Key Songs In The Life Of… Julie Greenwald

MBW’s Key Songs In The Life Of… is a series in which we ask influential music industry figures about the tracks that have – so far – defined their journey and their existence. This time, it’s the turn of Julie Greenwald, who has just been promoted to Chairman and CEO of Atlantic Music Group following 18 years with the Warner Music company. The Key Songs In The Life Of… series is supported by Sony Music Publishing.

Julie Greenwald is certainly no lover of media attention. Yet, she admits, she would love this article to be way longer.

Specifically, she wishes – amongst many others – it would more extensively mention her love for Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy, Lil Uzi Vert’s XO Tour Llif3, Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow, Coldplay’s Magic, and Lizzo’s Good As Hell (“I knew it would be a smash – it only took four years!”).

But rules is rules. We asked the Atlantic Music Group CEO & Chairman to choose up to seven tracks that have defined her life to date, and no more.

She very nearly stuck to the limit.

Greenwald’s choices span a childhood in upstate New York, through teenage student life in New Orleans, through her formative music biz years at Def Jam, through to the past 18 years of her life, running Atlantic Records alongside Craig Kallman.

The most recent destination on that journey represents a position and a professional home she wouldn’t change for the world.

“People ask me, ‘You’re the Chairman of the company, why are you so in the weeds with the artists?’ But I love it,” she says. “I love the fact I can still contribute a nugget or an idea to an artist, and that can be the idea that makes a difference.”

Greenwald’s work ethic and competitive spirit, she says, is derived partly from her parents and partly from being “the third child – the classic over-achiever”.

That’s the third child of four sisters, something we learn by joining Julie in the front seat of her parent’s car – as she justifies her first choice on her lifetime playlist, back where it all began…

1) Barry Manilow, Mandy (1974) / Fats Domino, Ain’t That A Shame? (1955)

I have fond memories of my childhood. My parents had two different tastes; my mom was Simon and Garfunkel and Barry Manilow. My dad was completely into jazz, gospel, he loved Black music. So, whoever was driving the car, it was a very different experience!

My mom passed away 18 years ago, and every time I hear Barry Manilow, I get such visceral memories.

Back then, we were allowed to sit in the front seat as kids. I have three sisters, and there was always a fight; two of us went in the front, and two of us went in the back. We’d sit next to my mom, none of us wearing seatbelts, and we would just be singing at the top of our lungs, “Ohhhh, Mandy!”’

“We had these giant brunches at our house every Sunday; Fats Domino would always be playing.”

The other side of my childhood memories would be my father playing Fats Domino (pictured inset), who he completely loved. Blueberry Hill and Ain’t That a Shame were particular favorites.

We had these giant brunches at our house every Sunday; Fats Domino would always be playing. He soundtracked this feel-good vibe in our house with this incredible soulful music. And his lyrics were great: “Ain’t That A Shame…” My father would sing that one to us kids when something wouldn’t go our way [laughs].

2) Peter Gabriel, In Your Eyes (1986)

Towards the end of high school, I was trying to figure out where to go to college. It felt like this giant, heavy decision: Do I stay in the northeast and keep my parents happy? Do I go to Cornell? Or do I go to be in warm weather and explore a new city far away, which was Tulane [in New Orleans]?

I had a driver’s license, and I was able to go visit colleges, taking these long road trips. And on those road trips, I would play my cassette of Peter Gabriel’s So over and over. I didn’t just love that album, I actually murdered that album. I couldn’t get enough of it.

“When I go see an artist and I see an audience all moving together, that’s when you know you have something for the long-term.”

While visiting Cornell University, we took a road trip to Rochester to see Peter Gabriel in concert. At some point, when he did Lay Your Hands On Me, he laid down and let the audience pass him around. And it was the greatest concert experience I’d ever seen; he was so magnificent.

It really just showed me what could be possible when a giant audience in a room is in sync, all witnessing greatness together.

Even today, when I go see an artist and I see an audience all moving together, that’s when you know you have something for the long-term – when everybody commits and everybody’s fully ‘in’.

