There are a lot of sides to the music industry that we don’t normally encounter as consumers. The artists, their image and content are what most often hold your attention, but so much of how that content finds you are at the hands of a record label. Labels hold a LOT of resources (i.e. marketing teams, choreographers, studio spaces, etc.) and connections (i.e. festivals, TV appearances, distribution channels) that can either rapidly advance or hold back where an artist wants to direct their path.
While the landscape of the music business has changed dramatically over the past few decades, there is a rare presence that hasn’t wavered. Meet Sylvia Rhones, the music executive that’s involved in everything that you care about.
A Brief Case On The Majors
Labels can be involved as little as just the marketing of music content or as large as the publishing, artist development, and copyright enforcement. With an influx of artists, the challenges to broaden the reach to new fans become an uphill battle. The history of labels is lengthy and arduous, but the main takeaway in the modern industry is what is largely considered to be a ‘major label’ has narrowed since its inception.
Citing the Association of Independent Music (AIM), a major label is “a multinational company which (together with the companies in its group) has more than 5% of the world market(s) for the sale of records or music videos”. Over the course of a few decades, that definition has changed to only apply to three music companies: Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group. As far back as 2014, the major labels collectively maintain 65%-70% of the world’s market.
You may hear about artist-driven labels or the creation of more independent labels, but even those can just function as a subsidiary of one of the Big Three (i.e. Colombia, Interscope, Atlantic, etc.).
Sylvia’s Rap Sheet
Sylvia Rhone was born in March of 1952. Born in Philadelphia, but raised in New York City, Sylvia surrounded herself with the heavy-hitting acts of that era. Rhone grew up watching the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin on stage.
Attending the University of Pennsylvania, Sylvia pursued a Bachelor of Science in Economics. At first, leaning into a position at a bank, Rhone quickly traded the position to explore the music industry. And so began Sylvia’s CV of positions across many of the music labels of the time (i.e. ABC Records, Ariola Records, and Buddha Records). Taking on an A&R and marketing role in the late 1980s when she joined Atlantic Records brought Sylvia the opportunity to manage acts like En Vogue, Brandy, and MC Lyte.
It was in the 1990s that Rhone was brought in to be the chairman and CEO of Elektra Entertainment Group, becoming the first black womxn to head a major record company. An industry first, Rhone took the momentum to build one of the most eclectic rosters for the label, but not without its challenges. Sylvia recounts that she was met with hardships and hostility in the early days of her appointment. Racist and sexist epithets were thrown in the open and behind closed doors; even by artists on the Elektra label.
“That was the first time I encountered issues of racial and gender bias…There were many in the music community who questioned my ability as an African-American and a wom[x]n to run a label. The notion existed that I would negatively change the culture of the company and convert it into an urban label.”
— Sylvia Rhone
But involvement with R&B and Hip-Hop weren’t her only interests. Similar to the music that she grew up with, Rhone had a hand in curating artists across genres and styles. The list extends from Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes, and Metallica to Tracy Chapman, Third Eye Blind, and Metallica. She combatted the aggression directed at her by doing the job better than anyone before her. And the wide-ranging talents of the spaces Rhone inhabited didn’t only apply to the music roster but also towards the staff supporting the label. Of roughly 100 employees, it is estimated that 50% are womxn and 33% are people of colour. This isn’t something that fulfills the pressures to reflect the diversity in our time but is simply a reflection of what a long-standing presence in the industry attracts.
What Does Persistence Yield?
At age 67 and a career that spans over 40 years, Rhones has no plan to ease her workload. In line with the continued evolution of influence, Sylvia was recently appointed as the Chairman & CEO of Epic Records. The main lesson that she can teach us is one with intuition and persistence. Longevity isn’t an easy thing to maintain in many industries, but no more than the entertainment industry. Following her original path in economics likely would have yielded success, but she wanted something different and didn’t mind being the first to do it at a level to show us all what’s possible.