Boberg heightens diskery's stature in music biz

HOLLYWOOD — MCA Records’ takeover last week of the black music division of Geffen Records is the latest example of MCA’s growing stature in the music industry.

Since taking the reins of the diskery just over two years ago, Jay Boberg has transformed MCA Records from the last stop to the first stop for many dealmakers.

Newcomers like Aqua, Blink 182 and Semisonic have become marquee names for the label, though just a few years ago, it was seemingly defined by vet acts such as Tom Petty, Elton John and Meat Loaf.

Though Boberg declined to comment on revenues, sources said the label recently posted the most successful February in its history for album sales and is closing in on $235 million in annual revenue for the fiscal year ending June 30.

MCA’s current album market share rose from 4.8% in 1996 to 5.18% in 1997 — despite releasing fewer albums.

“We’ve made great strides in changing the perception of the label and hiring people capable of taking it to a level that would make any artist or manager pleased to be associated with us,” Boberg told Daily Variety. “But our work is far from done.”

Boberg was prexy and co-founder of now-defunct IRS Records, where he reigned for 10 years before joining MCA.

“Jay’s had a difficult task of building a roster while also making the label a place that artists (and execs) want to become part of,” said Doug Morris, chairman of Universal Music Group. It was Morris who, at the suggestion of UMG prexy Zach Horowitz, tapped Boberg to lead the label. “It had such a bad image, and Jay has been able to reverse that.”

Boberg was already a member of the MCA family: Horowitz had placed him at the helm of MCA Music Publishing two years earlier.

Aided by second-in-command Abbey Konowitch, a former MTV exec who helped put Alanis Morissette on the map while an exec at Madonna’s Maverick Records, Boberg has beefed up its black music arm with several key hires and last Friday pacted with Geffen to assume the marketing and promotion duties for the latter’s hip-hop acts (Daily Variety, April 6).

And while the jury is still out on whether Boberg has completely reversed decades of unfavorable perception and has put MCA on track — most of the label’s roster has yet to release a second offering — the artist signings suggest the label is on a roll.

The regime’s first big release, “Home Again,” the reunion disc from New Edition, topped the sales charts and outsold the eagerly awaited Warner Bros. Records R.E.M. disc (The two discs were released the same week.). NE’s disc has logged nearly 2 million copies.

MCA has also hit paydirt with K-Ci & JoJo, former members of Jodeci whose “Love Always” album has enjoyed a steady ascension on the sales chart.

Aqua’s bow “Aquarium” has sold more than 2.8 million copies in seven months of release; Mary J. Blige’s third disc (but first MCA album), “Share My World,” has shared some profits with MCA, as more than 2.2 million albums have been sold. Sublime’s eponymous bow has checked in with sales of north of 3.1 million units.

“Since Jay got there, they have become serious contenders,” noted veteran entertainment attorney Jay Cooper. “They are going after acts, and have reversed many of the old criticisms like the label isn’t into rock or alternative or won’t step to the plate.”

Though some critics say Boberg takes too long to fish or cut bait on a deal, the label chief recently sprung into action to ink newcomers Free Radicals, a band that was beginning to build a buzz off its five-song demo. Boberg made a preemptive strike and took the band off the market. It was a move that surprised some competitors.

“When we feel strongly about something, we’ll act quickly on it,” Boberg said.

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