3) Van Morrison, Sweet Thing (1968)

I was the third child out of four; the classic over-achiever. I wanted to get out of my small upstate town so badly.

I chose Tulane to go to college because it was a world away from the Catskills. I had a lot of fun in New Orleans, an incredible city with amazing nightlife. It’s where I got a lot of my cultural education.

I was surrounded by live music in that town; The Meters, The Radiators, Aaron Neville. You’d see all of that stuff on your average Wednesday. I was part of the Concert Committee [at university] and I brought Echo and The Bunnymen, Simply Red, and many others, to our auditorium on campus.

My friends and I loved sharing and swapping music. We’d all make tapes for each other.

“Every week, Van Morrison makes me grateful to be in the music business, because he reminds me what music can mean.”

Through that, I discovered Van Morrison and Astral Weeks. I didn’t even know who the guy was before college; I was a product of radio and MTV, and they didn’t play him on the Top 40 stations. My God – the voice, the musicianship, the lyrics – it felt like discovering Pluto.

There still isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t listen to Van Morrison. He’s either a part of my yoga in the morning or walking my dogs at the weekend. He’s one of those magic artists who takes me away from my own head, allows me to clear my mind, and creates those moments in which I’m not thinking about my job or what I have to get done that day. He’s my escape.

Every week, he makes me grateful to be in the music business, because he reminds me what music can mean. I never ever want music to be ‘just my job’. What a waste that would be.

4) Jay Z, Hard Knock Life (1998) / Can I Get A… (ft. Jah Rule & Amil) (1998)

I’ve always been passionate about social issues. At college, I wanted to become a lobbyist. I interned for Senator John Breaux, I volunteered at the soup kitchen. Once I left college, I signed up for ‘Teach for America’, after which I was planning to study law.

But then, in the summer of ’92, I got an internship working at Def Jam. Instead of law school, I ended up going to the Lyor Cohen school of hard knocks. Lyor was a super tough and super inspirational mentor. He still is.

Out of all of my memories at that company, I have to pick something from Jay Z. It wasn’t just the music that made me go ‘all in’ on him – it was the person. He became such a great friend, and we’ve grown up together in this business.

“[Jay Z] was the most magnificent artist to work with, such a smart businessman, so cool, and so nice and down to earth.”

That year [1998], we had Hard Knock Life and Can I Get A… out – two monstrous records going at the same time. That album [Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life] debuted at No.1 and just stayed there and went on to sell over 5 million copies [in the US alone]. It was an enormous album for Jay, and Roc-A-Fella, and an enormous album for us at Def Jam, breaking him to superstar status.

With Jay Z, the possibilities were endless. He was the most magnificent artist to work with, such a smart businessman, so cool, and so nice and down to earth. And he made music in the most honest way; even though his records were crossing over and becoming huge, he retained every bit of his credibility. Because he was Jay Z.

The thing that I learned from him more than any other was he didn’t take every opportunity, even early on. He knew the difference between water and champagne. He was so clever with his brand, not allowing it to become anything but exactly what he wanted it to be.

He taught me how important vision and ambition is when you want to be a superstar.

Credit: Evan Agostini/Getty Images
Julie with Jay Z in New York, 2005, at a dinner to celebrate a JV between Bad Boy Records and Warner Music (courtesy WMG)

5) DMX, Ruff Ryders’ Anthem (1998)

Def Jam was a small independent label. We couldn’t outspend Columbia, we couldn’t out-clout Atlantic. But we could out-taste and out-hustle everybody.

We always felt like it was us against the world. We knew we had amazing artists and we had youth culture on our side.

All of that fueled this feeling that we had the battery on our back, ready to make it happen for our artists. This is where I became tough. Where I learned to be a fighter. To do whatever it takes for the talent I believe in.

“He was one of the greatest to ever do it.”

DMX was like no other artist. He was raw and dark but so necessary to upend the state of hip-hop at that time.

