Sylvia Rhone on New Label and Undoing 'Old-School Models' That Segregate Along Genre Lines (Q&A)

Sylvia Rhone PR 2013 P
Marc Baptiste

"What's pop, what's hip-hop, what's rock -- it's really more who that fan is," says the industry veteran and chairman of Vested in Culture, a joint venture with Epic Records.

As game-changers go, Sylvia Rhone is up there with the best of music business executives. A 39-year veteran of the industry, she’s helmed major labels -- Elektra from 1994 to 2004, Motown from 2004 to 2011 -- kicked off dozens of artists’ careers (Missy Elliott, En Vogue and Kid Cudi, among them) and broke the glass ceiling several times over. After a brief breather, the New York native has resurfaced at Sony Music, where she recently launched Vested in Culture, a full-service record company and branding machine that aims its tentacles at music, television, fashion, art and beyond. The joint venture with Epic Records officially launched in January, but Rhone has been at it since March 2012, when she first set up shop at 550 Madison. Now, with six artists signed and raring to make some noise, the chairman is ready for her comeback.

The Hollywood Reporter: How did you come up with the name Vested in Culture?

Sylvia Rhone: It’s a name we take pretty literally. Many times, the influence of music on culture is undervalued, so I wanted to reflect in the name of our company that we were passionate about culture in all of its aspects, including style, film, art, TV. Everything is so connected now. Our mission is to be a bridge for our artists and to help them grow as cultural brands.

THR: When considering signing an artist, what are you looking for?

Rhone: Great music, songwriting, emotion, charisma, a story, a journey. We look for innovators who have the ability to create their own moments, to impact culture and to engage organically. We're looking for people who are curious about art, culture, technology and life in general. You can’t be one-dimensional anymore.

THR: Sony CEO Doug Morris has been a longtime supporter of yours. How did you pitch the idea to him?

Rhone: I presented him with a proposal to do a boutique label that would offer me a wider platform. I can keep a solid footprint in the music business, but it also gives me the freedom to do other things at the same time. I have a couple of TV and film projects that I'm developing, I want to do a sneaker, and I want to involve our artists in the process and develop their other interests.

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THR: What would the Sylvia Rhone sneaker look like?

Rhone: It's going to be very fly.

THR: How will VIC work in partnership with L.A. Reid and Epic?

Rhone: L.A. and I have been having an amazing time together. We share very compatible ideals in terms of style, vision and taste, and it's been a great learning experience for me with L.A. He's got a tremendous ear, and I welcome his involvement and input. He's really an asset for me that I take advantage of as much as I can. It's like having a friend with benefits. I've never had a partner like L.A. before.

THR: You’ve held top jobs at Warner Music Group and Universal. How does Sony compare?

Rhone: I think Doug has changed the ethos and culture of Sony tremendously. Ask anybody at Sony who’s worked there for a long period of time -- it’s like night and day since he’s come in. You can feel the energy in the hallways. Everybody is excited about their music, it's a very collaborative culture between the labels, and he's quietly cut costs so that the unit is very profitable. … As the record business has consolidated into three major labels, it's important that we don't forget our core competency is music and creating an environment for artists and executives to thrive.

THR: Did Doug also give you your first big break at Elektra?

Rhone: He gave me my first big opportunity, no question about it, when he made me senior vice president of the black music division [at Atlantic], then when we created East/West and then Elektra. … Before that, I was at ABC Records, Areola Records, Buddha Records -- I have done it all, from secretary up. When I started at Buddha Records, we were getting paid in brown paper bags, you know?  

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THR: It seems the upper echelons of the industry are still very much a boy’s club.

Rhone: I think that it depends on the corporate culture of the company. Look at [executive vp business affairs and general counsel] Julie Swidler at Sony, she has the second-highest position in the company. I've been fortunate to work for Doug for all those years, and he has always been dedicated to having a diverse workforce. The at-risk executive that I see now, and no one ever addresses this, is the black executive.

THR: Can you elaborate?

Rhone: There is an unfortunate history in our business of teams being segregated along urban and pop lines. Oftentimes black executives are only allowed to work with black acts, so they're not allowed to develop outside of the urban discipline, and their skill set is truncated somewhat. The deck really needs to be shuffled because music does not reflect that anymore. What's pop, what's hip-hop, what's rock -- it's really more who that fan is. At Elektra, I always shuffled the deck. I had a black woman who was the head of video production. I had a black executive who was head of all of A&R, it didn't matter. The talent is there, but we still are encumbered by old-school models.

THR: So at Vested In Culture, are you trying to change that culture?

Rhone: I did that at Elektra. I've taken that responsibility very personally as a black woman in the business -- to create opportunities that don't fall into the typical silos that black people work in. At Vested In Culture, yeah, I've taken it on. I have a small company -- it's four people, all hard-working women who know music, who love music and know how to make bridges in music to brands. Three are black and one is white, and we are killing it.

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THR: So … call it a comeback?

Rhone: I am taking this thing so seriously. I am so amped about it because we can't afford to fail, that's the way I look at it. Plus, I have so much passion and love and commitment for the business and, creatively, I feel better than I ever was. I don't know why, but I just feel like I’m in a great zone.

THR: If you weren't in the music business, what would you be doing?

Rhone: Traveling around the world looking for very exotic things -- precious, unique, exotic treasures.

THR: The Grammys were just handed out and the winners -- from Frank Ocean to fun. to Mumford & Sons -- certainly were diverse. What do you forecast as a future trend in music?

Rhone: That’s hard to say, but I know whatever it is, it's going to be very lifestyle-based because when you go to a show now -- whether it's Coachella or the grimiest hip-hop club -- you're seeing such a canvas of different people. It's brilliant; you're seeing more white kids at a hip-hop show than black kids, when you go into the EDM tent at a festival, it's packed with kids from all languages and colors. The lines have been blurred.

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin