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 Music Group, which provides impressive distribution, marketing and rights management tools and services to content creators and owners.
Alisa Coleman has played a formative role in the development of the US independent music sector over the past 30 years.
As Chief Operating Officer of ABKCO, she is a key player at one of the most significant pubcos in the market – with catalogues that are the envy of its major rivals.
During her tenure, Coleman has secured sync deals for songs by Sam Cooke, The Rolling Stones and The Animals for brands including Walmart, Nike and Hilton.
In addition to managing the repertoire of other heritage artists such as Marianne Faithfull and Bobby Womack, ABKCO is also working with contemporary artists including Devvon Terrell, whose YouTube channel is nearing 150m views, and rapper Futuristic.
It’s also got an interest in the world of masters: since Coleman created ABKCO’s soundtrack division in 2007, notable releases include the soundtrack for US TV series Big Little Lies and the music for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which won an Oscar for Best Original Score in 2015.
Coleman began her career as a student intern at Famous Music Publishing which, despite being a little yawn-inducing, kickstarted her practical education in the music business.
“My first day I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to get there,” she recalls. “But they didn’t know what to do with interns so they sent us to the back room, pulled out these huge ledger books, gave us pencils and rulers and asked us to draw lines at the bottom of the book.
“I went home going, ‘Oh my God what am I going to do… is this what the music industry is? Drawing red lines for the rest of my life?’”
Things picked up and Coleman was soon learning about the writer and publisher splits on songs, while helping to transition the firm’s royalty system and catalogue onto what was a very early computing system.
After graduating, Coleman’s first job was working in sync licensing at the Harry Fox Agency, where she handled major deals with major publishers, advertising, film and TV companies.
“It was a very intersting time in the history of the Harry Fox Agency because it was right when sync licensing was becoming big and all the music publishers were going to pull out and do it themselves. They realised what a goldmine that area was.”
Coleman saw the writing on the wall. In 1985 she found ABKCO, joining as an assistant to the VP of Royalties, Licensing and Marketing, and going on to work in every division of the company.
“I learned about every aspect of the music publishing business, the record company and all entertainment sectors. There was project after project, whether it was a Rolling Stones or Sam Cooke package or DVD, or putting together a catalogue for a sub publishing deal,” she says.
She gives credit to ABKCO’s modern-day boss, Jody Klein – son of company founder and famed industry mogul Allen – for sculpting a particularly inclusive working environment.
“During that time I was also young, married and going to have a family,” says Coleman of her early years at the company. “ABKCO really supported me and helped me with childcare, giving me time to spend with my child.
“Managing that life, work and home balance is so hard for everyone, whether you’re a man or a woman, but they were terrific.”
The diverse nature of her job and support from the company has resulted in Coleman spending her entire career to date at ABKCO, where she’s risen the ranks and was named Chief Operating Officer in 2016.
Alongside her day-to-day role, Coleman is also Managing Director of the NY Chapter of the Association of Independent Music Publishers, while she’s been the Executive Director of the Association of Independent Publishers, served on the board of A2IM and was part of group that drafted the Music Modernization Act as part of the NMPA group.
“Every single day I’m enthusiastic about how we can make things better together for music publishers, record companies, songwriters and artists.”
alisa coleman, abkco
Before we delve into Coleman’s definition of success, the lessons she’s learned and her thoughts on the publishing sector at large, does she have any career highlights?
“Every single day I’m enthusiastic about how we can make things better together for music publishers, record companies, songwriters and artists,” Coleman answers.
“My career highlights are not one individual thing, but a culmination of everything that I do on a daily basis.”
How do you define success?
For me, success is about your relationships. Knowing that you can call people, and they can call you, to discuss issues and get feedback is invaluable.
Whether the relationship extends back decades or just a short time, it’s so important to have a genuine connection with people.
It’s not about money or your title. There is no one person that can know every single thing that is going on in this industry, so you need to have people around you who have insight into all the different parts of the business.
Tell us about some of the most challenging moments of your career.
Most of my challenges have been self-imposed. They are more about getting outside my own head – so what you think about yourself, your insecurities, and the way you can hold yourself back from accomplishing something.
“Most of my challenges have been self-imposed. They are more about getting outside my own head – so what you think about yourself, your insecurities, and the way you can hold yourself back from accomplishing something.”
The biggest challenges people face are ego and stature; what you think about yourself and how you can make that relate to the world around you.
You have to get outside yourself, stay grounded and really address those things. It’s a personal measurement, not a business measurement.
Do you have any strategies for getting over that kind of insecurity?
You just have to do it. You have to pull yourself up by the bootstraps and push yourself forward because you know that there is always something good coming.
I’m an optimist so I know there are going to be great things to accomplish. I push myself every single day to think outside the box and outside of myself.
Have those occasional feelings of insecurity got better as you’ve progressed in your career?
You’d like to think so, but it’s just human nature. We all want to be more, contribute more, and make an impact.
But it all comes back to that definition of success – the strength and depth of our relationships. Maintaining that ideology is the key in overcoming some of these challenges.
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned during your time in the music business?
To be patient and stay focused, things will happen and progress. So keep the ship right, point everybody in the same direction maintain your commitment on positive outcomes.
