When it comes to breaking new ground in the music industry, few executives do it like Golnar Khosrowshahi. As founder of Reservoir, she is building an empire across publishing and records to rival any other in the business, with last year seeing her company become the first female-founded music firm on the US stock market. In the wake of Reservoir’s latest Music Week Awards win, we catch up with a true trailblazer to discuss deal-making, expansion and equality…
WORDS: JAMES HANLEY
When Nike was looking to make inroads into China with its trainers in the 1980s, the sportswear giant’s founder Phil Knight spelled out the business case presented by the country’s 10-digit population.
“He said the most exciting thing about it was that it had a billion people, which meant it was two billion feet,” Reservoir Media founder and CEO Golnar Khosrowshahi tells Music Week. “I kind of feel that way about people’s ears over there.”
The quote resonated with the trailblazing executive, whose firm became both the first US-based publicly traded independent music company and the first female-founded and led publicly traded music company in the United States when it floated on the NASDAQ exchange in July 2021.
New York-headquartered Reservoir itself entered the Chinese market at the start of the 2020s, forming a sub-publishing partnership with Beijing-based music rights and marketing services company Outdustry in 2020. It returned last year to take a minority stake.
With offices in Los Angeles, Nashville, Toronto and London, Reservoir also has a JV with leading Abu Dhabi-based MENA music publisher PopArabia, led by PopArabia founder/CEO and Reservoir EVP of international and emerging markets Hussain “Spek” Yoosuf.
“We are very focused and committed to emerging markets,” explains Khosrowshahi. “I independently have a focus on how culture travels and I really do think there are some great opportunities there.”
Entrepreneurship has always been in the Iranian-Canadian businesswoman’s blood. Her father, Hassan, is a well-known business magnate and philanthropist, while brother Behzad is at the helm of a pharmaceutical royalty firm and cousin Dara runs Uber.
“Listen, I come from a business family, so we have always had a window into business entrepreneurship,” she says. “When we lived in Iran, the highlight of our week was to go to work with our parents on the equivalent of our Saturday, which was Thursday, so I will not deny that it has been a theme of my childhood.”
Reservoir has grown to represent over 140,000 copyrights and 36,000 master recordings and pulled off a major coup by agreeing a global administration deal with music icon Joni Mitchell last year. However, when Toronto-based Khosrowshahi launched Reservoir as a family-owned music publisher in 2007, it was in the midst of an infamously tumultuous time for the industry and the wider financial world.
“I don’t think we had a real concrete vision of where we were going,” she reflects, 15 years on. “We certainly wanted to be in a leading position in the independent segment of the marketplace, but beyond that I was very focused on just learning about the business and establishing a network.”
As time has gone on, that once singular focus has stretched to labels (Chrysalis Records/Tommy Boy Records/Philly Groove Records) and management through ventures with Blue Raincoat Music and Big Life Management.
“Obviously we’re not just a publisher anymore,” says Khosrowshahi. “With Chrysalis and Tommy Boy, we are in earnest a record label. We also have a management business and our operation in Abu Dhabi, so I think we have realised whatever that initial vision was. But it wasn’t the ultimate goal to become a publicly traded company. That was a move that made sense for our growth trajectory, it was not one that we had set out with. At the outset, we were really just focused on establishing a business and not losing money [laughs].”
In June, Reservoir published its first set of results since its IPO, reporting a spend of $224 million across 110 deals, with $13.1m net income. The company’s most recent financials, covering the three-month period ending June 30, showed a 46% increase in revenues (14% when discounting acquisitions) to $24.3m which – Khosrowshahi told investors – puts the firm “on track to achieve our objectives for the year”.
“We’ve beaten our expectations every quarter,” she says. “Prior to the fourth quarter of our last fiscal year, we ended up actually raising our guidance and so we raised our expectations as well. We’ve always run the business rather institutionally, so going public wasn’t some major adjustment.”
Its performance has not gone unnoticed – Reservoir writers took home four awards from the 2022 Grammys, and further recognition then arrived at May’s Music Week Awards, where Reservoir came out on top in the Independent Music Publisher category for the second time in three years.
“I was shocked and very pleasantly surprised,” beams Khosrowshahi. “There is no bigger recognition than to be recognised by your peers and that certainly does mean a lot to us. Why do I think we’ve won? Our people are the core of everything that we do and the reason we’re able to do it well.”
