How James Donio is leading the Music Business Association into the age of streaming

James Donio

James Donio

By Tina Irgang

James Donio has been with the Music Business Association (Music Biz) since 1988, when he impressed its then-leader so much during an interview that she created a job for him. In 2003, Donio became the association’s president, and he has helped it remain nimble as the music business has changed from a primarily retail-centric model to one that encompasses an ever-growing number of streaming options. Here, Donio talks about the changing nature of music, and his love of The Monkees.

Where does your passion for the music business come from?

Donio: Growing up, I was definitely a music fan. The very first album that I received as a gift was The Monkees, for my 10th birthday in 1966. I think they were sort of created in the image of The Beatles at that time, and then some enterprising TV producers put together this group who weren’t really necessarily a band, but were kind of a band for TV and then became a band after that. So that was my first kind of introduction to enjoying music. Certainly, at 10 years old, I could not possibly have known that I would somehow work in the music business for what now is going on almost 30 years, but even more importantly, that I would get to present a lifetime achievement award to members of The Monkees — which I just did this past May at our annual convention. … It was kind of a surreal moment because I couldn’t help but hearken back to that excited 10-year-old who got his first record album exactly 50 years before that. A number of years after that, I began playing musical instruments myself. I played the accordion, the violin, the organ and the xylophone. And after that, I was in a marching band in Philadelphia.

James Donio and Monkees

James Donio (center) presents an Outstanding Achievement Award to members of The Monkees at Music Biz’s 2016 annual convention.

How did you come to join Music Biz?

Donio: I was working for another association in the computer and word processing industry, and they were going to be moving to Chicago. I wasn’t really interested in relocating to Chicago, so I started looking for a job. The entertainment arena was always interesting to me, and I thought it would be exciting to work in it. But I got my degree in journalism and worked in publishing and PR for a while, and then I began working for nonprofit organizations. … There was a tiny ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer for a writer and editor for an entertainment organization in Southern New Jersey. So I answered the ad and they called me in for an interview. The head of the organization at the time interviewed me and just felt that I was very much over-qualified for the job that was advertised. So we agreed no harm, no foul, and I left. The next day, I got a call from her assistant saying, “She wants you to come back for another interview.” I was perplexed because we had parted ways saying I was overqualified. So the assistant said, “No, she wants to talk to you again, she’s thinking about creating a job for you. She’s very impressed with you and sees a lot of potential for your future, and she wants to meet with you.” So I arranged the appointment, which would have been about two days after that. The very next day, I was in a horrible automobile accident, and I totaled my car. Fortunately, I wasn’t gravely injured, but I certainly could have been killed. So I had to rent a car to go for this second interview, and obviously the interview went well. They created a job for me. That was in May of 1988, and I’m still here. I’ve gone through a lot of twists and turns during my career here, promotions and working in different facets of the business, but I became president of the association in 2003.

How has the association been affected by the larger changes going on in the music industry, especially in the way music is being consumed and purchased?

James Donio, Rachelle Friedman and Taylor Swift

James Donio, Rachelle Friedman and Taylor Swift at the 2010 convention of The National Association of Recording Merchandisers, as Music Biz was then known. Swift received the Artist of the Year award.

Donio: Well, we’re a trade association. That’s based on membership. So we have individual members and company members, but primarily company members. We also have other organizations or associations that join as partners, and we have academic institutions, which is a new program that really is just a couple of years old, our Academic Partnership Program. So we have ways that various entities touching the music business can engage with us. Our mission is bringing individuals together to invest in the future of the business of music, and as that business has evolved, so has the organization. So the constituency has broadened as the way in which people discover, consume, purchase and experience music changes. We still have a base of companies that are in the physical side of the business — physical stores selling CDs, vinyl and a lot of other items around music. But we’ve also expanded the constituency as well. For instance, our chairman of the board comes from Google/YouTube, and Spotify, Amazon and Microsoft are also on our board. [But] so are a handful of independent, physical store owners and the wholesalers that support them. We’re definitely not a homogenous, one-size-fits-all entity, because the music business isn’t that.

In 10 years, what will the music business look like?

Donio: I don’t have a crystal ball, so it’s hard to know. But if you’d asked me that question 10 years ago, I probably would not have predicted that a company like Google/YouTube would be the chairman of our board. So I think there’s no question that the access model, as we call it — you purchase access to music, as opposed to specifically owning music —is the dominant trend in the business right now. I see no indication or reason why that trend would reverse. On the other hand, we see vinyl, and it’s experienced year-over-year growth for the past 10 years. It’s not going to grow to where it’s again the dominant delivery mechanism for music, but it’s interesting. … People who stream may also be people who purchase vinyl. … I wouldn’t expect that we’re going to go to zero in terms of physical music, even in the next 10 years. I think there will always be a collecting, owning, touching experience that people like to have.

Katy Perry and James Donio

Katy Perry accepts an award from James Donio at the 2012 Music Biz convention.

You helped establish the Academic Partnership Program at Music Biz. What is its purpose? How does it help the association?

Donio: As we look into the future, there needs to be a next generation of leaders, of visionaries — executives to take responsibility, to take over and to shepherd this. So we see the education and preparation of that next generation, of those creators and executives who will need to work together, as a critically important component of what we do. We have a scholarship fund that’s given out millions of dollars over the years to students who may be employees or may be family members of our members. They don’t necessarily have to be making a career in the music business. … There are many institutions in the U.S. and outside that have music business programs, so we’ve embraced those institutions. In the first year, we had 12 colleges and universities; now we have 20. The students and faculty from those universities are able to avail themselves of the consumer intelligence information we have, and participate in our events and educational programs. We see it as part of our responsibility. It’s an important role for us to play, and we’re just excited that it has taken off the way it has.

What is your favorite piece of music?

Donio: I’m also a musical theatre junkie, so probably the original cast recording of West Side Story, which is my favorite show and favorite film, would certainly be up there. Interestingly, my favorite band or musical group is actually the Dixie Chicks. Those are kind of opposite points on the spectrum. I really love all kinds of popular music. I love jazz, I feel very passionate about film soundtracks, I love country. So I’m kind of all over the place. But West Side Story holds a really special place for me because I was just a very young child of five or six years old when I was first introduced to the music by going to see the movie with my sister. It kind of stuck with me.

About The Human Element:

The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email ahurst@smartceo.com.