Interview by Lavinthal, Beer and Glickman

Read Part 1 here.

Simon: Do you want to get into some of your recent signings?
Harry Styles was obviously a big one and a big leap of faith. I signed Harry based on meeting Harry. Jeffrey [Azoff] was very smart about it. We were at the Adele show and he said, “Come up and meet Harry.” And I went back to my seat and told Lucian, “It’s hard to be objective.” How often do you meet a star like that? Everyone felt that way about Justin Bieber, too. There’s a thing some people have that other people don’t, and he had that thing. So Harry was really exciting and I think that when Harry worked with Jeff Bhasker, that was really exciting. It came together the way that you used to put together a band.

Is Harry’s album 100% your writers?
No, but it’s a good 75%.

How involved are you in A&R?
The thing that’s frustrating about being in the position I’m in, is that I cannot stand when my A&R people find things before I know about them. I still have that competitive edge where I want to know stuff. We just signed a writer/producer named Michael Uzowuru; Michael worked on the Rex Orange County record, which I die over. He also worked with Frank Ocean and Kevin Abstract, and I met him when he was 18. He came to me at Sony/ATV and I thought he was brilliant, really brilliant. I thought he could compose, but it was too early. Then cut to two years later; Caroline Elleray from the U.K. calls me and she goes, “Do you know this guy Michael Uzowuru?” Yeah. “Well he’s on the Rex OC record and we definitely want to sign him—can you get us to him?” And I was so upset she got to him first, “I know him!” But the beauty of UMPG is that every writer is represented by all of our global teams. We are in it together.

So I had him come in and we sign him and he’s someone who I meet with once a month, with his manager, Jon Tanners, to go through strategy. How do we get him where he wants to be? And that’s still what excites me every day about my job.

And the rest of your team as well, presumably.
The most fun thing we get to do is identify talent early and take a shot on them. So I am supportive of every A&R person having the opportunity to develop. Walter Jones recently signed H.E.R. Taylor Testa signed Matt Maeson, who she’s really excited about. I think he’s going to be fantastic. Luke McGrellis signed Nightly. Our European teams are always developing as well.

It’s also important to give our producers the opportunity to develop. When I see someone like Prince Charlez, who was a producer/songwriter who had the desire to be an artist, it’s important to be able to do that with him, to be able to look at a songwriter and say, “What else can you do? Is the artist thing what you want to do?” I couldn’t be happier that Danny Boy, who’s another writer of ours, is on that project—he was a great collaborator for that and helped shape the vision for Prince Charlez.

Let’s talk about SZA.
What I love, personally, is to sign artists we think can make a difference. That’s why I think SZA can be an important voice.

Did you sign her before she made her record?
I signed her as she was finishing her record. Top Dawg called me and asked, “What about SZA?” and I asked if it was really time. He said yes. I think he felt that she was surrounded by men and that he wanted to make sure she could have a connection with a woman who runs a company. And that came from him; he came and played me some music and I asked if I could meet her, because I have to have that kind of connection with her. I had a great meeting with her and that was it. The goal now is to really get to know her, so I can help her and she can help me know what to do with her to take her to an even higher level.

What are some other recent signings?
Just in terms of developing artists, Post Malone is another I’m super-proud of. Nobody knows the talent that he is as a songwriter yet, and he will continue to surprise people. We extended our deal with Metro Boomin, thanks to a team effort by Walter Jones, Sterling Simms, and Brandra Ringo. We recently signed Lil Yachty. Quavo I think is going to do way more than anyone expects him to. I think he’s brilliant and he could do anything. I absolutely love working with Zedd. Travis Scott too, who I’ve developed a relationship with over the years, is disruptive and transformative.

Why do you say that about him?
Because he’s got a real audience. He’s rebellious, an incredible talent magnet. He’s on stuff super-early; I think he’s a cultural leader and he doesn’t box himself into a single genre. I think he’s a star. He’s opened the door for this whole culture of these kids being in mosh pits.

Dennis: Did you work with him previously?I just knew him. I had tried to sign him a couple of times. He didn’t want to do it. He was signed through T.I. for publishing and I met with him several times while I was still at Sony/ATV. I had heard he was going to sign with someone else, so I called him and was like, “What the fuck are you doing?” I developed this relationship with Travis and knew that it was between Universal and another company. The funny thing is Travis called me on my cell. But Scooter called me first and told me, “Travis is going to call you, pick up the phone.” Of course I’m going to pick up the phone! So it rings and I missed the call. I call him right back. He texts me back “You don’t have to call me back I just wanted to make sure I could get the Chairman on the phone.” That’s what it came down to. That was it. I was close to him but he wanted to know that he could get the chairman on the phone.

We’ve got all these amazing artists. Evan Lamberg brought in Miley Cyrus; we’ve had her through Evan’s relationship and she’s someone I’m really looking forward to getting to know.

How long ago was that?
Evan signed her on the first RCA record.

Not the Disney times?
No, and I was competing with him at Sony for her and he beat me.

If he signed Miley back then he should get props.
He signed Miley and he does get other signings. He’s a very positive person who’s been really great and really welcoming to me.

I’m very excited about Jack White, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, the Bee Gees, Linkin Park and Bruce Springsteen, all of whom we recently signed and have all turned out to be great partners who appreciate what we bring to the table.

Simon: Let’s get into syncs—their importance for revenue and breaking an artist, providing that kind of visibility. Who’s working on that with you and providing the key strategies?
At Universal it was always about managing based on a plan with a goal of making your number. What I’ve asked all of my sync people to do is to exceed their numbers—which is why we’re 15% up—but also to break artists. So it’s not just about the big fee; it’s about making sure every door is open to license music. I meet with my sync people in my office every other week, and they have to be accountable.

