Watch Tom Sturges at the 2011 Aspen Ideas Festival spend ‘2.5 Minutes With genConnect.’ We connected with the Executive VP, Head of Creative at Universal Music Publishing Group.
Click the play button below to watch genConnect CEO Nancy Spears interview Tom Sturges on why every chart-topping hit is a “miracle” and the biggest signings of his career:
TOM STURGES: Thank you so much for having me here and letting me be part of your adventure.
NANCY SPEARS: We’re privileged to have you. Are you having a good time?
TOM STURGES: This has been one of the most amazing things. This is like taking a sauna in a room full of genius. Because everybody you turn to has some amazing thing to say or some gift that they have to offer. We sat yesterday and listened to Steven Chu, the Secretary of Energy. A scientist talking about energy. It was the most extraordinary thing. And we just did the hip hop panel with those two amazing, amazing guys who are professors of hip hop. I’m in the commercial of hip hop. They are professors of hip hop. And I’m listening to them going, wow.
NANCY SPEARS: Well, I was in that session and it was really riveting. No one wanted to leave the room really. The only danger of the session was everyone has so much to say, and my question didn’t get answered so now I get to ask for you. Give us your top three biggest success stories in music.
TOM STURGES: Me, personally?
NANCY SPEARS: Who you found. Which talents.
TOM STURGES: I started off with a couple of big bangs. I signed, when I was at Screen Gems Music, I signed Katrina and the Waves, who had a hit that’s still making a ton of money, “Walking on Sunshine.” And I signed a song called “We Belong. ” We belong to the light, we belong to the thunder. And I gave that song to Pat Benatar. Everybody has made a lot of money. It’s an iconic song. So certainly as a beginning point.
Later in my life, I was the president of Chrysalis Music. And I signed The Smashing Pumpkins and Outkast. Outkast, I had started a black music division for us with LaRonda Sutton. And she brought them in, we signed them. And we bought the Paul Anka catalogue as part of that same adventure.
And then since I’ve been at Universal, I’ve signed a lot of great artists. But I only sign them as the writer. We look after the lyric and melody. So I signed Jack Johson and Blink 182 and The Foo Fighters and 50 Cent. And as I was mentioning earlier, an iconic, if strange but beautiful signing that I’m still very proud of is Afroman who wrote and recorded a song called “Because I got High.” And here’s the interesting thing. When that song was coming out, we went to him and said, hey, we want to do some remixes of “Because I got High.” Is there any way? He goes, oh, man, listen, I don’t have the basic tracks. I said what happened? He said, well, I had a garage sale and the computer that all those tracks were on got sold in the garage sale. I said dude, are you kidding? How could you do that? He says, because I was high!
NANCY SPEARS: That’ so funny. So when you make a decision, does it come from gut instinct? How do you do that?
TOM STURGES: Well, there’s sort of an old rule in the music business that it’s not who you sign, it’s what you do with who you sign. And I pursue a lot of great artists. We pursued will.I.am for many years and lost that deal to another company. And that’s just part of the magic. So you pursue a lot of things. And for me, it’s a very simple thing. It has to move me on some level, like you are a great lyricist or a great melodist or your songs have huge choruses.
Because the real truth about the music business is that every hit is a miracle. It is a confluence of events that the public cares about you at that moment more than they care about anything else and you have a number one song. So Lady Gaga, as influential and extraordinary an artist as she is, if she didn’t have a couple of monster hits, nobody care. So if you can create a hit and find a way to bring a hit into the world, that’s what thrills me. And that’s the business I’m in. I’m in the hit song business.
NANCY SPEARS: Fabulous. Well, your bringing this great music. And I guess it’s about timing.
TOM STURGES: Well, there’s this other sad truth about the music business, which is that we never tell you when you’re having your last hit. Everybody does it like we’re going to do this again and again. And they’re all like drunk sailors in Vegas for the first time. This is going to happen over and over. Let’s piss away all our money, this is good. And we’re like no, no. You have to have another hit.
Last year I signed Adam Young. That was about three and a half years ago. Before the record came out, before there was Owl City and everybody was talking about it. But we loved this kid. He had great intellect, great sound, wrote everything himself 100%. And his song worldwide– would you turn down the wind machine there, Bobby? So he has a worldwide hit. It’s number one in 27 countries. He sells 8 million singles, 2 million albums. But then now you got to have another one.
Because it’s not about having one hit, it’s about having a succession of hits. We have the privilege of working with U2, and Bon Jovi. And these are people who have changed the game, because they have consistently had hit songs and hit records over their whole career.
NANCY SPEARS: Fantastic. Well, continued success. I hope this isn’t our last conversation.
TOM STURGES: Thank you so much.
NANCY SPEARS: Best of luck. Thanks.
At Universal Tom Sturges is responsible for “managing the creative team, developing new talent acquisitions and creating marketing and exploitation programs that benefit the continuing career development of the writers, writer/artists, and writer/producers signed to the UMPG family.” Sturges was involved with Universal’s signings of the Foo Fighters, 50 Cent and Jack Johnson, among others. He previously worked as President and General Manager of Shaquille O’Neal’s Twism Records and President of Chrysalis Music, USA. Sturges also works extensively with inner-city public school children and is the author of Grow the Tree You Got: & 99 Other Ideas for Raising Amazing Adolescents and Teenagers.
genConnect is credentialed press at the 2011 Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colo., where we are interviewing the premier speakers and attendees at the conference. For more of our video interviews and articles from the Ideas Festival, click here.