Khosrowshahi reserves a few special words of praise for Reservoir MD & global strategic liaison Annette Barrett, who picked up the award at Battersea Evolution.
“I’ve learned so much from her,” she says. “We’ve been in business together for a number of years now and I would credit her with my understanding of the value of relationships with her team and her clients. Time and time again, you see how a genuine investment in those relationships has paid off. She signed Spek to his first publishing deal, Jamie Hartman, Phil Bentley... There are so many writers on our roster that are attributed to their original relationships with Annette.”
A classically trained pianist through the Royal Academy of Music in London (she is also an avid runner and certified ski and tennis instructor), Khosrowshahi’s love for music runs deep.
“So much of that musical training is used in my life all the time: whether it’s the discipline, whether it’s the conversations, whether it’s just the relatability and the academic knowledge of music,” she says. “So for that, I’m pretty grateful.
“I think that to excel at what it is that you’re doing, there has to be some passion. And I don’t think that I would be passionate about music the way I am without having had the training, because it has given me a depth of understanding.”
That passion extends to Reservoir’s family of writers and producers such as James Fauntleroy, Ali Tamposi, Warren “Oak” Felder and Jamie Hartman, plus artists including 2 Chainz, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, and Migos’ Offset and Takeoff. She is a passionate advocate for songwriters and their representatives, serving as a director on the board of the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA).
And the affection appears to be mutual: Khosrowshahi – the mother of twin teenage daughters – was hailed by Tamposi as “an inspirational woman full of energy and love… who executes with class, enthusiasm, and ferocity.”
“I have all the time in the world for my clients and our roster,” smiles Khosrowshahi. “I feel a particular proximity with Ali. I have watched her grow up over the past five or six years now and had the pleasure of being at her wedding last year. I think how you view the roster and their place in our business is how you conduct those relationships. And those relationships certainly transcend that of a client relationship in that, because it’s a creative business, you do get involved in people’s lives. I have a texting relationship with most of our clients and I cherish that part of it.”
Here, Khosrowshahi takes time out from her Greek holiday to discuss a myriad of topics, from songwriter remuneration to gender diversity…
Reservoir appears to be going from strength to strength, has the company ever been in better shape than it is right now?
“Every year I would say that we are in the best shape, because we’ve done nothing but grow. The first few years we were operating in an industry that was very much under threat and under duress and the direction was uncertain. And that all changed, so yes, we are in the best shape that we’ve ever been. Our team is the strongest that it has ever been; it’s the largest that it’s ever been and we’ve realised a few things as far as diversifying our business. Going public has created opportunities that I never, ever imagined in [terms of] how seriously our team is taken. We have grown and that’s given us scale. But doing that has also given us a certain gravitas around the business.”
Was it the right decision to go public in the US rather than the UK?
“We investigated the UK route and, certainly, Hipgnosis and Round Hill had preceded us. We pursued the US listing for a number of reasons, not to mention that we were not a fund-based business before that. Our business is based in the United States and it just made more sense on a number of levels.”
Why does it make sense for the company to make the kind of acquisitions you have?
“When we didn’t have a catalogue that had representation in a lot of genres, or ages of music, then we would go after everything, so the catalogue has grown and we now have some pretty solid representation in certain areas. We’re not going to sit back and say, ‘We’re only going after this kind of music,’ or music of a certain age, because we can’t predict what’s going to come our way. The common themes are around whether it’s creative to the catalogue as a whole; around having very good visibility into what we can impact as far as organic growth; around the quality of the music; and around the people we are getting in business with – those are some of the criteria that we look at. We’re very well poised to continue to execute on transactions like Tommy Boy, but also much smaller transactions as well as continuing to populate the writer roster. We have no interest in populating the writer roster with five or six of the same kind of writer; we want to make sure we have representation in different genres, different sounds and are giving one-on-one attention across the board.”
Do you plan to pursue more deals for record labels?
“Those same principles apply on our record label acquisitions as they do on our publishing catalogues, in that we’re never looking to run a business that is heavily skewed towards the active roster. Our spend has historically been 75% catalogue/25% futures and, on the label side, we’d look at the same thing. If another Tommy Boy came our way, we would absolutely be interested.”
You mentioned some of your competitors earlier, did you look at Hipgnosis’ recent spree as any kind of blueprint?