The way we are set up is that Tom Eaton heads up commercial syncs out of New York. We just hired Marni Condro to head up our film/TV department In LA, and Joy Murphy is our head of synch admin. Tom Foster, in our U.K. office, is extraordinary as well. They work closely with our global sync teams to promote our songs around the world.

For me, sync is not only about the economics; it’s more about placing the right song to picture. Sometimes it’s about re-introducing a catalog song to a new generation, at other times it’s about introducing a new song. Sometimes a great commercial can break an artist.

Lenny: Do you believe in making it cheaper for new artists and then exploiting that copyright once it becomes big?
I do.

There are a lot of companies having issues with that.
Again, it’s a balance. First of all, it can’t be with one-offs. You have to be able to say, “Okay, music supervisor, I’ll give you this for $250, but as the band blows up that’s not the price.” Or “I’ll give you this big song you want, but will you throw in this new artist?” These guys are used to just pitching. I’m saying we should broaden it; let’s think about what we’re doing. Let’s be strategic about it, make that one extra phone call and get our stuff out there. I also think of syncs as building a story. It’s my job as a publisher to make it easier for the record promo guys to go get radio ads. How do I make it easier? How do I give them a story?

Simon: So what are the new frontiers for syncs?
I’ve noticed a lot of hip-hop in syncs where it wasn’t before. Big Sean texted me over the weekend and asked me, “Is it true I have a song in Transformers?” And I’m like, “Yeah, you’ve got a song in Transformers.”

Lenny: David Gray mentioned to me that there are a lot of requests now for rock on syncs.
Our sync department is always complaining that we don’t have enough guitar-oriented rock. That’s what the sync people want. But that’s not what’s happening on the radio and that’s not what’s happening in streaming. So what do you do?

Well, you can make a lot of money from two good syncs.
I agree and that’s the route they’re looking at. Where my job before was always to sign things you think are going to have radio success, now you’re thinking, “What’s going to have streaming success?” I look at a Quavo or Yachty and know that even if their albums don’t sell, which they do, look at all the other features they’re on. It’s a huge business now. But in terms of rock stuff, it’s really important that we have everything. I think we get a lot of that from the U.K. And our company was really built on U.K. records, our big ones like Coldplay, Mumford & Sons, Adele and now Harry.

Dennis: Before we finish we should really talk about Nashville.
I’ll tell you about Nashville. We are a phenomenal office. I don’t think there’s anyone better at developing songwriters than our Nashville office.  When I got to the company I looked at all the offices and I saw Nashville and thought we were a little mom and pop there. We just didn’t have the catalog. Other companies have spent a lot of money to build artists and repertoire. We didn’t have the push historically with our Nashville office, but they have been an incredible writer-driven, supportive company.

Since I’ve gotten there I’ve asked [Nashville EVP/GM] Kent [Earls] to invest in artists. I’m proud of what we’re doing, between Sam Hunt and Kane Brown, who I think is tremendous, and Ryan Hurd. I’m thrilled to be involved with artists who can really be transformative in country music. We’re great at developing writers; I want us to be great at developing artists.

We didn’t talk about Prince.
What I can say about the Prince thing is that it’s very much a matter of church and state. We made the publishing deal and we were very conscious of being a publisher and an asset for whatever the Estate needs. While it would’ve been nice for the recorded music company to have the other rights, it wasn’t what was going to make or break our deal. We made a great deal. It’s clearly a unique situation when a bank is running an estate, but Troy Carter has done a good job of pulling all the partners together.

Simon: Say a bit about your team and how you built it.
It makes me happy to talk about my team. When I called Lucian and said, “I may be ready to come over,” he said, “Okay, I want to make you the global chairman of the company, but get used to not doing the creative stuff. You’ll be running a global company.” I asked why he would hire me because of my creative relationships and then encourage me not to do what got me here. He said, “Well, hire a strong number two.” The first person I met through Michelle Jubelirer was Marc Cimino.

I knew there was a divide between the publishing company and the record company. For many years there was resentment toward the publishing company for a couple of reasons. One: They didn’t add value. Two: They didn’t sign new artists. I knew I had to hire someone who understood something I didn’t understand, which was the record business. I met Marc and immediately knew he was the right guy. That was my first big hire.

I knew I had to change around A&R. I made David Gray the head on the West Coast, with Jessica Rivera the head on the East Coast, because I wanted the company culture to be A&R-driven. In terms of administration I didn’t have to touch anything. I just had to encourage people to take their power and make our system the best system possible. I did make one change in the U.K. by hiring Mike McCormack, who’s done a phenomenal job and is a great partner. He was in A&R at Universal; he had left to go manage cricket players. I knew that the U.K. office was amazing—it had the best A&R in the business—so I didn’t want to bring someone in from the outside. Bringing in Mike solved that problem. The other thing I did was bring in a new head of Latin America with Alexandra Lioutikoff, who’s amazing and is bringing us into the modern world of Latin music. She’s located in Miami. 

Simon: The Latin business is really exploding and it’s now on the radar of people who weren’t necessarily even acknowledging it before.
Absolutely. And I think we were very dependent on Universal Latin as a label, and now we’ve really expanded it. Alex is signing artists and writers from every label, such as Romeo Santos, and having real success.

Again, it’s about empowering people. I want everyone who works for me to want my job, and I want them to have my job one day when I’m ready to give it up.

Dennis: You ready to give it up yet?
We’ll have to see what else you have in store for me.

As the concluding half of our conversation was posted Friday morning, The New York Times published its own interview with Gerson. It was conducted by Adam Bryant, whose pieces for the business section of newspaper focus on leadership. 

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A chronicle of the inexplicable.
We make yet more predictions, which you are free to ignore.
2022 TOURS
May we all be vaxxed by then.
Power pop, global glam and the return of the loud.

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