Ethiopia Habtemariam remembers well when hip-hop wasn’t hot.
In fact, she doesn’t have to try very hard at all. The night before we sit down with Habtemariam in her office in the Capitol Tower, Hollywood, we share dinner with a fellow high-flying exec in the US business, who delivers a jaw-dropping stat.
“You want to know how much this business has changed in the past five years?” he asks. “Everyone’s hip-hop, hip-hop, hip-hop now – but check the record: in 2013, there wasn’t a single black [lead] artist at No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 all year.”
We checked the record. Unbelievably, it’s true.
For Berkeley, CA-born, Atlanta-raised Habtemariam, this period is still very much fresh in the memory. The exec was promoted to President of Motown Records in 2014, after three years as its EVP. At the same time, Universal Music Group boss Sir Lucian Grainge announced that Motown would be moving back to Los Angeles as part of the rejuvenated Capitol Music Group (CMG).
As Motown President, Habtemariam initially continued in a dual role – also holding the position of Head of Urban Music at Universal Music Publishing Group – before leaving that gig behind to focus fully on Motown and a larger executive role within CMG.
At UMPG, where she’d worked since 2003, Habtemariam signed the likes of Ludacris, Justin Bieber, J. Cole, Chris Brown, Ester Dean, Hit Boi and Miguel, playing an instrumental role in the increasing influence of hip-hop on mainstream US pop hits. But when it came to running a record label, she found a very different creative ecosystem at play.
“I’m not going to lie: my first year as President here was tough,” she says today. “Streaming hadn’t kicked in, and we had these fantastic artists, but I just couldn’t get any momentum.
“Even having a No.1 record at Urban Radio didn’t equate into any kind of real sales. There’d be that quarterly [corporate] check-in, and you were looking at your P&L, thinking ‘f*ck’, knowing you’d be held accountable.”
You already know the rest of the story. Habtemariam wasn’t out of step with public trends – the music business was. As streaming exploded in the United States, so hip-hop became the biggest genre in the land, claiming, according to BuzzAngle, over a quarter of all on-demand audio streams in the States last year.
Now firmly established as a jewel in the Capitol Music Group setup, Motown is a key player in both CMG’s resurgence and the blockbuster success of modern US hip-hop. Habtemariam, alongside CMG topper Steve Barnett, led a transformative partnership with Atlanta-based Quality Control back in 2015, which has reaped huge dividends via releases from Migos, Lil Baby, City Girls and Lil Yachty, to name a few.
Motown’s own roster today also includes priority acts like BJ The Chicago Kid, Chaz French and James Davis. Habtemariam’s certainly come a long way from the start of her career, interning at Elektra in her teenage hometown of Atlanta, having been inspired to enter the record business by LaFace Records’ head of promotion, Shanti Das…
You’re fighting a fervent independent artist scene out there. What’s the value of a major record company in 2019?
Good question: I remember when I was just working in publishing, before I made the transition into a label, I even questioned this notion a bit myself.
During my time as a publisher, I also did some management for Keri Hilson, who I signed as a writer, and I had some frustrations with the label system not moving quickly enough. I’ve since learned that the value of a record label honestly comes down to its ideas and a team around the world that can execute your vision.
“There’s power in being signed today. And I’m feeling it more now than ever, because even some of these big artists who had the ‘f*ck major labels’ attitude for a minute are coming back now.”
With Migos, for instance; since we stepped in, what we’ve been able to do for them and their positioning, working with QC, has been game-changing. Our brands team here is incredible. We get to strategize and really figure out how to grow them and take things to the next level.
A big part of that is global. We’re always thinking about streaming, how it connects the world; how people in Africa are listening to the same music we are the moment it drops here. These kids, worldwide, are on the same wavelength – we have to strategize around that.
Are artists noticing the value that major labels bring?
