‘Technology is a fantastic thing but there’s nothing like human curation.’

Photo credit: Hylah Hedgepeth
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 Virgin Music Group.

Mary Rahmani has had a front-row seat to the development of one of today’s most effective artist marketing tools, thanks to early experience in the short-form video space.

As TikTok’s first music hire in North America, she helped the platform build relationships with the music community, playing a key role in its success today. Acts she collaborated with across two years there include Lil Nas X, The Weeknd, Doja Cat, Miley Cyrus and lots more.

After that, Rahmani spent a year in a similar role at TikTok competitor Triller, where she supported hit rap battle series Verzuz and brand integrations with partners like NYX and Dr. Pepper.

Today, she heads up her own creative agency Moon Projects, which specializes in curating content strategy for short-form, vertical platforms. It also houses a JV record label with Republic.

Prior to her work in social media, Rahmani has a long history in A&R and marketing, spanning roles at EMI, Razor & Tie, Dangerbird Records and Capitol’s Harvest Records. She’s using that experience to develop up-and-coming artist Em Beihold, who scored a Top 20 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 last year with Numb Little Bug.

Rahmani, who’s been a big music fan for as long as she can remember, got her foot in the door of the business via an internship in PR at Sony label Work Group. Fiona Apple and Lenny Kravitz were on the roster at the time and Rahmani got a solid education.

“I got to get a great understanding of how the different departments cross-reference each other during that time and how they develop artists. I was just like a sponge — I absorbed at all,” she says.

That led to a college artist development role with EMI, helping to promote acts like Gorillaz, Mick Jagger and Coldplay through grassroots marketing campaigns in campuses across Los Angeles and Orange County.

Rahmani found herself advising local acts and dabbling in management, before moving over to Sony in an admin role and then Interscope in the finance department, where she learned how budgets were formed and spent.

A move to New York came with a stint in publishing but artist development again beckoned. Rahmani found herself back in LA, where she eventually joined Capitol as Head of A&R at Harvest.

“That was the first time I had my own office,” she remembers. “I was in a historical building and it was like everything that I worked so hard for over the past 10/15 years was coming together.

“I also had such a diverse knowledge of different aspects of the business that I could apply when I was meeting artists and chatting with them. Still, to this day, for me it’s so important to educate artists on how the business works.

“I really feel for them. It’s not easy, as we know. No-one makes money for a long time, including managers and the team that’s with them. You really want to be in it for the right reasons.”

After having her son and taking time out to be with him, Rahmani decided to take a different course and learn something new, which is how she landed at TikTok.

Founded in 2021, Moon Projects was borne out of feeling frustrated and restricted by the confines of her company roles. She explains: “I felt like throughout 20 years of working in the business, I’ve always had ideas and instincts and sometimes they were left of centre and didn’t quite make sense. I was coined with, ‘You’re doing a bit too much development, you’re being doing a bit too much emotional management.’

“Those things, in my opinion, are necessary to build that bond and security in relationship with the artists but also within their creative motivation too. They need that coach, as do I, and so I felt like I was hitting walls and there were ceilings.

“When you work for any company, no matter how creative and progressive they are, there are still rules, logistics, budgets, processes and internal priorities and so forth. I felt like I couldn’t do as much as I needed and wanted to do for myself and for my work with my partners.”

Since the inception of Moon Projects, Rahmani has also secured a JV with Warner Chappell Music for a publishing company (signings TBA). Recently, she joined social media marketing agency Songfluencer and tech-driven ecosystem Genni & Co as a strategic advisor.

Here, we chat to Rahmani about her biggest lessons learned, working at TikTok and Triller, and cutting through the noise…

What are the biggest lessons that you’ve learned across your career?

To really listen to your instincts. It’s easy to get frustrated and swayed by others and to compare yourself and feel like you’ll be forgotten if you’re not always in the ‘spotlight’, or if you don’t have that one gig with a really fancy company. None of it really matters. As long as you’re informing yourself, maintaining openness, learning and growing, you will get to your ultimate goal.

“It’s easy to get frustrated and swayed by others and to compare yourself and feel like you’ll be forgotten if you’re not always in the ‘spotlight’, or if you don’t have that one gig with a really fancy company. None of it really matters.”

Artists sometimes come to me and say, “I don’t feel successful.” I’m like, “How could you think that? You have a team, you have a label, you have a publisher, you’re being validated by your fans and the numbers that we see on streams, social media, when you go perform and when you sell your merch.”

Success is very fluid and I’ve had to learn that for myself. We are all successful because we’re able to make a living with what we’re doing and loving. Don’t let other people’s negativity make you feel like there’s something wrong and doubt yourself and what you want to do. Always go with your gut.

You were TikTok’s first music hire in North America. That platform has become important to the music discovery process but it’s been facing issues recently due to talk of it being banned in certain territories and complaints about the amount of royalties that it pays out. What do you make of the criticism it’s receiving?

It’s very interesting. It’s something that I experienced while I was there, as well. I would just always say, “I work in music, I love artists and that’s my role.” I can’t really speak to the inner workings of it anymore. I’m two years out of the platform now so I’m not too sure what will happen.

Labels and artists make valid points with every concern they have with platforms. AI is an interesting thing that we are definitely going to be watching. That’s truly concerning to a lot of us right now.

But I think it’s a lesson that we can’t put all of our eggs in one basket, as people and as artists, we have to make sure that we’re expanding ourselves. There are many platforms out in the ecosystem and we need to stay fluid and nimble and make sure that we’re maintaining connection. Platforms subside — I grew up on MySpace, it’s not here anymore, and it was huge for artists and music. You just have to make sure that you’re diversifying your portfolio, making content and engaging with fans.

