This week In the Hot Seat with Livia Tortella, Chief Operating Officer, and Co-President of Warner Bros. Records.
An unrivaled passion for music, and an uncanny understanding of digital and traditional marketing, has led to Livia Tortella having a prime chair at the Warner Music Group’s dinner table.
Los Angeles-based Tortella has been the chief operating officer, and co-president of Warner Bros. Records Inc. since Sept. 14, 2010.
It was at that time Warner Music Group configured a new senior management team for the Warner Bros. Records label group that consists of the Warner Bros., Asylum, Nonesuch, Reprise, and Sire labels.
As well as Tortella, this senior management team includes Rob Cavallo as chairman; and Todd Moscowitz as co-president and CEO.
Prior to joining Warner Bros., Tortella was Atlantic Records’ executive VP/GM in New York. She joined Atlantic in 2004.
In addition to focusing on artist development, Tortella played a pivotal role in molding the label’s direction by overseeing business and digital product development there, including bolstering a direct-to-consumer strategy for merchandise and fan clubs.
At Atlantic Records, Tortella was instrumental in developing the careers of Paramore, Death Cab For Cutie, Rob Thomas, Shinedown, 3OH!3, Bruno Mars, Cee Lo, and the Zac Brown Band. In addition, she championed the launch of several indie labels, including Alexandra Patsavas' Chop Shop Records which has released the best-selling “Twilight” soundtrack franchise.
Canadian-born Tortella began her music career at PolyGram Inc. in Montreal and then Toronto, working in publicity, A&R, and as a product manager for such labels as Island, Def Jam, Mercury, London, and Beggars Banquet Music Group.
Afterwards, Tortella spent five years at the Island Def Jam Music Group in New York, as a product manager, and as a senior marketing director.
During her freshman year at Warner Bros. Records, Tortella has been closely involved in projects by Michael Bublé, Wale, the Black Keys, Outasight, Theophilus London, and Gary Clark Jr.
An interesting year for you. Not just personally, but also for Warner Bros. with Michael Bublé, the Black Keys, Wale, Theophilus London, and Gary Clark Jr.
A very exciting year, for a lot of reasons. Like the move to Los Angeles, and just being part of Warner Bros. (Records) and that lineage of artists; being able to break new bands here; and being part of what’s going on here is really exciting.
What Warner artists are you excited about for in the first quarter?
For the first quarter, I am obviously excited about the continued success of the Black Keys. I am excited about our set up for Gary Clark Jr. and we have a new artist called Birdy (born Jasmine van den Bogaerde) from the U.K. that I am totally excited about, as well as this other artist called Kimbra. It is really exciting when you have a lot of great new artists; and that’s what I want to do this year is break one of them.
What are the roles of Rob Cavallo, Todd Moscowitz and yourself?
Rob is our chairman, and he oversees the creative direction of our company—really, really important. It is so great to have a man with his taste and his history at Warner Bros. His abilities as a producer just makes it a more creative driven company. Between Todd and I, it is really fluid. He definitely drives the pop and urban side of the business, and he oversees international, business affairs and promotion. I oversee a lot of the marketing driven areas of the company. So we interlock a lot.
You each report to (WMG recorded music chairman/CEO) Lyor Cohen?
You must have to liaison regularly with Warner Bros. affiliates around the world.
Yes. I think that the great thing about Warner Bros. is that it is in the ethos of the company that international and global superstars are a big part of what this company does. Whether it is Green Day or Linkin Park or Michael Bublé, there is a keen interest here in developing artists globally.
For years Warner Bros. Records was very much an American-centric margin-driven company. That shifted with the establishment of a strategic international marketing unit in 2004.
Yes, and we also have the kind of signings that can be exported globally. You have to have the kind of signings that can export globally as well.
Do you compete with Warner affiliates in seeking the amount of time you need for an artist in the U.S. market?
Every artist is different. Thankfully, the way that we’re structured is that we have close relationships with all of the marketing territories. Every couple of months, we have direct reports meetings where we are in the same room with (affiliate reps from) France and Germany. Because of our size, we are able to do that, and be effective. People do wait their turn if we do achieve what we achieve in America. People are very strategic with us in terms of an artist’s time. Every once in a while there will be a TV show in France that’s not movable, and you have to sort of move the calendar. But because we are very fluid, and know each other, I can pretty much get the world on the phone, look at a calendar to make it really easy (to plan); and make quick decisions based on what is a priority at this point and time.
