(PART 1)

boss Jody Gerson is in a good place. This is not only because her publishing company is performing strongly—revenue grew more than 13% in Q1—or because she’s earning well-deserved laurels like the ICMP Ralph Peer II Award for her “outstanding contribution to global music publishing,” which will be bestowed upon her in London in July; it’s also because, by her own reckoning, she’s in a groove as a leader and enjoying the hell out of her job.

Gerson, as anyone who follows the biz is well aware, assumed the top job at the pubco in 2015. In doing so she made history, becoming the first female chairman of a global music company and the first woman CEO of a major publisher. Her starry roster includes Elton John, Taylor Swift, Adele, Harry Styles, Bad Bunny, Kendrick Lamar, SZA, The Weeknd, ROSALÍA, Steve Lacy, Billie Eilish and countless other top artists and hit songsmiths. She also spearheaded the company’s acquisitions of the Bob Dylan, Sting and Neil Diamond catalogs, to name but a few.

She has been a tireless champion of women in the industry, having co-founded the nonprofit She Is The Music, and serves on the boards of The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the National Music Publishers Association and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, among others.

It’s all enough to make one’s head spin. Yet somehow, Gerson found the time to sit down with us for this wide-ranging conversation.

SG: We would be remiss if we didn’t start by congratulating you on your marketshare.
When I came to Universal over eight years ago, it took a year to assess what the company was. And really, at its core, the company was an incredible global administrative company. Our global admin still leads the industry today under John Reston. My predecessor, Zach Horowitz, had invested in the technology. The missing link for me was that I really had to remind our people that we were a music company, which was so odd because they’re connected to the strongest and most successful music company in the world. And yet the publishing company in the U.S. was not about the music. And I remember asking people about A&R, about what they love—and they referred to deals: I made a deal and the deal recouped, yay, moving on to the next deal.

My history has always been about music. It was about investing in talent and taking shots. And I think that what we’ve done really well is focus not only on identifying artists and being right on the bets we’re making on new artists but also providing them with support. I think that’s what has driven our success. It really, truly is about music. We use this little hashtag, #SongwritersFirst, but I think it’s true and it’s what’s working.

SG: To the extent that you can, how do you instill that sensibility in A&R people who are accustomed to thinking the old way?
Number one, anybody who works for us has to love music first. And I think it does start from the top. My best days are days where I’m listening to music, discovering a new song, telling people about it and then being right about it. I just have a sense of what’s going to be popular. I always did. If I liked it, it was gonna be popular, whether it was cool, not cool, whatever. And it was genre-less. I think about music not in terms of genre but rather, what do I love? What makes me feel something in my body? And I think because I do that and I’m still fiercely competitive they have to keep up with me.

LB: You mentioned signing and supporting. Talk to us about the supporting part, because so many people just think of publishers as banks. How does your company support writers?
First of all, there is a business part of the relationship. And I just want to acknowledge that we do pay advances and we do collect money all over the world, and a huge part of our jobs is to be a licensing company. People don’t think about the amount of time it takes to negotiate deals with DSPs and sync deals and all the rest of it. So when they say you’re a bank, they’re not thinking about the time each person at my company spends gathering splits, licensing and so on. I don’t want to diminish that part, because it’s really important and people don’t think about what it takes.

Another thing I really want to point out is this: Because financial companies, their investors and so many people have taken an interest in music publishing as an asset class, people have lost the sense of what a true music publisher is. It’s about identifying it early and believing in it, creating value. And then if somebody wants to sell, they can sell. That’s not the issue. The issue is the difference between a real publisher and somebody who’s acquiring copyrights. As an asterisk to that, obviously you can only really build value successfully if you have active rights and people all over the world who are there to create value for your copyrights in every territory throughout the world. I think that’s really important.

As a true music publisher, we are both custodians and curators. And our business is songwriting and giving writers the best opportunities to build their careers. It’s about adding value and helping our writers achieve lasting success.

