Key Songs In The Life Of… Justin Kalifowitz

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. In the hotseat this time is Justin Kalifowitz, founder and Executive Chairman of Downtown Music Holdings. The Key Songs In The Life Of… series is supported by Sony Music Publishing.

The task/pleasure of choosing and reflecting on his favorite songs of all time seems to have changed Justin Kalifowitz. At least for a while.

Catching up with MBW pre-countdown, we ask the founder of Downtown Music Holdings what he thinks have been the most interesting news stories/deals/rumors/trends of the last few weeks and months. As a student as well as a leader of the global industry, some good bets would have been AI, hyper-localization, superfans, or ‘artist-centric’ royalties. Or perhaps the flurry of activity at Downtown itself this year, which has included the acquisition of UK-based music tech company Curve Royalty Systems, and relaunching Downtown Music Services.

Kalifowitz’s actual answer: none of the above. Instead he offers a paean to creativity and the opinion that this, right here, is a golden age.

“I think the most interesting trend of the past few years has been what I can only refer to as an explosion of creativity. We can talk about deals, we can talk about this nonsense or that nonsense. But ultimately the way that people are engaging with songs today, whether on their own, shared with friends… the way that people are enjoying and experiencing music as part of the fabric of their life is so fundamentally different today than at any point in the history of the music industry. That explosion of creativity, the way music is integrated into our lives, that, to me is really the sea change and the story here.”

He adds: “You can quantify [that sea change] in any number of ways. Obviously at Downtown, given the quite literally tens of millions of tracks that we manage and the colossal number of songwriters, artists, creators and businesses who work on our platforms, we get to see that explosion firsthand.

“We’ll look back at this period and all of this noise and all these headlines, and the change that we will see is that there were 40,000 records in the record store, and, I don’t know, a couple of hundred thousand tracks when Steve Jobs launched iTunes, then low millions when Spotify started. And now we’re in the hundreds of millions. And this is all without even considering AI!

“That, to me, would be the industry’s story of our time.”

Kalifowitz remains nearly as upbeat reflecting on the challenge of distilling his life (and work) in music down to seven (ok, 10) tracks.

“It was a much more challenging exercise than I had anticipated when it was first asked of me,” he says. “However, it was a fantastic experience, a real trip down memory lane.

“And actually, the first thing I thought of was the title [of this series] Key Songs in the Life Of. It made me think of when I met Leslie Bricusse, the famous songwriter who wrote Pure Imagination, and who wrote for Sammy Davis Jr.

“He was in his late eighties, and he hands me a copy of his autobiography, which he had very kindly signed for me. Then he grabs it back, opens it up and adds, ‘The story so far…’

“So, yes, if you don’t mind, can we change the title to: Key Songs In The Life Of Justin Kalifowitz – So Far…”

1. Doris Day, Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be) (1956)

This is one of the first songs I remember hearing. It was originally popularized by Doris Day, but that is not the version I remember. And it’s also not the whole song that I remember. It is just the chorus – Que sera sera/whatever will be will be/the future’s not ours to see.

That chorus was sung by my parents, when I was four or five years old, every time anyone asked a question that couldn’t be answered.

“That chorus was sung by my parents every time anyone asked a question that couldn’t be answered.”

At the time I thought it was pretty annoying, but when you think about it, looking back, it’s a lesson in resilience: whatever will be will be.

You can’t predict the future, but when it happens, don’t worry, you’ll be fine.

2. U2, One (1991) / Bob Marley, Could You Be Loved (1980)

I was in the sixth grade when One came out. I had an older brother, who was very ill that year, and unfortunately he ended up testing positive for HIV.

In the month leading to his passing, I was at Tower Records on West 4th Street, and there was a big display of One with a sign saying that all proceeds from the sale of the single would go to AIDS research.

I bought the CD and I must have listened to that song a thousand times.

“When you have something like that happen to you at a moment in time, that song imprints on you in a bit of a different way.”

When you have something like that happen to you at a moment in time, that song imprints on you in a bit of a different way. It was a song that first taught me about the power and impact that a song could have.

We’re decades on from that moment, but when I hear Larry Mullen’s drumsticks counting the song in, it brings me right back. Even aside from all that, the lyrics are just incredible. I’ve seen U2 perform that song live at least 20 times in my life and it never misses a beat.