There’s power in being signed today. And I’m feeling it more now than ever, because even some of these big artists who had the ‘f*ck major labels’ attitude for a minute are coming back now – because they appreciate the power and expertise that is here: the offices in all the markets, the intricate planning, the timeline of execution, and the artist development – knowing who the right people to connect you with are, creatively and business-wise.
You say you had frustrations with major labels not moving quickly enough in the past. What did that teach you?
That getting past those frustrations is all a matter of communication. Almost everyone is working in music because they love it – at least the people I work with.
If you can acknowledge that when communicating with whomever you’re dealing with, it helps them buy into your [project] and become advocates for it. And then you can execute a great plan. You don’t hear things like ‘this is the precedent for how we do things’ [in major labels] so much anymore.
“You don’t hear things like ‘this is the precedent for how we do things’ [in major labels] so much anymore.”
This business is growing and changing all the time, and if you’re not willing to change and innovate on the way, you’re gonna be left in the dust. The good thing about arriving here [Capitol Music Group] at the beginning of the rebuilding process [in 2014], was that we were all basically starting from scratch.
Steve, Michelle [Jubelirer], myself; we were really given the opportunity to build something fresh, make new and innovative kinds of deals with artists, labels and other partners. It’s allowed us to be much more nimble, and do things differently.
That Hot 100 stat from 2013 – with zero lead black artists at No.1 in a year – is shocking and fascinating. Was the industry that much more controlled even that short time ago?
In a word: yes, but, I was having a lot of success as a music publisher at that time and was almost shielded from that reality.
I was working with some of music’s most talented and successful writers and producers, black talent who were writing a lot of pop hits. So I never would have believed that black performers would be marginalized in that way. And then I started working on the label side and I got my first taste of, ‘Oh no. This artist and that R&B or hip-hop record aren’t going to get to No.1 without certain changes,’ or, in the case of R&B, without a certain feature.
It was almost as if there wasn’t the confidence that black artists could get to the top. And if you don’t believe it can happen, it’s not going to happen.
Then, in my first year as President of Motown, it was getting to the point that I was struggling to justify the investment in the roster because it wasn’t turning into anything immediately [lucrative]. But we always felt certain that, culturally, [urban] music was permeating and connecting to people, whether it be through the mix tape circuit, or through platforms like My MixTapez, Audiomack, etc.
“I never would have believed that black performers would be marginalized in that way. And then I started working on the label side and I got my first taste of, ‘Oh no. This artist and that R&B or hip-hop record aren’t going to get to No.1 without certain changes…'”
Then, when Spotify, Apple Music and the others really kicked in, we started to see the data coming in and found that black music had not only permeated globally, but that the demand was growing rapidly. That’s when there was a real shift, when our industry realized that black artists could have massive success around the world.
Look at what our partnership with QC has spawned globally: Three young artists from Atlanta – Migos – have become worldwide superstars and cultural influencers by staying completely true to themselves. Their success is not only a testament to their talent and charisma, but to our partnership with the QC team and all of our belief that this would happen.
It might seem obvious now, but we had to push through a lot of obstacles along the way, which is okay. I like proving naysayers wrong, and I’m unshakable when I believe in a particular artist and their music. That’s never going to change.
I’m taking great pride in leading Motown at this particular time, as it reminds me of our history; how Motown started blazing this trail in the 1960s and has continued to do so in every decade since. This year is our 60th Anniversary, and I’ve directed a re-branding of the label’s image and messaging for the 21st century, reminding the world of Motown’s tremendous legacy. I can’t wait for everyone to see the incredible documentary – Hitsville: The Making of Motown – that’s coming later this year. It’s not only one of the greatest stories in music and culture, but there are so many parallels with what is going on today.
There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the past when it comes to knowing what can be achieved. Look at how these young black artists from Detroit created music that transcended so many barriers – racial, social, economic – and united people around the world while becoming superstars in the process.
How do you make the most of this moment, and prepare for the future?
