MBW’s Inspiring Women series profiles female executives who have risen through the ranks of the business, highlighting their career journey – from their professional breakthrough to the senior responsibilities they now fulfil. Inspiring Women is supported by INgrooves.
Marketing mastermind Carolyn Williams has played a key role in some of the most successful and critically acclaimed R&B and hip hop albums to have been released over the last two decades.
Her work spans Alicia Keys’ multi-million selling back catalogue to D’Angelo’s seminal transition record Black Messiah, and more recent campaigns for Childish Gambino, A$AP Rocky, H.E.R., Miguel and SZA.
Williams was recently promoted at RCA Records to EVP of Marketing. The move recognized her “passion, marketing acumen and attentive leadership” – attributes which has been honed over a 20-year career that started at Pete Rock’s Soul Brother Records in the late ’90s.
Before music beckoned, Williams briefly worked as an entertainment journalist after graduating from an advertising degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
During that time she got to know legendary hip-hop producer, Pete Rock, who gave her an admin job – and she quickly became fascinated by how the music business worked behind the scenes.
“Working for a producer you get to see things from start to finish — from the early stage when an artist or manager is reaching out to get a track done, to working with a label for scheduling and getting records on to radio.
“Seeing that process made me feel like I wanted to help bring music releases to fruition.”
From there, Williams transitioned into marketing at Penalty Records where she led grassroots campaigns for then-budding hip-hop stars, Capone-N-Noreaga.
Her next stop was at Tommy Boy Records, which she credits for being one of the most progressive labels in the business at the time thanks to the leadership of CEO Tom Silverman.
“Tom really stressed the importance of employees being happy and healthy — we had a personal gym, a masseuse and a meditation room. All these things you hear about now that seem so normal, back then it was unheard of. It was a great place to work.”
While there, Williams gained experience in multiple genres, working on hip-hop, R&B, gospel and dance music campaigns.
She moved into major label land in 2001 as Director of Marketing at the RCA-distributed J Records, where she learned the “importance of excellence” from founder Clive Davis while honing her project management skills, and crafting lifestyle marketing campaigns for Busta Rhymes, Monica and Mario.
Two years later, Williams was promoted to Vice President, Urban Marketing at RCA Music Group, overseeing an artist roster which included American Idol winner Fantasia, Grammy-winning rapper Rhymefest, and Grammy-nominated R&B singer, Jazmine Sullivan.
By 2008, she was Senior Vice President and has since served as the project management lead for Chris Brown, WizKid, and the soundtrack for HBO’s Insecure.
Whilst working for former RCA COO Tom Corson and current CEO Pete Edge, Williams has honed her strategic skills and achieving the right balance between commerce and creativity.
Of her current boss Edge, she says: “It’s really refreshing to work with someone that doesn’t beat you over your head about the bottom line, but beats you over the head with how special we make this and how important it is to make sure that our artists know they are our partners and that we are there for them.”
In terms of artists, Alicia Keys is Williams’ “poster child for hard work”.
She says of Keys: “She is one of the most monumental artists I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with, she makes me want to work harder and all of her albums that I’ve worked on have been labours of love for me.”
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned across your career?
I did a panel many years ago that Russell Simmons was on, and one of the things he said really stuck with me, which is that success is 15% a great idea and 85% execution.
“success is 15% a great idea and 85% execution. That has been a mantra I’ve kept with me for my entire career.”
That has been a mantra I’ve kept with me for my entire career and I would not be where I’m at now if it wasn’t for that advice.
You can sit around and brainstorm all day and have great ideas, but if you do not execute, it’s just an idea and it doesn’t become a successful project.
How has the role of marketing changed during your time in the business?
It’s a lot more collaborative. In the past, I felt there was a pressure on marketing people to be the be-all and end-all of the campaign, you had to come up with an idea and strategy, and be a big force in the creative field. Now you don’t feel as much pressure to come up with ideas on your own.
It’s now about having great relationships with our artist partners and making sure they understand what you’re bringing to the table, and that you’re not trying to change them or make them more ‘commercial’, you’re trying to enhance what it is that makes them special and bring it to a mass market.
There were so many things that were manufactured in the past, whereas now I feel there is a lot more authenticity in music, artists and campaigns. I’m not trying to belittle any success of people who have come before and delivered amazing projects, but I do find that the creative process feels more comfortable now.
When you’re sitting down with artists to map out marketing campaigns, what is your approach to working with them?
Number one is to let them lead. What they’ve created is something that’s really close to them and it’s their baby, so you have to approach it with a lot of care and honesty, and you have to listen to what it is that they want to do.
Again, a big part of our job is not to change [artists] — they are where they are because of what they bring to the table and what they do. So I take in their vision, help amplify it and give them ideas about things they may not have initially thought of that could be another part of their campaign.
A challenge in today’s streaming-led world is cutting through the noise when there is so much music out there. What makes a successful marketing campaign in 2018?
This may sound cliched but it leads with the music. Content is great, and having an amazing visual like Childish Gambino did with This is America was a groundbreaking cultural moment that cut through everything.
