Business

Motown's Ethiopia Habtemariam Is Ready to Fully Execute Her Vision: 'Stay Tuned'

Ethiopia Habtemariam
Flo Ngala

Ethiopia Habtemariam photographed April 1 at her home office in Los Angeles.

When Ethiopia Habtemariam was appointed chairman/CEO of Motown Records in March, she became the third woman — and only the second one of color — ever to hold the title at a major label. Her ground-breaking appointment also signaled a full-circle moment for Motown: It is once again a stand-alone label, with Habtemariam reporting directly to Universal Music Group (UMG) chairman/ CEO Lucian Grainge. (Previously, she reported to Capitol Music Group chairman/CEO Steve Barnett, who retired at the end of 2020.)

Founded by Berry Gordy in 1959, Motown achieved unprecedented mainstream success through standard-bearers such as Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and The Temptations. Over the years, its roster evolved to include The Jackson 5, Lionel Richie, The Commodores, Rick James, Boyz II Men, Erykah Badu and India.Arie.

Since overseeing Motown’s move from New York to Los Angeles as the label’s president in 2014, Habtemariam, 41, has led entrepreneurial ventures such as the label’s 2015 alliance with Atlanta-based Quality Control, which has yielded hits by Lil Baby, Lil Yachty, Migos, City Girls and Layton Greene. Motown is also home to Blacksmith Recordings (Ted When, Vince Staples) and Since the 1980s (Asiahn, Njomza) as well as Erykah Badu, Kem, Tiana Major9 and Nigerian star Tiwa Savage.

During Habtemariam’s almost seven years at the label, Motown has logged 28 top 40 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 from Lil Baby, Migos, Ne-Yo and others, as well as 28 top 40 albums on the Billboard 200, including projects from Erykah Badu, Kem, Lil Yachty, City Girls and Migos.

Motown’s market share has risen, too, growing from 0.4% in 2017 to 0.59% in 2020 to 0.85% so far this year, thanks to the success of Lil Baby’s My Turn. The Grammy Award-nominated rapper’s second album closed out 2020 as the most popular album of the year in the United States, with 2.63 million equivalent album units, according to MRC Data.

What’s significant about the label’s market-share growth in 2020 and 2021 is that it is largely attributable to recent releases. In the past, catalog has driven Motown’s performance, while current market share — essentially the performance of music released in the 18 months prior to the measurement period — averaged 0.14% from 2015 to 2019, according to Billboard calculations based on MRC data. In 2020, however, Motown more than doubled that number to 0.32%, and as of mid-April 2021, its current market share was just shy of 1%.

Before joining Motown, Habtemariam began pushing against the glass ceiling in music publishing. She took her first full-time job in the industry in 2001 at Edmonds Publishing, where she worked as a creative manager. She moved to Universal Music Publishing Group in 2003, where she signed Justin Bieber, J. Cole and Chris Brown, and rose to president of urban music and co-head of creative.

She kept her publishing gig when she took on the additional challenge of relaunching Motown, initially as senior vp of the label, in 2011. She continued doing double duty after she was promoted to label president in 2014 and departed UMPG in 2016.

Habtemariam says she’s ready to use her newfound autonomy to fully execute the vision she had for Motown when she arrived. She has spent the last several months staffing up, and, she says, “creating a blueprint” for the label’s future as a global force in recorded music. Last September, Motown opened its first U.K. branch, headed by managing director Rob Pascoe, and in February revived its Black Forum label by reissuing Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1971 Grammy-winning album for best spoken word, Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam. On the music side, Motown’s 2021 release slate includes Migos’ long-awaited Culture III album as well as projects by two new signees, singer Bree Runway and hip-hop artist Elhae.

Moving forward, Habtemariam says Motown’s approach to A&R will be “signing talent that we think can be the next generation of superstars.” She adds that the label is looking for “career artists. It’s not just about one song or a couple of tracks here and there. There is so much music out there that you must find talent that you believe will cut through.”

Flo Ngala
A figurine of the Hindu goddess Kali, which was given to her by a good friend. “She’s the ultimate protector against evil and the quintessential embodiment of female power. A warrior.”

