After Top Executive Leaves, Billboard Confronts Its Internal Culture
Posted July 31, 2018 9:11 p.m. EDT
During a recent lunch hour, staff members of the music trade publication Billboard were summoned to a conference room in the magazine’s New York office. There, managers gave a PowerPoint presentation about corporate values, detailed the results of an employee survey and promised to improve the office culture.
It was the kind of management show that would normally elicit eye-rolling from a roomful of skeptical journalists. But the more than 100 employees gathered — from Billboard and sister publications like Spin and The Hollywood Reporter — asked pointed questions about executives’ behavior and women’s role at the company, and many walked away with a guarded sense of relief, according to four people who were at the meeting.
It has been a bruising time for Billboard and its parent company, Valence Media. In May, The Daily Beast published a detailed article focused on Billboard’s top executive, John Amato. In the article, he was accused of interfering with editorial decisions regarding articles about Charlie Walk, a high-ranking record executive — and longtime friend of Amato — who had been accused of sexual misconduct. Faced with questions about its journalists’ independence, Billboard initiated an internal investigation into the matter.
The inquiry into newsroom practices turned up allegations against Amato that included claims of sexual harassment and inappropriate comments at company events, according to three people with knowledge of the inquiry and documents submitted to the company as part of the internal investigation. Amato left as chief executive of the Billboard-Hollywood Reporter Media Group three weeks ago. Two of his top lieutenants have also been the subject of employee complaints, one for mistreatment of employees and the other for inappropriate behavior around business clients.
Valence Media said in a statement that it would investigate “any claims of misconduct and take appropriate action after a fair and thorough review of the facts.”
Amato, who once started a taxi advertising company, had helped transform Billboard from a dry but widely read organ of the industry to a hybrid consumer publication, with glossy covers and an increasing focus on fashion and celebrity. In 2014, he and Janice Min, a veteran magazine editor, took joint control of Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter.
The changes that were put in place helped Billboard remain one of the last music magazines standing. But since Min left last year — she remains a Valence consultant — there had been growing unease among editors and other employees about interference from Amato, and more broadly about the workplace culture he fostered.
In interviews, five current or former employees described an environment in which corporate meddling in editorial decisions was not limited to the coverage of Walk, the president of the Republic Group, a label owned by Universal Music. On the business side of the publication, junior employees — most of them women — filed human resources complaints about inappropriate comments and bullying behavior by executives, according to four former employees and correspondence with a human resources officer reviewed by The New York Times.
Fifteen current or former employees spoke to The Times about the culture at Billboard. They spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution or to avoid problems at their new jobs.
In complaints submitted to company investigators, Amato was accused of a range of behavior, including unwanted sexual advances and salacious comments at company events.
Billboard’s parent company also paid to settle a past harassment allegation against Amato, according to two people with direct knowledge of the agreement who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a previously undisclosed matter. The people said they did not know the amount of the payment or the exact nature of the allegations.
Amato and his lawyer declined to comment for this article.
“We are well into broad reviews of company policies — including investigative processes, training, human resources and editorial integrity, and are fully committed to this effort,” Valence said in a statement. “In working towards achieving our goal of workplace safety, we have dedicated significant resources and have begun to implement changes.
“To that end, two months ago Billboard’s human resources began reporting directly to Valence,” the statement continued. “It is imperative that leadership heal the issues in Billboard’s culture through clear, consistent and sustained action.”
At the company’s recent town hall-style meeting, Asif Satchu, one of Valence’s two chief executives, tried to allay employees’ concerns. According to the people in attendance, Satchu said management was closely studying a survey that showed women at the company had a more difficult time succeeding than men had.
Efforts would be made, Satchu added, to make the management ranks more diverse. In a message that employees took as a sign that there could be a further shake-up, Satchu said they would be “transitioning people out” if they did not follow company guidelines. The cultural changes at the magazine have collided with broader industry upheaval, with Billboard struggling for years to adapt to shifts in the music business and in the wider media landscape.
