Jody Gerson: ‘I have to tell my story authentically’

“I can’t believe you haven’t heard about celery juice yet…”

Jody Gerson is tipping us on the next big thing.

Bearing in mind she’s been ahead of the curve on everyone from Billie Eilish to SZA, Post Malone and Alicia Keys during her career, we’re listening. (The radiance of our skin, we’re promised, will thank us for doing so.)

Philadelphia-born Gerson, a mother of two teenagers and one older son, thinks a lot about making the most of every hour. She wakes at 5.30 am each morning “just to have some time to myself” – an indicative trait of someone who says she was never in the top 10 smartest girls at her school, but who keenly studied her way to over-achievement.

Whatever Gerson’s secret is (and we’ll wager there’s a lot more to it than celery juice) it’s working. Since she took over as Chairman and CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group in January 2015, the company’s annual revenues have grown by some 40%, surpassing a major milestone last year by topping $1 billion for the first time.

Gerson’s professional highlights over the past four years have included signing of some of the biggest new talent such as Eilish, Halsey, Post Malone, SZA, Rosalía and Quavo, plus Tobias Jesso Jr, Shawn Mendes and Ariana Grande – in addition to deals for established acts like Prince, Elton John, Barry Gibb, Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Carly Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Jack White.

Despite her history in A&R, Gerson is at pains to note that UMPG shouldn’t only be judged by its active roster: she is particularly proud of the company’s technology advancements, for one thing. “When I first took the job, there was a distrust between songwriters and publishers here, so we made sure our system was completely transparent,” she says.

UMPG has also doubled down on film and TV music under Gerson’s leadership, via deals with the likes of Lionsgate, Paramount, Disney Europe (and numerous other territories), Universal Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, MGM, HBO, Amazon and more – steady income sources which Gerson says provide “cover” for A&R risk-taking at the company.

Ultimately, though, Gerson says the biggest strides at UMPG under her leadership have been made by “betting on talent and betting on songs” and “running this company with integrity – people out there believe us.”

Having graduated from Northwestern University, Gerson began her career at Chappell Music in New York in an entry-level position. After rising to A&R and song plugger, she then bagged a job at EMI Music Publishing where she stayed for 17 years, serving as head of the company’s east coast publishing division and then revitalizing and leading its west coast division.

At EMI, she signed Dallas Austin, Jermaine Dupri, Alicia Keys, Norah Jones and Enrique Iglesias, among others. Gerson then moved to Sony/ ATV for the next seven years of her career, where she rose to coPresident and signed Lady Gaga, Mac Miller, Pitbull and more.

This all meant that, for close to quarter of a century, Gerson worked under Martin Bandier, before she left in 2015 to join Sir Lucian Grainge at Universal Music Group – where Gerson also sits on the executive board.

MBUSA recently sat down in Gerson’s Santa Monica office to dig into her life, her motivations, and her determination to make a material difference in the lives of songwriters…

You’re the first female boss of a multinational music company in history. What do you think about that fact?

I’m proud to be the first, but it’s part of my mission not to be the only one. I vacillate between [liking] being thought of as a ‘female Chairman’ and just a ‘Chairman’, but at the end of the day, I’m both. I feel a great responsibility to do right by other women.

That’s why, last year after the Grammys and with the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative [which showed how poorly women are represented in music], we created She Is The Music, a nonprofit to increase the number of women working in [the industry].

I feel like I have to give back to the business, and I feel that I also have to tell my story authentically. Everything that I went through to get me here is an experience that other women could have, or that they could learn from. It’s important to me to help push women into senior positions. It’s very natural for women to say to themselves, ‘Wait, how am I gonna do this? I have three kids at home and I’m divorced. I’m this and that – how am I gonna manage it?’

You kind of have to go, ‘Yes, you can do this.’ After five years in this job, I feel very comfortable and very competent.

You haven’t always felt that level of comfort as a Chairman?

When I took this job, I had to step into my power; I had to kind of fake it until I really felt it. Five years later, I am in my power – because the proof [of UMPG’s success] is there to see. I’m very proud of what I do. I took my mom with me to see Elton John recently. And she said to me, ‘It’s so nice that you’re treated kindly – people hug you!’ She was a stay-at-home mom who, for my entire life, had this idea that I was something special. Now she gets to see me in action. I love that so much.

