Five Years In, How Hitmakers’ Top Executive Jody Gerson Remade UMPG in Her Image

The industry’s highest-ranking female executive scored the most points on 2019’s all-genre consumption board.

Michael Buckner for Variety

Universal Music Publishing Group dominates the 2019 chart with stakes in 18 of the 25 most consumed songs of the year, including hits by Post Malone, Ariana Grande and Shawn Mendes. It also racked up 72 individual Grammy nominations and represents 56 nominated songwriters at the 2020 ceremony. This came on the heels of a sweep at last month’s Latin Grammys with 23 awards. Credit the company’s omnipresence to global chairman and CEO Jody Gerson, who marks next month marks her five year anniversary at the UMG company that boasts a 40% rise in overall revenue (to more than $1 billion) since her arrival. She is the only woman in music industry history to hold such a position.

Gerson’s deep roots in music (her father ran a popular South Jersey nightclub in the 1960s and ’70s) and publishing in particular, starting at Chappell Music upon graduating from Northwestern University, has made her path seem almost predestined — not that it wasn’t a schlep at times.

After heading East Coast creative for EMI and later adding the West Coast to her purview, Gerson ascended to co-president of Sony/ATV during the company’s market share-leading run. But being No. 2 at the No. 1 publisher left a wall unscaled, and when it became clear that Gerson wasn’t being considered seriously for succession (following EMI veteran Marty Bandier’s exit, which came last year), she made the jump to UMPG in 2015.

“When I came to Universal, I took the first year to figure out what its strengths and weaknesses were,” says Gerson. “Universal was never run by a creative person. It had been run by lawyers and accountants who saw value in making deals, so there was less emphasis on talent.”

To the previous regime’s credit, Gerson notes that “the company was fiscally sound and had invested in technology.” Her first gander at the royalty software system showed a platform that she describes as “extraordinary.” Adds Gerson: “I gave carte blanche to the people running those departments to make sure our administration was at least two years ahead of everybody else.

In addition to championing cutting edge tech, Gerson made a big push for film and television connecting projects to UMPG-affiliated artists and UMG-owned IP — names like Elton John, Paul Simon and Billy Joel on the legacy side, and the likes of Post Malone, J.Balvin, Rosalia, Logic, Maren Morris and Variety Hitmaker of the Year Billie Eilish from its contemporary roster.

“Record companies are solely focused on the artist’s career, whereas I get to talk to artists about their art,” she says. “I want each song to be a massive hit, but if it’s not, it can go in a different direction — that works for us too. We try to take a holistic approach to the artist.”

The same could be said of its staff and signees. This past year, UMPG’s rising A&R executives put together a series of urban songwriting camps called Nightshift. These sessions brought together writers and producers from territories around the world, including Nigeria, Brazil and Scandinavia, along with French, English and American creatives. 

The global streaming economy has brought optimism to today’s music business. To hear Gerson tell it: “The more people listen to music, the more successful the streaming services are, the more successful we are. … The beauty of streaming is that every single time somebody hears a song, that song is paid for—even though it is at a fraction of a fraction of a penny, with big songs, you have an opportunity to earn more money.”

Spearheading the nonprofit She Is The Music, Gerson is also working towards promoting the number of women working in music, while at the same time taking note of the influence musicians have on the culture. “Kids don’t emulate actors or sports figures, they emulate artists,” she says. “Fans feel like they have the right to have a relationship with the artist and to know who they are. There has never been a time when the music and the artists have been more authentic or original.”

See the full list of 2019 Hitmakers here.