Last year WMG realigned its senior staff, eliminating its European management team to put together a global management staff. Was the change about streamlining the company’s international activities?
Yes. To break a global act effectively, you have to be in a manageable situation in terms of people, and infrastructure. You have to have more direct relationships with repertoire owners as opposed to having a lot of middle people to go through strategy. Just this morning I was on the phone with the U.K. going through strategy for one of their artists called Birdy. Basically, we were talking about choice of singles (for the U.S. market), and her time and where we need her. We had a really productive conversation. I closed the phone, and I had a calendar (planned). That works so much better than having to go through a head of international here (in the U.S) and a head of international (in another territory). Streamlining had to happen in order for us to be a lot more effective.
[Birdy’s eponymous debut album was released Nov. 7 2011; the album peaked at #13 in the UK, #40 in Ireland, and in the Top 10 in Belgium, and Holland.]
At what point at Atlantic Records did you begin to focus on marketing, artist development, and digital product development? When did it become your central role there?
When I was at Island Def Jam, and I moved over to Atlantic and I became the GM there. I oversaw the marketing division—whether it was tour marketing, digital marketing, sales—and I was bringing a lot of those departments together, and sort of educating the digital marketing teams. Each department was working with everyone else. We were sort of giving each other a crash course on how to do things. I felt that there was a ton of similarities (between the departments). I felt that, especially in a digital space, you can market so much more directly, and much more effectively, if you have a handle on it.
Not many people in the music industry shared your views back then. Even today, digital marketing is tucked away in the corner of some labels.
It was weird because the more that we did traditional marketing—for instance, the more I spent money on TV advertising—the less I saw it do anything. There was that real big realization a couple of years into Atlantic that unless you have millions of dollars of media, you are not really affecting advertising. It was so easy to advertise in Canada. You’ve got two (TV) networks (CBC-TV and CTV)—to go to, and you get the message out. America is a bigger country. It’s more fragmented; and it’s really expensive to get your message out. But you used to be able to advertise on MTV, do VH-1, and so some “Late Night” (“Late Night With David Letterman”) and be able to feel something. I noticed that I was feeling less and less, and that I was getting more out of direct marketing whether it was to fans or social media marketing. So I was definitely noticing how much more effective and targeted I could be (with digital marketing).
As well, consumer’s habits were changing.
Consumer habits have since changed even more. The menus available for marketing a new release today are practically endless.
Absolutely. Just being able to see videos on your phone, and content, and music and be able to stream it is so exciting. The funny thing is that radio is still important. If you look at the top YouTube views and the top-selling singles on iTunes, it is still very radio driven. Radio is still very, very important. But there is this whole other world of exposing new music and positioning things (artists and music) that exists to us.
Do you work closely with Stephen Bryan, who was promoted as executive VP of digital strategy and business development for recorded music at Warner Music Group in Sept. 2011?
I talk to Stephen once a week. He has a digital innovation call where all of the labels participate. The digital representative of each labels, and the presidents. We talk about the deal-making process, and should we (the company) be in this deal or not. So we are very active with Stephen.
Last year, the major labels had difficulty coming to terms with Apple's cloud music service deal. Why?
We have to be very careful with every deal that we go into. The only kind of power that we do have is our power to engage in a new project or not—and under terms that make sense for our artists, and for us. There are certain things in terms of streaming, and certain guidelines that we really pay attention to. Things whether there is substitution or not; or if it (a deal) can hurt our business long-term. Also, data is important. Having access to data is also important because it could help us build our business.
A tug-and-pull seems to still exist between the labels and many of the new services and platforms; with the labels trying to figure out how much of the house do they give away.
I guess it comes down to what is advantageous for the label, and to the artist being the bottom line.
Absolutely. There are formulas of that which we think is below the line in terms of us losing money when you factor in things like scale. You also have to factor in other things. There is the cost of making things; and there’s the cost of marketing things. Obviously, that is lost on the media and the consumer in terms of what it takes to launch a record these days. I’d argue too that even though technology makes things a lot easier, that in many ways, it also makes it harder because you have to be in a lot of different places to manage an experience. For that, you need people.
At the same time, labels have been losing substantial revenue on the physical side of the business.