Every [major label] should be signing diverse music. It shouldn’t just be pop, or dance, or hip-hop, or R&B, or whatever the dominant genre is at the time.
Even now, when people talk about hip-hop’s dominance, I’m the one saying, ‘Okay guys. Let’s not act like there won’t be some incredible alternative pop, or that the grunge sound might not come back.’
At its core, music is about an emotional connection between an artist and the audience. I rarely hear artists and musicians label their music within a specific genre; they all create from a pure place of emotion and feel.
We have to recognize that genres are blending more than ever before; look at Halsey and how broad her palette is, or how a young British artist like Ella Mai creates an R&B record like Boo’d Up and has a huge pop success.
“I’ve heard some backlash to the urban / hip-hop ‘resurgence’, like, ‘Oh shit, there’s no room left for us now.’ And I’m the one saying, ‘No, that’s not it at all.’”
As creative executives we have to remember that at its core, music is about artistry and talent. We can’t put it in a box. Musically, you don’t always have to rely on a reference from the past to see what’s possible in the future. It’s about having great A&R people that understand all kinds of music. That’s the core of it.
I hate that people today sometimes look at [genres] like trends, because it means that at some point, someone’s gonna say, ‘Oh, [that genre is] falling off.’ That’s not the reality of how humans experience music – which is affected by our mood and the reflection of the world around us, a million different things.
I’ve heard some backlash to the urban / hip-hop ‘resurgence’, like, ‘Oh shit, there’s no room left for us now.’ And I’m the one saying, ‘No, that’s not it at all.’
But I can’t deny that it’s satisfying for me to say that those guys [who suppressed hip-hop], they neglected a space in music for a really long time. And they were wrong.
‘Urban music’ is a tricky term in the modern industry. What’s your view of that debate?
I remember when I first got promoted to Head of Urban Music [at UMPG] and a few people called me. One said, ‘Don’t let them put that in your title. Everyone that you’ve signed and all your rising producers are writing the biggest pop hits.’ And I was like, ‘Damn. You’re right!’
But then I spoke to other people who said: ‘E, what’s so wrong with that title? If you don’t embrace it, someone else will.’
So ‘urban music’ or ‘black music’, it’s really not about the terminology we use. What’s important is that there are opportunities for people in this industry who look like me, and that they aren’t limited or marginalized in any way.
Who are your mentors?
The first person I have to mention is Clarence Avant, who I’ve been blessed to know. He’s been like a second father to me.
I met him when we administered his catalog [at UMPG]. When I transitioned into the label and I was having that tough time at first, I remember Clarence took me to lunch, and said: ‘A legacy like Motown will always be tough. Don’t compare yourself to the past. They tell you about all the great shit, but they don’t tell you about the records that weren’t hits.’
“it’s all of our responsibility to not get too lost or caught up in the power. You can’t allow your ego to get out of control and forget what the purpose of your being here is.”
Shanti Das at LaFace Records changed the course of my life. She provided me with the opportunity to intern there and that changed everything. Another woman I owe a lot to is LaRonda Sutton, who created L.A. Reid’s publishing company, Hitco, and introduced me to the world of music publishing. She noticed my talent early on and I learned so much from her on my way up.
And through my whole career, I’ve always looked up to Jon [Platt] and have so much respect and reverence for him and what he’s achieved. Not just in his career, but the example he sets as a human being.
We’re all blessed in this business to work with really talented people, but it’s all of our responsibility to not get too lost or caught up in the power. You can’t allow your ego to get out of control and forget what the purpose of your being here is.
Can you give more detail on why you found running the label tough in your early couple of years?
There was a lot of instability around Motown. There were so many different structures we had to work within, and, frankly, it wasn’t getting the focus or support that it needed to succeed. Things really changed for the better when we relaunched Motown as a flagship label [at CMG]. I can’t say enough about Steve [Barnett]’s support and commitment to Motown as a thriving and important frontline label.
