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.