Celebrating his one-year mark as Vice President, Creative, at Universal Music Publishing Group, Walter Jones is an executive who worked his way up through the ranks starting out as a DJ for R&B singer Montell Jordan, neo-soul artist Algebra Blessett, and Gospel singer Deitrick Hadden, to interning and becoming Director of Membership at ASCAP.
Jones received his executive stripes serving as VP, Urban A&R at Sony ATV, where he signed a bevy of young songwriter-artists that include Alessia Cara, G-Eazy, A$AP Rocky, Kid Ink, OT Genesis, ASAP Ferg, and Pusha T. Now, the Clark Atlanta University alumnus is based in Los Angeles, reporting to UMPG Executive VP David Gray and Company Chairman/CEO Jody Gerson.
Jones and the UMPG creative team have hit the ground running over the last year with several new publishing signings that include Lil Yachty, Nija, DaniLeigh, and to overseeing an existing roster of current hitmakers the likes of Metro Boomin, Chris Brown, Miguel, J. Cole, among others.
It was the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, consisting of warm January weather, like only the Los Angeles enclave of Playa Vista can deliver is where M.I.Q. had the chance to sit and dine at the Sol Mexican Cocina with Jones to discuss his accomplishments as a music publishing executive, the artist known as H.E.R., and to get his perspectives on this ever-changing industry.
It’s your one-year anniversary at UMPG, what’s the experience been like so far?
It’s been a great experience. Jody Gerson has been super supportive of me. We have a lot of young executive talent, and I work with a great team of people, from Jessica Rivera and Tatiana Rodriguez out of New York, to Sterling Sims and Brandra Ringo here in L.A., to Lillia Parsa, Jake Simon, Taylor Testa, Luke McGrellis, and David Gray. We all communicate daily on what we’re doing, and how we can assist one another. It is the most collaborative team I’ve ever been a part of.
Why the move to Los Angeles from New York?
My contract was up at Sony/ATV, and I was looking for a change of scenery. My family wanted to come to Los Angeles, too. I love working in L.A. It is very creative. Here, you can just roll up to a studio and you will be in a session with a writer or an artist that everyone is talking or buzzing about. The energy is more collaborative here. New York is a bit more closed off. You have to know the parties involved or be invited to be welcomed into that environment.
Do you travel much to Atlanta?
Atlanta is a top priority. It’s still the most important place for Urban-Pop culture at every level. I fly down there quite frequently.
How much of your time is spent discovering and signing new writers. How are you finding them, and what are you looking for when signing them?
I spend a lot of time listening to Soundcloud, Apple, Spotify and Tidal. I also think the best way are referrals from other successful songwriters or producers; when they can cosign other talent. Also, I listen to everything. If I see something on a new music playlist or a blog, I listen right away. I don’t have the luxury of only listening to what I like, otherwise I will be late on everything.
What types of deals are you signing now? And are you regularly pitching songs and writers to major label A&Rs now?
They’re normally term deals. In the sense they can be shorter. We still offer more successful writers an MDRC (Minimum Delivery and Release Commitments). It’s changed somewhat because a lot of artists aren’t necessarily releasing full-length albums on major labels anymore.
I think artists are a bit more self-contained today than they’ve ever been. The recording process due to apps and rising technology is cheaper now. Artists are literally recording from their bedrooms now, and putting it out the same day. There aren’t as many cooks in the kitchen with the recording process anymore. But from a proactive aspect, we do reach out to our A&R counterparts, and pitch songs to record companies, and the artists directly.
As a publisher we’re also definitely able to help artists and writers exploit their copyrights in platforms such as film and TV. That part of it for younger artists doesn’t really sink in until they start to break, or after they’ve done everything themselves.
As a trade publication, we’re constantly asked about industry jobs. Executive industry jobs aren’t easy to come by. Working in ASCAP membership certainly got you noticed. How do you suggest up and coming execs get into the door?