“I don’t think it serves as a blueprint. We’ve been at it for 15 years. We have been acquiring catalogues for that long and we have a very sophisticated infrastructure that powers our deal flow and is the engine behind our M&A. It is undeniable that competition in our business has drawn more attention in music from generalist investors – and that competition should certainly be recognised and credited for bringing that interest. I would have conversations about music with people 15 years ago and nobody really understood the nature of these assets. So that proliferation of understanding has come with increased competition and the visibility around that, and that’s been great for everybody.”
But how do you feel about Hipgnosis CEO’s Merck Mercuriadis’ outspoken views on upsetting the established order of publishing?
“I don’t really know what they’re doing that’s different. I think they are referring to song management and to establishing a new asset class, but I don’t really see either of those two things as being new concepts. We have posted organic growth of 20% on our catalogues and that organic growth is exceeding the industry growth, which means we are taking those assets and adding value – through licensing; through an active platform of digital licensing, of sync, marketing, etc; through better collections and better infrastructure. So if I think about song management then that’s what we’ve been doing since day one. That value enhancement has always been our objective, but I don’t think that’s something that is exclusive to us and I also don’t think it is a new development.”
Mercuriadis has also called into question what he calls the “unhealthy relationship” between the major labels and publishers, of course…
“Well, that’s a long-term debate and I don’t think it’s a debate that will ever go away. I sit on the board of the NMPA, I count the publishers as my peer group and I haven’t seen a reason to contest the position of the publishers and the interest that they have in upholding publisher rights.”
Is there any chance of Reservoir merging with another independent to create one giant company? Or even uniting with a major?
“When you say one giant company that sounds terrifying [laughs]. Listen, we’re opportunistic about the future, but I think our track record of what fits well for us is representative of what the future holds as well. That track record is rooted in finding turnkey solutions with like-minded partners – whether that is with Annette Barrett at Reverb, Spek at Pop Arabia, or with Jeremy Lascelles and Robin Millar at Chrysalis – these are all repetitions of the same pattern and we’re interested in continuing these businesses. That is a pattern that has worked well for us in our path to growth. And if we are successful at continuing to find that, I don’t see any change in our ability to execute on that.”
As an independent company, what underpins your ethos and identity?
“We have a very entrepreneurial and meritocratic culture at our firm. We still feel like it’s day one. We are also dispassionate about our investments, but we are very passionate about our music and, in a coincidental way, we have built a team of people who – at some point or another – were either playing, managing or doing something pretty active in music before they came on to this more business side of things. We have built a team rather organically that is diverse in nature, that doesn’t have a gender pay gap issue and that has women in many, many different leadership positions across functional areas. I think all of these build into our ethos as an independent company and contribute to who we are culturally.”
Just how effectively can you do both records and publishing? Will the next chapter of Reservoir be focused more on the recorded side of the business?
“I think you can do both effectively. We’ve always been in this ‘push and pull’ where the infrastructure at some point has grown ahead of time, ready for future ingestion or future growth. Chrysalis was this platform that existed that could withstand to ingest something like Tommy Boy with a few additions. So I think that if we have further opportunities to expand the recording side of the business, we will. But again, it has to be the right deal and if it isn’t – and we have better opportunities on the publishing side – then we’ll just execute on those.”
Buying Tommy Boy furthered your hip-hop interests, what does it take to build a successful business in that world?
“I don’t think it’s any different to building a successful business in any world. We acquired TVT back in 2010 and that gave us a pretty solid foundation and some of the most important hip-hop works at the time. We subsequently hired Faith Newman, who’s EVP of creative and catalogue development based in New York. Faith was one of the first few employees at Def Jam and has just had an incredible career in this area, so that gave us entry into a lot of the signings that we have today like Joey Bada$$, Takeoff and Offset, but also some of the older catalogues that we’ve acquired. I don’t think there’s anything specific to hip-hop that has afforded us more opportunities, it’s just the values through which we run the business.”
What about on the pop side?
“We are dealing with people, and people’s careers ebb and flow. People have children, people move, it’s just all part of life. We’re always interested in populating our roster with talent that is going to excel in the pop world. But I couldn’t be prouder to say that we work with people like Ali and Oak and James Fauntleroy and Jamie. One should be so lucky to be able to mention all of these people in one sentence.”
Are we seeing a move away from bigger groups of writers credited on pop hits to a more select group working across whole albums?
