It has been an open secret since September 2018: Jon Platt will be the next chairman/CEO of Sony/ATV.
The move — which follows Platt’s surprise exit as chief of publishing rival Warner/Chappell last fall — marks a hard-earned pinnacle for the quiet giant, who spun his way into the music industry in Denver as DJ Big Jon. It also brightens a beacon of hope for people of color and others who’ve felt marginalized within the music industry.
“You can’t script what happened,” says Platt, 54, of his climactic 2018. “All the planets lined up. I’ve been blessed in my career, but I have to say that in the last year I’ve never been told by so many people — women, people of color, LGBTQ people — how proud they were of what I accomplished, and also what it could mean for them.”
“It’s amazing to see an African-American man in this kind of position of power,” says Pharrell Williams, a longtime business associate and close friend of Platt’s. “Not only for other African-Americans, but other minorities in our country and around the world.”
Platt will take his new post at the industry’s top music publishing company in April, after longtime Sony/ATV chairman/CEO Martin Bandier’s contract ends. Bandier was Platt’s boss and mentor when the two worked at EMI Music Publishing (which Sony Corp. acquired in November). Platt, who spent 17 years at EMI, started in A&R and worked his way up to president; along the way he signed, among others, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Diddy, Beyoncé, Drake, Usher and Ludacris.
Several months after leaving EMI in 2012, Platt became president of creative at Warner/Chappell, then president of North America in 2013. Two years later, he was promoted to CEO, and in 2016, he added chairman to his title. Under his watch, Warner/Chappell signed songwriters Aloe Blacc, Julia Michaels, Mike WiLL Made-It, Slash and Lady Antebellum, plus added the Roc Nation publishing catalog and Williams’ pre-2010 repertoire. In 2017’s third quarter, Warner/Chappell briefly broke Sony/ATV’s five-year reign as the No. 1 publisher on Billboard’s Publishers Quarterly chart.
Maya Angelou once said, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going,” and Platt is quick to reel off the names of black music-industry pioneers who have fueled his career aspirations: Clarence Avant, the “godfather of black music” who will receive the Grammy Salute to Industry Icons award on Feb. 9; Motown’s former president/CEO Jheryl Busby and A&R guru William “Mickey” Stevenson; and former CBS/Sony executive vp Larkin Arnold.
“Larkin, for one, really paved the way for a lot of people,” says Platt. “As a lawyer, he knew the art of making a deal while letting others know what’s possible. He’s a true pioneer. There are others as talented as me, if not more talented, that never got this opportunity. So I do this for them, as well.”
But he also does it for the music: “I’m absolutely, 100 percent a fan.” His eyes light up as he talks about Travis Scott’s recent show at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif. (“He killed it”) and Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the Run II tour. “Beyond watching the performance when I go to concerts, I reflect on the journey it took to get to that moment on that stage. I did that a lot on the Run II tour. Just to hear that catalog of songs they’ve built… That’s still crazy to me. I also watch the fans and realize how lucky we are to do what we do, to touch somebody like that.”
Though he’s reluctant to talk much about himself — “I don’t broadcast a lot about me” — Platt took center stage in October when cancer treatment center City of Hope presented him with its prestigious Spirit of Life Award. Now, speaking in the living room of the Los Angeles-area home he shares with wife Angie, son Jonathan and twins Clarence and Shawn (named after Avant and Jay-Z), he revisits that momentous evening and also talks about his impending move, how he feeds his A&R cravings from the C-suite and where the music business stands with its efforts at inclusion.
What was your first thought when Jay-Z saluted you as “the Obama of the music industry”?
Oh, man. Our relationship is so close that a lot can go unsaid. But then when you hear it said the way he articulated it in that room? It got the best of me.
What do you have in common with President Obama?
Let me tell you something… [Laughs.] I am not comparing myself to the man, other than we’re both the first to achieve something. But I think if you ask anyone who’s the first in anything — the first female, the first person of color, the first whatever — that’s OK and we’re aware of that, but we also don’t want to be the only.
