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UMPG’s DAVID GRAY:
THE HITS INTERVIEW


If you’re running the Global Creative Group for Universal Music Publishing Group and regularly Zooming with executives and talent in most every time zone imaginable, it pays to be an early riser.

“I’m a five o’clock in the morning guy,” says David Gray. “It’s probably TMI, but this stems from my teenage years: If I wanted the car to drive to school, I had to drive my dad to the train station, and he took the 5:10am train.”

That initiative has served Gray well in his dual roles at UMPG, where he’s EVP and co-head of U.S. A&R, alongside Jennifer Knoepfle, and, since 2022, has been spearheading the company’s initiative to connect songwriters, producers, artists and executives on a global scale. For Gray and UMPG CEO/Chairman Jody Gerson, this is way more than some mushy music-transcends-borders experiment; it’s a concerted, company-wide, results-driven effort with real-world successes.

“It’s important that we can give our writers the opportunity to go to new territories, new countries, meet new people,” says Gray, who joined UMPG in 2013 and has been instrumental in the careers of Shawn Mendes, Jonas Brothers, Demi Lovato and Julia Michaels, among many. “But the best thing we can give our writers is a result. So not only do they get to go to a songwriters’ camp or do a scholarship trip, but they come out of it with songs, with singles.”

Gray couldn’t get up early enough to avoid the following encounter with us.

Let’s start by talking about why the Global Creative Group was created within UMPG. What was happening in music that made leadership think this was a worthwhile undertaking?

Well, I think it was obvious, but we saw that the world was changing; hit songs were changing. English-language was not a prerequisite anymore to having a successful record or a successful album or to be a successful artist. There was the Latin explosion and there was K-pop, and then there were stylistic things, whether it was Afrobeats or Amapiano. And we’re like, “Wait a minute. If we don’t get ahead of this—not chase it but actually get ahead of it—and proactively create opportunities for artists and writers in these emerging markets and genres, then we’re in trouble.”

So we said, let’s form, for lack of a better term, a company within a company. We knew that the writers and artists wanted this. They want to work with people outside of their own backyards. They want to explore. They want to go to other places. They want to grow. So for us, there was an obvious need and a real way to create value for the writers.

What had existed prior? Obviously UMPG was an international company before starting the Global Creative Group.

Yes, of course. I don’t want to make it sound like there was nothing prior. There were certain territories and pockets of people that were really proactive. Our managing director of France, Bertil David, is brilliant. In Miami, Alexandra Lioutikoff, who is president, Latin America and U.S. Latin, and Senior VP of Latin Ana Rosa Santiago are brilliant. Lucrezia Savino in Italy… They were all very interactive with each other. But we wanted real organization, with not just a plan, but with accountability. It’s great to do all this stuff, but who’s going to be responsible for getting results? So that’s where my sorry American butt stepped in.

This is more than very creative A&R people in various territories saying, “Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we do that?” This is strategic and focused and truly global, not just a few territories but Africa, Asia, India, places that have not been as included as they should be.

And without getting too much in the weeds, we did hire a global A&R person who is the center of all this, Florina Krampen, who is based out of Switzerland. And we have a marketing person in England, Melissa Svensen, who does things like publicize our programs on socials and creates opportunities on DSPs for our artists and writers.

Obviously, you had a full-time job before heading up the Creative Group, so how did you get involved?

Jody Gerson and I had a conversation about it. We both saw the opportunity and the need. Honestly, I volunteered. It’s so creatively compelling, I had to do it. I’d had some background in it. When I worked on the label side, I did A&R for Sony Music International.

What lies at the heart of the Global Creative Group’s mission?

We say it over and over, but the mission is to create opportunities globally for our writers and artists that they wouldn’t normally have. And to be a point of difference from other publishers when we try to sign and to retain writers. Such an organized, strategically focused group of people just doesn’t exist elsewhere, not in the same way. We had a writer from China who loves us and wanted to stay, but people kept approaching her. We put her in a very small writers’ camp in Europe and she was like, “Oh my God, if I can do this, I’m staying.”

What’s an example of a success story that emanated from the Global Creative Group?

Here’s a great one: Ana Rosa and Omar Teagle were responsible for putting Feid and ATL Jacob together for “Luna.” Feid was interested in working more on the urban side. So Ana Rosa—who knew Omar because we do these global conferences and global Zooms every month—said, “Hey, what do you have?” And Omar said, “I have this idea. I’ve been talking to ATL Jacob a lot, and he wants to do more Latin stuff.” So we put them together, and “Luna” became a Top 10 global hit. And now Jacob and Feid want to do a whole album together.

Some people see publishers as passive, like we just do deals and collect money. But we see ourselves as active, putting things together that make a difference. We don’t just wait for the label to do something. We work closely with the labels, but we want to make a difference as well.

Particularly because the two genres are so hot right now, can you tell me more about the Mexico meets Nashville songwriters’ camp that was held in Mexico City?

Yeah, this also came out of one of those monthly global Zooms. We started talking about how regional Mexican music and country music have a lot in common: storytelling, organic acoustic instruments. So we said, “Why don’t we put people together?” And somebody said, “Let’s do it in Nashville.” And then someone’s like, “No, no, that’s too easy. Let’s get these Nashville people to go to Mexico City. That’s a true test of whether this would work.” So Roxy King, Ana Rosa, Yadira Moreno and Vicky Rivas set it up. Ingrid Andress, Tanner Adell, Bart Butler, Seth Ennis, Benjy Davis and Willie Breeding flew in from Nashville. And we had nearly 20 Latin artists, writers and producers there, including Elena Rose, David Aguilar, Leonel García and a few of the writers and producers who work with Carin León. It was an amazing camp, so much so we’re going to do another one this year in Nashville.

