The Ascent of Neil Jacobson ’99
Neil Jacobson ’99 operates on the premise that a straight line is not always the best way to get from point A to point B. The new head of Geffen Records also lives by the mantra “Make it Happen” learned from Interscope Records cofounder Jimmy Iovine. Since he decided at 15 that he wanted a career as an executive at a record label, Jacobson has taken a path with some colorful side routes. One—a stint as a carpet salesman—appeared to be far off the beaten path, but ultimately yielded valuable experience. Through talent, hard work, and grit, Jacobson made enough things happen to reach the executive perch at Geffen in December of 2016.
A glimpse around a person’s workspace can provide insights into their inspirations. Evidence of Jacobson’s past successes abound in his office at the Interscope Geffen A&M wing inside the Universal Music Group complex in Santa Monica, CA. Gold and platinum records by the Black Eyed Peas, Lil Wayne, Avicii, Robin Thicke, DJ Snake, and many others hang on the walls. In his past roles in A&R, international publicity, and management, Jacobson has played a part in bringing many big hits to the marketplace.
On another wall, a plaque framing an autographed rookie card of baseball player Mookie Wilson of the New York Mets testifies to Jacobson’s New York roots. (Bostonians and New Yorkers alike will never forget Wilson’s famous slow-rolling grounder that passed beside the glove of Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner to bring home the run that enabled the Mets to take pivotal game six of the 1986 World Series. The Mets went on to win the series.) But I digress. The subtext is that long-shot dreams can come true.
On his desk next to a half-empty coffee cup, Jacobson has a white paper outlining Geffen’s current business plan. Nearby is a copy of George Merlis’s book Merlis on Media Mastery: How to Master the Media 2.0. Then there are a few unexpected items—a large, rusty red gasoline can on a shelf and a wooden-handled pickaxe mounted on a wall across the room. Jacobson tells me they serve as reminders that working in the record biz is real labor.
At times, Jacobson’s path forward seemed anything but assured. In fact, some of his elementary school teachers might be surprised to see where he has ended up. “I was diagnosed with ADHD as a child and was disruptive in grade school,” he shares. “I was so disruptive in fifth grade that my teacher kicked me out of band class and arranged for me to be in the principal’s office doing homework during that hour. When my father found out about it he told the principal that it was unacceptable.” The principal agreed. Frank Jacobson asked his son Neil what instrument he wanted to play. He said drums and straightaway Frank went and bought his son a drum kit. And so Neil’s foray into music began as the drummer in his grade-school band.
Not insignificantly, Jacobson names his father among the major mentors in his life. Frank Jacobson is mentioned in the same breath as Jimmy Iovine, Patrick Whitesell (a CEO of media and entertainment agency William Morris Endeavor), John Janick (current chairman and chief operating officer of Interscope Geffen A&M Records), Martin Kierzenbaum (former president of A&R, pop/rock at Interscope, and head of International for Interscope Geffen A&M). Some—like Kierzenbaum—were disciplinarians “who didn’t put up with any of my ADHD bull,” says Jacobson. But his father took a different tack, always believing in his son.
“My dad was an accountant and he and my mother commuted to work from Old Westbury on Long Island into Manhattan every day,” Jacobson says. “They’d come home after a long day and a grueling commute and have to listen to me pounding the drums. But they were totally fine with it, very supportive.”
The ambition to become a record label executive began when Jacobson was 15 and working at a country club. “My first job was as a caddy at Deepdale Golf Club,” he says. “I was working one day when a blue Bentley convertible pulled up and this older guy—who looked like a vision—got out wearing a Frank Sinatra hat and smoking a cigar. My friend told me he was Charles Koppelman, a record label executive. He worked in music, hung out with cool people, had a great house, and was a big tipper. I came home that day and told my father that I wanted to be a record executive. I remember clear as day thinking that’s what I want to be.”
In high school, Jacobson had two friends who graduated before him and went on to study at Berklee. “I went up and visited them once,” he says. “When I came back, I told my dad I wanted to go there. I figured it would give me a step ahead to go to the best music school rather than to an average college where I’d just be another guy. He said he’d pay for it if I could get in. He always told me that you should do what you love in life, find your passion.” Jacobson began practicing the drums for hours a day to prepare. His grades in high school weren’t stellar but he had done well on his SATs. On his first application to Berklee he wasn’t accepted. Undeterred, he decided to go to Berklee’s Five-Week-Summer Performance Program. That went well and after reapplying, he was accepted.
