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Who's behind Jay-Z and
Ed Sheeran's success?

Who's behind Jay-Z and Ed Sheeran's success? 01

The notion of “challenge” is one central to everything the record industry stands for. It is chaotic, fast-moving, unpredictable, temperamental and breathlessly subjective, yet to Julie Greenwald, CEO of Atlantic Records, these elements are at the very heart of what makes our love of music so stimulating.

“People ask me why, after more than 20 years, I keep showing up for work every day,” she begins, “and I tell them, it’s that thrill of breaking a new artist, that one thrill. No matter what else goes on and how much it all changes, I still live for those days when someone new comes in clutching a dream, because I still have that same dream too.”

What can develop for dedicated and ambitious acts, Greenwald offers, is both tangible and emotional. The tangible? “Selling out Madison Square Gardens”, she rallies back. “And the emotional, well that’s all about when someone comes in just desperate to develop their craft… to become an artist that is meaningful. It’s a vocation for these brilliant people and, as a label, we have it within our power to make those dreams come true, and that’s an amazing thing to turn up to work for!”

Interviewing Julie Greenwald is nothing but a pleasurable experience. For someone who has launched and accelerated the careers Stateside of everyone from Bruno Mars to Ed Sheeran, Jay-Z to The Beastie Boys, Jess Glynne to Cardi B, you might expect a harder edge. Perhaps in the secrecy of the Atlantic Records boardroom on Avenue of the Americas, New York, her dual roles as Co-Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer do indeed collide to produce a hard-edged, merciless industry mogul – the archetypal ‘ball breaker’. Given a run of success that culminated in Billboard last year naming her Executive of the Year in the at their Woman in Music awards, you might be forgiven for thinking so, and yet none of this is evident today.

In fact, Greenwald appears at the point in her career where it’s not about self-development; more, giving as much back as possible. Take for instance her old-school, largely manual efforts to take the aforementioned Cardi B to the top of the Billboard top 100 last year with the track Bodak Yellow (Money Moves), in doing so ending a 20-year wait for a female hip-hop artist to top America’s official mainstream chart.

“We were going for a number one - we were up against Taylor Swift who was still sitting at the top, and had to draw in every resource to try to make history,” says Greenwald. “It was the sort of challenge that took me back to the old days of the industry – I was on the phone from minute one; I called my friends who work at the DSPs [Digital Service Providers, such as iTunes and Spotify], at the radios, YouTube, everywhere.

“It was all, “hey, we’re going for history here - let’s do it for this fantastic artist who has been working her butt off all year long, let’s do it for this female movement, let’s do it for the culture, but mostly let’s do it because this is what we do: we create, we evolve, we change, but sometimes we need to come back round full circle and make sure some things do stay the same. It dawned on me pretty early in that campaign that I am 20 years in and there aren’t that many female MCs, so getting this moment where a mainstream award-winning female rapper could make this statement… that was incredible, and we did it.”

For all her power, those reassuring echoes of sentimentality perpetuate Greenwald’s words. It typifies the notion that while the delivery mechanisms may have been altered under her watch, a passion for great music remains. Born in 1970 to parents involved in the medical sector, Greenwald’s early movements came at the start of the 1990s when she parked political aspirations to link up with Lyor Cohen at urban label Def Jam. Quickly rising through the ranks in a hip-hop world dominated by artists such as Run DMC and The Beastie Boys, the label transitioned into Universal/Polygram, before her and Cohen both switched to Atlantic, where she became President.

While Atlantic remains a distance behind behemoths Sony and former employers Universal, Greenwald suggests her label’s ability to stay current and interesting is thanks to an ability to evolve with its artists without obsessing over elements such as market share. “I actually feel we can take greater risks here because we are not beholden to our own size, and I believe the talent and conviction we have to really persist and to not just take the easy option is ultimately what comes through in our artist roster.

