She’s (Finally) the Boss: Women Are Rising to the Top of Major-Label A&R Departments

female A&R
L-R: Courtesy Wendy Goldstein/ Lanre Gaba, courtesy Atlantic Records/ Nicole Wyskoarko by Maya Darasaw/ Rani Hancock by Cole Slutzky/ Karen Kwak by Jonathan Weiner

Rani Hancock, the recently appointed executive vice president and head of Columbia Records’ A&R department, took a bold and uncommon course into the music industry — uncommon for a woman, anyway. She studied to become a recording engineer at the prestigious Berklee College of Music.

“I’d started out trying to be a musician but realized quickly that I was terrible at it,” she says. “So in my rudimentary knowledge of the music business, I thought supporting artists meant working in a studio. But when I graduated from Berklee, I tried to get a job in a studio and was literally told, ‘Well, you seem qualified — but you’re a girl.’”

Wendy Goldstein, one of the top A&R execs of the past 30 years and recently appointed co-president of Republic Records, got a similar reaction when she was starting out. “I was constantly told, ‘Women can’t be A&R people — what’s wrong with you?’” she says.

A tone of matter-of-fact acceptance while recalling such blood-boilingly infuriating remarks speaks to how deeply entrenched these attitudes have been historically within the departments that are the very foundation of the recording industry. A&R, the art and business of signing and developing talent and making records, is a decades-old term for “artist and repertoire.” These are executives who manage the creative relationship between artist and label, and it’s one of the last boys’ clubs in the music business to open its doors, let alone its leadership, to women.

Although being a trained engineer is not a prerequisite to an A&R position, knowledge of the process of recording, mixing and mastering is essential — and the technical, traditionally male aspects of the job have been used as an illusory gender barrier, as if women somehow were incapable of analyzing music, operating equipment or managing relationships with talent as well as men can.

“I guess the sentiment was that you had to carry heavy gear and work very long hours,” Hancock says. “There were very, very few examples of female [engineers or top A&R executives] back then, and even now.” It’s an inexplicably sexist exclusion: Prince, who regularly logged 24- to 36-hour recording sessions, worked overwhelmingly with female engineers during his peak years in the 1980s and early ’90s (shout-out to Susan Rogers, Peggy McCreary and Sylvia Massy).

Properly acknowledged or not — usually the latter — women have played huge roles at record labels since the dawn of the modern music industry. To cite just a few examples, the late Miriam Bienstock co-founded Atlantic Records in 1947 with Ahmet Ertegun and her then-husband, Herb Abramson, and ran it with a firm hand for many years. Suzanne de Passe was integral to the development of the Jackson 5, Lionel Richie, Rick James and other acts during her decades at Motown Records. Roberta Peterson, who passed away in 2019, was general manager of Warner Bros. Records’ A&R department in the 1970s and ’80s. The late Sylvia Robinson helped introduce hip-hop to the world by co-founding Sugar Hill Records, which released SugarHill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” — widely acknowledged as the first modern rap single — in 1979 and followed with epochal tracks by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, including “The Message,” considered the first socially conscious hip-hop song.

De Passe, who was hired as Motown founder Berry Gordy’s creative assistant in 1968, recalls, “I probably did [encounter sexism], but I wasn’t paying attention to it. Mr. Gordy was a very, very exacting boss,” as evidenced by her continued use of his honorific title a half-century later, “and my attention was more on trying to do the right thing: His management style was to throw you in the deep end and then ask, ‘Can you swim?’” she laughs. “But I think Motown had more women in positions of authority than any other company, and I was a wonderful beneficiary of his philosophy of giving women and young people a shot.”

That combination of pressure and empowerment led de Passe, then in her early 20s, to the Jackson 5. “They sang a cappella for me, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out this was something really special,” she recalls. “And when I finally reached Mr. Gordy on the phone, I said, ‘Wait till you see these kids — we’ve gotta sign them,’ and he said, ‘Kids? I don’t want any kid acts! Do you know how much trouble Stevie Wonder is?’ And you have to remember, I was just getting my feet wet, but I was so persistent that he finally saw them, and the rest is history.” And the next time de Passe wanted to sign an artist — who happened to be the Commodores, featuring Lionel Richie — “he didn’t even have to see them,” she says. “He just said, ‘Sign them.’” (Head here for an expansive interview with de Passe about her career in music.)

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Suzanne de Passe with Michael Jackson, circa 1970 Courtesy Suzanne de Passe

Gradually, more and more female execs broke through. In 1990, Sylvia Rhone became the first woman — and also the first Black woman — to be named CEO of a major label, Warner Music’s EastWest. She was soon elevated to chief executive of Elektra Records and later helmed Universal Motown; she has been chairman-CEO of Sony Music’s Epic Records since 2018. On the indie side of the musical spectrum, in 1992 former Atlantic A&R exec Bettina Richards founded Thrill Jockey Records, which has released dozens of influential albums, many in the traditionally male-facing experimental and electronic genres.

