If chart momentum keeps apace for Columbia Records in these final days of 2020, the label could lay claim to the No. 1 song in the U.S. for 11 of the last 17 weeks. Among its stable of smashes: Harry Styles’ “Adore You” and “Watermelon Sugar”; Arizona Zervas’ “Roxanne”; BTS’ “Dynamite” (with Big Hit Entertainment); “Savage Love (Laxed — Siren Beat)” by Jawsh 685 and Jason Derulo; Powfu’s “Death Bed (Co ee for Your Head)”; and 24KGoldn’s “Mood” (signed via a joint venture with Records).
Impressive as that may be, it’s still shy of the label’s unprecedented 19-week run at the top of the charts in 2019 with “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, who was signed and A&R’d by chairman Ron Perry, Variety’s Hitmakers Executive of the Year. The New York-based Perry arrived at 25 Madison in January 2018 from Songs, which he helped build into a formidable publishing house thanks to hits by Lorde, the Weeknd and Diplo, among others — then cashed out when it was sold to Kobalt for $150 million in December 2017.
Business acumen is clearly a big reason why Sony Music Group chairman Rob Stringer hand-picked Perry as his successor at Columbia, but so is Perry’s trained ear. “Being in publishing, I was really involved in making records,” says the 41-year-old of a process that involves everything from arranging songs to mixing. “That hasn’t changed. I hope I have good instincts. Sometimes I don’t. Over time, you work really hard to perfect that as much as you can.”
Still, being a studio rat and leading a staff of 200 — through a pandemic no less — seem like diametrically opposed skill sets, yet Perry has proven to be adept at both in 2020. To wit: BTS’ radio success with “Dynamite,” a demo he identified for the group. “I freaked out the first time I heard it,” says Perry of the track, written by David Stewart. “I knew it would be the No. 1 song BTS had always wanted. With the ARMY’s help and support, it was.”
Major labels don’t have a reputation for being particularly nimble, but Perry has shown how you can launch a song speedily and effectively. New Zealand producer Jawsh 685 is a prime example: When an instrumental by the then-17-year-old took off on TikTok earlier this year, Perry thought the song’s existing melody was “magical” and just aching for a topline to catapult it to hit terrain. “That [collaborator] ended up being Jason Derulo, who wrote it with JKash, and it became a huge record.” Indeed, in the five months since it was released, “Savage Love” is already a double-platinum single in the U.S. and nearing 5 million sold worldwide.
A favorite phrase of Perry’s is to “follow the music,” which is an interesting mantra considering how many A&R executives, managers and agents are chasing the latest TikTok trends. Perry acknowledges the platform’s influence, particularly this year. “TikTok has gotten bigger with the pandemic and everyone staying home, and there are lots of things happening virally daily,” he says. “But with the lack of touring, it’s harder to break new artists. Kid Laroi is one of the few who did in 2020. He never had a song chart on Spotify or Apple before January; now we’re looking at [going] gold by the end of the year — the project, not the song.” (Perry signed Kid Laroi in conjunction with Grade A Productions.)
To that end, albums are a sort of specialty for Columbia. Between newcomer rappers like Polo G and Lil Tjay and rock stalwarts AC/DC and Bruce Springsteen — not to mention Styles’ fantastically cohesive “Fine Line” — the full-length is having a moment, which feels natural to Perry, a musician himself who has jammed on stages with John Mayer, Haim and Ryan Tedder (and that was just at his 40th birthday party). Typically shredding on guitar, Perry’s not known for being a frontman in those instances, but he applies that same one-for-all, all-for-one ethos of being in a band to his work. Asked what his proudest moment has been at Columbia, he answers: “Honestly, building my team and creating a great culture at the company. We’re a close-knit group, we want each other to win, and we all want what’s best for the artist long term.”
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