TOMMY MOTTOLA:
THE HITS INTERVIEW


Tommy Mottola
has, for some reason, granted us an audience.

The former chairman and CEO of Sony Music ruled the biz during a white-hot stretch between the late '80s and early 2000s, when the likes of Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Pearl Jam achieved stratospheric success. His mug appeared thousands of times in the pages of our disreputable magazine, replete with "fuhgeddaboudit" photo captions. In presiding over one of the fiercest crews in the music world, he was not to be trifled with.

In 2003 Mottola exited the major-label system. Rather than stepping off the stage, however, he started a fascinating new chapter.

Now, at a time when most of his contemporaries are either retired or deceased, Mottola's influence remains, particularly in the Latin genre, where his role in turning once-niche artists like Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan into worldwide crossover stars provides a direct throughline to his current work with NTERTAIN.

Launched in 2021 in partnership with NEON16's Lex Borrero and Range Media Partners, NTERTAIN aims to fill what Mottola sees as a void in quality Latin-oriented programming. The company has scored quick hits with Disney's Los Montaners, the Netflix talent competition series La Firma and Paramount+'s Mixtape. Mottola also serves as a mentor on the music side with Borrero and NEON16 co-founder Tainy, whose production work can be heard on hits by, among others, Bad Bunny, Maluma and J Balvin. As an artist in his own right, Tainy is a Grammy nominee in the Best Música Urbana Album category for DATA.

Helping further their internal synergy, Mottola and NEON 16 acquired the Latin-culture agency AM16 In June 2023. He says of the Latin music explosion of today: "When you have four to eight of the top 10 or 20 songs on a global chart consistently for a year or two, and the same thing in the U.S., you are pop culture, which permeates everything: fashion, consumer goods―whatever spreads its wings to everyday life. We are in the eye of this storm, and that's what's bringing the business to us."

Borrero, who vividly remembers his mother watching Mottola's wedding to Mexican pop queen Thalía on live television in 2000, praises his ability to identify musical and executive talent. "Tommy saw what we were building and understood that there were still opportunities in Latin music to be first," he offers. "Tommy has been great at creating those opportunities. He's been instrumental to our growth as a business, aligning us with major brands and contributing to what we've accomplished in film, television and advertising. All this has allowed us to think about shifting the culture in a bigger way."

As a music fan growing up in Miami, Borrero was keenly aware of Mottola's role in the ascent of Latin music. "It felt like a wave," he says. "It changed people's perceptions of what Latin artists could do and set the foundation for where we are today, with Latin music at the top of the charts. It had a big impact on me. I don't think Tommy gets enough credit for what's happening now, but he set this whole thing in motion."

It may seem odd that an Italian guy from the Bronx has been Latin pop's key mover and shaker, but cultural cross-pollination has been part of Mottola's life for as long as he can remember. "I was really fortunate to hear Latin music coming out of windows in my neighborhood every day. It was a huge part of my world," says the consummate executive, who dabbled as a musician and actor before catching on at Chappell Publishing in the early '70s and inking an early management deal with Hall & Oates. "And Dion, who was the bridge between rock 'n' roll and doo-wop, was born and raised and lived and sang right down the street. I had all these elements surrounding me even back then."

When he took the reins at Sony in 1990, no one was focusing on Latin music beyond its umpteen regional variations, recordings of which were largely sold in mom-and-pop stores. "It was such a tiny business," he recalls. "It didn't have major distribution. It didn't have major producers. There were no major quote-unquote record sellers. We went from having 20 companies to more than 70 worldwide, which established a global network to market, promote and expose the world to this music."

Indeed, by the end of the '90s, Sony was the undisputed market leader in Latin music, an achievement Mottola pulled off while forging close working relationships with Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand and a teenaged singer from Houston named Beyoncé.

His relationship with future wife Mariah Carey began when they were working virtually nonstop for more than a year on her star-making 1990 Columbia debut. "I'd go in every morning at 7:30 or eight o'clock and work all day," Mottola recollects. "But the real thrill for me was the end of the day; I'd go to one of my three favorite restaurants and by 8:00, I'd end up in the studio, making and mixing records―every single night I was at Sony."

He also facilitated Sony's deal with Jackson to buy half and eventually all of the latter's stake in ATV, which brought the incalculably valuable Beatles catalog under the company's publishing umbrella. And, he relates, "I once called [Sony chairman] Norio Ohga in the middle of the night to pitch him on spending $50 million for a building that came up for sale across from the Hit Factory. That became Sony Studios."