I grew up in New York in the nineties and had lots of friends who were into Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine, things like that. But our much older next-door neighbor one day gave us a cassette and on the cover, it just had the words Bob Marley – there were no song titles or anything.

“I had never heard anything like it. I thought it was the coolest, most awesome thing ever.”

I played it, and the first track was Could You Be Loved; I had never heard anything like it. I thought it was the coolest, most awesome thing ever. It then became my gateway to being a really big Bob Marley fan.

A number of years later when I was at Spirit Music [where Kalifowitz worked, pre-Downtown, from 2001 to 2006], we had the good fortune of being the sub-publisher of the Blue Mountain catalog. In 2006, I got a call from a friend of mine who said, ‘I’m working on all the music for the World Cup in Germany and I’m looking for something really global, something that everyone will know.’

Without skipping a beat I said, ‘Bob Marley was an enormous soccer fan – if we remade Could You Be Loved, it might be something really special.’

So we had Damian Ziggy and Julian [Marley] do some new verses, and that track was used almost non-stop during the broadcast of that World Cup. Something I found almost by accident as a kid had come full circle into my working life.

3. New Radicals, You Get What You Give (1998) / Santigold, L.E.S. Artistes (2008)

This is a track by our good friends Rick Knowles and Gregg Alexander that was made famous by New Radicals.

The hook of this song is everything; it’s just absolutely enormous. I always think songs have the potential to have other people interpret them, re-imagine them… but there are also songs where that initial recording is the definitive and perfect version. And I think over time that has proven to be the case here: Gregg’s voice, the energy, how it opens, how it moves, everything about it.

It is also in many ways responsible for a big trajectory in my life because it was playing in a bar when I first met a man named Stephen Budd, who was Rick Knowles’ manager at the time.

I told him how much of a fan I was of the song and he suggested I meet Rick, who had just moved over to London at the time.

That resulted in Rick and I striking up a friendship when I was at Spirit. And ultimately, when Rick went to sell his catalog, we won the deal, which was one of the most significant publishing transactions of that year. Of course Rick went on to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and become one of the most successful songwriters of the last 30 years.

“It’s really what emboldened me to go, You know, at 25 years old, I can start a publishing company…”

Looking back at everything I did at Spirit, closing that [Knowles catalog] deal was really what emboldened me to go, ‘You know, at 25 years old, I can start a publishing company…’ which ultimately led to the next chapter of my life.

Out of the gate on the publishing side at Downtown we had a lot of really big pop songs. We had 11 tracks on the first Miley Cyrus album; our first No.1 was This Is Why I’m Hot by MIMS.

But L.E.S. Artistes by Santigold was a song that really went on to kind of define a lot of what we were going to do at Downtown on the publishing side over the next five years. It was just a complete breath of fresh air.

It was also one of the most licensed songs for sync in an era where sync was really driving people’s interest and consumption. Same goes for that whole album [Santogold], actually.

I have to thank Jedd Katrancha for much of that. He’s our Chief Commercial Officer at Downtown Music Publishing, and he and I have been working together for 20 years.

But mostly of course it’s down to Santi’s incredible songwriting, production, and view of the world, which Jedd had the privilege of introducing to the licensing community.

4. Manu Chao, Me Gustas Tú (2001)

This is more of a personal one – and a song that probably put more stamps in my passport than anything or anyone else.

I was a fan as soon as it came out. It was this non-English language track, it had this infectious beat and it just led me down this rabbit hole.

I went to see him live in Spain once and he was playing in front of tens of thousands of people who were singing every word. I saw this level of fandom around him and it really opened my eyes to what was truly happening outside of the Anglo-American music business.

“It really opened my eyes to what was truly happening outside of the Anglo-American music business.”

Being a fan also led me to meet so many interesting people in the music industry around the world and resulted in lots of interesting collaborations that I was tangentially involved with. It took me to places like West Africa, Mali, Nigeria, to concerts in Eastern Europe…

Although we never formally worked together, just knowing about that song and loving him as an artist connected a lot of dots for me, both personally and professionally.

5. John Lennon, Imagine (1971)

Downtown has had the privilege of representing the catalog of Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s solo work for going on 10 years now.