Your mom always thought you were something special: was that an uplifting gift or pressurizing?

It wasn’t pressurizing in the way my kids are pressured today, that’s for sure. I grew up with my parents in the suburbs of Philadelphia. My mother got married when she was 19 and had me when she was 20. My dad was 25. My mom went to one semester at Temple University and worked in a department store for, like, two days, but then married my dad and he supported her from there. Generationally, that’s kind of the way it was. I was precocious in that I was very tuned-in to my surroundings from when I was really young.

We led a funny life, because much of it was very suburban: we lived on a cul-de-sac, were close to our neighbors, and yet my dad and my grandfather owned a nightclub [The Latin Casino] over the bridge in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. And every Sunday night, my brother and I would go to a matinée show, and see everyone from Frank Sinatra to Richard Pryor to The Supremes to The Temptations to every comedian you could ever imagine. I always thought that it was my dad that really gave me my confidence – but now I’m realizing more that it was my mother.

My dad gave me this sense that life is held in the balance. He was this larger-than-life, fun character, and my mom was fully dependent upon him. From a young age, I felt that I needed to be in control – that somebody had to be the grownup in the household, and that was me.

What were you like when you were younger?

I was very ambitious. The idea of having a successful career was important to me. That wasn’t a rebellion against my mom staying at home – it came from this appreciation that someone had to take care of things. My mother saw something in me; she took me out of public school and put me in an all-girls private school. It was a great, great education.

I was the first person in my family who went to college. I was an overachiever but I knew my standing: I could still name you 10 girls at school who were way smarter than me. I wasn’t in the 10 that didn’t have to study to succeed.

Did you get in trouble?

So as long as I beat my father home at night, I wouldn’t get into trouble. The advice that my father gave me was: ‘I care about smart or dumb; I don’t care about legal or illegal. If you’re dumb enough to get caught, shame on you.’ I wasn’t a goody two-shoes; I just never got caught.

How much uncertainty was there in your father’s business?

It was a purely cash business, so I always knew there was danger. I remember when his accountant came for my dad to pay taxes; he would literally have to chase my father down. It’s funny because in some ways, maybe that’s why I work for a company and never started my own business. My dad was always juggling. I don’t want to juggle; I like stability. What I didn’t predict was that it would all go away, which it ultimately did.

When they legalized gambling in Atlantic City, they had to close the nightclub. My dad made it a disco for a couple years, but really, [my parents] lost all their money. Maybe I was always waiting for that other shoe to drop.

Going to the nightclub, seeing those artists, geniuses like Richard Pryor, did that have an impact on you?

Mm-hmm. I saw some of the greatest entertainers of the time. But what was actually more profound for me was being backstage, observing what makes artists tick, how you [encourage] them to go on stage when right before the show they’re having a panic attack or freaking out. It all made me acutely aware of anxiety and acutely aware of fame, and what fame does to a person. I knew very early on I wasn’t going to be a performer, but I was always fascinated by talent.

And the unstable nature of talent…

I really understand that well. There was this unspoken darkness lurking backstage, something I never really understood as a child. I was this young girl who had free rein around a nightclub – I mean, total free rein. I can still visualize the whole backstage area, running around with my brother, but we always knew that if you knocked on the wrong door, there could be danger waiting behind it. It prepared me well, in a way, for being a woman in this business.

Have you seen motivations in other highly successful people in the music business that concern you?

That is very creative wording! I will say that ego is a dangerous thing. When someone starts to buy into the idea of ‘power’ it can be quite dangerous, and that’s why I think I protected myself early on in this job. My definition of power was always the ability to empower others and run a company where I am not sitting in my ivory tower

Let’s talk about the modern industry. What are the biggest challenges currently facing songwriters and publishers?

Fair pay. On digital platforms, songwriters and publishers must find the right balance between wanting to be on the front of the platforms’ billboards, on one hand, and making sure that songwriters and publishers are also getting the pay they are due. A really big challenge today is educating songwriters so that they don’t just settle for the billboard as opposed to the pay.

It’s dangerous to simply allow certain companies, who are building their platforms off songs and music, to lessen music’s value. Another really big challenge today is how to ensure that what you might call the ‘middle class’ of songwriters make a good living. That’s really important to me. I take on that responsibility daily – including not only new music, but also by making sure that legacy songs and legacy talent keep being introduced to new audiences.

