Without a doubt, one of this year's hottest unfolding stories is the unveiling of the new Motown. Tapped last September to revamp the iconic brand, Ethiopia Habtemariam--No. 15 on Billboard's 2011 Women in Music Power Players list--called the appointment "a huge opportunity and a lot of responsibility." And much more so in her particular case: Habtemariam concurrently serves as executive VP/head of urban music at Universal Music Publishing Group. In that role, she has proved to be a savvy talent forecaster, with signings such as Justin Bieber, Chris Brown, J. Cole, Ester Dean, Cash Money (Nicki Minaj, DJ Khaled) and Hit-Boy (Kanye West and Jay-Z's "Ni**as in Paris"). Her latest is female songwriter Phoenix, who's working with Shakira and other artists.
To begin shaping her Motown vision, Habtemariam signed singer/songwriter/producer Ne-Yo to the roster and appointed him senior VP of A&R earlier this year. His fifth release, R.E.D. (Sept. 18), will mark the new Motown's formal debut. She talked to Billboard about what it takes to relaunch such an iconic brand and what to expect from it in the near future.
Ne-Yo overseeing A&R-how did that come about?
He has his own label, Compound, and has always been into identifying talent. With him being such a phenomenal songwriter, his goal was to build something. So I asked him to be part of what we are building at Motown, and he thought it was a perfect fit. He's really involved. It's not a vanity position. Not only does he find and sign talent, but he serves as a mentor to our newer acts on the roster and writes for them as well. Ne-Yo exemplifies what we want to build: great R&B/pop global superstars. We're trying to build a synergy between the new and the history that is Motown.
Besides Ne-Yo, who else comprises the label's roster?
As far as new acts are concerned, our flagship artists are B. Smith and Kevin Ross. I signed them both at the end of last year. B. Smith is a 19-year-old singer/dancer from Fort Lauderdale . . . We plan on dropping a single from him within the next couple of months and an album in the first or second quarter of 2013. Kevin Ross, a 22-year-old musician/songwriter from Washington, D.C., is signed to both Verve and Motown. He was part of BET's Music Matters campaign, and we have him signed to the publishing company as well. There's clearly a void in the marketplace for a great male group. Along those lines, we have Imprint, a four-member male group from Philadelphia that's somewhere between Boyz II Men and Jagged Edge. The act was signed through Pop Wansel's production company; Pop is one of Universal's writers. And remember B5? They're all grown up, between the ages of 18-24. They're also on the roster, as are Kem, India.Arie, Erykah Badu, Babyface and Stevie Wonder.
Define the new Motown.
My goal is to just have quality music-nothing that's for the moment or following a trend. If there's a rock act or a cool electronic pop act that fits into what we're building, I'd look at it. I don't want to put boundaries on what it is. We're talking about a brand and label that affected music around the globe. I've been learning a lot about the history of Motown and its other labels like Tamla and Gordy. [Founder Berry] Gordy was right in not limiting what Motown could do. It was really the voice of the youth and that was his direction for it. We just want to find new, cool things that inspire people.
How is it juggling both gigs?
I'm between New York and L.A. I like to be as close to the recording process as I can and a lot of that happens in L.A., and also between Atlanta and Miami. I can't front-it's been difficult to find my rhythm. But I've found it now. It's literally been hiring the staff, signing new artists, making records . . . all at the same time. But it's coming together faster than I thought it would. I know the label will be established and defined by the new acts we break, so we're paying close attention to that. And while we're making these records, we're also doing artist development: vocal training, choreography, media training. Figuring out exactly who the artist is through their sound, look and image. We're doing all of that just like the old Motown-but doing it in our new way.
How do you define power in today's music industry?
Two words that immediately come to mind are influence and responsibility. Power equals the ability to make or cause a change, and I believe that is something we all have within ourselves. - Gail Mitchell