That night, Jay-Z also said, “I’ve been with [Jon] since 1997; my contract is tied to his. If he leaves, I leave, period.” What can you say about that?
I don’t think it would be right to comment on that, other than to say we have a really close relationship and I’ve been his only publisher his entire career.
What do you think was the biggest industry story of 2018?
The Music Modernization Act, absolutely, because it helps everyone. Going through the process of it was probably the most rewarding thing, because you saw the entire industry come together for good, whether [they were] publishers, songwriters, record companies, digital services, broadcast. When you talk about all those sectors, it sounds pretty impossible to get something done. Yet everybody came together to compromise in the interest of what’s best. And what’s best won.
From where I sit, this wouldn’t have happened without the [National Music Publishers’ Association], which led the charge on behalf of songwriters and publishers. David Israelite and his team were top-notch all the way through.
What change would you like to see happen this year?
We need to continue to strive toward an industry of inclusion. Music is very diverse and has been since the beginning of time. However, when you look inside our industry, it’s not. And inclusion doesn’t mean just more of one thing. Inclusion means inclusion for everyone. I want the industry to look like the music it represents.
Another big thing in 2018 was the continuing success and dominance of black music. Some people see it as a flash in the pan. But it’s real. People said this wave of country music was a bubble. It’s not. It’s important that we all realize there’s a lot of work to do because diversity in our industry is key. It was just last year when this publication wrote an article on hip-hop [and the competition to sign new acts] and didn’t have one black executive [quoted] in the article. It’s important that people are informed. When you have articles like that taking ownership of a culture away from others, it’s not only misinformed and disrespectful, it’s hurtful. [At the time the article was published, Platt called Billboard’s then-CEO to discuss his concerns.]
[Finally,] a lot of great songs have come through [in the last year], but we need to make a commitment to developing artists, as well.
What’s missing on that front?
Things are going so fast now. You get a hit and then the next [artist’s song] is already at your doorstep. And that one’s off to the races. I don’t see enough return business — meaning, when someone has a hit, will they have another hit?
How would you grade the industry’s current efforts at inclusion?
It’s too early to grade it. Commitment and discipline are key. And I want to be clear here: Whoever is most qualified for any job should get the job. [But] we have to widen the pool of candidates. That’s what needs to be diverse. It’s only me and Jody [Gerson, Universal Music Publishing Group chairman/CEO]: one person of color and one female that are global [music] CEOs. “Only” is not cool.
Do you feel an added burden of responsibility versus your white peers, in terms of paying your success forward and being a role model?
It is a responsibility, but certainly not a burden, to bring talented, diverse people along. Which is what I’ve done and I’m quite proud of. It’s not just a Ryan Press [Warner/Chappell co-head of A&R], it’s a Katie Vinten [former co-head with Press]. It’s not just a Carianne Marshall [Warner/Chappell co-chairman/COO], it’s an Eric Mackay [Warner/Chappell executive vp global digital strategy]. Our industry is growing. It’s a new business that at times needs new people and new voices.
How would you describe your management and mentoring style?
I came from the bottom, so I know what that is. I’ve been able to see some of the mistakes that I’ve made. But those mistakes aren’t the end of the world. So I manage and mentor that way: “It’s OK. Let’s talk about it and figure it out.” Sometimes you need to make that mistake to get to the next step. It’s almost a common-sense approach, giving people the gift that was given to me: an opportunity to fail. I’m not afraid of failure, and I’m not afraid of anyone failing.
Who mentored you on your move from A&R rep to corporate executive?
Clarence Avant is one, but he has surpassed mentor and become more of a father figure. I once asked an executive that I looked up to, “How do I become a CEO?” That person looked at me and told me I should listen to different types of music. I have never been more offended. I actually went outside our industry to find the tools. That’s what put me on that path.
