Certified public accountant Brian Roberts ’85 never played an instrument. He still can’t carry a tune. But the tonally challenged numbers cruncher from Northern New Jersey has nevertheless found his way into the pantheon of the music industry, occupying a role that the most ardent fans can only dream of.
Roberts, you might say, is a backstage muscle for one of the coolest business acts in the world. He is an executive vice president and CFO for Warner Music Group (WMG), America’s largest music conglomerate, and along with Sony and Universal, one of the “Big Three” giants in the industry. That makes Roberts, who took the back door into the music business through an accounting client, the record-industry equivalent of the guy who goes to the prom alone and ends up getting the last dance with the queen.
“Somebody should pinch me,” he says, with characteristic humility. “There’s no way in my wildest dreams I thought I’d be in the position I am today. When your workday has the potential to involve walking into a room with an artist holding a guitar who is about to play the next big song that he or she wrote, it deepens your appreciation for creativity and talent.”
School of Rock
Talent, of course, is something Roberts had plenty of since his days at the College, when he was an academically motivated commuter student majoring in accounting. After trying out, unsuccessfully, for the basketball team, he realized his future was in tax brackets, not tournament brackets, and the winter before graduation he applied for an internship at Arthur Young (now Ernst & Young). That internship led directly to a job offer.
“The College’s Career Development office really worked to develop us for interviews and resume-writing,” he recalls. “I was a second-semester senior who already had a job. That felt incredible.”
Even as a noncreative person, I can appreciate the way music becomes the fabric of someone’s life.
After four and a half years with Arthur Young, one of his clients, EMI Music Publishing, hired him for an in-house financial gig in 1990. It was a golden era for the record industry back then — a pre-iTunes age where digital content was still being developed. Roberts would eventually move to Zomba Music Publishing to work for record mogul Clive Calder, and the company flourished, controlling the music publishing rights to artists such as R. Kelly, Britney Spears, ’N Sync and Backstreet Boys.
In 2002, Bertelsmann Music Group acquired Zomba, and Roberts landed a position at BMG Music Publishing as senior vice president, finance and administration, in North and South America. In 2008, he crossed over to the WMG, where he was named senior vice president and CFO of its publishing arm, Warner/Chappell Music. Roberts was promoted to WMG executive vice president and CFO in 2011.
His quick-tempo crescendo to business notoriety couldn’t have been predicted when he chose to enroll at Manhattan College, with a smaller, friendly campus “that just felt more comfortable than the other schools,” he recalls. He has fond memories playing intramural basketball, hanging out at the since-shuttered Terminal Bar and serving in Student Government for a year as — what else? — treasurer.
The College would later change his life in a more important way, albeit indirectly. Two years after he graduated, during a gathering of accountants who’d rented out a cruise line party ship, Roberts bumped into two former classmates who’d just recently married and who'd brought along a friend, Tara. “She was beautiful,” Roberts recalls. Before long, they were dating, and today, 25 years later, they are happily married with four children.
“So I credit Manhattan College with helping me find my wife,” he says, with a laugh.
“Brian has always shown a determination to get to the career level he wants, but at the same time he’s a devoted friend and family man,” says James O’Rourke ’85, fellow accountant, classmate and parishioner at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Wyckoff, N.J., where Roberts has served as a retreat leader.
Topping the Charts
Despite the recent downturn in the music industry, WMG remains in good fiscal health under the Manhattan graduate’s stead. Shortly after becoming CFO, Roberts was part of a team that guided WMG into private company status following a sale to Access Industries. WMG now has annual total revenue of about $2.8 billion, and recent global successes include Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran and fun., who recently took Grammy Awards for Best New Artist and Song of the Year.
But beyond all the numbers and financial challenges presented by digitization, piracy and licensing, Roberts often just wants to talk about the music.
“My job can move quickly from talking to banks about restructuring WMG’s finances to talking about extending the rights of an artist whose songs we all love to hum,” he says. “Even as a noncreative person, I can appreciate the way music becomes the fabric of someone’s life.”
Photo by Patrick Macleod