At Work With Neil Jacobson, the 'Larry Gagosian of the Catalog Business'
In Rolling Stone‘s series At Work, we go behind the curtain with decision-makers across the fast-changing music business — exploring a range of responsibilities, burgeoning ideas, advice for industry newcomers, and more. Read earlier interviews here.
In times of great disruption in an industry, Neil Jacobson says, one needs to get as close to the talent as possible — something his mentor Jimmy Iovine taught him.
And Jacobson is expecting a great disruption. That’s why after 17 years working at Interscope Geffen A&M, most recently as the president of Geffen Records, he left to found a new producer and songwriter management company, Hallwood Media, which represents prolific hitmakers from Jeff Bhasker to Brendan O’Brien to Murda Beatz. Right now Jacobson has around 50 clients. He’s looking to sign 150 more.
Via Hallwood, Jacobson has also become a crucial figure in the booming catalog sale business. He jumped early on the trend and has negotiated several sales for his own clients including Bhasker and O’Brien along with other producers like Emile Haynie.
“I’m the broker. It’s what I do. I’m an art dealer. I’m the Larry Gagosian of the catalog business,” Jacobson says. “Everybody else was saying ‘Picasso for $30 million? You’re fucking nuts. I’ll give you $19 million.’ I’m telling you, I have a $30 million bidder. ‘If that guy’s going to bid $30 million, give it to him. He’s crazy.’ Two years later, $60 million — that’s how it happens.”
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What change in the music business do you see coming that inspired you to start Hallwood?
The emergence of licensing as the new radio. Radio has less of a stronghold than it ever has before in the music business. That’s no disrespect to my friends at radio. They’re still amazing, but they just don’t carry the heavy stick that they used to. Ubiquity is harder than ever to get as an artist for your record. Your ability as an artist to market and get your music heard by a massive group of people is getting more and more difficult. Even if it’s not more difficult, that piece is shifting. That is a titanic shift from what the last 85 years has been.
And I think that that is going to shift to the very core of how record labels are structured, who all of the different players are. Companies like Spotify and Apple and Amazon, they do not want to be pitched to in the same way that radio was pitched to by the radio staffs and promotion staffs of the 50 years prior. They’re data analysts that want to know that a song is reacting off-platform in conjunction with the support that they’re going to put on the record. And how you do off-platform marketing is becoming more and more complex. I think licensing continues to be a crucial part of music discovery. Licensing can lead to Shazams. Shazams globally at the same time can lead to all of the bots that decipher and plan out the algorithmic playlist for the future.
And where does Hallwood come in?
As all of that stuff shifts, my position in Hallwood is less about being the guy on top of that piece. It’s more pulling back and saying, “OK, I want to see who the right players are going to be,” and my job is to advocate on my clients’ behalf. We have 50 producers right now. We’re built for 200. And the reason I want so many producers is that that gives me the ability to do what I call by-side coverage. We cover everybody. My customers are film and TV music supervisors, commercial jingle buyers, commercial ad agencies, advertising agencies, microcar content creators. Sure, music A&Rs, music managers, artists, publishers, et cetera, et cetera.
I’ve spent millions of dollars developing systems and processes to be able to cover all of these people where I can provide the service to all of my producers and writers opportunities to make money making music. To cover the customers, I have to have enough producers to be able to supply them with the critical mass of music that they need in order to call me in the first place.
What does a normal day look like for you?
I listen to one chart per day every single day and have done that for 18 years. It’s a Jimmy Iovine A&R trick. He’d have us listen to the hot rap songs, the hot rock songs. It used to be a real pain in the ass because you had to download them on iTunes, burn them onto a CD, a fucking nightmare. But I really believe in ear training, so I train my ear every day. I listen to more music than almost anybody I know.
Any time you’re in my office, if I’m not on the phone, I’m listening to music in the background, going through records, demos, songs in the charts, there’s always music at all times during the day. It’s one of the reasons I love golf, because the only way I get away from music is if I’m on the golf course.
I’m on the phone all day, every day. If I don’t make a hundred phone calls in a day, I feel like it was a waste of a day. I hammer phone calls, I’m a salesman. I’m on varied calls. I talk to clients, I talk to supervisors, the labels. I’m listening to demos.