I can talk about Imagine and its impact on the world, like so many people, forever. But what makes it perhaps most relevant to this list, is a moment that happened in 2017.

The National Music Publishers Association called and said they would like to honor Imagine as the song of the century, and did we think Yoko would be open to coming and accepting the award on John’s behalf.

“David handed Yoko her own award for Imagine and ever since then it has been credited as written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.”

In speaking with the estate, we were able to think about this a little bit differently and say, ‘You know what, this is an incredible opportunity to maybe let people know how this song was actually written’ – a song that for 40+ years had been credited solely to John Lennon.

So, at the event itself, after giving Yoko the award, David [Israelite, NMPA CEO], said, ‘One more thing…’ And he played an interview with John that was on the BBC shortly before he passed where he was asked about Imagine and he basically said, ‘I co-wrote that song with Yoko, I should have given her that credit, but I was too macho and selfish at the time.’

At that point David handed Yoko her own award for Imagine and ever since then it has been credited as written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Being able to be part of a small group of people who helped make that happen, to give credit where credit was long overdue, was incredible.

6. Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper, Shallow (2018)

At Downtown, by this point [2018], we had built a really beautiful catalog of songs and we had probably had 40-odd No. 1s over the course of a decade.

But in terms of a cultural zeitgeist moment, what Shallow achieved in that six-to-nine month period, from the film coming out, through award season, getting to No. 1 in dozens of countries – that was particularly gratifying for several people on our team who were involved, including Jeremy Yohai, who is an exceptional A&R executive, now over at Concord.

Above all it was a moment for two of our songwriters, Andrew Wyatt and Anthony Rossomando, who we have long believed in and were huge parts of what we were building at Downtown.

“In all those years, my dad had never really talked about what I did, or so I thought, so that was special for me.”

For me personally, I went to have dinner with my dad and he was sitting in a deli when I walked in to meet him. He was talking to the owner, who he knew, and the trailer for the movie was on the TV, with, of course, Shallow playing over it.

My dad didn’t realize I was there, and he said to the owner, very excitedly, ‘My son’s company owns the rights to that song!’

In all those years, my dad had never really talked about what I did, or so I thought, so that was special for me.

7. Louis Armstrong, What A Wonderful World (1967) / Frank Sinatra, Theme From New York New York (1979)

Just link to what Jon Platt had to say about What A Wonderful World [in Platt’s own Key Songs feature last year]. I think everyone should read it.

I would only add something about music education. A lot of people talk about music education through the lens of teaching kids to perform. And I agree with those who think we should spend lots of money doing that.

But the lessons we can learn from music are so important, and something we don’t really talk about from a ‘music education’ standpoint.

What A Wonderful World is, like, the whole thing, right? I feel like this song should be taught globally as part of early childhood education, part of a core curriculum. It provides a worldview that is so beautiful.

I was able to have that experience with my own kids. We got a board book of What A Wonderful World, with a line from the lyrics on every page.

“I feel like this song should be taught globally as part of early childhood education, part of a core curriculum. It provides a worldview that is so beautiful.”

During the daytime I would play them the Joey Ramone version that came out in 2001, which I love. And then closer to bedtime, I would play them the Louis Armstrong version. And many years later they still quote it.

Actually, my kids’ recording of it is the definitive version of it for me, but that’s not available on streaming services – so we’ll go with Louis…

Now if this was a list about picking my Top 10 songs about New York City, I could absolutely do that too – but here I’ll limit my choice to Theme From New York, New York by Frank Sinatra. It’s the song that he called ‘the goddamn national anthem’. Being from New York, I truly love everything about this song from every angle of my life.

I love how it came about; I love that it was Robert De Niro who told the writers [John Kander and Fred Ebb] that they had to go back to the drawing board, because if it’s about New York then it needs to be bigger.

I love that it was Liza [Minellli]’s recording that first came out. I, of course, love Frank’s version of it and that the guy was 64 years old when he recorded it, decades after he’d had his first No. 1.

I love that whenever something is happening in New York City, whenever one of our sports teams win, this is the song that plays.

It is one of the one of the greatest songs about one of the greatest cities in the world. It captures the feel and spirit of New York perfectly and it pops into my head every single time I see the skyline.

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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