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Rhone, Sylvia - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Sylvia Rhone, Social and Economic Impact

elektra records black music

(1952-)
Elektra Entertainment Group

Overview

With 25 years of experience, Sylvia M. Rhone has risen through the ranks to become one of the most influential women in the music industry. A pioneer, she was the first black woman to head a major record company. Her involvement with artist development and record promotions as well as her executive skills have resulted in financial success for her labels and artists such as singer Tracy Chapman, former lead vocalist of 10,000 Maniacs Natalie Merchant, rhythm and blues singer Gerald Albright, and rapper Busta Rhymes, among others.

Personal Life

Sylvia M. Rhone was born on March 11, 1952, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her parents, James Rhone and Marie Christmas Rhone, moved to the Sugar Hill section of Harlem when Sylvia was very young, and she spent the rest of her childhood there. Her father was a prominent attorney who became involved in politics as a Republican adviser to New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. Her mother was a schoolteacher.

Rhone’s family knew several famous musicians, and jazz greats Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, and Nancy Wilson were family friends. As a teenager, Rhone enjoyed going to see Nancy Wilson perform as her birthday present. She was also a fan of Aretha Franklin.

Rhone attended parochial school and returned to Pennsylvania to earn an undergraduate degree in economics and marketing from the prestigious Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduation she spent less than a year in the management training program at Bankers Trust in New York, leaving over issues about dress code, among others. “I wore pants to work,” she told Ebony in 1988, “and all eyebrows turned up. No one actually said anything but they made it clear that what I’d done was unacceptable.” Taking a major pay cut, she found a job as a secretary with Buddah Records, an independent record company.

Career Details

Although she was starting at the bottom level, Rhone knew right away that she was destined to work in the music business. Showing a flair for promotional work, she was eventually given the job of promotions coordinator at Buddah and then headed up national promotions for the label. From 1976 to 1978 she worked for ABC Records as a regional promotion manager, and then for Ariola Records in the same capacity in 1979.

In 1980 Rhone joined Elektra Records, where for three years she was the northeast regional promotion manager in charge of special markets. She was promoted to director of marketing in 1983, a position she held until 1985. During this period she was learning the business and preparing herself for future opportunities.

Rhone’s big break came in 1986, when record executive Doug Morris selected her to head up Atlantic Records’ black music division. Rhone had been in charge of the division’s promotion activities since 1985 and welcomed the challenge of turning around Atlantic’s once-prosperous black music operations. Under her leadership, Atlantic’s black music division rose to the number one spot in the United States in terms of market share, and it was making money again. By 1988 she was named senior vice president. The artist roster she built included Gerald Levert (son of the O’Jays lead singer Eddie Levert) and Miki Howard. She started Atlantic Street to sign and market groups such as En Vogue, MC Lyte, and D.O.C.

In 1990 Rhone told Morris that she wanted to start her own label, preferably one that was multiracial and had mainstream acts. The next year she was named co-president and CEO of her own label, EastWest Records America. With a staff of more than 40 people, she was responsible for recruiting, marketing, and promoting the label’s artists. They included some artists from Atlantic, such as En Vogue, as well as hard rock groups from ATCO such as Pantera and AC/DC. Within four years, EastWest was generating revenues of $90 million a year. At the 15th Annual “Jack the Rapper” convention in 1991, Rhone was honored as one of four black record label heads.

In August 1994 Rhone became the first black woman to be appointed head of a major record label when she was named chairperson of Elektra/EastWest. By the end of the year, a corporate reorganization resulted in Rhone being in charge of the Elektra Entertainment Group, which included the labels Elektra, EastWest, Asylum, and Sire. The merger required Rhone to lay off about 40 people in the Elektra and EastWest promotions, marketing, publicity, and artist development staffs, including several executives.

Elektra’s sales were less than $200 million when Rhone took over in 1994, and her goal was to increase sales to $300 million in three years. Elektra, once a hot label, had recently been underperforming, and Rhone’s task was to rebuild the label. She took a personal interest in a comeback album by Tracy Chapman and in the solo debut of Natalie Merchant, both of which sold more than 3 million copies each. She also persuaded hard rock group Metallica, a band whose new albums and catalog sales accounted for some 20 percent of Elektra’s revenues, to stay with Elektra. Among Rhone’s setbacks at Elektra, though, was losing singer Anita Baker to sister label Atlantic.

Chronology: Sylvia Rhone

1952: Born.

1974: Graduated from Wharton School of Business and Commerce, University of Pennsylvania, with a B.S. in economics.

1974: Landed job as a secretary at Buddah Records.

1980: Began working at Elektra Records, first as a regional promotion manager, then as director of marketing.

1985: Joined Atlantic Records as director of national black music promotions.

1986: Named vice president and general manager of the black music division of Atlantic Records.

1988: Named senior vice president of the black music division of Atlantic Records.

1991: Became chairperson and CEO of her own label, EastWest Records America.

1994: Named chairperson of Elektra Entertainment/EastWest Records Inc., which became the Elektra Entertainment Group.

In 1995 Rhone survived corporate power struggles at parent company Time Warner after her mentor, Doug Morris, was fired. Morris later became head of MCA Records and reportedly offered Rhone a job there, but she stayed with Elektra. By 1996 Rhone had reached her target of $300 million in revenues. She was the only Time Warner label head to reached her financial targets.

Social and Economic Impact

Sylvia Rhone’s success as the head of a major record label has helped break down gender discrimination in the music industry for women who want to advance their own careers. It has also benefited female performers, who can now work in a more cooperative environment, according to singer Natalie Merchant.

Moreover, as an African-American woman, Rhone has been able to provide positive representation of her race as well as her gender in a business that does not usually support minority leaders. “This is an important, symbolic moment not only for me, but for every African-American and woman in our business. I know I have some very big shoes to fill, and I look forward to the challenges ahead,” she told the L.A. Times when she was appointed to head up Elektra. At that time, only three percent of corporate management positions in the U.S. were held by black women.

Rhone not only helped create and control music in the industry, she participated in corporate ventures designed to showcase the contributions of black musicians as well. She helped formulate and support a highly acclaimed lecture series entitled “Our Roots Run Deep” in honor of Black History Month.

Rhone told Rolling Stone, “I have to satisfy my artists, number one. And number two, I have to satisfy my corporate obligations.” She has nurtured rap artists to such an extent that Buster Rhymes allowed her to remove a sexually explicit rap from his 1997 CD, When Disaster Strikes. He told Rolling Stone, “I hated it — I still hate it, but I love Sylvia. She looks out for me, and [going with her on] this is one of the ways I showed my appreciation.” Elektra’s parent company, Time Warner, had borne the brunt of criticism in 1995 for distributing rap records with explicit lyrics.

Rhone has used her position not only to make money for Elektra, but also to shape the public’s taste in pop music and develop the careers of her label’s artists.

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