Jack Harlow told tales of being in second grade. Lil Nas X admitted he “had a lot of fun pissing people off” this year. BTS sent their regards via video. Olivia Rodrigo saluted “all the amazing supportive women in my life,” while Lana Del Rey declared, “my lovemaking is my legacy – I get to make music in between.”
Variety’s fifth annual Hitmakers brunch saluting the artists and industry insiders behind the year’s biggest music hits drew an SRO crowd to the open-air City Market Social venue in downtown Los Angeles. All 300 attendees had to present proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test within 72 hours.
The gathering marked a pandemic-era coming-out event for many in the music biz. Many heartfelt “hellos” and “how are yous” were exchanged as insiders connected in person for the first time in months. Jadaboo was on duty as DJ.
“Oh my god, it’s been two years since I’ve been out of my house,” said Jody Gerson, CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group, as she looked out on the crowd. Gerson presented the inaugural Hitmakers A&R Award to Republic Records veteran Wendy Goldstein.
Goldstein said the recognition for the work of finding artists and developing their vision and brands was appreciated because she still feels like it’s an undersung aspect of the overall industry. She also recalled her early years as a “secretary” and being told that women could never succeed in A&R. “I believe I proved them wrong,” said Goldstein, who was promoted to co-president of Republic in November.
Goldstein’s advice for enjoying a long run in music? Don’t overlook the “special moments” that come in every career. “Embrace them, savor them and parlay that enthusiasm and that excitement and that love into the next artist, the next song, the next album. Always keep moving,” she said.
Shirley Halperin, Variety’s executive editor of music, noted in welcoming the crowd that Hitmakers is at its core a celebration of musicians and the teams that support their work: label executives, marketers, talent representatives and more. Among music-makers, one of the best aspects of the creative process is that “a conversation or a good hang can lead to a life-changing piece of art,” she said.
Prolific film composer Hans Zimmer was on hand to present Film Song of the Year kudo to Billie Eilish and Finneas, for their song for the James Bond pic of the same name, “No Time to Die.” Zimmer, who penned the score for the 25th installment in the 007 franchise, raved about the sibling duo’s ability to honor the legacy of Bond tunes while also “showing us the future of all and everything that Bond can become in the future.”
Eilish said “No Time to Die,” which was released more than a year in advance of the film that faced multiple pandemic-induced delays in its theatrical release, was “the most surreal song to be able to make.” Finneas was humble about adding a Hitmakers trophy to a case that includes eight Grammys.
“Our career this far has been a cascading list of honors that we feel are shoes too big for us to fill. But we’re here anyway,” he said, beaming in a dark-red suit. “We’re happy to be here.”
Harlow, who was feted as Hitmaker of Tomorrow, charmed the crowd (in a razor-sharp teal suit) with a well-spun yarn of the school-wide reading competition when he was in second grade in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. He was a voracious reader, and he was naturally competitive. “Those Harry Potter books were worth some points,” he recalled.
Two fifth graders took third and second place, but the win “by a landslide” at the end of the school year went to young Harlow.
“I want you to imagine this little second grader, with a buzz cut, eyeglasses and crooked teeth,” he said. “Before today that’s the only time in my life I’ve ever got in front of a crowd and won an award.”
Harlow’s heat in 2021 came in part from his collaboration with Lil Nas X on the smash “Industry Baby.” The latter was honored with the Innovator of the Year kudo for his statement-making work about LGBTQ inclusion in hip-hop with the “Industry Baby” music video and his “Montero” album.
“By being exactly who he is and commanding attention, by creating a universe that is both undeniable and exceptionally entertaining, he’s kicked in the door,” said Chloe Bailey, the rising star singer who presented the award.
Lil Nas X acknowledged he had a steep hill to climb after his 2019 breakthrough with “Old Town Road.” “It was very scary to try to follow up and keep it going,” he said. “I came out. I was myself. I did what I needed to do. I put effort into every single part of my career.”
