Universal Moves to Save Ailing Motown and Def Jam

Universal hopes the exec who brought in Justin Bieber can revive the moribund Motown and is also looking for new leadership for Def Jam

After years adrift, Motown and Def Jam are seeking new leadership to restore their mojo.

As early as next week Universal Music Group, Motown’s parent, will tap Ethiopia Habtemariam to head the label, people close to the matter confirm to TheWrap.

A top executive from Universal’s music-publishing arm, Habtemariam (photo below) in early 2010 was responsible for wooing Justin Bieber into a global publishing deal.

Similarly, the appointment of an uber-artistic leader is looming at Def Jam, also owned by Universal Music Group, though no final candidate has yet been chosen.

The world’s largest music company is said to be narrowing a list of veteran hip-hop talent scouts, managers and label execs that include Chris Hicks, currently Def Jam’s executive VP, as well as outsiders Kevin Liles, Irv Gotti, “Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua and Chris Lighty.

Also read: Sylvia Rhone Seen Headed for the Exit at Universal Motown 

At both Motown and Def Jam, the changes come amid wrenching deliberations. 

“The ultimate goal is to get the labels working again,” a top Universal insider told TheWrap.

How to do so was a matter of extensive debate over artistic direction among the incoming Habtemariam and Universal’s top corporate and divisional executives,  according to knowledgeable insiders and outsiders.

Should Motown be youth-driven and home to artists of all races? Or should it find rebirth by appealing to an older audience with more mature African-American artists attuned to the label’s legacy?

That argument between Habtemariam and her new boss Barry Weiss was settled by deciding to pursue both audiences.

For Def Jam the questions were different:

Should the new leadership be focused solely on developing artists and hits, or should it be a multitasker in line with the emerging 360-label model that encompasses all facets of an artist’s career — including merchandising, Madison Avenue and movies?  

To be sure, both labels need new leases on life after historic success has turned to hears of doldrums.

Under pioneering impresario Berry Gordy Jr., the “Motown Sound” became a dominant and glossy soundtrack of the tumultuous '60s. Born in 1959, the label introduced legendary acts ranging from the Temptations and Stevie Wonder to the Jackson Five and the Supremes.

Most important, it bridged music’s historic racial divide, with whites joining black fans in openly and enthusiastically embracing its mass-appeal style of rhythm and blues.  

Similarly, a quarter-century later, college friends Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin began establishing Def Jam as a force in American culture, introducing “loud, abrasive, anti-R&B, anti-commercial hip-hop,” as Simmons recalled to TheWrap. Def Jam remained vital into the early years of this century. 

But both labels began to falter after their initial leadership teams sold and departed or — in Gordy’s case — shifted their attention.

Motown, for example, has never again amassed a bevy of superstar artists or regularly cracked the top end of the charts. And the office of the top Motown executive has had a revolving door.

Now Habtemariam  is poised to succeed Sylvia Rhone. The pioneering female music executive, as TheWrap first reported this spring, exited the label under a broader management shakeup by new corporate and divisional leadership of the parent company.

But according to people involved in the process, significant differences in strategy had to be bridged between Habtemariam, who will retain her duties at Universal Music Publishing, and the executive to whom she will report, Barry Weiss (left).

Said one knowledgeable individual: “She and Barry had a real fight.”

Recently hired away from Sony Music Group as top exec of Universal Music's division of East Coast-based labels, Weiss made his name at Jive Records, first with hip hop (Whodini, DJ Jazzy, A Tribe Called Quest) and R&B (R. Kelly and Aaliyah). Later, Jive signed pop acts –Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync and Britney Spears.

With her background in music publishing and a sharp focus on discovering hit talent, Habtemariam envisioned Motown as a magnet for the young trendy stars who appeal to the industry’s core youth audience.

She “strongly believed Motown should be youth-driven,” an individual close to the executive told TheWrap. “It’s all about youth. They’re the ones who open the doors."

Similarly, Habtemariam wanted to move forward with acts regardless of race.

Weiss, on the other hand, wanted to recapture the flavor of Motown’s past — and appeal to an older audience, says an influential music executive consulted on the issue.

“He was talking about trying to sign Babyface,” the middle-aged singer, songwriter and producer whose heyday was years ago. “Barry wanted to sign old middle-age acts. Ethiopia said, ‘Nobody is looking for them. I want to sign hit records.’"

Ultimately, the compromise was to have both ends of the generational spectrum — “a happy marriage, a mixture of the old and the new,” the source confirmed.

In filling the leadership role at Def Jam, Weiss had to consider the views of influential outsiders, including Simmons — an iconic figure not only in rap music, but the broader hip-hop culture.

“Barry is interested in finding an African-American executive who is part of the (hip-hop) culture and would be a great asset to Def Jam,” Simmons told TheWrap. “What you need is a smart artist manager who knows the Def Jam culture and has built brands. You need that type of person because the future of the record business is the 360-deal.”

“Hopefully, the job goes to someone profoundly interested in rediscovering the original architecture under the original architects, Russell and Rick,” said Lyor Cohen, a top executive of Warner Music Group who got his start in music at Simmons’ Rush Management decades ago.

According to people close to Weiss, he’s cool to the idea of a talent manager, though the list of rumored candidates includes two prominent ones — Lighty, who manages superstar 50 Cent, and Kyambo Joshua, who co-founed the management firm Hip Hop in 1978, and whose clients include Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Drake.

Weiss, instead, wants a strong creative manager who’d been exclusively focused on artists, an individual with knowledge of the situation told TheWrap.

But mindful of the significance of brand building, he is establishing a separate division for that purpose in the umbrella Island Def Jam label amalgam that houses Def Jam.

Perhaps on that note, everyone will end up in the same groove at two labels overdue for some upbeat news.