How I Made It: An insider and trailblazer leads Universal Music Publishing
The gig: Jody Gerson is the chair and chief executive of Universal Music Publishing Group, representing songwriters such as Demi Lovato and Big Sean. UMPG is part of Santa Monica-headquartered Universal Music Group, the world’s largest record company.
Early days: Gerson, 54, grew up in Philadelphia, where her dad and grandfather ran a nightclub. She would visit the club for Sunday matinee shows to see the likes of Frank Sinatra and Diana Ross & the Supremes. Her ambition started early. During high school, she held summer internships at a local radio station and TV’s “The Mike Douglas Show.”
First job: After earning a degree in communications from Northwestern University, Gerson moved to New York in the mid-1980s. She chose New York because her parents wouldn’t send her to California, she says. She interviewed at record company promotion departments and unsuccessfully tried to score a position at then-thriving MTV.
That’s when she found her first real gig, at music publisher Chappell. There she learned about the world of music publishing, which handles the songs and compositions behind the sound recordings heard on albums and the radio.
Selling songs: Her first job at Chappell wasn’t the most creative. She spent her days Xeroxing sheet music and schlepping the copies uptown to songwriters’ apartments. But she quickly moved to a job in Chappell’s tape room, essentially the company’s library of songs, including those by Hall & Oates and the Bee Gees. There she compiled new music for the higher-ups to hear.
She soon took advantage of her access to the library to make a name for herself. Gerson would stay after the rest of the staff had gone home and listen to the songs over and over. Music stars don’t always write their own material, so a central job for publishers is to place songs with artists who can turn them into hits.
“I would be the first one in and the last one out at the office every day,” she said. “I loved it, and I was going to do whatever it took.”
What she needed was industry contacts, and she caught a break when she met John “Jellybean” Benitez, who had produced Madonna. Gerson’s song picks impressed Benitez, as it became clear she had an ear for hits. When she asked Chappell’s president for a promotion, he offered some advice she recalls years later: “You will be known by the songs you send and the artists you sign, not the office you sit in.”
Going Gaga: In the following years, Gerson secured executive posts at EMI Music Publishing and Sony/ATV Music Publishing. She signed Alicia Keys when the “Girl on Fire” singer was just 14 years old, and brought in Enrique Iglesias before the Latin sensation began singing in English.
When Gerson arrived at Sony/ATV in 2008, she badly needed new artists. One day a not-yet-famous Lady Gaga (real name, Stefani Germanotta) came into her office and said, “I’m going to be the biggest artist in the world.” Gaga played her songs on piano, and Gerson believed the young singer. Gaga’s first single, “Just Dance,” became a No. 1 Billboard hit.
Publishing, though often overshadowed by the label business, has played an increasingly important role in artist development, Gerson said. “What my experience with Gaga did was solidify the fact that I was empowered to truly help an artist break.”
Greatest hits: In August last year, Universal Music Group Chairman Lucian Grainge recruited Gerson to lead the publishing arm of his company, replacing Zach Horowitz. In her role as the first woman to head a major music publisher, she has signed top-tier artists including Lovato, Nick Jonas and Ariana Grande and expanded relationships with the likes of Nicki Minaj and J. Cole.
Brave new world: Songwriter royalties are the cornerstone of the music publishing business — a job that’s become increasingly fraught amid the rise of Internet-based services such as Pandora, Spotify and the new Apple Music.
Gerson says record companies and publishers have to do a better job of presenting a “unified front” to Washington lawmakers and regulators as they try to find ways to better work with tech companies. “It’s really scary,” she said. “We have to figure out how to maintain value in a digital world.”
Next moves: Publishers and songwriters can no longer afford to rely solely on royalty payments. They must look for other sources of revenue.
Gerson says she’s been cutting deals with television production companies and film studios in Hollywood to develop TV projects and movies based on their music. For example, when studios make artist biopics and shows about the industry, UMPG wants to be at the table from the onset.
“We should have developed ‘Empire,’” Gerson said, referring to Fox’s breakout TV series about the business of hip-hop. “We’re dealing with some of the best creative minds who are defining culture.”
Gerson is no stranger to Tinseltown. She was credited as a producer on the 2002 Nick Cannon film “Drumline.”
Personal life: Gerson is divorced with three children and has a boyfriend. Her hobbies include yoga and meditation.
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