You also spent time at Triller, which is being sued by the major labels This is a running theme in the music business — a startup launches with grand ambitions, gains traction, and at some point ends up in dispute with rights holders. Is there anything you’d like to see change that would impact that trajectory?

I don’t really know where the creative disconnect comes at the beginning of when someone wants to start a startup. I’ve heard a lot of the same sentiment that’s like, ‘Ask for forgiveness, versus permission’.

In the tech world and any new business, entrepreneurs are so excited and they most likely have positive and good intentions, to build and grow their company and to grow their users.

There are lessons along the way that they need to learn: perhaps doing their due diligence earlier, making sure they’re building those relationships and following protocol. On the other side, labels, publishers and organizations also need to be more open to new platforms and working with them from the get go.

There’s so much music being released these days, it can be hard for artists to cut through the noise and build a fanbase and a live career. What are your strategies for finding fans?

I had lunch with a mentor and colleague [recently] and we were speaking about this. It’s always great to release art; if you’re an artist, put it out there if you want to put it out there. There’s no negative in that. But I think there needs to be some honesty from the DSPs and powerful platforms in the short-form space that are aiding that discovery in curating the process. I miss that. I miss blogs, I miss college radio being the ones to help us discover what’s next and what’s bubbling. I really miss editorial within those spaces. Some of the platforms have removed editorial teams because they’ve gotten so big and they’re shifting.

Technology is a fantastic thing and we need to be progressive and open but there’s nothing like human curation, going with your instincts and gut. I think it’s okay to take a step back sometimes and ask the question, ‘Do we want to stand behind this promotion? Is this something that we believe in and want to elevate and make sure we’re putting quality on the front lines?’

What would you like to see more of within those platforms? What could more human curation look like?

They have the financial resources and resources in terms of user and audience reach. Yes, platforms will do banners and they’ll playlist you and they’ll help you with a live promotion and things like that, but maybe it’s about having more of a long-term relationship. Sometimes those promotions just come and go so quickly during a single or album cycle that it can last a week or two. That’s not enough time for discovery.

“Platforms should do more for artists as a whole and offer programmes and incentives, financially, creatively and promotionally, to elevate them.”

As you said, there’s so much music coming out every single day. It’s around 100,000 songs a day and that’s insane. How does your everyday person get to discover something new that they haven’t heard and really have time to absorb it? Going at a slower cadence and [thinking] more long-term with artist relationships would be key.

Platforms should do more for artists as a whole and offer programmes and incentives, financially, creatively and promotionally, to elevate them. I remind my partners that these platforms are not music discovery platforms and there are many verticals in them, many types of users and demographics. The platforms have their own priorities and things they want to roll out, test and try. That’s why it’s so important to be consistent, authentic to yourself and create what you want to create. It will resonate eventually with the right person.

What are the most exciting developments happening in the music business today?

I’m excited to see what’s next. I’m constantly on the hunt for what Gen Z and even Gen Alpha is really interested in and where their creativity and curiosity is going into. That’s gaming, streamers and them rediscovering legacy artists that we grew up with and how those sounds are being reimagined. I’m curious to see what type of artists will be popping up. During the pandemic, I read that Fender guitars had their highest sales ever. I’m waiting for the rock bands — where are they?

Sometimes we just have to go back to basics. I think it would be great for music companies to do scouting trips and go to local venues and towns in the middle of nowhere because not everyone is using the internet to their benefit. It’s time to search and discover and I find that really exciting.

If you could, what would you change about the music business and why?

My gosh, so many things! I feel like you need to spend a bit more time promoting and pushing your product. I know it sounds a bit transactional but it is a business. Artists can take a day to write a song, or they can take a year or two to write a song or an album. There’s so much feeling and emotion behind that and producers, songwriters and all the layers that go with it. Why not be a lot more thoughtful in the release process? Go a little bit slower, give the ecosystem more time to absorb and digest and to accept the music and spend time with it.

“As a whole, we should take care of each other a lot better, financially and creatively. It would only benefit the art.”

I would love to see the salary gap with employees [improved]. There’s a really big disconnect from entry level and mid-level employees to top executives. People want to be there because they love it but imagine if they could actually pay their bills? How would they flourish if they didn’t have that stress? I understand why it’s like that to some point, to sometimes weed out the right people and so forth. But I do think as a whole, we should take care of each other a lot better, financially and creatively. It would only benefit the art.

If you could go back to the beginning of your career and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?

To not be so stressed on the timeline, on when you achieve what you feel is your moment of success. It’s a journey and you could have a hit immediately in your career working with an artist or it can be 20 years later. It’s all great and none of it is wrong. Try to always be kind and open, to not take other personalities and issues personally. To continue to listen to your instinct and follow your gut.

How about future plans and ultimate ambitions for Moon Projects?

I’m growing my consulting side and working with some companies on strategy, building the bridge between labels and artists and those companies, and what their presence looks and feels like as platforms continue to evolve. There’s a bit of fatigue in the short-form space and I want to be part of what we can do to excite the artists to participate and users to engage.

I’m also trying to find artists that are meaningful and will have longevity. I’m looking for artists that will be legacy artists; legends and rockstars. I understand the importance of signing things that are moving quickly and being a part of market share but part of the joy of me having my own company is that I get to pick and choose who I say yes to. My partners are really supportive to that process. I’m keeping my eyes very open to finding the next big thing.

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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