It’s made such a difference, not only to Motown, but to CMG’s overall commitment to black music that hasn’t existed at this level for decades. Like all of us, I had my own personal experience with Motown. My parents are Ethiopian, and I’m first generation Ethiopian-American. My mom loved the Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie and would play that music all the time. As I kid, for me, I was a huge fan of that Boyz II Men, Michael Bivins era of Motown. And you can’t forget Rick James, Teena Marie and DeBarge.
Everyone has a certain Motown era that means so much to them. But people often have this picture of Motown that’s rooted in the past. We certainly honor and treasure Motown’s legacy, but my job is to also help the world experience Motown in the present and future.
Let’s talk about Quality Control. Where are they going to sit as a brand in the history of the recording music business?
They are disruptors and innovators, people who have really changed the game and inspire so many young people. I think one of their long-term goals is to be remembered in the same way as a Def Jam, or a Motown, or a Capitol. It has been so rewarding and so much fun to work alongside them.
Pee and Coach love music, love their artists, have an incredible work ethic and are committed to greatness. They’ve forged their own paths and have created something special out of Atlanta. Their success proves that you can go and build your own thing without limits. We are extremely focused on building out [QC] globally.
We recently went on a roadshow around Europe and we could all see how potent Quality Control has become in these different markets.
Do you have any thoughts on how you break personalities, not just tracks, in this modern era?
It’s a challenge, but it comes down to storytelling; how do we take advantage of all these different platforms to really tell the world who an artist is?
You need to be consistent with that story and tell it through your music and across all of the platforms and mediums we now have to connect with people. And the story has to be your truth. Now more than ever, we can feel when something’s contrived and not authentic.
What were you like at school and how has your personality affected your career?
Have you ever done the exercise of going back and looking at photos of yourself when you were at school? I have, and it’s like, ‘Wow. I was fearless as f*ck!’
Like, I had no fear – at all. Any idea I had, I followed through, and that’s a quality I always draw upon in my adult life and career: Pursuing dreams and ideas that some people might think are out of the box.
“Have you ever done the exercise of going back and looking at photos of yourself when you were at school? I have, and it’s like, ‘Wow. I was fearless as f*ck!’”
Growing up as the daughter of African parents, specifically, they [typically] only want you to be a doctor or a scientist or a lawyer. My father, a scientist, has his PhD, my mom has her Masters. But I was like, ‘I’ve found my passion and my love: it’s music.’ It was a quite unique situation that my parents supported me in it. They saw how passionate I was and created some protection around it for me.
My parents are very kind, good human beings, and I’m an extension of them. It’s tough to be that in this music business at certain times; kindness can be mistaken for weakness. But again, I think we all have an opportunity in how we live our lives to set a new example, perhaps as a positive reaction to things we may have seen ourselves over the years.
Have you ever felt that being a woman, and/or a woman of color, has resulted in you being treated unfairly?
Yes – I’m sure of it. I’ve learned a lot from those experiences, and I’ve decided not to let them hold me back from what I’m here to do. But it wasn’t until later in my career that I understood that these barriers even existed.
When I was younger in my career, I was naïve to a lot of things. This probably worked in my favor, because it allowed me to keep my head down and focus on the work. Also, growing up in Atlanta, I was able to see a lot of successful black people, so I never questioned the potential to achieve my dreams.
“I love being a woman. I love being a black woman. That’s a big part of who I am, and I love that my personal life and career experiences inform my abilities and success in this business.”
There were so many great role models to inspire me, and I feel very fortunate to have grown up there.
I love being a woman. I love being a black woman. That’s a big part of who I am, and I love that my personal life and career experiences inform my abilities and success in this business.
If we gave you a magic wand to change one thing about the music business today, what would it be and why?
Simple: for people to truly honor the music. I would immediately get rid of anyone that’s only operating from a place of ego or with bad intentions; get out of the f*cking way, you know?
Music is the most powerful force we have in this world to bring us together, and that needs to be respected by all of us.