Music

‘I Am An Artist Advocate At My Core’: Michelle Jubelirer Reflects on Her Historic Capitol Tenure

In December 2021, when Michelle Jubelirer became Capitol Music Group chair/CEO — and Capitol’s first female chief executive in its 80-plus-year history — she didn’t take much time to dwell on her historic accomplishment: She had a flailing company to save.

“The challenges [I inherited] were plentiful,” Jubelirer admits. CMG faced a falling market share, staff turnover, pandemic challenges and an unwieldy artist roster. “The truth is,” she says, “a lot of change happened in a short period of time.”

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Many believed Jubelirer, then CMG’s COO, was destined for Capitol’s top job the year prior. By that time, her résumé already included a stint at a white-shoe law firm, years in legal affairs at Sony and nearly a decade as an artist lawyer for acts like Nas, Pharrell Williams and Frank Ocean — plus almost a decade in Capitol’s top ranks. When her longtime mentor, Steve Barnett, stepped down as CMG chair/CEO at the end of 2020, Jubelirer seemed to some to be a natural choice to replace him. But Universal Music Group (UMG) chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge handed the role to Capitol Records president Jeff Vaughn instead. (In the shift, Jubelirer was elevated to CMG president/COO.) When Vaughn assumed his new role, the company was already on shaky ground; under his leadership, it continued to falter.

After less than a year as CEO, Vaughn left the company, and Jubelirer was elevated to the post. With her guidance, the label group’s fortunes quickly started to change. At a time when minting new superstars is harder than ever, the company won a bidding war (alongside 10K Projects) in fall 2022 for Ice Spice, who would become the defining breakout star of 2023. It also topped the Billboard Hot 100 with queer anthem “Unholy” by Sam Smith and Kim Petras, worked with Universal Music Enterprises to bring back The Beatles with the artificial intelligence-powered single “Now and Then,” achieved TikTok virality with Doechii’s “Block Boy (What It Is)” (in a new partnership with Top Dawg Entertainment) and reinvigorated the art of the music video — which has declined in popularity in recent years — with Troye Sivan’s creative clips for “Rush,” “One of Your Girls” and “Got Me Started.”

Those successes didn’t insulate CMG from impact amid UMG’s widespread restructuring in 2024, though. On Feb. 1 ­— shortly after Jubelirer’s interview for this story — UMG revealed much of its plan: Its frontline label system would be split beneath one East Coast executive (Republic’s Monte Lipman) and one West Coast executive (Interscope’s John Janick), Grainge explained in a letter to staff. The restructure would have moved Jubelirer, who was reporting directly to Grainge, under Janick. Six days later, Jubelirer wrote a heartfelt message to her staff announcing her exit, effective immediately.

“When I joined Capitol, I made a stringent promise to myself,” Jubelirer said in a Feb. 2 speech at an Entertainment Law Initiative event in Los Angeles. “The day I stopped changing the record company more than it was changing me would be the day I would walk away.”

As she finalizes the details of her exit from UMG, Jubelirer declined to discuss her future plans — or Capitol’s. But whether she stays in the label business, goes into management or does something else entirely, her impact on Capitol and its artists is clear. “She’s the fiercest when it comes to protecting artists,” says Jody Gerson, chair/CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG) and Jubelirer’s longtime friend. “She’s not afraid to fight for what she believes is right.”

“I’m so honored to have worked with such a great woman and boss like Michelle,” Ice Spice says. “She always believed in me and supported my vision from the very beginning. I’m so grateful for her and all that she has done.”

Michelle Jubelirer, Executive of the Year, Women in Music
Jubelirer with her son, Stone.

What are some of your biggest wins over the last two years?

First and foremost, I think the biggest win is the incredible team. And what we’ve been able to do in two short years, I think it’s the fastest turnaround of a record label. And quite frankly, we’ve been able to sign a diverse roster of artists and modernize the label while prioritizing artists and ensuring that each artist gets uniquely what they need.

How do you balance Capitol’s storied history and what you want it to represent today?

Given that it has been in existence for 80-plus years, it wasn’t lost on me that I was the first woman chair/CEO. And that’s not a great fact, let’s admit, for all women. But the reality is the grandeur of the company and its [previous] artists’ paths are not the focus. The focus is the new, fresh artists that we are breaking day in and day out.

How has your background at Capitol helped you as chair/CEO?

