There’s perhaps no one in the music industry more well-positioned for leadership than Ethiopia Habtemariam, who became chairman and CEO of Motown Records last week.
Habtemariam, 41, has worked in music since she was a teenager, interning for LaFace and Elektra. She forwent a college education and worked up the ranks in music publishing at Universal before becoming Motown’s president in 2014, where she ushered in a renaissance for the historic record label — securing major partnerships with Quality Control and Blacksmith and bringing in a roster of prolific hip-hop artists. Motown’s place in the industry shifted from housing legendary R&B acts like the Jackson Five and the Supremes to pushing new chart-toppers such as Lil Baby, City Girls, and Migos.
With Habtemariam’s promotion, Motown is separating from parent label Capitol Music Group and becoming its own flagship label for Universal Music Group (UMG). The music exec will report directly to CEO Sir Lucian Grainge. In her first interview since the announcement of the new role, Habtemariam, who is only the second woman to currently helm a major label — the other is Sylvia Rhone, CEO of Sony Music’s Epic Records — spoke with Rolling Stone about how she plans to evolve the iconic label and champion fresh voices in an old-school business.
How’ve you been handling your first few days as CEO?
I’m extremely proud, and I’m grateful, but I’m a person who’s always been head-down working. But it’s not lost on me that this isn’t really about me per se.
Coming up in the industry, coming up in Atlanta as a young kid, I saw a lot of incredible black women and black executives that I looked up to. I’ve never felt like it wasn’t possible for me to achieve higher levels of success in my career, even though my intention and purpose was never about getting to a certain title or position. But I also realized that there were a lot of people from my young eyes I felt like should have reached this level in their career because of how impactful they were. I’m proud that I’ve been able to achieve this.
It must have felt like justice, in a way — after seeing people you looked up to get passed over for jobs like these.
It’s interesting that you said it like that. Justice. That kind of feels right for me in many ways. It’s not always the easiest task. If you’re in it because of your love for the music and you’re always innovating and remembering that it’s about supporting the artists in the music, when you go through tough times in your career, it allows you to keep going, and you understand how much resilience is a part of it.
I would read the trades every week, and I’d read about executives, and I wanted to be just like them. There used to be so many incredible black female A&Rs and publishers, and it’s coming back — and I’m proud of that, but I want to stop the idea of that being a cycle. I want to get out of the idea that this could end.
I think this makes people hopeful that it won’t just be me now getting to this level. I’m hoping this opens up the door for a lot more that happens for people that look like me, and have done the work, and deserve to to grow to this level in their careers.
“It was always about getting to this place where we could really run our race.”
You’ve headed the label as president for several years already. What can you do now as CEO you couldn’t before?
Motown has gone through many different iterations that have been combined with other companies over time. I want to acknowledge Sir Lucian for having the vision to bring me to Motown and understand that it would take steps to get Motown back to a healthy place where we have new talent and could build a strategy that gets us to a standalone label. He paved the way for us to concentrate on finding Motown’s global voice and strategy and also to put our focus on our artists and creatives.
As a standalone label, you have expanded support to build on a global strategy for artists in the company overall. From Capitol Music Group, there’s infrastructure that’s in place we will utilize — but my goal is to create a new model of what a major label could be, which is being able to operate in stealth mode, quickly being able to turn things around for our artists, build out strategies, and not having much of a filter in between that. It’s exciting to me. It was always about getting to this place where we could really run our race.
It’s a status we haven’t seen for Motown in a while.
It’s been a process. It was really challenging for me coming into Motown in 2014 because it was also a time when our industry was struggling. I remember being in rooms where there was a question about Motown’s value or our genre of music. I thought, “How could you ever question this space of music where you see global artists have huge success every decade?”
And so we were purposeful in thinking about how to connect the dots in culture. People talk about wanting to support entrepreneurship a lot, but that really was a key focus for us six years ago. There’s a responsibility to continue to do that.
The thinking became, “We’re going to help build our partners and touch youth culture in a different way.” I think my partners at Quality Control would tell you that we’ve been in it together. Motown was new in the Sixties and people were able to see the impact it had — and I feel like that’s what Quality Control has been able to do today. We’ll be a part of recreating that over and over again.
As Motown enters this new chapter, do you feel a need to change the public association of Motown with older classic eras?
I don’t think it’s about changing the perspective; it’s about telling the story. In no way do we ever want to dismiss the iconic artists or the history that has been created, but I do know the onus is on us to have artists of today that could be as impactful. It’s also about being relevant to where the times are today.
I was thinking about our music from last year and the fact that Motown now has a catalog that represents Marvin Gaye and What’s Going On — and we also have Lil Baby and “The Bigger Picture.” I think about what that means and where Motown sits in society culture from the ’60s and today. I’m proud of the fact that we can have artists developing in real-time like Tiana Major9 and support projects like the “Queen & Slim” soundtrack that authentically speaks to Motown. We need to honor the past and create a platform for the future.
Motown was a sound, and had iconic artists, but it continued to transcend over time. Even Mr. Gordy talked about it in the documentary we did together. As the times changed, the music and the label had to change and grow. So then you started seeing the Supremes, and the Commodores and then the Jackson Five. When I was a kid, Motown for me was The Boyz II Men “Motown Philly” era. I remember how huge that was for me. I want us to get to a place where that [cultural weight] can never be questioned again.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.