But when I look at a project like H.E.R., that is testament to the fact you don’t necessarily need a lot of bells and whistles to cut through, what you need is really great authentic music and authentic artists.
“Clive Davis once said, ‘If you don’t have an emotional reaction to it, it’s probably not good’ and that’s true.”
She’s an amazing singer, songwriter and musician, and people just gravitated to the music, you didn’t even know what she looked like. That speaks to why it’s important for music to lead first and for it to be authentic so the consumer is allowed to make the decision about what they like.
Clive Davis once said, ‘If you don’t have an emotional reaction to it, it’s probably not good’ and that’s true. The music is what drives it for me and helps to cut through a lot of the clutter.
How has the relationship between artists and labels changed during your career?
Now, there are a lot of artists who believe they don’t need labels and that definitely affects the label in that we have to look at our business differently, and make sure that what we’re offering and bringing to the table is unique.
“It’s not easy to put a record out. Yes, anybody can upload a file to a file sharing or streaming service, but it takes a machine and a really strong team to help build upon that foundation.”
It’s not easy to put a record out. Yes, anybody can upload a file to a file sharing or streaming service and maybe shoot some videos and put some visuals out there, but it takes a machine and a really strong team to help build upon that foundation and give a bigger message, to come up with creative ideas and make sure that music is reaching every platform and opening up doors and other opportunities.
We’re offering a lot of tentacles, like a great licensing and sync department, amazing publicity, sales, streaming and visual departments.
The woman who runs our sync and licensing department really busts her ass to find unique opportunities and secure amazing looks for artists. I don’t think that’s easy and I don’t think that’s something artist or managers can always facilitate on their own.
How do you see the artist and label relationship evolving in future?
I look at it as brand managers, and I feel that there will be more partnerships between labels and artists on the content side. That is an area we are still tapping into.
We know streaming will continue to evolve and develop, and it’s the job of the streaming providers to make sure that they are building their subscriber lists, and we have to build our community by having our content on the platforms.
Can you explain what you mean by content ‘partnerships’?
I don’t want to go into too many specifics because there are certain things we are doing now, but I will say that when you look at the actual content itself and how it’s evolving, content development is where you’ll see a lot more partnerships between the label and the artist.
“content development is where you’ll see a lot more partnerships between the label and the artist.”
It’s about how we are building our overall content, what type of offering we’re giving to the consumer and how the partnerships between the label and the artist are coming into play.
So labels becoming multi-media companies?
Pretty much, yes.
How has streaming had an impact on what you do?
Streaming has been great because it gives us another area to utilise when it comes to assessment. There was a time where we would put out a record, service it to radio, and have to wait for research before we could get a real read on a record. Now you can look at a record that you put out and see its development fairly quickly on a streaming music platform.
That has helped us a great deal in assessing the viability of a particular project or artist. It’s also given us a long tail because music lives out there for a really long time, unlike a record that may not be working at radio that they may take out of a playlist. There are things that can happen that can help spike streaming and listenership based on what’s happening in the marketplace.
Do you see any other innovations on the horizon that are going to change music and marketing?
Everyone talks a lot about technology, whether it’s AR or VR, and how these things are changing the game but for me it’s a lot simpler than that.
At the end of the day, you still have to have something that is really interesting and makes the consumer have an emotional reaction and that always goes back to music and visual.
You can have a visual that is so impactful and so controversial that is not high tech at all — there’s a lot of low quality videos out there that have moved the needle.
“I feel that more artists will be challenged to do things that are creative and authentic and that is what’s really going to continue to drive our business.”
For me, innovation is more about being creative and it doesn’t take a lot of money to be creative. I feel that more artists will be challenged to do things that are creative and authentic and that is what’s really going to continue to drive our business.
What would be your advice to someone who wants to pursue a career in the music business today?
Do what I did and learn everything you can about all different aspects of the business. I wouldn’t know how much I love marketing had I not done everything else from administrative duties, to radio promotions, retail and publicity.
So try it all and then decide what it is that you love and make sure you have a passion for it. It’s not work if you love what you’re doing — there is a difference between having a job and a career. Try to have a career, try to have something that you get up in the morning excited about and that you want to do every day.
“This is not just about hanging out with artists and having great brainstorming sessions, going to parties and networking.”
The other advice goes back to 15% of success is a good idea and 85% is execution. I can’t stress that enough because I do find we are in a society now where a lot of people want the easy way out, they want to do what they feel is the core part of what we do.
But this is not just about hanging out with artists and having great brainstorming sessions, going to parties and networking, a lot of it is hard work and strategy and busting your ass to make sure that something happens the way you want it to happen. All that speaks to executing a really good idea.
MBW’s ongoing Inspiring Women series is supported by INgrooves, which powers creativity by providing distribution, marketing and rights management tools and services to content creators and owners. INgrooves is a leader in the independent music distribution and marketing industry, provides independent labels, established artists and other content owners with the most transparent and scalable distribution tools including analytics, rights management services, and thoughtful marketing solutions to maximize sales in today’s dynamic global marketplace.Music Business Worldwide