But we do very much focus on artists’ P&Ls (profit and loss) because there’s licensing revenue and revenue that we make in non-trad (retail), and in merch and that is a really low margin business. We definitely look at the whole thing too when we make decisions at the end of the day as to whether or not we are successful with something. But there is definitely a cut-off for pricing with digital.
Total music sales in the U.S. last year enjoyed a 6.9% increase but digital sales may never make up for the loss of physical sales. Labels like Warner Bros. have realized this, and have been working on other artist-based activities, such as merchandising which is up 35% at the company in the past year. One could argue that in a 360 deal, if the label can bring value to each component, it can be a win-win situation for everyone.
Correct. And the way that I explain 360 or multi-rights deals is that it all depends on where the artist is when they come to you. Many of these artists, even if they are developing things on their own, are signing to majors. I think it is because everybody is getting a ton smarter in terms of the kind of career they want. What they can do themselves and what they can’t. An exciting thing about this business is that people have choices. Artists have choices to pick the path that they want. (Like) when Death Cab made the decision on whether or not to go to a major; I am sure the Black Keys knew what they can do on their own, and they also know what a larger company can do. I think that is really important when you look at the kind of multi-rights deal that you strike. It really depends on where the artist is in their (career) trajectory when they come to you. It is definitely not a land grab in the sense if you want to continue funding and investing in an artist.
[Overall, U.S. album sales rose 1.4% to 330.6 million units in 2011, up from 2010's total of 326.2 million units. Digital track sales grew to 1.27 billion, up nearly 100 million units, or 8.5%, from the 1.17 billion in 2010. Digital album sales had a 19.5% increase to 103.1 million units from 86.3 million units. However, in the physical format, CD sales decreased 5.7% to 223.5 million units from the 236.9 million units in 2010.]
Let’s not kid ourselves. Some 360 deals from labels are little more than land grabs.
Right, but it has to be about the company having all of those things in value so that those rights can be properly exploited. Thankfully, Warner Music Group has that strategy in place.
Many artist managers have beefed up their own teams with marketing and technology personnel. The key management players are more knowledgeable in these diverse areas but still prefer to work with major labels.
Absolutely. Bruce (Allen) in particular, talks about the importance of majors. But you are right; they (the rights) have to have value. You are also right that you have to pay attention to all of it. There’s the recorded music side of things but we also pay attention to TV and film licensing. It is a really big part of our revenue. Definitely a big part of the Black Keys. We pay attention also to non-traditional retail. Warner Bros. is like #1 in non-traditional retail, largely because we have an adult-leaning roster that appeals to those types of places. We look at non-trad a lot when we look at our marketing plans. Starbucks is really an important part of that for us.
Also with global infrastructure, that’s how majors can compete as well in terms of artists coming to us. They want to make sure that people still want to be able to have consistent approach to their career development by looking at the world and knowing where to be and at what time and having that infrastructure behind them. The Black Keys signed a worldwide deal on this album and they are already on their way internationally in such a deeper way than before and they are thrilled. So you have to look at all of the areas for sure.
You worked with fellow Canadian Bruce Allen on Michael Bublé’s “Christmas” project, the second biggest selling album in the U.S. in 2011 with 2.5 million units sold.
I know, and I was working with a Canadian crew like Bruce Allen’s. The moment we arrived here, we were setting up that record.
For Red Hot Chili Peppers’ album "I'm With You” last year, you utilized traditional and non-traditional marketing. How do you determine the marketing strategy for projects?
The great part of the industry today is that, especially with marketing today, there is such a mix of things you can do. I find it super exciting. A lot of people in the industry are frustrated by how fragmented the marketplace is. I think it is amazing all of the cool things that you can try. It starts off with that we have this menu of things that we can discuss, and talk about. Then we have to really get at the essence of the band, and the record that we are marketing. we do that as a group. We put together planning meetings.
With Red Hot Chili Peppers, we started five or six months before release. We started to talk about what the band felt comfortable doing digitally and what they didn’t feel comfortable with. They aren’t big on Twitter. They are private and for them it is really important to make it (the marketing) about the music. So we really focused on that with the launch. They aren’t as visible out there doing every single promo activity either. It is just not in their DNA. So our challenge was figuring out how we get the music out there in creative new ways. The opportunity of streaming the entire album as part of a pre-order promotion with iTunes came, and also doing the Google listening party for fans. The way that we are structured here at WBR is that our digital department also has an international person in it that we co-ordinate with the rest of the world so they are getting information in real time. So we are able to do things like that and we are able to do them globally.