At the same time, I decided to work on myself. I dropped the “Big” from my name about 10 years ago. I’d been called Big Jon since high school and when I DJ’d. I stepped outside of myself because I knew my goal was to run a company and be a CEO. And I didn’t know if that would happen at the company I was at then. I never knew a CEO with a nickname. I never asked anyone to stop calling me Big Jon. I just started referring to myself as Jon Platt. Even Jay in his speech said, “This person formerly known as Big Jon.” [Laughs.]
I also [paid for] an executive coach out of my own pocket. Most of the leaders of the Fortune 500 companies have them. That’s when someone pulled the curtain back and showed me that I wasn’t focusing on the right things if I wanted to achieve what I wanted to achieve. I still work with the coach, but not nearly like I did then. There are times I’ve called and asked, “Hey, what do you think?”
How long have you had the coach?
Since around 2004, 2005. I was still at EMI in A&R. I hadn’t been the head of anything at that point. That’s how long this process has been. It’s not cheap, either. But I made that investment — not just in money, but in time. When I speak about being the first and not the only, I have to share some things I did to get here, without giving it all away. People need to know: No one’s going to give you anything. You’ve got to work for it.
How do you navigate balancing business and creative?
Music is who and what I am, so that’s almost the easy part for me. Do I do A&R on a day-to-day basis? No, I have a whole company to run. Ten to 20 years ago I was A&R-ing songwriters and artists. Now I A&R people and executives, helping them be the best they can be. So now, when an executive has success, that’s the new hit record for me.
What have you learned from the songwriters and artists you’ve worked with?
I’ve been lucky to work with artists and songwriters that work hard. Look at someone like Pharrell, who has never stopped working, through the good days and the not-so-good days. That’s why when it came back around for him, it wasn’t like he was getting back on the bike — he was still on the bike. I love people like that; I get inspired. I’ve worked with artists and songwriters in different genres, male, female, black, white, whatever. The cream of the crop all do the same thing: outwork everybody else. Look at [songwriter] Justin Tranter. In achieving his success, he never lets you forget where he comes from and he never lets you forget about his community. So who am I not to do the same?
How have you evolved as a leader in the last 10 years?
Jon Platt the person always wants to help people. Jon Platt the leader learned the ability to put others before himself. That’s what true leadership is. But I’m in the early stages of it. I love the fact that I’ve had a hand in developing the next generation of executives, and I will continue to do that. A&R can be a selfish, individual sport at times. I’ve matured enough to know that you can include others, to play as a team. When you’re doing A&R, there’s a moment when you think it’s you. And it’s never you. It’s always the talent. And we’re on the team to help them achieve that success.
When I came into this industry and saw how it was, I didn’t want the industry to change me as a person. I wanted to change the industry. One of the things that connects me with a lot of the songwriters I represent is that I am who I am and they are who they are. And we respect each other. I don’t drink. It’s very rare that I’ll even have a celebratory drink. I don’t get high. And I’m not the outcast. People respect it. I’m very comfortable in my own skin. That’s the best way to explain it.
Platt has worked with many of music’s most important creators. Five offer their accolades.
“It has been a dream come true working with Jon. Some of my best work has been done with him. He cares about music and quality. He cares about the culture. He is one of one. I am so grateful for our work together.”
“With Jon, both current artists and the forefathers of soul, hip-hop and R&B have representation in the C-suite by someone that looks like them. He’s a trailblazer, not just in title but how he got there: by respecting creatives, respecting the craft and being an amazing human being. Jon Platt is the President Obama of the music business.”
“Big Jon has been there with me from the very beginning. There isn’t a time I needed something and he didn’t have my back. His unparalleled work ethic and loyalty have always stood out most. I’m so proud and excited to watch his career soar.”
“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Jon many times prior to him joining Sony, and he always seemed to make magic happen. I’m so excited for what’s to come with working with him and looking forward to the future! Well done, Jon, welcome to the family.”
“I always said he’d be an amazing gardener, because he knows which seeds to bet on, but he gives them all love. That’s why I call him a botanist. He waters us — so many countless people — with advice and vision that you may not have but that can get you to another level.”