Photo by Tiffany Nolasco.


This CEO Left Sony, Started Her Own Label, And Let Women Run It

Let Madeline Nelson tell you why

by Sesali Bowen

This is Off Beat, where we explore the careers of women who work in the music industry—just not on the beats and melodies.

Madeline Nelson swore off the music industry nearly a decade ago. She had just faced a devastating personal loss and relocated to the South to start a new life for herself. She was sure that her days as music executive were over. But there was one problem: Wyclef Jean wouldn't stop calling her. The former Fugee wanted Nelson to manage him as he prepared to relaunch his music career—and he wouldn't take no for an answer. And really, no one could blame him for his persistence. Nelson has over 30 years of experience in the music business—from working at the Apollo Theater to managing R&B group Blackstreet to serving as senior vice president at Sony Music Entertainment. If anyone could help Wyclef, it was Nelson.

But Nelson was going to do things her way this time around. Rather than work through a big corporation, Nelson launched her own indie label, and she staffed it entirely with women. So while Nelson's Heads Music boasts a roster that includes talented men like Wyclef and Power actor Omari Hardwick, the staff is all-female, and its premiere artist is Bronx native Jazzy Amra. Through her work, Nelson is doing her part to fight the sexism that's pervasive in the music industry.

I spoke with her about this and more after Nelson invited me to the exclusive CORE: Club (that'll matter later, I promise) to talk about what every artist needs in order to have a successful career, what it's like having an all-female team, and how being herself is making the industry better for women everywhere.

Can you tell me a little bit about the work you do behind the scenes to develop artists?

Everybody sees that tip of the iceberg, and then they believe it magically got there. I don't feel [it works like magic] for any artist. Even people who don't have a long, laborious story, they have work that's gone into [their success]. Even if it's a kid learning how to really utilize SoundCloud and YouTube. You don't just [log on and] have a bunch of followers. There's always work that goes into it, genuine legitimate work.

I managed Blackstreet from their early days. [Teddy Riley] was one of the guys who really fully believed in artistic development. He was that guy who believed that you had to have vocal trainers; you had to have choreographers; you had to have real wardrobe design; there had to be a storyboard. There had to be a real rollout—the timing and the pacing of the kind of songs you put out, the unveiling of your story to the public.

At a super-young age, I bought into that. It reminded me of Motown and how the writers and the singers all worked together. We had to have all our training and almost have a uniform. I believe in my soul that if you do that, you will have longevity. If you can't sell records for many years, you can perform for many years. You can make a living at that thing you love as an artist. I don't believe in any other way, even if you rap. My young artist that's a rapper goes to vocal training. He goes a movement trainer—somebody that actually teaches him how to move, how to look at the people in the crowd, how to engage, what movements can go with certain words that he's saying, how to work a whole stage. I want that for my artists. I want them to be developed. I want them to understand that, if you're losing a crowd, here are the things that you can do. There's life outside of how many streams you get for a real artist.

Some actors have told me that social media has been a tool for developing their craft. For example, they don't need specialized books on how to do certain accents. They can look on YouTube now. Similarly for artists, you can get movement coaching online if you search for it. Do you think that easy access can also be a hindrance?

I absolutely buy into the idea of social media being an amazing tutorial space. The women in my company are all 19 to 26 years old except for me. When the word "how" comes out of my mouth, everyone braces themselves to Google it. It's so funny. Our tagline is: "Google is your best friend."

I believe that social media and the ability to search online for how to do things is a tremendous help. However, it definitely can't legitimately teach you the human stuff. [When you have a teacher] you're in a room with somebody who can touch your arm and say, "No, you have to lift it just this much." Or who can touch your throat or your diaphragm and say, "It has to come from here." You can't get that online. There's nothing you can trade for that. The combination of both doesn't hurt. I used to think you needed that human interaction in everything. But what I know for a fact is that social media has completely hindered the social skills of our young people.

Yes, I think that's true across industries.

Now what happens with artists is that they are legitimately socially inept. It's a generation that does everything from behind their phone or computer. Their skills to interact in person are not what they used to be. That's a big thing when it comes to building a fan base.

You once said in an interview that you wanted to be the CEO of a major label. Is that still a goal now that you've started an indie label?

You know what.... the answer is no. As a CEO of an indie, I have something a CEO of a major will never have: I am the owner of these masters. So I'm not just the CEO of my indie, I'm the founder of it, I'm the owner of it. My artists earn their masters 50/50 with me. That doesn't happen at the majors. That 50 percent ownership means that, if I'm not on the planet tomorrow, my children and my grandchildren literally own something that makes money in perpetuity. This was the only way I was going to be able to do that. There are not a lot of things that will pay forever, publishing is one of those things. Music masters is one of those things. I realize how important it is to have that ownership. Last year Wyclef did these Google commercials and we used a song called "What Happened to Love." When Google comes to you to license a song and asks you who they have to call to sign off, and you're the person, it is the most amazing feeling in the world.

