Music, often described as food for the soul, when paired with amazing visuals can provide the best stories in life. It is something that people can relate to without the barriers of race, language, distance, and time. The Head of Soundtrack and Score for Global Classics and Jazz and Globe UK of Universal Music, Holly Adams, talks about the series of experiences she went through that led to her current position. She talks about how she’s telling stories through music and gives a sneak peek of what it’s like to work with amazing people in the film and television industry. Tune in to this episode to learn through Holly’s experience how having a proper mentor to guide you can have a hugely positive impact in the decisions we make throughout our careers and our lives in general.
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Soundtracks and Scores with Universal Music’s, Holly Adams
Interview With Universal Music Record Company Exec, Holly Adams
I’m excited about our guest. She’s working for the biggest record label in the world, Universal Music, as Head of Soundtrack and Score for Global Classics and Jazz and Globe UK. I love that she has an entrepreneurial flair to the way she does business and nothing is ever too big a challenge. She’s super smart and charming. I’m also lucky enough to call her my dear friend. Welcome to the show, the fabulous Holly Adams. How are you?
Thank you for the kind introduction. I’m great and I’m also thrilled to be your friend.
We’ve known one another quite a long time. When you originally with Verve before taking the position of head of soundtrack and score.Knowing the amount of time given, manage the expectations of what can be done. Click To Tweet
We first met on your former client, Katherine Jenkins, doing all facets of that record roll out when I was in my project manager role and it was quite fun.
What I’m interested in and I’m sure the readers will be interested in as well is what does it mean to be head of the soundtrack and score for the biggest record label in the world? What does that role mean?
It means excitement, a job description. Some days, it means a lot of research, reading and trying to figure out what’s going on in the industry. Other days, it means a lot of detail review and rushing to try to make deadlines. Other days, it means getting to screen a great film or read a great script. Other days, it is being able to engage with the studios, their music departments and doing a lot of active listening to understand what they’re looking for and how we can be great partners as Universal Music on soundtracks and scores that they’re releasing.Knowing the amount of time given, manage the expectations of what can be done. Click To Tweet
The film industry is such a big industry. To keep track of exactly what’s going on, that must be a huge amount of work as well as the day-to-day of making the soundtracks happen.
There’s a lot of work on it, but there are a lot of great people who work within this division for Universal Music Group as well. We’re fortunate enough to have people around the world who are specialists in their market and understand the nuance of what’s going on in their industry for how films and television programs are received. We’re lucky and have their insight. In LA, we have a team that is completely focused on research, specifically Roger Weeks, who works for me who you know well. Much of his time to research, and that’s going through not only the major sources like the variety and the IMDbs of the world but combing the industry, blogs, gossip columns, to see what’s been announced and what’s been optioned.
One thing that’s important in a successful soundtrack and score release is to collaborate with your studio, director, music supervisor, and composer if a composer is on the project. You have an understanding of what they’re trying to tell as it relates to the musical story that complements what they’re doing on the screen. We’ve been able to have some of our most successful campaigns when we’re able to get in early. I would definitely say that The Shape of Water was one of those where we were fortunate to be brought on with the earliest assembly of the film and be a part of it throughout the entire award season. We did the same thing with The Hateful Eight and then we’ve been brought in on other projects.
When the director is ready to start selecting music, when they need an end title or when they’re looking for something special, we have our artists collaborate with them. Those are great too. We do a lot of advanced research to make sure that we’re not coming to a studio or to a directorial partner five minutes before they’re ready to put it out. We’re not promising marketing that we can’t deliver when we’re able to go early.
The more amount of time you have, the better? What do you do if you’re in a situation where someone comes to you quite late in the day and they’re like, “This is about to happen. We need the score.” How do you handle something that’s on a tight time limit when there are many different elements that need to go into it to make it all fall into place?
First and foremost, we manage expectations of what can be done, knowing the amount of time. If it is an expedited timeline, often we’ll start with a digital release of the album and then we’ll grow into the physical release of the album as manufacturing deadlines allow or as the film or television program grows. We try to be extremely transparent with our partners on what we’re able to deliver and when. We are able to move quickly. It’s about saying, “This is what we can deliver in this period of time.” Of course, everyone loves the luxury of having extended time periods to market, be creative, find partners, and engage all areas of the company. If anyone reading who works with me, they’re all shuttering.
One of the benefits of being with the largest music company in the world is that we’re in over 180 territories. We’re able to contact our label heads and say, “This is a huge priority. We’re trying to get this through. These are the partners involved. What can you do?” Their feedback is quick and their experience in their expertise is deep. They’re able to take a lot of institutional knowledge as it relates to soundtrack or score releases and apply it so you don’t have that learning curve every time. They are familiar with us and Universal has had an incredible history of soundtrack and score.
