Female A&R Execs Get Frank About the Woman's Place in Music Industry at ASCAP Expo

ASCAP I Create Music
Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for ASCAP

VP of Pulse Ashley Calhoun, VP of A&R at Epic Records Ericka J. Coulter, Senior Director A&R Sony/ATV Jen Drake and VP of A&R ROC Nation Dominique Dunn speak onstage during 'Women Behind The Music: A&R Edition' during The 2019 ASCAP "I Create Music" EXPO - Day 2 at Lowes Hollywood Hotel on May 3, 2019 in Hollywood, Calif.

During a panel at ASCAP's "I Create Music" EXPO in Los Angeles on Friday (May 3), four female A&R execs -- Ashley Calhoun, vice president of Pulse Music Group; Ericka J. Coulter, vp of A&R at Epic Records; Jennifer Drake, senior director of A&R at Sony/ATV; and Dominque Dunn, vp of A&R at ROC Nation -- went the candid route when offering keys to breaking in and sustaining successful careers in the music industry.

A vital nugget of advice given during the Women Behind the Music: A&R Edition panel at the EXPO, which ran through Saturday (May 4), came when a young singer-songwriter asked for guidance on how to remain professional and demand respect when dealing with unwanted advances from men, particularly in the studio. 

"You have to teach people how to treat you," said Calhoun. "You have to set the tone right away. Be about your business and be very clear and don’t let anyone scare you." Some people, she continued, will try to convince you that they will blacklist you if you don’t do what they want. "No one has that kind of power," she said. "Don’t let people bully you. There are plenty of people to work with." Added Drake, "Never be afraid to walk away." 

This level of honesty, their dedication to supporting women in the industry, and knowing what they have to offer, are all things these execs pride themselves on. Still, there have been instances where being heard didn’t come easy. Coulter recalled it taking time to get rapper Rick Ross to trust her in vision. "I’m not here to change anything," she said of the sound of artists. "But I can help enhance it." 

Additionally, said Dunn, one of the best things about being a female in music is that women are rare and often harbor skills their male counterpoints haven’t harnessed. "I think we’re more organized, orderly, patient, and understanding," said Dunn. These traits often help artists feel that they can be more vulnerable, added Drake, who detailed the job of being an A&R exec as one that requires wearing many hats, from champion to therapist. According to Calhoun, every artist she’s worked with has said they want to make music for women. "So, women need to be in every room," she added. "A room full of men can’t tell people what women want to hear." The female perspective is unique, emphasized Drake, who added that she’s always looking for great female songwriters because there aren’t enough of them in the business. 

What catches the attention of these female bosses? Each exec shared two tips.

Dunn: be honest and be patient 
"I think if you are honest, that always rises to the top … People get tired of not being heard or people not paying attention or feeling like no one gets it and they will switch gears. But be honest and be patient and eventually, somebody gets it."

Drake: pick one thing and master it; have perseverance 
"It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be hard as shit. There are going to be days when you want to quit, you want to cry, you want to and give up. If you do, that next day could be the day you had your breakthrough. You cannot stop. You have to pursue this like your life depended on it." 

Coulter: key in on your product and own it; speak up
"Key in on and own whatever your product is. Own that and make sure you stick with it and grow with it."

Calhoun: be an individual; work your opportunities 
"Anytime someone has a very distinct sound and their own thing that might not be what’s cool right now; it’s so refreshing for us to hear that. We get so much shit that’s trying to sound like everyone else. Those songs were made 6, 10, 12 months ago. You can’t be on what everyone was on back then and try to cut through. Be yourself."


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