When Motown Records chairwoman and CEO Ethiopia Habtemariam announced on Tuesday she would be stepping down to “pursue new endeavors,” the news was met with surprise, concern and the one inevitable question: What’s next for the storied label founded by Berry Gordy?
“Nobody saw this coming,” says one veteran label executive of the stunning announcement, stemming from the fact that Habtemariam was promoted to the chairwoman/CEO post in March 2021, only 20 months ago. Her groundbreaking appointment as the third woman — and only the second one of color — ever to hold that title at a major label was concurrent with other major news: Motown was being re-established as a standalone label after first being under the Island Def Jam umbrella and most recently under the Capitol Music Group banner.
During Habtemariam’s tenure — which also includes six years as president — she has rebuilt Motown into the strongest position it’s held in years. After overseeing the label’s relocation from New York to Los Angeles in 2014, Habtemariam announced her first major signing in 2015: a joint venture with Atlanta-based Quality Control. The alliance yielded such now-marquee names as Lil Baby, Lil Yachty, Migos and City Girls for the label’s roster. Other entrepreneurial ventures ensued, including Blacksmith Recordings (Vince Staples) and Since the 1980s (Asiahn, Njomza), alongside roster mates Erykah Badu, Kem, Tiana Major9 and Nigerian star Tiwa Savage. This fall, Motown signed Youngboy Never Broke Again after inking a global joint venture with his Never Broke Again collective last year. Also new to the roster are Brandy and Sean “Diddy” Combs with a one-album deal for the first release from his R&B-focused label Love Records.
At the time of Habtemariam’s promotion to chairman in 2021, Motown’s overall U.S. market share was 0.85%, having grown from 0.4% in 2017 to 0.59% in 2020, and she’s since grown it further, to 0.95% to date in 2022. While catalog had primarily driven Motown’s performance in the past, its market share growth in 2020 and 2021 was largely due to its frontline commercial releases, thanks primarily to the QC roster, Staples and veteran R&B chart-topper Kem. In April 2021, its current market share — essentially the performance of music released in the 18 months prior to the measurement period — was just shy of 1%. That’s after averaging 0.14% from 2015 to 2019 and more than doubling that number to 0.32%, according to Luminate data. In 2022 so far, Motown’s current market share has risen to 1.30%.
Habtemariam has also wielded influence at the corporate level, having co-founded and served as co-chair of Universal’s Task Force for Meaningful Change, dedicated to supporting initiatives designed to support marginalized communities battling injustice, inequality and inclusion issues. Having spent 20 years at UMG in various roles, Habtemariam was well-respected internally, several sources note.
Habtemariam’s pending departure will leave only two people of color running major labels as chairmen/CEOs: Epic Records’ Sylvia Rhone, now in her eighth year at the label and third as chairman/CEO, and Def Jam Recordings’ Tunji Balogun, who will celebrate his first anniversary at the label in January. As to who will succeed Habtemariam, inside sources say nothing has been decided yet. And in talking to several other industry executives, no one had any contenders they wanted to suggest. Given past precedent, however, UMG could opt to have a senior executive oversee the label for an interim period, as happened in 2020 when Paul Rosenberg exited as Def Jam CEO and Universal tapped Jeffrey Harleston, its general counsel and executive vp of business & legal affairs, to temporarily oversee label operations while it conducted a search, which lasted almost two years and ultimately resulted in the appointment of Balogun. Universal Music Group had no comment when contacted.
Just as important as diversity and inclusion in the search for Motown’s next chief is what happens now with the label itself. Will it remain a standalone or be folded back into the Capitol Music Group or another sister label?
One senior-level executive notes that Motown “has never been set up to run on its own.” The label shares some services through Universal and still uses Capitol’s radio promotions team, while its market share still goes through Capitol Music Group, a setup similar to those at other UMG labels like Island, whose market share goes through Republic. Another label executive who agreed to talk on background said that while it’s too soon to predict what happens with Motown, bringing the label back under CMG isn’t an unrealistic scenario. In an uncertain economic climate that’s already sparked layoffs at CNN, Twitter and other companies, such a move would reduce overhead while strengthening Capitol’s R&B/hip-hop presence.
However, given the strides made under Habtemariam’s watch, one major label executive says Motown shouldn’t be viewed as “disposable.” They continue, “I would hope that Motown stays standalone. Its legacy remains an important part of Black culture and pop music, thanks to its generational talent then — and now.”
Additional reporting by Dan Rys.