It was supposed to be a banner week in fall 2009 for then-Island Def Jam (IDJ) marketing executive Jim Roppo: Bon Jovi had just scored its fourth No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with The Circle, and the debut EP from a promising young upstart, Justin Bieber, had just been released. Instead, on the night of Nov. 20, with his wife home pregnant, Roppo found himself in a Nassau County, New York, jail for failing to send a tweet from Bieber's account asking fans to disperse after a planned meet-and-greet at a Long Island mall turned into a near-riot.
"I was perp-walked on camera," says Roppo with a laugh from his office on the eighth floor of Republic's Manhattan headquarters. "In that moment I became a bit of a legend in the music business, especially from the sales goonies that I came from who were like, 'Holy shit, Roppo went to jail!' The charges were dropped and Justin obviously went on to be a superstar. But it just goes to show how far I'll go to help break an artist."
Roppo, 52, has plenty of experience in that realm. The 20-year Universal Music Group veteran, who held down a three-hour weekly reggae radio show on KSPC while attending Claremont McKenna College in California, started out as an account manager at PolyGram in 1997 before spending 13 years rising through the sales-team ranks at IDJ, helping break artists like Kanye West, Rihanna and Bieber. In 2012, he moved to Republic as executive vp of marketing, restructuring the label's approach to commerce in an increasingly streaming-oriented world and expanding his oversight to include video, digital marketing and artist relations, while nurturing the careers of acts such as James Bay, Hailee Steinfeld and James Blake.
A collage made by UMG's Theda Sandiford. "Bob Marley is one of my inspirations in life, not just in music," says Roppo. "To have a visual reminder of him is important to me, to center me about why I do this." (Photo: Kyle Dorosz)
His success during the past year speaks for itself: Republic was the year's No. 1 label on the Billboard Hot 100, with The Weeknd ("Starboy"), Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee ("Despacito"), Taylor Swift ("Look What You Made Me Do") and Post Malone ("rockstar") holding down the No. 1 spot for a combined 28 weeks in 2017. And Republic landed nominations in all four major categories for this year's Grammy Awards, including Lorde's Melodrama for album of the year and Julia Michaels for best new artist. Now, as he begins his seventh year at Republic, Roppo will tack on the role of GM, with releases from superstars like Drake and Ariana Grande slated for 2018.
"At the beginning of every year, we set a goal to have at least one best new artist nominee; we've had nine in the past 10 years," he says. And then? "Global domination. It always starts with that."
How did you get in the music business?
My first job out of college was working at Aron's Records in Hollywood as the reggae and world music buyer there. I worked my way up from retail to chain, to one-stop, to independent distribution, then major distribution. My first major-label role was with PolyGram in 1997; 18 months later, Universal bought PolyGram, and I was part of the team that formed what became the Island Def Jam Music Group. I went from regional account director, where my territory represented about half of all music sales at the time, to senior vp of sales.
A little more than six years ago, I met Monte and Avery [Lipman]. Universal centralized the sales services for the East Coast label groups, so I worked in the center briefly, and it was my first opportunity to work with Monte and Avery and Republic, because I handled sales for Republic and Island and Def Jam. So we got to work together, and Monte tells this story — we were in an A&R new signing meeting, a pitch meeting, and I was sitting in the back just being quiet and listening, which I tend to do in a meeting where I don't know what my role should be; in an A&R signing they want you to be there in case any questions came up, but you're window dressing; don't speak unless spoken to. And I hadn't been in many of those meetings for Republic at that time. So I was taking the temperature. But then at some point I spoke, and I guess he was very impressed with what I had to say and decided he wanted me to be on his team. Not very long after that, he offered me the role of EVP of marketing at that time and I gladly accepted. It was a transformative moment in my career to go from sales to marketing, and I would oversee our commerce effort, which was still centrally managed, but as the person liaising with that.
