For Jon Batiste, Music’s Biggest Night wound up being one of the biggest nights of his career. At last Sunday’s Grammy Awards, the singer, songwriter, pianist and bandleader delivered a blistering performance of his song “Freedom” and took home five Grammys, including the most prestigious of the night: album of the year, for We Are.
It was a crowning achievement for Batiste, and the biggest achievement of the night for his label Verve Label Group, which went into the night with 21 Grammy nominations for its artists and ended it with the most number of wins of any label under the Universal Music Group umbrella. And it’s helped earn Verve executive vp Jamie Krents the title of Billboard’s Executive of the Week.
Seeing Batiste’s album through the process was not easy — as undeniably talented as Batiste is, he’s arguably most widely known as the bandleader for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and the album We Are, while critically acclaimed, was not the streaming or sales juggernaut that others in the category were. But Krents and his team were able to leverage the broader UMG ecosystem, connect him with brands and partnerships, tap in Interscope’s radio team and invest in making sure his live and televised performances cut through the noise to help market and promote the album, and Batiste, to a point where it outshone its commercial performance.
Here, Krents discusses Batiste’s big wins, the planning that went into it, the state of jazz for his label that is so closely associated with it and what it all means for Verve moving forward. “I think this shows what a label that in many ways has the bespoke approach of an indie combined with all the bells and whistles of the world’s biggest major label can do for the right artists,” he says. “We’re open for business and keen to partner with musicians who are looking for the best of both worlds.”
Jon Batiste led all nominees with five Grammy wins at this year’s awards, including the top prize, album of the year, for his Verve album We Are. What key decisions did you make to help make that happen?
Two main things come to mind. Firstly, we put together a really effective, focused Batiste team here at Verve and we were creative about division of labor. For example, Verve’s CEO, Dickon Stainer, and I asked our head of press at the time, Julia Casey, to actually serve as the lead marketing manager for We Are because so much of this campaign was about helping Jon tell his story and sharing the narrative of this album’s origin. Our entire Verve crew in New York and our international colleagues worked on Jon’s campaign every single day, and we had so many Zoom meetings setting this up that I had to get glasses for the first time in my life.
We also took great advantage of the larger Universal company. We had Interscope’s radio team lean in and they did a great job helping Jon get his first No. 1 single. Michele Anthony and her team have been invaluable and we had great support from UMG’s central services to supplement what Verve was doing. I would also point out that that I think we found the right dynamic with Jon’s management, his publicist Chris Chambers and his creative director, so things felt very collaborative and transparent. We also took the time to set the record up properly, even though that meant delaying it from its original planned release date of Fall 2020 to early Spring of 2021. That was a tough decision, but ended up being a game-changer for us in the end.
Most importantly, we trusted Jon’s instincts. He has an incredibly strong sense of self and that extends beyond the music to the visuals, his live performance, his social justice activism, collaborations and more. So, my best decision was to work with a genius artist and then stay out of the way and let some very good people have the latitude to do their jobs and be creative.
How did you market and promote the album when it first came out, and keep working it through the Grammy nomination process?
We realized early on that many people still knew Jon as “the guy from Colbert,” or primarily as a great jazz musician, and it was important to broaden people’s perception of who he is as a recording artist. Even after Jon won the Oscar for his work on SOUL, that was our challenge and we tackled it in several ways.
Jon’s personality always shines through — even over Zoom — so we asked our partners at the DSPs, indie retail, music supervisors and more to meet him remotely for some early listening sessions and he made a strong case for why this genre-defying album deserved consideration across a wide spectrum of playlists. That helped him make some new friends in those worlds and gave us a jump on getting traction in those spaces.
Our brands team delivered a crucial partnership with Lincoln that began with a rooftop conference in L.A. at the Grammys in 2020 and culminated in a national ad campaign featuring the music from the We Are album. This was the first TV spot that ran during the 2021 Grammys and it ended up being a harbinger for Jon’s historic set of Grammy nominations and wins in 2022.
Furthermore, we invested heavily in content and made a visual album mission statement that allowed Jon to convey what this album means to him. That was a really valuable way to give gatekeepers more context behind the record. We worked with Jon and his team to create dynamic music videos for “I Need You” and then “Freedom.” Seeing the latter win video of the year at the Grammys was really gratifying because everyone worked hard to make it authentic to Jon and his New Orleans roots, but also reflective of where he’s headed as an artist.
Most of the marketing happened during lockdown and the pandemic so we made sure that his TV appearances had a chance to cut through — whether that was helping him bring an 18-piece band for his Austin City Limits taping, investing in great styling, or helping him find talented local musicians in Paris when he went do TV appearances there. But Jon is inherently great on camera and he deserves all the credit for his TV performances resonating with viewers.
