Universal Music Executive Jessica Rivera Shares Wisdom with Berklee Songwriters and Producers

by Ayanna Jacobs-El

Last week Jessica Rivera (Executive Vice President/Head of East Coast Operations at Universal Music Publishing Group) stopped by Berklee for a song screening organized by the Songwriting Department. Ms. Rivera leads the expansion of the New York creative team and develops, nurtures, and signs new talent. During her career, she has signed several multi-platinum songwriters and recording artists such as Rihanna, Imagine Dragons, Alex Da Kid, DJ Khalil, and Jeremih.

Before the screening began a large hoard of eager Berklee students gathered around the Shames Family Scoring Stage where the event was going to take place. When the doors were opened, the students flooded the room and due to a large number of attendees, the control room was used for the overflow. The screening was moderated by the chair of the Songwriting Department Bonnie Hayes.

The way the screening worked was that students submitted one of their songs online a week prior to the event. The songs were played in the order in which they were received online and Ms. Rivera listened to about 30 seconds to 2 minutes of each song in order to get a sense of the lyrical content, musical direction, artistry, and production quality. For this screening over 100 songs were submitted and during the screening, less than 30 of those songs were listened to. The songs submitted varied in genre but the majority fell into pop, Rock, EDM, folk, and R&B.

Ms. Rivera was very friendly, approachable, and honest throughout the screening and wore a huge smile that made what could have been a nerve-racking experience very relaxed and fun. Some of the main comments Ms. Rivera made upon listening to the songs was that it is important to have an authentic sound and not to be afraid to be different. She stressed that we should not try to conform to a sound just because it is the current trend because that wouldn’t catch anyone’s attention or interest. She also felt that as songwriters it is important to dig deep into the lyrical content and not only stay on the surface level. She encouraged us to tell a story with our lyrics and make sure the melody doesn’t stay emotionally static. She also said that in this day and age every song we released must have an accompanying video.  She explained that no one really wants to listen to just audio anymore, and in order to grab a potential fan’s attention, we must have a unique and visually connected video with our music.

For a few of the songs Ms. Rivera listened to, she was very impressed and had no comments on how to make them better. She encouraged the students to keep doing what they are doing and to continue bettering their craft. She also told them to start shopping their songs to A&R (Artists and Repertoire) representatives and particularly noted that they should be trying to align themselves with the younger A&R’s who would be more likely to take the time to listen to their music. A particular quote that Ms. Rivera used when a student mentioned trying to make it as an artist was “Don’t try, strive.” I thought that these three words held a lot of power and encouragement that many students needed to hear.

The Songwriting Department frequently hosts song screenings that are open to Berklee students of all majors. If you are interested in learning more about upcoming song screenings email songwriting@berklee.edu. I would strongly encourage songwriters, producers, and artists to attend these screenings because they allow you to get first-hand constructive feedback, in a safe-space, from industry professionals working in today’s industry. This type of experience is invaluable and not something to not take for granted.


About the Author

Ayanna Jacobs-El
Ayanna Jacobs-El is a composer, producer, songwriter, singer, alto and baritone saxophonist, and DJ dual majoring in Contemporary Writing and Production and Professional Music with a minor in Writing for TV and New Media. You can learn more about Ayanna and hear her music by visiting www.ayannajacobsel.com.