Who's behind Jay-Z and Ed Sheeran's success? 02

“Take Ed Sheeran, for instance. I’ll never forget the first time I saw him at Mercury Lounge - it was just him and a guitar. At that point he’d probably played a billion shows, but he asked the room to go quiet and straight away you could hear a pin drop. Ed took a chair and moved it to the centre of the club, stood on it and played without a microphone. And he was just awe-inspiring. We all were like, “holy sh*t, this guy is incredible, we have to do this.

“But the whole thing took time, and that’s still something a lot of artists aren’t afforded,” she says. “I worked on one single for a whole year - we dug in when people told us he wouldn’t make it; we told them we wouldn’t take no for an answer and if they weren’t going to listen we’d just go around them.

“Gradually the whole thing changed - we kept building him from the road with lots of touring, and word got out, and now look at him.”

Atlantic’s ability to stand by talent to the extent they do is unique, but it almost always comes with reward. After all, consider the purity of artistry and music that goes right the way back to iconic names such as Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin and Genesis. “It’s wonderful having such a legacy, but you can’t be governed by the past,” warns Greenwald. “We are so proud of what has gone before, but the immediacy of this industry means your audience are always waiting for the next song, and as a label we have to keep evolving.”

That ‘evolution’ currently being undertaken is arguably the biggest in Atlantic Records’ 70-year history. The rulebook is being ripped up in this digital era of streaming and downloads. “The challenge now is so different to when I arrived 20 years ago,” Greenwald continues. “Arguably it’s more exciting, because any good record label now must recognise it is more than a label – essentially, Atlantic is a content company that produces music. Our investment these days that isn’t just in songwriters and musicians; it’s producers, mixers, videographers, tour support, choreographers, sound and light specialists, designers, journalists, marketers – everyone.

“When I first started, cassettes and CDs were how we were able to sell our music. And then as the industry progressed, we were able to start monetising video. And video became so hugely important in how we were exposing our artists to fans, through MTV then YouTube.

“Now, social media has given consumers the ability to do a really deep dive into who that artist is, how they speak, what their opinions are. You get such a full, privileged picture, the like of which fans have never had before, and that obviously incentivises them to get to gigs and explore further that relationship.

“This is what happens, but it doesn’t take away the need to keep signing the best artists, and that’s never going to change because people want to hear music they will fall in love with, and no matter what the next platform is, you still need to have that emotional connection with an artist and a song.

“So the challenge is to be so progressive and forward-leaning in order to keep changing with the times, but we still have to stay tried and true to our core, to unearthing unbelievable young artists and helping them grow.”

Of course, that ability to grow is aided as well by technology. The digital age brings an immediacy to music marketing and sales, with a flexibility that was previously considered impossible. Atlantic will divert resources, promotion and even the artists themselves to different countries and different continents if, for whatever reason, sales are taking off in one location.

“Streaming is giving us a roadmap in real-time, and that allows us to be a lot better at marketing something which is precise and, actually, much healthier in managing artists’ time.”

The other biproduct of downloads and streaming is that digital music has compressed schedules and eliminated the huge gaps artists used to endure between albums. Nowadays, a product can be released with zero physical product and minimal cost, albums can be extended with the digital addition of tracks, and collaborations with other artists can see new audiences opened and shared without performers even being in the same studio.

“It’s incredibly freeing for a lot of our acts because they can be as prolific as they want to be,” says Greenwald. “They are no longer bound by the old confines of making music, because distribution is easy for us.”

And yet, despite technological innovation, product efficiency and boundaryless routes to market, still the record industry doesn’t assume the role of king. When asked who ultimately holds the power – the artists, the labels or the consumers – Greenwald admits we have to stay harmonious and loyal to each other, or the whole pack of cards collapses.

“We all share in the power to help artists pursue their dream and fulfil their careers. We all need each other, we all rely on each other, and we all need to follow our respective responsibilities.” And we undoubtedly will. After all, even though the record industry has undergone some of the most profound, catastrophic and sometimes chaotic changes in its history, its lone pursuit of the most creative of human pleasures remains as polished and pure as ever – the majesty that is music remains in marvellous hands.

“It’s a project that never ends and that’s good because I am a fighter. Music sometimes gets a bad rap, but ultimately it changes people’s lives, and where would we possibly be without it?”

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