“I think you’re seeing a bit of both. The first thing I do is look at the song credits on Fridays and, in some cases, you’re seeing two or three names and, in others, you’re still seeing a list of 10.”
So what makes an international hit in 2022?
“There are all kinds of algorithms around what makes the hit now: where the hook is, how many seconds in, etc. That being said, I still think there is value in great songwriting and we will continue to invest in great songwriters versus investing in who’s going to feed the algorithm best for a TikTok-type platform. We are committed to long term value and I firmly believe that great songwriters will continue to write great songs that have that. So I don’t know if I can say exactly what makes a hit in 2022, but I know the people and the writers behind what makes a hit and that’s where we are invested.”
You said in a recent interview that you “don’t do politics” in the industry. Discuss…
“I really don’t! We’re transparent about who we are and we have been fortunate in that we’ve populated this company with like-minded people who appreciate that transparency. So I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to deal in politics. I also think you’re taking time away from running the business if you’re focused on the politics, and that’s really not what it’s about for us.”
You’ve stepped up your activism work for songwriters and creatives in recent years. How close to your idea of fair remuneration are we?
“Well, it’s getting better – the recent ruling [by the Copyright Royalty Board, which has made a final judgement on royalties paid from streaming services in the US] was certainly music to our ears. The objective years ago, somebody had said, was for there to be parity on the publishing side and the label side as far as compensation goes, and perhaps that’s still the target. There’s still work to be done, but we do see an improvement and I’m very fortunate now to sit on the executive committee at the NMPA and have a good window into this as well as the work that we can do to obviously impact it and continue to press for change for songwriters. That advocacy work is a big part of what we do and I think our writers value that involvement.”
How can you help specifically, though?
“I would be remiss if I didn’t say that [president] David Israelite and his team at the NMPA don’t do most of the heavy lifting. I think that continued advocacy, continued vocalisation of the issues and being a part of organisations that are effecting change is how we can be most effective. We are not big enough to be exerting any kind of leverage, but what we can do is make sure that our writers are engaged and knowledgeable. The loudest voice of all is that of the creatives.”
You’ve said you have countless stories of the “boys club” in the business but that it doesn’t make sense to call it out publicly, you would rather effect change from within. How are you doing that?
“We do that quite organically and we do that at home. What I mean by that is that it is not a dynamic that we would tolerate under any circumstances within our organisation. I also think we are blessed in a sense that we don’t have people in our organisation who perpetuate that kind of behaviour or thinking. What that has resulted in is a lot of women who have grown up within our organisation and have taken on some pretty significant leadership roles and paid it forward. We’ve continued to hire women in junior, middle level and senior roles and so we benefit from all of this happening organically. We never had to revisit things when the #MeToo movement got traction, this was just always who we were. Our responsibility is to make sure we are continuing to provide opportunities for women and continue to recognise situations that shouldn’t exist. At its core, there is certain behaviour that is just not tolerable. And the more traction intolerance of that behaviour gets, the higher the chance of it disappearing over time.”
You’ve also spoken about looking forward to a time when we won’t need women in music-based events or awards. How far off is that day?
“We’re far away from that, because I think my team and I are [sheltered from] the realities that are still existing in the industry. We really do have it good in our organisation and I recognise that it is not representative of the norm. I think we are still far away from not having gender pay gaps and that was magnified during the pandemic when you had women not only then responsible for their jobs at work, but also – for those with little children – for education and all the other things that fell on their plate during that time. So I think we’re far away from that. We’ll get there, but it will take a lot of time and commitment from a lot of people.”
What are the current issues that keep you awake at night?
“I think we need to continue to grow, so as we head into even more turbulent times on a macro economic level, you worry. Now, the rational side thinks we’ve done quite a lot of analysis and music is a relatively safe place to be. But in these turbulent times, you can’t help but worry about your cost of capital, etc, and that obviously goes into how you continue to grow. I always worry about keeping our team together because, as I said before, it’s our biggest asset.”
Finally, what do you consider the single biggest challenge you have faced so far?
“Until we were public, obviously we were privately held – the majority shareholder being under our family office. At least for me, the single biggest challenge has been to deliver the desired results to that family office, of which my father is the singular shareholder. I think that challenge was what prepared us to get into the next phase of the company. A few months ago, somebody said to me, ‘What’s it like being public?’ And I said, ‘We’re having a great time.’ And the person said, ‘Well, you had the single toughest shareholder of all, so of course you were ready.’”