Sylvia Rhone photographed on January 25, 2023 in Los Angeles.
The first Black industry executive and woman to hold the dual title of chairman/CEO of a major label says her climb to the top rungs of the music industry hinged on the decision “that this was my chance, my time”
By Gail Mitchell
Photographed by Christopher Patey
When Sylvia Rhone received the offer to become Elektra Entertainment Group’s new chairman/CEO in 1994, the first thing she did was leave her New York office and walk over to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. She remembers lighting a candle, then sitting down to think — and think.
“It took me a while to process; I was overwhelmed and afraid that I couldn’t really step into those male shoes,” she recalls of a music industry then helmed by such titans as Arista’s Clive Davis, Columbia Records’ Don Ienner, Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun, Warner/Reprise’s Mo Ostin and her own boss, Warner Music Group chairman Doug Morris.
Rhone had already distinguished herself as the first Black woman to run a major-label affiliate when she proposed a U.S. partnership with Atlantic’s East West U.K. label that she would lead. “That first year, we lost $15 million,” she says. But as the label, which was rebranded eastwest, merged with ATCO Records and its roster grew to include En Vogue, AC/DC and two of hip-hop’s early guiding lights, MC Lyte and Missy Elliott, it quickly turned a profit. “In the second year, we made $100 million. I think that’s what caught their attention,” Rhone says with a laugh. “It was like, ‘Well, she can make money.’ ”
Inside St. Patrick’s, the Harlem-raised Wharton School graduate says she experienced an epiphany that has guided her through the last three decades of a career spent in the C-suites of the record industry, including Universal Motown and Epic Records, where she was appointed president in 2014 and was promoted to chairwoman/CEO in April 2019.
“I had to put away all those fears that I wouldn’t succeed and embrace the courage to move forward,” she says. “I concluded that this was my chance, my time. And that’s the takeaway I would share with whoever has that doubt: Always believe in yourself and your worth.”
As one of the few women — and the lone Black woman — to successfully helm a handful of major labels, Rhone is a role model for women seeking their own seats at the table.
“Since the beginning of her career, Sylvia has been an industry trailblazer, breaking down immeasurable barriers and paving the way to expand music’s influence across every genre,” says Sony Music Group chairman Rob Stringer. “She has shaped the career of countless artists, supporting them at all points in their journey, and she has opened doors for so many people in our industry.”
As the music business celebrates the 50th anniversary of hip-hop — a genre she has used her remarkable power to shape — Billboard toasts Rhone as its 2023 Women in Music Executive of the Year.
To what do you attribute your success?
I’m a workaholic. I try now to balance my life, but to be successful takes a lot of hard work and commitment. You have to be there for your staff and for your artists when they’re going through traumas in their lives. That requires personal sacrifice. So you must love what you do, and you must cherish the successes your artists have.
You’re a mother as well, so was this sometimes like taking care of two families?
Yeah, it was difficult. I was a single mom, so there was always a little guilt happening. What I used to do is, if I had to go to Los Angeles, I would just go for the day. There were many times during her schooling that I missed and could never make up, but luckily, we have one of the closest relationships that a mother and daughter can have. And she turned out to be a great woman.
Did your daughter Quinn want to follow in your footsteps?
I did commit to her doing some summer internships, but I discouraged her from getting into the business because being my daughter would have put a lot of pressure on her. I saw that happen with other people’s kids, and I wanted her to carve her own road. And she did. She works in a social impact program representing NBA players and managing their funds to affect change in their communities. I’m really proud of her.
This year is the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. Elektra was one of the first major labels to embrace the genre. What challenges did you face when you were marketing and promoting those early records?
There was some pushback from radio, of course, and from the overall community. They didn’t understand hip-hop music. We had to attend board meetings at Time Warner to justify why we had hip-hop, and shareholders protested having hip-hop. So we fought, and we stood up a lot during that time. The same thing is happening today.
Did you sign 300 Elektra Entertainment chairman/CEO Kevin Liles’ “Art on Trial: Protect Black Art” petition?
Yes, and I support Kevin’s initiative as well. We’ve seen this cultural backlash before and we have to remind ourselves that rappers are storytellers. Their lyrics are stories, not reality, and their First Amendment rights must be protected. It feels like a continuous political attack on a genre of music that has been singularly enduring these attacks for years. And when you look at the bigger picture it appears that we are all at risk of losing many of our civil liberties that we have taken for granted such as abortion, social security, voting rights, etc. Using the art of young Black men to imprison them is just one example of the latest attacks on our freedoms.
Did you think it would take this long for hip-hop to reach the global popularity it has today?
Fifty years is not a long time for something to become as powerful as hip-hop is. The special genres always start as underground music. Jazz was an underground thing. Blues was an underground thing. And then they surfaced to the mainstream. Hip-hop was much more powerful than that. And it was not just a Black thing. When I used to go to my early hip-hop shows with The D.O.C. and Dr. Dre at the Spectrum Arena in Philadelphia, all the white kids were upstairs. And they were young white kids. The establishment did not want to recognize it because of what the music was saying. But here we are 50 years later, and hip-hop is not going anywhere. It’s proliferating into all kinds of sounds and styles that we haven’t even heard yet. I’m signing acts out of South Africa that are going to be heard worldwide. So I don’t think that all of these [legal] charges and everything else they do to subdue the music will ever work. Hip-hop is here to stay.
What do you see as Epic’s biggest successes of the past year, and what can we expect in the coming year?
We have a new Travis Scott record, expected to come in June. Last year, Future delivered the biggest album of his 10-year career at the company. How many hip-hop artists can do that and still be relevant? And 21 Savage is probably the hottest hip-hop artist on the street right now. He’s got music out with Metro [Boomin] and with Drake. BIA and Giveon are in the second stage of development right now. And then we have new artists from all over. We signed Tyla from South Africa. We’re breaking a young lady from London named Mimi Webb. We took the time during COVID-19 to really develop new artists, so we have in the chamber a lot of great new talent, and you’ll see them become household names in this next year
What was your definition of power in 1994, and what is it currently?
When I was first appointed chairman in 1994, I was very focused on opening doors for people like me whether they were women or people of color by giving them an opportunity they may not have received before. Now that we have better representation — Epic’s staff is close to 54% female and 57% people of color — I am focused on creating power by creating a culture where the creativity of artists on our roster can flourish and there is an exchange of ideas, culture and information from a diverse group of creatives and executives.
Is it easier now for people of color, especially women, to rise to the C-suites than it was when you were coming up?
We have come a long way, but I think the biggest challenge is the reality that there are just three major music companies with maybe five to six labels under each one. So there are not that many opportunities. But there are a lot of companies that feed off music or are complementary to music, such as gaming, branding, technology, content development and digital platforms. You’ll find a lot of opportunities there. I also think that there needs to be more networking between these different communities so that more sources of opportunity will become available. We have people of color and women in powerful positions now that can help pull others in and be supportive. And that can change the way companies look.
There are few women of color in the music business who have had a career as long and as successful as yours. What wisdom can you share with those who want to follow in your footsteps?
Be true to thyself. Not compromising your beliefs leads to success. And listen, there’s no utopia. So if you’re going to struggle to succeed at something, struggle to succeed at something you love — something that will result in a happy ending. I’ve had a lot of happy endings.