Music Industry’s Brave New World Requires New Breed of Executive

Does Paul Rosenberg's arrival at Def Jam and Ron Perry's new gig a Columbia signal a new era for the major labels?

Music Executives
Jacob Thomas for Variety

The music business is undergoing a transformation that has reached into the executive suites, with an influx of young but experienced gunslingers, some in their 30s and 40s, replacing the old guard. Among their skill sets: knowledge honed from digital technology as well as previously fringe genres that have been built from the ground up.

It’s often a wrenching process to see veteran boomers being phased out by millennials, but in the ever-changing record industry, the evolution is a necessary one. For those whose expertise is in the physical world of promotion and sales — the competency required for the better part of the last half-century — it’s time to relearn their jobs or give way to a more connected generation.

“The dinosaurs running the major labels are clueless, and their days are over,” states outspoken music/entertainment attorney Dina LaPolt, whose clients include Britney Spears, Fifth Harmony and Deadmau5. “This new group will take over because they’re smart and think outside the box. And it’s not just millennials either. I call them the Perennial Generation, because they can be any age as long as they live in the present and stay curious and up-to-date with technology. They’re collaborative, global-minded risk-takers.”

The old ways include industry plays based on a relationship or an enticement other than cold, hard data to get a song to air on the radio; bets placed on a future hit rather than a project you can put a number on today; strategies that pay too much attention, and money, to those grandfathered into the business, sometimes quite literally; and an outlook that thinks locally and acts territory by territory. The names of the old guard are synonymous with the industry’s golden days — Geffen, Ostin, Mottola — but institutional knowledge doesn’t hold the weight it used to. Today, a major label needs to be nimble in everything from how it runs its profit-and-loss statement to what sound of the moment has commercial potential.

The appointments to the C-suites of younger turks like Columbia Records chairman Ron Perry (38), Def Jam CEO Paul Rosenberg (46, pictured above) and Warner Bros.’ co-chairman/CEO Aaron Bay-Schuck (36) puts executives in positions of power who straddle the CD and internet eras, offering a unique purview in the industry’s most fruitful and most challenging years. And since none of them has previously run record companies, they’re not encumbered by the way things used to be.

This extends to male-dominated front offices that now have more women in executive positions than ever before. According to Universal Music Group, roughly half of its U.S. workforce is female. In this era of heightened tension between genders, it’s promising to note that women have worked their way far up the ladder, with major-label executives including Universal Music Publishing Group topper Jody Gerson, Universal Music Group exec VP Michele Anthony, Atlantic Records chairman/COO Julie Greenwald, Sony Music head of business affairs & general counsel Julie Swidler, Epic Records president Sylvia Rhone, Motown Records president Ethiopia Habtemariam, Harvest Records/Caroline Records co-head Jacqueline Saturn and newly named Sire Records president Rani Hancock. No longer are women record company employees stuck in the traditional roles of either assistants or publicists.

As a prime example, LaPolt points to Epic/Sony Music senior VP of commerce Celine Joshua, a numbers wiz who came up with the idea to post digital playlists featuring label artists on Spotify, spawning a chart success in the process. “She moves the needle,” LaPolt says.

In another sign of the evolution of the record business, once underground music styles have also produced label heads, including punk/emo (Interscope Geffen A&M chairman John Janick), EDM (Disruptor Records founder Adam Alpert) and hip-hop (RCA Records chairman Peter Edge and Def Jam’s Rosenberg).

Edge, 56, says that changes are inevitable and part of the fabric of a unique industry. “This has always been a young business that thrives on new talent and energy because that’s the way music is oriented,” he says. “You need young people coming through with new ideas and creativity.  I thrive on that. It changes and makes things exciting.”

Alpert, the man behind the Chainsmokers, was brought in to Sony Music by music business lifer Doug Morris three years ago from the world of club promotion and dance music. One of the things he adopted from EDM and hip-hop is the need for a constant flow of product. “This is an instant-gratification business,” Alpert explains. “One of the things we’re working hard on is turning those streams into fans, creating career artists.”

Warner Bros. Records exec Larry Mattera, one of that new class of music execs, as GM/exec VP of commerce and marketing, also puts the focus on measurement. “The ability to utilize data is probably the most important skill a modern-day record executive needs,” he says. “Not merely how you read it but how to use it in making decisions. We’re moving to an ‘always on’ mind-set, whether it’s more music more often or 365-days-a-year fan engagement.”