Tell me about the decision to build an all-female label.

I've been asked by several men if I consider that discrimination [laughs], and my answer is: I don't discriminate. I don't turn men down for jobs. When men have asked for jobs, I haven't had one to give. Everyone I staff either started with me from the very beginning or came to me as an intern and I hired them into the business. I've had male interns. It's just that I know in my business who makes me, and the women around me, feel like they're in a safe space. In general, it's other women.

Everyone has to pay their dues in the industry, but it sucks that women have to pay their dues in discomfort.

My office is literally like going home to work every day. We have so much to prove as a young little indie. The work has to be on-point. From 10 to 6, everyone's like this [typing motion]. I'm often speaking at the top of my lungs. It's intense. I try to make it as comfortable as possible. When you come in, you can work on the couch, you can work at the office table, you can work in my office. You can work where your mind feels good that day. That's how we do it in our office. I have a young amazing team of women, and they know what's happening ahead of time, all the time.

It's said that the fix to widespread sexism is to have more women in your position who can hire, fire, and shape artists. But there is also a lack of visibility of female CEOs. You can't be what you don't see. Girls might want to be in the music business, but only see artists or publicists.

When I was senior vice president at Sony, I was told by my superior to build a department that was ethnically diverse. He showed me a report that had been done for him before he came in. It showed the lack of diversity within the corporation, and he said he wanted me to be part of that change in bringing more people of color and more women into the company. So I built a department with seven women, including myself, from every ethnic background. Then I get told that I'm discriminating because I only hired women to my department. So then I hired one man into the department.

Then someone else steps in, forces me to hire a friend of his as a consultant, gives that consultant an entire half of my budget for the year, someone who was 100 percent unable to do the task at hand for my department. When I balked about it, they basically defunded my department. These were the things that were happening. At some point, 90 percent of [the women I've worked with] ended up in my office, talking to me about their career, the unfair things that were happening at the label, and where they really wanted to go. Every one of them was either PR or marketing. There was not one in global digital. There was not one at any high level in finance. There was only one with a legit position in radio commercial.

I've always felt intimidated by the idea of being responsible for the numbers. I bet a lot of women feel like that.

All of these roles in the music industry that are non-traditional for women to excel in are exactly the roles I teach women that come into my business. After five years with Heads Music, I have women who have either interned or worked for me at every major label. Maybe only one of them is in what we think is a traditional role for women. I'm super-proud of that. There are times when an employee is hired away from me, and in the moment it stings, but the truth is that it's a huge badge of honor. To me, there's a responsibility that I have to prove that there's no department that a woman can't excel in. We do not have to be pushed into any traditional role. We can do media promotion. We can do marketing. We can do digital business. We can do finance. There's no reason why a department should be predominantly male. I don't believe in that. It's a thing for me because it's so real.

I have a young woman who became my intern her senior year in college. When she came to me as an intern, she said she wanted to do tour management. There's a role you don't see women in. I managed two tours, so I've seen the road. I was like Wow, she wants to do tour management. She has no idea. This really is one of the hardest jobs in the music business. We did a whole tour last year, 50 cities, and that's how I trained her. She's a badass tour manager. But for the first 20 cities, the sheer disrespect at a woman saying, Where's my money?No, this is the setup; a woman calling out the logistics from a position of power, it was a hard position to really catch on to. There were two points where I literally almost physically got into fights with people. When a woman says, "Give me my money before I let this artist on stage," they don't take you seriously. They don't think you won't start the show with all of those people standing out there. No. We're going to tell all those people that you didn't pay us. See who the people deal with. It was just so weird because we know they wouldn't treat men the same way.

Do you think overall that things have gotten better for women since you first started?

I honestly do not think it's gotten better. What has changed is that more women stand up for themselves. One of the benefits of the #MeToo movement is that many women feel empowered at the beginning to stand up for themselves. What we have to see is fear disappear at the beginning. We have to see women so confident in the idea that we can excel in this business that we're not scared into staying quiet when somebody is only looking down our shirts.

Yes, so much of being a woman in this industry is about anticipating the negative experiences before you even get in the door.

You can't feel like you're only going to get ahead if you dress a certain way or look a certain way. We've got to believe in our own souls that, if we can do the job well enough, we deserve the job. That's it. It shouldn't be anything else. Do you see anyone else here [at the CORE: Club] in a hoodie? No. I am the only person who shows up in a hoodie and sneakers. I show up as myself because I want women to know it's okay to show up as who you are.

Has anyone here ever given you problems about that?

No. It's funny because they have a dress code. But they don't bother me about it.