SG: You’re building things from the ground up.
In terms of creativity, sometimes it’s just about believing in someone. When I first heard the solo album by Tobias Jesso Jr.—who was one of the first people I signed at the company, and who won the first-ever Songwriter of the Year Grammy—I thought, Oh my God, he speaks to me. What an incredible songwriter. He didn’t have a lot of activity and wasn’t even fully committed to being an artist. But I believed in him. And we started setting him up with collaborations and whatnot. I think the first step is believing, just having somebody in your corner who believes in you. The next step is: How do we strategically get you where you’re going? Every meeting we have with songwriters and artists, the question is: Where do you want to go with your career, and how do I help you get there?

There’s a big difference between good artists and great artists. ROSALÍA is one of the greats. The minute I met her, I just knew. She is one of the most talented and ambitious artists I have ever worked with. She is in control. She writes, produces, sings and dances. Her live show is perfection. She is a force.

I signed Steve Lacy for one reason: I think he’s the coolest artist I know. And I remember sitting with him. He’d never had a publishing deal. He obviously was a member of The Internet. He’d had a couple songs out there. I said, “What do you want to do?” And he said, “I don’t know. I think I want to make a solo record.” And I said, “Listen, here’s the deal: Either you’re gonna make an important solo record or you’re gonna be a guitar player in a band. I’m OK no matter what direction you take because I just think you’re awesome.” And during the process, he would call me every few months and have me come listen. His music was unformed, but there was a gem of unbelievable songwriting. I would send songwriters to him—Tobias and other people. And all these songwriters said, “Steve, you don’t need us. You got this.” Because he did. But I think part of it was just getting him to believe that he could do it.

When I signed SZA, Top Dawg said to me, “She’s gonna love you and you’re gonna love her, and she needs to be with a woman like you.” And I just sat with her and said, “You are cool as shit.” I went to her show; I saw her in Austin and at the Forum. I never sit seventh row on the floor for shows. Who does that anymore? It was thrilling because I absolutely believe she made the record of the year. But this show elevated it even further.

Kendrick Lamar is actually how I connected with SZA, by way of Top Dawg. I actually didn’t get Kendrick for his first deal [previous to UMPG], but not getting that deal was the thing that brought Top and me closer. And Top brought me SZA. So as soon as Kendrick’s deal came up, I was in the right position. And I am not only a huge Kendrick fan, but I love his team: Dave Free and Anthony Saleh. Through them, we were able to sign Baby Keem and his producer, Scott Bridgeway. This is a great example of why relationships in music are so important.

There are some artists you sign, like Gaga, who say, “I’m gonna be the biggest artist in the world,” and you’re, like, “Oh, OK. What do you need to get there?” There are other artists you just know are really talented. The only time I’ve been wrong is when the artist didn’t want it as much as I wanted it.

And hey, it’s a lot to get on the stage and perform in front of all those people. When I was growing up, my dad was in the nightclub business, and somebody recently asked me, "How did that experience shape you?" And there’s a lot of darkness to it, a lot of craziness. But two things really came out of it. One, I saw what an artist looks like before they go onstage, standing backstage. Some threw up, some had anxiety, some said they weren’t going on. None of them were, like, “Yay, here I am. I’m so great. I’m going on.” There was always some kind of anxiety. And then they got onstage and they were a different person.

So I think I recognized anxiety in artists early. But I also grew up watching the greatest entertainers of all time. So the bar was high. And I think I can recognize that. And somebody like SZA, when I was at the show, there was Adele and there was Justin Bieber and there was James Corden; all these people were there to see her. And I think she’s, like, Wait, what is it about me? Why me? I think they all have that thing, because when you’re super-successful, you’re, like, Wait, why is it me? What is it?

Because it’s weird. These songs come out of you, and I love that so much. That’s not me. I always knew I’d be behind the scenes. I didn’t want to be famous. I couldn’t write a song. I didn’t even know that writing songs was a thing.

Getting back to who we are as a company, though, I think one of the things is that for me, songwriting is one of the only art forms that’s collaborative. Painters don’t paint with other painters. Photographers don’t. Sculptors don’t. Authors don’t.

