Epic Records Keeps Buzzing Under Sylvia Rhone After L.A. Reid's Exit

John Ueland
Sylvia Rhone of Epic Records

It has been four weeks since Sony Music's new CEO Rob Stringer oversaw the abrupt exit of Antonio "L.A." Reid from the top job at Epic Records, a bold move that both shocked and impressed the industry amid allegations Reid had sexually harassed a female assistant.

The stakes were high for Epic, which was already in the spotlight: DJ Khaled had the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 with "I'm the One," while Future had risen to No. 5 on the chart with "Mask Off." Releases from Fifth Harmony, Camila Cabello and Big Boi were also lined up from a roster of Epic artists sold on Reid's vision. The departure of Reid, known for his big bets on young ­talent and deep ties within the hip-hop and R&B ­communities, sparked confusion and worry among several artists he had signed about whether support for their projects would ­continue, sources told Billboard.

But one month later, the immediate panic has thus far been ­alleviated as another seasoned leader at Epic -- president Sylvia Rhone, Reid's No. 2 since 2014 -- has stepped up to the plate. Following the recent rollout of new singles by Fifth Harmony ("Down," featuring Gucci Mane), Cabello ("Crying in the Club," "I Have Questions") and Big Boi ("Mic Jack," featuring Adam Levine), the label is on track to deliver albums from Khaled, 21 Savage and French Montana in the ­coming weeks, avoiding the delays or roadblocks that some feared following the executive shakeup.

"Everything is on track like it was supposed to be," a manager for one Epic act tells Billboard. "Everything we need is still there. They haven't changed up things like everyone thought they were going to do." As another inside source notes: "It's full steam ahead."

Both Sony and Rhone declined to comment for this story, and Reid hasn't commented since his departure, which neither he nor Sony explained. However, sources tell Billboard that Stringer has been checking in regularly with both Epic's acts and executives, boosting morale and showing his support by attending a recent Future concert in New York, for example.

Meanwhile, Rhone's stabilizing leadership is allowing Stringer to take his time as he determines the future of the storied 64-year-old label and who is best to execute that vision -- questions he must answer while he also seeks a leader to replace himself at the helm of Columbia. It's a tall order as record companies grapple with how to adapt and whom to turn to for ­leadership in a fast-changing media landscape, while music floods the Internet and streaming replaces record sales as the ­industry's main revenue stream.

There's no question about Rhone's ability to successfully run a major record label, says Richard Bengloff, Elektra's former CFO when Rhone served as Elektra Entertainment Group chairman/CEO in the 1990s. Bengloff calls her a "smart and fast study" who understands all facets of the ­business. While the bulk of Rhone's experience stems from an older era, one source notes that she remains "one of the best operations ­executives in the business."

The Wharton School graduate broke ground as the first African-American female to head a major label in 1990 as president/CEO of Atlantic's EastWest Records America and marked another milestone in 1994 as the first African-American and first female to become chairman of a major with her ascension to the top job at Elektra. Rhone then segued to a dual role as Motown Records president and Universal Records executive vp from 2004 to 2011. Two years later, she launched Vested in Culture, her joint venture with Epic, and rose to president of Epic in 2014.

Posting steady market-share growth during the last five years, Epic stands at 3.64 percent to date, according to Nielsen Music, up from 2.46 percent in 2013, the year Rhone joined the label. Boosting that growth in 2016 was the streaming-only album Epic AF, the brainchild of Epic senior vp commerce Celine Joshua, one of many remaining key team members who have fueled Epic's hot streak. The project bundled popular singles by several of its artists (including Khaled's "I Got the Keys") into a playlist-compilation release that spent four weeks in the top 10 on the Billboard 200, peaking at No. 5, and helped spur No. 1 albums by Travi$ Scott and Khaled that year.

It's a strategy that has continued to deliver for the label: Follow-up Epic AF (Yellow/Pink) is No. 11 on the Billboard 200 after peaking at No. 6 in May, and is driving singles from Khaled and French Montana into the Hot 100's top 20. Factoring in A Tribe Called Quest's No. 1 album late last year and top five sophomore sets by Meghan Trainor and Fifth Harmony, Epic's ­streaming ­business rose more than 130 percent in 2016 over the ­previous year, double the U.S. industrywide 68 percent growth in streaming ­revenue the RIAA recorded in its 2016 year-end report.

Having built its brand with a diverse roster that has included Michael Jackson, Céline Dion, ABBA and Sade, Epic watched another act make history in March when Future logged back-to-back No. 1 album debuts. More recently, the label notched three singles in the top 10 of the Streaming Songs chart in the week ending June 17, more than any other label.

It's that momentum that Epic hopes to build on moving forward. For Stringer, having a committed leader steadying the ship in the short term fosters stability and provides Rhone a trial run to prove she can energize and propel the label beyond the projects already in motion. But given Rhone's ties to Sony ­chairman and former CEO Doug Morris, Stringer might opt to seek fresh blood to put his own stamp on the company.

At the moment, there's no rush to change the new status quo, and that has fostered a sense of ­optimism among Rhone's supporters. "I really think Sylvia's about to take [Reid's] spot, and that's a good thing," says one manager, "because she's just as ­passionate about us as L.A. was."

This article originally appeared in the June 17 issue of Billboard.