[Warner’s campaign for "I'm With You” featured a listening party on iTunes followed by simultaneous worldwide Google online, and in-person listening parties in London, Toronto, Tokyo, Sydney and Los Angeles. A cornerstone of the campaign was a movie theater live broadcast of the band playing the album sent via satellite to select theaters around the world. "I'm With You” debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200 chart. Red Hot Chili Peppers’ previous studio release was 2006's double-album "Stadium Arcadium" in 2006.]
Is it different for each group what their marketing needs are going to be?
Yes. The Black Keys are not going to do every single promotional event but they love to play and perform and do special events so they have a different…we can do different things with the Black Keys.
[The Black Keys will hit the road for their first leg of 2012 North American tour dates in March. The band is the featured cover story for the first time ever on the January 19th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.]
The integration of digital marketing into the recorded music operation is still evolving. You have been among the first to experiment with evolving technologies and platforms. Some have worked; others haven’t. You were one of the first to utilize sites powered by the Cisco Eos software platform for Laura Izibor, and Sean Paul.
The promise of that platform was to have data and intelligence on behavior. They (Cisco Media Solutions Group) didn’t continue to fund the project because they were unable to find other clients in the entertainment field. But what I thought was intriguing was the promise of what that platform could do which was to be able to deliver to our artists, and clients real information about how people behave on their sites—what they like to look at. Obviously, we get information of what people order, and what they purchase; but how great would it be to know a little bit more about what they know?
Right now, we are sort of in a complicated place where all of our partners, whether it’s Google or iTunes, they have more information about (consumer) behavior than we do. It is a really important goal for us to have real data that can grow our artists’ lives, and impact them. Everybody talks about data but nobody really knows what to do with the data that they have. This is where we are (in the music industry) in general. We are very focused on (data) as a company, and we want to be able to use it to further our artists.
[Cisco Eos was developed as a service platform, incorporating social networking, content management, site administration, and audience analytics by the Cisco Media Solutions Group. In April, 2011, Cisco closed down its EOS team.]
Despite Cisco Eos platforms not continuing, it furthered discussions in the area of developing further fan engagement and monetization.
That’s what new technology does. It puts things on people’s radar, and makes it important. What you said about digital (being) in the corner (at some label) is still very shocking. The thing that we did at Atlantic, and now what we are doing at Warner Bros., is making sure that digital and physical sales are the same people because the skill set (involved) is really selling and marketing records. We are evolving into a digital world, and with all of our skill sets we have to be completely prepared to deal with that. We can’t just have our heads in the sand and do traditional old school radio promotion.
So we have digital experts in every department, and I think that more and more everybody, is getting educated in the new ways of doing things. But it is surprising how in 2011 you still had digital sales and digital marketing in one place (at some labels). It is kind of interesting.
In 2008, Atlantic was cited as the first major label to achieve digital revenue in excess of 50% of its U.S. physical and digital sales revenue. Was that shocking to you when that happened?
It was shocking that nobody else followed us. We had really crazy, really great religion there when it comes to premium products on iTunes. We discovered early on that when you have hit records—which Atlantic had with some great A&R—you see it on the digital side really quickly. It’s always about having great A&R, and great music; but we also created a lot of premium products on iTunes because that consumer wanted new things. And we were able to see that even if we had a deluxe and a standard version of an album, that people always bought into the deluxe.
You see that today with all companies having deluxe releases.
Right, but at the beginning (of iTunes), it was the same old game the majors would do which was the price game. iTunes is sometimes price sensitive when it is a new artist but (consumers) are not always price sensitive if it’s something that they really want and that has value as well. So we were able to see that really quickly with iTunes and capitalize on it.
The breakthrough of Zac Brown Band while you were at Atlantic seemed to come about with radio airplay and social media.
“Chicken Fried” was already starting at radio when Zac was at Live Nation. Radio was starting to develop the song. When we took it over, I think that it was a combination of getting the song online and radio airplay. The digital sales were immediately reactive. We did a lot of direct marketing around single sales when we took it over. As a live performer, Zac is just extraordinary, and he was smart. He didn’t do the traditional country thing in touring. It was like Jimmy Buffet touring. He expanded the context of how he liked to tour. We built him like a touring artist versus just (being) a traditional country artist.
Almost like it was done in ‘70s.