I would imagine you get a lot of people these days interested in crossing over to the Latin market.

For sure. But it has to be done gracefully, in a way that makes sense. Whether it’s Latin or Afrobeats or any other genre that’s hot, we look for writers and artists who have a genuine interest. And by the way, taking time out of your busy L.A. schedule and making a trip is the best test. We’re going to do a camp in India in September because that’s a growing market for us. You’re interested in working with Indian artists and Indian writers? Well, get on a plane.

And is that open to UMPG writers from all over the globe, not just Americans?

Yes. I’m very cognizant of that as a U.S. A&R person. It’s not Anglo-based, it’s not American-based. In the scholarship program, which is where we take a writer or artist and fly them to other countries and territories to create opportunities for them, there are no Americans in that.

How do the scholarship programs differ from the camps?

Those are just for one person. Let’s say you’re an artist or writer interested in regional Mexican music and Latin culture. We want you to go to that region and immerse yourself in the culture. Go to the clubs. Really understand it. Don’t just go, oh, I’d love to get a Latin cut. Really understand what you’re doing and have a love for it.

For instance, we had the French artist Meryl go to Miami, and she has a song coming out on an album from that trip. Elena Rose went to Morocco and worked with Manal, who’s one of the biggest artists in Morocco and got a song on her record. She also went to France and now she’s featuring on a Kel-P record. Kel-P is a producer-artist who is most famous for working with Burna Boy.

Getting back to the songwriter camps. Is it like speed dating, where there’s a ton of writers and artists there and they bounce from one to the other until they find a match?

Such a good question. I would say historically, in other situations and perhaps at other publishing companies, that is the case. I won’t name names, but there’s another publisher that posted that they sent 100-plus writers to Miami for a camp. And I was like, “My God, how do you even...” We don’t do it that way. Our camps are small, focused. We have A&R expertise, so why not use it? For instance, Griff, who is a BRIT Award-winning U.K. artist, went to a very small camp we did in Stockholm last summer. She brought one of her main collaborators and we put them with some Swedish writers that we thought she would like. And out of that came the song “Cycles,” which is on her last EP, and there’s a song on her next EP that was also written in that camp.

Another success we had was with a big Italian artist named Mahmood. He made his most recent album with his Italian producers, but also with our French producers. And that album was #1 in Italy and charted in a lot of other territories, too. That’s what this is all about. Mahmood got to experiment outside of his own country, and the French producers were part of a #1 album.

We also utilize our various experts to help run or shape the camps. For instance, we did a K-pop camp in New York last year, and we invited our best K-pop writers from around the world—South Korea, Sweden, Germany, England—to New York. And then Yena Kim, who’s our A&R person from Korea, flew in to supervise the camp. There were three rooms, and she’d go from room to room, saying, “Fix that, move that, that won’t work, change the lyric,” whatever.

We’re looking to be strategic and not just throw 150 people in a room. The K-pop camp was not so structured that it wasn’t creative but was structured enough so you could get a result. And we have two really good cuts that came out of that camp.

I’m sure you get asked all the time, what’s the next K-pop, what’s the next Latin explosion, the next Afrobeats?

It very well could come from India. We’re looking to do another camp there, probably in September. Our guys there are very open to it. They’re very excited.

Finally, what’s the executive exchange program? Is that similar to the scholarship program?

Exactly. An executive can say they’re an expert in German musical culture by looking at the Spotify Top 50. But that ain’t going to cut it, right? I learned this from my experience in international A&R; you have to immerse yourself in the culture. You have to hear those songs in a local taxi, in a club, in a shop. So we sent Ana Rosa from Miami to Paris; we sent Lea Farran from Paris to Miami. We had Lucas Sorgini from Brazil come to L.A. They go to shows, they meet A&R people, they meet artists.

Does two weeks teach you everything you know about a culture? No, but it’s a start.

Photos (from top): Gray with S2 Songs’ Sonny Takhar, Gerson, S2’s Savan Kotecha and former UMPG exec (and current Capitol co-President) Lillia Parsa; with artist-songwriter Delacey; with Emily Kennedy, Stephen Sanchez, Gerson, Knoepfle and Richard Cohen at UMG's 2023 Artist Showcase; with producer duo Take a Daytrip; with UMPG's Taylor Testa, manager Joey Papoutsis, Nicky Youre, Gerson and manager Mathew Hyun; and with UMPG's sprawling global team (l-r): Hiroaki Doi (Japan), Said Amaya (Mexico), Florina Krampen (Global), Vicky Rivas (LATAM), Jorge Rubio (Spain), Amon Diederich (Germany), Salome David (France), Marloes Janssen (Netherlands), Rosanna Munter and Omar Teagle (U.S.), Roxy King (U.S., Nashville), Lea Farran (France), Samuel Suedois (France), Lindelani Lee (South Africa), Lucas Sorgini (Brazil), Tom, LeBourhis (France), Gray, Dougie Bruce (U.K.), Lucrezia Savino (Italy), Yena Kim (South Korea), Melissa Svensen (U.K.), Daniella Rasho (U.S.), Christopher Grey (U.K.), Lucy Adori (China), Sajid Maklai (India) and Bertil David (France)

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