A prop from The Weeknd's "Starboy" video. "I actually had dreads for about 10 years,” says Roppo, "so I think we had a connection there." (Photo: Kyle Dorosz)
What are some highlights from IDJ?
I was with Kanye West on the day The College Dropout was released [in 2004] at the House of Blues in Chicago when he performed the record with John Legend on piano. I was at the grassroots start of JAY-Z, DMX, Ja Rule, Ashanti, Ludacris, Young Jeezy, Rick Ross. I was at Rihanna's first showcase when it was just "Pon De Replay" and no one knew if she was a one-hit wonder — and look at her now, I don't even know how many hits she's had. The Killers, Fall Out Boy, same thing; not just hip-hop, but rock, too.
Was your reggae background significant to you when you started working with Island?
It's funny you say that, because after I had been at Island many, many years actually, my college roommate and I reconnected, and he said to me, "Jim, you did it, man! You actually did it! I look up to you, man, because you were the only guy I know who knew what he wanted to do and went and did it! You work for Island Records, now, man!" And I was like, "Wow, I never even thought about it like that." You know, I met Chris Blackwell one time at one of our holiday parties, the only time I ever met him, and I think in that moment I felt that way: "Holy shit, I'm meeting Chris Blackwell, the guy who discovered Bob Marley and U2, some of the biggest acts for decades, one of the most successful independent labels, that became a major label." It was like meeting one of your icons in life. But it never really occurred to me. I think somehow, subconsciously, I willed it to manifest itself, and it did. But Island was a tremendous home for me. You know, our commerce team works Island as well as Republic, so I still have a strong connection with their team and David Massey and Eric Wong — Eric and I worked together at Island for many years, as well as David when I was there, so I have a strong connection with them as well.
At Republic, you shifted from sales to marketing at a time when streaming was really getting started.
About three-and-a-half years ago, we moved from "sales" to "commerce," because we live in a consumption world. Commerce on today's platforms is more about marketing than ever. Playlisting, fan engagement, marketing: We took down all those silos. It's not a separate department, it's part of the same department. And that creates an efficiency and effectiveness; when you bundle those services together, that is very modern.
Ninja figurines dot Roppo’s office, a reference to his nickname: Zen Ninja. (Photo: Kyle Dorosz)
Can you point to a particular campaign that reflects that?
I think, in more recent times, certainly The Weeknd's Starboy campaign, as well as Beauty Behind the Madness — both of those stand out as highlights from a creative standpoint and innovation. One of the most rewarding ones for me was my first career first-week, million-plus seller, which was Drake's Views album. When you've been doing this for 20 years, selling a million records in one week is a pretty big highlight — especially when you think about it in the consumption era. Consumption is not transactional, so it's not oriented toward a first-week result; it's actually spread across a long period of time. It was much easier to have No. 1 album debuts when people were buying things as opposed to streaming things.
How does that shift change how you set up a campaign?
It's changed everything: how we release music, how we pulse it out, how we message it. We're evolving towards an always-on approach now, as opposed to these long cycles with big peaks and then flat lines. No different than social media, artists' music engagement with their fans is transitioning to always being on. I don't think the album is going away; people still like collections and bodies of work. But in terms of how music is promoted and fans engage with it, pulsing out individual songs is more effective than putting out big bodies of work and having them age quickly, and then you need something new to re-stimulate and engage fans. And that's changing our marketing message, our visual content.
Visual content is more important than ever. If you look at Spotify now aggressively integrating video into their playlists across multiple playlists, I think that's a predictor of how much more visual content we'll see in the coming years. And the growth of video streaming is also an important component of that. It may be less discernible what is audio and video streaming in the future. So visual content, in repetition and in multiple iterations, is going to be paramount in telling the narrative of an artist and their story. I don't think the album is going away; people still like collections and themes, concepts even, and bodies of work from their favorite artists. But I think how you develop and establish artists is going to be less about that and more about repetition of great music in multiple stages.
