Hip-Hop Veteran Amani Duncan on Switching Gears to Bring Martin Guitars Into the 21st Century -- With a Little Help From Ed Sheeran

Matt Furman
Duncan, photographed May 27 at C.F. Martin & Co. in Nazareth, Pa., says working with Jay Z on his Blueprint album for MTV Unplugged was a career highlight. “It was the first time in 10 years they had a hip-hop artist,” she says, “and he was at a point where he was pushing himself creatively.”

"It's like an episode of Green Acres every day," jokes Amani Duncan, vp brand marketing at C.F. Martin & Co., Inc. while seated in her well-appointed office above the "pickin' parlor" in the 183-year-old company's headquarters in rural Nazareth, Pa. (population: 5,703). "I don't dress like anyone here, I don't look like anyone here, but none of that matters -- those are just accoutrements."

Indeed, Duncan's music business bona fides are many, having spent two decades working for such veteran ­executives as Lyor Cohen, Sean Combs, Julie Greenwald, Kevin Liles and Jason Flom and with an array of acts including Jay Z, Melissa Etheridge, Lenny Kravitz, Gorillaz. LL Cool J and Slipknot among many others. But preserving the legacy of an instrument that Neil Young and Bob Dylan cherish is about as far a left turn as this major-label refugee could take. (Martins start at $500; a vintage model -- like one accidentally destroyed during a scene in the 2015 movie The Hateful Eight -- can be priceless.)

Now five years in, Duncan, 45, ­exponentially has grown the ­venerable brand's ­visibility and hip factor. Ed Sheeran, Elle King, Of Monsters and Men, Hunter Hayes and Sturgill Simpson are among the youthful ­emissaries of the Martin Guitar Ambassador Program she created. Martins accent rooms across the Ace Hotel properties. You also can see the six-strings (the ­company produces 150,000 guitars a year; in 2015, revenue was north of $125 ­million) all over TV's Nashville, on co-branded Burton Snowboards and on social media. And helping celebrate the centennial of Martin's storied model: The Ballad of the Martin Dreadnought, a ­documentary selected at multiple film festivals.

None of it would have been possible without Duncan's post-college career crisis, when she deferred law school and sat adrift at her parents' house in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. That's where she one day thumbed through the yellow pages, "went to 'record ­companies' and saw 'Def Jam,' " says Duncan. An ­internship followed, catapulting her through radio and video promotion ­positions at Island Def Jam and Virgin Records, where she was employed during Janet Jackson's 2004 Super Bowl ­"wardrobe malfunction." ("Luckily I can say with a clear conscious I knew nothing about it," says Duncan.)

Billboard caught up with the married stepmom of two at Martin HQ, where she oversees a staff of 10, in advance of the Summer NAMM ­convention June 23-25 in Nashville.

Even though your office is only a couple of hours from New York City and Philadelphia, does it feel like a world away?
When I first came to Nazareth after ­working as [chief marketing officer] for Sean Combs in midtown Manhattan, I had no idea where this was. I thought I was lost. But my belief is being open to everything because you never quite know what you may be doing next. Looking back, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

What are the challenges of marketing a heritage brand?
Guitar players are some of the most ­passionate -- and opinionated -- people I have ever met. We have a very strong core of more middle-aged players, and here I come trying to get Ed Sheeran fans, ­surfers and snowboarders ­without losing that core. The last thing you want is to alienate the people who have been with you from day one and own 10 Martin guitars.

Is there a sweet spot for consumers?
I realized it's like six degrees of ­separation. Hearing Dierks Bentley say he got a Martin because Neil Young had one; Neil Young borrowed Dylan's; and Dylan was a fan of Woody Guthrie, who played a Martin. I started tracing these lines of inspiration because everyone wants to be like their guitar hero.

Do you play guitar?
Now I do. We would be talking about these really technical things —x-bracing, neck profiles, tonewood and I was sitting there like a poseur. As a marketer I'm tactile, always touching and need to experience it. I take lessons where I live in South Orange, NJ. It's opened up a whole world for me and helped me market  better.

How does Martin compete against Gibson and Fender, two strong brands with their own ­devoted ­followings?
Well, we don't. We're strictly acoustic and acoustic-electric guitars. Fender and Gibson have way bigger offerings than we do. It's a different business model. I'm ­trying to cement Martin as a lifestyle brand. It's why I wanted to be in hotels, but I was looking for something that felt authentic and would appeal to a new generation of consumers. The Ace was the perfect storm: It's cool, it's hip, it's a hang-out spot. We've done some really cool activations, like ­partnering with Bowery Presents for 5 at 5 (five songs played at 5 o'clock) played on a Martin. Filmed and recorded, we put it on social media, and bam!