SG: The SZA concert you referenced is the end point of this process of a song going from a thing the artist presents to you, which you evaluate and think about and fall in love with, to the point where a room full of people who don’t know each other are singing it together.
Yes, and are mesmerized by this performance. It’s incredible. I mean, think about the fact that Taylor Swift is going on the road and doing 44 songs. Talk about a connection with her audience.

Taylor was a different thing, because we signed her when she was successful. I have to acknowledge that I don’t do this by myself, and that I have an extraordinary team of people around the world who are as good at this and have deep relationships. Like [UMPG Nashville head] Troy Tomlinson. He’s so good, and such a great guy. He had this really long career at Sony. I called him one day and said, “Just come over.” He said, “I have everybody where I am. I’m good. I’ve got my people.” I said, “Yeah, but don’t you want a new challenge? Why do the same thing?” And he said, “But my artists are here.” And I said, “Troy, they’re gonna come with you.” And when he came over, he says, “Listen, they’re not gonna come with me.” I said, “I’m telling you.” And then Taylor said, “Oh no, I go where he goes.” That was so much about a relationship they’d had since she was a teenager. The same thing’s happening with Jenn Knoepfle, whom I brought over. She has become an extraordinary executive and leader, and a lot of her people are coming with her.

You mentioned marketshare earlier. Yes, marketshare is important, but what’s really important is that artists and songwriters want to be with us because of what we provide. David Gray is a wonderful co-head of A&R. David and a guy named Zach Lund in Nashville really believed in this kid Stephen Sanchez. And the deal was so competitive and aggressive. I don’t know if I should say this out loud, but I think if an artist wants to be with us, the deal follows. So often lawyers and managers lead with the deal. The fact is, if we wanted to be with each other, I’ve never not signed an artist over a deal. But if somebody says to me, "Oh, this one offered more and this one offered more, blah, blah," I’m, like, "If you just want to make a deal, go make a deal somewhere else."

I have the most gorgeous roster. It’s legacy, with people like Dylan, Sting, Neil Diamond. And it’s Elton John. I mean, I get to work with Elton John and Bernie Taupin. I get to have conversations with Elton about music. Literally, pinch me. And at one point David Gray called and said he’d read that Elton was a fan of Stephen’s. So I called Elton and said, “Hey, we understand that you mentioned something about Stephen Sanchez. Can I connect you?”

I did my job. I made that connection. But whatever happens now, I don’t need to be in that story. I didn’t sign Stephen; David and Zach did, but Stephen deserves global support from us, and being able to connect him with Elton? It doesn’t get better than that.

SG: Talk about evincing your belief: “Elton John wants to talk to you.”
Isn’t that crazy? Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Alexandra Lioutikoff. I made a major commitment to LATAM—our numbers are through the roof because those guys have signed the right talent. One fortunate effect of the pandemic is that all of a sudden you’re making an effort to connect to more people on Zoom and whatnot. So we started doing these meetings with all of our MDs. I would do a LATAM meeting and say, "Your music is global music; don’t just think about yourselves as great talent finders in your territories, in Colombia, in Chile, in Argentina, in Miami, in Puerto Rico.

I love that we are in a moment in time when some of the biggest artists in the world don’t sing in English. Music is global and language is not a barrier. I am so proud that we have made and continue to make huge commitments to Spanish-speaking artists like Bad Bunny, ROSALÍA, J Balvin, Yahritza, Sebastian Yatra, Feid, Elena Rose, Rvssian, Marisa Monte, Romeo Santos and countless others.

Or look at country. I think the future of country music is extraordinary and a major commitment to amazing young artists, whether it’s Ingrid Andress or so many other amazing people, especially women, who are coming up out of Nashville.

But getting back to Latin: We just signed this woman named Elena Rose, a phenomenal songwriter, Spanish speaker.

But I want people to recognize that if you sign with us, no matter what genre you’re in, we see you as global. I say to my LATAM people, “You’re as important as my pop guys in New York; you’re as important as my team in the U.K.” My head of A&R in the U.K., Pete Simmons, is 29 years old. He’s got the best taste in music and an incredible history and has signed amazing people. And his team there is great. I’ve got great people.

In Part 2: a day in the life