I think the best way is through internships. It’s changed so much. Anything you want to do now you can really do it all yourself. The traditional way is still to intern and build relationships. But all of the information is out there. You can Google almost any and everything. The best experience is handson experience. The stability of being inside the system is great but if you’re a natural entrepreneur, it can be a bit difficult to get things done the ways you feel it should be done when you’re an employee. You can learn by doing it yourself, and bringing something to the table first.
Which executives or mentors helped you most in the business?
There are so many to name, but someone I speak to regularly is Jeff Robinson (MBK Entertainment). He knew I wanted to make a record for a long time. He gave me the opportunity to work with him on the H.E.R. record. Jody Gerson has become a mentor and has trusted me and my instincts. Leotis Clyburn taught me a lot while I was interning for him at TVT Publishing. [Former ASCAP executive] Jeanie Weems put me on. [A&R executives] Mark Pitts and Bryan Leach have been there for me, as have Wayne Barrow and Suzette Williams. Everybody has been great to me over the years.
How are major publishing companies measuring success when it comes to executives like yourself?
I think you have to ask, “How does one make the company better?” How can you make everyone around you better? How can the team make you better? I don’t think Jody [Gerson] is looking only at individual success. She’s looking at company-wide success and at everyone involved in our various signings. That’s been my experience this past year. Jody has signed some of the biggest artists in the world, and that doesn’t take away from the work that the team has done. We publish that artist and we all work together.
On the publishing side earnings are always important; how much money you pay out and what’s the return on that investment. An artist or songwriter may not be on the top of the charts but there can be a bunch other things going on for that writer or artist, from streams, film and TV synchs, to endorsements, etc.
The most successful executives I know see this as a lifestyle not so much as a job. Discussing, listening and sharing music is so natural. It’s not work, but a passion.
Are there still bidding wars?
What most about your job has surprised you?
I think the speed of music cycles and how fast trends tend to change. That person who was once a go-to writer or producer, lets say a couple of years ago, may not necessarily be that guy anymore. Everything is sped up. An artist can release a career’s worth of work now in less than five years. The combination of music and technology has sped everything up.
Trap and Mumble Rap seem to be the current trends. Is there something new on the horizon?
You may hear those styles or genres because they’re currently dominating radio, but for every popular Trap or Mumble Rap song, there is an amazing lyricist like a J. Cole or a Kendrick Lamar doing well.
I think with music streams people have the opportunity to now zero in on what they like. When you think of Mumble Rap, these guys are really saying something significant. You just have to listen a bit harder to hear what they’re saying.
I think R&B music is doing well, and because of the data we can see how well it’s doing. I look at artists like SZA, Solange, H.E.R., Daniel Caesar, and Miguel who has been consistent. Or artists like PJ Morton, Mali Music and Jazmine Sullivan who are also consistent. The narrative lyrically hasn’t changed; they are still recording love songs, or songs about heartbreak, or that make you dance. It’s really about the production, the instrumentation being used, and the flow of how the music is delivered. I think these artists have to grab your attention and be a bit more clever because we’re so oversaturated with Rap music.
What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am most proud of being a part of the H.E.R. project. As A&R of the album, it allowed me to live out one of my dreams. I’ve known her for so long, that she’s like my little sister.
We applaud your time and patience on the project. We first heard of H.E.R. when she was a kid (Gabi Wilson) and watched her evolve into a talented young woman. What were the challenges in pitching H.E.R.?
There are gatekeepers who have an opinion on who an artist is or what an artist should do. Sometimes they don’t let the artist shine because they have their minds made up on who the person is. Artists change daily and grow constantly. Reintroducing H.E.R. gave people fresh eyes and fresh ears, and people have a new opinion on who she is now.
If you could change anything about the business…?
I think some publications and even social media need to do a little more research. Fact check the things some people get credit for. A person can post a picture with an artist or anyone for that matter, and all of sudden something becomes the truth. For instance if you’re a writer or a producer, what did you really do on that record? What were your contributions to that project? Quite often people will fabricate their contributions to a project. They may be a part of the story but not the whole story. It takes so many people to be involved in a successful project: to the writers, the producers, the artist themselves, to the people in marketing, publicity, A&R, all of those levels have to work in order for an artist to be successful. It’s never just one pers