Listen to this article
As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, Jody Gerson was accustomed to being woken in the middle of the night by parties. Her parents owned The Latin, a nightclub that reigned in local show business in the 1960s and 1970s. The likes of Diana Ross, Frank Sinatra, The Supremes and Richard Pryor played shows and would come to their home afterwards for soirées that went into the wee hours. “Talent was all around me,” Ms Gerson says of her childhood.
Now, she is among the most powerful people in the music industry in her own right. As chief executive and chairman of Vivendi-owned Universal Music Publishing, which makes nearly $1bn in sales a year, she manages the song catalogues for acts including Prince, Adele and Ariana Grande. Known for helping to launch the careers of Lady Gaga and Alicia Keys, Ms Gerson also stands out because she is the first and only woman to lead a major music company. This is a fact she hopes will change.
“I truly hope we can soon stop talking about me being the only woman,” she says, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “One day I hope that people will judge my success as just a leader of a company, not as a woman leader of a company. But it’s still new enough that I’m comfortable talking about being a woman . . . By having a full life, hopefully I lead by example that other women feel they can too.”
Ms Gerson prides herself on plain-speaking, a trait that surfaced in the aftermath of this year’s Grammy Awards, the music industry’s biggest night. It was a few weeks after actors had launched the Time’s Up organisation at the Oscars, as part of a broader reckoning about sexism and abuse of power in Hollywood.
The Grammys were viewed as the industry’s chance to embrace the #MeToo movement. To show solidarity with Time’s Up, UMPG’S parent company Universal Music handed out white roses for its executives and artists to wear. But the ceremony served more as a reminder that greater progress was needed. Only one woman received an award during the telecast. Lorde, the only one nominated for the grand prize, album of the year, was not invited to perform, but the four male nominees were.
After Neil Portnow, chief executive of the Recording Academy, the body that runs the Grammys, was asked why female artists have not been better represented, he said women “[need to] step up, because I think they would be welcome” in the industry.
The comment ignited fury on social media and Ms Gerson and five other senior female executives sent a searing letter to the academy’s board of trustees, calling it “woefully out of touch”.
“We are very clearly now responding,” says Ms Gerson, crediting #MeToo for uniting women in the industry. She cites a study by the University of Southern California that showed only 9 per cent of Grammy nominees in the past five years were women. Yet the biggest-selling albums of the past decade were by three women — Adele, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga. “There are all of these iconic female artists and yet 2017 was a six-year low?” she says. “It’s not going to be a simple fix.”
Ms Gerson’s first proper job in the music industry started after she graduated from Northwestern University, moved to New York and worked for Chappell Music, where she photocopied sheet music in the archives room. “I’d never even heard of music publishing,” she says. It was the first step in a three-decade career in music publishing, which handles the songwriting behind the recordings heard on albums.
Ms Gerson later moved to EMI, where she scored one of her early triumphs — signing a 14-year-old Alicia Keys — and continued to rise up the ranks before another big coup in 2008. On the hunt for a big new artist, she found Stefani Germanotta, an unknown but ambitious singer. Ms Gerson signed her as a songwriter to Sony/ATV in 2008, where she wrote for other artists before putting out her first smash hit album, as Lady Gaga.
Seven years later, after helping build Sony/ATV into the world’s biggest music publisher, and freshly divorced, Ms Gerson was frustrated with her career. She had reached a ceiling at the company, where she was co-president. She had also — perhaps belatedly — “recognised that having ambition isn’t anything that I had to apologise for”.
“I don’t know that I was ever a person who was encouraged to take a risk,” she says. “Growing up I knew I had to take care of things, and then having three children, I had a responsibility to my family.” Nonetheless, she forced herself to take a risk and jumped ship in 2015 to rival UMPG, which had offered her the top job of chief executive. “I didn’t ‘have a gut’ about it. But what I did have a gut about was: all these men were getting big gigs and I was just as good as them, so why wasn’t I getting them?”
Since then, Ms Gerson has become a champion for women in the music business, long criticised as a boys’ club; Keys has called her a “really special woman in the music industry”.
Over three decades, Ms Gerson has witnessed a transformation in how people listen to music, from CDs to the advent of the iTunes store, and now streaming on services such as Spotify, which started gaining traction around the time Ms Gerson took over at UMPG.
She has overseen a 30 per cent jump in revenues for the company. As part of the broader revival in the music business, parent Universal Music is now estimated to be worth $40bn — compared with $8bn five years ago.
Ms Gerson has been rewarded with accolades such as Billboard’s “visionary” award this year, ranking as the seventh most powerful person in the industry. She was the only woman in the top 10, but she is optimistic this will change.
“Women are getting into the ranks now at higher levels,” she insists. “And when women come into businesses, businesses are better. Our industry will be a more sensitive and thoughtful industry. It’s just a matter of time.”
An ear for new talent
Jody Gerson is known for having one of the best ears for talent. At UMPG, she inherited a company with strong financials, but it had been run by “mostly lawyers and accountants”, and Ms Gerson felt it was lacking in great songs.
She set out to take bets on unproven artists, such as SZA, the 26-year-old R&B singer who is now one of the hottest rising stars, with five Grammy nominations this year.
Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, chief executive of rapper Kendrick Lamar’s record label, Top Dawg, brought SZA to Ms Gerson because he wanted her to meet a woman in charge.
“I loved her,” Ms Gerson says of meeting SZA. “I told my kids she was going to be big, and then she was.”
Get alerts on Women in business when a new story is published