Tell me about the first catalog sale you brokered.
The first one I did was Jeff Bhasker to Morgan Stanley, right at the beginning of all this stuff. I have to give his business manager credit — he came to us right as Trump was in, we had this thought for a minute. The conversation was specific to the idea that with copyrights going up, and Trump was in power, the capital gains treatment applying to publishing assets and Trump hating artists, particularly music artists. Were these treatments something that could go away?
Once we looked at it I said I could take the catalog to market to see what’s out there. We talked to Universal, we talked to Sony, we talked to a few others, and there was interest but everyone was offering lowball numbers. A buddy of mine at Morgan Stanley said they were looking for music assets.
It became a really big thing. And we ended up doing the deal. Jeff made a tremendous amount of money. They were by far the biggest bidder. They’ve done well on the catalog. Merck [Mercuriadis] tried to get the deal at the very end, and that was the beginning of Merck. He couldn’t get to the price we were at yet, he was still securing his fund, and by the time he did we’d already closed. But that was where Merck and I became good buddies. I told him there was another piece of the catalog and that’s where we started doing business.
It’s weird to think of Merck losing a bidding war, given the year he’s had acquiring these catalogs.
And let me tell you something, to everybody else that stayed on the sidelines and watched Merck build a billion-dollar business underneath their nose — what a bunch of misses by everybody else.
“We take steady steps each day and steadily move forward, and occasionally a once in a while we catch BTS ‘Dynamite,’ which David Stewart, my client, packaged, and we throw a fucking bomb.”
How do you go about handling all the time-consuming responsibilities that come with the job?
I just try to move the ball four yards forward every day. That’s it. I’m not trying to throw any touchdown passes. Occasionally if I establish the run that’s how Randy Moss ends up open down the sidelines. And I’m just constantly running the ball four yards per day.
We take steady steps each day and steadily move forward, and occasionally, once in a while we catch BTS “Dynamite,” which David Stewart, my client, packaged, and we throw a fucking bomb. Or we have a Murda Beats Ariana Grande single. Or we have a Brendan O’Brien having the Number One album with AC/DC. When Brendan did the AC/DC album, he told me, “Hey, dude, just you know these guys do really well. I think it’s going to be successful.” I said to him, you’re fucking crazy, they were a physical record at the time, the music business has shifted, no one’s going to stream a new AC/DC album. It’s unbelievable. Number One record, still Top-10 this week.
How do you go about finding the clients you want to represent?
The only way I’m going to sign 150 more acts is hiring more agents who can help me take on more clients. I call them agents, but to be clear, we’re not an agency legally, but I just call them agents because they feel like agents to me. But I think like an agent, I want to have that level of intensity, that level of client service — but also that level of leverage, that level of scale of size.
What won’t happen is I’m going to go sign 200 producers myself. What I’m creating is an infrastructure, an agency that can cover everybody, and that the more we have, the more power we have and the more opportunity we can bring to everybody.
You’ve compared Hallwood Media to Hollywood agencies and called Patrick Whitesell an inspirational figure. Why the affinity?
I’ve always believed that the highest level of performance on the business side of Hollywood is the agent. If you want to be the best guy in Hollywood, you go to the agency training program at CAA or William Morris and you grind it out. I’m looking to build a bureaucratic business that has scale because that’s how I operate. And I think agents are really good at that.
I also think when you read the [Michael] Ovitz book, he knew everybody. That’s the kind of person he was. That’s the kind of person I am. I wake up at 5:30 a.m. I swim. He was a karate guy. That’s fucking weird to me. I don’t do karate, but I swim and I do my Peloton workout every day.
I see a mental therapist not because I have a problem going on, because my mental therapist is no different than my physical trainer. I try and keep my mind set right. I stay focused. I eat right. I’m very proud of the level of intensity by which I try to perform. And I just always saw the agents as the embodiment of that and god damn it, I’m going to be one.
Do you ever worry about falling into one of those Type A Hollywood stereotypes?
Central casting: Jewish, New York, on the phones, meditating in the morning, working out at 5 o’clock in the morning. Proud to fucking be it.
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