What are your thoughts on the recent appeal against the new CRB rates from the likes of Spotify, Amazon and others?

It is critical that innovation be completely interlocked with fair compensation for songwriters. It’s a symbiotic relationship; it should work for everyone. We want the streaming platforms to be successful. They should want songwriters to be successful, too. Together, we all benefit.

The DSPs have gained tremendous value from music. These are businesses that are built on songs and would not exist without them. Without question, they owe their success to songwriters. Do I wish these platforms accepted the new, better rates for songwriters? Of course. Would that have been the right thing to do? Absolutely. By appealing the ruling, they fail to acknowledge that songwriters need to be paid fairly. I applaud how both publishers and songwriters are rallying behind such a critical cause. This is something that we do every day at UMPG: fight for songwriters’ rights. It’s one of our central missions and we stand with songwriters who are taking action and speaking out.

Once that issue is put to bed, are you optimistic the writer rates will continue to climb as the decades roll on?

I am. There’s still so much to do, but songwriters were galvanized into action last year on the [Music Modernization Act] – that process really pulled the whole music community together. One of the things I saw before I got here is that we were airing our dirty laundry out for everybody to see, and the tech companies were so well lawyered-up that they saw it and took advantage of the little cracks.

What little cracks?

Across the business, publishing companies need to work together with the labels. I’ve been very conscious since becoming Chairman here that we increase the pie for everyone, as opposed to taking from others’ slices. Good for the labels that they get to negotiate [their streaming rates] in a free market. We don’t, so I just hope that the pie just continues to increase.

The oft-spun story by independent publishers is that someone like Sir Lucian Grainge, or his business affairs team, will go into negotiating with Spotify as one entity – UMG’s publishing and records together – and that publishing will always come off worse in that scenario, because there’s less money in it.

Lucian just wouldn’t do that. He always says to me, ‘I’ve been in your shoes’ – he started off as a publisher, remember? He would never, ever ask me to compromise our value or do anything that would be detrimental to our songwriters or our catalog. We wouldn’t be where we are in terms of our revenue and our profitability if at any time, he had asked me to compromise.

What’s he like as a boss?

Lucian has been an incredible boss to me. He believed that I could be Chairman of this company before I believed I could be Chairman of this company. I guess that’s a silly thing to say because – and you can quote this – a guy would never say it. But it’s true.

Lucian took a shot with me and gave me complete autonomy, but he also offered cover. On every deal that I’ve wanted to make, Lucian and Vivendi have supported me. He is really open to my ideas; I’m on the board of the record company [at Universal Music Group]. I really enjoy him as a boss and I like him as a person. His mind works so fast, and he doesn’t waste words.

One of your biggest rivals today is the man who just took over at Sony/ATV, Jon Platt – who you hired in his first job way back at EMI Music Publishing. Do you ever kick yourself for taking that meeting?

No! I’m so happy for Jon. I was Head of West Coast for EMI Music Publishing and there was a guy named Steve Prudholme, who was a creative executive. Steve went to a conference where he met Jon, who was the manager of a production group called Madukey – and we signed them. Jon used to drive up from Denver in this maroon car, and park himself in our conference room.

Steve-o got a job at Epic Records, so there was a job opening, and Jon wanted the job. I’m like, ‘Jon, you have zero experience. So I’m going to interview everyone who’s appropriate for the job and after I’ve interviewed everyone, we can have an interview.’ He waited it out and then I had a meeting with him, and he said, ‘You’ve just got to give me a shot. I don’t care what you pay me because you’re gonna want to pay me more in six months.’

He was relentless, and I gave him the job. I am incredibly proud of his journey. We’re competitors, but I really like him, and I admire him. We both figured this business out in different ways. I’m happy for him and I’m especially happy that he gets to go back to EMI [via] Sony/ATV and represent that catalog.

You made the decision to leave Sony/ATV in 2014, after so long with the same boss in Martin Bandier. When you look back now, what are your immediate memories of your exit?

Just how nervous I was to hurt Marty’s feelings. I had worked for him for over 20 years. It was a big breakup; that’s how I remember it. When you work for someone for that long, there’s a relationship there to deal with. But when I decided that I had to leave, it was empowering.