Be ready to adapt at any moment and make sure that you’re on the right course to positive results.
Gender equality has been a big conversation around the world at large – and the music business is currently under the microscope. What’s your take on some of the issues that have been raised?
It’s not been as big an issue inside of ABKCO, and so my personal reference point is only one of encouragement and nurturing, and a positive environment, which I think has helped me get to where I am.
In general, I think that some of the old ideology and occupational segregation that happened for women when I first started in the industry is what’s led to the gender pay gap along the way.
There are more women in C-Level positions now and we are all making a difference. We are all taking the younger generation – whether they are male or female, a different colour, a different shape or with a different ideology – and we’re lifting people up.
“there is inequality in many different categories that we really need to take a big step back and look at. Especially when it comes to size, shape, colour, sexual orientation and gender.”
I know the focus is on women right now but there is inequality in many different categories that we really need to take a big step back and look at. Especially when it comes to size, shape, colour, sexual orientation and gender.
The more that we look at what is around us the better we are working it out together. Leaders will emerge and there will be women among them to make that effective change within the industry for everybody’s good.
The independent publishing industry has around a 30% share of the US market, and 50% across the world if you include Kobalt and BMG. Do you have hope that share will grow?
I absolutely do.
I think that there is a lot of hope in the independent sector given that the biggest sales of publishing companies recently were to other independent music publishing companies.
Songs went to Kobalt, Carlin to Roundhill and Imagem went to Concord. That proves the resilience of the sector. There is a lot of opportunity for growth.
Is ABKCO in the market for any acquisitions?
We’re always looking for things that make sense for us.
How has streaming changed what you do?
You have to be nimble and adapt. We do a lot of things that are cross-related between our publishing record and film business in order to promote all aspects.
Hip-hop is a leading genre on streaming services, but it isn’t one that ABKCO has necessarily historically specialised in. Does that concern you?
No, not at all, we actually embrace all genres of music.
The hip-hop genre is just another way for writers and artists to tell a story and for people to relate to these stories, not unlike the stories told by our legacy artists like Sam Cooke and Bobby Womack.
I don’t think one genre takes away from another, I just think it encourages future generations to explore their musicality and story telling.
What are some of the ways you’ve found audiences on streaming services?
We have an initiative to create as many lyric videos around our classic catalogue as possible.
We’re constantly doing that as it relates to anniversaries of releases, or sync deals, and making sure songs are available on streaming services.
All your ducks have to be in a row. You don’t know where the consumer is going to go once the song hits them so you want to make sure you’re in all the places they could possibly be.
Songwriter royalty rates will rise by 44% in the next five years thanks to lobbying from the NMPA. Do you have hope that rate will rise further in future?
Yes I would love to see us come to a place where, as the Music Modernisation Act says, we’re in this willing buyer, willing seller marketplace.
Everybody has got to make a living together and figure out how we all support each other.
“I would love to see us come to a place where we’re in this willing buyer, willing seller marketplace. Everybody has got to make a living together and figure out how we all support each other.”
We appreciate the dynamic nature of the business and all that the streaming services, record companies songwriters and artists have created.
There is a lot at stake in making sure things are fair and equitable and every single day we inch closer to that.
What’s your definition of a good sync deal?
I love a sync deal where somebody digs deep into the catalogue and uses something that’s never been used before, whether that’s a great legacy piece or a new artist.
Then doing something out of the box, like taking a song and turning it on its side and making it dark.
You’ve worked in music through its affluent period, subsequent downturn and now what’s looking like a revival. Are you optimistic for next 10, 20 and 30 years?
Absolutely. Especially with ABKCO’s catalogue, we are well positioned to thrive into the next 20 to 30 years of technology changes, specifically when it comes to connected cars and streaming.
“It is going to be more and more important to have name recognition of songs, artists, genres and timeframes and I think ABKCO’s growth in those areas is going to be huge, with both legacy and new artist brands.”
It is going to be more and more important to have name recognition of songs, artists, genres and timeframes and I think ABKCO’s growth in those areas is going to be huge, with both legacy and new artist brands.
The challenge is going to be in finding out how to make everyone a named brand so consumers can easily connect.
Spotify has recently started adding songwriter and producer credits to its platform. How would you make the most of this?
Its great Spotify has done this, but now we need to take a broader look beyond the current hitmakers and draw people into the history of the music, and the legacy songwriters, producers and musicians that have contributed so much to creating today’s sound.
Streaming is redefining “‘catalog’ as people are able to dig into the entire repertoire at any moment – we need to make it easier for them to go beyond today’s hits.
How about future ambitions and those for ABKCO?
We want to be leaders among the Indies, and support that future generation coming up. We want to have a hand in helping the growth and prosperity of the independent music industry.
One of the good things about ABKCO is that I believe that people listen to what we have to say, they appreciate our perspective as an independent publisher and record company and in the future I’d like to ensure that continues to happen.
What motivates you in your daily work life?
Helping songwriters and artists is really what keeps me going.
So signing a songwriter who hasn’t had a lot of exposure and getting them sync deals, finding a deep cut in our catalogue and getting that unique placement; helping a licensee create something that hasn’t been in the market before; or integrating a legacy work with technology and making it available in new environments.
Inspiring Women is supported by INGrooves Music Group, 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.
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