How has your job changed now that you are chairman/CEO and reporting to Lucian Grainge?
When I was first approached about Motown, my vision was to return it to operating like a full-fledged stand-alone label and to honor the legacy of the talent that was on the label in the 1960s through the early 2000s. Lucian agreed with me, but at the time we were a team of just four people attempting to accomplish a very ambitious goal. We were part of Island Def Jam, and it wasn’t the right structure, focus and support.

What’s the size of your staff now, and do you still share services with Capitol Music Group and UMG?
I have a team of about 25. Everything is Los Angeles-based, aside from the U.K. office, and an A&R person in Atlanta. And we do share some services through Universal and are still using Capitol’s radio promotions team.

You’ve come a long way.
I now have autonomy and authority over our budgets, how we are developing our artists and building out the Motown team. I’m also thinking more holistically about global strategy for the company.

What is your vision for the Motown of today? You have a very diverse lineup of artists.
It’s about signing talent that we think can be the next generation of superstars — people we think will be career artists. It’s not just about one song or a couple of tracks here and there. And they can be at different stages in their careers. We now have a roster of talent, like Lil Baby with Quality Control, that we want to grow in a certain direction, and we want to build up the next new artists in the same way. There are a few signings that we're working on now that are exciting, from established acts to artists in the early phases of their careers, like a Tiana Major9. There is so much music out there that you must find talent that you believe will cut through. And then you have to work alongside them to build out their vision, their brand, the story they want to tell and then make great records to support that.

Given Motown’s legacy, would you say that it is still a genre label?
I don't think it's about one genre specifically. Youth culture today loves things that were happening 20 years ago. So, you're seeing a real mix of sounds and genres — diverse styles of hip-hop, R&B and pop.

What are you telling your A&R executives to look and listen for when they’re considering signing an artist?
We just had an all-day meeting in a studio — all COVID precautions in place, of course — where we talked about artists and music that we think are going to cut through. And I recently met with some kids that go to Spelman and Morehouse to get a vibe for where they are musically. We also have some young A&R consultants that tap in with us. When it comes to what we’re looking for in artists, in addition to great songs and music, work ethic is key as is their understanding of who they are and what they want to say in the world.

You’ve had great success with Lil Baby. Is pop success topmost in your mind as you sign and work artists?
We’re not pushing our acts to be something they’re not. In the case of Lil Baby, as he’s attained more success, he wants more. His goal is not necessarily to go pop but to be an international superstar. And he understands what he needs to do to get there.

Flo Ngala
The mug’s message is from philosopher Chuang Zhou. “I’ve always loved that quote and thought it was fitting given the state of the world.”

Did you feel stifled by the constraints placed on you before you became CEO?
I wouldn’t say I was stifled. I was challenged, and I’ve always liked challenging myself. Joining Motown was a real learning curve for me because, for one thing, I was coming from music publishing. A&R at a label is very different from A&R on the publishing side. Also, there were a lot of changes happening structurally within UMG, so there was a learning curve across the board. I don’t have any regrets, though, because I learned more about the way labels work and artist development.

Climbing the corporate ladder as a Black woman, did you have more issues dealing with pushback from male or female executives?
Both, unfortunately, and it’s disappointing. I remember being a young intern and discovering that people who I wanted to be my mentors were not necessarily supportive. I resolved that I was never going to be like that. When you go through tough, challenging scenarios, it's important to break that cycle. What I've experienced as I've moved up the corporate ladder is an old-guard mentality. And the new guard understands that in order to have real success, you have to support and uplift your people. If you have confidence in who you are and what you bring to the table, you aren’t afraid of someone else being great, especially when your job is to grow a company. I do think a shift will come to that way of operating. Part of what I'm proud of is that on my journey to getting this seat, I’ve always shown up as myself.

Clarence Avant, The Black Godfather of the acclaimed Netflix documentary, has been a mentor and a champion. He was Motown's chairman of the board back in the day. What did you learn from him during this transition?
I remember meeting him for breakfast in 2014, 2015 and talking through all of the things that were happening. One day, he said, "They tell you about the hits. They tell you about the successes. But they don't tell you about the losses." And he said to keep going forward, keep putting records out. He reminded me of how much music Motown had put out before it had real success. That was valuable at the time, because the reality then was, we were in the middle of the story.

