Sylvia Rhone smashed the C-suite ceiling long before such buzz words as diversity and gender parity came into the lexicon. In 1994 at the age of 42, she was running a major record company as chairman and CEO of Warner Music Group’s Elektra (Metallica, Missy Elliott and Natalie Merchant were among the hit artists on the roster at the time). She was already being recognized with such descriptors as “first woman” and “only African American” to hold such a title. A decade later, she would take the chief executive position again at Universal Motown (Akon, India.Arie, Erykah Badu). And for the three-peat, Rhone would ascend to chairwoman of Epic Records, home to Travis Scott, Camila Cabello and DJ Khaled, among others, in 2019.
To hear Rhone tell it, her current role at the Sony Music label outshines her previous accolades, as trailblazing as they were. “It’s profoundly more significant now because of the culture change taking place,” she said on the heels of her promotion last year. “Black culture and women around the globe are finding their voices like never before. It’s a watershed moment.”
Indeed, if actions speak louder than words, Rhone’s calling card has long been advocacy for women and people of color among the corporate ranks. But with the one-two punch of the pandemic along with widespread civil unrest over racism and police violence, the Philadelphia native has helped guide social-justice efforts not just at Epic, but also across Sony Music. “We’re approaching those inequities head-on,” she says.
As for COVID-19, Rhone acknowledges that the pandemic could have presented great challenges to the company, but credits efforts to keep business on track. “In anticipation of the quarantine, we enhanced our virtual and digital marketing efforts,” she says.
“We made sure that all areas of the company were over-communicating during the health crisis. My priority was to make everyone stay connected, focused and healthy. Our productivity and efficiency are still at an all-time high.”
No kidding. Rhone’s track record is a thing of envy among music-business veterans. Under Rhone’s watch at Elektra, the label enjoyed hits by Busta Rhymes, Tracy Chapman, Jason Mraz and Third Eye Blind, in addition to Elliott and Merchant. At Universal, Rhone helped usher in Motown’s neo-soul era, signing and developing the likes of Badu, and played a key role in partnering with the Cash Money label, home to Lil Wayne, and later Drake and Nicki Minaj.
But it’s at Epic, which she joined in 2013 — bringing aboard her joint venture, Vested in Culture, and where she was later named president before ascending to the chairwoman role — that Rhone has really shown her mettle, taking the reins in opening the label’s business up to other creative industries and forward-thinking partnerships.
“At Epic, we’re guided by the creators who drive the zeitgeist, and that includes leaders in technology, film, fashion, gaming, art and content development,” she says. “The term creator is more important than ever, but also less defined than ever. Creators are crossing genres, verticals, industries, lifestyles and culture more fluidly and naturally today.”
To wit: rapper Travis Scott, whose thematically consistent, multilayered vision has included a performance on the video game “Fortnite,” drawing 12.3 million live views to the April 23 event, and a partnership with McDonald’s for his own “meal,” which has seen such swift sales that the franchise is experiencing an ingredient shortage.
Rhone says the artist “has clearly emerged as one of the leaders in this space as he keeps music in the center of everything he does, effortlessly integrating his brand into any corner of culture he desires — from Nike to street art to high art to ‘Fortnite’ to McDonald’s and beyond. … We’ve recognized the new ways fans want to consume music, and we’re strategically intertwining our assets to capitalize on our shared fan base to develop more experiential activations for the consumer.”
Such “next-level integration,” as Rhone describes it, is informing Epic’s collaborations with artists on its roster, so there is opportunity for young executives looking to work at the intersection of music, gaming and visual media.
What is Rhone looking for in her hires? “Young executives to be passionate and curious and want to learn every facet of the industry,” she says. “It’s a never-ending education process where you must focus on long-term career development and consistently put points on the board. Don’t be afraid to take risks. I encourage people to always color outside the lines, that’s where the magic begins.”
How healthy is the recorded music sector? Despite a slump in the 2000s, the result of the convergence of several tectonic shifts in the industry — piracy, the decline of album sales and the phasing out of CDs — streaming has brought back robust growth. The most recent mid-year report issued by the Recording Industry Assn. of America shows an uptick in recorded music revenue so far in 2020, to the tune of 5.6%. In 2019, global recorded music revenues topped $20 billion, per trade group IFPI. Says Rhone: “Music has been at the tip of the spear of digital disruption, but now we’re innovating into growth rather than decline.”
Also unique to the streaming age: a hit song can emerge from anywhere and isn’t reliant on label backing to launch. Further blurring the lines of precedence, today’s young music consumers aren’t loyal to specific genres or even platforms. Rhone sees possibility in that.
“The younger generation identifies and makes hits now more than ever,” she says. “Today there are more platforms to garner exposure, with the social-media explosion and brands like TikTok and Twitch transforming global media culture like never before. Our business thrives on young artists and also relies on young professionals behind the scenes. True success [is] a combination of this fresh energy and experience.”
Epic’s success stories during the Rhone era also include former Fifth Harmony member Cabello, rappers Future and 21 Savage and Meghan Trainor.
How does the label approach these very different artists? And is there a common thread when it comes to long-term success? “Hits make career artists and career artists make hits,” offers Rhone. “For a label, it’s about supporting the artist’s vision and allowing them to create; arming them with the insights and resources to expand their visions and grow their audience. There are so many new platforms emerging and data sets being generated, it’s our job to filter the noise and help them prioritize, then execute so they can fulfill their dreams. We see this with Camila embracing her Cuban roots, or Travis creating a fascinating interior world of his own or DJ Khaled representing his unique persona. Every artist has an individual strength, a special superpower and it’s our job to amplify that vision.”
When Rhone’s career was just starting in the 1980s, a large part of her job as an executive in Atlantic’s Black Music department — working with the likes of En Vogue and MC Lyte — was artist development. That remains today, despite the instant gratification that a viral TikTok trend can produce. Adds Rhone: “We must be patient and supportive to allow developing acts to flourish. Our goal is to build the next class of career artists — talent such as Zara Larsson, Madison Beer and Tyla Yaweh, among others.”
Still, challenges abound in a business “where change is the only constant” — and a fast-moving, fickle and sometimes nonsensical one. For her part, Rhone has seen and done it all, but she’s still cautious not to rest on her laurels.
“I’ve been in this business long enough to see the 45 grow into the 12-inch and the cassette grow into the CD; now, vinyl has come back to eclipse CDs. Streaming has completed the shift from ownership to access model, with conventional streaming still growing and gaming and video offering unforeseen growth. More models and platforms we can’t even imagine yet will emerge. It’s incumbent upon the leaders of the industry to manage the potential with smart spending and dealmaking.”
After four decades, Rhone has earned a place alongside the titans of the record business — including some of her own mentors, like former Sony Music CEO Doug Morris, the only person to have held chief executive positions at all three major label groups (Warner, Universal and Sony) — but surprisingly she still considers herself a “student” of the trade. “I’ve learned in a business as unpredictable as ours that things don’t always go according to plan.”
So what advice would Rhone impart on those inspired to follow her lead? “Be persistent but with a purpose,” she says. “Competence fosters confidence; vision, hard work and fearlessness creates the luck you need to be successful.”