Prolific music industry players share their experiences

A photo of a laptop featuring a music industry professional.

Successful figures in the music industry shared their advice for Black creatives during the Friday evening webinar. (Kayla Hill | Daily Trojan)

The Zoom webinar bubbled with excitement as the USC Concerts Committee and Black Student Assembly introduced the star-studded panelists for “Soul, Stars and Success: The Motown Story,” on Feb. 26. 

The event featured prolific speakers from across the music industry. President of Motown Records and Executive Vice President of Capitol Music Group Ethiopia Habtemariam, Motown Records recording artist Asiahn and executives from the label, management and publishing company,  Since the 80s, appeared as featured panelists. 

Taj Mayfield, a junior majoring in journalism, moderated the event and began by introducing Debra Lee, former chief executive officer of BET Networks. Lee introduced the Quinn Coleman Memorial Fund, a collaboration with the GRAMMY Museum to raise money to fund internships and uplift up and coming executives of color, which is in honor of her son who passed away last August. Coleman was an executive and DJ with a passion for music. 

“Soul, Stars and Success: The Motown Story” was the first official function to raise money for the effort. Donating to the fund entered attendees into a raffle where they could win two tickets to the inaugural Black Music Collective Grammy Week Event, an Echo Dot, an Amazon gift card or a one on one with Universal Music Group’s °1824 providing tips on getting into the music industry. 

Themes of entrepreneurship underpinned the conversation throughout the evening.

In the face of a changing music landscape where streaming became the status quo, Habtemariam stressed the importance of returning to the values Motown started with. 

“So it was about artist development, which is something all of us on this panel believe in, but also was about supporting other entrepreneurs that lived and breathed in the same spirit of what Berry Gordy created back then,” Habtemariam said.

Later in the night she highlighted the significance of work ethic for people in the music industry in any capacity.

“You will be surprised,” Habtemariam said. “Some of the biggest superstars, the ones that really reach a certain level of success, the work ethic is so incredible. And so, in order to make it whether it’s as an artist as a creator or as an executive as an entrepreneur. Your work ethic is everything.”

Asiahn demonstrated this spirit of work ethic as she described her experience making her first project, her debut EP “Love Train.”  

“I recorded my entire project, my first one and [most of my second one] in my house, by myself,” Asiahn said.

She described the process of having her producer send her some tracks and recorded, mixed, did all of her photoshoots by herself. 

Another focus of the night was maintaining integrity. Asiahn described her experience releasing her own music after being more behind the scenes as a songwriter for other acts. 

“I released ‘Love Train,’ my EP, first by myself just to see if I had a place in music coming from the perspective of a Black LGBTQ artist,” Asiahn said.

Asiahn provided a moment of levity when she addressed how important it is to stay true to yourself and not follow trends just because they are popular. 

“I find that you know, I’m not the biggest TikToker,” Asiahn said. “I’m not finna do all them dances. I can try, but I might look like a fool. Like I tried to do the Megan one, but I don’t got Megan knees. So that didn’t work for me.

Asiahn continued on to stress that regardless of your message, someone, somewhere will appreciate what you have to say. 

“I just know what stories I want to tell. I tell the stories I feel like music is missing. And to be true to yourself and tell your own stories you have to know that there’s billions of people in the world, and so somebody is going to resonate with what you have to say.” 

She continued saying “Don’t try to follow the trends, don’t try to follow what everyone else is doing. Know who you are and stick with that. And be unapologetic about it. Be authentic about it.”

Another memorable moment during the conversation were the panelists’, in particular Since the 80s, response to feelings of imposter syndrome.

Barry Johnson and Zekiel Nicholson, two of three founders of the label, management and publishing company, Since the 80s, claimed their environment ensured they were aware of their talents and worth. 

“What’s that?” Johnson said.

“We’re around family at the end of the day. So at no point in our progression as a label or as executives [have I] felt that sense of imposter syndrome personally,” Nicholson said. 

Johnson continued that working with other Black creators created a comfortable environment where he didn’t feel inadequate. 

Habtemariam said her experience becoming president of Motown Records was the only time she had to reckon with imposter syndrome. As president, Habtemariam would find herself as the only Black person at a table of executives and would have to shoulder the responsibility of representing and speaking for not only herself, but a community of people, leading her to wonder if she was capable of it. 

She credited having the responsibility to pave the way for other executives of color for breaking her out of that mindset.

“There were times where it was a little [heavy] for me,” Habtemariam said. “And then I was like, oh no, this is a bigger mission, this is a bigger purpose. Because if I’m the only one in the room, I got to make sure there are more of us in the room. I got to make sure that this never happens again where you feel like you have to convince people [of the] value of our music or the talent that comes from the space that we’re from or people that look like me.”