A plaque marking 20 years at UMG. (Photo: Kyle Dorosz)
What do you mean by "pulses"?
I think both Hailee Steinfeld and Julia Michaels are both great examples. It starts with one song, but then we'll have an acoustic version, maybe a live version, we'll have a video, then an acoustic video, then a vertical video; there'll be multiple iterations. We're building this picture, filling in the colors as we go, and pretty soon you see a whole narrative that's exposed. And then the market may be more ready for a larger body of work at one time.
The challenge is, with singles, singles and albums right now are sort of at odds with each other. Because if you put future singles on your album, six months in if you want to get to the third single, it's nearly impossible to re-stimulate streaming engagement from the fan base on a song that they've been listening to for six months that now you've deemed as a "single." It doesn't work. You're better off to release a new single six months in, add it to the playlist or album, if you will, as something new, because the engine then is revving up as opposed to winding down. That's a very different approach to how the music business has worked for decades.
Where have you been most effective this past year?
The Post Malone campaign has been two or three years in the making. "Congratulations" was the first watershed moment. Last January, we all identified that as a smash, and went to our partners at Apple and Spotify, radio, media, across the board. And we saw great results from it; the song really became an anthem for the year. And then we released new music in September with "rockstar," and I don't think any of us could have predicted the immediate result. It shot to No. 1 worldwide and stayed there for something like 85 straight days. That's been a tremendous story.
Mezamashi, the mascot of a Japanese TV show and “a reminder we’re a global company.” (Photo: Kyle Dorosz)
When "rockstar" came out, Republic posted a YouTube video of just the chorus on loop, rather than the full song, which led to YouTube banning looped snippets. What did you think about that backlash?
I don't want to overstate the impact of that. I would say we really focused in on the ability of streaming to break an artist. Post is in that sweet spot. So we optimized our approach to streaming as the lead, and then radio became another component of that story. But the YouTube strategy was borne out of not having a music video to start with, and we tried to optimize our impact and drive consumption as best we could. Ultimately, the song was a smash and makes us all look smart. He's just at a catalyst, kind of crossroads moment where he's captured the imagination of millions of people around the world.
Post is a complex guy. He is not defined by one genre of music. He's a modern artist who embodies many different sounds and styles. And the fans get that, but our need as human beings and the industry to compartmentalize people into categories and buckets isn't going to fit for him. As well as many other artists today, actually, that are not one thing.
What are some of the challenges and opportunities you see in the marketing sector?
One of the challenges is certainly going to be in media buying. I know that's not that sexy, but how we buy media more effectively, more efficiently. When we moved from transaction to streaming, the ROI of media buying changes dramatically, and we have to change our tactics and our goals. So it's not so much about driving consumption of an individual song, but how do we drive followers and how do we drive people's engagement on playlists and move them to collection instead of just listen. Listen is the first step, but in the economy of time, we want you to keep listening. So dropping someone into one song, after three and a half minutes, then where do they go? We want to drop them into a playlist and encourage them to save to their collection and become more active. That's one of the challenges.
As far as opportunities, I think they're really limitless. The nice thing about 2018 in my mind is that the music business is again growing and will continue to grow, at least for the foreseeable future, based on the development of streaming and the conversion to streaming. And for the first time in probably 15 years of my career I can say that, this year as well as next year. After the cold winter that we've been through as an industry of successive down cycles year after year after year, having some blue sky and optimism about the business is a refreshing change. It just opens up the world of the possible to your mind. It's not about just conserving resources and hunkering down and living through this revolution that we're in, it's actually about, what can we do differently, that's bigger and better?
