Epic Records Chairman Sylvia Rhone: ‘It’s a Watershed Moment for Black Culture’

Ten months ago, music industry executive Sylvia Rhone, a three-decade veteran of the major label system, and then the president of Epic Records, stood in front of a hotel ballroom full of entertainment top creators, influencers and visionaries to make a plea. With the likes of Jemele Hill, Migos manager and Quality Control co-founder Coach K, artist and entrepreneur Will.I.Am and the now-late director John Singleton assembled for the Culture Creator Awards, Rhone implored those in attendance “to protect” hip-hop from the inevitable vultures “who see that they can make a lot of money [on it].” She continued: “If we’re not careful to curate really closely, it will start to dilute the importance of what we built since the ’80s, and what they just discovered in 2018.”

Part warning and part jab, it was a bold statement coming from someone who’s spent most of her professional life working for the very companies that serve as purveyors and mass marketers of the Urban music genre. At the same time, Rhone’s speech after receiving the organization’s Icon award, wasn’t self-congratulatory — which she had every right to be, having overseen a string of hits by Epic hip-hop acts Travis Scott, DJ Khaled, French Montana, 21 Savage and Future. Rather, Rhone encouraged responsibility with aspiration.

The formula has worked for Rhone, who on April 23 was named chairman and CEO of Sony Music’s Epic label. The promotion puts the New York native in the company of Atlantic Records’ Julie Greenwald and Universal Music Publishing Group’s Jody Gerson, and makes her the first woman of color to hold a chairmanship title. It also shows tremendous faith on the part of Sony Music CEO Rob Stringer in handing over the reins on a label he once ran and, effectively, has been watching over since the abrupt departure of its previous chairman L.A. Reid in May 2017 (the company never stated the cause for Reid’s dismissal, but it was subsequently reported that a sexual harassment claim had been made against him by a former employee). In announcing Rhone’s position, Stringer described “a trailblazing and iconic executive who has played a critical leadership role in driving Epic’s recent artist development success.”

As if to emphasize the depth of Rhone’s resume, it’s not her first run at leading a record company as chairman. That came in 1994 when she assumed the role at Elektra Records, then home to Metallica, Missy Elliott and Natalie Merchant (and again at Universal Motown as president a decade later). But Rhone is quick to acknowledge that this stewardship feels different. “It’s profoundly more significant now because of the culture-change taking place,” she tells Variety. “Black culture and women around the globe are finding their voices like never before. It’s a watershed moment.”

Coming from Rhone, who’s seen it all, going back to the debauchery of Motley Crue’s formative years in the early 1980s (an ugly chapter not included in the recently-released Netflix film “The Dirt”), it’s another significant statement because it implies any sacrifices women made during the boys-club years of the ’80s and ’90s were worth it. Says Rhone: “I hope that all bad-ass female executives on the rise will benefit.”

When it comes to #MeToo, Rhone credits the movement for shining a light not just on gender issues, but on racial disparity in corporate America. “It’s our responsibility to continue to address the gender and racial gap and reflect the full mosaic of executive talent,” she says. “Actions speak louder than words. We’re very proud at Epic to have one of the most diverse staffs in the business.”

You could say the same of the roster, which also includes Camila Cabello, the former Fifth Harmony star whose debut album was one of 2018’s biggest sellers and “Havana” as the most streamed song ever by a female artist, per the IFPI (Rhone calls Cabello a “global phenomenon” and says the artist is deep in production on a new album; no release date to share as of yet), as well as singer-songwriter and Broadway breakout Sara Bareilles, Swedish pop hopeful Zara Larsson and hitmaker Meghan Trainor.

Pictured above from left: Epic Records’ SVP Promotion Sandra Afloarei, Rhone, EVP of A&R Joey Arbagey, Camila Cabello, EVP of A&R Ezekiel Lewis, EVP Rick Sackheim, manager Roger Gold, and VP of Digital Marketing Lisa Kasha.

Among Rhone’s proudest moments at Epic: Travis Scott. “His run has been incredible,” she says. “He’s becoming a game-changing superstar with ‘Astroworld’ debuting at No. 1 and maintaining its hold on the Top Ten for 29 consecutive weeks while his tour broke multiple box office and merch records.” Scott’s momentum allowed the label to follow with releases by other hip-hop heavies like 21 Savage and Future, Rhone explains.

Asked what goals Stringer, to whom Rhone reports, set out for Epic, she says, “We’re focused on expanding and developing the roster” and points to music from G Herbo, Tyla Yaweh, AJ Mitchell, Southside, DDG and Killy as “exciting things to come.” Certainly Rhone’s dance card is full: she took in a Zara Larsson concert at Los Angeles’ Fonda Theater on Tuesday night following a long day of negotiations for a new act Epic is hoping to sign (the label is competitively bidding, say insiders), and in the coming weeks will be interviewed in Cannes, France at the MIDEM Conference, receive an honorary degree from Boston’s Berklee College of Music and be feted by City of Hope.

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