Jacobson feels that some of the core Berklee courses he took have had lasting value for him. “I consider ear training to be among the most important basic tools I learned at Berklee,“ he says. “To this day it’s something I use to test whether or not a melody is working.“
As a nascent A&R man, his first extracurricular pursuit at Berklee was to find the hottest student band on campus at the time (circa 1995). A friend told him about a funk band called Fatbag (later renamed Lettuce). “Another drummer Anthony Burulcich [’98], who went on to play with the Bravery, told me I had to go hear Fatbag’s drummer Adam Deitch [’98]. Anthony told me he was amazing and had the best pocket. After the show, my mind was blown and I found my way to meet Adam and hang out with the band.” Also in the group were Adam Smirnoff ’99, Erick Coomes ’99, and Eric Krasno. Jeff Bhasker ’99 was also there on that night when some great and lasting friendships began. Bhasker has gone on to do spectacular work as a producer. Jacobson managed Bhasker when his career was lifting off after his tenure with Kanye West.
“In the summers I went home and worked as a caddy,” Jacobson recalls. “I saw a friend from high school, Danny Berzak, who had become a stockbroker and he told me, ‘You need to learn how to sell if you want to make money.’ I watched the movie Boiler Room with Ben Affleck and Giovanni Ribisi about a guy who becomes a stockbroker, and was very taken by it. That movie got me focused on business and I decided to start a record label called Tonic Productions with my friend Marshall Reese.”
Jacobson returned to Berklee with seed money provided by his father, determined to make a live recording of his musician friends that were playing at Wally’s Café Jazz Club regularly. Jacobson hired engineers to record remotely from a rented van outfitted with studio gear and captured hours of funk and jazz.
“I tried to get the rights to put out a live album,” Jacobson recalls. “But the process of getting everybody to sign over the rights was something I didn’t understand back then. We tried for a year to get things going, but I ran out of money and the project never went anywhere. Knowing what I know now, I could get this done very easily.”
This became Jacobson’s introduction to both the excitement of being a part of a vibrant music scene and the sobering realities of the business aspects of music. His first taste of the business was disappointing, but it didn’t derail his aspirations.
A Splash of Ice Water
Needing a job, Jacobson approached the management of the Badminton & Tennis Club on Hemenway Street near his Berklee dorm. “I went in and sold them on my services,” he says, “They offered me a job as a janitor three nights a week and gave me the keys to the place. It would take me about two hours to do general clean up and rake the clay tennis courts. Afterward, I would have all my Berklee friends come over and we’d have bands playing, recording sessions, parties, and play tennis until four in the morning.” Jacobson somehow always got the place back in order before the day shift arrived.
Soon, his extracurricular activities started detracting from his coursework. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to class,” he confesses. “I was making excuses for what I was doing. Tonic Productions had failed and I was wasting my father’s hard-earned tuition money. I was caught in a cycle of partying, trying to make records, and being the road manager for Lettuce.”
Around that time he learned that his friend Jeff Goldman from Long Island had committed suicide. It was like a splash of ice water in the face. “That shook me and was a pivotal moment in my life,” he says. “My friend Danny Berzak from home was floundering like I was and we both decided it was time to get our lives together. Things were going the wrong way and we knew that we needed to get jobs. I told my dad that I was going to leave college.”
In 1999, Frank Jacobson steered Neil toward a job with one of his clients, Stark Carpet. “My dad said that if I worked there I would learn the basics of sales and account management. I had gotten similar advice from a guy I caddied for named Tom Ennis, who was a vice president at Arista Records at the time. Tom told me to just get any job and learn how to work in a company. So I became a carpet salesman in Boston and loved it. I later transferred to their New York office.”
An interior designer named Kenny Alpert met Jacobson through Stark in New York and lured him to his company. But after about a year, Alpert corroborated Jacobson’s inner feeling that he wasn’t lit up about the business he was in. “It happened when I took Kenny out to see my friend’s band,” Jacobson remembers. “He told me that I should be in music because he could see that I had a passion for it. I realized then that I had to get back into the music industry and called Tom Ennis to ask him for a job at Arista. He said no, but arranged an internship for me.”
At Arista, Jacobson met Nichole Plantin, an assistant to Pharrell Williams and jumped to another internship at Williams’s record label, Star Trak Entertainment. A Berklee friend, Mike Meeker ’99, alerted Jacobson to an opening for an assistant in Interscope’s international department. He interviewed successfully and scored his first official job at a record label in 2003. He packed a couple of duffel bags and his golf clubs and prepared to move to Los Angeles. “I couldn’t have been more excited,” he says.