How did you first get into the music business?
I was lost. I was about to go to law school and had a panic attack because for the first time I thought "I don't' know if this is what I want." I sat on the couch for a couple of months not knowing what the hell I was gonna do. One day I said, "I'm gonna work in the music business!" I didn't even know what that meant. My mom was like, "Oh God…." I picked up the Yellow Pages when they still had Yellow pages and literally went to "Record Companies" and saw Def Jam. I was like, "I think I know Def Jam, yeah, hip-hop. Oh, they have an LA office, okay." The person who picked up the phone was Tina Davis, west coast head of A&R.

That would never happen today.
I was like, "Hi, my name is Amani Duncan and I'm a recent graduate and i'm looking for an internship." Then I heard, "Whatever, show up tomorrow," and she hangs up. I told my mom, "I got a job!" I left out the Intern part. I showed up the next day and was clueless!

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How did it go?
People from the New York office would come out all the time-- Lyor, Kevin, Julie and Chris [the late Chris Lighty]. I didn't know what I was doing, but no one really knew I was an intern. When artists would come to town I would pick them up and take them to radio interviews, in-stores, video shoots, recording studios. I was acting like a regional rep but didn't know it, I was just making things up but getting noticed.

Which artists were your working with?
They had a great roster. Redman was the first Def Jam artist I took around L.A. Over time I worked with Jay-Z, L Cool J, EPMD, Method Man, Foxy Brown, everybody

Which projects were you most proud of there?
I created original programming with Jay'Z's Blueprint album for MTV Unplugged, which was the first time in ten years they had a hip-hop artist. Jay is amazing. Honestly, he's so smart and professional and was at a point with that album where he was pushing himself creatively.

What did you pick up from Lyor Cohen and Julie Greenwald?
Lyor challenged you. You had to defend your work. He was going to be ­provocative and push back and see how much you wanted and believed in it. Julie was also unrelenting but amazing and caring and had a good balance. She was the lone female voice in a sea of men. She had to be on top of her game all the time and was. She inspired all the women coming up.

Why did you leave?
As an African American woman it became really hard to promote hip-hip videos. The same tone and tenor, same girls, same story line—it just became very linear and boring and started troubling me. I'm not saying rock videos don't do the same thing, but I wanted to expand my reach. I also needed to know if I was good or it was the brand that made me good. It was a huge risk because they were revamping Virgin and it felt like moving from the Yankees to a triple A team.

How was Virgin?
I became VP of Video Promotion and did some of my best work. I got a chance to work with the Gorillaz on their amazing animation videos; 30 Seconds to Mars who became the first American band to shoot a video in China; and Lenny Kravitz whose It's Time for A love Revolution became his first top 10 album.

How was the market evolving then?
The record business was continuously changing: huge marketing and promotion budgets became smaller and smaller and we had less to launch albums with and album cycles became shorter. That's when my thinking started to change. I told my team we needed to change the way we look at our artists: They're brands and we need other brands to be associated with them or a release and do strategic partnerships. 

How did that work?
Lenny's a prime example. He was very skittish about brands. And I said, "Listen, you have to trust me. I will not compromise your brand as an artist. I will keep the integrity. You need smart, organic authentic strategic partnerships." We brought in Levi's, MySpace and Southwest Airlines and it was awesome. That's when I started  running the department more like an agency.

How did you end up working for Sean Combs?
I was looking for the next thing and was increasingly in the agency and branding worlds. I was looking at agencies, because every blue chip company has a music initiative or component. He got in touch and said he was looking for a chief marketing officer. We met but I had not intentions of talking the job, but he's good.

What makes him so good?
His ethos and winning and moving into the future. I respect him as a business man, he's so smart. And talk about diversifying. I was overseeing everything from fragrances, spirits, an ad agency,  P.R. firms, muic, charity, TV/films--it was a marketer's dream. Everyday presented a new challenge. I'm meeting with Estee Lauder, on a plane to LA to Fox Searchlight Pictures, doing the White Party and working with Malaria No More and Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. Every day presented amazing opportunities.

What did you learn from him?
I would watch him go into a room and you could see the energy shift. At first, everyone is sitting back, a little reserved and hands off, then you start seeing them slightly move in, become more engaged, their body language changes. It was almost like the rhythm of a song -- you start slow and melodic and you build and then crescendo. And [Combs] knew when he had them, and he'd close the deal.

An acoustic guitar company isn't a ­milieu where one would expect to find a female African-American ­marketing executive. Would you agree?
Absolutely. I'm one of the few, and am constantly proving myself. But I've had to walk into rooms and convince everyone I knew what I was talking about--but that happened even in pop and rock. After the hard knocks, the wins, the losses, ­moving across the country, asking for what I felt I deserved ... I won't say I didn't have to work twice as hard as my counterparts, because I did, but I know my worth. I'm at a point where I don't have to prove anything.

What do the words BE THE WAY on the wall behind you mean?
It simply means no one in life is going to give you anything so stop expecting them to. You need to be the way.  That means be persistent, consistent, indispensable -- just create the path, don't wait for someone else to create your journey.

This article has been expanded from its original publication in the July 2 issue of Billboard.