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Jeff Vaughn Is Writing the Next Chapter of Capitol Music Group History

The CMG chairman/CEO kicks off Billboard's annual 40 Under 40 List recognizing the industry's trailblazing young executives.

Jeff Vaughn
Chairman/CEO, Capitol Music Group

When his breakout hit, “Love Cycle,” took off in 2020, rapper Toosii started getting calls from major labels interested in signing him. One of the last meetings he went to was with Capitol Records. “When I walked in the room and saw Jeff [Vaughn], I was like, ‘This is the label,’ ” recalls Toosii. The two had met years earlier under very different circumstances — Vaughn was vp of A&R for another label, while Toosii, unbeknownst to Vaughn, was homeless — and the rapper remembered the kindness Vaughn had shown him during a vulnerable time. “He’s one of the most humble dudes you’ll ever meet, showing up to work in Vans and a flannel shirt,” says Toosii. “As an artist, he treats me like I’m precious. Shout-out to the new Capitol.”

As the company approaches its 80th anniversary next year, Vaughn, 36, is indeed molding a “new” Capitol. Recruited by Universal Music Group chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge as Capitol Records president in 2020, Vaughn was promoted to chairman/CEO of Capitol Music Group earlier this year and faces the daunting tasks of reinvigorating the roster and more significantly investing in R&B and hip-hop. “Our goal is to be the preeminent popular music label,” he says, “and reimagine what the next 80 years of Capitol looks like.”

Growing into the job hasn’t been without challenges: Vaughn started at Capitol just two months before the pandemic upended the industry. The last 18 months, he says, have been a “real challenge” as he worked to foster his relationships within CMG — the group also includes Astralwerks, Harvest Records, Blue Note Records, Capitol Christian Music Group and the independent distribution division, Virgin Music Label and Artist Services — as well as with the company’s overseas partners. “My purview is to solve problems and empower,” says Vaughn, who also credits CMG president/COO Michelle Jubelirer and her “institutional knowledge of Capitol” with easing the transition.

He’s also not the only label head eager to invest in more hip-hop. Capitol’s history with legendary Black artists goes way back: The iconic Capitol Records Building in Los Angeles, of course, is known as “the house that Nat [King Cole] built.” Yet the company’s biggest names right now are largely pop and rock artists, and its rap roster shrunk earlier this year when Motown Records — whose partnership with Quality Control has made stars out of Lil Baby and Migos — became a stand-alone UMG label outside the CMG umbrella. Vaughn isn’t worried about competing for new talent, though. “The Capitol legacy speaks equally to artists of all backgrounds and genres — everyone knows The Beatles, Halsey, Katy [Perry], Lewis [Capaldi], Sam [Smith], so it hasn’t been a tough sell,” he says. “But it’s important that Capitol is in the game. We can’t afford not to be because hip-hop culture, for which I have deep love and respect, is pop culture.”

His team’s efforts are already starting to pay off. He didn’t sign R&B singer Queen Naija, but he played a key A&R role with her missunderstood album, which last year summited Billboard’s Top R&B Albums chart — the label’s first No. 1 there in a decade. “He wanted to specifically work with me one-on-one because he saw a lot of potential in me,” Naija says. “I had a whole album that I trashed. He redirected and set up all new studio sessions, new people to meet and producers to work with. He pushed me to do better because he knew I could.”

This year, Capitol has also had successes with rappers Mooski, whose song “Track Star” went viral earlier in early 2021, and recent signing Capella Grey, who just cracked the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time with “Gyalis.” “He understands the culture and isn’t trying to change me,” Capella Grey says. “He’s just assisting the vibe to make the vision come to life.”

It’s the same quality that also drew electronic musician Surf Mesa to CMG (he’s signed through Astralwerks) after breaking out on TikTok with “ily (i love you baby)” last year. “I’ve met people before coming across Capitol that didn’t offer what Capitol showed me as far as first impressions,” he says. “There are people out there that just see you for one thing. With Capitol, they saw me not only for the song that was popping off at the time, but for the artist I was, the artist I aspired to be that they have helped me grow into.”

Vaughn has been essentially preparing for this job his whole life. Born in Virginia, he grew up on Motown (from his mother) and alternative rock (from his dad). As a teen, he became a “credits freak” — studying liner notes, dabbling in DJ’ing and even managing producers while still in high school. After graduating from Duke University with a history degree, he moved to Los Angeles and began his music career in the mailroom at UTA. In 2013, he started at the newly launched Artist Partner Group, eventually rising to vp A&R (for both the label and its sister company, Artist Publishing Group).

During his tenure there, Vaughn signed or worked closely with R&B/hip-hop powerhouses such as Youngboy Never Broke Again, Kehlani, Kevin Gates, NLE Choppa, Rico Nasty and Don Toliver. He credits the all-hands-on-deck approach with his leadership style today. “What I gained was the experience of working at a smaller company where your job title may be one thing but you’re also handling other responsibilities involving marketing, digital and more,” he says. “I was able to practice in that environment.”

Talent scout, A&R rep, support system, vibe assistant — Vaughn is happy to wear whatever hat is required to support his artists. “My strength is my work ethic,” he says. “People I’ve been in business with and had success with recognize that my passion for what we do is different.” And right now, he’s ready to write the next chapter in CMG history. “We want to make sure that we reflect art as it is now, not necessarily what it was,” he says. “Hip-hop, R&B, country, Latin — you name it, we want to be involved in it.”

Additional reporting by Darlene Aderoju.

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 28, 2021, issue of Billboard.