“The week that I was hired at Interscope, my family learned that my father had multiple myeloma, bone cancer,” Jacobson says. “I decided I’d pass on the job and stay in New York. But my father told me to take the job. He said there was nothing that would break his heart more than to know that his cancer caused me not to take my dream job. I knew he was right, and I moved out here.” His father fought the cancer for eight years before passing away in 2011. He did, however, live long enough to see his son thrive in his chosen field.
Jacobson scaled another rung on the ladder when he was promoted to international publicist from assistant. “It was a tremendous job traveling all over the world looking after the marketing and promotional efforts for the artists,” he says. “I was making about $40,000 a year working 20-hour days and couldn’t have been more psyched. I worked for Martin Kierzenbaum who was a real disciplinarian, he could be hard, but he did it with love.” Jacobson spent the next five years traveling the world with the Black Eyed Peas, Eminem, 50 Cent, Fergie, Robin Thicke, and many others, bringing Interscope’s artists to press conferences, radio and TV appearances, and other events. Getting the artists to events was a little like herding cats at times Jacobson recalls. But through those experiences he built solid bonds with his artists.
Jacobson had worked closely with will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas as the band became red hot. When will.i.am parted ways with his manager, he asked Jacobson to co-manage him. “I couldn’t do that while working at Interscope, so figured I’d leave the label and manage Will,” Jacobson says. “But he said he wanted me to stay at Interscope and manage him and that Jimmy Iovine wanted me to do this. I told him that Jimmy didn’t even know who I was.”
That night, to Jacobson’s surprise, his phone rang. It was Iovine telling him to come right over to his house. Walking into Iovine’s kitchen, Jacobson saw Kierzenbaum who had told Iovine that Jacobson was tight with Will. “That was my break,” Jacobson says. “Jimmy asked me how I got to where will.i.am wanted me to manage him when every superstar manager in the game would have killed to manage him at that point in time. Jimmy tried to talk me out of leaving Interscope to go into management. But I told him that I wanted to manage Will. He didn’t want me to leave. He said he thought I’d be crazy to leave the company.” Iovine offered Jacobson a substantial raise and said he and Interscope’s lawyers would work out the conflict of interest issues involved with one person representing both the interests of the label and their artist.
Iovine established Interscope Management and made Jacobson its senior vice president for A&R and management. It was big break for Jacobson. He applied his energy and passion and got big results. Some other artists he had worked with wanted him to manage them. “When I worked as a publicist, I was with the artists in Japan, Italy, or Russia, always hanging out with them,” he says. “They saw that I was a good salesman, energetic, articulate, and that I could talk people into things.” Jacobson continued managing Jeff Bhasker—his friend from their Berklee days—as an independent producer, but also took on Interscope artist Robin Thicke. He signed LMFAO to will.i.am’s label and began representing more artists and producers. “I co-signed Avicii from Sweden to Troy Carter’s label Atom Factory within Interscope, and his career exploded,” Jacobson says. “I took on [producers] Emile Haynie and Martin Terefe and they started catching hits.”
Overseeing A&R, Jacobson built a solid reputation as someone with an ear for hits and an eye for spotting talent. He also learned how to push songs he believed in through the UMG organization. “Knowing the infrastructure of UMG, I became an expert in the global exploitation of our records,” Jacobson says. “I also understood the flow of a record and the time it takes to disseminate it throughout the world and how to conduct the symphony of an international marketing campaign to make sure that all of our territories know what we are doing at once. There are thousands of people around the world to coordinate with. It is a great job for an ADHD crazy person like myself who can handle talking to 32 territories with different needs.”
Multiplatinum songs on Jacobson’s résumé include “Boom Boom Pow” and I Gotta Feeling” (Black Eyed Peas), “Sexy and I Know It” and “Party Rock Anthem” (LMFAO), “Blurred Lines” (Robin Thicke), “Let Me Love You” (DJ Snake featuring Justin Bieber). Jacobson was instrumental in pairing Avicii with Aloe Blacc to create the mega hit “Wake Me Up” and played a part in Bhasker’s successful productions of “Uptown Funk” (Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars) and “We Are Young (Fun. featuring Janelle Monáe).
