In Rolling Stone‘s series At Work, we go behind the curtain with decision-makers across the fast-changing music business — exploring a range of responsibilities, burgeoning ideas, advice for industry newcomers, and more. Read earlier interviews here.
When you think of H.E.R., it’s almost impossible not to envision sunglasses, cascading hair, and an electric guitar. But before she was winning Grammys and performing on The Emmys, H.E.R. was Gabriella Wilson, a humble kid from the Bay Area with a poetry book and a ton of determination. Jeanine McLean-Williams — now president/managing partner at MBK Entertainment, the company that catapulted Alicia Keys to superstardom in the early 2000s — started working with Wilson when the singer-guitarist was just 12 years old, before the major label and brand partnerships came knocking. She was there to relentlessly red-line Wilson’s contracts, and eventually she went on to negotiate huge deals with Fender and DIFF Eyewear, among other key tasks.
Growing up in the Bronx, McLean-Williams was surrounded by music. At a young age, she often found herself in the studio with her stepfather, a singer who performed with the likes of Burt Bacharach and Al Hibbler, or backstage with her uncle, a busy tour promoter in the concert industry. Eventually, her uncle started using her as his local gofer, sending her to radio stations and asking her for help with marketing and promotion. She started her own international touring business called Bottom Line Productions with a record-executive friend in her mid-twenties. But when MBK founder Jeff Robinson called nearly 19 years ago, she jumped on the management train and continued on her path of entrepreneurial risk-taking.
Now, McLean-Williams is gearing up for a Star Search-style competition that will give one currently unknown artist a contract with MBK and RCA Records. In a year devoid of touring and other traditional money-making avenues, she’s also been focused on setting up as many brand partnerships as possible. Since Covid-19 struck, MBK has launched six partnerships, including with Adidas and Tommy Hilfiger. In September, Fender unveiled H.E.R.’s custom Stratocaster to the public, which includes “a chrome-covered alder body, comfortable vintage-style neck and fingerboard, and noiseless electronics,” according to instrument retailer Sweetwater, as well as a six-saddle vintage-style synchronized tremolo and an aluminum pick guard and headstock.
MBK has also teamed up with LG for the Life’s Good Music Project, which enlists young talents to virtually collaborate with H.E.R. on a new song. They’re planning an “Unplugged Live” version of H.E.R.’s Girls With Guitar series, which started on Instagram Live with guests like Melissa Etheridge, Sheryl Crow, and Tori Kelly, and will soon invite participants back to jam in a studio space together. And they’re looking forward to the second edition of H.E.R.’s Lights On Music Festival, which began last year in Northern California with performances from some of today’s biggest R&B names; the exec says the festival’s next date has been moved to 2021 for the time being.
Where did the idea for MBK’s upcoming “Artist Search” come from?
I will say I have to own that idea. I always want to give back, and during these times, I found myself wondering how artists are getting in front of labels right now. They’re not. The buildings are closed. The opportunities to go in and showcase — to even go to little clubs — and be discovered have been taken away. So we decided to go around the country and do it safely. Some of it will be virtual, but I said, “Let’s have people submit music, tapes, and videos. Let’s go to some markets and have folks come in. They’ll be X-amount of distance away to perform. We’ll do it Star Search-style and pick someone who’ll be lucky enough to win a major-label record deal.”
How far along are you in that process?
We haven’t started yet, but we’re definitely going to do it. We’re just getting it together. We’ll [start the search at] the top of the year.
Is it genre-specific?
It’s not genre-specific, however, our forte is R&B. You’ve kind of got to stick to what you know and what you do best.
Do you know what the record contract will look like yet? Is it for one song, an album, or multiple albums? Is there a big advance?
It’s a little too early, but I do envision it being at least a one-album scenario or an EP, which is just as valuable as an album nowadays. We’ll figure out the finances behind it all, but that is really determined by the talent.
Before management, you started in the touring world, which hasn’t always been welcoming towards women. But the boys’ club didn’t phase you.
