In the biz since her teen years, the publishing exec recently branched into A&R. Here, she discusses which label strategies are working-and which need work.

For someone who was more inclined to pursue music promotion and marketing as a career than publishing, Ethiopia Habtemariam is a quick study.

Already a VP at Universal Music Publishing, the New York-based 27-year-old has signed such top artists as Ludacris, Ciara, Chris Brown and Chamillionaire, as well as hot up-and-coming songwriter/producers Polow, Candice Nelson and Keri Hilson. Trying her hand at A&R, she helmed Ciara's recent No. 1-debuting sophomore set, "The Evolution."

Habtemariam's own musical evolution kicked in at the age of 14 when the Atlanta native began interning at LaFace Records. Hired there as an assistant right after high school, she found herself in Los Angeles in 2001 working as a creative manager for Edmonds Music Publishing. Universal came calling two years later.

Do you come from a musical background?

No. I've just always been a fan of music. I never look at myself as an industry executive. Growing up I was the ultimate fan. The girl who would go to concerts, buy posters, listen to every remix and read the credits and song lyrics. There's still nothing like when you hear something the first time and you're like, "Oh, my God, what's that?"

With sales dipping again this year, what are labels doing wrong?

The labels think they dictate what's hot to the consumer. That's the biggest mistake. You can never underestimate the intelligence of the consumer, especially the youth. I'm not going to mention any specific songs, but there are records that are just hits at radio but don't translate into sales. So you have labels that will chase the charts or what's happening in different areas and then will sign those acts.

But they're not quality acts. That's because artist development doesn't exist anymore. I remember when people knew the names of everyone in a group. Now labels might rely heavily on production companies to give an artist some definition. That's because labels have smaller staffs and so many artists. As such, there's a short list when it comes to the next generation of urban music superstars.

Who is on that list?

Beyonce, Usher and Ludacris are already defined as superstars. Behind them you have acts like Lil' Wayne, Ciara or a Chris Brown, who can sing, dance and has a great personality that kids are attracted to naturally. But thinking about others within that next generation, I don't really know. I'm still watching and learning.

At 27, I don't look at myself as part of the young audience. But I listen to the radio and spend a lot of time with kids to see what makes them move and what they're really interested in. You can't just feed them a quick little hit and expect them to buy an album.

We're constantly playing catch up in this industry. Once we really understand what grabs young consumers, then it will click. With the Internet becoming such a huge medium for breaking artists and building stories/brands, I think labels are catching on.

Is downloading the major culprit in the sales downturn?

If kids believe in the act, they will buy the music. Once a month I go online to several blogs and hear kids talk about how they feel like they're not even getting as many songs on a CD, so why buy it? You charge, say, $12.99 for an album but they're only getting 10 songs. That was a big complaint about a recent album.

But if they believe in an act, they'll buy into it. However, there has to be a real strategy behind that act. To break a new act, you have to come with two singles and two visuals first to create the definition to see if people are going to buy into it before you put out an album. You have to come up with grass-roots marketing campaigns to help build an artist.

What trends are you seeing in 2007?

It's all about a great song. Especially in R&B, which will have even more of an upswing this year. People are attracted to real songs and that's happening with songs like Beyonc?'s "Irreplaceable."

I heard "Let Me Love You" before it ever was released by Mario and absolutely knew it was going to be a massive hit. I remember arguing with one of the biggest songwriters in urban music right now. He was telling me how that song wasn't going to work because it wasn't a super uptempo kind of record. I was like, "It's a great song. Period."

What about hip-hop? Will the proposed moratorium on the N word have any effect?

You can't put limitations or barriers on us. Hip-hop is a culture, an art form. I understand there is a responsibility that we hold, but it's hard to limit us like that.

Hip-hop is going to come full circle. I've had conversations with certain artists in which I've talked about the responsibility they have, especially the ones who are looked up to now. They have to do real music. And they have to find a happy medium because they still have to [appeal] to the younger audience.

What do you look for in a potential signing?

Talent, of course. That's the foundation. But you have to want it as bad as I want it for you. You have to understand you're the head of your business and be as focused on your career as you want me to be. A lot of times people will do deals and expect you to do everything for them. It takes teamwork. So I look for people who have a strong work ethic and are willing to go the extra mile.

Do you plan to A&R more projects?

It was a challenge but exciting. I now have so much respect for A&R executives. It's my job to have relationships with all the A&Rs at the different labels and be aware of the various projects they're working. This time, I experienced firsthand what they do. It felt like everybody and their momma was sending me tracks and music. On the creative level it was fulfilling for me because Ciara had a clear vision of what she wanted.

It was a learning experience I'm proud of. But I can't say A&R is something I want to do full-time. If things were to change where you could spend more time doing artist development, then maybe. But I love dealing with songs, writers and producers. I'll see where this road takes me.

Describe an average day.

Unfortunately, there's no average day and no off day because of cell phones and BlackBerrys. But I'd say I talk to at least three to four different A&R people as well as some of my writers, dealing with their schedules and pitching them for sessions. I'm also meeting with attorneys and other writers and producers looking for deals.

I travel all the time because I choose to. I'm a publisher who's in the studio a lot. If I had my way my office would be at a studio.

I love being part of that process. But it's been hard finding a balance between being in the studio until whatever time and getting up for a breakfast meeting with an attorney. But I like it that way.

Is publishing still a man's world?

There are a few of us females but it still definitely feels that way. However, I don't really think about the fact that I'm a woman. I remember people telling me when I was younger that it might be an issue. But I haven't let it become one. I don't allow it to block me. One thing I believe in is not accepting any limitations. I knew when I was 14 that I wanted to work in this industry. I haven't stopped hustling toward that since.