In recent years, even the magazine’s well-known charts have faced increasing competition from a flood of data available from online sources like Spotify, Shazam and YouTube, which executives in the business watch like stock tickers. On Friday, Penske Media said it had invested in BuzzAngle Music, a data service that will supply chart information to the Penske properties Variety and Rolling Stone.
Yet nothing so far has dethroned Billboard’s charts as the arbiter of popularity, said Larry Miller, an associate professor of music business at New York University’s Steinhardt School.
“It’s as important as ever for labels to deliver No. 1 records on the Billboard chart,” Miller said. “Even though at lunch, or over drinks, the executives may be talking about Spotify streams or their placement on playlists, the Billboard chart remains the coin of the realm.”
According to comScore, Billboard’s website has drawn an average of 15.3 million visitors a month over the past year in the United States, more than Rolling Stone’s site. Still, changes to the magazine’s coverage priorities have alienated some of the industry insiders who once made up its primary audience.
“They’ve become more the People magazine of the industry instead of the bible of the industry,” said Allen Kovac, a veteran artist manager whose clients have included the Bee Gees, Blondie and Mötley Crüe.
The employee concerns about Amato crested early this year. In January, a former colleague of Walk, the high-ranking music executive, published an open letter accusing him of sexual misconduct. The music press rushed to cover it. Yet Billboard and its related publications lagged.
Spin was preparing an investigative article that included accusations against Walk by several unnamed women. It was approved by the company’s lawyers, according to two employees of the company. But delays followed, and the article was never published.
Journalists at Billboard who were separately writing a career profile of Walk were told by superiors to put off publication until his label completed its own investigation, according to two employees. The results of that investigation were never made public, and the article also never ran.
Walk has denied the accusations. In March, he left his job as president of the Republic Group. At most magazines, rank-and-file journalists perform their duties at a remove from the publication’s business side. But journalists at Billboard said that a dearth of high-ranking editors in the newsroom — it has not had an editor-in-chief for two years — had left the staff feeling vulnerable to the kinds of management directives they said occurred with the coverage involving Walk.
In one arrangement that drew concerns about editorial integrity, some artists who agreed to perform at the Hot 100 Music Festival — a two-day event at Jones Beach in New York that was a brainchild of Amato’s — were promised cover stories in the magazine, according to three current or former employees.
Executives at the company sometimes influenced the look of those covers. Marshmello, a DJ who performs in costume, for example, was featured on the front of a March issue after playing in last summer’s festival; his manager was pictured with him, although editors initially objected to the arrangement, according to two employees and correspondence reviewed by The Times.
On the company’s business side, multiple employees have left in recent weeks after making complaints to human resources that they said had not resulted in any action.
The company’s chief revenue officer, Moksha Fitzgibbons, joined at the beginning of the year after more than a decade at Complex Media, a pop-culture publisher with a strong presence online. From the start, four former employees said, he was verbally abusive, sometimes demeaning employees to the point of tears.
Two of those former employees said that a day after Fitzgibbons returned from a sensitivity training course, he loudly announced at a staff meeting that he did not believe depression was a legitimate condition and that he had never been depressed a day in his life. A spokesman for Valence said the company had not received any complaint about the alleged episode. Through Valence, Fitzgibbons declined to comment.
According to one former employee who said she filed two complaints about Fitzgibbons’ behavior, a human resources representative asked her for suggestions about what to say to him — Fitzgibbons was not going anywhere, the former employee said the representative told her.
The Daily Beast also recently reported an accusation that Julian Holguin, a Billboard executive vice president, had made obscene comments in the presence of employees and sales clients. The Times confirmed that the complaint was made. Valence disputed the employee’s account and said it was “without merit.”
Both Fitzgibbons and Holguin, top lieutenants to Amato, remain at the company. Holguin was at the recent staff meeting, according to several of the employees who were there, making them wonder how much the company’s culture would actually change.