Yeah, yeah… We did a lot of what we called “black music parties” in Germany and all throughout Europe. I was the first one to take the world-famous DJ Clue to get his passport so he could truly become “world famous” — like, I literally took him to the passport office. And we started to do really big events in Europe. Then there were many others that we took on tour. It was great. There were definitely risks taken, but it was really rewarding.
You uprooted yourself for a lifestyle of non-stop travel. That’s a big decision to make.
Absolutely. And I did work a regular nine-to-five job in the real-estate investment sector of business as well. It was crazy. I’d go to Europe on a Thursday night and get back to the U.S. on a Monday morning and go straight to work.
Concert promotion and management are two very different worlds, not to mention real estate. Did you have a sense of what you were in for at the time?
When I told friends and family that I was leaving the cushy comforts of the corporate world and going 100 percent into entertainment with a young management company, they were all like, “Are you insane?!” But I felt it so in my soul; I felt it so in my core. It just felt right, and like it was going to work out. I mean, I know that advice is hard to give somebody — just follow your gut and make a big move — but I really did feel that it was going to be great. I knew it was going to require a lot of hard work, intuitiveness, and commitment.
I met Jeff Robinson through a mutual friend named Chuck Turner. At the time, Jeff and MBK had a few artists, including a brand new artist that no one had ever heard of by the name of Alicia Keys.
I started going to the office often to see what was going on. This was right after the release of Songs in A Minor [in 2001], which took off so quickly. And I started to do events for MBK Entertainment. We had a monthly show called R&B Live that was wildly popular, and I was at the helm of putting that together and running it. One day, Jeff Robinson just came to me and said, “You need to be here full time.” So, I quit my nine-to-five job and all my promotion gigs to be a part of the MBK Entertainment family. Within two years, I was a partner and president.
[I started by] taking anything I learned in promotions and touring and incorporated it into management. There’s so much of that involved in management that it kind of all works together.
And you represented Alicia Keys for over a decade.
Yep, Jeff Robinson met her when she was 14, and she stayed with the MBK organization until she was 31. What most people don’t really realize is that MBK Entertainment is the imprint with RCA. So, we were the label too. It was a partnership.
Do all of your clients sign up for label services as well as management?
Yes, with most. We’re just a bit control freak-y and, hey, it works — because the left side does know what the right side is doing. And now, thankfully, we’re more senior and the relationships that we have are so high-level. Any artist that rocks with us truly gets the benefit of that. We’re not scrounging to get through to people. Now, we’re right there at the top of the list of calls that are taken, because we’ve proven that we can make stars from obscurity.
Would you say it’s crucial for management to be that hands-on nowadays?
Absolutely, very hands-on. The art of artist development is key to MBK Entertainment. Take H.E.R., for example. She came in when she was very young — she was 12. There was a lot of artist development that went into perfecting all of the many, many skills that she has. She’s so talented — but, of course, at 12, you still need some fine-tuning and perfecting. And you need something to talk about. So you’ve got to have patience and be in it for the long haul. There’s a lot of emotional and financial investment that goes into it, but those who have their head on straight, will come out on top and on the other side of all that.
What’s your dynamic like with Jeff?
Jeff Robinson is the creative thinker. He’s the one in the studio, brainstorming how to make the music as great as it can be. Jeff Robinson makes hits. He’s the one who brings all those pieces together. I’m more on the business side. I’m reading all the contracts and negotiating. I’m sitting there with the lawyers, agents, and everyone and pulling out all the fine notes and terms and all the things that can be overlooked if someone’s not paying attention. Because that’s my expertise. He has the comfort in knowing that every deal that we do is going to be exactly what it needs to be. Obviously, we have the top lawyers, we have the top everyone, but there are eyes from our side that are reviewing, noting, and taking care. And I do all the branding deals.
What are MBK’s goals for 2021?
To keep afloat, to keep things going, to keep creating new and good music, to keep creating new stars, to keep showing that women are powerful. That’s one thing I will say about Jeff Robinson: He built this company and he has not been afraid to let women take the lead. [General manager] Misha Mayes is another strong woman in our organization. Together as a team, we really get shit done — and that comes from consistently making sure that everyone feels that they are heard and have the power to make decisions.