We also doubled down on D2C and getting music to his fans directly. This is an album that sounds incredible on vinyl and Jon has been a great partner in terms of signing records, helping to promote directly to his growing audience and reminding people that the album format is still vital. And we made a very concerted extra push leading up to the nomination period. We released new mixes of album tracks as the voting window approached and made sure he was extremely visible with post-release TVs, boosted social media moments and we also benefited greatly from Jon doing some higher-profile gigs like the ACL Festival, Global Citizen and Clive Davis’ NYC Homecoming concert, which helped remind voters about this record.
Jon is most known by the broader public as the bandleader on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. How has that exposure helped his career?
Jon was actually pretty well-known in NYC music circles prior to becoming the bandleader for Colbert, but there’s no question that platform has been huge for him. Having him on national TV every night, even remotely during the pandemic, kept him front-of-mind as we started releasing tracks. The Late Show role can be a challenge when it comes to Jon’s schedule, ability to tour, etc., but Stephen and that team have been so supportive of Jon’s recording career, so we view it as a big net positive.
While critically acclaimed, We Are peaked at No. 86 on the Billboard 200 when it was released, leading to a debate over whether the Grammys should consider commercial impact in addition to musical quality when selecting winners. What is your take on that conversation?
Well, I’m incredibly biased, given where I work, but I don’t believe commercial success should be the main metric for these awards. The whole point of the academy being made up of qualified voters is to recognize artists, producers, engineers and composers for doing quality work. Sales and streams are often a byproduct of superior quality, but not always, and Jon’s sales and streams are absolutely a work in progress. I think it’s so important that the academy’s focus remains on recognizing people for making work of integrity. If we focus too much on numbers, why even have a voting process?
What will a Grammy win for album of the year do for his career?
At the start of this campaign, we made a list of goals for Jon and the record. Some of them were quantitative, like increasing social media followers, monthly listeners at the DSPs, YouTube subscribers, etc. But the big one for me was that I wanted the world to know that Jon is a generational recording artist. It’s reductive to just think of him as the guy from a TV show — he’s making timeless music and he’s setting himself up for a long career because of it. I think this campaign and these Grammy wins have proven that Jon is a vital, relevant artist who has found a way to have success without chasing trends or compromising on who he is.
In addition to the win for album of the year, you guys had 21 nominations at this year’s awards. How does this Grammy year boost what you guys are building at Verve?
We’re incredibly proud of this. Verve — and our other imprints Impulse! and Verve Forecast — are eclectic labels and we’ve been really active with the development of our roster, even during the pandemic. We’ve signed a diverse group of artists over the last few years, from Kurt Vile to Tank and the Bangas to Arooj Aftab to Blake Mills to Madison Cunningham to Brandee Younger, among others. Brandee and Madison were nominated, and Arooj and Jon were both winners last Sunday.
We’re really hands-on with our catalog and working with the [catalog division] UMe team on reissues, lost recordings from Coltrane, Monk and Ella and making sure we’re cultivating new audiences for the icons to whom we owe so much. We take the view that these labels exist on a continuum and we have a responsibility to uphold the standard of what these logos are supposed to mean. With that in mind, we have focused a lot on Impulse! and Shabaka Hutchings from that label has become one of the best-selling new instrumental jazz artists around the world, which is really well deserved. I think the fact that Verve artists won awards across such a nice cross section of genres and categories helps illustrate the versatility of the people who work at Verve.
To end up with that number of nominations and to ultimately be the UMG label with the most Grammy wins was such a nice moment for our team. I think this shows what a label that in many ways has the bespoke approach of an indie combined with all the bells and whistles of the world’s biggest major label can do for the right artists. We’re open for business and keen to partner with musicians who are looking for the best of both worlds.
What is your assessment of the state of jazz in 2022?
I think jazz is in the best place I’ve seen it since I joined Verve. We have incredible new jazz artists emerging who grew up listening to Nina Simone, J Dilla, D’Angelo, Coltrane, Bad Brains, Nirvana, Sinatra, etc. and the music coming from them is so creative and compelling. We’re seeing mainstream festivals like Bonaroo, ACL and Glastonbury putting jazz and jazz-influenced acts on big stages with meaningful slots.
We need the pendulum to swing more towards these kinds of artists in terms of streaming and consumption. I think the DSPs know that there is still room to serve their subscribers more of this music and in different ways and I feel confident that we are moving in the right direction on that. To be clear, Verve is much more than just a jazz label, but having an artist like Jon Batiste, who is absolutely a world-class jazz musician, show how his roots in the genre have given him a foundation to seek a larger audience is really exciting and encouraging. I think it’s good for jazz and for all artists who aren’t straight down the middle. And I’d love to remain gainfully employed, so hopefully I’m right.