‘I’d like to see companies being proactive and not reactive about improving diversity.’

Photo credit: Flo Ngala

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 fulfill. Inspiring Women is supported by Ingrooves Music Group.

Earlier this year, Jamila Thomas joined Motown as VP, Artist Marketing, following a career that’s spanned positions at Atlantic, Asylum, Def Jam and Cash Money.

During that time, Thomas has worked on a host of campaigns for superstar artists such as Drake, Nicki Minaj, Jhene Aiko, Pusha T, Frank Ocean and 2 Chainz. 

Alongside her day job, Thomas co-founded global initiative The Show Must Be Paused, which arrived last year in order to tackle inequities, racism and social injustices in the music business.

In her new role, she’s determined to support the vision of newly named Chairman and CEO of Motown, Ethiopia Habtemariam, who is focused on signing the next generation of superstars.

As well as overseeing marketing strategies and campaigns across the label’s roster, Thomas is tasked with leading marketing initiatives for the newly relaunched historic spoken word imprint, Black Forum.

Way before she started building her impressive CV, as a 14-year-old junior in high school, Thomas had already decided the music business was to be her destiny.

“We got asked to write what we want to be when we grow up and I said I wanted to own a record label,” she remembers. “I remember my teacher was like, ‘What do you mean? Like Virgin Records, the record store?’ and I was like, ‘No, I want to be like Clive Davis and Puff Daddy.’”

“We got asked to write what we want to be when we grow up and I said I wanted to own a record label. [I wanted] to be like clive davis and puff daddy.”

The early inspiration came from the fact that Thomas’ dad worked in radio so she grew up around the industry. After making sure her first internships in college were at music companies, she saw that few women were working in the offices, especially not in senior positions, and noted the challenge. “I decided that I wanted to figure out how to get the corner office.”

Thomas’ first professional job was as an assistant in the marketing department at Def Jam in New York, where she worked her way up for four years, and then moved over to Cash Money before joining Warner. 

Standout memories during her early career include 2 Chainz’ T.R.U era, when he resigned to Def Jam as a solo artist, changed his name from Tity Boi (following criticisms of sexism) and went through a brand reinvention. 

“That was one of the first times I got to work with an artist who was very hands on and sure about the direction of the campaign,” Thomas remembers. “Him and his team knew exactly what they wanted the concept to be, the messaging, they had this whole T.R.U University idea, which was when digital marketing was just starting to become a thing, and they had a whole campaign for that. 

“It was very creative and it was very out of the box. I’ve been trying to model my campaigns like that ever since — giving artists a chance to be hands on when they can, opening the door for communication with talent, and letting them know that it’s not what ‘the label wants’, it’s what we want. We’re partners.”

Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange album (also released via Def Jam), on the other hand, was “the total opposite,” says Thomas. “He was very to himself and didn’t like to share much with the label but he’s a genius and following his lead was probably one of the best decisions.

“The way that he was open and honest with that letter, written by himself when the album came out, was beautiful because it came from him. It wasn’t a press moment, it wasn’t thought of by the label, it was the artist sharing something with his fans that was very personal and it really explained the album. That taught me that it’s okay to take a backseat to a creative and watch them work.”

“[Working with Frank Ocean] taught me that it’s okay to take a backseat to a creative and watch them work.”

During her time at Atlantic, Thomas is most proud of putting together an all-female rap showcase featuring Bri Steves, Rico Nasty and Maliibu Miitch. “At the time, Atlantic had all these developing female rap acts who weren’t necessarily getting the looks that some of the big artists at the time were getting, so we created our own platform.”

The “packed” showcase led to the artists touring with each other, performing at the BET Awards and helped open the door for fellow female talents. Thomas says: “The biggest lesson I learned there was that sometimes you have to build your own stage, you have to build your own table and create your own seats. Sometimes you can’t wait for partners to come to you. You have to go to them and make enough noise until people start to pay attention.”

At Motown, projects Thomas is currently working on include Migos, City Girls and the Fire in Little Africa album from Black Forum by a group of artists from Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is about the Tulsa race massacre on Black Wall Street.

Here, we chat to her about ambitions at Motown, diversity in music, the keys to success in marketing and what she’d change about the industry and why.

 What are your ambitions in your new role at Motown?

My ambitions here are to support Ethiopia and her vision for the new direction that she’s taking the label on. It’s exciting to me that I’m working under someone who is one of the few black female Chairman because, growing up, that’s not the position that, as a woman of colour, I saw we held in a business. But she’s put in the hard work and worked her way up to this point. It’s inspirational. 

I’m excited about doing the work with Black Forum, which focuses on activism, spoken word and leadership in the community. I don’t know any other major labels that have a label imprint doing that and that type of work is a passion of mine. So I’m here to grow professionally, learn from Ethiopia, and contribute any way I can to ensure that we remain a leader in the culture, black music and in the community.