His lyrical sensibility, authenticity, and pure emotion changed the landscape and changed how we thought about marketing artists. With X, we just needed to put him front and center. The strength of his connection with the audience made it impossible to doubt.

He brought his whole being to everything he did. He performed, he cried, and prayed on stage. He was one of the greatest to ever do it.

6) Oasis, Champagne Supernova (1996) / Fleetwood Mac, Silver Springs (Recorded live, 1997)

My husband [Lewis Largent] worked for MTV at its peak. He loved Oasis and thought they were the greatest thing in the world. Our courtship was him introducing me to this incredible British rock band who were totally outside of my wheelhouse. We saw them so many times in multiple cities, and multiple venues.

We had this great weekend when Oasis was doing the MTV Unplugged show in London [August 1996], while I was in town for Foxy Brown. Obviously, Liam didn’t show up to that show. [The Oasis lead singer infamously pulled out of the MTV performance, leaving brother Noel to lead vocals for the evening.]

Lewis didn’t get the show he wanted, but he definitely got the girl.

“I had goosebumps on my arms. It felt like you were part of the relationship; you could feel the hurt, the pain, the love.”

I’m also squeezing Silver Springs in here, which is one of my favorite songs ever. My husband and I have seen Fleetwood Mac play live a couple of times, but there’s one moment that stands out even more for me: the recording of The Dance [a 1997 live album recorded at Warner Brothers Studios, Burbank].

I was glued to MTV [which aired it]. You’re watching Stevie Nicks sing every word of this song to Lindsey [Buckingham]; I had goosebumps on my arms. It felt like you were part of the relationship; you could feel the hurt, the pain, the love.

We know music has power, but when artists are such insane performers and they leave it all on the stage, it’s so cathartic for the audience – being allowed in on the artist’s pain and their journey. That’s what separates the greatest from the great.

A cuddle with Ed Sheeran (courtesy WMG)

7) Bruno Mars, Just The Way You Are (2010) / Ed Sheeran, The A Team (2011)

Bruno and Ed really signaled the beginning of an incredible new chapter for this label.

In 2010, Bruno performed with B.o.B at a UJA luncheon where Craig and I were being honored, and Bruno changed the lyrics to their song [Nothin’ On You] to “nothin’ on you, Julie”. That mattered to me, but what really mattered was that he slayed the entire room.

Everyone walked out of that room, all the tastemakers from the industry, thinking: ‘That guy is going to be a fucking star.’ And from that moment on, he’s delivered.

As soon as I heard Just The Way You Are for the first time, I ran across the street to [then-Warner exec] Lyor’s office and played the song. We danced and we hugged, because we knew Bruno was going to take over the world.

“There are artists who can redefine a genre, and then there are artists that just defy all categories; I call them ‘genre defiant‘.”

I vividly remember Ed Sheeran’s New York debut at Mercury Lounge in 2012. It was magical. He stood on a chair in the middle of the crowd. Eighteen months later, he sold out Madison Square Garden three times over.

We worked his first single, The A Team, for over a year, knowing how important he would be if we delivered. Fan by fan, city by city, together we knocked down the US. His work ethic and talent is second to none.

Both Bruno and Ed are now firmly planted in history as two of the all-time great songwriters and performers.

There are artists who can redefine a genre, and then there are artists that just defy all categories; I call them ‘genre defiant‘. Genuine originals. It’s those unique talents we live for at Atlantic Records.

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Key Songs In The Life Of… is supported by Sony Music Publishing. SMP represents classic catalogs including The Beatles, Queen, Motown, Carole King, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC, Leiber & Stoller, Leonard Cohen, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and The Rolling Stones, as well as beloved contemporary songwriters such as Ed Sheeran, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Olivia Rodrigo, Calvin Harris, Daddy Yankee, Gabby Barrett, Jay-Z, Ye, Luke Bryan, Maluma, Marc Anthony, Miranda Lambert, Pharrell Williams, Rihanna, Sara Bareilles, Sean “Love” Combs, Travis Scott and many more.Music Business Worldwide

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