It’s kind of funny: I think I’ve been leading the company all along in my 11-plus years here. [When I became CEO], I knew all of our team, I knew all of the artists. That really helped. But first and foremost, the most educational piece for me was before I got to Capitol, when I was an attorney. In my heart of hearts — no matter what my title is or where I work — I am an artist advocate at my core. That’s who I am. That’s the thought I bring every single day to my job.

What was your first move as CEO to course-correct Capitol?

The three primary pillars I worked on were signing a diverse group of artists, ensuring that the company was reorganized in a way for artists to interact with labels in the way that fans interact with artists and ensuring that artists were prioritized in a way that was right for them specifically.

Capitol Records/10K Projects signee Ice Spice was one of 2023’s biggest breakout stars. What sets her apart?

There’s no question about it: She is the breakout artist of 2023. I don’t think anyone could argue otherwise. And getting into business with her [has been] incredibly exciting and motivating. Ice is a girl’s girl, and she surrounded herself with strong women and signed with strong women. I’m just one of them. She signed with [UMPG’s] Jody Gerson on the publishing side. She has made the right choices in her career every step of the way, from her look to her flow to her collaborations. She knows exactly who she is, and she’s unwavering about it.

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What is the key to label success today? You’ve had new successes in the last year while many labels have struggled to break any artists.

Ultimately, everything is about the artist and the team of people. We have those both in spades. I mean, it was incredible to see the fact that we were the No. 1 TikTok label for 2023. Who would have thought that a year or two ago for Capitol Music Group?

Did you always dream of being a record-label CEO?

My dad died when I was 3 years old. I watched my mother struggle to figure out how to take care of our family. Music got me through all of the hard times. Unlike our artists, however, I had zero talent, and I knew it from a young age. (Laughs.) I wasn’t getting into music based on any talent that I had.

My father was a lawyer, and I knew that financially I needed a way to take care of myself. So I went to law school, graduated with a lot of debt and became a mergers and acquisitions lawyer at a big white-shoe law firm in Manhattan. If you know anything about me, you know that I am not the conservative type; I often wear a “F–k you” belt. I didn’t really fit in at the white-shoe law firm, but I had a plan to go into the music industry.

As soon as I paid off my loans, I got a job as a lawyer at Sony Music. I was there for two years, and I did not love being a cog. I had been in New York City for 10 years at that time and was ready to try Los Angeles. I was also dating a guy in Los Angeles, and that was part of the reason that I moved — as I tell you that, I see the feminism seeping outside of my body, but that’s true.

When I got to L.A., I called all the ­lawyers I had negotiated against who were artists’ attorneys and met Peter Paterno. I got a job working for him [at the firm now known as King Holmes Paterno & Soriano] and told him that for one year I would service his clients, and then I would have all my own clients after that.

While that may seem like bravado, that came to fruition. I became a partner there after three years and practiced law there for nine years, representing artists. Then I met Steve Barnett, who was co-head of Columbia Records at the time. We negotiated against each other in a deal for Odd Future and Tyler, The Creator. He said, “You pantsed me in that deal, you pantsed Columbia in that deal. If I ever go somewhere else, you’re going to be my first hire.” And it happened. I was his first hire [when he became CMG CEO].

Michelle Jubelirer, Executive of the Year, Women in Music

How did he convince you to move to the label side?

I always dreamed of running a record label from when I was 12 years old. I didn’t know if it would ever happen because, quite frankly, I absolutely love representing artists and the artists that I had. When Steve approached me, believe me, I put him through the wringer. I asked him every hard-hitting question I could as I decided whether I could still be myself and be an artist advocate within the system.

Ultimately, I chose to make the transition for two reasons. No. 1: I felt like now, more than ever, artists and record labels need to partner with each other. And you need an artist advocate within the label in order for an artist to feel truly comfortable and at home. No. 2: I felt like I could make a bigger change at a record label than I could make being an artist attorney.

In your career, have you faced adversity or discrimination that your male counterparts haven’t?

Since I entered the music industry as a lawyer, I’ve been afforded a shield that many women in the music industry don’t have. Because of that I have been protected from a lot — because, quite frankly, people are afraid of lawyers.

But the reality is, when I started as a lawyer, I didn’t have that shield. In one of my first annual reviews at [my first law firm], I was wearing a white shirt. I’m someone who always wears black, and the partner giving me my review took his water bottle [and] sprayed it on me. You can imagine what he could see. Then he said, “All right, we’re ready for your review now.” At the time, I folded my arms and just plodded on and let him give me his review. I did nothing about it. I beat myself up to this day that I did nothing about it because I’m sure he then did that to multiple women after me. Now I will not be quiet when things like that happen around me.

This story will appear in the March 2, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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