One will be to re-imagine the music video as a concept and on multiple levels. Look at "Despacito," which has 4 billion views on YouTube, the most consumption ever of one song; you can't just look at that as a marketing tool or expense, it's actually a de facto stream and a product. And the other side of it is, what if you just took the budget for your "official" music video and you made 10 pieces of content and you release those over time to build and sustain a campaign? It goes back to the pulsing — if you put out a new music every two or three weeks, you have a reason for the fans to come back again, to see what the next new thing is. People may still want to make epic music videos; I don't think that will change. But if you could make 10 15-second pieces, that may be a more engaging strategy than making one three and a half minute version over the life cycle of a song.
I'm looking forward to growth in two specific areas during 2018 and beyond. Latin music truly exploded, fueled not just by "Despacito," but all of the incredible music Luis Fonsi has been releasing throughout 2017. I don't even think we've scratched the surface though. I have a feeling the genre will continue to not only expand, but also evolve as a cornerstone of the mainstream marketplace. We've seen a rock renaissance ignited via Greta Van Fleet and Lava Records. The genre has been dormant for quite some time, and it's ripe for a resurgence. Greta is the perfect band for the job.
"Monte is the best executive I've ever worked for, and Avery is one of the most analytical minds I've ever met," says Roppo, photographed Dec. 13, 2017, at Republic Records in New York, of the Lipman brothers. "And Charlie [Walk]’s passion, creativity and fearlessness are inspiring, like anything’s possible." (Photo: Kyle Dorosz)
You have Lorde and Julia Michaels up for some major awards at the Grammys this year.
I've worked on the Lorde campaign really since she was introduced in America, developing her career from "Royals" to crafting the strategy around the release of Melodrama in every aspect. I'm very gratified to see her recognized, not only with the Grammy nomination, but numerous album of the year and top 10s from journalists. She's a very thoughtful writer and artist and I'm very proud to be her partner here in the States.
And Julia has been one of the really most impressive artist development stories that I've seen in my career in such a short time span. Many songwriters don't have the tools to be a superstar. That's why I think Julia is so rare, because she has an amazing voice, she has the ability to write songs out of her diary in the way a Taylor Swift might do. But it's sort of like Michael Jordan: was he gifted and talented, or did he put in the work? He did both. And not to compare her to Michael Jordan, but I think Julia is an example of that. You might be born with certain talents, but then work has to meet that. You have to put in that 10,000 hours in order to hone that craft. And she has just been willing to do the work.
What are some of your goals for 2018?
We always start the year with the ambition of being the No. 1 label in the music business, whether that's No. 1 Hot 100, No. 1 market share, No. 1 albums — all of those are goals, you can check those boxes off one by one. Best new artist Grammy nominations, but also breaking new artists. Breaking new artists is our No. 1 goal every year, and my personal goal, so there's a tremendous focus on that. We're going to have releases from all the superstars on the roster, hopefully: Ariana, Drake, The Weeknd, the final installment of 50 Shades, James Bay, probably Hailee and Julia, Of Monsters and Men, Florence and the Machine; there's gonna be a bounty of great new music. Post Malone, of course. So how do we thread the needle on each one of those and optimize and maximize their potential and take the ones that have been emerging and developing and breaking them wider and globally is always a big goal.
From a personal development standpoint, I look forward in my new role to getting more involved in different aspects of the business, in terms of participating more in the deal-making aspects on an executive level beyond my marketing and commerce role. And just continuing to grow and develop my own skills and helping keep Republic on top.
This is an ensemble production. Republic, truly, we gang tackle. We are not a lone wolf, individual superstar-oriented company, in terms of the staff. We see opportunities, we pass the ball, we gang tackle, we operate like a pack of hyenas to take down opportunities and be the best. So while I may be shy about my personal contributions, it's really because it's an ensemble team effort to accomplish these things. Monte sets the tone, as the tremendous coach and leader of our team, and I think he leads by example and we all endeavor to embody that example. We have a tremendous team and none of our accomplishments and success would be possible without all of the great staff we have at Republic. It's one of our greatest assets — in addition to our artists — is our staff. People truly care, they want to be here, they're the best in class, and they all want to win and achieve great things.