Yes. It is totally a ‘70s thing. When you listen to the record (“The Foundation”) you think, Jimmy Buffett, Jim Croce, all of that cool shit. I think that Zac was very much in ethos of that, and that is sort of how we developed him.
[Bob Ezrin, then chairman of Live Nation Recordings, and Mike Luba (then president of Live Nation Artists) signed the Zac Brown Band to Live Nation Artists in 2008. Atlantic Records took over distribution of "Chicken Fried" after Live Nation Artists closed. The band's album “The Foundation” was released by Atlantic Records in association with the Home Grown/Big Picture label on Nov. 18, 2008 and "Chicken Fried" reached #1 on the Billboard country chart.]
Kid Rock fits in somewhere there as well. Kid Rock and Hank Williams Jr. being together on CMT’s “Crossroads” in 2001 drew 2.1 million viewers, a record for CMT at the time.
It’s so funny because Zac is the ultimate crossover artist, but I was also working and doing day-to-day for Kid Rock at Atlantic for probably six years. I don’t send Bob (Kid Rock) a lot because he’s very, very particular about the music that he loves. But I sent him this Zac Brown album because I knew that he was going to flip out over it. And Zac Brown, when he signed with us, he said, “I want Kid Rock’s career.” That was the first thing that he said. We looked at him and thought, “Well, okay. He doesn’t want to be confined or be boxed in.” I introduced them in Atlanta, and they loved each other, and they are really really good friends.
At Atlantic, you helped develop the “Twilight” franchise which heavily relied on merchandised items at the beginning.
Yes. We sold (“Twilight”) pretty much everywhere. We did four different album covers with different images inside because we knew that the people that would buy this would want to collect, and would be really into the characters and stuff like that. Well, Alex (music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas) found the property, and read the (Stephenie Meyer) books. Alex really was excited about the project, and lobbied hard to be the music supervisor for the series.
I read all four (“Twilight”) books in three days. I remember when the deal came to us it was a really aggressive deal. At that time not everybody knew what “Twilight” was. Alex and I were like, “We’re going to die, if we don’t get this.”
That book, in the meantime, began tipping in a big big way. When Summit (Summit Entertainment) picked up the rights to do the film, it really blew it (the property) up in terms of the book franchise.
Why were you convinced that “Twilight” was a multi-format vehicle?
It totally appeals to the whole Goth sensibility of being a teenager; what that feels like. The books really speak to that. The other thing is that I knew that musically it would be different from other soundtracks because Stephenie Meyers is such a music fan. In every one of her books, she has an introduction in which she thanks all of the bands that she listened to while she was writing the book. Muse was a really big artist that she thanked. And she thanked Radiohead. At the beginning of each book, it was like a playlist for thank yous. People worship her; they worship the characters, and I felt that there would be a special connection to the music. I could predict the millions sold, but I knew that there would be a special connection to the music and to the franchise.
Every label would like another “Twilight” story.
People make mistakes saying, “This is the next ‘Twilight.’” There are so many factors to why “Twilight” was phenomenal and why it was just a great partnership with music, in particular. It is like “Juno” (the 2007 comedy-drama film). You know when music is a character in the film that chances are the soundtrack is going to sell. If it’s an afterthought, it is probably not going to sell.
[A multi-platform marketing campaign capitalizing on the popularity of Stephenie Meyer's books led to the soundtrack to "Twilight" (Summit/Chop Shop/Atlantic) featuring Paramore, Linkin Park, Muse and the Black Ghosts, debuting at #1 on the Billboard 200 in 2008.
Convinced of a multi-format hit, Tortella pushed for placement and promotional support to drive soundtrack sales. She oversaw a pre-order of the soundtrack with Amazon.com while retailers like Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble and Borders racked the soundtrack near Meyer's books.
"Twilight," "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," and "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" and the recently released “The Twilight Saga Breaking Dawn—Part 1” have combined sold more than eight million copies worldwide.]
Alexandra Patsavas has overseen music for all of the “Twilight” properties. She’s pretty modest about what she does.
She doesn’t know her brilliance sometimes. She knows automatically what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense. It (her work) is so nuanced and it’s so particular that only if you are a music fan will you will be able to detect it. She really stays true to the film and to the property.
A lot of TV and film soundtracks are determined by deals.
Yes. Exactly, and then you compromise, and you can tell. Lyor always says, “The consumer is not a dummy.” They will hear compromise a million miles away. They know what the truth is.
