When music publishing vet Ethiopia Habtemariam was handed the reins to Motown Records in August, she was not only named senior VP of the historic label, she was also upped to executive VP/head of urban music at Universal Music Publishing Group.
It’s rare for a publishing exec to wear a label hat, but Habtemariam sees a precedent: “It all starts with the songs, and when you think back to what Berry Gordy created at Motown — the way the writers helped develop the sound with the artists — that’s the vision with the new Motown as well. We talked about (Motown publishing company) Jobete and Motown and how they worked together and it was all one family, and that’s how we see it working today.”
Habtemariam had a role in signing such writer-performers as Justin Bieber and Chris Brown to UMPG, and she anticipates their cleffing muscle can be brought to bear at the new Motown: “They actually jumped at the opportunity to write for other artists, and that’s one of the things I’ve been talking about with the other writers and producers.”
The company is beginning to build its renewed roster from within. Chrisette Michele and Babyface have been assigned to Motown, while Mercury signee Luke James will be jointly handled by Habtemariam and Mercury prexy David Massey.
In terms of fresh talent, Habtemariam is looking to such models from the storied label’s past as the Temptations and the Supremes (without dropping those specific names).
“I would love to find a guy group,” she says. “I’d love to find a girl group. …I’d love to find a great singer-songwriter with an incredible voice, the next Smokey Robinson.”
However, while Motown originally drew its greatest acts from its Detroit backyard, Habtemariam is taking a wider view of artist development for the 21st century.
“When you think about the artists who have made a big impact in the music, they all came from smaller rural areas — North Carolina or Alabama or Indiana. I’d love to access the talent that exists in all areas.”
Title: Label chief
Role models: Berry Gordy, Jr. and Suzanne de Passe
Career mantra: “Treat people the way you want to be treated.”
Leisure pursuits:“I watch a lot of movies.”
Philanthropic passion: “Educating kids in our communities about careers that exist in sports and entertainment.”