I knew I had to go, and fortunately Lucian had an idea for me which meant there wasn’t a better job for me. It was a tremendous, tremendous opportunity, but making the break was emotionally difficult. I knew I could do [the UMPG job] and I could do it well. And I knew that I couldn’t stay and then complain about the same things that I would have been complaining about.

What does it tell us about you that you were nervous to go?

That I’m a human being; I’m a human being who cares as much about people as I do about the game and about the job.

I had an exchange with a manager recently of an artist we’ve had tremendous success with. It was an email, I guess we were talking about renegotiating something, and he said, ‘What I want to do is keep [this deal] open to find out what the value is on the open market. I’m sure you would do the same.’ And I thought, ‘Personally, I wouldn’t – because I value relationships and people and good work.’

What is the value you’re looking for there? Somebody else is going to pay you more money than me? That’s not always what I call value. I can’t separate the personal from [commercial relationships].

Yes, it’s a business and it’s great that [the industry is] making more money now – but that’s not the only thing that matters. Human connections matter.

Has Marty forgiven you for leaving Sony/ATV?

Yes. I’m very close with Marty. As a matter of fact, I don’t think Marty’s done in this business and I would love to do something with him again. I have nothing but good feelings for him.

Which personal experiences have had the most profound effect on your approach to business?

Growing up around talent taught me a lot. I am very clear that the reward [when working in publishing] is your own success; you can’t expect the reward, necessarily, to involve getting anything back personally from an artist. I have a full life. I have a family, I have friends.

My role is to support artists – their role isn’t to support me. My role is to take care of them – their role is not to take care of me. I hope that doesn’t read badly, because it’s really not a bitter thing.

It’s accepting the fact that everything that I’ve ever done positively for an artist has furthered my own career. It’s furthered their career too, but I get a reward for it, we all do in this business, and it’s a lie to pretend otherwise. It was profound for me to realize that [with each deal, executives] pay to have the privilege of a relationship with talent. They don’t have to pay us. It’s a very different dynamic.

Talking of talent, certain people around the business were starting to write off one of your biggest career signings, Lady Gaga, before she shot back with a Star Is Born. Did you always believe in her?

When I went to Sony/ATV, I left a tremendous amount of successful artists behind at EMI. They were so successful that when I went to Sony, it was like, ‘Will I ever be able to replicate that?’

She was the first big signing [at Sony/ATV], and I have to say, I for one will never, ever underestimate her. I remember a couple of years ago, she was having a little lull and there was a question as to whether she should do a song at MusiCares for Carole King. She was anxious about it, but she fucking killed it. It was an incredible moment and just I knew she could do it.

You know what? Artists have ups and downs. What I tell artists when I’m meeting with them for the first time is that you have to surround yourself with people who will be there for you on the down times, because it’s so easy to be there during the up times. [Gaga’s] extraordinary and I am so happy for her because she is so multifaceted in her talent. I wish I was still representing her.

Whenever I see her, I love her. I hope that she remembers that I feel privileged to have played a small role in her career.

Do you think the modern industry making any mistakes in the development of artists?

I think it’s unfortunate that people don’t always have the time to develop into greatness. Everything is just that much faster. One big difference today is that the industry has bought into this idea that we have to keep on feeding and feeding distribution and the [streaming] platforms.

But there is only so much music that can be brilliant. I’m glad that brilliant stuff does still gleam through, though; look at Billie Eilish (pictured with Gerson inset). It’s happening fast, but look at that body of work – God, it’s brilliant. It restores my hope.

Generally speaking – and everyone will have bugbears – but are you feeling positive about the future?

I’m feeling very positive. There’s been major growth, especially for the labels, and in order to maintain that growth we have to focus on getting emerging markets to where they can be – getting the licensing done right and developing them into healthy, robust territories for music. Music companies like ours have become entertainment and media companies.

There’s so much more than just streaming, and that forces us all to think outside the box, which is exciting. And obviously, as businesses that utilize music grow, my hope is that songwriters pay increases alongside that success.

It all still starts with a song but look what can you do with that song now: you can have a stream, release a video, create a movie, create a Broadway show, the list goes on. Some companies might call it IP, or ‘content’; I call it a song.

Have you got any personal ambitions left?

Yes, a lot. I don’t know what all of them are yet. I just want to stay open to the possibilities.

The above interview originally appeared in Music Business USA – MBW’s new annual magazine featuring some of the smartest people, with the best stories, in the Stateside music industry.

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