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.
Vivian Scott Chew is a pioneer whose career has laid the groundwork for some integral aspects of the music industry that are taken for granted today.
She is the person who ushered in the dancehall movement into America by signing Shabba Ranks and Third World, and founded ASCAP’s Rhythm & Soul Music Awards in response to a lack of recognition for African American songwriters.
Across a 30+ year career, Scott Chew also lays claim to opening up various international markets for a host of huge acts (Jill Scott, India Arie, Toni Braxton and Common, to name a few), at a time when the world outside of America didn’t get much attention from US artists who weren’t at superstar level.
While working in A&R at PolyGram, she signed Safire, who became one of the leading crossover artists in the Latin hip hop movement, and Scott Chew released one of the first commercially successful major label reggae hip-hop collaborations (a track called Forbidden Love by Third World and Daddio).
Her career in music started as an EA for music lawyer Louise West, before working closely with musician Kashif in his home. There, her job ranged from EA to “surrogate mother” and involved helping him manage his publishing company and touring, to making sure there was food in the house and that bills were paid.
Next came ASCAP, where Scott Chew was hired as the first African American female membership representative. Her idea for the Rhythm & Soul Music Awards (now in its 33rd year) arrived at a time when the top three pop songwriters of the time were Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie and Quincy Jones, and the PRO was not celebrating African American talent via any of its long-standing award ceremonies.
Despite the glaring evidence, doing so wasn’t an easy sell. “I was actually told by my immediate boss that if I went in to present this, that I would lose my job,” Scott Chew remembers. “So I did two things, I got my presentation and research together at the time when the board was meeting, so there were 12 songwriters and publishers in a conference room, and I also got cardboard boxes in my office.”
She went in during the meeting lunch break to ask for the board’s attention, offered her presentation, left the room to face her “furious boss” and started packing up her desk. Thankfully, a higher up in the meeting understood the pitch, Scott Chew didn’t lose her job, and the awards launched.
Soon after that, Scott Chew was headhunted to join what was then PolyGram Records as Director of A&R, where she could help bring in songs and producers for the label’s artists to work with.
After having success with Safire and Third World, she was asked to join Epic where her first signing was Shabba Ranks (of Mr. Loverman fame) who she’d discovered while spending time in Jamaica.
Translating Ranks — who recorded in Patois — to a US audience whilst also keeping his Jamaican fanbase onside was no easy feat. But alongside the help of his manager, Clifton ‘Specialist’ Dillon, Scott Chew managed to achieve commercial success.
The first hit for Ranks was a collaboration with Maxi Priest called Housecall that zoomed to #1 on US radio, while his Jamaican fanbase was served by his first single Trailer Load A Girls.
Scott Chew’s reputation for signing lively artists continued with Sister Souljah (who ended up on the cover of Time Magazine after being criticised by Bill Clinton for her statements about the ’92 Los Angeles Riots), dancehall reggae artist Patra, and George Clinton, who joined Sony in his late ‘50s ahead of his ’96 album T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M.
After working at Sony for six years, Scott Chew started thinking about what she’d like to do next. She decided that what she loved more than anything was travel and music, and helping artists to break outside of their home territories.
She’d done that with Ranks by handing out fliers after his gigs in Europe directing fans to stores to buy his album, which hadn’t yet been released as an international version until the demand from fans forced the label’s hand. He ended up selling millions of records around the world. Safire recouped her advance as a result of international sales alone.
Scott Chew launched Time Zone International to focus on artist careers outside of America. Her first client was Motown signed rapper A+, who ended up being the success story she needed to kickstart her business. Alongside those mentioned at the beginning, Time Zone worked closely with Def Jam, Raphael Saadiq, JoJo, and brands including McDonalds.
Today, Scott Chew is a partner in her husband Ray Chew’s events company, Chew Entertainment (clients include The Emmys, Carnegie Hall, The Grammys, BET, Sony and UMG). They are also currently promoting their own music project, The World is a Family, which is gaining traction thanks to a remix by Louie Vega, and they run a foundation called Power 2 Inspire that offers apprenticeships for aspiring music industry executives and creatives.