With your promotion, there are now just four women running labels: Sylvia Rhone at Epic; Desiree Perez at Roc Nation and Julie Greenwald at Atlantic. What does that say about the recording industry?
The music industry still has a lot of work to do. I don’t want this to be about me, but me being able to get this seat was necessary for a lot of reasons. It’s about the shift that women can make. I remember when Sylvia was the chairman/CEO of Elektra Entertainment Group when I was 16 years old, and it’s extremely disappointing that we didn't see another woman of color get to that level in their career for a long time. And there were a lot of incredible female executives, Black female executives that I looked up to that I feel like should have been able to grow in that way in their careers. There are so many incredible women that contribute significantly to the stars and the artists that we see today. The industry would not work without them.

Are you feeling pressure that you have broken a particularly significant glass ceiling and now have to prove yourself?
Of course. But that pressure motivates me. I understand that this is a huge opportunity, and that it’s important I succeed so that others who look like me can achieve this as well. And there will be.

You’ve been adamant about hiring more women in A&R. Where else does the business need to be more inclusive of women?
There should be more women across the entire industry. We see a lot of women in marketing and publicity roles. From a business affairs standpoint, there should be more female representation. We should be supporting more female managers. I've had conversations about how we make sure that A&R research teams are more diverse. If you look at the major labels, you don’t see that many people of color and women on those A&R research teams. We, as an industry, are accountable for making those changes.

Do you miss publishing?
Yeah. To some degree I'm always going to be looking for new writers and producers to team with our artists. It's a completely different job though.

You held both jobs commendably for a while, which was difficult. What prompted you to leave publishing?
It was about having to focus 100% on the label in order to make a change. I never walked away from publishing. There's still a publisher inside of me.

In May, Black Forum will drop Fire in Little Africa, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre through the work of a collective of emerging Oklahoma hip-hop artists. How did that project come together? 
Larry Jenkins [a longtime consultant to Motown and Capitol Music Group] sits on the board of The Bob Dylan Center, and he brought the opportunity to us. It was an immediate yes. Black Forum feels like the perfect platform for Fire in Little Africa. Tulsa has a strong music community, and 60 artists came together to make music and honor the history of the town, and to highlight what they are experiencing today. What they created is profound, and we absolutely wanted to be a part of it.

Tory Lanez recently was charged with felonies tied to his alleged shooting of Megan Thee Stallion, and video footage surfaced of a physical altercation between Migos’ Quavo and Saweetie. What responsibility does a label have when it comes to incidents like these?
It’s our responsibility to be there for the artists, no matter what they’re going through. It affects the music they create, and we all do our due diligence to help guide artists in the right direction by educating them about their responsibilities and how their actions can affect their careers and their lives.

This is a question that everyone was asking when the documentary about Michael Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse of minors, Leaving Neverland, was released. Is it possible to separate the art from the artist?
It depends on the individual. I know people that can still listen to R. Kelly's music and separate his art from what he's done. And there are many others who will never listen to an R. Kelly record again. The same thing happened with Michael. We don't have any say in whether people are willing to make that separation.

In the case of Quavo, there was no formal statement from Motown or Quality Control.
There was no formal Motown statement, and there were no formal charges against Quavo. There was no clarity on what exactly happened. We would never react to something in that way unless what was insinuated happened.

What’s your response to those who say Motown’s current success is largely tied to its alliance with Quality Control?
It’s important to highlight where Black music was at the time I did the QC deal in 2015. We were going through a transition from iTunes to streaming, and with hip-hop and R&B, you could have a No. 1 record at urban radio, but it didn’t equate to sales. We were investing in talent and not seeing a return. It was a tough scenario.

I had known [Quality Control COO] Coach K for a long time and seen what they had done with Migos. But because of where the industry was then, it was easier to develop things externally. In 2016, when QC discovered Lil Yachty, we signed him together. That coincided with the time when the major music companies made their deals with Spotify and we began to get data that showed how prominent R&B and hip-hop were. That’s when we started to see a real shift in our industry as it pertains to Black music. So, what do I say? Stay tuned.

Flo Ngala
The Royalty Pack, designed by an Ethiopian American artist. “During this past year, we all needed games to play,” says Habtemariam, “and I thought these cards were fly.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the April 24, 2021 issue of Billboard.