Over the past 20 years, several women have risen to the C-suites of major labels: Julie Greenwald, chairman-COO of Atlantic, has helped lead the company to remarkably consistent success in the 18 years since she took the post; Michele Anthony has been one of the top executives at Universal Music Group — the world’s largest music company — for nearly a decade; Ethiopia Habtemariam is chairman-CEO of Motown Records. And the music-publishing business has had women in top creative roles since the 1990s, with veteran Jody Gerson entering her eighth year as CEO of Universal’s publishing division; Sas Metcalfe has been head of A&R at Kobalt publishing since 2001. But female heads of major-label A&R departments have been few and far between.

However, four years after then-Grammy chief Neil Portnow’s foot-in-mouth comment that women need to “step up” to achieve recognition in the music world, there are promising signs that the gender gap finally may be starting to close.

In recent months, Hancock and Karen Kwak were appointed heads of the A&R departments at Columbia and Warner Records, respectively; in the past few weeks, Goldstein was promoted to co-president of Republic, and longtime Atlantic A&R exec Lanre Gaba was named co-president of the label’s Black music department, with both A&R and marketing under her purview. In 2020, Nicole Wyskoarko was named executive vice president and co-head of A&R for Interscope, one of the industry’s top labels.

“The more women are empowered, the more we’re going to see things change,” says Gaba. “I’m trying to hire more women A&Rs. I inherited an almost all-male department, and it just doesn’t make sense, with the music business’s half-female consumer base, to not have more women at the table when these things are being decided.”

Interscope’s Wyskoarko — who rose through the business & legal affairs department of Island Def Jam and later became a partner at the law firm of Carroll, Guido & Groffman — says, “More inclusion is absolutely needed in A&R. As a leader it has been important for me to cultivate tangible opportunities for women in A&R through jobs at all levels — entry to executive level, including hands-on mentorship and constructive internship opportunities. We have several women on our team who bring vital expertise and points of view.”

Generally speaking, all had similar paths to the roles they’re in now, with some key differences along the way. Hancock, picking up her story about months of fruitless interviews at recording studios, says, “Finally, one of the studio managers took pity on me and said, ‘There’s an assistant position in A&R administration open at Arista.’ So I interviewed and circuitously made my way from there.”

A&R admin — where Kwak and Gaba also cut their teeth — essentially keeps the often-freewheeling recording process on the rails: It involves “managing projects, negotiating deals, handling budgets and logistics, and being the problem-solver and the adult in the room, making sure the kids don’t burn down the house,” as Gaba describes it. Hancock’s circuitous route led her to the inner court of Clive Davis, one of the most renowned label heads and A&R executives of all time.

“The way Clive worked was to have me and his entire A&R staff sitting in his office for several hours a day while he took meetings with artists, writers, product managers,” she recalls. “It was a lot of work but I learned a tremendous amount, and he was so generous with his time and his knowledge. And when [former RCA/ Jive CEO] Barry Weiss took over, he allowed me to start signing artists. Kesha was the first artist I signed, and she was pretty much an instant success, and it all springboarded from there.”

Hancock went on to sign or work closely with Miley Cyrus, Pitbull, Britney Spears, Becky G and others as she moved through the Sony Music system, leaving in 2015 for senior posts at Island Records and Warner before returning to Sony with Columbia last summer.

As she rose in the industry, rather than encountering opposition or condescension, she says, “I had so many male producers, songwriters and artists say they welcomed having a woman in that role because they were so sick of dudes telling them what to do.”

Hancock’s first move at Columbia? Hiring publishing and management vet Katie Vinten, who has worked extensively with hitmakers Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels, as senior VP of A&R.

Unlike the others, Gaba has been with one company — Atlantic — for nearly her entire career, joining the label’s A&R admin department in 2002 after a brief stint at EMI Music Publishing. She moved her way up the ranks, and before long, “A&R people started to ask for opinions, and I’m opinionated!” she says. “I have a good ear for mixing, I’m good at corralling people and making sure that things get done, and the role started to evolve.” She began working with two of the most successful A&Rs of the past 20 years, Atlantic co-chairman and CEO Craig Kallman and then-VP Mike Caren (who now heads Artist Partner Group). “They both were champions and I learned a lot from them, but they also saw that I had more to offer.”

She got to prove just that. Around 10 years ago, “hip-hop was in a weird place, and I was integral in reimagining what it looked like at the company,” she says. “We went on a signing run of this new guard — Lil Uzi Vert, Kodak Black, A Boogie and at the tail end of that, Cardi B.” More recent Gaba-led signings include Pooh Shiesty, Jack Harlow and FKA Twigs. “We were really the first [major label] that was crushing it when streaming became a major force, and that’s when my role started to really change in terms of being the head of A&R.”

Atlantic’s ethos enabled Gaba to avoid many of the pitfalls that female executives have faced. “I’m very lucky that I grew up at a label where anyone can win and a lot of women are heads of departments, so I never really felt a challenge because of my gender,” she says.