Were you a music junkie when you were growing up in Montreal?
Yeah. I started a music magazine when I was in high school, The St. Pius Jam. I went to a high school called St. Pius. The magazine was mostly music and lifestyle coverage. At the time, I was really into…. Do you remember the Bat Cave movement (inaugurated from a scene at London’s Gothic rock club, the Batcave); Alien Sex Fiend and Specimen, as well as the Smiths. Anything that was kind of dark and pre-Emo, I loved. Anything coming out of the U.K.; I was also a huge Duran Duran fan. I started off loving—like every kid loves—hit radio. Then they branch out. Kid radio; then classic rock; and then it was New Wave and Sex Pistols. All of that stuff.
Did you buy UK imports?
I went to Duchies Record Cave in Montreal religiously every week, and picked up (the UK music magazines) Smash Hits, the magazine, and NME. I was definitely addicted. My brother (Sergio) who doesn’t like any rock music post 1983 because he’s a purist, keeps saying to me, “Do you remember when you were cool and you only listened to Black Sabbath? Now look at you.” Do you know who A&Red them at the time? Rob Cavallo. A long time ago. Do you remember when Metallica inducted Black Sabbath into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006? I used to look at it (the YouTube clip) online. The speech was so amazing that it brought tears to my eyes.
You started at PolyGram inc. in Montreal 1989, the same year as one of your favorite records, Neil Young’s “Keep Rocking In the Free World” came out.
I remember. Bob Ansell (VP of promotion and media relations) used to play it over the intercom every Friday at PolyGram. I started working for Bob in the promotion and publicity department. I did bios and publicity because I had majored in communications (earning a B.A.) at Concordia (Concordia University in Montreal). I did a lot of music writing at (the Concordia University student paper) The Link. So I did a lot of writing (at the label). I rewrote bios for awhile; then did campus radio promotion, and some radio promotion. About six or nine months in, Bob offered me a job as an A&R co-coordinator in the A&R department with Corky Laing and Larry Mazur. I worked with Men Without Hats, Sue Medley, and Bootsauce. That was the big one.
Did you work with Art Bergmann?
I loved Art Bergmann. That was the best signing that Corky and Bob did.
You were pretty young when you joined PolyGram.
Yes. I was fresh out of college. It was really funny because I was the music director of CRSG at Concordia, and when I was applying for the job, I was boycotting PolyGram at the time. Bob said, “You are suing us.” I thought, “That’s it. I’m not getting the job.” He said, “Why are you boycotting us?” I said, “Your fees are too high. You are overcharging us, and we don’t have a ton of money.” He kind of liked the idea that I was applying for a job and, at the same time, boycotting the label. At the time, he was just asking me what (music) I loved. I loved Beggars Banquet and 4AD (labels). PolyGram had the (Canadian) distribution deal for them. I loved every single act on Beggars Banquet. To this day, I adore (owner) Martin Mills, and everything they do.
When I walked into the building, I looked at the marketing director who did 4AD and Beggars Banquet and said, “I want that job. That’s the job that I want.” The only goal I had was to work the Pixies, Dead Can Dance, the Red House Painters, and the Cult. That’s all I wanted.
I learned so much from Bob. I didn’t really know what a record company really did when I came there.
[In March, 1991, PolyGram moved its promotion, marketing, and A&R departments from Montreal to Toronto. This followed PolyGram’s buy-out of A&M Records earlier.]
PolyGram had a great label roster in Canada.
It was fabulous. They were an amazing label. I think by 1992, I got that job handling 4AD and Beggar’s Banquet, and all of the U.K. repertoire. I was there 10 years—from 1989 to 1999. Then I moved to New York to join Island Def Jam. When John Reid moved to New York (as president of Island Def Jam Records USA) he asked me to come.
A big step moving to New York?
Yep. A really big step. At the time, I thought, “I could stay here, and I know exactly what my life could be. I really don’t know what life is there but…”
Did your sister Elsa, and brother Sergio encourage you to leave Canada?
Pretty much. They said, “You are never going to be asked to do this. This is amazing.” So I said, “Okay.” I gambled.
How scary was it for you to go to New York?
Really scary. I had a lot of people saying, “Aren’t you scared? People are intense there. What if you lose your job in six months?” It was at the time that all of the mergers were happening. I just said, “Well, I can always come back.” I just felt that it was worth trying. That was when I met Julie Greenwald and Lyor.
