you know? And therefore, if you’re impacting culture, people on the app are going to use the sound.
You mention more coming with Beyoncé — I think everyone basically knows that to be the case but isn’t sure when or what or where. Is it challenging to keep that balance between fans paying attention and listening to the album but also waiting for more to come?
Perry: I think nine Grammy nominations kind of speak for themselves in terms of what’s happening right now with Beyoncé.
Is there anything you can tell me about what Beyoncé has coming up?
Perry: No. She’s nominated for the Grammys, though!
Do you look to your artists’ live shows to not only raise awareness of an album but also give a boost to their entire catalog? Are you looking at the numbers there?
Mallory: Yeah. Specifically, I think Rosalía is a good one to talk about. As she made her way through Europe — she started in Spain, and we kept a close watch on how that was lifting [her 2022 album] Motomami. It had a tremendous effect, because it’s probably one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. And so people saw it and then engaged with the music again.
Perry: Another show you have to see. We’re going to give you a whole list of shows! (Both laugh.)
Let’s talk about some experiences you’ve had with artists who are still more up-and-coming. I find Dominic Fike particularly interesting — there were reports about a bidding war and a $4 million offer to sign him. And he has had success, but I’m sure you would agree that there’s still potential to be reached there. Meanwhile, he’s on maybe the hottest TV show in the world right now, Euphoria. How do you convert that sort of buzz and success into eyes on his music career?
Perry: I think 2023 will be the year that… musically, all the stars align [for Fike]. He’s on tour right now, his new music is unbelievable. And obviously the show has done a lot for him. He’s just naturally gifted in almost everything — and incredibly good-looking. I really believe that this is the year that he could be one of the big, big breakthroughs across the industry.
And you had success like that with The Kid LAROI last year. I think people were looking for him this year to take even a step further, and it has been a bit rocky — he had a high-profile management switch, and his single “Thousand Miles” did well but didn’t quite take him to the next level. How do you see his 2023?
Perry: LAROI’s got great new music that he’s working on as well. He toured for most of the year. He toured everywhere, really for the first time. “Stay” is one of the biggest songs of all time. I think you can’t really compete with that record. Just like Lil Nas X couldn’t really compete with “Old Town Road,” you know what I mean? And I’ve heard the [new] music, it’s unbelievable. And so I think sometimes we have perceptions that actually aren’t accurate. It’s a touring year, and he’s got a real fan base. And so I think that he’s going to come back big this year.
You’re known to be a sort of artist whisperer when it comes to dealing with younger acts. What’s the most important thing in communicating with a younger artist?
Perry: Communicating! That’s exactly what’s important. You communicate — again, our job is to support [the artists]. Not everything we deal with with them is positive. Not every record is going to work for every artist. So I think it’s having a long-term plan, having the artist knowing that the label is there for a long time to support them.
Mallory: Not just when you’re in cycle, right? So just making sure that there’s communication, always.
Perry: And not just when it’s positive results. And that’s why Jen is so great, because Jen has amazing relationships with our artists, our managers — and not just amazing ideas, but also execution.
When you’re both communicating with these artists, do you play different roles? Is there a contrasting style in your strengths at dealing with artists in these respects?
Perry: Um… (Indicates Mallory should answer first.)
Mallory: Listen… he’s an incredible A&R guy. His superpower is the music. But he’s also very, very involved with everything else. He’s an incredibly creative person generally, so very much involved in marketing and digital, very good with numbers, the rest of it. So yes, he probably spends more time talking about the music, and I talk about other things… the rollout, the marketing, the strategy. But again, he’s not not involved with that — he’s very much involved with every facet of the campaigns.
Perry: And I play Jen music all the time, and she’s got great ears. We just have an amazing collaboration and friendship, and I think that it makes what we do and how much time we spend here really fun, honestly.
Mallory: I would agree with that… I mean, listen, we both have very strong personalities, I would say. But we see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. I think that’s accurate. I don’t think there’s a lot of infighting.
Can you remember a time when you disagreed on a best path forward with someone or something? Or philosophically…
Perry: I can’t recall anything. I can’t recall right now.
Mallory: No, I can’t recall right now. For the most part, we’re a really good team. Not “for the most part” — we are a really good team.
And who else is in the inner circle of trust when making the bigger decisions? Who do you lean on when it comes to areas where you don’t feel yourselves the strongest?
Perry: I think we’re really good at collaborating with our senior staff. The reality is I could get ideas from really anywhere.
Mallory: That’s a benefit of the culture here… to his point, ideas can come from anywhere. There maybe isn’t that same sort of hierarchy that there used to be in an old-school system. We very much want to hear from every person. And we play to people’s strengths.
What are you looking forward to in the future? What trends are we going to see go even further, or what are we not talking about yet that we will be in years to come?
Perry: Future trends. Wow. Well, I have ideas, as we always have ideas, but I will not give them away. Because they’re our ideas. (Laughs.) So we’re always thinking about the future. We’re always trying to do things differently. We’re always trying to innovate. We’re trying to always think ahead. I think what we’ve accomplished here as a company in the past several years has shown that.
Mallory: It’s all so niche now. Niche communities, right? So we have to figure out how to knit those communities together and create importance and a long-term narrative and build out worlds. And that’s what we love to do here, and we have so many incredible artists that we get to work with to do that. But there’s always going to be disruption. Every year, we’re saying, “What’s going to be around the next bend?”