In many ways, Goldstein — who has overseen dozens of top artists in her three-decade career, ranging from the Weeknd, Ariana Grande and the Jonas Brothers to the Roots and Common — had the steepest climb of all. At 19, she left college to take a job as a secretary in Epic Records’ A&R department, at the height of the infamously sexist music business of the late 1980s. Her native-New Yorker toughness helped her to weather a barrage of incidents that would be considered harassment today. “At that time, you had to take it like a joke. The number of times people said, ‘Nice rack!’” she says, rolling her eyes. “I’d just move on. Nothing was going to keep me down, and my drive to be successful far outweighed my emotions.”

Although she got her start signing rock acts for RCA, she made her mark at Geffen Records in the early 1990s, A&R-ing and releasing pivotal hip-hop albums by such artists as the Roots, Common, Mos Def and Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA.

“There was this whole hip-hop/neo-soul movement happening outside of the mainstream, and at Geffen, I was allowed to dig in and throw major-label money behind it,” Goldstein says. “It really paid off: Those acts were the first to play festivals, and I think that allowed hip-hop to go into the alternative/ mainstream [genre].”

Goldstein’s background served her well in guiding the Weeknd and Grande to multiplatinum albums and singles. She helped the former mold his R&B-flavored sound, and steered the latter as she graduated from Disney princess to pop queen beginning in 2008.

“Artists have to trust you and your taste and expertise, and that trust has be earned over time,” Goldstein says. “When you’re a young A&R and you don’t have a wall of plaques in your office, it’s very hard to say, ‘Listen to me — I know what I’m doing.’ But those records I made with the Roots and Common and GZA gave me the credibility to sit in the room with the likes of the Weeknd.”

Kwak’s track record is nearly as long. Before being named executive VP and head of Warner Records’ A&R department last fall, she spent five years running her own A&R consulting company, working with artists ranging from Spears and Maluma to Tiësto. Prior to that, she was at Universal Music Group for a dozen years, rising to exec VP of A&R for all of the company’s U.S. labels and working with Mariah Carey, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Jennifer Lopez, Big Sean, Nas and Frank Ocean.

It all started at Motown, where she was an intern for then-president Jheryl Busby and eventually ascended to VP of A&R administration. “I was writing the CD credits and proofreading the artwork, so I was learning who the songwriters and publishers and mixers were, and before long I was doing budgets and advances, producer royalties, all of that,” she says. “Then I took an engineering class — a basic one — so that I could understand the recording process.”

The experience began to show. Later, at LaFace Records, “I’d be running mixes over to [label head] L.A. Reid and he’d say, ‘What’s the difference?’ and I’d explain, ‘Oh, the kick [drum] is up on that one,’ or whatever. And before long, they’re asking your opinion.”

All executives are quick to credit male colleagues with mentorship and crucial help. Says Goldstein, “I was taught by phenomenal record executives: [then-Geffen Records president] Eddie Rosenblatt, obviously David Geffen, and early on, Bruce Harris and Gregg Geller at Epic. They’re amazing A&R guys who made a point to bring me to mixing and mastering sessions and show me how to listen. They made me do the work to understand the job from the ground up, every aspect of it: technical, creative, cultural.”

Adds Hancock: “I think there’s a tendency to divide and vilify people when we’re talking about this issue, and it’s important to highlight that I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of support from men in the industry. The more we work together to solve the problem of female representation in the business, the more things will change. There’s been a tremendous amount of growth, especially in recent years, and it’s a dream come true to be at such a forward-thinking company as Columbia.”

The empowerment goes both ways. “I’m as proud of the executives I’ve helped as the artists,” Kwak says. “I gave [future Wiz Khalifa manager] Benjy Grinberg his first job in the music biz. I hired No I.D. as an executive at Def Jam, and Abou Thiam and Ray Romulus,” all three of whom have worked with Kanye West, among many others. (Those executives are all male.)

And as much as they might cringe at such clichéd female stereotypes as “compassionate” and “nurturing,” all generally agree there is some truth to them. “I deal with a lot of rappers — tough guys, whatever,” Gaba says. “And there’s definitely a bravado and ego thing that, with guys, gets in the way sometimes when you have to have hard conversations, or deal with an artist at their most vulnerable, to get them where you need them to go.

“But there’s something about me walking in as a woman — some of these artists are young enough to be my kids,” she laughs, “so they might look at me as a kind of mom figure or a sister. There’s a different dynamic, and I’m able to cut through with the toughest of the tough and meet artists where they are. But also, I can go the other way and they know they can’t mess with me — ‘She doesn’t play!’”

Not for nothing, Kwak says, “Managing egos? Women have to do that almost from childhood.”

Looking ahead, she continues, “There are a lot of female executives at Warner who are loud and heard, and that starts with leadership — and I’m also very proud to be in this role as an Asian woman. Music has become a lot more global, and you don’t see a lot of Asian A&Rs, men or women, let alone at the head of the department.”

And for all the glass ceilings these executives have encountered, they’re determined to see that things will be different for the next generations. “I used to sit in rooms where I was the only woman, and now there’s a lot more of us,” Hancock says. “The more women that are in those roles, the more other women will see them — and have the role models that a lot of us didn’t have.”

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