BMI CEO Michael O'Neill, Rutgers MBA '86, gives students a sense of challenges the Internet poses to music industry

Monday, March 9, 2015

Michael O’Neill, a Rutgers MBA alumnus who fills the corner office at music industry icon BMI, spoke to students about networking, taking chances and being an ally for songwriters during a special event on March 4.

O’Neill, who started his post- MBA career at CBS Sports, said he was the first non-Ivy Leaguer the company hired in finance. (His father contacted a friend in human resources to help him get an interview, but the rest, his father told him, is up to you.)

"I didn’t try to be somebody I wasn’t," O’Neill said of his start at CBS. "I had the ability to communicate with people. It was a strength. You have to find your strength, whatever it is, and embrace it."

Michael O'Neill, CEO of Broadcast Music Inc., speaks with students after the CEO Lecutre Series event.

When O’Neill landed a new job at BMI, or Broadcast Music Inc., he said he thought he would stay long enough to learn a new business and then move on. As he took on new responsibilities in different areas of the company, the learning never stopped, he said.

"People trusted me, and they kept giving me things, and I kept taking them for the ability to learn something new," he said.

O’Neill’s talk was part of Rutgers Business School’s CEO Lecture Series. The event was created in 2010 to showcase the success of prominent alumni and area executives and offer current students a chance to meet them.

"It is a great honor for us to have Michael O’Neill here," Dean Lei Lei said in her welcoming remarks. More than 200 people, mostly students, filled Bove Auditorium as well as a nearby “spill-over” room to listen to O’Neill.

Rutgers Business School Dean Lei Lei and Michael O'Neill.

The CEO Lecture Series has featured such other prominent alumni as Sheri McCoy, CEO of Avon and a former executive at healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson; Eric Tveter, CEO and managing director of Switzerland’s UPC Cablecom and Thomas Renyi, former chairman and CEO of the Bank of New York Mellon Corp.

O’Neill immediately grabbed the audience’s attention with a short video featuring some of the songwriters BMI works with – Taylor Swift among them – and their testimonials about the company, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last year.

The video also served to introduce BMI, which is not nearly as known to the public as the label companies, but remains an icon in the music industry. The non-profit BMI works to protect the public performances of an estimated 10 million works of music created by songwriters, composers and music publishers around the world.

Michael O'Neill spoke to more than 200 students, faculty and staff who crowded into Bove Auditorium for the CEO Lecture Series.

O’Neill spoke about how the digital age has changed the way songwriters are compensated for performances of their work and the challenges it is creating for BMI.

"It’s just different when you go from downloading to streaming," he told the audience. "You’re not buying, and that affects a lot of things in the ecosystem."

O’Neill’s role as chief executive at BMI has landed him a seat at congressional hearings over licensing operations. It’s a setting where changes might occur that could benefit songwriters, composers and publishers, he said, as the Internet continues to change how consumers listen to music.

"I like Pandora,” O’Neill said as he fielded a question from the audience. "I don’t want it to go out of business. I just want it to pay more to our songwriters.”

After his talk, O’Neill answered a few questions about his job as CEO, his MBA experience and how he listens to his favorite music.

Q: What’s the best thing about running BMI?

A: "The people, by far. We have the greatest group of people."

Q: What’s the most difficult part of your job?

A: "Competition is always difficult. Trying to understand what the competitors are going to do, where they might be coming from and who might be trying to get into your business, and then then making sure the songwriters still feel it’s a family. BMI is a big organization, but the songwriting community has to perceive it as a family culture. We have to make that real."

Q: How do you see the chaos being wrought by the Internet playing out for the music industry?

A: "The Internet has brought issues up we never thought would come up. I think while it’s disruptive, disruption is usually good. The Internet has also changed how we consume music. In just five years, it went from downloading to streaming. What’s the next evolution of that? We don’t know. It keeps us nimble, I guess.”

Q: How did having an MBA impact your career?

A: "I was the second MBA to be hired by BMI. The MBA helped to immediately legitimize me in my role. The MBA program is not like undergraduate, the work is more hands on so that allowed me to come in and take on challenges that someone else would not have taken on, to be more confident in taking on the challenges and to feel I had the ability or the knowledge to be able to do things.”

Q: You talk a lot about streaming and downloading, but vinyl is back, too. How are you listening to your music these days?

A: "I just got a record player again. I love the concept of dropping the needle on vinyl, but I have a lot of music on my iPhone and I still download MP3s to my phone when someone sends me music. I also like Spotify and Pandora. And I still listen to radio. I love college radio stations.”

TAGS: Alumni CEO Lecture Series Finance Full-Time MBA Lei Lei Marketing MBA