Polly Anthony, Former Epic Records President, Dead at 59

Executive worked with Michael Jackson, Pearl Jam, Korn

October 1, 2013 11:55 AM ET
Polly Anthony
Polly Anthony

In 1998, when Korn was about to take off, the over-the-top metal band's managers decided to drive a tank through Manhattan as part of a promotion. Polly Anthony, Epic Records' president at the time, said: "Wow, that sounds different. Let's do it. That sounds like something that'll energize the fan base." She allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the "Korn Kampaign," and soon the band was multi-platinum.

Korn Reunites With Brian 'Head' Welch

"We always felt like she truly understood us, despite how radical our sound was in the beginning," singer Jonathan Davis says. "She made sure we had the ability to be ourselves, despite what trends were going on in music or what the industry considered 'hot.'"

Anthony, 59, died last weekend after battling pancreatic cancer. As Epic's president from 1997 to 2003, and later president of DreamWorks and co-president of Geffen Records, she worked with numerous music stars, including Michael Jackson, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, Macy Gray and Shakira. She was from the generation of record executives who could recognize an act's momentum and throw the label's weight behind it, recalls Peter Katsis, Korn's manager, by phone from a Backstreet Boys tour in Japan.

"It takes somebody like that, who could see the energy and go, 'It doesn't really matter if they don't sound like the other rock bands,'" he says. In a Billboard interview, former Sony Music chairman Tommy Mottola added, "I never saw her more committed than she was to Macy Gray. We were scratching our heads, but she took charge of it."

Born in Alexandria, Virginia, Anthony saw the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl in 1965 and, 10 years later, joined the record industry with a job at RCA Records. She switched to Epic in 1978, working in radio promotion, then moving up to general manager of 550 Music. Her colleagues regularly use the words "tough" and "fearless" when describing her, but many who worked with Anthony recall personal touches during a period when CDs made big money and record label competition was intense. At one point she called in Debbie Southwood-Smith, an A&R executive at sibling label Interscope Records, for a meeting – just to compliment her work, and her outfit.

"She was so supportive of women," Southwood-Smith says. "A rare quality in a cutthroat environment."

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