On any given day, Tom Rowland ’84 might be taking a phone call from Frank Sinatra’s estate or talking to others in his office about their conversations with the people over at Paramount Pictures or Twentieth Century Fox. The next day, he could be adding songs to a collaborative Spotify playlist, feeding music ideas to the production team of NBC’s television drama “This is Us,” helping to craft the show’s soundtrack.
Rowland is the executive vice president of Film & Television Music at the Universal Music Group (UMG), headquartered in Santa Monica, Calif. He oversees transactions between UMG’s iconic labels like Capitol Records, Motown Records and Island Records, and negotiates deals to use music from those labels’ artists in various media.
If you’ve heard music in a television show, film, video game or commercial in the past 25 years, chances are Rowland had something to do with it. He is the music man who matches song to scene, working with film studios, television production teams and advertisers to negotiate synchronization licensing deals.
“If you’re watching a film and you hear a Beatles recording in a scene, that’s basically our doing,” Rowland says. “We negotiate those deals, which are often fairly complicated transactions involving artists, songwriters, estates, labels and music publishers, all having a say as to the worthiness of the project and the licensing fees. It’s a big balancing act.”
Rowland’s rise to music mogul status allowed him to return to his West Coast roots. He hails from Pasadena, Calif., but his family followed his father’s political career to Northern Virginia when Rowland was five years old. His time on the East Coast led him to pursue a college career at William & Mary, but the possibility of being a future music professional wasn’t on his radar right off the bat.
He studied psychology and religion at W&M and had plans to become a psychiatrist. That career path landed him many volunteer hours at Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg. On campus, Rowland was a member of the Corner Street Blues Band briefly as a freshman, and an appropriately named W&M ensemble, Ampersand, as an upperclassman. After graduation, he scored a job back at Eastern State where he directed music programs and art therapy classes. He led guitar jam sessions with patients and would even round them up for trips to Tribe football games on the weekends. Although Rowland soon moved back to Northern Virginia and began working as an analyst for a political and public relations firm, his time spent at Eastern State inspired the name of his post-grad band’s first album.
“I was the singer, bass player and songwriter for my band Sleep of Reason in D.C.,” Rowland says. “My time at Eastern State was so meaningful that we named our first album, ‘Building 27,’ after the unit where I worked, which housed the forensic and behaviorally challenged patients. Sleep of Reason was very much influenced by the Beatles and XTC. This was pre-grunge, pre-
Nirvana and Pearl Jam. We wrote melodic songs with a hard edge to them.”
REMIX: Rowland works on soundtracks for movies and television, such as the NBC show “This is Us” (above). His position in the industry grants him the opportunity to nominate and select Grammy Award winners (below, with legendary artist Sir Elton John).
Photo courtesy of Tom Rowland ’84
Suddenly Rowland’s musicality became more than a hobby. Sleep of Reason was his main focus, and since the band didn’t have an official manager, Rowland began to take on the tasks of negotiating and booking the group’s gigs. His first taste of the business side of music escalated quickly when his band and several other groups in the D.C., area converged to establish a local record label known as Top Records. The label gained recognition from The Washington Post and held joint music festivals. Soon enough, Sleep of Reason had to come to terms with the reality of relocating in order to plug into a music industry hub.
“We were having success, but we realized we had to move to New York or Los Angeles if we wanted to level up,” Rowland says. “Since I was originally from Southern California, we moved the whole band out there with all of our stuff. I was 25 at the time. We suddenly had to pay rent and find jobs. I landed a position with Warner Records at Warner Brothers, working in their film and television department. The band broke up not long after we moved out to California.”
Following a brief stint with Warner Brothers, Rowland was recruited to run the film and television music division at Universal Music Group, where he has served for nearly three decades. From his office overlooking the palm trees of downtown Santa Monica and the iconic Universal globe outside the UMG building, Rowland has worked on projects such as the “Pitch Perfect” soundtrack and the Guitar Hero, Rock Band and Just Dance musical video game franchises.
Rowland’s team produced, mixed and engineered the first posthumous Michael Jackson release following the performer’s death in 2009, “The Stripped Mixes.” His experiences earned him voting membership in the National Academy for Recording Arts and Sciences, the organization of musicians, producers and recording professionals that nominates and selects Grammy Award winners.
“Our business of creativity is often driven by committee. Very few people have a lot of concentrated creative power,” Rowland says. “My job is to make suggestions, but there are people on the other end who have to agree with them. It’s a team effort. You can’t take it too personally when you think you’ve found the perfect song for the perfect scene, only to be told that the producer didn’t quite hear it your way. You have to have thick skin.”
Rowland has passed down his passion for playing music to his children, especially his daughter Natalie, creator of The Heartstringz Foundation, an uplifting program that provides ukuleles and lessons to hospitalized children and senior citizens. The father-daughter pair also share a love for William & Mary, one they have bonded over during many trips to Williamsburg.
On the West Coast campuses of the University of Southern California and California State University–Northridge, Rowland gives lectures to music business students on music marketing, production and licensing for film and television. He says his own background in the liberal arts has taken him far and has given him the breadth of knowledge to be able to adapt to whatever challenge may present itself, a vital skill in the rapidly changing entertainment industry.
“My daughter is about to go off to college and she doesn’t know what to study yet. I think that’s a good thing,” Rowland says. “I encourage her to keep an open mind, to study whatever she wants. Most people change careers several times in their lives, and one should be prepared for that. I think the greatest lesson I learned from my experience at William & Mary was to cast a wide net of curiosity and be receptive to the odd adventure.”
Tom Rowland has crisscrossed the country, finding his home wherever the music moves to. From rocking out at college gigs in Williamsburg to isolating song vocals from their original tracks to be remixed and used in a theatrical trailer, he is always tuned in to the times.