Epic Records president Sylvia Rhone, Motown Records president Ethiopia Habtemariam, and Atlantic executive VP Juliette Jones, three of the most powerful African American women in the music industry, recently shared their trailblazing stories with “Billboard,” and we compiled their secrets to becoming part of a new generation of female executives.
1. Always Be Your Best Self
Born and raised in Harlem, NY, Sylvia Rhone grew up going to live performances by Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, and Janis Joplin. Before Rhone’s career in music, the Wharton School graduate began on the executive track working at Banker’s Trust until she wore pants to work, and they demanded she go home and change. She never went back.
Rhone made history in 1994 by becoming the first African-American woman to lead a major record company, but she had to work her way from the ground up after deciding that music, not banking, was what she wanted to pursue.
Her first job in the business was as a secretary at Buddah Records in 1974. She later became the regional promotions manager of special markets at Atlantic Records in 1981, and seven years later promoted to Senior VP of Black Music Division at Atlantic Records. She also helped launch the East West label and was elected Chairman/CEO of Elektra Entertainment Group.
Rhone now oversees stars such as DJ Khaled, 21 Savage, Future and Camila Cabello, but her success was not attained without overcoming trials, namely regarding her race and gender. She told “Billboard” about a time when Mötley Crüe “began to spew racial and sexist epithets publicly, calling me a ‘c—’ from the stage and a ‘n—- bitch’ in a Spin magazine article.”
She said many people expected her to negatively impact the label’s reputation when she joined the executive team. “The notion existed that I would negatively change the culture of the company and convert it into an urban label.” However, after her promotion, she has changed the label for the better.
She believes the industry-wide transformation to become centered on both content and technology has allowed aspiring female executives to better explore their place in the world of music.
“There’s a certain gift that women have in their management style that’s more inclusive than a male counterpart’s. One of the keys is to always be your best self. There’s no secret formula to it. You just have to understand that you’re managing a team of people, whether it’s two or 100, that is far more important than you.”
2. Surround Yourself with People Who Can Give You Opportunities
Ethiopia Habtemariam wrote her first fan letter at 16 years old to none other than Sylvia Rhone. “I wanted to introduce myself because it was incredible to hear that the label’s chairman was a black woman,” she told “Billboard.”
Habtemariam technically got her start in the music industry when she began an internship at Elektra’s Atlanta office. However, she first showed interest in the industry when her family moved from Tuskegee, Al to Atlanta, Ga, home to a rapidly growing music scene. She even became friends with the rap duo Kriss Kross before they were discovered.
Habtemariam is now the highest ranking African-American woman at Universal Music Publishing Group. She accounts a great deal of her success to those who provided her with the opportunity to climb the musical career ladder. As a high school freshman, Habtemariam had the opportunity to meet LaFace Records head of promotion, Shanti Das, at a career planning class and shadow her for a day. Because of an industry program called Yes to Jobs, she got her first internship at Elektra. LaRonda Sutton, GM at Hitco Publishing, later helped Habtemariam land her first full-time industry job as a creative manager at Edmonds Publishing. Her mentor, Tom Sturges, head of creative, then provided her with the UMPG opportunity. She went on to sign artists such as Keri Hilson, Ludacris, Justin Bieber, J. Cole, and Chris Brown.
Now, she receives fan mail from girls who are also inspired by seeing a black woman attain such high status. Habtemariam hopes to see more women of color recruited for A&R departments. She also feels that more doors are opening for cross-branding, like she has accomplished by shepherding joint ventures with Motown and Quality Control. She expresses her belief that, “It’s on [music executives] to be vocal and active in creating opportunities.”
3. Let Your Results Get You Respect in the Workplace
Juliette Jones began her career in the music industry as an intern for Arlinda Garett, a radio promotion veteran. Jones was handing out tapes at clubs and attending industry conventions. During her internship, she got hooked on music promotions. She fell in love with the autonomy, the earning potential, and the satisfaction of proving herself among her colleagues. She said she “didn’t have to play nice” to prove her worth. “Everyone sees it every Monday morning when the charts come out.”
An Evanston, Ill., native, Jones dropped out of the University of Maryland, where she majored in accounting and applied for an first entry-level position as the Mid-Atlantic regional promotion director with Jive Records in 1994. In her first interview, she was asked what she would do if she was asked to perform oral sex in order to get a record played on the radio. In response the bold question, she told the interviewer, “All is fair in love & promotion.” She followed that, adding, “So if that’s what we have to do to get records played, then I’ll be in line, right after the men.”
Since then, she has been climbing the corporate ladder for almost 25 years, working with Virgin, J/RCA and Warner Bros labels. Jones was traded from Warner to Atlantic in 2012, and she was promoted to her current executive vice president position in 2013.
Record promotion is a field dominated by men, and Jones told “Billboard” she faced more challenges with being a woman than being black in her career field. Despite being part of the team that helped get artists such as Bruno Mars, Cardi B, Lil Uzi Vert, Gucci Mane and Kodak Black getting played on the radio, she says she still faces discrimination in the workforce because of her gender.
For instance, she explains, security will sometimes allow her team of ten men to meet artists without any credentials, but they stop her under the impression that, because she is a woman, she is a groupie. Jones also told Billboard about a woman who was blackballed from the promotion world for 10 years just for complaining. For women, if you complained even once, you were out, according Jones.
As an intern, Jones had brunch with radio DJ George ‘Boogaloo’ Frasier, who explained, “If you want to be an executive, you have to know who can help you. If people aren’t trying to teach you anything or don’t give you the impression that they see any potential in you, leave them alone.” This advice stuck with Jones, who truly loves what she does and whose business performance reflects that sentiment.