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Powerhouse Execs Ethiopia Habtemariam and Jacqueline Saturn Rise Above the Noise

The label heads came together for an insightful conversation at the Music Biz conference in Nashville.

Jacqueline Saturn Ethiopia Habtemariam
Michael Buckner

Motown Records President Ethiopia Habtemariam and Caroline President Jacqueline Saturn came together for an insightful conversation at the Music Biz conference in Nashville today (May 8). The two spoke of their illustrious careers and the successful partnership between the Capitol Music Group labels they each head.

Spending more than a decade working in music publishing as president of urban and creative affairs at Universal Music Group, Habtemariam was named president of the storied Motown Records in 2014. Once there, she admitted that her first year was “tough …  we were going through this transition of you could have a No. 1 record at urban radio that didn’t equate to sales at all,” she explained. That changed when Habtemariam entered into a groundbreaking partnerships with Atlanta-based label Quality Control Music, home to such acts as Migos and Lil Yachty. “It was inspiring to see young entrepreneurs that have these diverse backgrounds building something out of nothing and really kind of amplifying that and helping to grow that.”

Today, both Habtemariam and Saturn hold global views of music. Citing Africa and Latin America as two regions from where artists are drawing inspiration. Habtemariam credit Africa for helping break Migos’ hit “Bad and Boujee” during a performance in Nigeria. “It was thousands of people singing along to “Bad & Boujee’ and it went viral on social media,” she said. “Everyone was like ‘oh sh–, they know that record in Africa.”

Habtemariam traveled to Europe at the beginning of this year with QC Music co-founder Kevin “Coach K” Lee, hitting markets in Stockholm, Berlin, Paris and London and experiencing the connection European fans have with  artists through music and fashion. Said Habtemariam: “Hip hop has kind of been permeating through these markets always. But to see the way that we’ve been able to create their brand to be potent in those markets, when they know all the artists and people want to do all kind of deals with them, their eyes are really open to a global marketplace.”

Saturn added that Caroline is also working with some African artists and record labels, as well as partnering with SM Entertainment in Korea to sign a distribution deal with Seoul-based supergroup NCT 127. “I think that as a global company being a part of the Universal Music Group, we are very in tune to things that are happening everywhere,” Saturn said. “I think that we are making sure that we’re tapping into all the different audiences.”

The executives also discussed the challenges they’ve faced in their careers. Saturn, a veteran of Epic Records where she held a senior role in promotion for more than a decade,  recalled the sexism she faced early on when male cohorts told her while she was pregnant that her career would flounder after having children. As Saturn recalled: “There was a bias about what it would be like after you have children, and it was men executives trying to say, ‘She won’t be as good enough; you won’t really care about your job; you’ll be marginalized.’ They literally said it out loud and I remember I was so hurt. I remember that moment because I was like, ‘Oh they have no f–king idea what’s about to go down.’ I did come back with a fury.”

For Habtemariam, the transition from a creative, hands-on role as a music publisher to being an executive running a record label was “really challenging,” she said, often facing doubts from her peers in the industry regarding her success in the new role. As the highest-ranking African-American woman at UMG, Habtemariam is using her influence to support others. “I think we’re in a place in this industry where we get to be an example of something different just by the way that we operate,” she said. “It’s not just about being female and being in these roles, which of course is really important, but it’s who we are and how we choose to run our business.”