Del Rey was recognized with the Decade Award, saluting her body of work since her 2011 debut with “Video Games.” She said she has been encouraged by an industry where singer-songwriters “can just journal what they’re thinking and sing about it.”
Avril Lavigne was on hand to fete Rodrigo as Songwriter of the Year, noting her standout year with the viral smash “Drivers License” and other tunes.
“To me it’s a beautiful thing about art: How music can bring us all together and make us feel less alone,” Rodrigo said.
In its fifth year, Hitmakers reached its largest audience to date with a live stream on Variety.com and via Amazon Music’s Twitch. The Peacock comedy “Girls5eva” was presenting sponsor.
Premiere partners were Amazon Music, which streamed the presentation and red carpet, along with IHG Hotels and Resorts and Motown Records. Official partners were Hendricks Gin and Wagoneer. Supporting partner was BeatClub.
Brazilian singer Anitta handed the Crossover Award to Kali Uchis, who had a Spanglish hit this year with “Telepatía.”
Uchis said it was a sign that the world’s ears are wide open. “You don’t need to be in one category, one genre, one language. You could do whatever you want,” she said.
Normani, who took the Collaborator Award, told the story of her journey to doing high-profile work with Cardi B and others She also thanked her presenter, choreographer Sean Bankhead, for being one who “pushes me to get uncomfortable, which unlocks the parts of me that used to scare me.” (Lil Nas X stood at his table clapping for Bankhead, his collaborator on the “Montero” video, as he took the stage.)
Polo G took the Rising Star Presented by Amazon kudo, but he missed a flight so his mother, Stacia Mac, accepted on his behalf.
“When we started this journey, we dreamed of moments like this,” Mac said. “Being from Chicago, this is surreal. … God willing, we’ll see you next year.”
Austin Rosen of Electric Feel Entertainment, this year’s Manager of the Year honoree, set the mark for the shortest remarks of the afternoon. “I appreciate it,” he said in his split-second at the mic.
Mike Dean, who got the nod for Producer of the Year, observed: “We’re lucky to do what we love every day.”
Quality Control’s Simone Mitchell and Motown’s Ethiopia Habtemariam put the Future is Female Award spotlight on City Girls, the hip-hop duo of Yung Miami and JT.
Despite the momentum behind the pair, “We are like normal girls. Some days we want to be rappers, the next day we want to be what we is,” JT asserted. Yung Miami let her partner do most of the talking. “Thank god, period,” she said.
Jem Aswad, Variety‘s deputy editor of music, hailed Max Lousada, Warner Music Group’s CEO of recorded music, as Executive of the Year. Ed Sheeran offered a video tribute. Lousada himself delivered video remarks, noting that the music executive’s mission is to “deliver our artists’ music in a way that really creates emotional engagement.”
The Label of the Year laurel went to Columbia Records for its rock-’em, sock-‘em year that included megasmash global hits with BTS (“Butter”) and Adele (her long-awaited album “30”) and recordings from Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Tyler, the Creator.
“And then we’ve been lucky enough to work with and help break new artists,” Ron Perry, Columbia’s chairman-CEO, said, citing Lil Nas X, Chloe Bailey and Polo G. Perry accepted with Columbia general manager Jennifer Mallory, who dedicated the win to the storied label’s staff. “This is because of the work you do,” she said.
BTS’ “Butter” took Record of the Year honors. The K-pop superstars sent a special thank-you video, declaring that the song was an effort to “share fun, positive energy with many people.”
“Butter” songwriters Jenna Andrews, Alex Bilowitz, Rob Grimaldi and Stephen Kirk accepted for Record of the Year.
“This is the best moment of our lives,” Andrews gushed.
Lil Nas X filmed a TikTok featuring Rodrigo, Harlow, Normani, Lavigne, Tinashe and more during the event. Watch his full video below:
(Pictured: Lil Nas X)