A crowd of mostly females piled into the Dolby Ballroom last Friday to attend the ASCAP Expo’s “Women Behind Music: Playing for Keeps” panel. Moderated by ASCAP’s VP of Urban, Creative Services, Nicole George-Middleton, the panel was headed up by four industry notables: Tina Davis, co-founder & artist manager, Chris Brown Entertainment & Phase Too Management; Ethiopia Habtemariam, EVP & head of urban music at Universal Publishing Group; songwriter and performer Ledisi; and Jill Scott, songwriter, performer and actress.
The ladies led the audience through their personal trials and tribulations in the music industry, starting with their personal tales of how they landed their current positions. Davis told the crowd that she started off working at Chrysalis Music Publishing as a creative assistant. She then took a job at Def Jam as an A&R administrator. Davis was at Def Jam for 10 years before transitioning into the management world. Habtemariam got her launch by interning at a record label in Georgia called LaFace Records when she was 14. “I started interning and never stopped, and got hired out of high school,” she explained. Following her stint with LaFace, Habtemariam went to work as a creative manager for Edmonds Music Publishing and eventually found her way to the Universal Music Group, where she has been for the past 10 years. Ledisi and Scott explained their backgrounds as singers and spoke about dabbling in the acting world as well.
As the panel progressed, the female execs touched on what they look for when signing new talent in this day and age. Habtemariam explained that beyond talent, she looks for passion and drive from an artist. “Everyone that we work with has an amazing work ethic and that’s a huge part of why we choose to invest in talent. If you want to be part of a team, [but] don’t play your role, then how can we do our part?”
Davis, who discovered Chris Brown, weighed in, adding, that she’s attracted by an aura -- a feeling that she gets from an artist. “A lot of people don’t think about the whole picture. Showmanship is a big part of being an artist overall, and I look for that when I sign people. I look for someone that has a sound or a tone that’s a little bit different than anyone else -- someone that’s not necessarily copying anyone, because if you’re copying what’s on the radio, you’re a little late. You need to be thinking about what’s going on 6 months from now.”
The ladies then elaborated on the role that A&R plays in an artist’s career:
“We’re the core of it all. We’re helping them find their sound, their direction, their point of view, who they are as an artist... It’s the beginning and the end of it all. We’re an integral part of the process for an artist, to help them find and shape their direction of what they want to say, who they want to work with, and what they want to be able to evoke and say to their fans -- what they want to be able to express to everyone,” said Habtemariam.
“I feel that artists that are in the A&R process of their careers are the most vulnerable and usually express themselves a lot more at that time. It’s important for an A&R person to be able to know that and feel it and see it, and know when you can push a little bit harder or pull back a little bit -- know how to get them to talk about a few things that may not be as open and comfortable for them to talk about, because those are the records that turn out to be things that everybody can relate to," added Davis, who explained that a good A&R will really focus on helping the artist to reach their goals.
“If you have a good A&R person, they are in the trenches with you from the start of the day to the end of the day. They will do whatever is necessary. If you have all these uptempo songs on your album, artist development starts there -- you need to get on the treadmill and sing your songs so that you have the stamina for when it’s time to go into your promo run and you’ll be doing that as well. I think it’s a lot more than people probably think is part of the job,” she explained.
Ledisi added that as an artist, she appreciates the work that A&R does as a liaison between herself and the label.
During the panel, the moderator played songs that each of the women had been involved with and had them reveal what was happening in their career during the recording of that song. Among the songs played was “Excuse Me Miss” by Chris Brown. Davis told the crowd that at the time that the song was being recorded, she was running around telling everyone Chris Brown was going to be the next Michael Jackson. “I left the label and put all of my money into developing him. I knew 100% the song would be a hit,” she said.
Also addressed were the specific challenges that each of the women have faced by working in a male-dominated music industry. Scott divulged her frustrations of sitting in a songwriting meeting and having her ideas overlooked. Davis added that she’s had to deal with her share of issues, especially pertaining to male rappers.
“When you’re a woman, they tend to go through a process where they question what you are saying. Then they go through a process where they kind of like you, because you are talking to them all the time, day and night. They start liking you a little bit and then they realize, ‘Oh wait. You don’t really like me? You’re just putting time in because you’re doing your job?’ Then they hate you. They are upset and they hate you for a minute. They tell everyone, ‘I can’t deal with her. She’s horrible.’ And then after a while, you become their best friend. It’s a process, but the process is almost necessary for them to respect you and understand that you’re just about business,” she explained.
Habtemariam admitted that she hadn’t encountered any of the challenges the other women mentioned but commented that her number one piece advice for women in the industry is to: “Make sure they respect you.”
The panel concluded with the ladies addressing questions from the crowd -- giving aspiring industry professionals advice on how to navigate their careers and touching on topics such as trends in music. A songwriter in the audience asked whether or not the panel felt that the industry is ready for positive urban music. “I think the change will come,” exclaimed Davis before exiting the stage. “I do think we have a responsibility to put out better quality music, period,” said Habtemariam, encouraging the songwriting audience to try their hand at creating “the quality songs that the industry is currently lacking.”