“When I go to a wedding or a bar mitzvah,” he says, “at least 10 songs played there are records I worked on. If I had died 10 years ago, those records might not have happened. I may not be solely responsible, but my fingerprints are on them. It’s magical and part of the business that I love.”
When You Yell . . .
Jacobson is demonstrably passionate about his artists and the records he feels are future hits. He refers to himself as a hypercommunicator. He fits the mold of the old-school record label man who spends much of his time on the phone calling people like Spotify editors, journalists, radio stations, TV and movie people—anyone who can help to get his new record heard. Another big chunk of his time is spent in the studio with his artists and producers as he tends the A&R relationships. Jacobson also uses his inborn zeal to get people within the UMG organization behind a song. He has become known for making impassioned pitches in board meetings.
During his years working elbow-to-elbow with Jimmy Iovine, he observed a lot and gleaned much wisdom from his former boss. Iovine instilled in him the motto “Make it Happen.” Throughout his career, Jacobson has leaned on his ability to sell and persuade people to feel what he feels about the music he’s working on. A mover and shaker, he’s always trying to make things happen. Iovine also provided guidance to the younger Jacobson who has a reputation for getting excited and raises his voice in the process of selling his point of view.
“One thing Jimmy used to say was ‘If you are 100 percent right, you are allowed to yell as hard as you want,’” Jacobson says. “‘If you are even one percent wrong, the whole thing falls down and you’re being a jerk. Make sure you’re 100 percent right when you go in for a fight.’”
While not a contentious person by nature, Jacobson firmly stands his ground in disagreements while working with innumerable constituents. “I love my artists and want them to succeed like a family would want a brother or a cousin to succeed. Even when we’re fighting—and I fight with my artists sometimes—it’s like arguing with brothers, sisters, and cousins. The closer you are the more it’s going to happen.”
An Eye Toward the Future
John Janick succeeded Iovine as president of Interscope Records in 2014 after Iovine’s departure to work on Beats headphones and later, Apple Music. Janick took note of Jacobson when he (Janick) was at Atlantic Records. He needed Jacobson to persuade Bhasker to meet with Fun., one of the bands Janick had gotten behind. Janick wanted Bhasker to produce Fun., but was getting nowhere. It took some arm-twisting, but Jacobson got Bhasker in a room with members of Fun. After hearing the voice of front man Nate Ruess, Bhasker signed on to produce the group’s Some Nights album, which yielded the huge hit “We Are Young.”
In 2013, Janick was brought in as COO of Interscope, a step in the leadership transition from Iovine to Janick. “I liked John and knew he was smart and had great vision and ears,” Jacobson says. “We spent some time together and he became my boss. I told him four years ago when he started that I wanted to be the president of Geffen. He said he had a different idea for the company’s direction. I told him that I was going to keep working my career toward Geffen.” Persistence and determination paid off. In December 2016, Janick named Jacobson Geffen’s new executive and charged him with revitalizing the iconic label. In Geffen’s glory days, the imprint released records by such titans as Aerosmith, Cher, the Eagles, Nelly Furtado, Peter Gabriel, Selena Gomez, Imogen Heap, Joni Mitchell, Mos Def, and many more.
In the months since his appointment, a fully energized Jacobson has hit the ground running. “We have about five or seven artists signed now, and in 36 months I hope to be the hottest young label in the business with about 30 acts,” Jacobson says. “I am also in charge of the Geffen catalog. We are partners with Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses. I am going to make sure the catalog is reinvented and reinvigorated, and that Spotify will put our songs in their playlist, and see that catalog songs get into movies and TV shows and any other place where the catalog can be consumed. That’s a massive business for Geffen.”
While many decry the state of the record labels, Jacobson sees a bright future for both labels and artists with revenue from new media—especially streaming services—and the potential of telecoms bundling music services in monthly phone bills. That holds promise for more revenue from countries like China, India, Russia, and Mexico where small segments of the populations purchase music, but large proportions listen. Jacobson says the new model “is about nickels and dimes—billions of them.”
“I’m very excited for the record business in the future,” he says. “When I started, the business was at its peak, but for the last 13 years there have been double-digit declines. That was bad for artists because we weren’t able to invest as much to get their music heard all over the world. All of a sudden with this new aggregate of money in the pool, there is a path for us to invest in our artists’ careers so they can be big enough to drive the records to become hits.
“I would tell you that either Universal Music Group will fire me or I’ll do this job for the next 20 years of my life,” he says. “I don’t want to do anything else. I just want to find great musicians and amplify them to the world. It’s thrilling.”