For the better part of a decade, Sony's market share dominated the competition, with Mottola knowing when to exert his considerable influence and when to delegate to one of his "team of killers." As he was unaccustomed to the promotion-shy stance of alternative-rock stars like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, he enlisted longtime number two Michele Anthony to be his grunge-whisperer. When Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder was dragging his feet on completing the artwork for the band's second Epic album, Anthony flew to Europe to take possession of the materials and safely spirit them back to New York.

"Eddie wouldn't talk to anyone but Michele," Mottola says. "She was an attorney before she came to Sony, but she'd been born and raised in the music business thanks to her father [legendary manager Dee Anthony]. She instinctively understood how to work with these newer artists, who had a different definition of success than the pop acts. It was her specialty. She's still the den mother."

Despite Sony's remarkable streak with Mottola at the helm, he's not without his regrets, relating, "One was being talked out of making a deal with Death Row Records [Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 2Pac] because [co-founder] Suge Knight [currently serving a 28-year sentence for a fatal 2015 hit-and-run] was threatening some of our people." The landscape-altering 1992 opportunity instead landed at Interscope. Later, the head of Columbia released both a teenaged Alicia Keys and an unknown 50 Cent from their contracts. "That was a big, huge, giant mistake," he concedes.

He also bemoans not being able to counter the Napster-fueled piracy boom of the early 2000s. Apple approached him about a pre-iTunes Store partnership based on the concept of digital music commerce, but, he says, "Japan turned it down on the basis that we were a manufacturing company and so was Apple; they were our competitor, so they said, ‘You cannot make this deal.'"

One of the final straws came when Mottola urged Sony to re-sign its superstars to 360 deals, which would have given the company a cut of the artist's touring, merchandise and other ancillary revenue streams. "No one was doing it at the time," he says. "With my background in management, I thought we could easily get into that business. I told them, ‘Let's form this groundbreaking new company, which I'd like to run.' We would have made profits like crazy. They mulled it over but turned it down. That created a schism."

Among the pillars of Mottola's legacy is the inspiration he's provided to a subsequent generation of label executives, including Republic founder Monte Lipman: "Tommy's prowess in identifying talent and providing a roadmap to success is legendary. His passion for life resonates throughout his work, family and community. I'm incredibly grateful for our friendship of nearly three decades."

Thanks to a partnership with Dodger Theatricals that's led to such productions as Jersey Boys, A Bronx Tale, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Clueless and Groundhog Day, Mottola has been almost as active on Broadway as he has in music. "It's one of the hardest, craziest and worst businesses to be in," he admits of his work on the Great White Way, which got off to a rocky start in 2013 when he spent "a few million bucks" on a never-staged adaptation of the 1972 film Superfly. "For a guy like me who picks up the phone and wants it done now, it's like watching paint dry. But it's so rewarding when you can take the seeds of an idea and realize it up on that stage."

A long-in-the-works Johnny Cash musical, The Ballad of Johnny and June, directed by the Tony-winning Des McAnuff, will open in La Jolla, California, in May before heading to Broadway. "I idolize Johnny Cash," Mottola says. "We auditioned at least a dozen people to play him and found this killer guy. I have to give Des the credit; he found him, and he's fantastic."

Still a keen observer of the music scene, Mottola says his current favorite is Chris Stapleton, insisting, "Nobody's touched his version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner'―not even Whitney." He volunteers that Beyoncé and Taylor Swift have "completely remodeled and supercharged what it means to be a pop star." And he commends artists like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, who've recently scored lucrative paydays by selling their catalogs back to Sony.

"I think it's wise. It allows them to invest that money for their families, make it work for them in an even bigger and better way," he confirms, noting that catalogs don't hold their peak value forever, making it crucial to strike while the iron is hot. "At the end of the day, things only have a certain shelf life. It's not like with the popular songs of the '30s and '40s, which were remade in the '50s and '60s. It's not that people can't remake these things; it's just going to grow less and less, with TikTok and the new audiences who could give a shit about any of that history."

The music industry may have turned itself inside out many times since Mottola's departure from Sony, but even at this late date, he feels like a kid in a candy store. "Nothing has changed," he says. "I still get the chance to do the things I love day in and day out. It's an incredible privilege."

Pictured (from top, r to l): Shakira and Mottola; Mottola and Lex Borrero; Mottola, Michele Anthony and a few famous pals; J Balvin and Mottola; Mottola and Gloria Estefan; Billy Joel, Mottola and Michael Jackson

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