You’ve been involved with some incredible award-winning films like Judy with the fabulous Renée Zellweger, who won the Golden Globe. The favorite, always loving Olivia Colman projects. We’re happy she won the Globe for The Crown. The Hateful Eight, The Shape of Water and Downton Abbey, I’m a huge lover of that. You have to pick off the crop it sounds, but the films that you create scores for.
We’ve been fortunate because the artists signed to our Universal Music Group are working on compelling projects from the composer level with the artists we have with Decca Publishing to artists writing in titles, doing original songs or having songs that directors of studios are interested in. I cannot stress enough that I have had such a charmed existence as it relates to the soundtracks and scores that I’ve worked on over the course of my career. Each one is exciting and I still feel lucky to get to call this work because it is so much fun to be involved in helping tell the stories.
Are there any particular directors that you haven’t worked with yet that you would love to collaborate with musically?
I have been lucky in working with a myriad of directors. What is most exciting is to think about what new stories are going to come along, what new voices we are going to hear and who are the new actors of these films. I get excited about the stories. I’ve been lucky to work with many different directors, but it’s about the stories and how we can be great partners in helping with that storytelling.
I’m sure what interests the readers is that you have a close working relationship with Quentin Tarantino and you’ve worked with him on numerous projects. Tell us a little bit about how that works. I’m sure he must be extraordinary to work with.Being brilliant can be as easy as being an intern willing to work for free. Click To Tweet
My first project was the DVD release of Jackie Brown a long time ago. At that point in time, I was working on basic marketing. I was an assistant and I was brand new to the business. I’m two steps out of college and got asked if I wanted to help. I had been an art student and my jaw was on the floor every day because not only was there that project but at that point in time, I was working for Maverick Records. We had The Matrix and we had all of the Adam Sandler films and Austin Powers. I was like, “I have stepped into film mecca. What is happening?” Through Jackie Brown, I got to know the team and have been with them ever since. It’s fascinating work.
I don’t think there’s anyone who is as creative as Quentin is as it relates to mingling music and storytelling into one incredible piece that you can’t take your eyes off of. His knowledge is deep when it comes to artists’ songs. We’re not just talking about the number one hits that the artists had. He knows the B-side that was on the hidden record on the retract that was on the seven-inch that was only given away to two people. He’ll know about that. His knowledge is ridiculous and his ability to marry that with his characters in the film and make music is brilliant from a visual standpoint. It’s all there and I’m lucky to get to be a conduit to help people listen to and experience what he’s talking about in his movies.
Take us back a little bit further. When you were a child, were you musical? Did you always want to get into the industry? How did it all shape up for you?
I was always around music, specifically around soundtracks and scores. My mom was a huge Barbra Streisand fan. A Star Is Born and that was the first big soundtrack that I knew about. As an adult, thinking back to my mom letting such a young child sing along to the lyrics of things like Greased Lightning.
Did you want to be Olivia Newton-John or you didn’t go that far?
I’ve been practicing to be Sandy all my life.
I want to see that one day.
I was always around music and I was active in dance, choir and all of that good stuff. As I started to get older and realized that you could be creative for a living, I started doing a lot of research about what jobs do exist out there. I thought I was going to find my path by going through art school. While that was enjoyable, the type of coursework that I was taking was not something that’s going to prepare me to be able to merge art and commerce in an effective way. I was envisioning myself waiting a lot of tables while I love to land that job. I didn’t necessarily want to do it forever.
I went to see my college advisor and asked some questions about where there could be an intersection of this and they suggested exploring marketing. I got involved with the marketing department and there was an internship that Sony Music was offering to come to California. You had to write an essay for why you would be brilliant. I didn’t realize that you’d be brilliant because you were an intern and was willing to work for free. I wound up doing that internship and meeting some of the people who are still friends and my dear mentor during that period of time.
I was in college not ready to start working. It was getting that internship experience. I went back, finished school and got lucky two weeks after graduation, I got a call offering me the job I’d intern for. I packed up and moved out and that was where everything began. I didn’t know exactly where I would go until I did that internship. I do work with my former university, go and lecture for their music business program, and speak to especially the incoming students, letting them know there are many areas of the industry where you can get involved.
If there is something that you’re good at. If you are a visual artist or you love organizing things or what have you to speak to somebody who is in the industry. They can tell you about the areas of specialization because you can find a place for yourself. You don’t just have to be that person who’s on the stage or the person who is running the legal department or business affairs. There are many areas for getting involved and you can take it a step further and do things within the film and television world. For me, it was the internship experience that led me in the direction that I have followed for many years.
