The highest-ranking African-American women at Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group are, respectively, Motown Records president Ethiopia Habtemariam, Epic Records president Sylvia Rhone and Atlantic executive vp Juliette Jones. Here’s how Rhone got to where she is today. (Find links to the other women’s stories below.)
In 1994, when she became the first African-American woman to lead a major record company, Sylvia Rhone was quickly put to the test.
“That was the first time I encountered issues of racial and gender bias,” says Rhone, who had been appointed chairman/CEO of Elektra Entertainment Group by Warner Music Group chairman Doug Morris and is now president of Epic Records. “There were many in the music community who questioned my ability as an African-American and a woman to run a label. The notion existed that I would negatively change the culture of the company and convert it into an urban label.”
Rhone, born and raised in Harlem, grew up embracing a wide variety of music. On weekly forays to the Apollo Theater, she witnessed performances by Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Smokey Robinson & The Miracles as well as Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis. She was also a rock fan who took in shows by Jimi Hendrix, Country Joe & The Fish, Procol Harum and Janis Joplin.
In responding to Rhone’s appointment, one Elektra act proved considerably less open-minded. Mötley Crüe, she recalls, “began to spew racial and sexist epithets publicly, calling me a ‘c—’ from the stage and a ‘n—- bitch’ in a Spin magazine article. I had no choice but to take a stand and immediately drop them from the roster.” Rhone did change the label’s culture, for the better. She oversaw a lineup that consisted not only of Metallica, AC/DC, Staind and Pantera but also Björk, Tracy Chapman, Jason Mraz, Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Yolanda Adams. And her staff, she says, “was just as diverse as our roster.”
Before she switched to music, Rhone, a Wharton School graduate, entered an international management program at Banker’s Trust that would have put her on the executive trajectory. Then, one day, she decided to wear pants to work. “They told me to go home and change” into a skirt, says Rhone. “I never went back.”
Instead, she bet on a dream she had harbored since college, when “play big sister” Suzanne de Passe (their mothers were friends) took Rhone and six of her friends to a concert headlined by a group de Passe was managing: The Jackson 5. “I watched her working,” says Rhone, “and something clicked.”
The would-be financier took a salary cut to become secretary at Buddah Records for Alan Lott, vice president of the label’s black music division, in 1974. She continued to learn the industry through posts at ABC Records and Ariola Records. Then, in 1981, Rhone joined Atlantic Records as Northeast regional promotions manager of special markets. Her rise continued with gigs as Atlantic’s director of national black music promotions, vp/GM of black music operations and then senior vp of the black music division in 1988, with a roster that included LeVert, En Vogue and Brandy, and forays into hip-hop with MC Lyte and N.W.A’s Ruthless Records (JJ Fad, The D.O.C., Michel’le).
“I invested in young, focused entrepreneurs in addition to signing acts directly,” says Rhone, a combination that led to “our being the first major label to invest in hip-hop.”
Rhone made a pitch to Morris that led to the launch of the East West label in 1990 and her appointment as its chairman. Four years later, she was given the helm at Elektra. Named president of Universal Motown Records and executive vp at Universal Records in 2004, Rhone segued to Epic Records in 2012 with her own Vested in Culture imprint before being named president in 2014 to work alongside chairman/CEO Antonio “L.A.” Reid. She has been heading the label’s operations since Reid stepped down in 2017 following an assistant’s sexual harassment claim, overseeing stars including DJ Khaled, 21 Savage, Future and Camila Cabello. Rhone, who declined to comment on Reid, has reshuffled the executive ranks and diversified the roster with acts like female dancehall artist HoodCelebrity, Peruvian singer A. CHAL, pop singer-songwriter AJ Mitchell and rapper G Herbo.
Rhone divides her time between Los Angeles and New York and an office/field of nearly 100 employees. Of those, she estimates 50 percent are female and 33 percent are people of color. She describes the leadership approach that she has honed during her career as collaborative and inclusive.
“As a woman, you have to come from a position of confidence,” she says. “There’s a certain gift that women have in their management style that’s more inclusive than a male counterpart’s. One of the keys is to always be your best self. There’s no secret formula to it. You just have to understand that you’re managing a team of people, whether it’s two or 100, that is far more important than you.”
“Extremely bullish” about the industry’s future, Rhone points to a new record-company business model that’s now unfolding between streaming/analytics and the #MeToo movement. “The transformation of our industry into a content and technology business has created more entry points, a broader range of music-centric companies to explore than just record labels,” she says. “Aspiring female executives will be able to find their place in this music ecosystem — and they will change the world.”
POST SCRIPT: WHAT WILL BE THE LONG-TERM EFFECT OF THE #METOO MOVEMENT?
“No one can adequately convey the trauma of a woman who has been harassed. In the past, so many women have felt compelled to keep silent for fear of losing their jobs. The toll that kind of secret takes on their lives is immeasurable. Everybody should be made to feel safe in their work environment. This movement has allowed women to speak their truths and reclaim their power. It’s given women a voice and hopefully stops the institutionalization of discrimination and sexual harassment.”