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Tom Calderone’s new Spotify gig harks back to Buffalo State days at WBNY

The trendy, open-air New York City offices of Spotify are a long jump from Tom Calderone’s old college radio digs at SUNY Buffalo State.

But when Calderone walked into his new workplace two days ago for his first day on the job at the music-streaming service, it felt a little like 30 years ago. That’s when Calderone’s broadcasting career began at the Buffalo State station, WBNY – a place where he spearheaded a format change and a series of promotions and pranks that turned the college station into a youth-radio phenomenon.

“This feels like I’m back with creative, fun, risk-taking and edgy people,” said Calderone, who joined Spotify as the global head of content partnerships after a 17-year stay at the media giant Viacom. “It fulfills my soul. It really does.”

It also answers the question many media-industry observers have wondered about since Calderone left his post as president of VH1 in July: What will he do next?

Calderone, who ran VH1 for a decade and oversaw music at MTV for seven years before that, is regarded as one of the most influential executives in the entertainment industry.

From deciding which boy band (‘N Sync? Backstreet Boys?) got better play on MTV to water-cooler conversations about VH1 reality shows like “Rock of Love” and “Mob Wives,” his fingerprints are permanently inked on pop culture.

A 1990s example that still stands today: After auditioning a then-shy teenager named Britney Spears for MTV, he saw her pigtail-wearing, midriff-baring video for “Baby One More Time,” thought it to be good MTV-style programming, and put it on the network’s “Total Request Live.”

The yin-and-yang reaction from MTV’s teen viewers (overwhelmingly positive) and conservative family-values groups (correspondingly negative) reaffirmed what Calderone suspected: People talked. People watched. For MTV, that’s good TV.

When he took over the helm of VH1, advertisers complained that viewers weren’t watching their commercials. Calderone addressed his inherited problem by melding the presence of VH1 personalities such as Hulk Hogan (then the star of “Hogan Knows Best”) into the commercial breaks, thinking – correctly – that it would keep people watching.

Details on Calderone’s new job are still few. He’s going to oversee the development of original content and focus on building creative relationships with artists, publishers and labels. Exactly who, and what that will look like, is still in the works, but it’s reasonable to expect that Spotify plans to produce shorter-form, mobile-friendly original content in the same way that services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime do for television.

In a Thursday phone interview with The News, Calderone said he will be working on both audio and video projects that include – and may integrate – people from fields as varied as podcasting, music and comedy.

“The grand scope of entertainment,” he said.

In the six months since leaving Viacom, Calderone took time off, honoring a noncompete clause. He traveled to London, and in summer and fall spent plenty of time in Buffalo, where he maintains a residence.

A native of Long Island, Calderone has long had a strong connection to Buffalo. He is a member of the local music and broadcasting halls of fame, has Bills season tickets and is an ardent supporter of the Food Bank of Western New York.

His Buffalo roots are planted in his days at WBNY, where he gained attention with friends Gabe DiMaio and John Davis for their willingness to play punk music amidst a mix of more standard Top 40 and classic rock songs. After graduation in 1986, he launched a career that included radio jobs in Buffalo, Washington, D.C., and New York before joining Viacom in 1998.

At the end of his VH1 tenure, Calderone was a highly ranked corporate executive. He still is at Spotify, though he’s no longer running an entire organization.

Instead, he’s back to creating content. In essence, that’s what Calderone and his friends did back in the 1980s in the WBNY lounge, sitting on couches and talking playlists and pranks.

That’s what he’ll be doing in Spotify’s building, too, a place with standing desks, few offices, a rooftop deck and a stage for live music.

“What Spotify is affording me is taking years of experience from college radio all the way till now,” Calderone said, “taking the best creative elements and putting it together in one big, creative job.”

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