Warner Music Group president of worldwide A&R Mike Caren, a 23-year company veteran, says analytics and old-school talent scouting can coexist. “I use my gut to digest all the information and experiences absorbed while considering whether to sign an artist,” he says. “Data may now be more plentiful, but it’s about how you filter and digest it. You also have to get to know the artist … their uniqueness, work ethic, ambition and tenacity.”

Sony’s Alpert cites one of the lessons he’s learned from 79-year-old label veteran Morris who, over a 50-plus-year career, has headed all three of the major-label groups (he currently holds the title of Sony chairman emeritus). “The fundamental rule remains,” Alpert says. “If people are exposed to music and not consuming it, it’s not a hit.” He adds that technology changes the way the storefront works, but “the modern generation has learned how to read the data provided by the new technologies and turn that into sales.”

Will the transparency of streaming manage to create a true meritocracy in the halls of the record labels? Are the baby boomers now in their 60s ready to finally allow their hands to be pried from the steering wheel? Will there be more interaction between previously segmented departments at the labels? LaPolt, for one, says the sector is ripe for revolution.

“The record business is clearly on its way toward reinventing itself,” she says. “As soon as the internet hits every car dashboard, it will be a complete game changer. If today’s biggest market trigger is still terrestrial radio, those executives who understand how to use streaming to grow their business globally will be the ones in power in 10 years.”

Following are some of those new-style execs:

Ron Perry

Credentials: The former publishing executive is credited with pairing The Weeknd with Daft Punk.

How He Got Here: After cashing in his stake in Songs Music Publishing (sold to Kobalt for more than $140 million), whose roster includes Lorde, the Weeknd, Diplo and Major Lazer, the consummate networker takes the fabled post once held by the likes of his predecessor and main recruiter, Sony Music CEO Rob Stringer, as well as Donnie Ienner and Al Teller. He’ll be the youngest head of a major label until Aaron Bay-Schuck takes over later this year at Warner Bros. Records.

Roster: Adele, Bruce Springsteen, the Chainsmokers

Age: 38; Title: Chairman, CEO; Label: Columbia Records; Started: Jan. 8

Aaron Bay-Schuck

Credentials: He discovered Bruno Mars in 2005, but it wasn’t until four years later that “Atlantic saw the vision,” he says.

How He Got Here: The former Interscope Geffen A&M president of A&R, who spent a decade at Atlantic Records, has worked with such artists as Bruno Mars, Flo Rida, Selena Gomez, Imagine Dragons, Lady Gaga and Lana Del Rey.

Age: 36; Title: Co-chairman, CEO; Label: Warner Bros. Records; Starts: September

Tom Corson

Credentials: He began his career as an intern at influential indie I.R.S. Records while attending UCLA.

How He Got Here: Steeped in the ways of mentor Clive Davis from his days at Arista and J Records, the marketing vet segues from co-running RCA Music Group with Peter Edge to the same arrangement at Warner Bros. Records with Bay-Schuck, providing the operations side to the latter’s A&R expertise.

Roster: Green Day, Michael Bublé, Gary Clark Jr.

Age: 57; Title: Co-chairman, COO; Label: Warner Bros. Records; Started: Jan. 2

Rani Hancock

Credentials: She graduated from Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music in 1991.

How She Got Here: The A&R veteran was named president of Seymour Stein and Richard Gottehrer’s storied label by Max Lousada in one of the first moves last summer by the incoming Warner Music Group CEO for Recorded Music. Hancock has worked with Kesha, Miley Cyrus, Nick Jonas and Demi Lovato during long-term stints at RCA and Island Records.

Roster: Bryce Vine

Age: 46; Title: President; Label: Sire Records; Started: Aug. 1

Paul Rosenberg

Credentials: The Detroit native, who’s also an attorney, was an executive producer on Eminem film “8 Mile” and a producer on 50 Cent’s “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.”

How He Got Here: Eminem’s longtime manager —also the head of Goliath Artists, his management company, and the Shady Records label — succeeded Steve Bartels at the UMG imprint with Lucian Grainge’s co-sign.

Roster: Justin Bieber, Kanye West, Logic, Alessia Cara

Age: 46; Title: CEO; Label: Def Jam Recordings; Started: Jan. 2