Of the world right now, Scott Chew offers this wisdom: “There is a lot of conversation regarding Black Lives Matter vs All Lives Matter. Of course all lives matter – but all lives don’t have a knee on their necks.”
Here, we chat to Scott Chew about lessons learned during her time in A&R, whether she thinks there’s apt recognition for African American talent in the industry today, and what impact she sees the coronavirus crisis having on the music business long-term.
You were the first African American woman to be hired into the membership department at ASCAP — what was that experience like?
I do hear a lot of women in the music industry who really felt like [being a woman] was a disadvantage. I’m sure that if I looked at the full scope, there may have been times that I wasn’t invited into the boys club or to meetings or onto the golf course, but I just never looked at that.
I kept my blinders on and moved forward as a person who really loved music and I used being a woman to my advantage. I knew how to play the really smart woman in the board room and also knew how to play the ‘could you teach me what you do’ woman, depending on whose company I was in. Men were very supportive of me in this business. I never felt like I was stifled because of my gender.
Would you say that’s the same for your experience working in the major label world?
I think that [gender discrimination] became my experience as music shifted, and I will explain that. I decided that it was no longer time for me to be in [that part of the] music industry at a time when hip hop was really big and it was very male dominated. West Coast rap was dominating, and the lyrical content of what was being spoken about and how women were being portrayed didn’t resonate with me.
“I decided that it was no longer time for me to be in [major labels] at a time when West Coast rap was dominating. the lyrical content and how women were being portrayed didn’t resonate with me.”
This is no disrespect to West Coast rap — it’s probably my favourite form of rap because it’s so musical — but I could not in good conscious go home to my teenage daughter and say, Look what mommy did today. I would say that’s probably the only time that I felt the male thing.
During your time in labels, what did you learn about A&R and working with artists?
That not every hit that you think is a hit is a hit. I had a boss who told me: ‘A hit isn’t a hit until somebody buys it.’ As A&R people, we get very passionate about the music that we bring in.
Also, one of the biggest lessons for me was that you’ve got to get your marketing and promotions department on board with you. You’ve got to be that cheerleader and see it through the system. There are tons of records going through the system at the same time and yours better stand out.
So either it’s got to stand out as a hit, they need to like you and want to see you win, or you just have to beat them upside the head into submission to the point where they are like, Okay well she’s not going anywhere, I need to pay attention. I think I did all three at the same time!
You told me earlier that A&R has now changed from when you were doing it. Can you explain how?
I think that there is still an awful lot of creativity — during this pandemic I’ve been able to sit and listen to new music and I’m just as excited about the music that is coming out now as I was when I was in the label business. There are a lot of people of my generation who don’t embrace the music that’s coming out right now, it’s not ‘real music’, and I do not play into that at all. So I think there is still the same sense of creativity, but how we find those artists is different.
I had to physically sit and listen to boxes of cassettes, which then became boxes of CDs, or go out every night of the week to go to see someone perform because the venues existed to support that. What I am seeing now is if I were to mention someone to my A&R colleagues, probably the first thing they would say is, How many Instagram followers do they have? What are their numbers? A lot of artists now have to work extremely hard on cultivating their own fanbase.
What impact do you see that approach having on the commercial music scene?
This is just my opinion, but I see a lot of hit songs, and I don’t necessarily see a lot of artists with long careers. The art of artist development has shifted — there are a lot of examples of hit records and then you never hear from the artist again. We are in a much more singles, rather than albums, driven market. That’s also because of the generation of young people who are listening to music, whose attention spans aren’t as long. When I was a teenager, we would wait two years for an Earth, Wind & Fire album to come out. You wait two years to put out a subsequent project now and you’re gone.
“I see a lot of hit songs, and I don’t necessarily see a lot of artists with long careers. The art of artist development has shifted.”
But that’s why it makes me so happy when I see people like Lizzo, who didn’t just happen. She’s been in the game for a while, and the artist that we now call H.E.R. I’ve known about since she was a teenager. Peter Edge at RCA saw the talent in this young girl and stuck with it. They put out records that did not work. She was not automatically dropped because she didn’t instantaneously sell records. So there are still very clear examples of artist development in my genre of music.