You’ve done a lot of work to improve racial diversity in the music business via The Show Must Be Paused — from your perspective, is there anything that needs to change or be worked on in order to ensure that the progress that seems to have been made over the last couple of years is baked into the business for years to come?

It’s important to be consistent and it’s crucial that there’s a long term plan. We can’t just be reactionary and do these short term plans and focus on what we can do right now. Some companies are really putting in the work to think beyond the next year to five to 10 years and are putting things in place internally, not just doing public announcements.

“[when it comes to improving diversity,] It’s important to be consistent and it’s crucial that there’s a long term plan. We can’t just be reactionary.”

The DEI officers are planning and strategising, getting approvals for things, announcing new programmes for professional development and changing the way that an internship looks to open the doors for more people. I think that type of work will be here long when we’re gone.

We can’t do business the same, there needs to be a new way of doing things moving forward. The long term plan is what really matters and that’s how the changes will last.

Your professional expertise is in marketing — what are the key ingredients that go into a successful campaign?

Knowing the music. You can’t plan a rollout for something that you haven’t moved with. Take your time to listen to the artist and understand, on the music side, what the taste and tone of the project feels like. 

I’ll also say, just having a conversation with the artist is important. Our job is to spread a message to a mass audience and to drive awareness and sales, but there’s a way to do it and I think it’s important that the artist is being represented correctly and authentically. The fans can see right through a gimmicky campaign so if it’s not something that’s inspired by the artist and music, you need to start over. Two key ingredients are taste and tone.

“fans can see right through a gimmicky campaign so if it’s not something that’s inspired by the artist and music, you need to start over.”

Timing is also very important: knowing the marketplace and if this is the time for new music or if this is the time to remix a song that’s doing really well so we don’t knock out the record that everyone’s playing. Then it’s about having drivers, outside is barely opening so not everyone is doing shows still and it’s important to find creative ways to reach fans and also tap into new ones in a safe manner in a digital space, whether it’s through radio or socials — pushing yourself as a marketer to think outside of the box.

What are some of the ways that you’ve had to think outside the box during the pandemic? 

One way it happened for us was with the City Girls Twerkulator record. The song was supposed to be on one of the albums and it wasn’t cleared and one of the girls put out a snippet online, she did a TikTok to it and there was a young who made a dance to it and it took off. 

Normally it would be like, ‘Oh, we need to just put out a new song’ but that was one of the ones where it was like, ‘No, we need to put out this song and whatever it’s going to take to clear this song… ’ which ended up taking months.

Normally you never get to “leak” a song first to see if people like it — you don’t find out until you shoot the video, you’ve made the cover or you’ve done all this stuff and you hope it sticks. That was a moment where we knew that was going to be a very catchy record and something that was going to impact culturally. 

We started to really realise that people are discovering music outside of the traditional platforms. TikTok raised its hand as a leader in that conversation and it’s become a testing ground for new music, even if it’s just a 32 second snippet. You can find out if that is what people want just based on if it’s going to catch because like I said, you can’t tease it at a show anymore like we used to because things aren’t open.

What would you change about the music industry and why?

How long it takes to make progress. I understand that some of this stuff didn’t happen overnight but it takes a long time to bring people around to a new way of business. I get it, a part of it is it’s been working all of this time, everyone has made a lot of money, so if it’s not broke, don’t fix it, but I hope that with everything that happened in 2020, and the progress that’s been made in 2021, and how quickly partners have jumped up to correct some things internally, they see that it just takes someone to do the right thing and for someone to say something.

The stuff that we saw happen right after Blackout [Tuesday] could have happened way before the that. It could have happened way before we paused the show, it’s just that no-one did it. It would be nice to see companies being proactive and not reactive. I hope the sense of urgency that we’ve been seeing stays because that is the only way we’re going to see change, so people don’t get stagnant and just go back to the way things were.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give a younger version of yourself or someone who is looking to follow in your footsteps?

Just when it feels like it’s getting hard, that’s right when you’re on the verge of a breakthrough and it’s important not to give up. It’s important to make sure that you remind yourself why you started because there’s going to be moments you question why you’re still here, and why you’re still putting yourself through this because it’s not easy. There’s no handbook on how to get into the music business and how to move up, you have to figure out your own path. 

“Just when it feels like it’s getting hard, that’s when you’re on the verge of a breakthrough and it’s important not to give up.”

In those moments of doubt, take a second to remind yourself why you want to do this and what your true passion is, because that’s what’s going to keep you grounded, keep you focused and prepare for the long road ahead. But it’s well worth it, it really is. I know we don’t save lives, I’m not a surgeon, but to provide entertainment on a global scale and work with some of the most creative people I’ve ever met is a blessing.

Virgin Music Group is the global independent music division of Universal Music Group, which brings together UMG’s label and artist service businesses including Virgin and Ingrooves.Music Business Worldwide

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