Business

On Being Black: TimeZone International's Vivian Scott Chew

Vivian Chew
Keith Major

Vivian Chew

The former A&R exec was once told: "With your contract comes a piece of rope that you can either make into a lasso or a noose."

Before founding global marketing and promotion firm TimeZone International in 1998 and working with clients such as Jay-Z and Jill Scott, Vivian Scott Chew was among the Black women and men breaking executive ground in the music industry during the ‘80s and ‘90s. As Women’s History Month begins, Scott Chew reflects on navigating the predominantly white climate back then during career stops at ASCAP, Epic and 550 Music before coming full circle to mentor the next generation of Black and brown music industry creatives and executives.

Vivian Scott Chew: When I was hired as an assistant by African American entertainment attorney Louise West in 1982, that was my first shot in the industry. Black music departments were coming into existence and Louise brokered many of the Black music executives’ contracts at the time. One thing she said I needed to do was become involved in the Black Music Association. Through its various symposiums and conferences, the BMA was a breeding ground where young Black talent like myself not only learned the business but also the etiquette and politics of the business. Great men like RCA executive Ray Harris, late BMA co-founder George Ware, songwriter-producer Kenny Gamble and artist manager Bill Underwood all took the time to mentor me both personally and professionally.

I joined ASCAP in 1985 as its first African American female membership rep. I loved that job, which was to find new writers and publishers as well as steal writers from BMI [laughs]. Minneapolis was booming then with Prince, songwriters/producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and other creatives. However, something was missing. ASCAP’s award shows honored songwriters and publishers in pop, country and even British creatives. But there was nothing representing us. The year was 1987 and Billboard’s top pop songwriters were Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie … three Black men. So I proposed the idea of doing an awards show honoring “our” achievements to my immediate boss. She responded, “Nobody’s going to support you in this, particularly me.”

And she added that if I presented my case at the company’s quarterly writer and publishing meeting, I’d be fired.

I wasn’t. My boss’s boss stepped in and said he was utterly embarrassed to admit that they had just never thought about honoring Black songwriters separately from the other awards shows. Before I left ASCAP in 1987, they finally approved my proposal and my successors in the department, Leotis Clyburn and Debra Cain, did the hard work and pushed the first ceremony through 34 years ago. And it’s still going strong under the guidance of Nicole George-Middleton.

That’s one of the proudest moments of my career: to fight for what’s become a coveted award and see the trickle-down effect as BMI and SESAC added similar ceremonies.

At the beginning of my label career, I joined the A&R department within PolyGram’s Black music division. At that time, Black women primarily worked in publicity, promotion and marketing. Hank Caldwell [Epic’s head of Black music] took a chance and brought me to the label in 1991 as director of A&R. That’s where I ushered in a genre of music that nobody really understood yet — dancehall coming out of Jamaica. A champion of Black women executives, Hank told me I wasn’t just going to be the creative head on the project. He cleared the path for me to work directly with publicity, marketing and radio on how everything was going to be rolled out, adding, “I’m going to make sure that nobody gets in your way.”

Two platinum albums and two Grammys later for Shabba Ranks plus gold for Patra... the rest was history.

We were family in our department, rolling hard and thick. We had each other’s backs. But when I had to go outside of that Black music family safety net and into the board room with my predominantly white male counterparts, I had to figure out how to navigate. I would sit there very quietly and listen. I think they thought I had nothing to say, but in actuality I was a sponge. I was very fortunate to also have non-Black bosses who really invested in me at Epic like chairman Dave Glew and president Richard Griffiths. It was the late Polly Anthony who gave me the shot of running the urban music department at Sony boutique label 550 Music, where she was president. The lessons she taught me were invaluable. Black women were running entire departments — and with huge success.

Still when it came time to renew one of my contracts, I met with the head of business affairs who was a white male. He said, "Vivian, I’m going to tell you what we do when we give contracts to Black executives. Along with your contract comes a piece of rope that you can either make into a lasso or a noose. And it's been my experience that more than not your people make it into a noose." Declaring my offense at his comment, I said, "Get ready for my lasso. I’m going to prove you wrong." And I did.

However, despite the success I was achieving with my gold and platinum artists, all of my white colleagues were becoming vp’s around me. It took the late LeBaron Taylor, senior vp of corporate affairs for Sony Music worldwide in the early ‘90s, Rev. Jesse Jackson and my attorney at the time, Ron Sweeney, going to the powers that be and saying such practice had to stop before I was promoted to vp of A&R, Black music at Epic. LeBaron was one of the very few Black executives who had a seat at the table — and they listened to him, thank God. He helped so many of us, particularly at Sony.

Along the way, there were many other Black men and women on whose shoulders I stood. Like [Virgin senior vp/gm] Sharon Heyward, [Almo Irving Publishing vp] Brenda Andrews and [Warner Chappell West Coast vp] Rachelle Fields, who taught me how to navigate my responsibility to the bottom line of someone's budget and, even more importantly, my responsibility as a mom to a young daughter.

After a seven-year run at Sony, I left in 1998 to launch TimeZone International, a marketing and promotion company that assists U.S. artists with their global careers. My husband [music director] Ray Chew and I established event production company Chew Entertainment in 1999 and the Power 2 Inspire Foundation (a 501c3) in 2013 to help cultivate and develop the next generation of Black and Brown music creators and music business leaders. Our summer internship/mentorship program virtually hosts young people from both the U.S. and the U.K. for a four-week program including over 75 mentors from all over the world.

That's something so missing in the industry right now: elders taking the time to groom young people as well as young people understanding that they need to be groomed. It’s a two-way street. I still hold on to Sam Cooke’s words and believe that change is gonna come. I just hope it comes soon.

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