It would be an understatement to say that Jeffrey Harleston is a busy man. As if being general counsel and executive VP of business and legal affairs for the world’s largest music company, Universal Music Group (UMG), wasn’t enough, he has five or six other major gigs going on simultaneously.
For the past year, Harleston, who is keynote speaker at Variety’s Power of Law breakfast this year, has also been interim chairman/CEO of Def Jam Recordings. He’s overseen major releases by Justin Bieber, Jhené Aiko, Big Sean and even hip-hop legends Public Enemy (whose return to the label after more than 25 years Harleston helped orchestrate)‚ and made several major staff promotions while the company seeks a full-time chief. He is also, with Motown chief Ethiopia Habtemariam and UMG EVP Eric Hutcherson, co-chair of UMG’s Task Force for Meaningful Change. It was launched last year and works to amplify and expand current programs, devise other initiatives and support marginalized communities in the ongoing fight for equality, justice and inclusion.
In his main job, Harleston oversees a small army of lawyers and the legal affairs of a sprawling company that includes the Capitol, Interscope, Republic, Motown, Island, Def Jam, Decca and Verve labels, as well as a leading global music publishing company and the industry’s top merchandising company, Bravado. He oversees all business transactions, contracts and litigation for UMG’s operations worldwide as well as its government relations, trade and anti-piracy activities.
In recent years, Harleston has also handled UMG’s sale of a 20% stake to Chinese media giant Tencent, and is looking ahead to UMG’s IPO later this year. He has also developed strong relationships with many of the company’s artists or their estates over his decades at UMG, and tends to work directly with the James Brown and Bob Marley estates himself.
In his early years with UMG, Harleston was GM of Geffen Records, where he worked closely with artists including Mary J. Blige, Common and many others.
At the 2020 ceremony when Harleston received the Recording Academy’s Entertainment Law Initiative Service Award, Common said to him: “What you’ve done for my career, I just want to say I’m more than grateful. It was such a monumental time and a pivotal time, and you really stepped in and knew each aspect and side of what the artist needs and what the label needed. You were able to translate that and give it to us straight up.”
The Boston native is a true-blue company man, having served at UMG since 1993, holding a number of senior titles including executive vice president/head of operations for Geffen Records and senior vice president of business and legal affairs for MCA Records.
Before joining UMG, he was associate independent counsel during the investigation and prosecution of the Iran/Contra scandal during the 1980s, and also worked as a litigation associate at the firm of Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C., and, before law school, as an account executive for Saatchi & Saatchi Compton Advertising in New York.
In his spare time, Harleston is a member of UMG’s executive management board as well as the boards of SoundExchange and the Recording Industry Assn. of America, chairman of the TJ Martell foundation and a board member of MusiCares, the Recording Academy’s charitable wing, plus, the married father of four children.