I’m really excited for a lot of our other talent that’s coming up. They’re all starting out. LONR, for example, had a number one song with H.E.R. called “Make the Most.” He’s signed to Epic Records and doing great. We have Maeta, who’s signed to Roc Nation and doing phenomenal. Tone Stith is signed to RCA; he’s their next R&B priority. We have a new signee, Abigail Furr. We’re excited to keep the engine moving with creating new talent.
Do you only offer label services to RCA clients or all of them?
That’s just with the RCA clients. Although, with Tyrese Gibson, we work on some projects with him here and there. We worked with him on that one Number One record that he had [Tyrese’s 2015 album Black Rose]. We’ll pop in and out and work with a few legendary artists to help their projects along.
What made you realize H.E.R. was special at such a young age?
First of all? How articulate and mature she was. I remember her just sitting at the head of the table, talking about the book of poetry she had just published. She was performing on different TV shows at the time — The View and others that had discovered her ability to play and sing. With the young voice that she had, she still sounded like a baby singing, but you could tell that the tone was there. Her musicality is what really makes you stand up.
How did the Fender partnership come about?
Our good friend Tim Hinshaw, who’s now with Amazon, was with Fender at the time. He came out to a show and we just built up a friendship. He was like, “Hey, this girl is really dope.” It was still very, very early on in her career, and he convinced the Fender team to make her a spotlight artist. They created a special content piece around her and then she kind of became the Fender darling.
Then, Moya [Nkruma], who’s now in place in Fender, was like, “Jeanine, we should do a H.E.R. line.” I said, “I think that’s an amazing idea. Let’s get it up the food chain. Let’s go.” So we had the conversations with all the higher-ups there, and H.E.R. created the coloring for it. All of the physical attributes of that Strat are from her. And it’s a huge seller. It sold out within three days [when it launched a few months ago]. It’s still selling, and now they’re on back order. She’s the first black woman to have a signature line with Fender.
Philanthropy is a big part of your branding strategy too, right?
Yes, with Girls With Guitars, we gave away money. We gave $30,000 to MusiCares. We gave away guitars to 30 folks. We gave away makeup, protective gear, anything to make it about a give-back to fans. It wasn’t about: “Hey, pay $10 and tune in to see H.E.R. with Sheryl Crow.” No! It was: “Come in, enjoy this music during this momentous time, and hopefully you can win something as well.” Her heart for giving back is huge. You can see that it the DIFF Eyewear partnership too. There were other eyewear companies that we could’ve done deals with. But with DIFF, we’re helping people to get either a free pair of glasses or an eye exam in places like Honduras and other places in the world where they wouldn’t have the access.
Everything is about a give-back. I’m personally a part of three mentorship programs right now. At least once a day I’m on a call with one of my mentees for at least an hour. Those are through Grammy University, Power 2 Inspire, which is set up by Vivian Scott Chew and Ray Chew, and She Is the Music, which isn’t active at the moment but is by Alicia Keys. We’ll go through contracts, I’ll let them listen in on calls and pop in on a lot of label meetings.
You seem incredibly busy.
I’m also a Recording Academy member, so I’m very active. And I’m a district advocate, so I participate in those [Recording Academy advocacy] outreaches. A few times a month, that’s a part of my day — making sure that I’m in front of the right politicians and reaching out to make them aware of any deficiencies for songwriters or musicians, or any talent that needs to benefit from new legislature.
What are some common misconceptions surrounding a manager’s role, and what would you stress to a new manager who’s just getting started?
A common misconception is that it’s an easy job. It’s oftentimes a thankless job. Sometimes people forget a little bit that they were unknown and that you worked hard to make them famous. That part is what it is, but it’s definitely a job where you have to say: “I’m going to incorporate these artists into the fabric of my every thought process. I’m going to help these wonderfully talented people reach stardom.” That’s what you think about, all day, every day — different ideas, opportunities, and ways to achieve that goal.
As for advice to any young managers, make sure your whole heart and soul is into this, because you’re taking the responsibility of someone else’s life and their projected livelihood on your shoulders. Make sure that you’re seeking help from those that have done it and that know what they’re doing.