You were first a product manager for Island Def Jam in New York?
It turned out to be convenient because this was post-merger. I literally arrived there a month before Def Jam merged with us. So when Lyor came over, I knew a lot of the artists and managers because I had managed a lot of the labels in Canada. It ended up being very useful because I was a familiar face for a lot of the artists and managers when I arrived there. Everyone knew me from Canada and said, “I want to work with her.”
What did you first work on there?
I did Def Leppard. I continued with them because I had done them in Canada. So I got to work with Q-Prime Management again, which I had a long-standing relationship with. Then I worked with the “Notting Hill” soundtrack. That was one of the first things I worked on—and albums by Melissa Etheridge, and the Cranberries too.
Why the move to Atlantic in 2004 when (Atlantic Records Group Chairman/COO) Julie Greenwald brought you over?
It just felt very different after Lyor left (Island Def Jam in Jan. 2004). When Lyor left, it lost a lot of what I loved about the place. Lyor was the type of guy that everyone got to come to a meeting. He believes in very flat organizations. He needs to know everyone. Even though he worked within the (Universal Music) corporation, he distrusted it in terms of getting things done. Everything that he represented I identified with immediately. Then when L.A. Reid came, it became more vertical. All of a sudden certain people weren’t invited to meetings. You didn’t get to see L.A. every day. I realized how different it was working for people like Lyor and Julie (Greenwald) versus every other corporation in music at the time. At Universal, I didn’t know Doug Morris.
Like Island Def Jam, Atlantic has a considerable degree of autonomy that would be attractive to you.
I went through the biggest merger of all time with Universal and PolyGram. It was really disruptive. You could get caught up in that. Some real quality people left the company. It was definitely a bloodbath. Coming to New York, and seeing all of these people that I worked with when I was at Canada, and seeing all of the empty offices—it was probably the worst merger ever—I saw what that did. The Warner Music Group merger, in particular, the Atlantic and Elektra merger (in 2004), was difficult as well. But both of those labels together wasn’t amounting to a strong label at the time.
[Seagram's $10.6 billion acquisition of PolyGram in 1998 led to the merging of the music operations of PolyGram and MCA under the renamed Universal Music Group. When the smoke cleared from the merger that was followed by French utilities firm Vivendi's acquisition of Seagram’s in 2000, many former PolyGram executives had exited.]
Your mother Maria passed away four years ago. A difficult time for you being away from home?
I was in New York from 1999 to last year. It was really difficult. My mother was a huge part of my life. She was pretty awesome. It was really hard. Julie made it possible for me go and spend all of the time that I needed with my mother. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She went very quickly. The fact that I was able to leave and be with her was incredible.
You asked if I had been afraid to go to New York. Everything that has happened in New York—about love and support from the people that you work for—was just so counter to what I was being told or that I was initially scared about coming. Julie and Lyor were just so supportive about the whole thing.
9/11 changed New York.
It totally changed it for me. I went for my green card right after 9/11. What I noticed was how everyone pulled together in the city and how emotional it was and how we really came together. It was just tiny. While everybody wanted to get out, I felt more connected to New York then ever after 9/11.
It may have been the thing that made you a New Yorker for life.
Without question. It’s funny that you bring it up but I would absolutely agree with that. It was a defining moment for me.
During your tenure as GM of Atlantic Records, you worked with Elektra Records’ founder Jac Holzman on the relaunch of Elektra and its 60th anniversary. You also had a hand in breaking Elektra artists Bruno Mars and Cee Lo.
That experience was amazing. He is such a legend. Jac was really incredible. We assembled a team for him. He knew every single person on the team. I was not only impressed by his knowledge of music, and everything that he had accomplished but what was even more impressive was how he led, and how he was with everyone.
Have you worked with Neil Young, yet?
Yes. He’s so amazing. When I met him, it was like when I went to Atlantic, and Rush was playing Radio City (Music Hall) dates. I had just got to Atlantic, and they brought me over to meet the band. I was like, “I can’t meet Rush. It’s too much.” I walked over, and met Geddy Lee. They introduced me as the new head of marketing, saying “and by the way, she’s Canadian.” Geddy said, “Give me a hug.” That was probably the best moment of my job as was meeting Neil Young and having him do the same thing. Elliot (Young’s manager, Elliot Roberts), said, “And she’s a Canadian.” Neil said, “Give me a hug.”
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
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