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Tricky Stewart (left) Ethiopia Habtemariam (right)
Epic Records A&R President Tricky Stewart and Motown Executive Vice President of Urban Music Ethiopia Habtemariam, provide industry gems and music forecasts at the Music Biz 2013 40 Under 40 panel.
Record executives Ethiopia Habtemariam and Tricky Stewart were both honored at Music Biz 2013, a four-day music industry event jointly orchestrated by NARM (National Association of Recording Merchandisers) and digitalmusic.org [major trade associations in the music industry]. Both honorees were participants on a panel hosted by Billboard entitled The Future of the Biz on the Future of the Biz last Wednesday. The event, which took place at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel, recognized individuals on Billboard’s 2012 40 Under 40 Power Players list.
Understandably thrilled about this distinguished honor, the two shared their excitement.
“Anytime that you’re being honored, or anytime someone thinks of you as a person of influence in your area, and believes that you have enough information for them to ask you questions, it’s always an honor,” says Stewart. “It means that you’ve done something great, and at the end of the day we all just want to be productive and looked at as being good at what we do.”
“It was great to be honored by Billboard; I feel extremely blessed,” says Habtemariam. “I don’t do panels that often; I’ve only done one other one recently for ASCAP and I was super nervous, but this one was great. I think it was great to be in this forum and have all of us kind of talk about the way we work together. I thought it was a very informative.”
After the event the Sentinel sat down with both honorees to trace their ascendance to the executive ranks of the industry, and chart the future of urban and pop music.
Tricky Stewart is nothing short of a perfectionist. His keen eye for detail surfaced as we navigated the dimly lit backstage in search of good lighting for his video interview.
“See this is much better,” he smiles, and he is right.
His quest for perfection doesn’t stop at luminescence, though. Determined to make it in the music business, the Illinois native—born Christopher Stewart—packed his bags at the age of 17 and drove all the way to Los Angeles. From there Stewart explains that it was a combination of luck, skill, and opportunity that would eventually propel him into the big leagues of the business.
“I got in the car and I drove to Los Angeles when I was 17 years old,” explains Stewart. “I carried the MCA Records executives’ bags from their offices to their cars every day, whether I was asked or not. It takes opportunity and then you have to be good. The fact that certain artists may have seen me talking to Louil Silas Jr. (former MCA Records executive), or Ernie Singleton (former President of Urban Music for MCA Records) led Chante Moore, Immature, and Brandy to think it was okay for me to go to the studio with them,” he reflects.
Since then the superstar producer, who hasn’t even turned 40 yet, has been one of the industry go-to guys when artists want hit records. He likes to think of it as creating “life changing music”.
“I’m at that point in my career where nobody wants anything good from me; everybody that comes to me needs life changing!” says Stewart. “That’s what I’ve built my career on over the last 7 or 8 years. Once you get to that point, you can have records that are better than everybody else’s track. You can have a song that’s good enough to be on the album, but when you get paid to have the first track on the album, that becomes your life.”
With a career spanning over a decade, he has climbed the ranks from songwriter to Grammy Award winning producer to his current title as President of A&R, to which he was appointed in 2011. Today Stewart’s name is associated with his standout production of some of urban and pop music’s most critically acclaimed songs, including Justin Bieber’s “Baby”, Beyonce’s “Put a Ring On It”, Rihanna’s “Umbrella”, Britney Spears’ “Me Against the Music”, Fabulous’ “Throw it in the Bag”, Ciara’s “Ride”, and Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body”--just to name a few. This year alone he is set to put out 25 albums, including that of relatively new kid on the rap scene, Future [Same Damn Time, Turn on the Lights, Bugatti].
“I think that there’s room for everyone if they understand what it is that’s ultimately going to get attention brought to them,” explains Stewart. At the end of the day the record business, not the music business, but the record business is about mass appeal. So I think that if you’re writing songs that are important that are also hits, then you have a chance. I really like what Macklemore is doing; I like what Kendrick Lamar is doing; I like what Frank Ocean is doing; and The Weekend. These people are creating movements. I like the movements!”
EVP/Head of Urban Music at Universal Music Publishing and SVP of Motown Records are pretty hefty titles for someone who hasn’t even turned 40 yet. Such are the laurels of Ethiopia Habtemariam, a skilled record executive whose hustler disposition and go-getter attitude landed her an internship at Babyface’s LaFace Records when she was just 14 years old.
“I did everything,” explains Habtemariam. “I used to babysit people’s kids to make extra money. While I was interning, I was doing street team work, promoting parties—you do what you can, but you must take your job seriously.”
It was ultimately her job as an assistant, however, that would introduce her to the music publishing world. While at LaFace Records a woman named Laronda Sutton—who headed LA Reid’s publishing company at the time—was impressed by the way Habtemariam answered the office phones, and eventually took her under her wing.
“People recognize how great you are by the simple things you do,” she explains. “I think a lot of times young people mess up because they don’t take it seriously enough.”
With a decade of experience, the busy executive is channeling her passion for music through her artists. She attributes much of her continued success to her refusal to sign acts that she is not 100 percent passionate about.
“I only work with people that I can connect with and that I am naturally passionate about—that’s just the way I work. I have to have a passion and a connection to their music, and then a connection with them as an artist or songwriter, because if I don’t have it then I’m not going to work as hard for the artist—and I don’t ever want to be in that position.”
As the key creative executive, she also has a hand in shaping the ever-morphing face of the legendary Motown Records. Not only is Habtemariam responsible for signing new talent, but also for preserving the legacy behind the label by re-establishing the types of acts the label signs. Thus she has been working tirelessly to repackage the new face of Motown by developing acts that have both cross-genre and cross-generational appeal. To date Habtemariam has worked with and signed some of the biggest names in the industry, including Ne-Yo and his Compound Entertainment record label. She was also responsible for appointing him Sr. VP of A&R. Also prominent on her impressive roster of clients are Justin Bieber, Chris Brown, Ciara, Polow Da Don, J Cole, and Hitboy, just to name a few. Most recently she signed the Grammy Award winning R&B superstar Miguel.
“I do think that it’s important to have more of a variety and range, specifically in urban music. It’s a passion of mine to make sure that we show all of the perspectives that exist in urban music, because I don’t think that we are getting enough of that. I think that you only see one perspective. We [Motown Records] have some artists that talk about being in the streets and doing music, and that’s their expression; but we have artists like Stacy Barth who has such a strong message in what she wants to say to young girls specifically. Or Kevin Ross—his music feels like you’re listening to Stevie Wonder on the Songs in the Key of Life album.”
Habtemariam is also working hard to bring R&B music back into the mainstream.
“There will always be a place for R&B; it won’t go away,” she stresses. It’s honestly the base for all genres of music if you ask me. It really is on us as the executives, the creators of the content, the people who write and produce, and the people that actually perform to take it up a notch.”
Habtemariam is more than just your run-of-the-mill executive. She’s the people’s executive, putting in the work to take the music business to another level.