You’ve done lots of international marketing through your company Time Zone International. What have you learned about working acts abroad?
Think globally, work locally. The way I could break a record in the UK would be very different from the way that I could do that in France, Germany, Australia or Japan. As an American, I never really looked at overseas as different countries. There are still people I have conversations with who call Africa a country!
So when I’d sit down with artists and managers, my first gift to everybody was a map of the world. We would say okay there are seven continents, we are not going to mess with Antarctica, but we are going to mess with the other six in some kind of way. We looked at what was going on culturally in each one of these places.
For some reason, France was a really hard market for me to break. They were always the last to come on board. So what I would have to do, particularly if it was a hip hop artist, is find out whoever was hot at that time in the French music scene and get my artist featured on their record and that way it opened up.
On the pop side, I got to work with JoJo who broke very early in her career. Germany was a really big market for her, she had a huge record called ‘Leave (Get Out)’, and we went the whole teen way with her with a lot of TV and teen magazines. We had to uniquely craft marketing and promo plans based on each artist and how we could reach the audiences.
We also never covered the world. We would find territories that we thought projects could initially work in, because if I could break an artist in the UK, it would flip over to France and then Germany and the rest of western Europe. Africa was for me just South Africa, and what I was able to break there more than anything was gospel or house music. In Japan, there was a lot of love for RnB and soul, and reggae was also big over there. There was never really one formula — campaigns were crafted to the artist and the territory.
This is a question for your perspective of being the ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Music Awards founder — there is still criticism for ceremonies like the Grammys for failing to recognise black talent in an equal way. Would you agree with that?
I think there is absolutely work to be done but I also see the work being done. The Grammy board has gotten a lot more sensitive and has put together committees to address this. The current acting President of the Grammys is Harvey Mason Jr., who is an African American musician and son of noted drummer Harvey Mason, so I do see where the issue is being addressed.
I’m very proud of the ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Awards because they specifically honour artists that are contributors to that genre, and it’s based on streaming numbers. There is no favouritism or politics, there’s a formula they use, and BMI and SESAC do the same thing.
“if you’re not part of the voting community, then sometimes your community is not going to get recognised. I’m hoping that more artists in the urban music business become voting members for the grammys, because that’s where you are going to see the shift.”
Regarding the Grammys, when I was at ASCAP and signing songwriters, I also had NARAS applications [for them]. Because if you’re not part of the voting community, then sometimes your community is not going to get recognised. So I’m hoping that more artists in the urban music business become voting members, because that’s where you are going to see the shift.
What advice would you offer to someone starting their career in music today?
Know your gift. I knew that when I got into the reggae market, that’s what my place was. I did it well — from Third World to Shabba to Patra, I exposed a genre of music in America that already existed, and all of the sudden every label was signing dancehall artists.
So know what your gift is and stay in that, and don’t get distracted by colleagues who may be having a little more success than you are. You are there for a reason. Know what your reason and purpose is. And believe in your artists, support your artists through the system, and fight for them.
How do you think the coronavirus crisis is going to impact the music business long-term?
I think it’s going to be done differently. I think that arenas like the O2 [in London], for example, are going to struggle, but the Jazz Cafe will be fine. Things are going to change as far as how many people can gather together. I think that the universe is trying to make us be a little more intimate with each other in a very strange kind of way. And I think that creativity is going to flourish because people don’t have any distractions.
“I’m very excited about what 2021 has to offer from all the creatives who are sitting in their homes, by themselves, or figuring out ways to produce and create with people through their computers.”
For 2020 I think we are just going to have to bunker down and make it through and get out on the other side of a world that we have no idea what it’s going to be. But I’m very excited about what 2021 has to offer from all the creatives who are sitting in their homes, by themselves, or figuring out ways to produce and create with people through their computers.
I believe that next year will be one of the most amazing years musically that we have ever seen. Both in recorded music and [the] live [industry]. We are going to come out of this and we are all going to celebrate together.
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.
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