What’s interesting about you in the way that I’ve worked with you is that you are entrepreneurial. I’ve come to you with different ideas sometimes. I don’t think necessarily other people would have had the foresight to maybe say, “That’s potentially an interesting idea.” You are creative and it’s fabulous working with you because anything is possible in your world. That’s how you make other people feel, but genuinely so. You are special to work with and I love it. You think outside the box and I don’t think that everyone does. When you’re lecturing at your old college or wherever the students that you lecture to must get that from you. I’m sure that you help them a lot.As an employee, you're only limited by your imagination. Click To Tweet
We have fun. I was lucky to have incredible mentors and one of the gentlemen is Jeff, who was at the workgroup. He was involved in the careers of everybody from Madonna to Janet Jackson to Fiona Apple to the Beatles. Jeff got to start as an attorney but then was involved in the creative department and marketing department, and eventually became the chairman and CEO of all of these different labels. One of the things that he instilled in me as an intern and then as an employee was, you’re only limited by your imagination and I loved that. For me, having that art school background was fun to try to creatively think around things and not have that box-checking mentality, but instead saying, “What are the values of this artist or this person that I’m working with? How am I going to best help them tell the story?”
One of the things in the industry that I will say I see it in the spirit of Universal on a daily basis is trying to understand what is the unique story that the artist is telling. There’s not a formula for anything anymore. With all the sharing that artists do with not only their music, their life and what goes into it, every story is unique. There’s not a formula to follow. You do have to be creative in how you think. Tenacity goes a long way because I get the answer no every day and no is a complete answer. In healthy work relationships, there’s always room for questions. If you’re told no and you believe that something is possible, instead of going back and settling then asking, “Can we look at it from this direction? Could we try this?” It’s a healthy dialogue to have.
You do come across things that maybe you wouldn’t otherwise if you just settled. I will always be grateful to Jeff for that because there have been some things where you and I have had these conversations. A lot of people know me for starting a sentence with, “This may be crazy but,” and some of those ideas work and they’re awesome and amazing. We all celebrate, others fall to the ground. As a marketer, as a creative person, and as someone who is employed because of the creativity of other artists, you have to ask the questions. It doesn’t take that long.
I always think all questions are good questions. Since you’ve been in the music industry, how do you feel it’s changed since you started out to where we all are?
It’s changed in terms of how people are listening to music and how they are owning music. What is amazing is I feel like the industry is evolving in the same space that artists are evolving. Instead of being a specific format in terms of how music is delivered and how you get to engage with the artists, it’s something that over the course of time I’ve been involved, has changed. It has created all these opportunities for audiences to get to know artists better, for artists to get to know themselves better and share what they desire to share. For people to have more engaging experiences with an album, a soundtrack or a score and for people to be able to have a voice in what goes on people like you and I who are fans of things. We’ve worked in the industry, but we’re fans of things. It’s exciting when you’re able to work with an artist or director studio, who allows you to go deeper into the experience. You have a listening experience, but maybe you have some physical item that becomes your emotional souvenir from whatever you’ve done. I am into immersive experiences and getting to have that one-off pop up or you’re in the middle of an environment as envisioned by an artist or director.
Is there anyone in particular that you’ve had an immersive experience with that you could share with us?
It’s not a project that I worked on, but it is a show that I went to that I thought was brilliant. I took my mom to see Moulin Rouge on Broadway. They’ve done such a good job with that show, from the moment you walk into the theater to how the theater is dressed out. It’s not just the stage. You’ve got the decor and the feeling, they immediately steep you in it. Their ability to take this film that was made many years ago and contemporize it with the music and with the songs that they’re putting in to make it broader for more audiences. Looking for audience participation throughout the show. It’s great and there are many others. I love it when there’s also a merging of different artistic mediums. I love the musical artists collaborating with the visual artists and taking their show or collaboration into spaces like Art Basel in Miami or going into some of the museums of modern art. Those are things that are brilliant. I love it when you have artists collaborating together through multiple mediums. For me, that’s so much fun.
Being a woman in what has been and probably still is a male-dominated industry, how have you found that being a woman has helped or hindered you?
I have been lucky with my mentors. At the beginning of my career, it was somewhat intimidating because I was this young student getting started in the business who didn’t use a cell phone. I wasn’t the greatest typist and didn’t know about spreadsheets. The same mentor, Jeff, he was like, “You have this job for a reason. Be confident in your abilities and go in and work.” Hard work doesn’t have a gender. I have been lucky to be in a situation where the work is what speaks. That’s also the type of environment that I like to foster in this new division that I’m a part of. We’re all equal. We’re all working for the artists who we’re lucky enough to have on our label or have done deals with. That’s a tough question to answer because I don’t separate the work that I do as a woman from the work that my colleagues do as men. We’re all working together.
We’re all equal but sometimes, maybe more so a few years ago, I used to find that you’d go into a meeting with a group of men as one thing and you’d come out of that meeting seen as something different. It’s used to work in my favor because people were surprised. I’m not talking so much about 2020, but probably more so when I started out.
