Republic Records
Co-President Jim Roppo, now in his 35th year in the business, has as complete an understanding of the components of the biz as anyone we know. Whether it’s management, distribution, retail, sales, marketing, visual content, artist development or emerging technologies, there isn’t one area Jim hasn’t touched—which has made him indispensable to Republic’s rise to ever greater heights.

By the time he finished high school, Roppo was already a citizen of the world. Growing up in disparate international locales—including Germany and the jungles of Central America—he learned to speak four languages and developed decidedly eclectic and global taste in music. Traversing all this geographical and cultural territory no doubt helped prepare the ground for his extraordinary career versatility.

Where did you grow up and what kind of music was played in your home?
I was born in Pennsylvania and grew up with my father, who worked for the government. We lived in California for a few years, then moved to Panama. We lived, quite literally, in the jungle from the time I was eight or nine until I was 13. From there we moved to Texas and then to Nuremberg, Germany, where I graduated from high school. My father and stepmother had a strong affection for music, and there was a substantial record collection in our home, ranging from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to soft rock like America, the Eagles and Bread.

What was the first music that really grabbed you personally?
The first music I remember buying for myself was KISS. My next-door neighbor in Panama turned me on to them, and I fell in love with the Alive II album. I would look at that gatefold jacket with those kids at the concert, and I wanted to be part of that world so badly.

Another musical influence in my life was my tennis coach; when I was 16, he turned me on to a lot of stuff that wasn’t like my parents’ music. One artist who became a big influence was Bob Marley. I remember the Uprising album, with that stunning cover art of Bob kind of coming out of the earth with his dreads—really powerful imagery. I’ve always been moved by socially conscious and progressive lyrics wrapped in infectious rhythms. John Lennon was my other great musical hero.

You earned a B.A. in international relations at Claremont McKenna College; did you ever imagine you’d end up pursuing a career in music?
I speak Spanish, German and Italian, so I initially envisioned myself going into the foreign service. My junior year, I interned in Washington, D.C., for a congressman from Indiana. Sometimes when you intern, you learn what you want to do, and other times you learn what you absolutely don’t want to do. As a young, naïve college student, I thought I might be able to change the world. From my internship experience, I was disabused of that point of view forevermore. I finished my degree, but I knew I wasn’t going to move forward in that career direction. When I really started to examine what I wanted to do with my life, the thing I kept coming back to was music.

How did you break into the business?
During college I was on the student council, programming concerts, and I took over a three-hour weekly reggae and world-music show called Dread Riddims that was broadcast on our campus radio station, KSPC. I invited a lot of artists to come and do interviews and fell in love with one of those acts, L.A.-based reggae group Boom Shaka. I ended up working as their informal manager, booking agent, roadie, sound engineer, cook, driver, babysitter—you name it.

I graduated from Claremont in the spring of ’88, and my first job was in Hollywood at the historic Aron’s Records, where I made minimum wage as the reggae and world-music buyer. I continued managing Boom Shaka for a few years. At some point I realized I knew nothing about the music business whatsoever and to be an effective manager, I needed to properly get into it. So I took a job at Music+ and City One Stop, which were affiliated. Music+ was a 90-store retail chain in California and Angie Diehl, the head of marketing, gave me my first job in marketing and advertising. City One Stop was one of the premier California wholesalers, headed by the legendary Sam Ginsburg. After they were consolidated into Blockbuster Music, a dear friend of mine, Bob Carlton, hired me to work for Precision Sound, which was a California-based indie distributor.

I sat on Bob’s couch with a laptop and learned the independent-music-distribution business by listening to his phone calls and talking to him all day in his office. Shortly after I started, Precision was purchased by Ryko and Rounder and became part of what was known as REP, one of the first national independent distributors. I was offered a job in Minneapolis as the head of marketing for REP and worked for Rob Simonds, one of the co-founders of Rykodisc.

California to Minnesota sounds like a big move.
I thought I’d lost my marbles moving there—I’d never lived anywhere that cold before. I worked at REP for about four years. Eventually, there was a company “divorce,” and in 1997 Ryko pursued a fulfillment deal with PolyGram Group Distribution. The experience of helping usher in that sort of “pick, pack and ship” fulfillment deal for the distributed labels we represented allowed me to meet a lot of folks at PGD. Ryko ultimately moved its distribution operation from Minneapolis to Massachusetts. Rather than move, I accepted an offer from Van Fletcher, who hired me as the Best Buy national account executive for PGD, which was one of the top sales positions in the country.

18 months later, Edgar Bronfman, Seagram and Universal bought PolyGram and consolidated it into what became Universal Music Group. In January of 1999, the Island Def Jam Music Group was formed, and I transitioned from my national account executive role to the IDJ sales regional based in Minneapolis. I took over the whole Midwest territory, including Best Buy, Target, Musicland, Borders and Handelman—my territory represented about half of all U.S. sales.

In August I celebrated my 25th anniversary with PolyGram/UMG.

Read the complete interview here.