People were surprised that I’m not there to take notes or get coffee.
You do know what you’re talking about and we all have an equal footing.You have your job for a reason. Be confident in your abilities and go in and work. Hard work doesn't have a gender. Click To Tweet
I have that mindset that nothing is impossible. People also got used to me being in meetings as a person who’s like, “Yes, we can. We can do this.”
That’s what I love about you. Anything is possible in the world of Holly Adams. That’s inspirational. Sometimes, you meet people whose cups are half empty, not half full. Yours is always half full, if not full, overflowing. This show La La Landed, For Love and Music are the two reasons that I moved to LA, is for love and for music. I always like to ask people a little bit of question with a little bit of love thrown in. Has there ever been a situation in your life where love has helped you make an unexpected decision in your career?
At the end of the day, every decision that I’m making as a professional in this role is because I love music. I get up every day and I go to the office because I love music and the process. I love film, score, and soundtracks specifically. That is definitely one of the guiding forces. I would not do the job if I didn’t love it. That’s critical for anybody who is in a creative role. You have to love what you do because it does permeate your attitude and your approach does permeate everything that you do. It does spill over with who you engage with.
Bearing in mind your love for music, if you were stuck on a deserted island for eternity, what would be the three songs that you took with you?
I would have to take an album. It would be hands down, Abbey Road. I’m a big Beatles fan. The second runner up would be the Gray soundtrack, although I’m sure that the island animals would be around. I would take that one. I love that album. I feel like it’s strong.
Going back to your work at Universal Music, you also work closely with the Classics and Jazz labels. Tell us a little bit about that.
The Classics and Jazz labels, which are led by our chairman Dickon Stainer. All around the world, we work with Decca Records, which is overseen by our president Becky Allen. We work with the Verve Label Group, which was Dickon oversees that and then we have we’ve got an incredible group of people who are at the Verve label group in the US. We work with Deutsche Grammophon in Germany and then we have a central division of the company that is responsible for getting information, music, and assets out to the 180 territories. It’s a large group of people who work together and it’s so much fun because it’s an incredibly diverse group of people.
You have people who are working in the classics and jazz division who are musicians, vocalists, have work experience in composing. You have people who worked for heavy metal labels before. You have people who are visual artists, photographers. You’ve got a vast range of experience and interests going into this division and it is part of what makes it great. When people hear classics and jazz, a lot of people immediately think orchestra and upright bass and not much else. Under the classics and jazz umbrella, you do have an orchestra and upright bass, but you have neoclassical composers, experimental music, soundtracks and scores. With Decca in the UK, they were the ones who got the UK country music scene kicking off with their band, The Shire. You have all types of music under the classics and jazz umbrella and you have all types of people who are working in that area.
Let’s not forget that we were talking about women and music, and Decca was one by amazingly brilliant, Rebecca Allen, who we all love, respect and adore.
She is a phenomenal human and she leads the company with complete positivity and seal but with reality. That’s the fun part about Becky. She’s positive and direct. You always know exactly what she wants and what she needs, and she will help you get there. That’s one thing that everybody who works with her will agree upon. She not only has great vision, but she also has great execution.
Honestly, you have been an amazing guest and I appreciate you coming into La La Landed. What are your goals for the future? What should we expect to see from Holly Adams over the next years? Where would you like to be? What are your goals?
I would like to continue in the world of film and television. It’s a part of my life that I never want to let go. I enjoyed the collaborative process. I have been involved in dealing with some visual media as well and that’s an area that I would like to continue. It’s intriguing to me the world of producing. I got my start as a product manager. Once you do that, it’s in your blood forever. I love organizing and helping things come to fruition. Producing is an interesting thing to me. The biggest goal for the next years is to be happy, healthy and bring positivity to whatever I’m involved in.
That will be an abundance because that’s already happening. Thank you so much. It’s always amazing working with you and I look forward to more years of Holly Adams positivity and doing lots of exciting things together.
Thank you so much for having me. I love the show and I am excited to read your next episode.
To our audience, thank you for tuning in again to La La Landed. You will be learning from myself and the lovely Dani Behr again soon. Bye.
- Universal Music
- Decca Publishing
- Maverick Records
- Verve Label Group
About Holly Adams
Holly Adams is Head of Soundtrack and Score, Global Classics and Jazz and Globe UK.
Working out of Los Angeles, Adams is responsible for driving the worldwide strategic direction of UMG’s soundtrack and score business in close partnership with the company’s classical and jazz labels.
Adams has overseen the acquisition and marketing campaigns for a number of significant soundtracks including two Oscar-winning scores, Ennio Morricone’s “The Hateful Eight” and Alexandre Desplat’s “The Shape of Water,” “The Favourite,” “Vice,” “Ready Player One,” “Ad Astra,” “Downton Abbey,” and “Judy.”